Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Genocide in Africa... again? 

Aspasia draws attention to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's recent apology for failing to do more to stop the genocide in Rwanda. In remarks at a UN conference commemorating the ten-year anniversary of the 1994 genocide, Annan said, "I realized after the genocide that there was more that I could and should have done to sound the alarm and rally support." But here's NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof:
Yet right now, the government of Sudan is engaging in genocide against three large African tribes in its Darfur region here. Some 1,000 people are being killed a week, tribeswomen are being systematically raped, 700,000 people have been driven from their homes, and Sudan's Army is even bombing the survivors.
It seems Mr. Annan has another chance. The situation in Sudan would certainly benefit from "sounding the alarm" and "rallying support." Personally, I had no idea what was going on in Sudan until about half an hour ago.

Mass. legislature votes to ban gay marriage 

The Massachusetts legislature voted 105-92 yesterday to approve an amendment to the state's constitution that would ban gay marriage, allowing for civil unions instead. The session was filled with legislative wrangling:
The 75 or so legislative supporters of a right to gay marriage, knowing they did not have enough votes for a majority, made use of a strategic gambit throughout the constitutional convention: many of them repeatedly voted for the amendment as it advanced through a series of preliminary votes, their goal being to keep more conservative amendments off the floor.
I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, the whole marriage/civil unions distinction seems more like a matter of definition than an issue of substance. And there's a reasonable argument to be made that gay and lesbian unions should go by a name other than "marriage" -- a term which after all carries substantial religious as well as legal connotations. On the other hand, the Massachusetts Supreme Court has a good point when it says "the history of our nation has demonstrated that separate is seldom, if ever, equal." And Alan Hirsch points out that there's more to equality than simply having equal rights.

However things end up in Massachusetts, leaving the issue to the states just doesn't seem like a good solution. Gay couples are just as entitled to the federal benefits of marriage as they are to state benefits, and they shouldn't lose married status if they move to another state. The gay marriage issue ought to be settled in federal courts, just like civil rights.
Monday, March 29, 2004

Conditions on the ground in Iraq 

It's hard to know what things are really like in Iraq. Ambidextrous has a very different description from what you'll find at most of the major news outlets:
The violence is relentless. Explosions from bombs, rocket propelled grenades and artillery as well as guns firing can be heard all day and night.... There are systematic assassinations of policemen, translators, local officials, and anybody associated with the occupiers....

Mosques are attacked every night and clerics killed, leading to retaliations against the opposite sect. Mosques now have armies of young volunteers wielding Kalashnikovs guarding them....

Meanwhile over ten thousand Iraqi men are being held prisoner, and most of them are innocent.... Unlike the murderous accuracy of the Israeli security forces, who at least speak Arabic, the American security forces are a blunt instrument. They arrest hundreds at once, hoping somebody will know something.
The part about conflicts between mosques of different sects is especially frightening. It almost sounds like the start of a civil war.

Why doesn't Condi want to testify? 

Why won't National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice testify publicly before the 9/11 commission? Here are a few things she's said that she might be wary of repeating under oath.


Sunday, March 28, 2004

European elections 

The Left Coaster has a roundup of recent European elections.

It ain't the DNC headquarters, but... 

These scandals are looking more like Watergate every day. Historian Gerald Nicosia of Marin County, CA had his home broken into Thursday. The burglars left a camera and other expensive items untouched. What they took was three boxes of records the FBI kept on John Kerry from his antiwar protest days in the 70's. Yes, the FBI kept files on antiwar protesters back in the 70's (some things never change), and yes, they had a file on John Kerry. Nicosia had obtained the records through a Freedom of Information Act request, and was using them in his research.

MemoryBlog wonders how the burglars--whoever they were--found out about the files, and comes up with an interesting answer.

Predicting presidential elections 

I had my eye on Yale economist Ray Fair's new book Predicting Presidential Elections and Other Things for my next Amazon splurge, until I stumbled on this post by Daniel Munz. Munz, a student enrolled in Fair's class at Yale, describes Fair's lecture on his apparently famous "Presidential Vote Equation." I had to see for myself what this equation was. Here we go. Are you ready?
The equation to predict the 2004 election is
VOTE = 55.57 + .691*GROWTH - .775*INFLATION + .837*GOODNEWS.
So you can see for yourself how simplistic this equation is, let me explain the terms involved:

VOTE is the proportion of the two-party popular vote going to Bush;

GROWTH is the growth rate in real per capita GDP for the first three quarters of 2004;

INFLATION is the average annual inflation rate during Bush's term;

GOODNEWS is the number of quarters during Bush's term where the real per capita growth in GDP exceeded 3.2%.

Okay. We start with a base term of 55.57% of the vote for Bush. The GOODNEWS term is always positive, adding even more votes for Bush. Go try it yourself. The site lets you plug in whatever numbers you want for growth, inflation, etc. The only way Bush can ever fall below 50% in this model is if inflation reaches double-digit levels or there's a huge (10%) drop in GDP.
Saturday, March 27, 2004

Advance knowledge of 9/11? 

Sibel Edmonds, a former translator for the FBI, says detailed information was available in the summer of 2001 regarding a planned Al Qaeda attack in the US involving airplanes. "We should have had orange or red-type of alert in June or July of 2001," Edmonds said. "There was that much information available." According to Tom Flocco, who attended Wednesday's 9/11 commission hearings where Edmonds testified:
Edmonds said "The Senate Judiciary Committee and the 911 Commission have heard me testify for lengthy periods of time (3 hours) about very specific plots, dates, airplanes used as weapons, and specific individuals and activities."
It's hard to know what to make of this, since Edmonds won't go into specifics. Why not? This is the most interesting part:
Edmonds cannot talk in detail about the tapes publicly because she's been under a Justice Department gag order since 2002.
Why the gag order? In 2002, Edmonds went public with accusations of inefficiency and corruption in the FBI's translation department. She claimed her superiors ordered her to translate at a slower pace so the department would receive more funding in the following year's budget, and she accused a colleague of intentionally mistranslating key documents. Even worse, according to Flocco:
FBI translator Sibel Edmonds was offered a substantial raise and a full time job to encourage her not to go public that she had been asked by the Department of Justice (DOJ) to retranslate and adjust the translations of [terrorist] subject intercepts that had been received before September 11, 2001 by the FBI and CIA.
In March of 2002, Edmonds was fired from the FBI. When she contested her firing in a lawsuit, Ashcroft had the suit dismissed:
In October 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft asked the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to dismiss the Edmonds case, taking the extraordinary step of invoking the rarely used state secrets privilege in order "to protect the foreign policy and national security interests of the United States."
Edmonds' motives are potentially suspect, given her prior history of conflict with the FBI. On the other hand, the gag order issued as a result of this conflict makes it hard to judge her allegations on their merits.

I'm generally skeptical of the theory that the administration had advance knowledge of 9/11. I don't even think the administration is necessarily to blame for intelligence failures leading up to 9/11. Intelligence is a tough business. Intelligence agencies are overwhelmed with leads and clues, most of which are total garbage. It's hard to separate the accurate information from the junk. With an operation as big as 9/11 there were bound to be clues, but sorting them out and getting them communicated to the right people was too hard of a task. It's worth keeping in mind that we don't hear about intelligence successes, only failures. Who knows how many attacks were prevented before this one got through.

With all that said, Edmonds' testimony is just one more piece of evidence that the administration has something to hide. Why slap a gag order on Sibel Edmonds if all she was doing was exposing inefficiency in the FBI's translation unit? Why all the fuss about the 9/11 commission's request to extend its deadline? And for that matter, why are administration officials so wary of testifying before the commission? Condoleezza Rice has refused to testify, and Bush and Cheney have each limited their testimony to one hour. Even that one hour of testimony is only in front of the chairman and vice chairman, rather than the whole commission. And why refuse to grant the commission access to the President's daily intelligence briefs?

If the administration simply missed a few clues about 9/11, that's nothing to be ashamed of, and they should come out and say that's what happened. Their secrecy leaves the impression of something much worse than a simple intelligence failure.

UPDATE: MemoryBlog has more.

Secrecy only when it suits them 

Demagogue has a good post on how the administration's selective use of secrecy--opening Richard Clarke's classified testimony to a groundless fishing expedition, while refusing to release information as trivial as the names of participants in Cheney's energy task force--could backfire.

