Thursday, February 28, 2008

Who "lacks the courage"

Prof. Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate and the former chief economist of the World Bank has co-authored a book called, The Three Trillion Dollar War, that puts the price of the war in Iraq at, well, three trillion dollars (note to Joe, let's try to get a little more suspense into the next book).

For the service of attempting to calculate what our current policies are actually costing us, Prof. Stiglitz was immediately denounced by the White House. Spokesman Tony Fratto said, "People like Joe Stiglitz lack the courage to consider the cost of doing nothing and the cost of failure."

Mr. Fratto has it wrong. It is President Bush who lacks the courage to give straight figures and straight facts to the American public.

A courageous President would have told the American public up front what the costs were likely to be in terms of both lives and money. Instead, he fired his National Economic Advisor, Lawrence Lindsey, after Lindsey estimated the war would cost $100-$200 billion instead of the administration's then-prevailing estimate of $50 billion.

A courageous President would allow the press to photograph military caskets and might even attend some funerals himself.

A courageous President would include the costs of the war in his current and future budgets. Instead, he continues to fund the war through a series of "emergency" appropriations. Funds for the war are omitted from the most recent budget request. If you dig through the documents, you will find that the administration "anticipates" asking for $70 billion in emergency funding for Iraq and Afghanistan for FY 2009, even though costs for its wars have been several times higher in recent years. The administration refuses to disclose its estimates of costs beyond FY 2009 (September 2009).

Prof. Stiglitz has published his numbers, courageously making them available for all to see and criticize. In contrast, President Bush hides his estimates, and when questioned lashes out at the patriotism, motivations, and courage of his opponents. The President's repeated deceptions and evasions aren't exactly hallmarks of courage.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Steroids cause obstruction

There's been an active discussion in recent months of a Republican strategy to block basically any and all federal legislation proposed by Democrats. For instance, the Senate has already set a session record for filibusters--and there's still nearly a year to go in the session. Seizing on then-Sen. Trent Lott's comments early in the session that "the strategy of being obstructionist can work or fail … and so far it’s working for us," Democrats have taken to calling the GOP, the "Grand Obstructionist Party."

While calls of obstructionism fly back and forth every session, you really have to wonder whether there really is something behind these charges when Republicans take to stalling bipartisan legislation on steroid misuse.

C'mon folks. Get something done.

School Climate Task Force

The Guilford County Board of Education held a special meeting last night to receive a report from the School Climate Task Force, a group that had been charged with examining ways to address behavior problems and policies in the schools.

The task force was made up of school, parent, and community representatives and met with numerous groups in numerous settings throughout the county over the first part of this school year. They did an enormous amount of work.

Their report is likely to be heavily criticized, in good part because it makes some very expensive and wildly unrealistic recommendations, such as capping the size of all high schools at 800 students and lowering the student-teacher ratio all classes to 17-1. The report also lacks focus, mentioning lots of issues, big and small, without prioritizing or considering how some recommendations might work at cross purposes.

There were some themes in the report, however, that should be useful to the Board of Education and to the schools.

First, even though the entire school system is supposed to follow a common code of conduct, the task force reports that there is a lot of inconsistency with the administration of behavioral policies. Some of this is natural and actually good. Different administrators, different students, and different situations will lead to different implementation. As the Board goes forward, it needs to think about policies that people can live with and realize that one more policy laid on a bunch of others isn't going to accomplish much.

Following the consistency theme, discipline itself is a process. Developing discipline requires thought and planning. The district sets guidelines. From there, the schools each need a plan, and individual classrooms need plans. A lot of people (including me) assume that these plans are in place, but the task force's report suggests otherwise.

The task force advocated one particular planning approach, the Positive Behavior Support (PBS) approach, which emphasizes pro-active and encouraging strategies to prevent rather than react to behavior problems. PBS is currently being implemented in a handful of Guilford schools. There is some evidence that it is associated with better behavioral and educational outcomes. My guess is that those outcomes owe as much to the school community planning for discipline as anything.

