Saturday, October 31, 2009

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five: The Message

Call it a musical interlude with commentary:

I was checking a blog a day or two ago that made the comment that contrary to neoliberal legend, Americans weren't uniformly optimistic during the recession of the early 1980s - and linked to this video. For the life of me I don't remember the blog, or else I'd link to it. Should have bookmarked it before I ran out the door. So it goes. This is some prime old-school rap, and its message is as timely as ever.

OMG! Breasts!

Those who have hangups about breasts and breast self-exams really need to get a freakin' life.

Friday, October 30, 2009

It bears repeating: Halloween edition

Here's a friendly reminder. What follows is nothing especially new to me, but given that Halloween is tomorrow, bears repeating:
More evidence that Americans increasingly live in a climate of fear of their own making.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the tradition of Halloween trick-or-treating came under attack. Rumors circulated about Halloween sadists who put razor blades in apples and booby-trapped pieces of candy. The rumors affected the Halloween tradition nationwide. Parents carefully examined their children's candy bags. Schools opened their doors at night so that kids could trick-or-treat in a safe environment. Hospitals volunteered to X-ray candy bags.

In 1985, an ABC News poll showed that 60 percent of parents worried that their children might be victimized. To this day, many parents warn their children not to eat any snacks that aren't prepackaged. This is a sad story: a family holiday sullied by bad people who, inexplicably, wish to harm children. But in 1985 the story took a strange twist. Researchers discovered something shocking about the candy-tampering epidemic: It was a myth.

The researchers, sociologists Joel Best and Gerald Horiuchi, studied every reported Halloween incident since 1958. They found no instances where strangers caused children life-threatening harm on Halloween by tampering with their candy.

Two children did die on Halloween, but their deaths weren't caused by strangers. A five-year-old boy found his uncle's heroin stash and overdosed. His relatives initially tried to cover their tracks by sprinkling heroin on his candy. In another case, a father, hoping to collect on an insurance settlement, caused the death of his own son by contaminating his candy with cyanide.

In other words, the best social science evidence reveals that taking candy from strangers is perfectly okay. It's your family you should worry about.
--From pp. 13-14 of Chip Heath & Dan Heath's Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.
One reason for the continued popularity of that myth is the availability heuristic. In a nutshell, the more easily we can recall examples of an event (real or imagined), the more likely that we will overestimate or exaggerate the probability of that event's occurrence. Vivid stories about kids being poisoned by candy or harmed by razor apples collected during the course of Trick-or-Treating are ones that will stick in memory and will be easily recalled later. There's also an element of a sleeper effect going on as well. Even though the urban legend surrounding Halloween candy tampering was debunked about 22 years ago, belief in the legend continues to persist. My guess is that folks remember the basic gist of the stories that have been passed down over the last few decades without necessarily recalling that the sources of those stories were long ago demonstrated false.

This is one of those occasions where I can safely say, "don't worry; be happy." As for ourselves, we'll just keep celebrating Halloween like we do every year, and just make sure that the kiddos don't overdo it on the candy.

P.S.: See the story of the urban legend on

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The swindle continues

Over at naked capitalism, you can read about how the government is attempting to make the bailouts for the giant banks permanent:

On September 25th, I wrote:

Paul Volcker and senior Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron both testified to Congress this week that the government is trying to make bailouts for the giant banks permanent.

Writing Wednesday in The Hill, Congressman Brad Sherman pointed out that :

In my opinion, Geithner’s proposal is “TARP on steroids.” Section 1204 of the proposal [the proposal being the "Resolution Authority for Large, Interconnected Financial Companies Act of 2009"] allows the executive branch to use taxpayer money to make loans to, or invest in, the largest financial institutions to avoid a systemic risk to the economy.

Geithner’s proposal reminds me of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), the $700 billion Wall Street bailout adopted last year, but the TARP was limited to two years, and to a maximum of $700 billion. Section 1204 is unlimited in dollar amount and is a permanent grant of power to the executive branch. TARP contained some limits on executive compensation and an array of special oversight authorities. Section 1204 contains absolutely no limits on executive compensation and no special oversight.

When I asked Geithner whether he would accept a $1 trillion limit on the new bailout authority (if the executive branch wanted to spend more, it would have to come back to Congress), he rejected a $1 trillion limit, insisting that the executive branch be able to respond without coming back to Congress.

Both TARP and the Treasury proposal have vague provisions under which taxpayers might possibly recover any money lost through a special tax on the financial services industry. Under the Treasury proposal, only the very largest institutions could benefit from a bailout, but the special tax, if ever collected, would fall chiefly on medium-sized institutions.

