Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Signing Off Until February

Hey guys...
I need to take a break for a few months. Thanks so much for reading. There may be an intermittent entry, but nothing regular, so if you need some inspiration, read some past entries and check out the blogs and sites listed on the sidebar.

Also...don't miss
Crooks and Liars
The Frame Shop
Happy Holidays! Get out there and enjoy the season. I'll try to be back in time for Valentine's Day.

Is Intelligent Design Because We Are So Dumb?

The New York Times
December 6, 2005
Op-Ed Columnist
The Hubris of the Humanities

The best argument against "intelligent design" has always been humanity itself. At a time when only 40 percent of Americans believe in evolution, and only 13 percent know what a molecule is, we're an argument at best for "mediocre design."

But put aside the evolution debate for a moment. It's only a symptom of something much deeper and more serious: a profound illiteracy about science and math as a whole.

One-fifth of Americans still believe that the Sun goes around the Earth, instead of the other way around. And only about half know that humans did not live at the same time as dinosaurs.

The problem isn't just inadequate science (and math) teaching in the schools, however. A larger problem is the arrogance of the liberal arts, the cultural snootiness of, of ... well, of people like me - and probably you.

What do I mean by that? In the U.S. and most of the Western world, it's considered barbaric in educated circles to be unfamiliar with Plato or Monet or Dickens, but quite natural to be oblivious of quarks and chi-squares. A century ago, Einstein published his first paper on relativity - making 1905 as important a milestone for world history as 1066 or 1789 - but relativity has yet to filter into the consciousness of otherwise educated people.

"The great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the Western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had," C. P. Snow wrote in his classic essay, "The Two Cultures."

The counterargument is that we can always hire technicians in Bangalore, while it's Shakespeare and Goethe who teach us the values we need to harness science for humanity. There's something to that. If President Bush were about to attack Iraq all over again, he would be better off reading Sophocles - to appreciate the dangers of hubris - than studying the science of explosives.

But don't pin too much faith on the civilizing influence of a liberal education: the officers of the Third Reich were steeped in Kant and Goethe. And similar arguments were used in past centuries to assert that all a student needed was Greek, Latin and familiarity with the Bible - or, in China, to argue that all the elites needed were the Confucian classics.

Without some fluency in science and math, we'll simply be left behind in the same way that Ming Dynasty Chinese scholars were. Increasingly, we face public policy issues - avian flu, stem cells - that require some knowledge of scientific methods, yet the present Congress contains 218 lawyers, and just 12 doctors and 3 biologists. In terms of the skills we need for the 21st century, we're Shakespeare-quoting Philistines.

A year ago, I wanted to ornament a column with a complex equation, so, as a math ninny myself, I looked around the Times newsroom for anyone who could verify that it was correct. Now, you can't turn around in the Times newsroom without bumping into polyglots who come and go talking of Michelangelo. But it took forever to turn up someone confident in his calculus - in the science section.

So Pogo was right.

This disregard for science already hurts us. The U.S. has bungled research on stem cells, perhaps partly because Mr. Bush didn't realize how restrictive his curb on research funds would be. And we're risking our planet's future because our leaders are frozen in the headlights of climate change.

In this century, one of the most complex choices we will make will be what tinkering to allow with human genes, to "improve" the human species. How can our leaders decide that issue if they barely know what DNA is?

Intellectuals have focused on the challenge from the right, which has led to a drop in the public acceptance of evolution in the U.S. over the last 20 years, to 40 percent from 45 percent. Jon Miller, a professor at the Northwestern University medical school who has tracked attitudes toward evolution in 34 countries, says Turkey is the only one with less support for evolution than the U.S.

It's true that antagonism to science seems peculiarly American. The European right, for example, frets about taxes and immigration, but not about evolution.

But there's an even larger challenge than anti-intellectualism. And that's the skewed intellectualism of those who believe that a person can become sophisticated on a diet of poetry, philosophy and history, unleavened by statistics or chromosomes. That's the hubris of the humanities.

Monday, December 05, 2005

If Things Are So Good, Why Do We Feel So Bad?

