Archive:

May 2009, Part 2

Jim Miller on Politics




Pseudo-Random Thoughts



Maybe He's Hoping For A Big Book Contract:  Columnist Robert Samuelson makes the obvious point.   Obama is planning to bankrupt the country.
Just how much government debt does a president have to endorse before he's labeled "irresponsible"?

Well, apparently much more than the massive amounts envisioned by President Obama.  The final version of his 2010 budget, released last week, is a case study in political expediency and economic gambling.

From 2010 to 2019, Obama projects annual deficits totaling $7.1 trillion; that's atop the $1.8 trillion deficit for 2009.  By 2019, the ratio of publicly held federal debt to gross domestic product (GDP, or the economy) would reach 70%, up from 41% in 2008.  That would be the highest since 1950 (80%).
When we were recovering from World War II, and had a much younger population.

Economist Greg Mankiw thinks Obama doesn't even have a serious long-range plan.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the long-term fiscal strategy at the White House is based on large doses of wishful thinking.
Having watched this amazing sight for weeks now, I am tempted to conclude that Obama hopes to bail out our national budget the same way he bailed out the Obama family budget — with a big book contract.  That makes as much sense as any other explanation I can think of.
- 3:20 PM, 16 May 2009   [link]


How Much Lying Do You Allow For?  In my post on a Danny Westneat column describing Bent Flyvbjerg's finding that cost over-runs on megaprojects can be best explained by assuming that planners and politicians are lying to us, I left one tactical question undiscussed.

Those of us who have been around for a while, or are just fairly alert, have figured out that politicians' promises are not to be trusted on megaprojects.  And most of us have also drawn another conclusion about the way "mainstream" journalists cover those megaprojects.  Westneat even gives us a little hint at the end of his column.

Flyvbjerg says that's the way it often goes. He also has all sorts of ideas for how to make this process more honest and accurate, most involving outside scrutiny.  Suffice to say, that route would drive up the estimated costs of most projects dramatically.

I wondered, when I read them: If we knew the truth, would we accomplish anything at all?

Or is it better to be lied to?

What I conclude from that ending question is that Westneat would not be, shall we say, aggressive, in examining the costs and benefits of projects that he supports.  And I have come to the unpleasant conclusion that Westneat is typical, that most "mainstream" journalists would do the same thing.   For example, almost all "mainstream" journalists favor rail transit projects.  (Perhaps because few of them had toy trains as children.  Perhaps because they think that other people should ride those trains.)  And so those journalists will pass on to us, without criticism, estimates of costs and benefits on rail transit that they have many reasons to doubt.  And when those estimates prove to be false, those same journalists will not hold the politicians who made them responsible.

Because, as Westneat believes, we might not accomplish anything unless we are lied to.

But many of us have caught on to this game; we no longer believe the estimates from politicians — or from journalists.  And so, when we see estimates from either, we adjust them.  For example, I assume that rail transit projects will cost about twice as much as promised, and will carry about half as many passengers as promised.  (Which means that almost none of them, at least in the United States, make sense.)  On the other hand, I assume that ordinary road projects — projects that do not require, for example, immense tunnels — will have costs only ten or twenty percent more than estimates — and will carry at least as many cars as promised.

Have you developed your own correction factors for these projects?  And, if so, what are they?

Cross posted at Sound Politics.

(In my opinion, we would accomplish just as much, possibly more, if we had truthful estimates on projects.  But we would build different projects, and the projects would have less gold plate.

Game theorists will notice that increased skepticism on the part of citizens may lead to increased lying by politicians and planners.  Since many of us are making those adjustments, the lies may get bigger in order to sell the projects.  And then citizens will become even more skeptical, which may lead to even bigger lies.  I am not sure whether there is formal equilibrium solution to this, and my game theory is far too rusty to attempt to find one — especially on a sunny Friday afternoon.  But if you want to tackle this problem, please let me know about your results, if any.)
- 3:41 PM, 15 May 2009   [link]


Will Speaker Pelosi Survive?  That's the question some are asking after yesterday's disastrous press conference.

My guess?  Probably, and she can even stay in her hole, though she may have to stop digging.

She'll survive at least until the 2010 election, and even past then if the Democrats do not lose too many seats — and the loss is blamed on Pelosi.

She'll survive in part because identity politics is so central to the Democratic party, and she is the first woman to be speaker.  Another woman might be able to displace her, or a black, or a Hispanic, but not a white man like Steny Hoyer — and he is the obvious alternative.

(One can imagine a more sensitive politician resigning after all the public outcry.  But as a machine politician, Pelosi is not going to give up a top position unless she is forced to.)
- 1:11 PM, 15 May 2009   [link]


Last November, We Elected The Most Extreme Pro-Abortion President Ever:  Just as Americans became more pro-life.
A new Gallup Poll, conducted May 7-10, finds 51% of Americans calling themselves "pro-life" on the issue of abortion and 42% "pro-choice."  This is the first time a majority of U.S. adults have identified themselves as pro-life since Gallup began asking this question in 1995.