Stock market performance in presidential election years 

The Big Picture has a graph comparing stock market performance in years when the incumbent president's party won the election to years when it lost:

There are two major effects. First, the market did better in years when the incumbent's party won the election. Second, in years when the incumbent's party lost, although the market did worse overall, it spiked in November and December. These findings confirm the conventional wisdom that incumbents tend to be reelected if the economy is strong. If an incumbent is ousted due to a weak economy, the market rebounds at the prospect of a new administration.

The view from the slopes 

Didn't bring a camera, so I had to steal these.



Thursday, March 25, 2004

Possible Al Qaeda tape urges Pakistani coup 

Al-Jazeera today broadcast part of a tape urging Pakistanis to overthrow their government. The tape's speaker has not been identified, but may be Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda's second in command.
Monday, March 22, 2004

Killing terrorist leaders and popular opinion 

Sheik Ahmed Yassin, considered by some to be the spiritual leader of Hamas, died today in an Israeli missile strike. His followers vowed revenge. The stock market fell, and analysts attributed the negative price action to fears that the Sheik's death would increase the likelihood of retaliatory terrorist attacks.

It seems fair to say that the Sheik's death made investors feel anxious, rather than safe. While it's not a perfect analogy, I wonder if this reaction challenges the conventional wisdom that Osama's capture/death will help Bush's reelection chances. Killing Osama gives Islamic fundamentalists a martyr to rally behind, and may well attract more recruits to Al Qaeda and other organizations, possibly making us less safe on the balance. While I'm sure that neutralizing Osama will give Bush an initial boost of popularity, will that wear off when people realize that killing or capturing one man is largely a symbolic victory?
Sunday, March 21, 2004

Light posting this week 

Spring break is here and I'm off to Lake Tahoe!
Saturday, March 20, 2004

More on Rumsfeld 

Ezra Klein chastises liberals for indiscriminately branding everyone in the Bush administration as evil, and points to a few reasons Donald Rumsfeld is not that bad. His best point concerns Rumsfeld's efforts at military reform. While I respect Rumsfeld's attempts to reform the military, it seems this effort was largely sidelined after 9/11. And let's not forget Rumsfeld's history:

In 1983 and 1984, Reagan sent Rumsfeld to Iraq for two purposes: 1. to let Saddam know that US condemnations of Iraq's use of chemical weapons were just to keep up appearances, and that the US wanted to improve relations with Iraq regardless; and 2. to open the gates for Saddam to purchase an enormous amount of military equipment from US contractors, including helicopters that Saddam later used in the infamous 1988 gassing of the Kurds.

I completely agree with Ezra's points about living in an echo chamber. We should always listen to what the other side is saying. But for me, this doesn't extend to a liking for Donald Rumsfeld.

Obsessed with Iraq 

(via TalkLeft) On Sept. 12, 2001, Donald Rumsfeld advocated bombing Iraq, even though all evidence pointed to Al Qaeda in Afganistan. Why? According to former White House counterterrorism coordinator Richard Clarke:
Rumsfeld complained in the meeting that "there aren't any good targets in Afghanistan and there are lots of good targets in Iraq."
Were they the right targets? Irrelevant.

New studies confirm we are witnessing another mass extinction 

Two new studies show we are witnessing an extinction of species on the same scale as the one 65 million years ago which wiped out the dinosaurs.
Friday, March 19, 2004

David Brooks: Spain "crazy" to hold elections. 

In his most recent opinion column, neocon mouthpiece David Brooks says that the success of the Socialists in Spain's recent elections is exactly what Al Qaeda wanted. Fine. He's entitled to his opinion, and there are plenty of people arguing both sides of the issue.

What I find disturbing about his column is the second sentence, where Brook slips in the observation that, "Spain was crazy to go ahead with an election a mere three days after the Madrid massacre."

Whoa, what's going on here! Brooks appears to be suggesting that postponing scheduled democratic elections is an acceptable response to a terrorist attack. This strikes me as a very dangerous idea. Would the decision to postpone elections be made by the party in power? That's an easy way to win a tight race. When and under what conditions would the rescheduled elections be held? Are elections OK for some colors of security alerts but not for others? Would the people who decided to postpone the election be the same people who determine the security alert level? Maybe the judicial branch could just tell us when we're allowed to vote again...

It will be interesting to see if any other conservative commentators mention the idea of postponing elections, or if Brooks is on his own on this one. As far as I'm concerned, the terrorists can claim victory when one of their attacks leads us to put democracy on hold.

McCain defends Kerry 

In an interview on CBS this morning John McCain defended John Kerry from Republican assertions that electing Kerry would endanger national security. McCain pointed out that Kerry had served his country in war, without explicitly mentioning that Bush had not. He also said that Kerry had to "explain his voting record" and called for both presidential campaigns to tone down the fierce partisan rhetoric we've seen so far.

For all you speculators out there: McCain stated that he would not consider running for VP with either Bush or Kerry. I wasn't aware of it, and I find the idea hard to believe, but I guess there has been some talk of the second possibility.

Taiwan's President shot ahead of weekend elections 

Taiwan's President and Vice President were shot today in an apparent assassination attempt. Saturday's elections will proceed as planned. At stake are the presidency and a referendum calling on China to remove the missiles it has aimed the straights toward Taiwan.

Scary poll of the day 

In the post I just finished on Pakistan, I wrote about the administration's infuriating PR tactic of assuming that "saying it will make it so." Nowhere has this tactic been more successful than in establishing the supposed "connection" between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. Here's last month's Harris Poll (N=1,020 adults nationwide): "Do you believe clear evidence that Iraq was supporting al Qaeda has been found in Iraq, or not?"
Found: 47 %
Not Found: 38%
Not Sure: 15%
The truly amazing thing about these numbers is that they are virtually unchanged since last summer, despite key retractions by Wolfowitz and Bush in September.

How craven can you get? 

This administration is so desperate to find Osama Bin Laden that they will do anything  for Pakistan's help. Last month the administration sank to a new low, sanctioning the pardon of a Pakistani nuclear scientist who sold nuclear secrets to Iran, Libya and North Korea. Now comes Pakistan's new diplomatic designation as a "major non-NATO ally." In practical terms, this designation doesn't mean a lot--basically, it makes it easier for Pakistan to buy weapons from US defense contractors--but in Colin Powell's announcement yesterday, the PR surrounding this farce reached new levels of absurdity:
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell praised Pakistan's handling of a sweeping nuclear proliferation scandal during a visit here on Thursday and announced that the Bush administration would designate the country a "major non-NATO ally"...

Mr. Powell said the United States would not request that American investigators be allowed to question the scientist at the center of the proliferation scandal, Abdul Qadeer Khan. Dr. Khan, the founder of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, confessed last month to supplying nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya.

"This is a Pakistani internal matter," Mr. Powell said.
So now nuclear weapons programs in Iran, Libya and North Korea are a "Pakistani internal matter"? You didn't really mean to say that, did you, Powell? Here we have yet another instance of this administration's "saying it will make it so" wishful thinking. They think if they just say  Pakistan is doing a great job fighting nuclear proliferation, by repeating the line often enough they can make people believe it. We need to prove them wrong by debunking the lies as insistently as they promote them.

Powell's remarks are just more proof that this administration is way off on its priorities. Capturing Bin Laden would be an important symbolic victory, but one man alone in the mountains, tied to his dialysis machine and constantly on the run from US and Pakistani troops, can hardly be very effective at planning and executing terrorist attacks. Compared to the threat of nuclear proliferation to rogue states, Bin Laden poses about as much of a threat to our national security right now as my grandmother.

If and when Bin Laden is finally captured, we need to celebrate, but we also should be ready with a response. This response should be formulated now, so we'll have it ready when the time comes. Here's a start: 1. why did it take so long? (we got distracted by Iraq) and 2. was it really worth the price we paid? (allowing rogue states to buy nuclear secrets from our "ally," Pakistan)
Thursday, March 18, 2004

The Arab-American vote 

A new Zogby poll confirms what many have speculated about the Arab-American vote. Arab-Americans in four swing states prefer Kerry over Bush 54% to 30%. Unfortunately, when Nader is included he takes an enormous 20%, cutting Kerry's lead to 43-27. Still, this is a huge swing from 2000, when the same sample of voters preferred Bush over Gore 46% to 29%. Over at The Big Picture there's a chart comparing the number of Arab-Americans in key swing states to the margin of victory in the 2000 presidential race.

