Sep 30, 2008

Voters deserve better actuaries

Bragg is promoting his actuarial analysis of McCain and Obama again:
McCain would be the oldest president to begin a first term in office. By the end of a second term, Jan. 20, 2017, he would have a 24.44 percent chance of dying, compared with 5.76 percent for Obama, the firm estimates.
As far as I can tell, those numbers seriously understate the difference in the candidates' respective longevity prospects.

Let's start from the average mortality, given only the candidates' age and sex. McCain is 72 years and 32 days old and he will be 80 years and 144 days old on January 20, 2017. Using Social Security's life tables, his probability of dying before the end of his second term is 32.2%. Barack Obama is 47 years and 57 days old; his probability of dying by the same day, which in his case is age 55 years and 169 days, is 4.3%.

(Non-geeks may skip this paragraph: I used the 1940 cohort table for McCain and 1960 cohort table for Obama. Those are the closest to their birth years. Those choices favor McCain by the amount of mortality improvement from his 1936 cohort to the 1940 cohort. The difference is hardly negligible: using the 1930 cohort, we'd get 34.7% for the same ages, and linear interpolation yields approximately 33.2%, so the result I used is biased in McCain's favor by about 1 percentage point. Similarly, using 1960 cohort mortality for Obama introduces a slight - although almost negligible in this case - bias against Obama. One further geek note: I derived all survival probabilities by linear interpolation between nearest integer-year ages. That is more than accurate enough for the purpose of this analysis.)

Of course, there is more information available about the candidates, and Bragg lists some factors used:
He classified the Democrat as a smoker with minor upper respiratory problems, probably linked to his smoking. Obama announced in February that he was trying to quit smoking again, with the aid of nicotine gum.

"We don't consider you a nonsmoker until you stay quit for 12 months," said Brooks.

In the spring, the Obama campaign released a letter from the candidate's doctor declaring him to be in excellent health. He had very good cholesterol levels, his EKG was normal, his pulse was 60 beats per minute, and his blood pressure was an outstanding 90 over 60. Obama also exercises regularly.

But Obama has a family history of cancer. His mother died of ovarian cancer and his maternal grandfather died of prostate cancer. Obama's PSA screening test for prostate cancer showed no sign of abnormalities.

For the Republican, Brooks took into account a history of skin cancer, degenerative arthritis from his Vietnam war injuries, moderately high cholesterol, mild vertigo and that McCain is a former smoker who quit in 1980.

McCain allowed reporters to review eight years of medical records, more than 1,000 pages. They show that he is cancer-free, has a strong heart and is generally in good health. As a three-time melanoma survivor, his biggest health worry is a recurrence of that cancer. But he is closely watched by his dermatologist, and any future melanoma should be caught in time to be treated successfully. McCain maintains a healthy weight and blood pressure, and takes medication for his cholesterol.

That is hardly an unbiased account, and the statement that "McCain allowed reporters to review eight years of medical records" is, at best, barely true. In any case, the factors mentioned in the article should be worse news for McCain than for Obama.

Let's start with smoking. It is true that Obama wouldn't qualify for non-smoker rates if he applied for a life insurance policy today, but life insurance underwriting imposes rather crude discrete categories by necessity. (Verification is costly and the potential for cheating is high; for example, someone who smokes two packs a day could claim to smoke one pack a week.) This individualized analysis can do much better than that. Obama's quitting has not been entirely successful, but he is clearly closer to a former smoker than to a current one. McCain stopped smoking years ago, but he used to smoke two packs a day for 25 years. So they have a similar smoking history and quit at a similar age. By itself, this factor would make each of them more likely to die than an average man of their age. The effect is probably greater for Obama mainly because fewer men of his age are smokers, so average mortality for his cohort is based on a higher percentage of non-smokers. I would be curious to see what factors Bragg applied to account for smoking history.

(Another note for wonks: Insurers generally charge smokers double or even higher rates than nonsmokers, and that is soundly based on experience, but those factors apply to a baseline of the insured population, i.e., to the people who have passed other underwriting hurdles. For example, by the Society of Actuaries' 90-95 Basic Select tables, a male smoker of Obama's age would have about 3.5% chance of dying in the next 8 years, which is better than the average from the Social Security tables. Similarly, a smoker of McCain's age would have 23% chance of dying in the next 8 years, again better than in the SSA tables. Another thing to keep in mind is that, in insurance underwriting, smoking also serves as a proxy to other risky behavior, which means that not all of the excess mortality of smokers is caused by smoking.)

The candidates' fitness balances their smoking history. Both candidates seem to have healthy hearts, and Obama's pulse and blood pressure cited by Bragg are impressive. Obama is thin and McCain's weight is normal. They both seem significantly more fit than average men of their respective ages. Fitness-related mortality patterns are far less well known than smoking-related ones, but my guess would be that both candidates make up in fitness about as much as they lose from smoking history. Additionally, both are married and have (as far as we know) healthy spouses, which also improves their longevity prospects. Not to mention that both have access to best available health care.

So far, very similar adjustments to age/sex baseline apply to both candidates, but the rest is all bad news for McCain. Melanoma is a serious type of cancer, prone to metastasizing that is hard to detect and treat. It is true that McCain has been free of symptoms for 8 years and that it improves his prognosis, but the fact that he's had 4 episodes of melanoma, and that the last one was over 2 mm deep, raise additional concerns. For lesions like his last one, 5-year survival rate is 63-79% and 10-year 51-64%. He has survived for 8 years, so the greatest risk is behind him, but he is not out of the woods:
“With melanoma, a patient is never completely clear,” said Dr. Shapiro, the N.Y.U. expert.

If melanomas do recur, standard treatment options are limited for many to surgery and a difficult form of chemotherapy. The chances of long-term survival diminish.
Precise estimates aren't available, but it is hard to see how McCain's chance of dying from this one cause alone would be less than 10% over the next 8 years.

Another issue for McCain is the long-term effects of maltreatment by the Vietcong. Five and a half years of injuries, torture and malnutrition certainly have health consequences. Quantifying the effect is difficult, but that's not a good reason to ignore it altogether.

In summary, there is little reason to think that Obama's probability of dying in the next 8 years exceeds that of an average man of his age - 4.3 percent. In fact, it is probably less than 3.5 percent, the number based on life insurance policy experience. On the other hand, I don't see how McCain's probability of dying in the same period would be much less than one-third. In other words, McCain is at least 9 times as likely to die in office as Obama. Bragg tells us it is not quite 4.5 times. Unless he publishes more details about the calculation and the assumptions, I can't see how his results could be justified.

UPDATE: It is probably wrong to focus on survival to the end of second term. Incumbency is an advantage in an election, but we don't elect a President for 8 years, and we would (hopefully) have updated health information before the next election. Going back to the baseline (Social Security tables), a man of McCain's age has 15.4% chance of dying before January 20, 2013, and a man of Obama's age has 2.0% chance of dying in the same period. By the way, the shorter the period we look at, the more significant a factor McCain's cancer is, because the probability of recurrence goes down the longer he's already survived.

Sep 29, 2008

All day long I'd biddy biddy bum if I were a wealthy man

Can somebody explain to me how it makes any sense that Congress is receding for Rosh Hashana? All last week, including the weekends, solving the financial crisis was a matter of utmost urgency, but now it can wait till Thursday? We are suspending the crisis so that Barney Frank can eat apples and honey? That's just nuts.

I guess all we can do in the meantime is pray:
Dear God, you made many, many poor people.
I realize, of course, that it's no shame to be poor.
But it's no great honor either!
So, what would have been so terrible if I had a small fortune?

If I were a rich man,
Ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum.
All day long I'd biddy biddy bum.
If I were a wealthy man.
I wouldn't have to work hard.
Ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum.
If I were a biddy biddy rich,
Yidle-diddle-didle-didle man...
The economy is as precarious as a fiddler on the roof. May God save the United Shtetl of Anatevka!

Sep 28, 2008

A DHB in the WH!?

Seeing Obama's 5-8 point lead in the most recent tracking polls, I am changing from hopeful to optimistic that, after 28 years, we will have a Decent Human Being in the White House.

The last time a DHB was President:
  • John Lennon's and Yoko Ono's (Just Like) Starting Over topped the Hot 100 chart;
  • Bill Haley, Bob Marley, Hoagie Carmichael, Joe Louis, Albert Speer, Moshe Dayan, Nelson Algren, William Holden, and Natalie Wood were alive;
  • Alicia Keys, Justin Timberlake, Josh Groban, Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Jennifer Hudson, Jessica Alba, Elijah Wood, Natalie Portman, Anna Kournikova, Roger Federer, and Serena Williams were not born yet;
  • The Space Shuttle had not been launched, computer viruses did not exist, and AIDS had not been described;
  • The most advanced personal computer was Apple II Plus, with 48 kB of RAM, expandable to 64 kB;
  • Moonraker was the latest James Bond film;
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark had not been released;
  • Tom Cruise had not appeared in any movie, and Tom Hanks' biggest claim to fame was playing Kip Wilson in the TV series Bosom Buddies;
  • The head anchor of The CBS Evening News was Walter Cronkite;
  • Wheel of Fortune was hosted by Chuck Woolery and Jeopardy! was off the air;
  • Dynasty and Hill Street Blues were brand new shows, and the word "Smurf" meant nothing (unless you read Belgian comics);
  • MTV did not exist; and
  • Prince Charles was a bachelor.