One thing that undermines consistency is loading the schools up with so many policies, so many initiatives, and so many reports that no one is able to implement any of them effectively. It appears that many of our schools need to implement better procedures, but we need to recognize that if they are doing this, time is taken away from something else.

All of which gets us back to priorities, if we are serious about accomplishing something, we need to be realistic and recognize that we can't support twenty big initiatives. From all of the items in the report, it looks like school-wide planning would have the biggest immediate pay off.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Possible McCain financing troubles

This morning's post commented on a sweetheart loan deal between Sen. McCain's Presidential campaign and a Maryland bank in December. Because of the Senator's then-risky prospects, the bank required him to secure a $1 million loan with the promise of repayments from the publicly-financed Presidential Election Campaign Fund for primary candidates.

The "sweetheart" part of this was that the bank tried to word the agreement in a way that the Senator would not be committed to actually enter the public financing system unless his campaign tanked. Normally, using public financing as collateral is supposed to lock a candidate into the public system then and there.

The McCain campaign drew up certification papers to enter the public system. However, after its victory in the New Hampshire primary, the campaign decided to forego the loan and tried to withdraw those papers.

The Federal Election Commission (FEC) has now informed Sen. McCain that it might not allow him to withdraw those certification papers. The FEC gives two reasons. First, the FEC cannot form a quorum to decide on the withdrawal. Second, it asks for more information regarding the loan.

Public financing in the primary campaign would provide Sen. McCain with some additional funds but would also restrict his fundraising and spending between now and the convention.

Sen. McCain has said that he wants to enter the public system for the general election. He has also criticized Sen. Obama for waffling on a pledge to stick to public financing in the general election.

Sen. McCain may find the restrictions of the public system binding him much sooner than he would like.

Dumpster diving

The New York Times and the Washington Post each have stories this morning regarding a female lobbyist's access to Sen. John McCain in the run-up to his 2000 Presidential Campaign.

The Times story is premised in terms of Sen. McCain being so sure of his ethics that he sometimes overlooks the appearance of impropriety. The paper takes this as its license to rehash the 1999 events, the Senator's role in the Keating Five scandal, and a few other ethical lapses.

The WaPost article just digs straight into the dirt, focusing on the lobbyist's interactions with Sen. McCain and his staff's efforts to intercede.

While both stories are breathlessly reported, they cover events that occurred nearly a decade ago. Also, although it may have receded from people's memories, the influence angle was extensively reported back in 2000. So, the only "news" is the personal relationship with the lobbyist.

These are trashy and moldly stories that contribute virtually nothing to people's understanding of the issues in the current campaign. There are many more recent and relevant issues to explore, such as the evolution of Sen. McCain's positions over the decade and the sweetheart loan deal that kept his campaign afloat.

The Times and Post can do better.

Friday, February 15, 2008

A considered response to fearmongering

Halloween came early to the White House lawn yesterday with President Bush resorting to fearmongering and demonizing in his latest attempt to renew warrantless wiretapping and to sidestep judicial review of his previous extra-constitutional exercises.

Among his warnings:
If Congress does not act ... our ability to find out who the terrorists are talking to, what they are saying, and what they are planning will be compromised. ... And that, of course, would put the American people at risk.

Failure to act would harm our ability to monitor new terrorist activities, and could reopen dangerous gaps in our intelligence.

Our intelligence professionals are ... waiting to see whether Congress will give them the tools they need to succeed or tie their hands by failing to act.

...we better be worried.

Ewww, scary stuff. If Congress doesn't act, the terrorist threat will surely jump to code orange tomorrow.

To review, the President initially secretly authorized warantless wiretaps that went beyond the procedures spelled out in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). After his own Department of Justice balked, he demanded that Congress give him the authority to continue these activities, which Congress did ... for a while.

While the President has resorted to scare tactics numerous times, he has never demonstrated that suspension of the FISA provisions was actually necessary. When asked directly what "practical impact" Congress' (in)action would have, he said
There will be a gap. And of course, we won't be able to assess that gap until the time. Step one is, I guess you got to come to the conclusion that there's a threat to America, or not a threat. And evidently some people just don't feel that sense of urgency. I do. And the reason I do is I firmly believe that there's still people out there who would do us harm.