The new results, obtained from Gallup's annual Values and Beliefs survey, represent a significant shift from a year ago, when 50% were pro-choice and 44% pro-life. Prior to now, the highest percentage identifying as pro-life was 46%, in both August 2001 and May 2002.
The Gallup follow-up questions show that the shift is real.

The follow-up questions are infuriating, for those who want to measure political consequences.   Infuriating, because they do not map to party positions.  Their main question is worth repeating because they have used it for so long, but Gallup could ask follow-up questions that reflect the party positions.

Since 1980, if I recall correctly, Republican presidential candidates have all favored banning abortion with three exceptions, rape, incest, and the life of the mother.  (The Catholic church, as I understand it, agrees on the last.  And there are a few rare cases in which an abortion is necessary to save a mother's life.)

In their main question, Gallup asks whether you favor permitting all abortions, banning all of them, or limiting them.  Most people fall into the middle group.  What "mainstream" journalists seldom note is that, logically, the Republican party (and just possibly, the Catholic church) falls there too, since they would not ban all abortions.  Gallup could clarify this with the right follow-up questions.  I have no idea why they don't ask those questions.

Instead of asking respondents questions which map to the party positions, Gallup asks whether respondents favor abortion in all, most, a few, or no circumstances.  The closest answer to the Republican party position is "a few".  Thirty-seven percent now choose that, and twenty-three percent choose no circumstances.  One would like to conclude that sixty percent now support the Republican position, or something stronger — but you can't because Gallup's alternatives are too vague.
- 9:56 AM, 15 May 2009   [link]


Britain Is Being Entertained By A Big MP Expense Account Scandal:  So what, you may say.  The sun rises in the east, the Yankees have too much money, and people cheat on their expense accounts.  Nothing new.

But some of the cheating has been remarkably bold.  For instance, junior Justice Minister Shahid Malik has been claiming the maximum amount for his "second" home, while renting a "first" home for very little.
Since being elected in 2005, Mr Malik has claimed the maximum amount allowable for a second home, amounting to £66,827 over three years.  Last year, he claimed £23,083 from the taxpayer for his London town house, equivalent to £443 per week. The Telegraph can disclose that the "main home" for which Mr Malik pays out of his own pocket - a three-bedroom house in his constituency of Dewsbury, West Yorks - has been secured at a discounted rent of less than £100 per week from a local landlord who was fined for letting an "uninhabitable" house
Luckily for Mr. Malik, another person occupies that Dewsbury "home" when he isn't there — which is most of the time.

The accountants checking these expense accounts are tough; they accepted Malik's claim for a massage chair, paid only half of his claim for a £2,600 home cinema system, and rejected his claims for an iPod and a portable DVD player.

Malik is showing some signs of remorse, or at least nervousness.  Malik is offering to refund the £65 he received for "non-payment of council tax courts summons".

(Might there be a kickback or two in Malik's deals?  Possibly.

The picture of the landlord deserves a look; it I had to describe it in a phrase, I would say that he looks like a metrosexual Muslim.  I know that sounds contradictory, but take a look for yourself.)
- 8:58 AM, 15 May 2009   [link]


Graphing The Conflicts:  In March, a post at the Biased BBC tipped me off to these simple circle graphs showing the comparative size of some modern conflicts — as measured by the numbers of deaths.

It was good to see someone making that comparison, but the presentation could be improved, I thought.   As it happens, our minds are not very good at comparing the areas of circles, so, if we want to compare quantities, a simple bar graph is a better way to present the data.

Deaths in eight modern conflicts

(Four of those abbreviations may not be obvious.  "Congo" is the war currently going on in the Democratic Republic of Congo, "Sudan" is the war that went on for decades in the southern Sudan, "Afghan" is the current conflict, and "Isr-Pal" is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I used numbers from the site that provided the original graphs.  There may be better numbers available for some of the conflicts, but I used these so that you could compare my bar plot directly to the originals.)

What should strike you immediately about that bar plot is that the war going on in central Africa dwarfs all the others, and that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (less than 10,000 deaths) is, by comparison to all the others, trivial.

And if you follow the news at all, you will know that the coverage of these eight conflicts is not at all proportionate to the deaths tolls; in fact, if anything it is inversely proportionate.

(Some will wonder why I did not include the Iraq War in the graph.  That's because the number given in the table is about four times too high.  The Afghanistan number is also probably too high, but I haven't seen numbers, recently.  I plan to do a revised version of this graph soon, with the best numbers I can find for those two conflicts, and perhaps others.)
- 4:23 PM, 14 May 2009
Dean Nelson of the Telegraph gives another example of a conflict that few outsiders care about despite horrific civilian casualties, the war between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government.
- 9:14 AM, 15 May 2009
Minor technical point:  The bar plot actually understates the relationship, slightly.  The "Congo" bar should be about 540 pixels high, instead of about 520 pixels high.  I'll try to fix that in the next version.
- 9:17 AM, 16 May 2009   [link]


That 180 Degree Obama Switch On Detainee Photos?  Tom Maguire has the best explanation I've seen.
The LA Times goes a bit further and connects another dot:
But military officials had expressed concerns that they could spark a backlash in the Muslim world.   Obama is scheduled go to Egypt next month to address Muslims in a much-anticipated speech.
I guess it was a matter of presenting the issue in a way which resonated with The One.
To be fair to Maguire, he is presenting it as only one of a number of possibilities — as would I.  But Obama is fond of applause, perhaps too fond.