Thoughts on the first BHO-JSM debate

I thought both candidates did well as far as debate performance goes, and they both succeeded in projecting the types of persona that have defined their respective candidacies so far. Obama appeared serious, thoughtful, assertive and "presidential" (whatever that means, but there is nearly a consensus about that characterization). McCain was the same avuncular elder statesman he was in his acceptance speech (which I still think was a success, despite what almost all the pundits say), friendly to the audience but aggressive toward enemies. McCain's problem is that he counts his opponent among those enemies, which works great at the Republican convention, but not so great in front of a diverse audience and face-to-face with the opponent.

My prediction - which now appears too pessimistic - was that the debate would not change the poll numbers. I thought both candidates scored some important points with concerned leaners. Those who already prefer Obama, but worry about his lack of experience and doubt his leadership ability, were certainly reassured by his confidence, poise, and control of issues. And those who already prefer McCain, but worry that he may be losing his mind because of his recent erratic decisions and apparent episodes of confusion, were reassured that he is still able to think quickly on his feet and stay focused for 90 minutes. I thought the two effects would approximately balance and that the free fall of McCain's numbers would end in a cushioned landing (although without a bounce).

In thinking about the effect of the debate on the election, I try to ignore the substantive points because I assume that a vast majority of undecided voters are so uninformed that they are unable to assess those points critically and intelligently. The same holds for McCain's lies and misconceptions - I assume that anybody who has not yet realized that McCain is a pathological liar and that most of his economic and foreign policy ideas are sophomoric is not able to draw any such conclusions from the debate. And I still think those assumptions are correct.

Where I think I was wrong, though, is in discounting the effect of body language. Although early pundits' comments picked up on McCain's avoidance of eye contact, I thought that the significance of body language was hyped up in the media. I based my thinking on the 2000 Gore-Bush debates, when viewers didn't seem to notice Gore's alleged sighs and eye rolling until they were spoonfed those talking points by the media; and I also thought that, as much as McCain has lost the support he once had in "his base", the pundits weren't going to nitpick on his body language as they did on Gore's. What I overlooked was that McCain's physical clues were real, and the kind that people perceive instinctively (as some primate behavior researchers have pointed out).

It was also a rare opportunity to see the candidates standing side-by-side. When you see McCain alone, you can do a mental adjustment for his age and perceive a relatively fit and vigorous man, but that is much more difficult to do when you see him next to his much younger, fitter and - don't underestimate the importance of this - four inches taller opponent.

OK, enough about appearances and the effect on the race; I cannot write a post this long without saying anything about the contents of the debate. But I won't say anything about their disagreements; nobody will be surprised to hear that, whenever the two candidates disagreed, I preferred Obama's position. However, I deplore some of their agreements.

I was disappointed - or rather, I have been disappointed for a while, this is not new - that Obama agreed with McCain on two clearly wrong foreign policy positions: that the surge in Iraq worked, and that Russia bears all the blame for invading Georgia. I am hoping that Obama and Biden are smarter than to adopt those simplistic falsehoods, and that they have only temporarily adopted those talking points because they concluded that now is not the time to try to convince the American people that the conventional wisdom is wrong. Since that would almost certainly be a correct assessment, I have to give them the benefit of the doubt, and hope that the Obama-Biden administration would be more thoughtful than they are willing to show now.

Of course, even in the worst case (that they really agree with those statements), they would not be any worse than the alternative, and on a host of other issues the alternative is simply unthinkable.

UPDATE: Yep, I hear "Horseshit!" in this clip.

Sep 27, 2008

May the farce be with you

It's kind of disturbing that the SNL opening skit is funny even though it is more a reenactment than a parody.

Boycott GE!

Pressured by Joseph Goebbles Pravda Bill O'Reilley, MSNBC stopped airing this ad:

MSNBC is owned by GE, and I suspect that this newest chickenshit decision, just like the recent removal of Keith Olberman from the election news coverage, is dictated by the corporate Big Brother. Another step on the road to the fascist-communist Soviet States of America.

It is time to defend freedom of speech. Send the ad to everyone you know and think twice before buying GE products.

Sep 25, 2008


Think of some substances that can make people talk like this:

Whatever she's smoking must be pretty strong. I'd be curious to see what's growing under the UV rays of the tanning bed she installed in the governor's mansion.

What every American student needs to know

Sarah Palin today:
Every American student needs to come through this area so that, especially this younger generation of Americans is, to be in a position of never forgetting what happened here and never repeating, never allowing a repeat of what happened here.
Maybe that's not a bad idea. But shouldn't every American student also come through Tulsa, to be in a position of never forgetting what happened there? And, while on the field trip in Oklahoma, shouldn't they also visit Oklahoma City? Most terrorism in our nation's history has been home-grown and perpetrated by right-wingers of European physiognomy.

Good question

What happened to the 5 guys who graduated below McCain?

Glenn Greenwald admits he was wrong about Palin

She is much worse than he thought:
One of two things is absolutely clear at this point: she is either (a) completely ignorant about the most basic political issues -- a vacant, ill-informed, incurious know-nothing, or (b) aggressively concealing her actual beliefs about these matters because she's petrified of deviating from the simple-minded campaign talking points she's been fed and/or because her actual beliefs are so politically unpalatable, even when taking into account the right-wing extremism that is permitted, even rewarded, in our mainstream. I'm not really sure which is worse, but it doesn't really matter, because with 40 days left before the election, both options are heinous.
And it matters a lot:
Vice Presidents matter much more than they did before. So much unfettered power is now vested in the Executive that it's inevitable that the Vice President will wield significant authority. McCain evinces little interest in domestic policy, and the fact that he will be beholden to her and her Dobson-ite base if she wins makes it highly likely that she will exert substantial influence over numerous important areas. All of that, combined with McCain's age -- and what really do appear to be legitimate and growing questions about his health (those are mere suspicions, but appropriate ones that should be answered by McCain) -- makes Sarah Palin's candidacy a very real hazard, something that, by the day, I'm convinced is as important as any other issue in the campaign.
The scariest thing is that somewhere about 48% of American voters will vote for these freaks. That could easily round up to 50%, but even if that disaster is averted, we have to ask ourselves: Why isn't this election a blowout? Why isn't it like Chirac v. Le Pen in 2002? Or at least like Johnson v. Goldwater in 1964? Hell, is there any sane person who would not choose Goldwater and Miller over McCain and Palin?

Sep 24, 2008

War wounds my ass

Another bullshit ad: McCain can't use the computer because of his war wounds, and Obama is an evil ogre for bringing that up.

That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. I know quadriplegic people who use the computer very well. What kind of war wounds prevents McCain from doing so? McCain is a liar and a whiner.

Heads in the sand

While McCain is trying to hide and avoid debating Obama, his supporter Kevin Hassett is trying to hide and avoid debating Brad DeLong.

The sensible bipartisan center is solidly Democratic

A must-read case for Obama (and against McCain) from Brad DeLong, economist and one of the smartest people in America:
What reason could there be not to vote against a candidate who says he doesn't know very much about economics? Not to vote against a candidate whose two chief economic advisors are Phil "What Problems with Deregulation, You Whiners?" Gramm and Carly "H-P Paid Me $21 Million to Go Away" Fiorina. All signs are that McCain economic policy is set to be much worse than even George W. Bush policy--unless Douglas Holtz-Eakin could win the fight inside the White House snakepit. But I don't think he could: McCain regards Gramm and Fiorina--not Doug--as peers to be deferred to. I would be happy to be proven wrong if we take the gamble, but it's not a gamble I want us to take.


Next time you read a newspaper and see a letter to the editor praising McCain or Palin, beware: it's probably fake.

Sep 23, 2008

I get e-mail about buying banks

No, not the Nigerian bank; my spam filters catch those. But I got this interesting e-mail about what the government could do with $700 billion and have a few billion left over:
I did the math and discovered it would be cheaper for the government to simply buy all the major players in the industry based market prices as of 3:00 today. See below:

Financial Institution Market Cap
Wachovia Bank $36.00 Billion
Citi $109.00 Billion
Morgan Stanley $31.00 Billion
Merrill Lynch $42.00 Billion
Goldman Sachs $49.00 Billion
Lehman Brothers $0.13 Billion
JPMorgan $147.00 Billion
Bank of America $160.00 Billion
Washington Mutual $6.00 Billion
Wells Fargo $115.00 Billion
Total $695.13 Billion
Note: "Today" as mentioned in the e-mail means yesterday, September 22.