Thus, the medium-sized institutions will be at a competitive disadvantage for two reasons. First, the largest institutions will be able to borrow money more cheaply because their creditors will believe that if the institution is unable to pay, the taxpayers will. Second, if there ever is a bailout benefitting a very large financial institution, the tax will be imposed on the medium-sized institutions.

Sherman is a senior member of the House Financial Services Committee and a certified public accountant, so he has a good nose for analyzing proposed financial regulations.

Last week, Sherman made the following comments to the Washington Independent regarding Congress’ proposed bill on the too big to fails:

That is a huge gravy train to the top 20 [financial institutions] because it allows them to borrow money at a lower rate. Think of what this does to moral hazard.

I’m not looking for a TARP on steroids with oversight. I’m looking for an end of TARP.

The House Committee on Financial Services will hold a hearing on the bill tomorrow, with Tim Geithner, Sheila Bair, John C. Dugan (Comptroller of the Currency), Daniel K. Tarullo (Governor, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System), John E. Bowman (Acting Director, Office of Thrift Supervision), Richard Trumka (President, AFLCIO), and others as witnesses.

As the Washington Independent points out, Sherman is going to try to take Tarp off of steroids:

Sherman said he intends to offer a series of amendments addressing the issue during the Financial Services panel’s markup of the bill, which has yet to be scheduled. Included will be a provision to cap the president’s bailout authority at $1 trillion, and another to strip out the resolution authority language entirely. A potential third proposal — to create an oversight panel like that monitoring TARP funds — is one he’s leaning against.

My emphasis added. This isn't a done deal, of course. However, we know how willingly Congress went along with last year's bailout of the big banksters, hence my lack of optimism. Guess who gets to foot the bill...

I can't help but think of that old Monty Python "Dennis Moore" sketch. The relevant line:

Dennis Moore, Dennis Moore
Riding through the land
Dennis Moore, Dennis Moore
Without a merry band
He steals from the poor.
And gives to the rich
Stupid bitch.

Misconceptions about HOPE (aka State Question 744)

Look, there's a reason why Oklahoma's students fare poorly (that's a bit of an understatement - they fare disastrously) on civics questions: the state's K-12 system has been shortchanged for ages. By keeping the state's schools perpetually underfunded, we end up with kids who don't know the basics of how their society functions, who are at high risk for dropping out, and we also end up with something of a brain drain - teachers in surrounding states earn higher salaries than those who work in Oklahoma. The district where my kids go has lost teachers to Kansas and Texas in recent years, and it comes down to getting paid a living wage. These were educators who made a difference while they were with us. Of course underfunding of education is a chronic problem not only at the K-12 level but also in higher education. Students at all levels are being short-changed in this state.

All State Question 744 will do is to require the legislature to fund public education on par with other states in our region. That would be a novelty, and a welcome one. Contrary to at least one misconception, State Question 744 will not mean that surrounding state legislatures will dictate our state's education budget. Quite the contrary. What it will do is to require the Oklahoma legislature to bring education funding up to the level of education that other states in the region offer their students. Times may be hard, and there are some tangible budgetary pressures right now, but the kids who are in our schools represent our future, and we need to take that charge seriously unless we want to relegate the state to subsisting off dying oil fields and Indian casinos.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

He may have been a disaster

but he apparently has a sense of humor, sophomoric though it may be:
Somehow, I think that the any press is good press rule is only reserved for the entertainment industry. Oh, I forget, that's pretty much what American politics is - cheap entertainment. Still, some are not amused. And this is too good to be mere coincidence, contrary to what the Governator's spokesperson may say.

So did 2025 come a bit early? Redux

Check it:
A Socialist former guerrilla fighter known for speaking his mind emerged the clear winner of Sunday’s election for president of Uruguay but did not muster enough votes to avoid a November runoff, in what analysts said was a referendum on the current leftist government.

José Mujica, a Socialist senator who spent 14 years in prison after waging an urban guerilla war seeking to install a Marxist-style government here, was the candidate of the governing Broad Front coalition, whose tenure has improved economic conditions in Uruguay.


Under President Vázquez, the Broad Front coalition led Uruguay out of a deep economic funk earlier this decade. Broad Front was the first leftist movement in Uruguay to break the hold of a two-party system under which either the National or the Colorado party held power for more than 150 years.
Just some food for thought for those in the US who are convinced that we have "no choice" but to accept our two-party system.

One other thought - it wasn't all that long ago that someone like Mujica would have been "disappeared" and his skin would have wound up making some lovely lampshades to grace the White House decor. How times change.

So did 2025 come a bit early?