(And, of course, credit to the Los Angeles Times for noting that point.)
- 10:19 AM, 14 May 2009   [link]


Obama Wants More Power:  (Which must come, as I argued in February, at the expense of the rest of us.  He is trying with considerable success, to increase his power — and decrease ours.  Unless we happen to be useful allies.  And even his allies get power that derives from his, and so can be taken back.)

In that, Obama is a true student of Saul Alinsky, who was all about power.
Moderates thought they were electing a moderate; liberals thought they were electing a liberal.  Both camps were wrong.  Ideology does not have the final say in Obama's decision-making; an Alinskyite's core principle is to take any action that expands his power and to avoid any action that risks his power.

As conservatives size up their new foe, they ought to remember: It's not about liberalism.  It's about power.  Obama will jettison anything that costs him power, and do anything that enhances it — including invite Rick Warren to give the benediction at his inauguration, dine with conservative columnists, and dismiss an appointee at the White House Military Office to ensure the perception of accountability.
Jim Geraghty goes a little too far here.  Obama does, in general, have leftist (not liberal) ideas, and, everything else being equal, will try to put them into practice.  But often everything else isn't equal, and so, to keep or increase his power, he will make gestures toward moderates and conservatives, and even sometimes reverse himself completely.
- 9:53 AM, 14 May 2009   [link]


Suppose You Wanted To Hinder An Economic Recovery:  How would you go about doing it?  You would make investment more risky by abrogating existing contracts, you would increase regulation, you would encourage union militancy, and, above all, you would increase taxes.
The Obama budget calls for tax increases of more than $1.1 trillion over the next decade.  Official budget calculations disguise the resulting fiscal drag by treating Mr. Obama's proposal to cancel the 2011 income tax increases for taxpayers with incomes below $250,000 as if they are real tax cuts.  The plan to modify the Alternative Minimum Tax to avoid increases for some taxpayers is also treated as a tax cut.
. . .
Mr. Obama's biggest proposed tax increase is the cap-and-trade system of requiring businesses to buy carbon dioxide emission permits.  The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that the proposed permit auctions would raise about $80 billion a year and that these extra taxes would be passed along in higher prices to consumers.  Anyone who drives a car, uses public transportation, consumes electricity or buys any product that involves creating CO2 in its production would face higher prices.
The cap-and-trade tax would be regressive.
But while the cap-and-trade tax rises with income, the relative burden is greatest for low-income households.  According to the CBO, households in the lowest-income quintile spend more than 20% of their income on energy intensive items (primarily fuels and electricity), while those in the highest-income quintile spend less than 5% on those products.
And, though Martin Feldstein doesn't mention this, it would impose heavier taxes on rural areas than urban areas.  Coincidentally, or perhaps not so coincidentally, it would impose heavier taxes on areas that voted heavily against Barack Obama.

To be fair, not all of the administration's programs will hinder an economic recovery.  But many of them will, and we should recognize that.

(Obama promised again and again during the campaign, that only the rich would see higher taxes.  I didn't believe that, but I fear that some voters did.)
- 9:23 AM, 14 May 2009   [link]


Wishful Thinking?  Here's a partly positive Bloomberg article on consumers starting to spend.  Sample:
The Sterenbergs are among Americans who are cracking open wallets as the U.S. economy begins to stabilize after the federal government spent, lent or pledged as much as $12.8 trillion to end the longest recession since the Great Depression, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Consumer confidence rose last month by the most in two years, and the pace of job losses declined.
And here's the latest report from the Commerce Department:
Retail sales fell for a second straight month in April, a disappointing performance that raised doubts about whether consumers were regaining their desire to shop.  A rebound in consumer demand is a necessary ingredient for ending the recession.

The Commerce Department said Wednesday that retail sales fell 0.4 percent last month.  Many economists had expected a flat reading, and the April weakness followed a 1.3 percent drop in March that was worse than first estimated.
I haven't done a systematic survey, haven't even seen one, but I get the impression that many news organizations are trying to downplay the bad economic news — now that they have their Democratic president.
- 1:27 PM, 13 May 2009   [link]


Common Sense On "Torture" From The New York Times:  No, really.
When the Central Intelligence Agency obliterates a dozen suspected terrorists, along with assorted family members, with a missile from a drone, the news rarely stirs a strong reaction far beyond Pakistan.