More about fact checkers

I posted an updated critique of fact checking outlets on Daily Kos. I do think FactCheck & Co. are good guys overall, but I hold them accountable for their mistakes:
nothing is perfect and, unfortunately, the professional fact checkers are not immune to what I call the "balance anxiety" of the mainstream media. Their desire not just to be impartial, but also to protect their reputation for impartiality, becomes conflicted when the two sides they monitor are in fact grossly unbalanced in their respect for truth and facts

Sep 21, 2008

Actuary? What's that? A place for dead actors?

What does Joe Klein know about actuaries? Apparently no more than one could learn from watching About Schmidt. Otherwise he wouldn't make this ridiculous characterization:
It is appropriate, then, that the American Academy of Actuaries--a group devoted to the precise calculation of death rates--has exposed McCain's extravagant fraudulence of the past week for what it was.
Come on, Joe, you are a political journalist in Washington. Haven't you at least heard of what Social Security actuaries do? Such as producing the system's 75-year financial projections? Have you not heard of Social Security's actuarial balance, a term that means, essentially, financial balance? Wouldn't that give you a hint that actuaries don't just calculate death rates, but are in fact devoted to precise calculation of financial risk associated with uncertain events, of which death is but one example?

Don't mess with actuaries if you don't want to become a statistic.

As for McCain's shooting himself in the foot (What else is new?), the circumstances need to be clarified (although that will not make things any better for McCain). The Academy's journal, Contingencies, asked the candidates to describe their health care plans, and both candidates responded. Thus, the Academy didn't intentionally expose McCain's "fraudulent extravagance", as Klein's wordings might suggest, but merely provided a forum for the candidates to explain their plans directly, rather than through a journalistic filter. The candidates' words speak for themselves and the journal didn't engage in any sort of debunking. This is important because the Academy is the public voice of the actuarial profession, and the profession cares about its reputation and doesn't take impartiality lightly.

P.S. McCain's priceless quote, written when nobody expected the Spanish Inquisition financial crisis, is
Opening up the health insurance market to more vigorous nationwide competition, as we have done over the last decade in banking, would provide more choices of innovative products less burdened by the worst excesses of state-based regulation.

Limits of brand loyalty

I can't think of any respectable reason to vote for John McCain in this election, but, according to the polls, 90% of Republicans will vote for him. Is party loyalty a good enough reason? It is a valid reason to support a candidate generally; I certainly weigh ideological proximity more than apparent objective competence when I decide whom to vote for. But this kind of brand loyalty must have some limits. So the appropriate question is, if a Democrat comparable to McCain ran against a Republican comparable to Obama, whom would I support?

To concretize this question, it would be useful to come up with an analogy involving real politicians. That is difficult and subjective, but I think I have come up with ideological mirror images that aren't too distorting.

McCain is a war hero (at least in the sense the term is commonly used in contemporary America) who has, as a politician, been reliably conservative, but has occasionally clashed with, and annoyed, the establishment of his party. He is a loose cannon, whose temperament cannot be described as diplomatic. And, while he is well known, long present on the national scheme, quite witty, and highly popular in some demographic groups, he hardly shows the grasp of issues and good judgment required of the highest office.

His Democratic counterpart could then be a hero of the Civil Rights movement, reliably liberal but in frequent conflict with the Democratic establishment, a sometimes bad-tempered loose cannon, witty and popular with his base, but probably lacking in the grasp of issues and judgment... and someone like that actually did seek the Democratic nomination in the 1980s.

His name is Jesse Jackson.

Suppose Jesse Jackson had won the Democratic nomination in 1984. And suppose his first executive decision - choosing the running mate - turned out as follows. He chose someone complementing him demographically, an outsider unknown to most of the public, but with some enthusiastic followers. A person with some far-outside-the-mainstream ideas and beliefs, who calls himself a Democrat, but critical observers question that. A maverick who would not hesitate to challenge the "old boy network" in Washington, but who also doesn't have much respect for the law. Someone who will not blink in making decisions, but the prospect of him ever making decisions for the nation would scare the crap out of most prudent people...

Someone like... Lyndon LaRouche.

Forget about the utter implausibility of Jesse Jackson picking LaRouche to be his running mate. McCain picking Palin seemed just as crazy.

Would I vote for a Jackson-LaRouche ticket in 1984, running against the conservative visionary and orator Reagan, suspected by critics to be out of the mainstream, but able to inspire and connect with people across ideologies, and his running mate G. H. W. Bush, the experienced Washington insider with a moderate reputation and strong foreign policy credentials? Would I, first and foremost, vote against Reagan, whose ideology could not be farther from mine, and whom I considered a fake and a lightweight?

Hell no. As much as I disliked Reagan, I still required competency and wisdom of his challenger. Mondale had it. Gary Hart had it. (The Rice scandal didn't come until the next election, and as much as it warned of recklessness, it wasn't necessarily a deal breaker.) Jesse Jackson probably didn't have it. The hypothetical Jesse Jackson with a crazy VP pick like LaRouche would not have been even close to having it.

How many Democrats would vote for a ticket like Jackson-LaRouche? I bet considerably fewer than half. After all, look how poorly even decent, qualified candidates like Mondale and Dukakis did. Brand loyalty is much weaker among Democrats as it is; give them a bad candidate and they'll desert him without, um, blinking.

So no, we would not see this stubborn brand loyalty if the roles were reversed. What we see is that today's Republicans are an uncritical herd even by the notoriously low standards of political masses.

Sep 20, 2008


If you had $700 billion in $100 bills, how much would it weigh?

Approximately the same as all the people who ever voted for Sarah Palin.

Do we really need lower taxes?

It may be impossible to get elected in the US these days without promising tax cuts. Obama, the more fiscally responsible (or, more accurately, less irresponsible) of the two major-party presidential candidates, has promised not to increase the taxes of anyone earning less than $250,000 a year. I understand that low- and average-income people are hurting, but are families with incomes in the low 6-digits really that burdened with taxes that they can't pay more?

The usual response to this question is that higher taxes, and higher marginal taxes in particular - that is, higher rate of tax on the next dollar earned - reduce incentives to work and save, and thus reduce output and capital formation and slow down economic growth. Neoclassical economic models "prove" that low taxes are good for the economy (as long as government spending is also low, a detail often ignored by the passionate tax-cutters). But historical evidence hardly supports that theory.

People with good incomes faced higher marginal tax rates in the 1950s and 1960s, yet the economy was strong and growing fast, people worked just as hard as today, and saved more. As an example of a well-to-do, but not rich, families, I chose those whose income equaled the Congressional salary in each year. The blue line in the graph below shows the marginal tax rate (popularly known as the "tax bracket") that such a family, with two children and no itemized deductions, faced from 1955 to 2008.

Additionally, the orange line shows the tax bracket of a family earning twice the Congressional salary - a family just wealthy enough that its taxes would increase under Obama's plan. From a historical perspective, those people have paid ridiculously low taxes in the last two decades. And we are not even talking about multi-million-earning CEOs, who might have been in the 90% bracket during the Eisenhower administration.

So why would anyone think that a big tax hike on the well-to-do would kill the economy?


Ken Lay: "The underlying fundamentals of our businesses are very strong."

You can't make this stuff up.

Sep 15, 2008

Daisy alert

The Revelation of Sarah Palin:
Munger also asked Palin if she truly believed in the End of Days, the doomsday scenario when the Messiah will return. "She looked in my eyes and said, 'Yes, I think I will see Jesus come back to earth in my lifetime.'"
Translation: the world as we know it will end in the next 40 years. And if she gets elected, she can make sure it happens.

The scariest thing is that, in the best case, we'll avoid putting this fanatic in the co-pilot seat by a margin of 2% or so in the 3-4 key states.

Sep 14, 2008

The rumor hoax

Beneath the blatant McCain lies that Obama and his campaign are smearing Sarah Palin, there is a much thicker and stickier level of deception, whose theme is that malicious false rumors about Palin circulate on the Internet. That bullshit pretense of debunking rumors is perhaps more dangerous than the obviously mendacious attack ads, because it appears calmer, less confrontational, and more credible. Rather than attacking a named opponent, it defends the candidate from an amorphous virtual mob of accusers. By a sleight of hand, it transplants a meme that fits in a different context - "innocent until proven guilty" - and conjures up an illusion that Palin is on trial (and a politically motivated one to boot) and that we, the voters, are expected to act like a jury and acquit if there is any reasonable doubt.