Zogby says that Arab-Americans tend to vote in higher proportion than the population at large. I couldn't find turnout figures for 2000, but 62% of Arab-Americans turned out to vote in 1996. In the following chart, I've used these figures to estimate how the Arab-American vote will split in 2004:

2000 2004
Arab-Americans Turnout Bush Gore Bush Kerry Total Swing Percentage
Florida 120,000 74,400 34,224 21,576 20,088 31,992 24,552 0.41%
Michigan 235,000 145,700 67,022 42,253 39,339 62,651 48,081 1.14%
Ohio 85,000 52,700 24,242 15,283 14,229 22,661 17,391 0.37%
Pennsylvania 75,000 46,500 21,390 13,485 12,555 19,995 15,345 0.31%

The second to last column totals the number of net votes gained by the Democrats. In Florida, for example, Bush loses about 14,000 Arab-American votes and Kerry gains about 10,000 for a total swing of 24,552 votes. The last column is the size of this swing as a percentage of the total voter turnout. Since nearly 6 million people voted in Florida in 2000, those 24,552 extra votes represent only about 0.4% of the total votes cast.

Conclusion: While the swings are not huge, they do make a difference. With the kind of support Arab-Americans are now showing for Democrats in the polls, Gore would have won Florida by 24,015 votes, increased his lead over Bush in Michigan to over 6%, and just about come within 3% of Bush in Ohio.

Cheney's draft-dodging 

Eric Alterman digs up a story from the 2000 campaign:
Cheney received four 2-S draft deferments -- granted to students -- from 1963 through 1965 while he was a student at the University of Wyoming. He married Lynne in 1964, and was thus banned from the draft.

But in October 1965, the Selective Service announced that married men without children could then be drafted. Exactly nine months and two days later -- on July 28, 1966 -- his first child was born. Cheney hadn't waited until her birth before he sought a 3-A deferment classification -- given to those with dependents. He did so when Lynne was only 10 weeks pregnant.
I'm not saying draft-dodging during the Vietnam era was wrong. Had I been in their generation, I certainly would have tried just as hard as Bush and Cheney did--and Bill Clinton, for that matter--to get out of the draft. And Cheney's way of avoiding the draft was completely legitimate. But it continues to amaze me that a ticket of two draft-dodgers can get away with attacking their opponent, who actually fought  in a war, for being weak on defense.

No Child Left Behind 

The American Street has a nice post explaining why Democrats may be vulnerable on the issue of the No Child Left Behind bill. Unrelated but funny:

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Bush campaign ads vs. the facts 

Josh Marshall points out some of the blatant factual inaccuracies in the latest Bush campaign ad, which you can watch here. I recommend watching all the ads, as it's always good to know what the opposition is saying. The ad entitled "troops" accuses Kerry of voting against higher combat pay, body armor and better health care for US troops. These were line items in the $87 billion spending bill on Iraq that Kerry voted against last year. While I'm not a big fan of Kerry's vote against the $87 billion, it's hardly fair to start characterizing a vote against an enormous spending bill as a vote against each of its miniscule line items, especially when

1. Bush tried to cut combat pay last year; and

2. Bush sent troops to Iraq without sufficient body armor in the first place, forcing the families of many servicemen in Iraq to spend their own money for proper equipment.

And in case you think this is just the usual partisan bickering, here's a nonpartisan critique of the ad from Factcheck.org.

Karl Rove is famous for his ability to run successful campaigns that completely disregard the facts. He's been quoted as saying that political campaigns should be run as if voters are "watching TV with the sound off." Josh Marshall wonders whether he'll be able to get away with it this time around, when the facts are often just a google search away.

Rumsfeld ad 

Moveon.org has a hilarious new ad on Donald Rumsfeld. I didn't get it until I watched it a second time.

Color-coding passengers 

In a further advance for the kindergarten war on terror, the Transporation Security Administration wants to color-code airline passengers according to how likely they are to be terrorists. There are three colors: red, yellow and green.

Another disturbing Pennsylvania poll 

Bush 44, Kerry 40, Nader 7. Ouch. And Bush is ahead 13 points among young voters, confirming my earlier fears.

Nice move 

Kerry has asked Spain's new Prime Minister to reconsider his decision to pull Spanish troops out of Iraq. Commenters on Kos explain why this is a good political move, in addition to being the right thing to do.
Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Bush AWOL story isn't dead 

(via And Then...) Here's a fascinating new development in the story of Bush's national guard service. Bill Morlin and Karen Steele of the Spokane Spokesman-Review have discovered that Bush's flight privileges may have been revoked under a program designed to keep unreliable pilots away from nuclear weapons:
Human reliability regulations were used to screen military personnel for their mental, physical and emotional fitness before granting them access to nuclear weapons and delivery systems.
Did these regulations apply to Bush? Although Bush's plane, the F-102, routinely carried conventional weapons, it did have the capability to carry nuclear weapons. This means that Bush was legally subject to the Human Reliability Program (HRP) regulations. The fact that National Guard planes didn't routinely carry nuclear weapons is probably the weakest point in Morlin and Steele's argument. But HRP rules were used to ground two National Guard pilots in 1974:
Under the rules, pilots could be removed immediately from the cockpit for HRP issues, which happened in the 1974 Washington Air National Guard case. The two Washington airmen were suspended on suspicion of drug use, but eventually received honorable discharges.
Hmm, suspended for drug use but received an honorable discharge anyway. Sounds a lot like something that could have happened to Bush. One thing's for sure, the White House sure is fond of bringing up that honorable discharge! Bush may have been grounded under HRP, or he might have stopped flying for fear of being grounded. The timing is certainly interesting:
In April 1972, at the same time the military began drug and alcohol testing for the first time, Bush stopped flying the F-102, and according to White House documents, did not take a required physical in May. He was formally suspended in September 1972 for failing to take the test.
To be fair, the argument is pretty speculative. It basically boils down to 1. The Air Force had a regulation, HRP, which also applied to the Air National Guard, allowing unreliable pilots to be grounded; 2. Bush had a history of drinking and using drugs during that period; 3. Two guardsmen were grounded under HRP around the same time for suspected drug use; and 4. The timing of Bush's failure to show up for his physical coincides precisely with the military's decision to undertake drug testing under HRP. Certainly not conclusive evidence, but it's a new angle to be investigated further.

British detainees describe Guantanamo Bay 

It took the British government less than 24 hours to conclude that the five British detainees released from Guantanamo Bay last week posed no threat to national security. The five men were held at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay for two years, and released by the British in less than a day. And here's how two of the men describe conditions in the camp:
Dergoul described "botched medical treatment, interrogation at gunpoint, beatings and inhuman conditions"...

Al-Harith said he was beaten and put in isolation because he refused injections and was sometimes forcibly given unidentified drugs.
Whoa. I thought the conditions at Guantanamo had been okayed by human rights groups. I guess not.

On the other hand, one Russian prisoner supposedly would rather stay in Guantanamo than go back to a Russian prison. But just because the conditions in Guantanamo may be better than those in some foreign prisons doesn't mean they're ethical.

One Spaniard suggests 

that the Popular Party lost not because of the attacks themselves, but because it played politics with the attacks.

Republicans and the youth vote 

Glenn Reynolds cites this poll showing teens aged 12-17 support Bush over Kerry 47 percent to 31 percent as evidence that young voters are trending Republican. I would counter that it's just a sign that teens are not very aware of what's going on. Teens have been hearing the words "President Bush" for three years now; many of them heard John Kerry's name for the first time only recently, and still more might still not know who Kerry is. If the sitting president were a Democrat, I'd expect we'd see the same sort of skew in teen preference in the other direction. The large number of undecideds (24 percent) supports this hypothesis, as does the fact that "Bush does six points better with 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds than with older teens," who are more likely to be aware the people and issues surrounding the election.

Still, there is  evidence of an alarming Republican trend in the youth vote. Morton Kondracke writes:
In 60 years, no Democrat has ever won the presidency without carrying the youth vote. And right now, President Bush's approval rating among 18- to 29-year-olds is 62 percent, higher than his nationwide rating.
Amazingly, a recent poll of college students nationwide found that:
31 percent identify themselves as Republicans, 27 percent Democrats, and 38 percent Independent or unaffiliated.
If that's the case, why are college students traditionally viewed as liberal? My guess is that most students are  liberal, but that liberal students are less likely to vote than their conservative counterparts. This may be a new trend:
In 1996, voters aged 18 to 29 supported incumbent Democrat Bill Clinton over GOP challenger Bob Dole by a whopping 19-point margin, 53 percent to 34 percent. Young people were Clinton's strongest age group.