Yet the waterboarding of three operatives from Al Qaeda — one of them the admitted murderer of 3,000 people as organizer of the 9/11 attacks — has stirred years of recriminations, calls for prosecution and national soul-searching.

What is it about the terrible intimacy of torture that so disturbs and captivates the public?  Why has torture long been singled out for special condemnation in the law of war, when war brings death and suffering on a scale that dwarfs the torture chamber?
. . .
One former C.I.A. official, who in the current atmosphere insisted on not being named, and whose duties at times included briefing the Congressional intelligence committees, said he was bemused by reactions of lawmakers on those panels.  Members would be thrilled and cheered by the Predator strike videos he would bring along — and then grill and berate him over the agency's interrogation methods.
Let me expand the point made by that anonymous CIA official, just a bit.  Not everyone hit by a missile from a Predator (or any other weapon) is a terrorist, or even an enemy.  In fact, since our terrorist enemies sometimes use civilians as shields, we can be certain that some of those struck are innocents, maybe even innocents forced to act as shields.

And a little bit of thought will show you that many of those hit by a missile will not die quickly, but will suffer for hours, perhaps even days, depending on where they were hit.  In contrast, a terrorist who is waterboarded feels no physical pain, though the fear of drowning can break even strong men.

Does that combination, the pleasure in the Predator strikes, and the anger over pouring water over a terrorist's face, make sense to you?  It doesn't to me.

All this seems, as I said, a matter of common sense.  But obviously, many disagree with me and that CIA official.  I suppose that I should, some time, try to figure out why they disagree.

(I haven't said much about "torture" on this site, because I don't think there is much to say, and because I said most of what I had to say in a post on waterboarding at FDR's prep school.  A few lines from that post deserve repeating:
Nearly all, regardless of their views on how we should conduct the war on terror, would like a clear line between torture and aggressive interrogation.  Most would prefer that, except perhaps in a few extreme cases, that we not stoop to torturing our prisoners.  Unfortunately, because there is no clear line between torture and, let us call it duress, those who wish to charge us with torture will always be able to do so.  And those who wish to deny that we torture (except in a few cases where individuals broke the rules) will always be able to make that claim.
And I will say again that those conclusions are unsatisfying.  Unsatisfying, but, as far as I can tell, unavoidable.)
- 12:58 PM, 13 May 2009   [link]


Steny Hoyer Senses Weakness:  And so he reluctantly agrees to an investigation that would further embarrass Speaker Pelosi.
The House majority leader reluctantly agreed Tuesday that congressional hearings should investigate Speaker Nancy Pelosi's assertion that she wasn't informed, more than six years ago, that harsh interrogation methods were used on an al-Qaida leader.

Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., called Republican challenges to Pelosi's assertion a diversion from the real question of whether the Bush administration tortured terrorist suspects.  Nonetheless, he acknowledged the controversy should be resolved.
Pelosi defeated Hoyer for Minority Whip in 2001 and then went on to be Minority Leader after Richard Gephardt resigned in 2002, and then Speaker after the Democrats won a majority in the 2006 election.   She then supported ABSCAM co-conspirator Jack Murtha against Hoyer in the race for majority leader.  So she and Hoyer are not the best of friends.

It would be good for the country, and for the health of the Democratic party, if Hoyer were to replace Pelosi as leader of the House Democrats.  He would be less tolerant of corruption and more willing to put the nation's interests ahead of immediate partisan gains.

I don't expect Hoyer to replace Pelosi, but apparently Hoyer is willing to take the first step in making that happen.  (It could happen if next year's election is a disaster for the Democrats, and enough of them hold Pelosi partly responsible.)
- 10:35 AM, 13 May 2009
Correction:  I originally said that Pelosi defeated Hoyer for Minority Leader.  I have corrected the text, and added two dates.
- 10:50 AM, 13 May 2009   [link]


Other Than That, Professor Paglia, How Do You Like The Obama Administration?   In her latest Salon column, Paglia reminds us that she opposes his "grotesquely bloated stimulus package", but then follows that indictment with this:
. . . , I am generally happy with Obama's eagerness to tackle long-entrenched social problems, although there is sometimes a curious disconnect between what he says and what he does.  The degree to which Obama is or is not a stealth socialist remains to be seen.  But it's about time an ambitious young leader shook up the stale status quo.  The sepulchral, doom-obsessed and megalomaniacal Dick Cheney's self-intrusion into the news last weekend was a nice demonstration of just what a fresh new breeze Obama represents in Washington.
Obama is bankrupting the country, but that's OK because he is shaking up the "stale status quo"?

No one familiar with machine politics, as practiced in Chicago, would consider Obama a "fresh new breeze".

Paglia is a professor of "Humanities and Media Studies", not of accounting.  But even so I think she should pay a little more attention to our coming fiscal disaster.  And she might want to follow up on that "curious disconnect".