That's bullshit, but its stealth power is such that it has infiltrated even some brand-name bullshit detectors, such as

Here is an example of how ordinary people propagate this meme, from a recent comment left on this blog:
It is true that, while scrutinizing politicians, we should hold them suspect and investigate any evidence that might shed light on their career or character. But in the end, you must hold them innocent until proven guilty. There is no moral justification for assuming them guilty until proven innocent. Considering the enormous amount of false accusations against Palin (see a debunking of vicious internet rumors against her here at, the burden of proof is on those making the allegations. Until they prove their case or you yourself find corroborating evidence from another source, the voter--and any intelligent being--must dismiss the allegations as lies and slander.
Note the structure of the argument:
1. "Innocent until proven guilty"
2. "False accusations" and "vicious rumors"
3. Therefore, the juror voter must acquit ignore the allegations.

It is relatively easy to explain why steps 1 and 3 are bogus. The analogy between voters and jurors in a civil case would not be a bad one, but the argument relies on the specific features of a criminal trial, and that makes the analogy untenable. In a civil case the jury decides between two parties who are a priori on equal standing, and who would gain similarly from a win and suffer similarly from a loss. That is a lot like choosing between two political candidates. The jury simply decides whose case is stronger. But in a criminal trial, the parties are in a hugely asymmetric starting position, with one party (the state) having all the power and the other (the accused) facing all the risk. Those conditions, which in no way resemble elections, are the reason for presumption of innocence and a high threshold for proving guilt. Asking voters to behave like a criminal jury makes no sense whatsoever.

The structure of the argument is thus debunked and the voters should revert to their natural standard of the preponderance of evidence. Step 2 is still relevant, however, because the information in and about those rumors can tip the scale for some undecided voters. Thus, the rest of this article will examine the claims that the accusations are false and rumors vicious.

Let's be clear: the only candidate in this race about whom there is heavy traffic of vicious and false internet rumors is Barack Obama. I will not repeat any of those rumors here because they don't deserve the minimum level of respect that even the harshest criticism conveys. They have been thoroughly debunked and refuted, and should now be silenced. Nothing comparable to that sludge is being thrown at Sarah Palin. Naturally, some rumors about her are false and some are exaggerated, but that can be said of practically every public person. If rumors about Palin exhibit any unusual pattern, it is in how much truth they may yet turn out to contain.

As the commenter noted, has compiled a list of "false Internet claims and rumors" about Palin. I have already written about problems with's coverage of this campaign, and I regret to inform you that they have pooped their pants again. (Why is that happening? I don't think they are intentionally biased in McCain's favor. Rather, they are not immune to the "balance" anxiety of American journalism: when lies are grossly unbalanced, journalists feel compelled to restore the balance by applying uneven standards. But that topic deserves its own post, which I promise will be coming soon.) Let's examine the five items on the list and FactCheck's analysis.

#1: Special needs education
Palin did not cut funding for special needs education in Alaska by 62 percent. She didn’t cut it at all. In fact, she increased funding and signed a bill that will triple per-pupil funding over three years for special needs students with high-cost requirements.

As far as I can tell, the rumor is indeed false. But is it vicious? It is not defamatory: it ascribes to Palin a legitimate (although, I suppose, unpopular) policy position. And it is unlikely that it was launched maliciously, as traced its origins to what easily could have been an honest mistake:
Those who claim that Palin cut special needs funding by 62 percent are looking in the wrong place and misinterpreting what they find there. They point to an apparent drop in the Department of Education and Early Development budget for special schools. But the special schools budget, despite the similar name, isn't the special needs budget.
By the way, it is possibly misleading to say that she increased funding. The legislature increased funding; she merely signed it. This is not nitpicking, nor is there a symmetry. As governor, she has "line-item" veto power, so she really can cut funding for specific projects, but she cannot singlehandedly increase it. Unless she took some initiative to enact the increase (which she may well have, but no evidence for it is supplied), has exaggerated a bit in the exonerating statement.

Bullfighter's verdict on this rumor: false, but neither personal nor vicious. Merely erroneous and unremarkable.

#2: Banning books
She did not demand that books be banned from the Wasilla library. Some of the books on a widely circulated list were not even in print at the time. The librarian has said Palin asked a "What if?" question, but the librarian continued in her job through most of Palin's first term.

Here FactCheck errs big time, debunking a straw man and missing the point, with the result of misleading readers.

The relevant story here doesn't involve actual banning of books, but a loyalty test for the librarian. The allegation is that, when she took over as mayor, she asked the librarian how she would feel about a request to remove objectionable books from the shelves. The librarian answered that she would not remove any books, and that was apparently the wrong answer, because Palin subsequently fired her (although she relented when people protested). In the in-depth analysis, FactCheck confirms those facts and even Palin seems to have no objections:
Palin told the Daily News back then the letters were just a test of loyalty as she took on the mayor’s job
The real issue is that such a loyalty test - requiring the librarian to put loyalty to authority above her professional duty and possibly the law - is completely inappropriate, and there is no legitimate reason for the mayor to ask that question. Its chilling effect may be sufficient to raise First Amendment concerns, and it speaks a lot about Palin's attitude to public service. acted irresponsibly by focusing on derivative rumors - purported lists of banned books pulled out of some prankster's ass. I don't even believe those rumors are widespread; I haven't seen any such list although I dig through news and blogs excessively. But by prominently debunking some amateur's nonsense and burying the relevant facts where few people will read them, FactCheck contributed to the impression that the entire issue of Palin's censorship tendencies is a hoax.

Bullfighter's verdict: FactCheck committed the equivalent of breaking a Ming vase while trying to dust it. Despite some ridiculous pranks inspired by it, the relevant main story is true.

#3: AIP
She was never a member of the Alaskan Independence Party, a group that wants Alaskans to vote on whether they wish to secede from the United States. She’s been registered as a Republican since May 1982.

As I noted before, this gun is still smoking. Palin has been "cleared" on the narrow issue of her own membership (which was never a mere rumor - the allegation was made by AIP's top officials), but that is an irrelevant bit in a potentially extremely damning case. FactCheck's mistake is similar to that in #2, but far more dangerous, for two reasons. First, this is by leaps and bounds more serious issue than local library censorship; the worst case here may involve flirting with treason. Second, the "debunking" doesn't merely wander into the irrelevant, but consciously emphasizes the only detail of the story where evidence favors Palin and hides or ignores everything else. And, by the way, her husband's membership may be as relevant as her own.

Bullfighter's verdict: FactCheck fucked up.

#4: Endorsing Buchanan
Palin never endorsed or supported Pat Buchanan for president. She once wore a Buchanan button as a "courtesy" when he visited Wasilla, but shortly afterward she was appointed to co-chair of the campaign of Steve Forbes in the state.

So she never endorsed Buchanan, but she contributed to the appearance that she did. In her own words (quoted deep down in the FactCheck article):
As mayor of Wasilla, I am proud to welcome all presidential candidates to our city. This is true regardless of their party, or the latest odds of their winning. When presidential candidates visit our community, I am always happy to meet them. I'll even put on their button when handed one as a polite gesture of respect.
Really? Regardless of the party? She would welcome the candidate of the Communist Party? How about the Nazi Party? If we take her explanation seriously, it raises some interesting questions.

Now it is true that the meme of "Palin for Buchanan" is potentially very damaging - Buchanan is widely regarded as an anti-Semite - so one could suspect its malicious origins, were it not for the fact that it was Pat Buchanan himself who launched it nationally. While some Democrats have used it (e.g., Congressman Wexler), no one can say that a Democrat or a liberal started it.

#5: Creationism
Palin has not pushed for teaching creationism in Alaska's schools. She has said that students should be allowed to "debate both sides" of the evolution question, but she also said creationism "doesn't have to be part of the curriculum."

This doesn't even make sense; it is self-contradictory. If she said that students should be allowed to "debate both sides", then, by definition, she supported teaching creationism. So what is FactCheck's point? That "supported" doesn't necessarily mean "pushed for"? Did anybody use those words? Is that worth FactCheck's attention? Please.

Oh, and what does FactCheck say in the detailed analysis? Basically, that their own summary is full of shit:
On Aug. 29, the Boston Globe reported that Palin was open to teaching creationism in public schools. That's true. She supports teaching creationism alongside evolution, though she has not actively pursued such a policy as governor.
This is embarrassing. FactCheck says FactCheck is wrong.

Bullfigher's verdict: The "rumor" is true, and FactCheck shot itself in the foot.

Scoreboard: of the five "debunked" rumors,
one is completely true,
one is generally true (and well-documented), but one detail turned out to be false despite testimonies,
one is based on a true story, but FactCheck focused on a prank inspired by it,
one is false but based on an understandable mistake,
and one is false and potentially harmful, but came from a conservative source, and Palin herself contributed to its creation.