Forget all the 2012 nonsense, the real future scenario to follow is one regarding the US government's place in the world circa 2025. One problem: it seems, according to some, that 2025 is going to come sooner than expected.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Skeptical about global warming skeptics

Ordinarily I avoid anything published by AssPress like the proverbial plague. However, this article on global warming skeptics is actually worth the bother:
Have you heard that the world is now cooling instead of warming? You may have seen some news reports on the Internet or heard about it from a provocative new book.

Only one problem: It's not true, according to an analysis of the numbers done by several independent statisticians for The Associated Press.


In a blind test, the AP gave temperature data to four independent statisticians and asked them to look for trends, without telling them what the numbers represented. The experts found no true temperature declines over time.


The AP sent expert statisticians NOAA's year-to-year ground temperature changes over 130 years and the 30 years of satellite-measured temperatures preferred by skeptics and gathered by scientists at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

Statisticians who analyzed the data found a distinct decades-long upward trend in the numbers, but could not find a significant drop in the past 10 years in either data set. The ups and downs during the last decade repeat random variability in data as far back as 1880.

Saying there's a downward trend since 1998 is not scientifically legitimate, said David Peterson, a retired Duke University statistics professor and one of those analyzing the numbers.

Identifying a downward trend is a case of "people coming at the data with preconceived notions," said Peterson, author of the book "Why Did They Do That? An Introduction to Forensic Decision Analysis."

The chatter from global warming skeptics, who contend that we're actually now cooling, has heated up considerably since the release of Super Freakonomics. Actually, these climate contrarians give us an inadvertent lesson in how to lie with statistics, as the article describes:

Grego produced three charts to show how choosing a starting date can alter perceptions. Using the skeptics' satellite data beginning in 1998, there is a "mild downward trend," he said. But doing that is "deceptive."

The trend disappears if the analysis starts in 1997. And it trends upward if you begin in 1999, he said.

I've discussed previously some important facts about climate data that need to be kept in mind, including the fact that climatic data is noisy. By that, I mean that there tends to be a great deal of variability in the yearly numbers, making it more challenging to ascertain long-term trends. Even with all the noise, however, one can notice that there has been a very distinct trend over numerous decades, and that trend is upward. Oh, and since we're now in an El Niño pattern, there's a decent chance that 2010 will easily compete with 1998 and 2005 for the title of warmest year on record.

Note that the graphic above was courtesy of Matthew Yglesias.

Afghanistan - a replay?

Video via Newshoggers, with this bit of commentary:
Daniel "Pentagon Papers" Ellsberg talks to Real News Network about Afghanistan. He says that he wrote McChrystal's assessment thirty years ago, only with the names changed; that counter-insurgency cannot succeed for a foreign occupier and that there can be no success that will survive after U.S. troops leave Afghanistan.


Ellsberg should be followed by reading Paul McGeogh's blistering critique of McChrystal and Obama's Afghan plan, which I noted yesterday and Andrew Sullivan picked up on today.
While you're at it, you might as well check Chris Floyd's latest, as well as look at the question of whether Afghanistan is really a state to begin with.

Basically, the main point to take away from all of this is quite simple: you have a number of folks in the military establishment who - like their counterparts in empires past - desire to correct for a previous failure. In the case of the US, it's like these folks can't get past obsessing over Vietnam (which was also unwinnable as Ellsberg notes), much as it was a French military establishment obsessing over its failure in what was then Indochina by attempting to "do it right" in Algeria (which ended up the final nail in the French empire's coffin). There is some debate as to the extent to which the Pope of Hope is on board with what the military brass wants, but little doubt that he'll go along (the extent to which this is based on buying into the myth that Afghanistan can be "won" and the extent to which this will be driven by fear of a potential military coup I'll leave to others to figure out). There is also little doubt, however, as to the bloodshed we can expect in the near future. My guess is that the US government will not leave Afghanistan voluntarily - it'll probably take something like an economic meltdown that would make our recent recession (from which we're supposedly recovering) look like a minor slow-down.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Capitalism kills old people

Now there's a headline that would grab one's attention. Given the current state of health "care" in the US, and what passes for reform, it would be hardly hyperbolic to make such a statement:

Over lunch today I turned on C-SPAN and watched some of a Senate hearing earlier this week on "Bankruptcy and Health Care." A professor testified that a whopping half of all bankruptcies declared by people over the age of 65 (people who are covered by Medicare!) are due to medical bills. And the "solution" to this problem being proposed in Congress? Provide a real, complete single-payer system that actually pays for all medical expenses? Oh no, it's "make it easier for people to declare bankruptcy." The fact that, as noted by several of those testifying, most of these cases involve chronic diseases, which means they will involve continuing payments which they still won't be able to pay even after declaring bankruptcy? We'll deal with that later. Or maybe we won't have to, if they're denied future care they can't pay for.
One can judge a culture by how it treats its elderly.