In 2000, however, Al Gore outpolled Bush by just 2 points in the youngest age group. Young voters supported Democratic Congressional candidates by just 1 point in 2000.
I don't understand the demographics behind this shift, but it's worrying. According to this book review, Democrats have lost touch with pop culture so completely that they may have caused greater apathy and a Republican shift in the youth vote.
Monday, March 15, 2004

Don't fall for the trap 

Matt Yglasias warns of the trap being set by those who are saying the Spanish people voted to appease the terrorists by throwing out Aznar's Popular Party in yesterday's elections:
The right would like to set up the following argument: If there are no attacks between now and the election, then Bush has defended us from terror and deserves re-election; if there is an attack between now and the election, then voting for Kerry would be appeasement.
Jacob Levy does a good job debunking this argument.

How come 

the media doesn't report US combat deaths in Iraq anymore? Six soldiers died this weekend. The headlines:

CNN: "Martha Stewart quits company board"
Fox: "Martha Stewart quits MSO board"
MSNBC: "Stewart quits"
CBS: "Martha quits Martha Inc. board"
Sunday, March 14, 2004

Socialists win Spanish elections 

The Socialists took 164 out of 350 seats in parliament, ending eight years of rule by the Popular Party. The Popular Party took 147 seats. The Socialists will need some minor party allies to form a majority in the parliament. I was wrong about the effects of the Madrid attack on the elections.

UPDATE: Glenn Reynolds fears that terrorists may conclude that they can influence elections and try the same tactic in other countries. I don't know which is scarier, the thought of a terrorist attack on or before election day or the thought of oppressive security and fear on election day in anticipation of such an attack. Such a tactic would truly put al Qaeda "at war with democracy."

Drugs and bogus statistics 

(via TalkLeft) Robert Hardaway has a new column in the Denver Post comparing the "war on drugs" to prohibition. In both cases, Hardaway argues, outlawing and prosecuting drug use actually increased the incidence of use. Making drugs illegal also gave a big boost to organized crime. One of Hardaway's most interesting claims is that laws prohibiting drugs were originally racist in intent:
In the early 20th century, labor leader Samuel Gompers set forth his reasons to Congress why opium should be criminalized: "Opium gives the Chinese immigrant workers an unfair advantage in the labor market."

Racists in Congress supported drug criminalization in order to suppress the "Jew peddlers," while the State Department's "opium commissioner," Hamilton Wright, urged criminalization of cocaine on grounds that it turned African-Americans into rapists of white women.
Although Hardaway's column is well worth reading, the statistics he uses are just too good to be true:
According to the Cato Institute, based on deaths per 100,000 users, "tobacco kills 650, alcohol 150, heroin 80, and cocaine 4."
I found these numbers so astonishing that I had to look up where they came from. Here's how the Cato Institute got its numbers for cocaine and heroin deaths:
These figures were determined as follows: Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) heroin and cocaine fatalities for 1984, 1985,and 1986 were averaged. The number of suicides was subtracted. The figures were discounted to account for deaths in which both heroin and cocaine played a role. Since DAWN covers about one-third of the nation's population but almost all major urban areas where drug use flourishes, totals were doubled to arrive at yearly estimates of 2,000 for heroin deaths and 1,000 for cocaine deaths. Finally, these figures were discounted by 80 percent in accordance with the analysis presented in the text.
Let's take this one step at a time. Does DAWN cover "almost all major urban areas"? Not quite. It fails to cover two of the four biggest US cities, Houston and Los Angeles. Even in those cities it does cover, DAWN often omits large parts of the metropolitan area. Moreover,
DAWN data are gathered from medical examiners, coroners, and other death investigation jurisdictions. Not all deaths are reviewed by these facilities. In fact, it has been estimated that only about 20 percent of all deaths are reviewed by a medical examiner or coroner.
Finally, why were the figures "discounted by 80 percent"? A search of the Cato Institute report reveals the reason:
As many as 2,400 of the 3,000 deaths attributed to heroin and cocaine use each year--80 percent--are actually caused by black market factors. For example, many heroin deaths are caused by an allergic reaction to the street mixture of the drug, while 30 percent are caused by infections.
In other words, the discounted figures reflect not the actual death rate from drug usage, but the projected death rate if cocaine and heroin were to be legalized.

Let's correct the damage. Taking at face value the claim that DAWN statistics cover one third of the US population, the Cato Institute report should have multiplied by a factor of three, rather than a factor of two. Because only 20 percent of deaths are reviewed by a medical examiner or coroner, the actual number of deaths is approximately five times higher than reported. To correct for the fact that the Cato Institute discounted its figures by 80 percent, we need to multiply by an additional factor of five. To obtain the actual drug-related mortality rates, the Cato Institute's numbers for cocaine and heroin should be multiplied by 1.5x5x5=37.5 for a total of:

tobacco: 650 deaths per 100,000 users
alcohol: 150 deaths per 100,000 users
cocaine: 150 deaths per 100,000 users
heroin: 3,000 deaths per 100,000 users

I don't have a lot of faith in the accuracy of these statistics, but I guarantee you they're more accurate than the ones from the Cato Institute.

The 21st century plumbers 

This Boston Globe article tracks the rise of a new trade, the "digitician." These are people who make house calls to set up internet connections and home networks, install software, hook up computers to other devices, and deal with viruses and other hi-tech problems. Many of us may not need a digitician yet, but the profession will surely grow in importance as technology gets increasingly complicated and interconnected. Like plumbers, who know how our toilet works so we don't have to, digiticians will specialize in dealing with computers and networks which have become too complicated for the general public.

Exit polls 

Exit polls show a tight race in Spain's elections. The opposition Socialists are running even with the ruling Popular Party.

Better stock market performance under Democrats 

Interesting interview with author and consultant Peter Cohan. Talks about a recent study he conducted using data from 1927 to 1999. Over that time, the S&P 500 has outperformed risk-free treasury bills by 11% during Democratic presidencies, but by only 2% under Republicans!

More trouble with electronic voting machines 

Florida conducted its primary elections on Tuesday, March 9. One would hope that, after the 2000 debacle, the state's election officials would take extra precautions to ensure that all votes were recorded and counted fairly. No such luck. A good summary of Tuesday's screw-ups can be found here. A few items demand attention:

1. With over 60% of precincts reporting in Bay County, Richard Gephardt was leading John Kerry by a margin of 2:1. Gephardt dropped out of the race after Iowa.

2. Fifteen Florida counties use electronic machines that do not produce paper receipts. Results for these counties could be compromised through honest error, or even worse, manipulated by company insiders or election officials. Without receipts, there is no way of holding a recount, or of verifying the reported results.

3. Florida election officials are trying to keep accounts of voting machine malfunction away from the press. County officials ordered police to remove a NY Times reporter from a precinct where there had been reports of vote counting irregularity.

There is some good news too. Robert Wexler (D-Florida) is filing a federal lawsuit to ensure that all voting machines in Florida produce paper receipts by November 2004. He argues, based on the Constitution's equal protection clause, that it is unconstitutional for some counties within a state to have the ability to conduct a recount while others do not.

Electronic voting machines cannot be trusted to count votes accurately. These miscounts may be due to honest error, or they may be due to conscious fraud on the part of industry insiders. Either way, the use of voting machines that do not produce paper receipts presents an unacceptable risk to our electoral process.
Saturday, March 13, 2004

Halliburton overcharging 

I'm as disgusted as anyone by the administration's blatant favoritism in awarding Iraqi reconstruction contracts to Halliburton, but I think people are getting too worked up over the most recent spate of allegations that Halliburton and its subsidiaries are overcharging the government for work in Iraq.

Let me try to argue the other side for a minute. Halliburton has tasks ranging from rehabilitating Iraq's oil industry to dealing with environmental damage, constructing military bases and feeding US troops. Just think about the logistical issues involved: daily terrorist attacks, irregular warfare, the language barrier, destroyed infrastructure, problems with electricity, roads and running water. We're dealing with the occupation and reconstruction of a country. Of course  there's going to be a lot of inefficiency. Are there going to be accounting problems? You bet. Are some of those problems deliberate instances of corruption? Probably. By all means, Halliburton should be audited and instances of overcharging should be investigated. But considering the enormous size and complexity of what is being undertaken in Iraq, I just don't think these overcharging stories are such a big deal.

I'm not saying Halliburton is doing a great job reconstructing Iraq. It's hard to know whether or not they're doing a good job. What I'm saying is that in a task as vast, difficult and necessarily improvised as reconstructing a country, there will always be a certain amount of inefficiency and corruption. We should take all possible steps to minimize corruption, but we should be willing to tolerate certain levels of corruption as unavoidable.