There has actually been another rumor out there, not mentioned by FactCheck, which might have a much stronger claim to the "vicious rumor" title than any of those five. That is the rumor that Palin's youngest child was actually her daughter's, and that she faked pregnancy to cover up her daughter's. The McCain-Palin campaign blamed this one on "liberal bloggers":
ST. PAUL, Sept 1 (Reuters) - The 17-year-old daughter of Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin is pregnant, Palin said on Monday in an announcement intended to knock down rumors by liberal bloggers that Palin faked her own pregnancy to cover up for her child.
Actually, that wasn't a quote, that's Reuters drinking the Republican Kool-Aid. The campaign was more insidious, and make sure Obama's name got mentioned although there was no logical place for it:
"The despicable rumors that have been spread by liberal blogs, some even with Barack Obama's name in them, is a real anchor around the Democratic ticket, pulling them down in the mud in a way that certainly juxtaposes themselves against their 'campaign of change,'" a senior aide said.
Yes, the rumor was all over the Internet during the Labor Day weekend, but its treatment on the liberal blogs I read ranged from suspicion to dismissal, and many ignored it completely. There were several diaries posted on Daily Kos that perpetuated the claim, but every one of them received negative comments, warning about the lack of evidence or implausibility of the story; there were also diaries debunking the rumor. In other words, this was never a story that got significant traction in the liberal blogosphere.

There were speculations on Daily Kos that the rumor was planted by the Republicans as a bait to accuse librals/Democrats/Obama of smearing Palin. In light of the announcement of Bristol's pregnancy, that seems very plausible. They needed to create a context in which the pregnancy (which couldn't be hidden until November) would be announced as something relatively favorable. That doesn't necessarily mean that the Republicans planted the rumor (I've also heard that it had been all over Alaska since Trig Palin's birth), but it was definitely convenient to them.

What is rarely mentioned is that Palin's own behavior helped build the rumor. She kept her pregnancy secret until the seventh month, flew from Texas to Alaska after her water broke, didn't tell the airplane crew that she was in labor, and returned to work unusually fast after giving birth. None of those claims are disputed, and the source for most is Palin herself. There is a related rumor about Bristol missing several months of school due to mono, but I haven't seen any supporting evidence for it, and without it the story didn't work. But what made the rumor even more implausible was that a 44-year old mother has some 30 times greater risk of having a Down syndrome baby than a 17-year old. There were too many holes in that rumor even before the announcement (which by itself didn't actually refute anything). But Palin's adventurous travel from Texas to Alaska with leaking amniotic fluid, unless it is just another of her serial lies, raises questions about her judgment and responsibility.

So, the final verdict: there was one short-lived rumor that could have qualified as "vicious", but it never really caught on, it might have been planted, and it was only possible because of Palin's inexplicably odd behavior.

I'd like to know which major-party candidate for President or Vice President was the subject of fewer false accusations and vicious rumors than Sarah Palin.

Sep 13, 2008

Obama: "Read my lips!"

I don't like this pledge not to raise taxes. You can't restore fiscal balance by taxing only the rich, and then not even them too much. Are Americans really that stupid and immature that they won't vote for anyone who doesn't promise to burden their children with huge debt cut their taxes?

Yes, Obama's plan is a lot better than McCains. Trillions better. The choice between the two is clear. But it is sad that we are not even offered the choice of a fiscally responsible plan. It's like a small car in the 1990s - there just isn't a market for that product in America. It took $4 gas for Americans to discover small cars; what amount of national debt will it take to discover fiscal discipline?

According to Tax Policy Center, Obama's plan would increase revenues by $600 billion over the next 10 years relative to "current policy", while McCain's plan would reduce revenues by a similar amount. Here, "current policy" means extending the Bush tax cuts; if we compare to current law, in which those tax cuts expire in 2011, we are talking about revenue losses of $2.9 trillion (Obama) or $4.2 trillion (McCain). And that's not even counting their health care proposals, which are harder to compare side-by-side (McCain's would lose another $1.3 trillion in revenues; Obama's would mostly affect the spending side).

My message to whoever gets elected: please, please break your tax promises!

Sep 12, 2008

Physicist drinks Kool-Aid

When stupid people cheer Sarah Palin and accuse Obama/Democrats/liberals/"the left" of smearing her, you can almost feel sorry for them. But when intelligent people twist logic to discredit legitimate attacks on her positions and actions, it becomes tragicomic.

So here is Matt Springer, a graduate student of physics and ScienceBlogs contributor, leaping to Palin's defense against the accusation that, when she was mayor, her town had the policy of charging rape victims for forensic tests.
Let's see what the article actually says. Notice, contra Neurotopia, that it does not mention Palin at all. Nor does it mention tax cuts. It certainly doesn't say that "[s]he justifies it as necessary to cut taxes". That's simply fabrication. This is what the article says in its entirely about Wasilla:

While the Alaska State Troopers and most municipal police agencies have covered the cost of exams, which cost between $300 to $1,200 apiece, the Wasilla police department does charge the victims of sexual assault for the tests. Wasilla Police Chief Charlie Fannon does not agree with the new legislation, saying the law will require the city and communities to come up with more funds to cover the costs of the forensic exams. "In the past we've charged the cost of exams to the victims insurance company when possible. I just don't want to see any more burden put on the taxpayer," Fannon said. According to Fannon, the new law will cost the Wasilla Police Department approximately $5,000 to $14,000 a year to collect evidence for sexual assault cases. "Ultimately it is the criminal who should bear the burden of the added costs," Fannon said.

Oh my. It doesn't mention Palin at all, except that it mentions the town of which she was the mayor, the police chief who reported to her (in fact, she had hired him), and a municipal policy for which (even if it is from God), the mayor has some responsibility in this world.

And no tax cuts? Pedantically, no, but the police chief justified his opposition to the state law on budgetary grounds. I am not going to argue with Matt whether it was about cutting taxes or merely preventing tax increases; I'll let him choose his preferred interpretation.

The new law prevented departments from billing insurance: the departments bear responsibility themselves. The article says nothing to indicate that any actual victim was ever forced to pay money out of pocket.

Nothing? Let's see what Matt Springer calls "nothing":
Until the 2000 legislation, local law enforcement agencies in Alaska could pass along the cost of the exams, which are needed to obtain an attacker's DNA evidence. Rape victims in several areas of Alaska, including the Matanuska-Susitna Valley where Wasilla is, complained about being charged for the tests, victims' advocate Lauree Hugonin, of the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, told state House committees, records show.

In cases when insurance companies are billed, the victims pay a deductible.

The supreme irony is that Springer's blog is called "Built on Facts". He continues:
The only conceivable possibility is that there may have been cases for which insurance didn't pay (the article provides no evidence of this), in which case the most likely scenario would be the department paying as in the city of Palmer.

I guess uninsured rape victims are inconceivable (Is Matt related to Vizzini?) and his mere speculation suffices to determine the most likely scenario, despite what the "nothing" above says.

Besides, the town's policy, and its opposition to the 2000 law, is abhorrent enough on its face. Palin owes American voters an explanation regardless of whether any rape victim was actually charged for the test in Wasilla.

Apparently, Matt would ask the victims, not the mayor:
This could be easily checked by examining the individual cases: in the four years Palin was mayor before this law was passed, there were only five sexual assaults.

I guess it's also inconceivable that examining individual cases may raise some privacy issues. But the link Matt provided turns up some rather interesting information.

There were 8 sexual assaults in Wasilla in 1994 and 5 in 1995. In 1996, the year Palin became mayor, there were 3, and in the three subsequent years, 0, 1, and 1, respectively. Could it be that she was a miracle worker who made violence against women disappear? Maybe not; the number of sexual assaults increased to 7 in 2000 (when the law passed), 4 in 2001, and 16 in 2002, the last year of Palin's mayorship.

That does not look like mere statistical fluctuation; something is fishy about those numbers. I can only speculate, so what follows is not a conclusion, but merely a question I'd like to ask Palin, Fannon, and others who may know:

Is it possible that reporting of sexual assaults dropped in 1997-99 because the police became hostile to victims in some way? Was the policy of charging victims for tests just a symptom of a broader approach - the tip of an iceberg? After all, the evidence shows that the policy was instituted on Palin's watch, rather than being some forgotten relic from the past.

Matt probably thinks that's inconceivable, because he doesn't think Palin would be responsible even if victims actually were charged:
And even if the Police Chief turns out to have done something so horrible (again, no evidence), there's nothing at all to indicate the mayor would have been aware of a detail of police procedure for a crime that happened about once a year. There's no evidence that Palin was even aware that such a thing was even a possibility under the law.

It must not be relevant that she hired the police chief (she fired the old one allegedly over political loyalty), that he reported to her and submitted the annual police budget to her, and that she, as mayor, approved and signed the town budget. It must not be relevant that the contingency budget for rape kits decreased from $13,000 to $3,000 in two years, from 1996 to 1998. If she didn't authorize the change, wouldn't she want to know the reason for it? Wasn't it her responsibility to know?
If any of those things were true, you'd think the governor who signed that law would have brought this up as an issue when Palin defeated him, after all.