(Paglia begins with a criticism of the harsher tone taken by some conservative talk show hosts, criticism that is, in my opinion, partly deserved.  Though it is odd to read that criticism without more than a single mention of the savage attacks on Bush, Palin, and now Prejean.  And it is odd to read that criticism in a column that calls Dick Cheney "sepulchral, doom-obsessed and megalomaniacal".)
- 10:04 AM, 13 May 2009   [link]


Our Food Has Gotten Safer:  In the last century, and even in the last decade.  Who says so?  The New York Times.
Public health experts cannot give a definitive answer, largely because the historical figures on food-borne illness are spotty.  But most of them believe the nation's food supply is markedly safer now than it was 100 years ago, and probably safer than a decade ago.
. . .
Since the C.D.C. began its improved tracking in 1996, cases tied to some major germs have decreased significantly.  Authorities cite better oversight of the meat and poultry industry.

Ailments caused by the toxic strain of Escherichia coli have dropped 25 percent. Campylobacter cases are down 32 percent and listeria cases, down 36 percent.  A few relatively rare diseases have increased, and rates of salmonella, a common food-borne illness, are largely unchanged.  (Most salmonella cases are mild.)
With that kind of data — unless there is some reason to suspect its validity — I would be less tentative in my conclusions.

Food scares make the front pages; statistics make the back pages — if they are printed at all.

Those numbers may understate the safety improvements because, as the article says, our ability to detect contamination and to identify sources has "improved greatly".

Not so incidentally, this article appears in a newspaper whose editorial writers have often criticized President Bush for dropping protections for the American people.
- 1:16 PM, 12 May 2009   [link]


Some Reasons For The Republican Gains In The Generic Congressional Vote:  Moe Lane has them in a table, which he summarizes as follows:
As you can see, back in October it was fairly clear that Democrats were enjoying consistent leads over Republicans when it came to how much the public trusted them on various issues.  It's also fairly clear that in most cases, those leads have been savaged. Leading in four categories and tied in one may not sound wonderful; but compared to zero-for-ten that's not half bad - particularly since it's looking as if the Democrats are in the process of thoroughly squandering their existing trustworthiness with regard to the economy.
In most elections, economic issues outweigh others, sometimes all the others.

Like me, Lane used poll results from Rasmussen.

(Here's my generic vote graph, for comparison.)
- 9:19 AM, 12 May 2009   [link]


The Obama White House Is Predicting Disastrous Deficits:  Even with their optimistic assumptions, assumptions that few outside the administration accept.  A McClatchy reporter, David Lightman, catches on.
The White House on Monday projected 2009 and 2010 federal budget deficits far higher than it forecast just two and a half months ago, even as it continued to defy most experts and predict that the economy is headed for a strong comeback starting late this year.

Economists scoffed at the latest administration predictions.

"If they keep playing this game, they're going to have real credibility problems," predicted Brian Bethune, the chief U.S. financial economist at IHS Global Insight, an economic research firm.
. . .
The biggest discrepancy involves unemployment, which reached 8.9 percent last month.  The White House sees the number declining to an average of 7.9 percent next year, well below the CBO's 9 percent estimate and the blue chip 9.5 percent.

"The (Obama) unemployment number is crazy," said Roberton Williams, senior fellow at the Urban Institute-Brookings Institution Tax Policy Center.
That's the left-wing Urban Institute-Brookings Institution Tax Policy Center.
- 8:47 AM, 12 May 2009   [link]


The Iranian Regime Released Roxana Saberi:  Michael Ledeen thinks he knows why.
Why does the Mafia release hostages? Because they have collected the ransom.  So to all those who are looking for subtle reasons for the Saberi release, take it from someone who has been there.  Iran collected its ransom.
But he doesn't say what that ransom might have been.

Cynical, and all too plausible.

(Fun, and probably irrelevant, fact:  Saberi is a former Miss North Dakota.)
- 7:10 AM, 12 May 2009   [link]


Another Family Loses Their Home:  Some hard-hearted folks won't sympathize with their plight.
Victoria Gotti's palatial Long Island estate -- which she and her sons once flaunted in the reality show "Growing Up Gotti" -- is now under foreclosure.

Despite a vast fortune amassed by her late father, Gambino boss John "Dapper Don" Gotti, the flashy Mafia princess has skipped two years of loan payments and will lose her home in tony Old Westbury, according to court records.
(Reading about this foreclosure left me wondering what a Mafia family application for a mortgage looks like.  I assume it isn't totally frank — it wouldn't include anything about profits from loan sharking, for instance — but what does it say?

Presumably, the right bank can help with such delicate matters — such as the bank run by the family of Illinois Treasurer (and Obama ally) Alexi Giannoulias.  The Broadway Bank often loans money to old organized crime figures, and to new.  Loaning money to organized crime figures is not necessarily bad business — but it does require the bank to know about some unsavory matters.)
- 6:44 AM, 12 May 2009   [link]


Only Yesterday:  Ninety years ago today, six months had passed since the signing of the armistice that ended World War I.  America was beginning to return to normal.   Frederick Lewis Allen chose that day to begin his wonderful little book on the 1920s, Only Yesterday.