The New York Times
December 5, 2005
Op-Ed Columnist
The Joyless Economy

Falling gasoline prices have led to some improvement in consumer confidence over the past few weeks. But the public remains deeply unhappy about the state of the economy. According to the latest Gallup poll, 63 percent of Americans rate the economy as only fair or poor, and by 58 to 36 percent people say economic conditions are getting worse, not better.

Yet by some measures, the economy is doing reasonably well. In particular, gross domestic product is rising at a pretty fast clip. So why aren't people pleased with the economy's performance?

Like everything these days, this is a political as well as factual question. The Bush administration seems genuinely puzzled that it isn't getting more credit for what it thinks is a booming economy. So let me be helpful here and explain what's going on.

I could point out that the economic numbers, especially the job numbers, aren't as good as the Bush people imagine. President Bush made an appearance in the Rose Garden to hail the latest jobs report, yet a gain of 215,000 jobs would have been considered nothing special - in fact, a bit subpar - during the Clinton years. And because the average workweek shrank a bit, the total number of hours worked actually fell last month.

But the main explanation for economic discontent is that it's hard to convince people that the economy is booming when they themselves have yet to see any benefits from the supposed boom. Over the last few years G.D.P. growth has been reasonably good, and corporate profits have soared. But that growth has failed to trickle down to most Americans.

Back in August the Census bureau released family income data for 2004. The report, which was overshadowed by Hurricane Katrina, showed a remarkable disconnect between overall economic growth and the economic fortunes of most American families.

It should have been a good year for American families: the economy grew 4.2 percent, its best performance since 1999. Yet most families actually lost economic ground. Real median household income - the income of households in the middle of the income distribution, adjusted for inflation - fell for the fifth year in a row. And one key source of economic insecurity got worse, as the number of Americans without health insurance continued to rise.

We don't have comparable data for 2005 yet, but it's pretty clear that the results will be similar. G.D.P. growth has remained solid, but most families are probably losing ground as their earnings fail to keep up with inflation.

Behind the disconnect between economic growth and family incomes lies the extremely lopsided nature of the economic recovery that officially began in late 2001. The growth in corporate profits has, as I said, been spectacular. Even after adjusting for inflation, profits have risen more than 50 percent since the last quarter of 2001. But real wage and salary income is up less than 7 percent.

There are some wealthy Americans who derive a large share of their income from dividends and capital gains on stocks, and therefore benefit more or less directly from soaring profits. But these people constitute a small minority. For everyone else the sluggish growth in wages is the real story. And much of the wage and salary growth that did take place happened at the high end, in the form of rising payments to executives and other elite employees. Average hourly earnings of nonsupervisory workers, adjusted for inflation, are lower now than when the recovery began.

So there you have it. Americans don't feel good about the economy because it hasn't been good for them. Never mind the G.D.P. numbers: most people are falling behind.

It's much harder to explain why. The disconnect between G.D.P. growth and the economic fortunes of most American families can't be dismissed as a normal occurrence. Wages and median family income often lag behind profits in the early stages of an economic expansion, but not this far behind, and not for so long. Nor, I should say, is there any easy way to place more than a small fraction of the blame on Bush administration policies. At this point the joylessness of the economic expansion for most Americans is a mystery.

What's clear, however, is that advisers who believe that Mr. Bush can repair his political standing by making speeches telling the public how well the economy is doing have misunderstood the situation. The problem isn't that people don't understand how good things are. It's that they know, from personal experience, that things really aren't that good.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

The Media in Love With Itself

The New York Times
December 4, 2005
Op-Ed Columnist
All the President's Flacks

WHEN "all of the facts come out in this case," Bob Woodward told Terry Gross on NPR in July, "it's going to be laughable because the consequences are not that great."

Who's laughing now?

Why Mr. Woodward took more than two years to tell his editor that he had his own personal Deep Throat in the Wilson affair is a mystery best tackled by combatants in the Washington Post newsroom. (Been there, done that here at The Times.) Mr. Woodward says he wanted to avoid a subpoena, but he first learned that Joseph Wilson's wife was in the C.I.A. in mid-June 2003, more than six months before Patrick Fitzgerald or subpoenas entered the picture. Never mind. Far more disturbing is Mr. Woodward's utter failure to recognize the import of the story that fell into his lap so long ago.