Secondly, I know that the tools that I've just described are necessary to protect us. Why? Because we need to know what people are saying, what they're planning and what they're thinking. And the tool that I have just described has been very effective.

That's the best he can do.

The President is also looking for immunity for the phone companies that helped him in his extra-legal searches. The lack of immunity is probably actually his biggest fear, as it would expose his activities to an independent judiciary.

In a considered response to the President's fright-fest, the Democratic chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Rep. Silvestre Reyes calmly reminded the President:
Today, the National Security Agency (NSA) has authority to conduct surveillance in at least three different ways, all of which provide strong capability to monitor the communications of possible terrorists.

First, NSA can use its authority under Executive Order 12333 to conduct surveillance abroad of any known or suspected terrorist. There is no requirement for a warrant. There is no requirement for probable cause. Most of NSA’s collection occurs under this authority.

Second, NSA can use its authority under the Protect America Act, enacted last August, to conduct surveillance here in the U.S of any foreign target. This authority does not "expire" on Saturday, as you have stated. Under the PAA, orders authorizing surveillance may last for one year – until at least August 2008. These orders may cover every terrorist group without limitation...

Third, in the remote possibility that a new terrorist organization emerges that we have never previously identified, the NSA could use existing authority under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to monitor those communications.

He concluded
We are a strong nation. We cannot allow ourselves to be scared into suspending the Constitution. If we do that, we might as well call the terrorists and tell them that they have won.

Of course, that call may be monitored.

There are many legitimate things to be scared of, such as the consequences of the President's sub-prime lending acquiescence or living in a FEMA trailer, but not his latest channeling of Joe Isuzu.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Guns don't kill astronauts--astronauts kill astronauts

A Florida TV station is reporting that the crew on the International Space Station (ISS) has access to a gun. While some might question the wisdom of putting a gun in a confined, high-stress, pressurized environment, it could actually come in handy in any number of situations, such as deterrring home invasions, warding off Muslim extremists, protecting the crew from the Vice President, or defeating rogue computers.

The statistics bear this out. To date, the ISS has the planet's lowest crime rate. A well-armed space crew will keep it that way.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Developing obituary

Polaroid has announced that it is closing the manufacturing lines that produce its instant film. The company had stopped manufacturing instant cameras some time ago and now will stop producing the film that goes into them. The decision will cost about 150 jobs.

Polaroid was a genuine innovator in the photography field. For those too young to recall the days before digital photography, cameras required film, and most exposed film had to be taken to a developer. Polaroid's "instant" film was self-developing. The earliest films required that you wait a few minutes after taking a picture and then peel a foil cover sheet off of the exposed film. The film didn't work well if the air temperature was too hot or too cold (or if you were too impatient). The whole thing was an ecological nightmare with the extra foil cover that needed to be discarded, a smell like a small refinery, and a sticky surface on the picture itself. Moreover, the film was very expensive and pretty much one off (copies, we don't need no stinkin' copies). BUT you got a picture in a few minutes, and if necessary you could retake the picture before your cousins left, the vacation ended, the casket closed, etc. The alternative for standard film cameras waa to wait until the entire roll of film to be exposed, wait some more for it to come back from the developer, and then discover that your finger had been partially covering the lens.

Polaroid later created a different instant film with one sheet that developed before your eyes. The effect was vaguely creepy as images would begin to emerge, ghost-like, out the milky film.

One of my great thrills growing up was discovering my parents' discarded land camera in the early 1970s and finding out that it still worked (this find and the discovery of their stash of Beatles albums were shocking evidence of their happy pre-Dave existence). I used the camera for a few months until a combination of allowance, odd-job money, and flat-out begging yielded sufficient funds for a 35mm single reflex camera. I'm not sure what happened to the land camera after that.

Instant films made an important appearnce in grad school. The Ph.D. program at Brown took instant pictures of all of the incoming students. Pictures were then placed on a bulletin board, and the pictures from previous cohorts of students were moved farther along the board. The first tip-off to what we were about to endure was how much smaller the second-year cohort was (and always was) from the first. The other thing that we eventually noticed was that they stopped labeling the cohorts after they got past the fifth year. The pictures for this finite yet still sizeable set were just arranged under a label "Nth year."