In some ways, the America of ninety years ago would look familiar to us.  Americans were arguing then, as we are now, about how to achieve a lasting peace.  Americans were worried — and sometimes much more than worried — about other Americans with alien ideas and sometimes alien origins.   Americans were worried about rising prices.  Men's suits look vaguely like those worn today.

In other ways, the America of ninety years ago is alien.  Not only was there no television; there was no commercial radio.  America was about to institute Prohibition, with the support of most of the voters.  Women's clothes looked very different from how they look now.

Some samples from the book:

In 1919, Americans, including Alen's hypothetical couple, the Smiths, worried about, as Allen puts it, the High Cost of Living.
Mrs. Smith, confronted with an appeal from Mr. Smith for economy, reminds him that milk has jumped since 1914 from nine to fifteen cents a quart, sirloin steak from twenty-seven to forty-two cents a pound, butter from thirty-two to sixty-one cents a pound, and fresh eggs from thirty-four to sixty-two cents a dozen.
How do those prices compare to our prices?  Try this inflation calculator for the answer.  Not only is our food generally cheaper, it is also much safer, though perhaps, in some cases, less flavorful.

Respectable older women did not wear much makeup, but did wear a lot of clothes, even to the beach.
Mrs. Smith may use powder, but she probably draws the line at paint.  Although the use of cosmetics is no longer, in 1919, considered prima facie evidence of a scarlet career, and sophisticated young girls have already begun to apply them with some bravado, most well-brought-up women still frown upon rouge.  The beauty-parlor industry is in its infancy; there are a dozen hair dressing parlors for every beauty parlor, and Mrs. Smith has never heard of such dark arts as that of face-lifting.  When she puts on her hat to go shopping she will add a veil pinned neatly together behind her head.  In the shops she will perhaps buy a bathing-suit for use in the summer; it will consist of an outer tunic of silk or cretonne over a tight knitted undergarment--worn, of course, with long stockings.
Of course.

It may be best not even to think about Mrs. Smith's reactions to modern fashions.

Short hair on a woman was strong evidence of radical views.
Her hair is long, and the idea of a woman ever frequenting a barber shop would never occur to her.  If you have forgotten what the general public thought of short hair in those days, listen to the remark of the manager of the Palm Garden in New York when reporters asked him, one night in November, 1918, how he happened to rent his hall for a pro-Bolshevist meeting which had led to a riot.  Explaining that a well-dressed woman had come in a fine automobile to make arrangements for the use of the auditorium, he added, "Had we noticed then, as we do now, that she had short hair, we would have refused to rent the hall."  In Mrs. Smith's mind, as in that of the manager of the Palm Garden, short-haired women, like long-haired men, are associated with radicalism, if not with free love.
Wonder what the Smiths would think of our long-haired athletes?

Then as now, Americans had many choices in cars, but most of them were open.
Breakfast over, Mr. Smith gets into his automobile to drive to the office. The car is as likely to be a Lexington, a Maxwell, a Briscoe, or a Templar as to be a Dodge, Buick, Chevrolet, Cadillac, or Hudson, and it surely will not be a Chrysler; Mr. Chrysler has just been elected first vice-president of the General Motors Corporation.  Whatever the make of the car, it stands higher than the cars of the nineteen-thirties; the passengers look down upon their surroundings from an imposing altitude.  The chances are nine to one that Mr. Smith's automobile is open (only 10.3 per cent of the cars manufactured in 1919 were closed).  The vogue of the sedan is just beginning. Closed cars are still associated in the public mind with wealth; the hated profiteer of the newspaper cartoon rides in a limousine.
Speed limits were lower then than now, much lower.  Which was perhaps just as well, considering the cars of ninety years ago.

You can read more here; in fact you can read the whole book there.  But you should not download the book from that site, unless you happen to live in Australia, which has different copyright laws than the US does.
- 7:31 PM, 11 May 2009   [link]


That's Not Funny!  The White House has decided that, although Obama was amused — apparently — by Karen Sykes' nasty rant about Rush Limbaugh, the rant actually wasn't funny.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs this afternoon expressed displeasure with the comedy stylings of Wanda Sykes, who at the White House Correspondents' Dinner referred to Rush Limbaugh as the "20th hijacker" so "strung-out on Oxycontin" he missed his flight, this afternoon
(She also wished that he would die of kidney failure.)

Not officially funny, anyway.

James Taranto has a thoughtful discussion of that rant, and another failed joke from the other side, ideologically.  Taranto notes that conservatives and leftists reacted differently to the two jokes, and poses a question:
Our guess is that most normal apolitical people would view both Sykes's and [David] Fehrety's jokes as unfunny and tasteless.  Our sense, further, is that conservatives do not much care for Fehrety's joke either.  The closest thing we could find to a defense was an item by blogger Jules Crittenden titled "Sounds Like His Heart Was in the Right Place."  Yet Crittenden concedes Fehrety's "rhetorical excess" and devotes most of his post to arguing that many liberals have said things about U.S. soldiers that were worse and not in jest.