The reporter who with Carl Bernstein turned a "third-rate burglary" into a key for unlocking the true character of the Nixon White House still can't quite believe that a Washington leak story unworthy of his attention has somehow become the drip-drip-drip exposing the debacle of Iraq. "I don't know how this is about the buildup to the war, the Valerie Plame Wilson issue," he said on "Larry King Live" on the eve of the Scooter Libby indictment. Everyone else does. Largely because of the revelations prompted by the marathon Fitzgerald investigation, a majority of Americans now believe that the Bush administration deliberately misled the country into war. The case's consequences for journalism have been nearly as traumatic, and not just because of the subpoenas. The Wilson story has ruthlessly exposed the credulousness with which most (though not all) of the press bought and disseminated the White House line that any delay in invading Iraq would bring nuclear Armageddon.

"W.M.D. - I got it totally wrong," Judy Miller said, with no exaggeration, before leaving The Times. The Woodward affair, for all its superficial similarities to the Miller drama, offers an even wider window onto the White House flimflams and the press's role in enabling them. Mr. Woodward knows more about the internal workings of this presidency than any other reporter. He has been granted access to all its top officials, including lengthy interviews with the president himself, to produce two Bush best sellers since 9/11. But he was gamed anyway by the White House, which exploited his special stature to the fullest for its own propagandistic ends.

Mr. Woodward, to his credit, is not guilty of hyping Saddam's W.M.D.'s. And his books did contain valuable news: of the Wolfowitz axis' early push to take on Iraq, of the president's messianic view of himself as God's chosen warrior, of the Powell-Rumsfeld conflicts that led to the war's catastrophic execution. Yet to reread these Woodward books today, especially the second, the 2004 "Plan of Attack," is to understand just how slickly his lofty sources deflected him from the big picture, of which the Wilson case is just one small, if illuminating, piece.

In her famous takedown of Mr. Woodward for The New York Review of Books in 1996, Joan Didion wrote that what he "chooses to leave unrecorded, or what he apparently does not think to elicit, is in many ways more instructive than what he commits to paper." She was referring to his account of Hillary Clinton's health care fiasco in his book "The Agenda," but her words also fit his account of the path to war in Iraq. This time, however, there is much more at stake than there was in Hillarycare.

What remains unrecorded in "Plan of Attack" is any inkling of the disinformation campaign built to gin up this war. While Mr. Woodward tells us about the controversial posturing of Douglas Feith, the former under secretary of defense for policy, there's only an incidental, even dismissive allusion to Mr. Feith's Policy Counterterrorism Evaluation Group. That was the secret intelligence unit established at the Pentagon to "prove" Iraq-Qaeda connections, which Vice President Dick Cheney then would trumpet in arenas like "Meet the Press." Mr. Woodward mentions in passing the White House Iraq Group, convened to market the war, but ignores the direct correlation between WHIG's inception and the accelerating hysteria in the Bush-Cheney-Rice warnings about Saddam's impending mushroom clouds in the late summer and fall of 2002. This story was broken by Barton Gellman and Walter Pincus in Mr. Woodward's own paper eight months before "Plan of Attack" was published.

Near the book's end, Mr. Woodward writes of some "troubling" tips from three sources "that the intelligence on W.M.D. was not as conclusive as the C.I.A. and the administration had suggested" and of how he helped push a Pincus story saying much the same into print just before the invasion. (It appeared on Page 17.) But Mr. Woodward never seriously investigates others' suspicions that the White House might have deliberately suppressed or ignored evidence that would contradict George Tenet's "slam-dunk" case for Saddam's W.M.D.'s. "Plan of Attack" gives greatest weight instead to the White House spin that any hyped intelligence was an innocent error or solely the result of the ineptitude of Mr. Tenet and the C.I.A.