Let's not lose sight of the real outrage. The Vice President's former company won billions of dollars in unbid government contracts. That's our tax dollars going to Dick Cheney's friends, who didn't even have to go to the trouble of proving they were the most qualified to rebuild Iraq.

Bring back Ted Rall 

Ted Rall did political cartooning for the New York Times for over ten years. His work, samples of which can be found here, took a liberal stance on political issues. Recently, a write-in campaign organized on Andrew Sullivan's blog urged the Times to stop running Rall's work. This campaign was so effective that the Times not only fired Rall, but also removed his past work from its online archive.

No matter what you think of Rall's cartoons (I wouldn't exactly call them gut-busting), I don't want the NY Times picking and choosing its content to satisfy the demands of right-wing bloggers. It seems like conservatives can get this sort of thing done because they have the organization and discipline to orchestrate massive write-in campaigns. If Dems get organized we can get just as much done. If you feel this cause is at all worthwhile, why not send a comment to the Times' editors at feedback@nytimes.com You can either leave your own message, or cut and paste this:

To the Editors:

I am writing in regard to your recent decision to no longer feature Ted Rall's cartoons in your paper, after doing so for 13 years. It is my understanding that your decision to remove Rall's work was taken to appease a group of conservative letter writers organized by Andrew Sullivan. As a Times reader, I cannot countenance this decision to pander to outspoken conservatives, rather than run the risk of featuring a potentially controversial opinion. A world-class newspaper like the New York Times thrives when it presents and respects diverse political opinions, and falters when it fails to stick to its guns.

Yours truly,

This is far from the most important issue facing America today, but it is something we can influence directly.

Five arrests in Madrid bombing 

(link) Three from Morocco, two from India. This is looking a lot more like al Qaeda and a lot less like ETA.
Friday, March 12, 2004

Was the Madrid attack timed to influence Spain's elections? 

BOPnews has a good roundup on Spain's coming elections and how they may be affected by yesterday's attack. The election pits the center-right Popular Party, now in power, against the Socialists. No middle ground here! The Spanish population was overwhelmingly against Prime Minister Aznar's participation in the Iraq war. I was in Barcelona one year ago, at the start of the war, and the amount of protest there was just staggering. Every square in the city was filled with protesters, and every other window had a homemade sign saying "No a la guerra!" Much of the population is also angry at Aznar's refusal to grant any autonomy to the provinces.

The degree of anger at the government was so high that before yesterday's attacks, the Socialists were polling close to even with the ruling Popular Party. The attacks may change everything, however. Stirling Newberry at BOPnews writes:
Spain's Azner [sic], a strong supporter of the war in Iraq, has to hope that people vote with a haze of blood for the party promising to be willing to do the most killing in the future.
Makes you wonder whether the attack in Madrid, now thought to be the work of al Qaeda, was timed for just this moment, a few days before the election. Gwynne Dyer has an interesting column arguing that "terrorists and the engineers of the war on terror are codependent," and that al Qaeda wants leaders like Bush and Aznar to get reelected. His argument is that
Al-Qaida sees the overseas adventures of American neo-conservatives as the best possible recruiting tool for its own cause among Muslims worldwide.
Dyer even goes so far as to predict--and this was way back in October 2003--that al Qaeda might try to influence the US presidential election, tipping it toward Bush with a well-timed terrorist attack. In light of the Madrid attack, this prediction strikes me as remarkably prescient.

UPDATE: This article suggests that the ruling Popular Party will benefit in the elections if ETA is found responsible, but the PP will be hurt if al Qaeda is responsible. I'm not so sure. The PP may benefit either way. But this may be a moot point. When voters go to the polls on Sunday, we may still not know who was responsible.

Korean president impeached 

South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun has been impeached for "illegal electioneering and incompetence." By that standard, perhaps Bush should be impeached too! One disturbing fact, though:
The impeachment passed by a vote of 193 to 2, well above the 181 votes needed for the measure. Many pro-Roh lawmakers had been forcibly removed from the chamber by Assembly security and were unable to vote.
The head of the main pro-Roh party called it "a coup attempt under the mask of the law."
Thursday, March 11, 2004

SUSA Pennsylvania poll is skewed 

Kos reader explosiveliberal points out that the most recent Survey USA poll of Pennsylvania, showing Kerry ahead 49-47, is actually skewed in favor of Bush. This is how the voters in the sample voted in 2000:
Bush in 2000 -366 respondents
Gore in 2000 -300 respondents
And this in a state that went for Gore 51-46! What would the results have looked like with a balanced sample? Here's the raw data:

Bush in 2000 Gore in 2000 Other in 2000 Total
polled Bush 301 26 11 338
polled Kerry 54 267 19 340
polled undecided 11 7 3 21
total 366 300 34 700

Note: this data includes only the 700 out of 802 people polled who 1. voted in 2000 and 2. remember who they voted for. There were also 92 people polled who didn't vote in 2000 and an additional ten people who voted in 2000 but didn't remember who they voted for.

In 2000, Pennsylvania went 50.6% to Gore, 46.4% to Bush, and 3.0% other. A balanced sample of 700 people who voted in 2000 would therefore consist of 354 people who voted for Gore, 325 who voted for Bush, and 21 who voted for someone else. To see what would have happened had SUSA polled a balanced sample of voters, we scale the Bush column of the table by 325/366, the Gore column by 354/300, and the "other" column by 21/34:

Bush in 2000 Gore in 2000 Other in 2000 Total
polled Bush 267 31 7 305
polled Kerry 48 315 12 375
polled undecided 10 8 2 20
total 325 354 21 700

The totals in the rightmost column are what we're looking for. A balanced sample of 700 people who voted in 2000 would have preferred Kerry over Bush 375 to 305. Finally, we need to add back the people who didn't vote in 2000 or forgot who they voted for. These 102 people broke 52 for Kerry, 43 for Bush and 7 undecided. So the total balanced sample prefers Kerry over Bush 427 to 348. That's 53% Kerry, 43% Bush. Not bad!

Legislators check executive power  

According to this NY Times article the Senate has put restrictions on Bush's ability to enact irresponsible tax cuts. A rule passed today requires that any tax cut proposed in the next five years must either be approved by 60 senators or offset by an equivalent reduction in government spending.

UPDATE: The resolution must be approved by a conference of House and Senate budget writers to take effect. According to a spokesperson for Dennis Hastert, House Republicans are planning to kill the amendment in conference.

Terrorist attack in Spain 

At least 131 dead in bombings of three separate trains during the morning commute. Spanish officials are blaming Basque separatist group ETA.

UPDATE: In a letter, Al Qaeda claims credit for the attacks.

This guy wants to marry his grandmother 

Hmm. Although he mainly just seems to be trying to make a point, he says that
Marrying my grandmother will give me several benefits that are currently only available to married heterosexual couples.... Once we're married, I can mooch off her healthcare benefits, reduce my insurance rates, and transfer her estate to me without any taxes being deducted.
The problem I have with this is the obviously economic motive. He's using marriage as a loophole to save on insurance and taxes. The institution of marriage was not designed for the purpose of reducing people's insurance rates or letting them transfer estates tax-free. While people can and undoubtedly occasionally do get married for such reasons, in the case of marrying one's grandmother it is blatantly obvious that there could be no other motive. I would liken this guy's proposal to the tax loopholes companies use to save billions of dollars each year: even if it's technically within the letter of the law, it's still wrong.

Nathan Newman doesn't see a problem with it, though.
Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Iraq, North Korea and Libya 

Conservatives and hawks like to brag that the invasion of Iraq cowed Libyan president Muammar Qaddafi into renouncing his WMD programs. But let's think about this carefully. Think back to March, 2003. North Korea had just withdrawn from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and restarted its Yongbyon reactor. The International Atomic Energy Agency declared North Korea in material breach of nuclear safeguards. North Korea test-fired two missiles into the Sea of Japan. And what did the administration do? It warned about weapons of mass destruction and invaded... Iraq.

By any measure, North Korea is far more dangerous than Iraq was. It has a proven arsenal of WMD's, including both nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them to South Korea and Japan. Moreover, North Korea is desperately short of cash, and because of sanctions its means of obtaining foreign currency are extremely limited. One of those means is selling WMD's on the black market. Both in terms of the strength of its arsenal and its potential role as a proliferator of WMD's, the threat posed by North Korea far outweighs that once posed by Iraq.