By contrast, lots of left-wing bloggers are cheering Sykes on, and the president of the United States was visibly amused by her joke.  So the question is this:  Why do liberals find this joke funny when they should find it embarrassing?
Decide for yourself whether Taranto's answer is satisfying.  I'm still thinking about it, but am inclined to a simpler explanation: Many leftists think that Limbaugh deserves that kind of abuse.
- 5:03 PM, 11 May 2009   [link]


Lying And Runaway Costs In Megaprojects:  Ever find a diamond on a trash-laden beach?  I haven't, but that's how I felt when I read this Danny Westneat column.  (Those unfamiliar with the Seattle Times columnist may need an explanation for my reaction.   Westneat is not the worst journalist in this area by any means, but he is closed-minded on many subjects, and limited in his range.  His columns on local subjects are often worth reading; his columns on national and international affairs often make me cringe.  And he is no better with numbers than the average journalist, which is to say that he is not very good.)

Somehow, Westneat managed, in a single column, to make an important generalization, apply it to a local project, and introduce me to an academic, Bent Flyvbjerg, who has been doing work that every citizen of a democratic country should know about.  I have no idea how Westneat produced this gem, considering his past work, but I am deeply appreciative.  (Flyvbjerg is pronounced, Westneat tells us, "flew-byair")

But enough of the build-up, let's go to the bottom line.  The very inflated bottom line.

But a professor at Oxford University in England has done a compelling series of studies trying to get at why big public-works projects such as bridges, tunnels and light-rail systems almost always turn out to be far more costly than estimated.

"It cannot be explained by error," sums up one of his papers, matter-of-factly.  "It is best explained by strategic misrepresentation — that is, lying."

That should be enough to get you to read the whole column, especially if you live in this area.   If not, let me urge you to take a few minutes to do so.

And let me go a little farther and suggest that most of you should take the time to read this Flyvbjerg speech, where he presents some of the evidence he has gathered for his unpleasant conclusion, that over-runs on megaprojects are best explained by lying.  (And I plan to go even farther and buy his book on the subject.)

It is not surprising to learn that politicians have been lying to us about the costs of these megaprojects, and it is not entirely surprising to learn that project planners have been lying to us, too.   Disappointing, but not surprising.

If citizens learn how common these lies are, how almost universal they are on megaprojects, we may be able to detect more of those lies in advance, and we may be able to punish some of the politicians and planners who have lied to us.

Cross posted at Sound Politics.

(Here's Professor Flyvbjerg's web site and here's an article describing his work.)
- 1:42 PM, 11 May 2009   [link]


One Hundred Billion Here, One Hundred Billion There:  Pretty soon it adds up to real money.
With the economy performing worse than hoped, revised White House figures point to deepening budget deficits, with the government borrowing almost 50 cents for every dollar it spends this year.

The deficit for the current budget year will rise by $89 billion to above $1.8 trillion -- about four times the record set just last year. The unprecedented red ink flows from the deep recession, the Wall Street bailout, the cost of President Barack Obama's economic stimulus bill, as well as a structural imbalance between what the government spends and what it takes in.

As the economy performs worse than expected, the deficit for the 2010 budget year beginning in October will worsen by $87 billion to $1.3 trillion, the White House says.  The deterioration reflects lower tax revenues and higher costs for bank failures, unemployment benefits and food stamps.
Here's that chart again.

Projected Obama Deficits

Already, the Congressional Budget Office estimates look more realistic than the first White House estimates.

(The drop off in reported federal tax receipts is startling.)
- 10:44 AM, 11 May 2009   [link]


To Escape From A Scandal, Leave Town:  Perhaps that ancient tactic explains this trip.
During a brief Mother's Day visit to Iraq on Sunday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi reaffirmed her commitment to ensure that the U.S. military meets its June 30 deadline for withdrawing American troops from major cities in the country, according to a release from her office.

The speaker, accompanied by Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Ayad al-Samarai, the speaker of the Iraqi parliament, to discuss what the release called the need for rooting out "wide-spread corruption that is impeding reconstruction and the delivery of services to the Iraqi people," gathering better intelligence in anticipation of the withdrawal and resolving a border conflict with the Kurds.
If you are Pelosi, you would rather have journalists writing articles about the trip than editorials about this scandal.
Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been a leading critic of the Bush administration for authorizing the "torture" (waterboarding) of three captured al-Qaida leaders, despite the fact that former Vice President Dick Cheney says the interrogation methods yielded valuable information from men who had not previously been forthcoming, leading the terrorists to spill the beans on planned attacks that could have killed thousands more Americans.