Dick Cheney and Scooter Libby are omnipresent in the narrative, and Mr. Woodward says now that his notes show he had questions for them back then about "yellowcake" uranium and "Joe Wilson's wife." But the leak case - indeed Valerie Wilson herself - is never mentioned in the 400-plus pages, even though it had exploded more than six months before he completed the book. That's the most damning omission of all and suggests the real motive for his failure to share what he did know about this case with either his editor or his readers. If you assume, as Mr. Woodward apparently did against mounting evidence to the contrary, that the White House acted in good faith when purveying its claims of imminent doomsday and pre-9/11 Qaeda-Saddam collaborations, then there's no White House wrongdoing that needs to be covered up. So why would anyone in the administration try to do something nasty to silence a whistle-blower like Joseph Wilson? The West Wing was merely gossiping idly about the guy, Mr. Woodward now says, in perhaps an unconscious echo of the Karl Rove defense strategy.

Joan Didion was among the first to point out that Mr. Woodward's passive notion of journalistic neutrality is easily manipulated by his sources. He flatters those who give him the most access by upholding their version of events. Hence Mary Matalin, the former Cheney flack who helped shape WHIG's war propaganda, rushed to defend Mr. Woodward last week. Asked by Howard Kurtz of The Post why "an administration not known for being fond of the press put so much effort into cooperating with Woodward," Ms. Matalin responded that he does "an extraordinary job" and that "it's in the White House's interest to have a neutral source writing the history of the way Bush makes decisions." You bet it is. Sounds as if she's read Didion as well as Machiavelli.

In an analysis of Mr. Woodward written for The Huffington Post, Nora Ephron likens him to Theodore H. White, who invented the modern "inside" Washington book with "The Making of the President 1960." White eventually became such an insider himself that in "The Making of the President 1972," he missed Watergate, the story broken under his (and much of the press's) nose by Woodward and Bernstein. "They were outsiders," Ms. Ephron writes of those then-lowly beat reporters, "and their lack of top-level access was probably their greatest asset."

INDEED it's reporters who didn't have top-level access to the likes of Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney who have gotten the Iraq story right. In the new book "Feet to the Fire: The Media After 9/11," Kristina Borjesson interviews some of them, including Jonathan Landay of Knight Ridder, who heard early on from a low-level source that "the vice president is lying" and produced a story headlined "Lack of Hard Evidence of Iraqi Weapons Worries Top U.S. Officials" on Sept. 6, 2002. That was two days before administration officials fanned out on the Sunday-morning talk shows to point ominously at the now-discredited front-page Times story about Saddam's aluminum tubes. Warren Strobel, a frequent reportorial collaborator with Mr. Landay at Knight Ridder, tells Ms. Borjesson, "The most surprising thing to us was we had the field to ourselves for so long in terms of writing stuff that was critical or questioning the administration's case for war."

Such critical stories - including those at The Post and The Times that were too often relegated to Page 17 - did not get traction until the failure to find W.M.D.'s and the Wilson affair made America take a second look. Now that the country has awakened to that history, it will take more to shock it than the latest revelation that the Defense Department has been paying Iraqi newspapers to print its propaganda. Thanks in large part to the case Mr. Woodward found so inconsequential, everyone knows that much of the American press did just the same before the war - and, unlike those Iraqi newspapers or, say, Armstrong Williams, did so gratis.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Livin' in A Dream World

The old adage is right: the rich aren't like the rest of us.

The New York Times
December 3, 2005
Op-Ed Columnist
W.'s Head in the Sand

In the Christmas spirit, the time has come for the reality-based community to reach out to the White House.

The Bush warriors are so deluded, they're even faking their fakery.

This week, the president presented a plan-like plan for "victory" in Iraq, which Scott McClellan rather pompously called the unclassified version of their supersecret master plan. But there would be no way to achieve victory from this plan even if it were a real plan. If this is what they're telling themselves in the Sit Room, we're in bigger trouble than we thought.

Talk about your unknown unknowns, as Rummy would say.

The National Strategy for Victory must have come from the same P.R. genius who gave President Top Gun the "Mission Accomplished" banner about 48 hours before the first counterinsurgency war of the 21st century broke out in Iraq.

It's not a military strategy - classified or unclassified. It's political talking points - and not even good ones. Are we really supposed to believe that anybody, even the most deeply delusional Bush sycophant, believes the phrase "Our strategy is working"?

The president talked about three neatly definable groups of insurrectionists. But as Dexter Filkins reported in yesterday's New York Times, there are dozens, perhaps as many as a hundred, groups fighting the U.S. Army in Iraq, and they have little, if anything, in common.

