Saturday, November 14, 2015

Massacre in Paris an "act of war"

Hundreds of people out for an evening of fun in Paris have been killed or hospitalized from bombs and semi-automatic rifles wielded systematically by Islamic State fighters.

This is terrorism at its rawest -- attacking unsuspecting civilians at soccer games, listening to music in a theater, or having dinner in a restaurant.   This was obviously a well-planned and co-ordinated series of attacks in different places within 30 minutes of each other, which makes the Islamic State's claimed responsibility more plausible.  The message is:   Be very afraid;  you are not safe, anywhere, anytime.

As bad as the immediate damage to individual lives and families, there will also be political damage felt around the world . . . not least in the U.S. presidential campaign.   Those already advocating military hawkishness will amp up and claim only they can keep us safe.

Those who are demagogueing the immigration debate will point to how easy it is for terrorists to get into and travel around in Europe.   They will argue that this increases the U.S. imperative to build walls and keep both immigrants and refugees out of our country.   And it will stoke the already problematic anti-Muslim fervor.

Those who want diplomacy to have a chance, with military force only as a last resort, will have an even harder task in countering the fears that this latest attack engenders.   The question does arise, perhaps more seriously than any time since 9/11:   are we on the verge of World War III?


Marco under the microscope

Now that Marco Rubio is up in third place in some polls -- and the top pick in the market-related prediction sites -- he's beginning to get the kind of media scrutiny we expect to give our front-runners.

So far, in debates with moderators who do not do follow-up questions, he's been able to fend off troubling questions about his personal finances.    And he's verbally adroit enough to dodge questions -- and he winds up being dubbed the "debate winner."

But the scrutiny is going to get worse;  and, like this mild gaffe last week, he's going to stumble.   In New Hampshire, he was asked which non-political public figure he would like to have a beer with.

His answer:   Malala -- as in  Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban for her advocacy of education for girls.   She made a remarkable recovery, was award the Nobel Peace Prize, and is now a student living in England.   A documentary film about her life has been in the theaters recently.

Well, that's a really good choice, Marco -- except for two insensitive factors.   Malala is a practicing Muslim;   they do not drink alcohol.  And Malala is a teenager and not legally allowed to drink.

So next time, Marco, you should say:   "I would love to sit down and chat with that remarkable young woman, Malala -- but we would have something other than a beer to drink."    That would have been terrific.

But will anyone really care about this?    Or about his personal finances years ago?   Not if he is the best compromise choice between establishment Republicans and angry right wingers.


PS:   Ted Cruz has suddenly decided its time for him to try to take down Rubio, so he's begun hammering him about his changed stance on immigration.     Rubio was one of the "Gang of Eight," a bipartisan senate group that crafted an immigration reform bill that did pass the senate.    But then Rubio disassociated himself from the bill and from its provisions for a pathway to citizenship when it became politically unpopular in the Republican Party.   Of course, Cruz has his own problem on immigration -- the video of him years ago supporting legal status for immigrants that he now denounces as "amnesty."

It's interesting to watch these two sons of Cuban immigrants initially support sensible reform and then, in order to be politically viable in the 2015 Republican primary, reverse those stances.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Utah judge refuses to approve a child adoption by a same-sex, legally married couple

Utah Judge Scott Johansen refused to allow April Hoagland and Beckie Pierce to adopt the baby they have taken care of as foster parents for three months, even though they are legally married, have passed the background checks, home visits, and interviews that led to approval as adoptive parents by the Department of Family and Children's Services.

In addition they have the approval of the baby's biological mother and the recommendation of the foster care case worker.  Add to all those qualifications the fact that there are currently 2600 children in foster care in Utah that need adoption.

But Judge Johansen (who has a reputation for controversial decisions and has received a reprimand from the Utah Judicial Conduct Commission in an unrelated case) thinks he knows better, citing unspecified "research" that he says show that children reared by same-sex parents do not do as well as children who are reared by heterosexual parents.

This is not acceptable in 2015.   It can only be attributed to the judge's prejudice against same-sex couples, because there is no such evidence that stands up to scientific scrutiny.  Judge Johansen declined to give references for his claim, but it is well-established by objective scholars that any such "studies" have been debunked for having seriously flawed methodology.