When Sarah Palin defeated Tony Knowles, he was not the incumbent. There was another governor in the meantime, Frank Murkowski. The Palin-Knowles race was 6 years after the law was enacted. A gubernatorial race in a small state doesn't have the same profile as a presidential race and it is not clear that bringing up the issue would have been helpful to Knowles. (Then again, to turn his style of arguments against him, does Matt have a proof that Knowles did not bring up the issue in 2006?)

All of Matt's debunking so far amounts to nothing more than stating that he doesn't believe Palin was responsible for her city's policy. His arguments certainly weren't stronger than those for the other side. But how does he conclude his post? Decisively:
I understand Palin is not exactly the queen of popularity here at ScienceBlogs. But that is absolutely no excuse for promulgating this kind of desperate garbage.

Up to that point, he was merely a fool, but now he promoted himself to a rude and arrogant fool.

A commenter soon pointed out the following detail:
the police chief says it'll cost 5 to 14 thousand a year, for tests that cost 3 to 12 hundred dollars each...
That's between 4 (= 5,000/1200) and 46 (= 14,000/300) tests a year...taking averages gives about 12 (= 9500/750) tests a year...
that seems distinctly at odds with your claim that rapes requiring rape kits is "a crime that happened about once a year.".

to which Matt responded
It's not my claim, it's the actual court data for crimes reported. That's why I linked straight to the source.

Um, okay, but we really don't care whose claim it was. We want to know if it is true.
My guess as to the high estimate is that there's a baseline cost for the ability to process kits which is much greater than the cost of the physical kit itself. The police would need to cover the cost of processing equipment and possibly qualified hospital staff. If I understand correctly, rape kits are fundamentally a medical procedure and regardless of who pays, it's the hospital which is actually conducting the exam. Though the fundamental nature of sexual assault certainly merits an exception, police departments don't (as far as I know) make a habit of paying for medical examination after a mugging or other non-sexual violent crimes either.

Nice rationalization, but how would those costs depend on who pays them? Remember, you are trying to explain a five- to tenfold difference in costs of tests paid by the police and those paid by insurance, and all you came up with is that there is fixed cost involved - in both cases.

Responding to another comment, Matt says
I am aware that sexual assault is underreported, however, the issue at hand here is the specific need for rape kits. Every unreported sexual assault is an awful thing, but obviously the whole issue of who pays for a rape kit is moot if the crime isn't reported in the first place.

But, as I mentioned before, reporting is influenced by the way the police treats the victim. And the Wasilla Police Department statistics show a so far unexplained dip in rape reporting in the years between Palin's hiring Fannon as police chief and the passage of the state law banning the practice of charging victims.

Matt's ability and willingness to process new evidence were tested when a commenter pointed out that TPM had linked to another article that included the following statement:
And according to former Gov. Tony Knowles, the law was passed specifically in response to Wasila's policy. "There was one town in Alaska that was charging victims for this, and that was Wasilla," says Knowles.

Matt found the following objections:
1. It quotes as its source the governor Palin beat in the AK governor's election. He's approximately the most biased source possible.

2. Especially given the small number (demonstrably 5 or less) of rape kits required in Wasilla before the law, it's unlikely Palin would have known about this police procedure for a rare crime, even if what the former governor says is true.

3. There's still no actual record that anyone ended up having to pay anything. If one ends up being found, the police chief certainly had an awful policy and it would reflect negatively on this particular hiring choice of Palin. Much less so however, than (say) someone like Tony Rezko.

Objection 1 is ridiculous. The original commenter poked two holes in it - Knowles appears to have said it in 2000, 6 years before Palin ran for governor, and he is no less credible than the police chief appointed by Palin. I would add that nobody - not Fannon, not Palin - ever contradicted what Knowles said, so what is the point in questioning his credibility?

I have already explained why the second objection is invalid: a mayor has a responsibility to know about his or her city's policies and important events. As the commenter put it:
What does it tell us about Palin if she ignored the follow-up of every rape in her small town during her entire mayoralty?

But Matt's third objection is bordering on pathological. As soon as he is cornered into admitting this could be at least somewhat relevant for Palin as a candidate ("it would reflect negatively on this particular hiring choice of Palin"), he throws a dung bomb out of the blue, bringing up Rezko. He may have realized it was stupid because he soon tried to disown his words:
The Rezko bit is a cheap shot designed to make a point: the people you hire sometimes do things you'd highly disapprove of, but you may not know about it until it's too late. That's life. I don't think it's Obama's fault Rezko turned out to be a crook, and if this police chief turns out to have put budget above compassion I don't think it would be Palin's fault.

However, even with that spin, it is still utter bullshit. Rezko's crimes are unrelated to his business with Obama. They have no more bearing on Obama than Enron's accounting had on other clients of Arthur Andersen. It is preposterous to compare that with the relation between a mayor and the police chief whom she hired and whom she had the power to fire at will. Even as a "cheap shot designed to make a point", Matt's argument is dishonest.

The theme that unifies Matt's arguments is that he insists on proofs when Palin's priorities and judgment are questioned, but at the same time, he has no problem calling those questions "garbage" and "smears" based on nothing more than his own speculations and wishful thinking. That is a profoundly hypocritical stance.

Finally, a word of caution for the confused. Palin's defenders (who, don't forget, are ultimately the defenders of McCain's judgment and integrity) are first trying to impeach all criticism as personal and sexist. When that fails, they try to frame the argument as if Palin was on trial and her accusers have the burden of proving allegations beyond reasonable doubt. That frame is completely bogus. When we, as voters, scrutinize politicians, we do not - we definitely should not - presume that they are innocent (good, right) until proven guilty (bad, wrong). We must hold them suspect all the time. We have the right to know the facts about any reasonable allegations that could be relevant to the performance of their duties if elected. Only in authoritarian regimes would citizens be required to prove their allegations before they could criticize a politician. What the Republicans are demonstrating these days is that a McCain-Palin administration would be authoritarian beyond anything this country has ever experienced.

UPDATE (9/24): This article tries to sort out the confusion over which budget item actually represents rape kits.

Palin: not ready for high school debate

James Fallows focuses on the most important problem: she doesn't care to know.
What Sarah Palin revealed is that she has not been interested enough in world affairs to become minimally conversant with the issues.
Read the whole thing, but I can't resist revealing the end:
A further point. The truly toxic combination of traits GW Bush brought to decision making was:

1) Ignorance
2) Lack of curiosity
3) "Decisiveness"

That is, he was not broadly informed to begin with (point 1). He did not seek out new information (#2); but he nonetheless prided himself (#3) on making broad, bold decisions quickly, and then sticking to them to show resoluteness.

We don't know for sure about #2 for Palin yet -- she could be a sponge-like absorber of information. But we know about #1 and we can guess, from her demeanor about #3. Most of all we know something about the person who put her in this untenable role.
More of the same.

Not every McCain idea is bad

With the McCain campaign banging pots and the media amplifying the noise, we haven't been able to hear much about the issues in the last few days. Maybe that's why Joe Klein reached for the old news and commented on McCain's plan to change the tax status of employer-paid health insurance premiums. His analysis is balanced, but in the punchline he focuses on the tax-increase aspect of it:
It is amazing to me that Obama campaign has let things go this far without pointing out that McCain--who opposes the energy bill because it would increase taxes on oil companies--is actually proposing a tax increase on health care benefits for American workers. But that is precisely what the Senator from Arizona is doing.
Ezra Klein goes further:
This is a tremendous tax increase, to the tune of $3.6 trillion over 10 years.
Although he goes on to qualify that statement, it is not a fair critique by any stretch of imagination.

I don't like McCain's vision for health care and his non-reform "reform". I think he wants to take it in the wrong direction and will only make the problems worse. But this tax proposal is actually not bad at all. It would remove a major tax distortion and most people would be better-off (well, sort of - as taxpayers, they'd have to pay it back eventually).

Currently, employer-paid health insurance premiums are not counted as taxable income to employees, but are fully deductible as expense to the employer. In effect, the government subsidizes the premiums at the employees' marginal income tax rates. And because income tax rates increase with income, high earners get a bigger subsidy than low earners.

This is unfair to low earners - it reduces the progressivity of the tax code in a non-transparent way. But it also distorts the health insurance and labor markets, because people who pay for their own insurance get no subsidy. That makes the current system unfair to the self-employed and to workers whose employers don't offer a health benefit. It also discourages entrepreneurship by making self-employment more expensive.

McCain's plan would treat employer-paid health insurance premiums as cash income for tax purposes, but would offset the added tax cost with a refundable tax credit of $2,500 per year to individuals and $5,000 to families. "Refundable" means you get the full amount even if your total federal income tax for the year is less than that - the government writes a check to everybody who has health insurance. If you have family coverage and your employer pays $8,824 per year for it (the national average), counting it as income will increase your tax from $882 (if you are in the 10% bracket) to $3,088 (if you are in the top, 35%, bracket), but with the refund, your tax will decrease by $1,912 to $4,118. (If Social Security taxes also apply, the numbers are less favorable, especially for lower earners, but it is still a net gain for the employee in each case.) The only way you lose is if you have a high income and high premiums (which means you live in an expensive area and your employer offers good benefits).