Mr. Bush's presentation claimed that the U.S. was actually making progress in Iraq. But outside the Bush-Cheney-Rummy bubble, 10 more marines were killed by a roadside bomb outside Falluja, for a total of 2,125 U.S. military deaths so far.

The administration must realize it needs a real exit strategy, because it's advertising for one. The U.S. Agency for International Development is offering more than $1 billion for anyone - anyone at all - who can come up with a plan to pacify and rebuild 10 Iraqi cities seen as vital in the war.

Maybe the White House should apply - Usaid's proffer says the "invitation is open to any type of entity."

When Bush officials weren't telling us fairy tales about the big, bad W.M.D. in Iraq, they were assuring us that the unprovoked war would be a kindness for Iraq, giving it democracy. But they are not just failing to bring democracy to Iraq as they help Iranian-backed mullahs install an Islamic republic with Saddamist torture chambers. They are also degrading democracy in America.

They've tarnished American moral leadership with illegal detentions, torture, secret C.I.A. prisons in countries only recently liberated from the Soviet gulag, and Soviet-style propaganda both at home and in Iraq.

Guess the Bush administration didn't learn anything this fall when federal auditors said it had violated the law by buying favorable news coverage of its education polices. Bush officials got right back into the fake news business, paying to plant propaganda in the Iraqi press. They outsourced this disinformation campaign to something called the Lincoln Group - have they no shame?

You have to admire Scott McClellan, the president's spokesman. He kept a straight face when he called the U.S. "a leader when it comes to promoting and advocating a free and independent media around the world." He added, "We've made our views very clear when it comes to freedom of the press."

Exceedingly clear. The Bushies don't believe in it. They disdain the whole democratic system of checks and balances.

At the Naval Academy, President Bush talked about how well the Iraqi security forces were fighting. He claimed that 40 Iraqi battalions were taking the lead in the fight against insurgents, and that in the battle of Tal Afar this year, "the assault was primarily led by Iraqi security forces - 11 Iraqi battalions backed by 5 coalition battalions providing support."

Anderson Cooper of CNN swiftly produced Time magazine's Baghdad bureau chief, Michael Ware, who was embedded with the U.S. military during the entire Tal Afar battle. "With the greatest respect to the president, that's completely wrong," Mr. Ware said, adding: "I was with Iraqi units right there on the front line as they were battling with Al Qaeda. They were not leading."

He also told Mr. Cooper: "I have had a very senior officer here in Baghdad say to me that there's never going to be a point where these guys will be able to stand up against the insurgency on their own."

Mr. Ware recalled that in a battle two weeks ago, he saw an Iraqi security officer put down his weapon and curl up into a ball when he was under attack. "I have seen that on - on many, many occasions," he said.

Curling up in a ball. Good National Strategy for Victory.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Did You See South Park This Week?

The episode entitled "Free Willzyx" had a "real life" photo of what the boys might actually look like. You have to see this.

Breaking News: Oprah World


Oprah was great on David Letterman last night. Paul even hired a timpani player. And where did she get that dress? With the purple sash and the purple ruffle???

"The Color Purple" looks like a Broadway hit!

Oh my God...it's Oprah's world and we're all just living in it!

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Krugman: Bullets Over Baghdad

I'm so glad Paul Krugman is back from vacation.

The New York Times
December 2, 2005
Op-Ed Columnist
Bullet Points Over Baghdad

The overthrow of Saddam Hussein was supposed to provide the world with a demonstration of American power. It didn't work out that way. But the Bush administration has come up with the next best thing: a demonstration of American PowerPoint. Bullets haven't subdued the insurgents in Iraq, but the administration hopes that bullet points will subdue the critics at home.

The National Security Council document released this week under the grandiose title "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq" is neither an analytical report nor a policy statement. It's simply the same old talking points - "victory in Iraq is a vital U.S. interest"; "failure is not an option" - repackaged in the style of a slide presentation for a business meeting.

It's an embarrassing piece of work. Yet it's also an important test for the news media. The Bush administration has lost none of its confidence that it can get away with fuzzy math and fuzzy facts - that it won't be called to account for obvious efforts to mislead the public. It's up to journalists to prove that confidence wrong.