Instant films reappeared at my first academic job. Economists hold an annual convention and conduct nearly all of their screening interviews at this convention (if it's January and you see about 10,000 people with enormous foreheads and a strict aversion to tipping, you know that we've come to your town). Penn State was regularly on the market for several positions and conducted dozens and dozens of interview each year. To keep track of the hordes who had ventured through the interview suite, someone on the recruiting team initiate the interview with a Polaroid picture of the candidate. This was an unsettling start to the interview. Besides the obvious "ew" factor, the flash temporarily blinded you and left you describing your dissertation to a group of disembodied blue dots. The "ew" factor was compounded later when I discovered that one faculty member's pictures consistently had women's heads higher in the frame than men's.

Digital cameras, which are now standard in cell phones, have all of these "conveniences" and much better picture quality. Their pictures can be printed, sent as e-mail or phone messages, shown as slide shows or posted on-line. Hopefully, they'll continue to produce as many memories.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The cake or death challenge

A new study indicates that aggressive lowering of blood sugars among older type 2 diabetics (trying to maintain an AIC around 6) may actually increase the risk of heart attack.

Apparently, the choice posed some years ago by Eddie Izzard
was prescient.

In all seriousness, its been a tough year for diabetics with the news that the drug Avandia, which is used to decrease insulin resistance, may also increase the risk of a heart attack.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Romney disses Dole

Mitt Romney hit a low point in his campaign today. Commenting on a letter that former Sen. Bob Dole wrote to Rush Limbaugh on behalf of Sen. John McCain's "mainstream conservative" credentials, Romney said "It's probably the last person I would have wanted write a letter for me."

If we take Romney's statement at face value, there are some 6.6 billion people whose support he values more. A short list of people who are ahead of Dole in Romney's mind would include Osama bin Laden, Kim Jung-il, and Carrot Top.

For the record, Dole's letter called for Limbaugh to support "our major candidates." He listed many of McCain's conservative credentials but did not endorse any particular candidate. Instead, he concluded "Whoever wins the Republican nomination will need your enthusiastic support."

It's a testament to how far the Republicans have lurched past conservatism and into radicalism that one of their leading candidates would tear into Dole, who would seem to be the personification of conservatism.

Update (2/5): Responding to criticism from Sen. Thad Cochran and former Sen. Rick Santorum regarding his alleged hot-headedness, Sen. McCain said "in all due respect to a couple of those people that are criticizing me, they’re not the most respected members of the United States Senate." A classy remark that, um, exactly proves their point.

Cochran had earlier said of McCain, "The thought of his being president sends a cold chill down my spine...He is erratic. He is hotheaded. He loses his temper and he worries me."

Last week, Sen. McCain and Gov. Romney were wrapping themselves in Pres. Reagan's mantle. This week, they and their surrogates are shredding Reagan's eleventh commandment.

Friday, February 1, 2008

One subprime-ary loan

The loan applicant had shaky prospects to say the least. He was more than $500,000 in debt, had fired most of his workers, and looking for a loan of $3.5 million.

The timing of the application--November 2007, right smack in the middle of the credit crunch--wasn't especially good either.

Finally, the chances of the proposed investment paying off looked even worse, with several better-financed operations poised to corner the market. To add insult to injury, the lender even forced the applicant to take out a high-priced life insurance policy as partial collateral.

It's not a bet that many loan officers would have made, but somehow Sen. John McCain was able to get a critical loan that may have well saved his Presidential bid.

In a society that allows risk-taking, long-shot bets sometimes pay off and make people look like geniuses. They can also flop, as the bets on most of Sen. McCain's Republican competitors did, and make people look like dopes.

As Nassim Taleb points out, we celebrate risk-takers when they win, and either ignore or criticize them when they lose. We also ascribe a certain amount of genius and later even a sense of inevitability to the winners, even if there was bound to be at least one winner all along. We shouldn't overlook, however, the role of luck.