Yet there's a reason we invaded Iraq and not North Korea. The fact is that a preemptive attack on North is out of the question. Kim Jong Il would respond by launching missiles at Seoul and perhaps Tokyo. He could also launch a ground attack across the DMZ, where North Korean troops outnumber South Korean and American troops by a factor of 2-1. North Korea has what Iraq did not: a credible deterrent.

Now think ahead to December, 2003, when Qaddafi announced he was giving up his WMD programs. Eight months into the occupation of Iraq, no weapons of mass destruction have been found. Apparently, Iraq never had them in the first place. Meanwhile, North Korea now has at least two nuclear weapons and has announced its intention to "physically display" its nuclear deterrent.

Suppose you're the leader of a rogue state. What conclusion would you draw from the above facts? Which is more likely to deter a US invasion, acquiring weapons of mass destruction or getting rid of them? That's what I thought.

So why did Qaddafi renounce his WMD programs? Martin Indyk has a column arguing that Libya offered to halt these programs five years ago, but only recently was the US willing to strike a deal.

UPDATE: Flynt Leverett argues the case more convincingly than Indyk. He also makes the point that the sort of quid pro quo offer that convinced Qaddafi to give up his WMD's in return for an end to sanctions might also convince Syria and Iran to renounce weapons programs and cut ties to terrorist groups. But that won't happen unless the administration drops its illusions about why Libya caved.

Asteroid strike scenario 

Glenn Reynolds says nobody has a plan for what to do if a large asteroid is about to strike the earth. That's hard to believe, but maybe it's true.
Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Udall will run for CO senate seat 

Great news just in via Kos. Udall is one of the most popular Democrats in the state. Also, the most popular Republican, Gov. Bill Owens, is out. This means we have a real chance of picking up the seat. And Udall's house seat, representing a comfortably democratic district, should be safe.

UPDATE: Attorney General Ken Salazar is running too. Looks like Colorado's two most popular democrats will face off in the primary.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Now Udall is out. No primary after all.

"Both sides on every issue" 

I'm worried by the new Republican mantra that Kerry tries to "take both sides on every issue." We shouldn't be too quick to dismiss this as empty propaganda. It just sounds too much like the accusations in 2000 that Gore was a man who would "say and do anything to get elected." In combination with the whole "inventing the internet" nonsense, this meme was hugely damaging to Gore's credibility. Matt Yglasias has a great column deconstructing the "both sides on every issue" attack. And here's an impressive list of Bush's flip-flops. Like many of Kerry's supposed flip-flops, many of these just don't sound that bad. I think the message should be that it's okay to change your views on the issues once in a while.

"Stealth enactment" of Patriot Act II 

This isn't a new story, but there are several reasons I'm bringing it up again. First, it never really got the attention it deserved. The mainstream media completely ignored it, although some blogs picked it up. Second, there seems to be a lot of confusion about exactly what legislation was passed, and I want to set the story straight. Finally, there is evidence that this was not an isolated incident but rather the first instance of a general strategy of sneaking Patriot II provisions bit by bit into other bills, and I want to alert readers as to what to expect next.

What is Patriot II? Officially called the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003, it's a draft bill that the Department of Justice was working on before an anonymous staffer leaked it to the press last year. The act dramatically expands search and wiretap privileges for law enforcement, including searches conducted entirely without a warrant; gives the federal government the ability to create a database of American citizens' DNA; makes it a crime to refuse to hand over documents to the federal government; allows for secret arrests in terrorism cases, even in the absence of criminal charges; and suspends the right of habeas corpus review for any alien, even a lawful permanent resident, convicted of even a minor crime. Perhaps most troubling is a provision stating that American citizens can, though their actions, "implicitly renounce" their citizenship, permitting them to be "indefinitely imprisoned in their own country as undocumented aliens."

When the draft of Patriot II was leaked to the press last February, it naturally caused an uproar, and the bill was shelved. Or so we thought. In July, Ashcroft and crew came out with something called the Victory Act, which repackaged portions of Patriot II under the guise of fighting "narcoterrorism." Again, public outcry quashed the bill.

Last November, libertarian congressman Ron Paul (R-TX) cryptically warned: "It appears we are witnessing a stealth enactment of the enormously unpopular 'PATRIOT II' legislation." This vague and alarming statement was met mostly with silence; where it was noticed, it was met with confusion. So what actually happened?

Congress did not pass the entire Patriot Act II or even a substantial part of it. What it passed was something called the Intelligence Authorization Act of 2004, a routine spending bill which included one Patriot Act II provision as a rider. The text of this provision reads:
For purposes of this section, and sections 1115 and 1117 insofar as they relate to the operation of this section, the term `financial institution' has the same meaning as in subsections (a)(2) and (c)(1) of section 5312 of title 31.
Doesn't look too menacing, does it? What it does is modify a provision of the original Patriot Act which required that banks release financial records to the FBI on demand. By broadening the definition of "financial institution" in the original Patriot Act, the new provision compels insurance agencies, hotels, car dealerships, travel agencies and many other businesses--even eBay--to release records to the FBI on demand, without a warrant or any sort of judicial oversight. The FBI need only issue a letter, which is never reviewed by a court or judge, saying that our national security is at stake. George Paine at Warblogging writes:
Intelligence spending bills are considered "sensitive" and so are usually written in complete secrecy and voted on "without debate or public comment." This makes them ideal for passing controversial legislation that otherwise would never reach the President's desk.
Indeed. And in an obvious effort to avoid media attention, the president signed the bill on the same day, December 13, 2003, that Saddam was captured in Iraq.

It's not over yet, either. According to Caroline Palmer of the National Lawyers Guild, "what was Patriot Act II has been broken into smaller pieces of legislation and sprinkled into Homeland Security and other bills." Ari Schwartz of the Center for Democracy and Technology adds:
Implementing Patriot Act II step-by-step seems to be the plan - unless there's another terrorist attack, in which case they'd go for the whole thing.
In other words, we've only seen the "test case for the Bush Administration's strategy of implementing an unpopular and dangerous slate of policies incrementally, below the radar screen."

In an election year, the administration may put its more extreme attacks on civil liberties on hold. Even so, this article claims the Victory Act is likely to be back in congress this year. We need to be vigilant and on the alert for further "stealth enactments" of Patriot II. By focusing attention on this administration's assault on civil liberties, we can help create a winning issue for the democrats in this election. There is an enormous amount of work to be done: in a recent poll, despite voters' preference for Kerry over Bush on eight of twelve issues including the economy, health care and education, Kerry and Bush are tied when it comes to civil liberties. A full 61% of voters approve of the way Bush has handled civil liberties. That number should be far, far lower. We have our work cut out for us.

links: full text of Patriot II, and a summary from the ACLU.

UPDATE: (via TalkLeft) According to this article, we should be even more concerned about the Bush administration's assault on "threshold rights," the right to know what the government is doing, than with the Patriot Act's assault on civil liberties. I think this may be a false dichotomy--the Patriot Act does a lot to promote government secrecy and restrict "threshold rights"--but the article is well worth reading.

Unpacking the Unemployment Rate 

George Bush has claimed that his tax cuts are responsible for the reduction in the unemployment rate from 6.1% to 5.6% over the last 6 months. Some recent threads on Brad DeLong's web site discuss the role that small business owners, discouraged workers, and the choice of employment data sets may play in the reduction. I agree with DeLong's conclusion, that the best explanation for the reduction in the unemployment rate is that laid off workers have gotten discouraged and stopped looking for work. I'm going to put some statistics on the table to flesh out this argument. The data I use are taken from the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Call the number of people with jobs "E" and the number of people actively looking for jobs "L". The unemployment rate is defined as "L/(E+L)". Unemployment doesn't take into account people who are not looking for work, because it would be misleading to include homemakers and full-time students in the ratio. Notice that the unemployment rate will decrease whenever L gets smaller. L gets smaller when people looking for work find work (so L's turn into E's) or when people stop looking for work (L just goes down with no change in E).

Is the employment rate falling because people are finding jobs, or because they have become discouraged, and stopped looking for work? We can answer this question by looking at another statistic, the employment-population ratio. This is just the proportion of Americans age 16 or older that have jobs. If unemployment is decreasing because people are finding jobs, the fall in the unemployment rate will be accompanied by an increase in the employment-population ratio. If the unemployment decrease is driven by discouraged workers, the emp-pop ratio will stay the same, or even decrease.

Here is a table of the unemployment rates and employment-population ratios for every month from January 2003 to February 2004. Unemployment is listed first, with the emp-pop in parentheses.