None of those reports cited by conservatives compare children raised in stable, same-sex married families with stable, opposite-sex married families.   Instead, those debunked studies often compare apples and oranges.   One early and often cited study compared children from broken marriages, who were then raised by a single parent, with children raised by a stable heterosexual married couple.   They then claimed that children do better in a home "with a mother and a father" -- but they completely ignored the effects of a broken marriage and its aftermath as a source of adjustment problems in some children.

In contrast and more recently, there are valid studies that compare oranges and oranges, i.e. children raised by couples in stable relationships, where the only significant variable was same-sex vs opposite-sex parents.    In these, the adjustment of children of same-sex parents is either equal to or, in some cases, better than that of children of opposite-sex partners.

Think about this as a positive factor:   There are no accidental pregnancies or unwanted children in same-sex marriages.    Gay couples have to really want a child and work harder to make it happen.   Consequently, they often make better parents.


Thursday, November 12, 2015

The question Republicans can't or won't answer

Republican candidates would have us believe that the problems in the economy are all the fault of the Democrats:    all those bank regulations, give-away programs, high taxes stifling business investment, and don't forget Obamacare.

But one of the debate moderators, Gerard Baker, who is editor of the Wall Street Journal, asked this question of Carly Fiorino: 
". . . in seven years under President Obama, the U.S. has added an average of 107,000 jobs a month. Under President Clinton, the economy added about 240,000 jobs a month. Under George W. Bush, it was only 13,000 a month. If you win the nomination, you'll probably be facing a Democrat named Clinton. How are you going to respond to the claim that Democratic presidents are better at creating jobs than Republicans?"
Here's a graph to illustrate those facts, attributed to NDN:

Fiorino went into full pirouette and never did address the basic premise of the question:  that the economy, especially as measured by job growth, does better during Democratic administrations than during Republican ones.

In fact, she completely ignored the facts in the question and said:   "Yes, things have gotten much worse under Democrats."   What??   Jonathan Cohn wrote this for Huffington Post:
"Fiorina responded with a generic pitch for smaller government, lower taxes and fewer regulations -- a strategy, she promised, that would boost growth, create jobs and raise wages. It was the same argument that other Republicans made, in different forms, throughout the evening. And it was consistent with their economic policy proposals, which consist primarily of massive tax cuts that would mainly benefit the wealthiest Americans.

"But neither Fiorina nor her counterparts could explain away the premise of Baker's question. . . .  In short, [George] Bush tried the preferred Republican strategy while Clinton and Obama tried the opposite -- yet job growth under Bush was the worst and the numbers aren't even close.

"Of course, this correlation between Democratic administrations and stronger employment doesn’t prove that one caused the other. . . .  Some taxes and regulations make sense.   Some don't.  Timing makes a huge difference, as do the trade-offs and policy nuances. . . . 

"But the available evidence . . . puts the burden of proof on Republicans, who are making the same old arguments on taxes and regulations that they've been making for decades. They need to provide evidence that their solutions will unleash a more robust economy -- one that's good not just for the richest 1 percent, but also for everybody else. That’s not an easy case to make."
As long as Republicans are debating each other, and all agree on this, then they can continue to dodge the question.   But in the end one of them is going to be on stage with a Democrat.   And that candidate better have an answer that deals with the facts.

Here's a thing:   the moderator who asked the question is editor-in-chief of the Wall Street Journal.   I would like to hear his answer to the question.


Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Republican debate #4

Some quick impressions of the debate, which has just concluded:

   1.  Issues oriented (focus on the economy), with much better moderators who asked important questions, although there was not much follow-up challenges to misinformation.
   2.  Candidates did better about actually answering the questions, with some exceptions.   Now whether they were right about their facts is another matter.
   3.  Give Jeb Bush credit for a strong response on immigration reform.  He was better than in previous debates, but probably not good enough to reverse his low polls much.
   4.  Donald Trump was the loser.   He really flubbed up on the TPP trade deal, talking about how bad China is . . . blah. . . blah . . . China . . . blah.    Then Rand Paul jumped in and pointed out that China is not part of this trade deal.    He's right, of course.   Score for Paul.
   5.  Ted Cruz had a little bit of a Rick Perry "Oops" momentHe started naming five government agencies that he would eliminate.    1.  The IRS.   2.  The Department of Commerce.  3.  The Department of Energy.    4. . . .  er . . . The Department of Commerce.  5.  HUD.  If anyone noticed that he repeated Commerce, it was not commented on.   He didn't help himself much elsewhere either.
   6.  Rubio had some strong moments, especially defending his tax plan that supports families.   He was probably the overall winner.
   7.  Carson did better than before, talking some more policy specifics;  seemed less flakey.