That actually looks like a big tax break, and it is: the Tax Policy Center estimated it would increase the deficit (or cost taxpayers) 1.3 trillion dollars over the next 10 years. Free money isn't cheap.

It is fair to criticize McCain's plan for burning another hole in the budget. It is also fair to point out that it is a tax change, not health care reform. It generally won't help the uninsured. And, perhaps most importantly, some people will lose in indirect ways. Employers will have no incentive to offer health benefits and some will surely choose to compete for workers by increasing wages and dropping health insurance. That means some people will lose their employer-provided insurance and some of those will get lost in the vagaries of the individual insurance market. The plan doesn't seem to provide adequate ways to deal with such risks.

It is even fair to point out that it is another instance of "more of the same" because Bush has been proposing a similar plan for the last two years. (By the way, it hasn't passed; why would McCain expect his plan to pass now that the Democrats are almost sure to fortify their control of Congress?)

But it is not fair to call it a tax increase.

Sep 10, 2008

Andrew Sullivan's awakening

He now realizes that John McCain is morally unfit to lead:
On core moral issues, where this man knew what the right thing was, and had to pick between good and evil, he chose evil.
McCain has demonstrated in the last two months that he does not have the character to be president of the United States. And that is why it is more important than ever to ensure that Barack Obama is the next president. The alternative is now unthinkable. And McCain - no one else - has proved it.
Well, Andrew, what can I say. Better late than never. needs fact checking

On August 19, reported:
An Obama ad uses dated and out of context quotes to portray McCain as clueless on the economy.
Obama's offense? McCain's statements that the economy is strong and that we are not heading toward recession were several months old; the economic situation has changed since then, and so has McCain's assessment of it.

Except that McCain's assessment hasn't changed by an iota.
Here’s John McCain on August 20 talking to Laura Ingraham: “I still believe the fundamentals of our economy are strong.”
McCain proved wrong the day after they criticized Obama. Three weeks later, has not published a correction.

UPDATE: David Neiwert finds FactCheck sloppy on Palin's AIP connection.

Joseph Nye Welch

To Senator Joseph McCarthy:
You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?

It is time to ask Senator John McCain the same question.

Lipstick or no lipstick...

If I were a pig, I would resent being compared to Republicans.

Sep 9, 2008

The bullshit of "choosing life"

I have no respect for a decision to carry a Down syndrome fetus to term. On the contrary, I consider it unethical, irresponsible and selfish.

Unfortunately, many staunchly pro-choice liberals go out of their way to express admiration for pregnant women who continue a pregnancy knowing that they carry a severely disabled fetus. Many have falsely convinced themselves that being pro-choice requires respect for every reproductive choice and precludes passing judgment based on the choices others make.

But being pro-choice has never meant that. Many pro-choice people openly oppose abortion on moral grounds. Many would not be comfortable having an abortion themselves. Being pro-choice means supporting the legal right to abortion so that others can make choices according to their own circumstances and moral code. It means not legislating private morality. It does not mean relinquishing moral opinions.

Suppose you are a Catholic who believes that the embryo gets a soul at conception, but, being a reasonable and tolerant person, you realize that others may not share your beliefs and that there is no objective evidence that you are right and they are wrong, so you support keeping abortion legal. I may disagree with your belief (and consider it wacky), but in the mundane deeds - which are what ultimately matters to me - I will gladly be your ally and work with you and respect you. I wouldn't think of saying that you are not really pro-choice just because you see abortion as immoral. But that has to work both ways. As long as I am not legally denying anyone the right to carry a pregnancy to term, I will not allow anyone to question my pro-choice credentials simply because I challenge the morality of those decisions.

So please no bullshit about respecting whatever choice a woman makes. Now let's see, rationally, what happens when a woman chooses to continue the pregnancy despite the bad news.

First and most obviously, she will knowingly impose unnecessary suffering to a human being. Yes, reality does exist and disabled people suffer. And yes, mental retardation is suffering, even if the victim is not fully aware of it. You would probably not argue that advanced Alzheimer's patients do not suffer, would you? (Incidentally, early-onset Alzheimer's is common in persons with Down syndrome.)

And no, the oft-heard argument that most living sufferers prefer to be alive is not relevant to abortion. It retroactively imputes the mind of a formed person to a non-sentient fetus, which is nonsense. The fetus has no meaningful preferences, and that is true whether it is healthy or deformed. "You would rather I didn't exist" is a fallacious emotional appeal that could be used against contraception and abstinence just as much as against abortion. You think sex before marriage is wrong? Oh, so you wish Sarah Palin's oldest son - the one about to be deployed in Iraq - didn't exist!

By the way, if you want to be noble and raise a disabled child, why don't you adopt one? That's a decision I would admire (provided you considered the issue in the next paragraph and ensured there would be no harm, or at least there would be a net benefit). No creating new suffering, but alleviating the already existing.

Second problem arises if there are other children in the family. A disabled child needs more attention than a healthy one. (I assume that the mother who decided to have the child has also accepted the responsibility of giving the child the care it needs.) It is often hard to take proper care of healthy children. With a disabled child, the healthy ones can become neglected. (Of course, the same - perhaps even grater - danger exists for any disabled child already in the family.) Noble attitude to a fetus at 16 weeks of gestation is a very poor justification for unfairness to a toddler.

The third problem affects the broader society. Down syndrome babies become Down syndrome children and, thanks to modern medicine, eventually Down syndrome adults. Most of them are never able to live fully on their own and all of them require extra resources for health care, education, and other support. As our society ages, we will feel an ever greater shortage of caregivers. Every new person needing a caregiver will compete with others for a precious resource. At the same time, more and more women are having children after age 35, so more and more conceptions result in trisomy 21. Currently, the number of people with Down syndrome and other similarly severe genetic defects is too small to require a significant share of total resources, but if the anti-abortion crusaders have their way, the number could easily grow fivefold in a generation.

Testing for Down syndrome is a routine part of prenatal care, especially in older mothers, and when it is diagnosed, over 90% of women choose abortion. Anti-abortion advocacy would imply that those 90% are making the wrong moral choice. We need more voices questioning the decisions of the remaining ten percent.

Paging Phil Gramm

McCain and Palin have become a campaign of whiners.

UPDATE: Atrios has a related picture.

Sep 8, 2008

Sanctity of shotgun marriage

Here's another reason to oppose gun control: it would destroy the sanctity of that foundation of our civilization - shotgun marriage.

We know Sarah Palin supports abstinence until marriage and that her pregnant daughter will marry the boy who had something to do with that. The boy was displayed last week as an example to all teenagers with raging hormones. Boys, this could happen to you if you knock up a girl: a creepy old presidential candidate will shake your hand and you'll get to stand on the central stage at the Republican National Convention, cheered by a wild crowd of mostly old people. So better watch out.

It's good that they are giving an example to the kids nationwide, but I think it is irresponsible to make two teens marry just because they made a baby. Marriage is supposed to be a lifelong commitment, and 17- and 18-year olds are not mature and experienced enough to decide on such commitment. According to CDC, brides younger than 18 have 1 in 2 chance of being divorced in 10 years and 2 in 3 chance of being divorced in 20. (By contrast, for brides over 25, the chances are 1 in 4 and 2 in 5, respectively.) In fact, I don't think it should be legal for anyone to marry before age 18, but that may be moot in this case, as Bristol Palin turns 18 on October 18. (Good thing teenagers get traffic tickets, otherwise we'd be left to speculate.)

Mrs. Pitt Bull and Mr. First Dude had a similar abstinence story of their own. Their first son was born 33 weeks and 3 days after their wedding, which would pin their elopement at some 2-3 weeks after her first missed period. Seems it was pregnancy test one day, shotgun wedding the next. Sure, they were 24 and had presumably been dating for a while, but it is still a bad way to make a life-changing decision. Wise couples marry when they want, not when they have to.

I will have none of the stupid knee-jerk reaction that those pregnancies and marriages are private matters and not important for the election. If Palin supported reproductive freedom of each individual and sex education grounded in science, I would not be the least interested in her own family planning and would be opposed to discussing any of this. But I am not willing to let her have the same privacy that she would deny to others. Her policy stance makes these private matters fair game.

Private or not, these personal stories provide important information about Gov. Palin's decision making and principles. Her express wedding is relevant because it shows that she let random events control her decisions instead of planning ahead and taking control of events. The speed with which she got married is also significant because it preserved some plausibility for the story that the baby was born just a little prematurely, and that suggests that she may have planned to lie to family and friends.

It is particularly relevant that she publicly opposed sex before marriage despite her own experience. (And what about the fact that, without premarital sex, Track Palin would never have been born? Isn't that one of the standard emotional appeals of the so-called "pro life" crowd?) Yet, she obviously did not persuade her daughter to postpone sex until marriage, so they are now rushing the marriage to bring it closer to sex.