2003: 5.8(62.5), 5.9(62.4), 5.8(62.3), 6.0(62.4), 6.1(62.3), 6.3(62.3), 6.2(62.2), 6.1(62.2), 6.1(62.1), 6.0(62.2), 5.9(62.3), 5.7(62.2).

2004: 5.6(62.4), 5.6(62.2).

Overall, the emp-pop ratio has hardly fluctuated from its average of 62.27. I am content to say that the changes in this ratio are within the realm of sampling error, but if you did try to identify a trend it would clearly be downwards. Even if we give Bush the most generous interpretation possible, the fact is that the reduction in the unemployment rate has DEFINITELY NOT been matched by an increase in actual jobs. Conclusion: The fall in unemployment is due to the fact that unemployed people are discouraged and have just stopped looking for work.

Mathematics of the electoral college: part I 

This is the first in what will be a series of posts on the mathematics of the electoral college. Over at Tradesports.com they have odds on Bush winning individual states in November. If we make the (admittedly vastly oversimplifying) assumption that Bush's wins/losses in individual states are independent events, with a bit of thought it's possible to convert these into odds that Bush will win a majority of votes in the electoral college.

One way to do this would be to run a simulation of millions of elections, deciding each state based on the Tradesports odds and keeping track of the number of Bush wins. This would give a good approximate answer. But there's actually a mathematical way to find the exact odds. For those interested in the math involved, here are the details. For the rest, the summary:

chance Kerry wins the election: 31%
chance Kerry wins assuming he wins Ohio: 44%
chance Kerry wins assuming he wins Florida: 49%
chance Kerry wins assuming he wins neither Ohio nor Florida: 14%

Are these numbers too low? Probably. In the real world, wins in one state are positively correlated with wins in other states. If Kerry were to win Ohio, for example, that's probably an indication he performed well nationally, picking up a lot of other swing states and putting his chances at much better than 44%. So the 44% and 49% figures shouldn't be taken too seriously. I don't think the 31% is that far off, though; Tradesports puts Kerry's chances at 37%. And the 14% may even be too high.

The implication is clear: we need either Ohio or Florida! Despite the recent polls showing Kerry ahead in Florida, my guess is that Ohio will be easier to win.
Monday, March 08, 2004

If Gore had won in 2000... 

who would be running against him this year? Any thoughts?

Remember when Bush was just a joke? 

Ah, the good old days...

And an excerpt from one of the debates in 2000 (via And Then...):

JIM LEHRER: New question. How would you go about, as president, deciding when it was in the national interest to use U.S. force?

BUSH: ... I believe the role of the military is to fight and win war and, therefore, prevent war from happening in the first place.

Fundamentalist Islam on the wane 

Fareed Zakaria has an interesting new column arguing that Islamic fundamentalists have found a new enemy to replace the West. That enemy, he says, is Shia Islam. Comparing the 90's, when al Qaeda attacked only "high-profile American targets" like the world trade center and USS Cole, to the past few years, when it has shifted its attacks to soft targets in the Islamic world, Zakaria draws the conclusion that we are winning the war on terror, and that Islamic fundamentalists are looking for a new, less formidable enemy. Matt Yglasias sounds a note of caution, though, pointing out that even if we're winning the war on terror, we shouldn't make the mistake of assuming that we're safe. The possibility of a nuke in a US city is still out there. This begs the troubling question, just what would guarantee our safety?

Draft constitution signed in Iraq 

Sunday, March 07, 2004

Twilight of the Neocons 

An interesting article in Washington Monthly by Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke. They review a new book by Richard Perle, go on to argue that Washington conservatives are disenchanted with Neoconservative thought, and conclude that the Neocons' foreign policy influence will fade, even if Bush is reelected.

I found the link to the article on Talking Points Memo.

Source of Bin Laden spike? 

On Thursday I wrote about a possible close call involving Osama Bin Laden's capture. What led me to conclude that a close call had probably occurred was a temporary spike in the the prices of contracts on Bin Laden's capture on the futures market Tradesports.com. At first, the news that Bin Laden recently escaped a raid by Pakistani troops seemed a likely candidate for this "close call." But the timing is not right. The Pakistani official quoted on this says he received the information "four days ago," which would put the date of the raid on or before Wednesday, March 3rd; whereas the spike at Tradesports occurred on Thursday night March 4th. One possibility is that although the raid happened earlier, the information did not reach Tradesports traders until the night of the 4th.

Other encouraging news: The son of al Qaeda deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri was recently captured in Pakistan, and has provided useful information on the whereabouts of other senior members of al Qaeda. Also, Newsweek thinks we're getting closer to Bin Laden.

Finally, this Asia Times article speculates on the conspiracy theory that, so far, nobody has taken very seriously: could Bin Laden be captured already?

Sierra Club: Rival factions or "hostile takeover"? 

Orcinus makes the seemingly wild claim that in its board elections next month, the Sierra Club faces a possible "hostile takeover by right-wing operatives." Apparently, at least some members of the Sierra Club really do see it that way. But other members have a completely different view. It's hard to know what to make of it all.

Keeping Nader in perspective 

The blogosphere harbors a lot of bad will toward Ralph Nader. While I'm as concerned as anyone about the effect a Nader candidacy will have in November, I think much of the recent vilification of Nader is misguided. Although I disagree with parts of Nader's platform--his view that there is essentially "no difference" between the two major parties is especially infuriating--he does bring up some important issues that aren't addressed by either of the two major parties. Moreover, Nader's role in the 2000 election was not at all unusual by historical standards. A quick look at the role third parties have played in past presidential elections helps to keep things in perspective.

Although third parties never win, they have several times this century dramatically affected the outcome of a presidential election. In 1912, Teddy Roosevelt's "Bull Moose" candidacy split the Republican vote and gave Woodrow Wilson the victory. In 1924, Progressive Party candidate Robert Lafollette took 17% of the vote, allowing Republican Calvin Coolidge to win easily. In 1946, Strom Thurmond's segregationist "Dixiecrat" candidacy carried four states and nearly cost Truman the election. In 1968, another segregationist, George Wallace, carried five states, coming within 50,000 votes of depriving Nixon of an electoral majority, which would have sent the election to the House of Representatives. In 1992, Ross Perot took nearly 19% of the vote; although the exact significance of Perot's role in Clinton's victory is disputed, Perot's candidacy definitely helped Clinton unseat Bush Sr.

By historical standards, Nader's 2.7% in 2000 is not an unusual figure. If the twentieth-century presidential elections are ranked according to what percentage of the vote went to a third party candidate, Nader's 2000 candidacy comes in 11th out of 26, near the middle of the pack. What made Nader's candidacy so significant was not the number of votes he took but the fact that the country was so evenly split. This brings me to an important point. The only substantive role third parties can play in our current political system, at least at the federal level, is the role of spoiler. Third parties' ability to split the vote on either the right or the left and throw elections to the other side is the only source of what small power they have. What this means is that in a polarized and evenly divided country like ours today, third parties wield disproportionately more power.

I wish our electoral system gave third parties a more constructive role in the political process. But as long as the system remains the way it is, the primary role of third parties will be the role of spoiler, and Nader can hardly be blamed for choosing to wield the unusual amount of power he has in our present-day 50-50 nation. Frankly, given a choice between third parties as spoilers and no third parties at all, I'll take the spoliers any day. There are important political viewpoints not expressed by either of the two major parties, and third parties are their only means of expression. Sometimes third parties will hurt the Democrats, as in 2000, and sometimes they'll help, as in 1992. That's just the way it goes. Personally, I'm hoping Roy Moore runs for president! That would cancel out the Nader effect nicely.

Dick Morris: "How Bush can destroy Kerry fast" 

Dick Morris is a political consultant who has worked for both Democrats and Republicans. He was the principal strategic advisor for Clinton's 1996 campaign, an experience he wrote about it one of my favorite political memoirs. Recently, Morris wrote an article outlining a strategy that Bush can use to defeat Kerry.

Morris starts with the observation that the Democratic party made a mistake by choosing Kerry over Edwards. He contends that this move reflects a change from the politically viable pragmatism of Clinton-Gore to the unelectable "liberal extremism" of Mondale and Dukakis. Then he presents a three-point Republican plan:

1. Portray Kerry as an ultra-liberal. Use his opposition to the death penalty, his vote against the 1991 Iraq war, and his opposition to the defense of marriage act as evidence.

2. Convince the public that the War on Terror is the most important item on our national agenda. In Morris' own words, Bush must "elevate the sense of threat." I read that as "deliberately scare the shit out of people." Once the sense of threat is elevated, Morris recommends that Bush attack Kerry's record on defunding the CIA, voting against certain weapon systems, and voting against the $87 billion to fund this war on terror.