Can Carson enter the world of science, history, and government policy?

Although this will not be posted until after Tuesday night's Republican primary debate, I am writing it ahead of that event in order to offer some understanding of why Ben Carson has embellished his life story.    Why would he do that, when the verifiable aspects are truly impressive?   The exaggerations are trivial, but it has raised questions about the truth of the rest and about his character.

First, some internet search turns up nothing to question his honorable and highly respected career at Johns Hopkins, which is #3 rated medical school in the country.   After college at Yale and medical school at the University of Michigan, he did his neurosurgery residency at Johns Hopkins and continued on the faculty through 29 years as the head of Pediatric Neurosurgery.

His retirement at age 62, saying that he wanted to stop when he was still at the top of his game, seems perfectly reasonable for someone of his achievements -- which include performing the first successful surgical separation of conjoined twins with shared brain parts and the recognition by President George W. Bush with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In addition, by then, he had already published several books, including his life story that was later the basis of a TV documentary;   and he had a budding new career as an inspirational speaker to fundamentalist religious groups.   This remarkable career is verifiable.   So why the need to embellish the little things?

Turning his up-from-poverty-to-miracle-performing surgeon life story into a brand has become a second careerThe brand depends on inspirational books and lectures and a conservative political and moral stance, and it has made him the darling of mostly right-wing religious audiences.

As humble and gentle as he seems, there has to be a large narcissistic component when a multimillion dollar enterprise depends entirely on Ben Carson the man and his life story.   And, as the exalted chief of neurosurgery at one of the top medical centers for 29 years, as well as the ground-breaking brain surgeon in the operating room all those years, it's inevitable that he is accustomed to being listened to and catered to and -- likely -- not questioned.   It tends to produce what we, as medical students, used to call:  "a minor Jehovah complex."

In addition, now Carson is used to writing for and talking to audiences who are willing to suspend disbelief about the details of your stories, because it's the larger truth that's important to them.   He entered the realm of evangelical preachers who are more concerned with inspiring emotions and influencing lives.   What they tell are parables.    The purpose is to illuminate a message, not prove a fact.
But now he has entered the world of politics at the highest level of vetting for presidential candidates.   It is an entirely different audience, including opposition research analysts and probing journalists -- and he's being called to account for every thing he ever said or wrote for a different audience that swallowed it all without question.

These are two different worlds, and Carson is in the uncomfortable position of having to account to this new audience for the slippery embellishments that were taken for granted by the other adoring audience.   I think what we're seeing now is his reaction to having both his exalted position and his honesty called into question.

Josh Marshall at TalkingPointsMemo likens Carson's embellishments to the fisherman's tale about the two pound bass that, "through a hundred re-tellings" . . . became a hundred pound monster" that got away.    Marshall continues:  ". . .Everything we know about Carson suggests that from his earliest days he was the same highly earnest and even nerdy dude that he is today in his mid-60s. But Earnest Nerd . . .  just lacks the necessary drama. So Carson appears to have manufactured or wildly exaggerated some young misbehavior to conceal a perfectly creditable story of a shy, bookish childhood. . . . "

As with the fisherman's tale, we chuckle, knowing it didn't really happen -- and we don't care.   We don't even call them liesit's just the way fishermen talk.   It's also the way fundamentalist preachers talk.   It's not the truth of the details that matter but the overall message of the parable.    Do you think Jesus really turned three little fish and two loaves of bread into enough food for a huge crowd?    Or was this a parable about sharing what you have with others?

But now Carson is in the spotlight . . . with a different audience that expects something different.   Stop worrying about his "fisherman tales."  Instead, challenge him about those vague policies he hints at.     Question him about what he actually knows about how the government works.