Now it appears Ms. Pelosi knew all about the methods being used, and raised not a peep of objection.   Unless she wants to argue she was dozing during CIA briefings.
She wouldn't be the first congressman to doze off during a briefing, but it seems unlikely that she slept through all of the briefings.  It is hard to believe her current story unless she suffers from early-onset Alzheimer's, or some similar disease.  (And if she does, she should step down as speaker.)  But she seems to be sticking to it, in spite of the mounting evidence that she has not been telling us the truth.

(It's interesting that she should claim to have discussed "better intelligence" with the Iraqi leaders, but I don't know what to make of that claim.)
- 5:09 AM, 11 May 2009   [link]


Happy Mother's Day!  To all the mothers out there.  And if you haven't called your mother, do it right now.

My by-now traditional Mother's Day duck.  (Incidentally, this duck is almost surrounded by people, including a little girl just a yard away from her, and doesn't seem much bothered by the company.

Mother's Day duck, 2009

Some mothers will prefer flowers.

Mother's Day flowers, 2009

Cross posted at Sound Politics.

(More mother ducks from past Mother's Days here and here, and an explanation of why all their ducklings are the same age here.)
- 9:42 AM, 10 May 2009   [link]


Charlotte Allen Goes To The Annual Meeting Of The AERA:  And finds many reasons to despair about education schools.  (Don't be put off by the article title.)

The American Educational Research Association could easily be dubbed the American Educational Anti-Research Association, given the quality of most of the "research" presented at this meeting.
During my four days at the AERA meeting, I vainly searched for a single session whose panelists expressed some dissent from the baseline principle of progressive education: that teachers shouldn't directly impart information to their students but instead function as "guides," gently coaching them to "construct" their own knowledge about the subject at hand out of what they already know or don't know.

"Everyone here is a constructivist," Gabriel Reich, a genial education professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, told me at a reception sponsored by the John Dewey Society.  (Dewey, a pragmatist philosopher who died in 1952 and taught for years at Columbia Teachers College, is regarded, alongside the Swiss cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget, as one of the fathers of progressive education.)  Reich was trying to explain to me why it was presumptuous for professional mathematicians (and many parents) to be up in arms about the currently fashionable constructivist idea that instead of explaining to youngsters, say, how to do long division, teachers should let them count, subtract, make an educated guess, or otherwise figure out their own ways to solve division problems.  College math professors may complain that young people taught the constructivist way arrive in their classrooms unable to perform the basic operations necessary to move on to calculus, but so what?  "Why should we privilege professional mathematicians?" Reich asked.  Long division, multiplication--"those are just algorithms, and a calculator can do them faster than we can.  Most of the people here at this meeting don't think of themselves as good at math, and they don't think math is creative.  [The constructivist approach] is a way to make math creative for many people who never thought of it that way."
As I have said before about the "constructivist" approach:  Really, I'm not making this up.

Allen also found a few reasons for hope.
Still, all was not hopeless.  For one thing, large numbers of attendees simply ignored the research sessions and treated the meeting like a tax-deductible California vacation.  "I made my presentation, so tomorrow we're going to get massages," I overheard one of them saying into her cell-phone.  The lounges of the Marriott (and even the Hyatt) were chronically crowded with AERA-ites in resort-wear relaxing and taking in the views of sailboats, palm trees, and blooming birds-of-paradise during a Starbucks hour that lasted most of the day, followed by a cocktail hour that started at around four in the afternoon.

Furthermore, some of the presentations actually did involve research that might be of practical use to teachers in the classroom trenches, including several presentations dealing with new findings by neuroscientists about the human brain--perhaps paving the way for pedagogic principles based on scientific evidence of children's learning processes rather than constructivist philosophy.
. . .
Most surprising was a paper presented by Cory Hansen, an education professor at Arizona State, in a Teach for America session.  Instead of the expected putdowns of teachers not "properly prepared" (by taking a full roster of ed-school courses before they took over a classroom) or of neoliberalism-induced class conflict, Hansen recounted the things that she and her fellow professors had learned while teaching education courses at night in an evening master's program for Teach for America teachers staffing elementary classrooms in some of Phoenix's worst neighborhoods.  Teach for America teachers, already overworked and beset by myriad real-life problems at their schools, had little use for abstract ideological theorizing and demanded quick, practical training: real lesson plans and classroom-management techniques that worked.  In their course evaluations they brutally criticized the program, which had been adapted from the traditional education program at Arizona State: "Some professors talk down to us."  "I am sick of coloring for a master's degree."
I suppose that I would rather have my tax dollars spent on California vacations than the pernicious nonsense presented in most of those sessions.  And it is mildly encouraging to learn that a few of the professors who attended this meeting are doing actual scholarly work.

And one last point:  One of the stars at the meeting was unrepentant terrorist (and Obama supporter) William Ayers.

(Allen makes one error; she describes the population of North Dakota as nearly 100 percent of "Scandinavian origin".  If she had said northern European, she would have been right.  Germans, most of them emigrating from Czarist Russia, were the largest ethnic group to settle in North Dakota.)
- 1:50 PM, 9 May 2009   [link]