3. Transfer power to the Iraqi Governing Council by the June 30th deadline. Get American troops out of Iraq as soon as possible after that deadline. End daily news stories about increasing casualties.

Morris' plan sounds pretty effective. I think his first two points indicate one of Kerry's main weaknesses: That he has been a senator for 20 years. Over that period of time, the voting record of just about any senator could be data-mined for evidence that he was liberal or weak on defense.

However, the strategy also has two potential weaknesses. If Bush tries to frighten Americans with the dangers of the war on terror, does that expose him to the charge that he has not prosecuted that war effectively? Of course, we'll have to wait for the Osama October surprise. But if that surprise never happens, using the threat of terrorism to scare the public may make Bush look as if he hasn't done his job. Then again, if it does happen, will people think the war on terror is over and vote based on the economy?

Second, the short-term Republican political goal of getting our troops out of Iraq is at odds with the long-term Neoconservative goal of maintaining an American military presence in the middle east. Bush needs those troops out of Iraq to get re-elected. Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz need at least some troops to stay behind in order to secure U.S. access to oil. However, they also need to get Bush reelected so that they can pursue their agenda. How will this tension play out?
Saturday, March 06, 2004

Saddam's trial 

Justice Dept seeks 2700 abortion records 

via Ambidextrous: the Justice Department is seeking abortion records on 2700 women from Planned Parenthood offices in several states. Justice insists that federal law "does not recognize a physician-patient privilege," and that patients "no longer possess a reasonable expectation that their histories will remain completely confidential." No shit. What I want to know is why the federal government needs information on people's medical records. Ambidextrous links to a NYtimes article, but it never explains why the DoJ wants this information. Well, I did a bit of research, and it looks like it's political:
Under fire from abortion-rights groups, Attorney General John Ashcroft insisted Thursday that doctor-patient privacy is not threatened by a government attempt to subpoena medical records in a lawsuit over the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act.

At stake are records documenting certain late-term abortions performed by doctors who have joined in a legal challenge of the disputed ban. President Bush signed the act into law last year.

Critics of the subpoenas accuse the Justice Department of trying to intimidate doctors and patients involved in the contested type of abortion.
So the records in question were subpoenaed in a lawsuit over the "partial birth" abortion ban. That's interesting, because according to the New York Times:
The demand for files is not limited to records of [partial birth] abortion... The government also seeks these materials for the last three years:
  • Records of any second-trimester abortion in which the patient suffered a medical complication, regardless of the technique.

  • Records of any case in which a doctor caused a fetus's death by injecting chemical agents in the womb in the second or third trimester.

  • Documents related to any medical malpractice claims arising from certain abortions.

  • The names of all doctors who have performed any type of abortion.

Constitutional wrangling in Iraq 

Juan Cole has a good summary of today's constitutional wrangling in Iraq. The provisional constitution was supposed to be signed today, but five hard-line Shiite council members backed out at the last minute, apparently at the instruction of the Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Meteor Blades on Kos has more.

New contributor: Rick Eurich 

Odd Hours now has a second contributor! Rick Eurich did political finance work for Robert Reich's campaign for governor of Massachusetts. He is currently a graduate student in finance at the London School of Economics. His first post is on Enron, Martha, and Corporate Crime.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee on Haiti and Iraq 

Went to see Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) speak today on foreign policy, and I have to say I'm proud to be served by such an enlightened member of congress. Lee spoke eloquently on the importance of the rule of law in international affairs, even for the world's sole superpower. She warned of the dangerous precedent set by Bush's doctrine of preemptive war. On Haiti, she confirmed Jeffrey Sachs' charge that the Bush administration "wanted Aristide out from the start," and explained how the current crisis arose out of three years of "systematic destabilization of the country" at the hands of the administration. It's remarkable how similar Haiti is to Iraq in this respect. This administration took power with a set agenda prescribing regime change in a list of countries, and that agenda has been unwaveringly enacted, first in Iraq and now in Haiti.

Do computer viruses mutate? 

I recently got an email message from staff@berkeley.edu saying that people had complained about spam and virus-filled emails being sent from my address. I probably had a virus, the message said, and there were instructions for getting rid of it in the attached file. Turned out the attachment itself was a virus! I nearly fell for it; it was only the bad grammar and strange attachment name ("message.pif") that made me suspicious. The whole thing got me wondering: do computer viruses mutate the way real viruses do? According to Symantec, the answer is yes!
Each time a macro virus tries to spread, there is a chance it will inadvertently become corrupted or mutate; thus creating a new macro virus also capable of spreading. A large number of today's macro viruses exist because of this phenomenon.
What surprises me about this is that the overwhelming majority of file corruptions will result in a completely defunct virus, one which does nothing at all or simply crashes the host computer. Of course, one could make the same argument about genetic mutations in life. Okay. But although I can't prove it, I would guess that unlike computer code, the genetic code has evolved to be able to "withstand" mutations well. Changing a random allele in a genome will produce some biologically meaningful changes in the phenotype, while changing a random bit in a piece of computer code is likely to produce total junk. Even more unbelievable:
There are also many documented cases of two or more macro viruses mating with each other, combining in the same document to form wholly new macro virus strains, which share characteristics of both parent viruses.
UPDATE: Anyone know why so many viruses have such bad spelling and grammar? This article says it's because they're all created by people in Asia and Eastern Europe who don't speak English well, but I don't buy it. Another one wonders: "If the people who create these viruses are intelligent enough to program a virus that can infect millions, why is it they can't seem to form a coherent sentence?"

Enron, Martha, and Corporate Crime 

Yesterday, Martha Stewart was found guilty of conspiracy to violate securities laws, obstruction of justice, and making false statements. She faces a potential sentence of 16 months in prison. The verdict in this case got me thinking: Why is it that the media goes out of their way to tie Martha Stewart to Enron? The New York Times story on her conviction mentions the Houston energy company as early as the second paragraph.

Linking Martha to Enron is misleading. I think the media groups them together because both were involved in white-collar crime, and because Martha gives an otherwise boring story celebrity appeal. An expose on the technical details of Enron's fraud would put viewers to sleep, but the chance to see a celebrity get nailed keeps people tuned in. This is problematic, because it may keep people from realizing that Enron's crimes were far more serious.

Investors trade stocks based on the future prospects of a company as represented by that company's financial statements. The statements report the company's profit or losses for the year, as well as the assets and debts that the company has accumulated over its lifetime. What Enron executives essentially did was to create small private companies (or trusts) that were subsidiaries of Enron. They then used these trusts to take out loans to finance Enron's business activities. The executives did not disclose the amount of these loans on Enron's balance sheet, arguing that they were not required to because the loans had nominally been taken out by subsidiaries. This failure to disclose debt is illegal because it fails the requirement that financial statements present a "true and fair view" of the firm. (Exciting stuff, huh?)

If a company lacks the cash to pay off its debts it goes into bankruptcy. In most cases, investors can avoid these companies by looking at their balance sheets. An investor looking at Enron's balance sheet in 2000 would have seen a company in perfect financial health. Enron's executives knew better. They realized that the Enron's share price of $80 was ridiculously high for a company on the verge of bankruptcy, and sold their shares.

Essentially, Fastow, Skilling, and Lay inflated the value of their stock by lying, and sold their personal holdings for over $1 billion dollars. In addition, Enron's pension plan legally required employees to hold Enron stock in their pensions until they reached age 50. As the stock collapsed, Enron's employees watched helplessly as their total retirement savings fell by $1 billion dollars. The Enron's fraud also reduced the value of the entire stock market, as foreign and domestic investors became skeptical of US accounting numbers.

By contrast, Martha Stewart made $45,000. While she took advantage of insider information, she didn't lie to anyone in the course of making that money. Martha owned shares in a pharmaceutical company called IMClone. When she found out that IMClone's ant-cancer drug Erbitux had not received FDA approval she sold her stock in the company. This sale was illegal because it occurred two days before Erbitux's rejection was publicly announced.

While Martha's actions were illegal, her 16 month punishment bothers me because insider trading happens on Wall Street every day. The systematic manipulation of accounting statements to artificially inflate stock prices does not. Martha's case went to trial because she is famous, and because financial crimes are currently in vogue. This would be easier to swallow if more of Enron's executives were held accountable for their crimes. So far, CEO Ken Lay and the other guys at the top have escaped prosecution. Maybe Martha should have gotten her act together and, like Enron's execs, given more money to Bush's 2000 campaign.
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