I'm willing to accept that he has a remarkable life story of impressive achievement against great odds.   Now lets move on and enter the world of science, history, logic, and policy.   If he cannot enter that world, then he is not presidential material.   If he cannot bear to be questioned about what he says now, then that's a serious problemAnd that applies to all the other candidates as well.


Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Adoption blocks gay couple from marrying

Before marriage became an option for same-sex couples, the simplest way for a couple to gain some legal rights of relationship (inheritance tax, next-of-kin status regarding medical decisions, etc.) was for one partner to adopt the other.   It has generally been an easy, no hassle proceedure.   Adopting babies, as a couple, was an entirely different matter.

Drew Bosee, 68, and Nino Esposito, 78, have been together for 45 years, and they took this step years ago before it seemed likely that marriage would become an option for them.   Mr. Esposito is legally Mr. Bosee's father.

But now that marriage is an option, they would like to get married.   The problem is that marriage between a parent and a child is considered incest and therefore illegal.   So they applied for an annulment of the adoption, which has been done by other gay couples in their state.    The judge who heard their case, however, followed the letter of the law which, according to his interpretation, allows annulment only in the case of fraud.

They are pursuing other opinions and other legal options, and it will probably be solved eventually.   But for the time being they are stuck in a legal bind of unintended consequences.


"Why Obama will never be elected president"

November 7th was the 7th anniversary of the 2008 election of Barack Obama as president of the United States.    A blogger on Daily Kos compiled some quotes from pundits who were so wrong in their certitude that he could never be elected.

It's noteworthy that among them is the notorious neo-con editor of the Weekly Standard, William Kristol -- best known in my circles as the one who is always wrong about any prediction he makes.   I well remember that he was the first to champion Sarah Palin as a rising star in the Republican party, long before John McCain's staff picked her as VP without much vetting.    And we all know how well that turned out.

Here are some of the famous names who "knew" that that Obama kid had no chance.
   Oct. 27, 2006: "[Obama] should run in '08.  He will lose . . . .  For him to win in '08 would require a "miracle." -- Charles Krauthammer.
    Dec. 17, 2006: "Barack Obama is not going to beat Hillary Clinton in a single Democratic primary. I'll predict that right now." -- William Kristol
    Dec. 22, 2006: "Obama's shot at the top will be short lived.... Hillary Inc. will grind up and spit out any Democratic challenger that gets in its way." -- Joe Scarborough
    Mar. 19, 2007: "The right knows Obama is unelectable except perhaps against Attila the Hun." -- Mark Penn
    Sep. 24, 2007: "Sen. Obama cannot possibly believe, and doesn't even act as if he believes, that he can be elected president of the United States next year." -- Christopher Hitchens
   Jan. 26, 2008: "The 'could we beat Obama?' conversation is purely academic. It's over. The Clintons have defeated him already, because he is leaving South Carolina as 'the black candidate.' He won't win another state." -- Michael Graham, National Review."
   May 7, 2008: "[Obama] has shown he cannot get the votes Democrats need to win -- blue-collar, working class people. He can get effete snobs, he can get wealthy academics, he can get the young, and he can get the black vote, but Democrats do not win with that.... He will lose big." -- Rush Limbaugh 

And, as we well remember, even on election night 2012 when Fox News called the election for Obama, Karl Rove -- on air, and quite embarrassingly -- refused to believe that Romney had lost, until Megyn Kelly walked the TV cameras down the hall to get their own analysts to confirm it.

The conservatives have just never accepted Barack Obama as a legitimate president.   But they were wrong in 2008 and they've been wrong ever since. 


Monday, November 9, 2015

Good news #9: Unemployment reaches new low

The national unemployment rate has dropped to a new low of 5% as the result of 271,000 new, non-farm jobs added last month, quite a bit more than the predicted 180,000.

Remember Mitt Romney's promise that, by the end of his first term (Jan 2017), he would bring the unemployment rate down to 6%?    Good thing we re-elected Barack Obama.   He got it down to 5% with 15 months still to go before Jan 2017.