Here's an example of how the White House attempts to mislead: the new document assures us that Iraq's economy is doing really well. "Oil production increased from an average of 1.58 million barrels per day in 2003, to an average of 2.25 million barrels per day in 2004." The document goes on to concede a "slight decrease" in production since then.

We're not expected to realize that the daily average for 2003 includes the months just before, during and just after the invasion of Iraq, when its oil industry was basically shut down. As a result, we're not supposed to understand that the real story of Iraq's oil industry is one of unexpected failure: instead of achieving the surge predicted by some of the war's advocates, Iraqi production has rarely matched its prewar level, and has been on a downward trend for the past year.

What about the security situation? During much of 2004, the document tells us: "Fallujah, Najaf, and Samara were under enemy control. Today, these cities are under Iraqi government control."

Najaf was never controlled by the "enemy," if that means the people we're currently fighting. It was briefly controlled by Moktada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. The United States once vowed to destroy that militia, but these days it's as strong as ever. And according to The New York Times, Mr. Sadr has now become a "kingmaker in Iraqi politics." So what sort of victory did we win, exactly, in Najaf?

Moreover, in what sense is Najaf now under government control? According to The Christian Science Monitor, "Sadr supporters and many Najaf residents say an armed Badr Brigade" - the militia of a Shiite group that opposes Mr. Sadr and his supporters - "still exists as the Najaf police force."

Meanwhile, this is the third time that coalition forces have driven the insurgents out of Samara. On the two previous occasions, the insurgents came back after the Americans left. And there, too, it's stretching things to say that the city is under Iraqi government control: according to The Associated Press, only 100 of the city's 700 policemen show up for work on most days.

There's a lot more like that in the document. Refuting some of the upbeat assertions about Iraq requires specialized knowledge, but many of them can be quickly debunked by anyone with an Internet connection.

The point isn't just that the administration is trying, yet again, to deceive the public. It's the fact that this attempt at deception shows such contempt - contempt for the public, and especially contempt for the news media. And why not? The truth is that the level of misrepresentation in this new document is no worse than that in a typical speech by President Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney. Yet for much of the past five years, many major news organizations failed to provide the public with effective fact-checking.

So Mr. Bush's new public relations offensive on Iraq is a test. Are the news media still too cowed, too addicted to articles that contain little more than dueling quotes to tell the public when the administration is saying things that aren't true? Or has the worm finally turned?

There have been encouraging signs, notably a thorough front-page fact-checking article - which even included charts showing the stagnation of oil production and electricity generation! - in USA Today. But the next few days will tell.

Another Blog Worth Loving

I only have one thing to say about "Frameshop":

Jeffrey Feldman is bound and determined that the Democrats figure a better way to talk to the American people -- to re-frame their ideas (that's why "the frame shop is open." His analysis is entertaining and insightful. Just yesterday, he crowned Russ Feingold the new leader of the Democratic party -- and for very good reason.

Bookmark it!

How to Get Good Publicity

I spent several years working for non-profit organizations trying to get space in newspapers, on TV shows, on radio programs, etc. the OLD FASHIONED WAY...by having a news peg to hang something on.

When you are the U.S. government, you don't wait for something as silly as that...you hire the Lincoln Group* to BUY the news for you. You gotta admire them...they don't wait for stuff to happen, they rely on faux reporters and fake news reports to spread the word. The facts do NOT get in their way.

The New York Times has a story of how the U.S. bought news coverage in Iraqi newspapers to inform readers how well things are going. Is there anyone the Bushies WON'T pay off?

Forget being a defense contractor, you can make a POT of money in public relations these days if you can just get a government contract!

*A Strategic and Public Relations Firm Providing Insight and Influence in Challenging and Hostile Environments (think "Wag the Dog")

Good Stuff and Getting Better

I am LOVING "Raw Story" -- a blog that is truly ON TOP of the good stories. Their contributors are adding increasingly provocative essays and the reporting is solid.

Today, they are reporting on lying oil corporate chairs, lying lobbyists, and lying Ralph Reed.

And I thought December was going to be a boring political news month. HAH!

Go there and check it out.