So far, the facts do not bode well for the candidate's judgment, integrity and leadership. And I have not yet touched on the ethical issues with Sarah Palin's fifth child. That indictment of American head-in-the-sand values is coming soon.

UPDATE: Apparently, now she says she supports sex ed and is not for "abstinence only". Flip flop.

But... but... he's a war hero!

Israeli police is obviously anti-Israel:

Israeli Police Suggest Indicting Olmert

There will be no such disrespect for Israel and war heroes when John McCain is President! He will bomb the Israeli police until it stops attacking Israel and its heroes.

Sep 7, 2008

It's the stupidity, stupid!

Most elections are decided by stupid voters. This is because (1) most people are stupid, and (2) most people who are not stupid understand the differences between parties and tend to vote for the party they prefer, regardless of the candidate. For the second reason to be relevant, the parties must attract approximately equal fractions of the electorate, but that is a natural result of the parties positioning themselves ideologically as they vie for the middle.

I am not saying that there aren't plenty of stupid partisan voters. Oh, no, those are some of the most amazingly stupid people around; but they don't matter in elections. The stupid voters in the middle do.

Therefore, to win the election, you must convince the stupid undecided - the politically correct word is "moderate" - voters to vote for you. You must make them like you better than the other guy. So what is the number one thing you must not do?

You must not tell them that they are stupid.

You must not tell them that even though it is true. Actually, it is precisely because it is true that you must not tell them. They know it already, so it will stick. You remind them what they already know, they'll remember you reminded them. And they'll hate you for that. They'll think you are an arrogant, pompous asshole. And the only way they'll like you more than the other guy is if the other guy is also an arrogant, pompous asshole and his feet stink. Well, good luck.

Here's John Fucking Kerry:
STEPHANOPOULOS: … Howard Wolfson, Senator Clinton’s former communications director, said that this pick might just work to draw women to the Republican ticket. Are you worried about that?

KERRY: Well, with all due respect to Howard, you know, I have much more respect for the Clinton supporters than that sort of quick- blush take with — I mean, how stupid do they think the Clinton supporters are, for Heaven sakes?

Do they think Clinton supporters supported Hillary only because she was a woman. For Heaven sakes, they supported Hillary because of all the things she’s fought for, because she fights for health care, which John McCain doesn’t support; she fights for children and children’s health care, which John McCain voted against; she fights for a windfall profits tax on the oil company, which John McCain opposes.

I mean, for Heaven sakes, the people who supported Hillary Clinton are not going to be seduced just because John McCain has picked a woman. They’re going to look at what she supports.

The fact that she doesn’t even support the notion that climate change is manmade — she’s back there with the Flat Earth Caucus. And I don’t see how those women are going to be fooled into believing — I think it’s almost insulting to the Hillary supporters that they believe they would support somebody who is against almost everything that they believe in.

Translation: "I didn't learn anything from losing to a fucking moron in 2004, so I will now help Barack Obama lose to a goddamn idiot in 2008."

For Heaven's sake, listen! There are two kinds of Hillary Clinton supporters: those who are not stupid and those who are stupid. And those who are not stupid don't matter. They are already for Obama. As you said correctly, for somebody who likes Hillary Clinton to even consider voting for John McCain is stupid. So what the fuck were you thinking saying it's stupid!?!

Those who are not stupid already know it's stupid. And those who are... well, the last thing in the world they want to hear is that they are stupid.

Imagine Steve Jobs going on TV and saying "An iPod is a great gadget. If you don't have an iPod, you are stupid." That would really convince those iPodless dunces to run to the nearest Apple Store and buy iPods, wouldn't it? And those who are not stupid, uhm, they already have one...

The only reason the analogy is not perfect is that someone who already has an iPod could still buy another, but every voter has only one vote. Kerry's salesmanship is actually worse than in my grotesque hypothetical example.

Unfortunately, Obama did take a lesson from master Kerry:
"And suddenly he's the change agent? Ha. He says, 'I'm going to tell those lobbyists that their days of running Washington are over.' Who is he going to tell? Is he going to tell his campaign chairman, who's one of the biggest corporate lobbyists in Washington? Is he going to tell his campaign manager, who was one of the biggest corporate lobbyists in Washington?"

"I mean, come on, they must think you're stupid," Obama said as the crowd laughed and cheered.

It isn't nearly as bad as Kerry's shooting his own footburger, because Obama was speaking directly to voters and making it obvious he didn't think they were stupid. But don't forget that those were the voters who came to hear him; most of them probably already support him. Most of them do not buy McCain's bullshit, and are quite happy to hear that those who would buy it would be stupid.

Except that there are some undecided, stupid potential buyers watching that on TV. And they are likely to think "Yeah, he thinks those guys there aren't stupid, but he says I might be!" And you know what? That ain't too stupid of a conclusion!

So let me address the average stupid voter. It is perfectly safe, because no average stupid voters read this blog. Average stupid voter, does Obama think you are stupid? I think he probably does - I mean, he isn't stupid, for Heaven's sake - but not enough. He underestimates your stupidity. (Is that disrespectful of him? I don't know, you draw your own conclusions.) And what about McCain? Does he think you are stupid? Yessir, yabetcha. And he's right. But he won't tell you. He wants you to think his judgment is good, so he must flaunt all his bad judgments. Being stupid, you are more likely to appreciate those as good.

Except, in this case, his judgment actually is good. But you already know that. Every fool knows it. Only the smart ones don't get it.

Sep 1, 2008

Look what abstinence-until-marriage education does!

3. Will you support funding for abstinence-until-marriage education instead of for explicit sex-education programs, school-based clinics, and the distribution of contraceptives in schools?
SP: Yes, the explicit sex-ed programs will not find my support.

That was Sarah Palin in the Eagle Forum questionnaire I mentioned earlier. Today she reported to the American public about the effectiveness of that abstinence-until-marriage education:

Palin Says Her Daughter, 17, Is Pregnant

Bristol Palin, one of Alaska Gov. Palin's five children with her husband, Todd, is about five months pregnant and is going to keep the child and marry the father, the Palins said in a statement released by the campaign of Republican presidential candidate John McCain.

Now, I do not agree with abstinence until marriage and I have no problem with 16- or 17-year old girls having sex. (Yes, it is stupid not to use contraception, but before criticizing Bristol, think if you were always wise as a teenager.) However, Governor Palin campaigned as an abstinence supporter, so it is to be expected that she wants her children to behave consistently with that policy. Obviously, she failed as a leader to inspire her daughter to adhere to it. What does that say about her ability to inspire and lead the nation?

On the other hand, the Republicans did succeed in proving Barack Obama wrong where he would least expect it. In his acceptance speech, he said
We may not agree on abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country.

Um, no, Barack, apparently the Republicans are not ready to agree even on that.

Occupation troops in Alaska

This is vice chairman of the Alaskan Independence Party speaking:

Note the amazing display of patriotism:
But the basic argument of the Alaskan Independence Party has always been, the number one plank in our platform, is the question of our vote to become a state. The most glaring disparity in that vote was the definition of an eligible voter. Among those qualified to cast a ballot were 41,000 American soldiers and their 36,000 dependents. Now to the native population of Alaska, to me, these were occupation troops, and they were made eligible, in fact encouraged to vote, there were educational meetings held on the military bases. I can’t imagine them telling anyone that anything but that statehood would be very good for the military, in fact they still have 6-7 big bases and numerous smaller holdings in this state. Statehood would be good for the military. Now can you imagine the international uproar if the American troops had all went and got their purple fingers in Iraq? There would have been ...that’s not an election, that’s imposing your rule.

And this is Governor Palin ("She was an AIP member before she got the job as a mayor of a small town," according to the clip above) addressing the AIP:

So this is what she said to the "American soldiers are occupation troops in Alaska" folks:

I’m Governor Sarah Palin and I am delighted to welcome you to the 2008 Alaskan Independence Party Convention in the golden heart city - Fairbanks. Your party plays an important role in our state’s politics. I’ve always said that competition is so good, and that applies to political parties as well. I share your party’s vision of upholding the constitution of our great state. My administration remains focused on reining in government growth so individual liberty and opportunity can expand. I know you agree with that. We have a great promise to be a self-sufficient state, made up of the hardest-working, most grateful Americans in our nation. So as your convention gets underway I hope that you all are inspired by remembering that all those years ago, it was in this same city that Alaska’s constitution was born. And it was founded on hope and trust and liberty and opportunity. I carry that message of opportunity forward in my administration, as we continue to move our state ahead and create positive change. So I say good luck on a successful and inspiring convention. Keep up the good work, and God bless you.

Wow. Would Mr. POW care to explain this?

Lynette Clark, the chairman of the AIP, tells ABC News that Palin and her husband Todd were members in 1994, even attending the 1994 statewide convention in Wasilla. Clark was AIP secretary at the time.