The "war on cops" that wasn't

At first it was called "The Ferguson Effect" -- the notion that police officers were intimidated by the increasing prevalence of phone cameras recording their behavior in doing their jobs.   When leading civil rights figures, including NY Mayor Bill De Blasio and President Obama, spoke about the number of unarmed young black men being killed by police, police unions retaliated, claiming lack of support for the police.   Some even turned their backs on the mayor as he was speaking at the funeral of a fallen officer. 

They also used selective statistics of increased crimes in a few cities to claim that crime was increasing because cops were avoiding getting out of their carslest they be videod and accused of wrong-doing -- and hence, they said, crimes increased.   All the fault of those people with phone cameras.

Only it turned out that statistics do not show that there is actually a Ferguson effect.   Those few isolated cities with increasing crime are balanced by the rest of the country, and overall there is a decrease in crime.

Then there were a few, highly publicized cases in which police officers were killed in the line of duty;  and they began to refer to "the war on cops."    That meme got a huge boost in September when Lt. Charles Gliniewicz called Fox Lake, Illinois headquarters to say that he was chasing three suspects and called for backup.   When other officers arrived, they found Gliniewicz, dead from bullet wounds.   Then began one of the most intense, highly publicized manhunts since the televised O. J. Simpson chase.

Despite the array of police forces and helicopter camers involved in this very expensive manhunt, no trace of suspects was found.   And Lt. Gliniewicz became a national hero and the icon of the "war on cops" story.   But . . . there's more to the story.

As reported by Matt Ferner and Nick Wing of the Huffington Post, 
"Investigators revealed this week that [Lt. Gliniewiecz] had been stealing and laundering public money from a youth mentor program for seven years, and took his own life in what they called a 'carefully staged suicide' because he feared his scheme would be discovered. . . . 

"This puts a number of pundits and politicians in an awkward spot. Immediately after Gliniewicz’s death, many seized on reports that he'd been brutally ambushed . . . .  They took to the airwaves and Internet to blame the Black Lives Matter movement and other groups calling for police reform, arguing that Gliniewicz -- a loving husband and father of four who was revered in his community -- was the latest tragic casualty of a so-called "war on cops." . . .

"But a look at the data reveals that this year is actually shaping up to be one of the safest on record for policeA total of 31 officers have been killed by nonaccidental gunfire so far this year . . . .  And while each of these deaths is one too many, together they represent one of the lowest annual totals in decades. . . ."
And then Ferner and Wing quote Mark Perry, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, who has analyzed police deaths from gunfire: 
"Most importantly, despite all of the sensational (but exaggerated) media hype, and despite the overwhelming (but false) public opinion, there really is no 'war on cops' in America today. . . . As the data… show, there’s never been a time in US history when it’s been safer to be a US police officer than it is today."
Please note:   This is from the American Enterprise Institute, that bastion of conservative think tank study and policy.   So this is in no way liberal propaganda.

And the fact is that these statistics would still be true -- no increase in cop killing -- even if Lt. Gliniewiecz had been killed by criminals. It just would have been 32 instead of 31, still one of the lowest in decades.


Sunday, November 8, 2015

Dems to take GOP debate time on Telemundo?

Reports are circulating that the Democratic National Committee is in talks with the Spanish language Telemundo to have a forum in the time slot that was peevishly cancelled by the RNC chairman Reince Priebus because of its affiliation with NBC.

That would give two Democratic events before Hispanic voters, since they already have a debate scheduled for Univision next March.


The gun crowd finally has proof of a "good guy with a gun" taking out a theater shooter.

Too many times we've heard the rebuttal:   "The solution to mass shootings is to have a good guy with a gun in the crowd."    Where's the proof . . . except in old cowboy films?

Finally, we have a story of a good guy with a gun shooting a theater shooter.   Cody Denault was trained to use guns in the military, and he had his 9mm Smith and Wesson in his pocket when he went to the movies in Salinas, Kansas.

The only problem was that Cody must have skipped the lesson about gun safety -- or else the action movie was just too realistic, and Cody got caught up in the action.   It seems that he was absent-mindedly fidgeting with the gun in his pocket -- and wound up pulling the trigger, shooting himself in the leg.

So Cody was both the "good guy with a gun" and the "theater shooter," who shot himself.  Somehow, I don't think the gun crowd is going to like this as an illustration of their point.   It's now up to them to come up with their own illustration -- outside Hollywood action films.