Save the Prairie Dogs!!

or, Why political control of the bureaucracy matters.  This Washington Post story describes how a Bush political appointee at the Interior Department has repeatedly rejected the recommendations of government scientists to protect various endangered species.  The key facts:

A senior Bush political appointee at the Interior Department has
rejected staff scientists' recommendations to protect imperiled animals
and plants under the Endangered Species Act at least six times in the
past three years, documents show.

In addition, staff complaints
that their scientific findings were frequently overruled or disparaged
at the behest of landowners or industry have led the agency's inspector
general to look into the role of Julie MacDonald, who has been deputy
assistant secretary of the interior for fish and wildlife and parks
since 2004, in decisions on protecting endangered species.

The documents show that MacDonald has repeatedly refused to go along
with staff reports concluding that species such as the white-tailed
prairie dog  and the Gunnison sage grouse are at risk of extinction.
Career officials and scientists urged the department to identify the
species as either threatened or endangered.

So, in short, a political appointee without expertise in endangered species is overruling the professional opinions of government scientists who have their jobs because of their merit, not because of who they know.  Just one example of the many small ways in which it matter who (i.e., President Bush) is appointing the top level management at government bureaucracies. 

The government does not want you to have sex!

At least not if you are unmarried (i.e., 99% of my students).  Apparently, the failed abstinence only policy for high school sex education is not enough (trust me, there's copious evidence that this does not work) and now the Department of Health and Human Services is pushing abstinence for adults aged 20-29.  That's right, your federal tax dollars at work encouraging you not to have sex.  How's that for keeping the federal government off your back?

Karl Rove, boy genius?

I was explaining about electoral college strategy in my campaigns and elections class today and I told the story of how Rove sent Bush into California the weekend before the 2000 election in a supposed show of confidence and strength.  Bush, of course, lost Florida handily– had the ultimate result turned out differently, Rove's “genius” surely would have been called into question over this maneuver.  How nice, then, to return from class, check in at Talking Points Memo and see that one of my blogging role models, Josh Marshall, has addressed this very point in a post today:

It was about a stunt Rove pulled that almost lost Bush the presidency in 2000.

Going into the big day the polls all showed a very, very close race,
with perhaps ever so slight an edge for Bush. Conventional logic would
have dictated sending Bush to swing states like Florida. But that's not
what Rove did. He chose instead to send Bush to California and New
Jersey — states Bush could only have any hope of winning in a
blow-out. The reasoning was simple. Rove figured that he could
accomplish more through convincing mainly the press, but also activists
and even highly-plugged voters, that Bush was going to win big than he
would by sending his guy into a state like Florida for some last minute
retail politicking.

It's the bandwagon effect. Psyche out the other side. Act like
you're winning and you'll charge up your activists/voters and
demoralize the folks on the other side. Mainly, get the press to
believe your hype and they'll do the charging up and demoralizing for
you. As it happened, it was a really dumb decision in 2000. If not for
faulty ballots and election stealing, Bush would have lost Florida and
the presidency. And given the margin, at least conceivable that Bush
could have won fair and square had he spent the last few days on the ground in Florida.

This is part of a larger post about how both Democrats and Republicans remain convinced that Rove has some trick up his sleeve to save this election for the Republicans.  I'm definitely with Marshall that Rove is basically just trying to bluff.  Karl Rove may be super-evil (just kidding), but he's not super-human. 

Yellow Dog

Michael Kinsley had a column in Slate today espousing the virtues of yellow-dogism.  Historically, many Democrats, especially in the Solid South, were referred to as “Yellow Dog Democrats” because they would vote for a yellow dog before they would vote for a Republican.  This is quite an unfashionable idea in modern American politics where you are supposed to vote for the best person, not the party, but Kinsley nicely explains why it makes sense to vote based purely on party– especially in political times as these:

There is nothing wrong with voting for the party and not the person.
There is even nothing wrong with blindly voting for the Democrat (or, I
suppose, the Republican) even if you know nothing else about him or
her. In other democracies, such as Britain, this person-not-the-party
piety is not just unknown but would be hard to comprehend. Whatever
Burke may have said, a member of Parliament is your representative. He
or she runs on a party platform promising various things, and if that
party wins a majority of seats it “forms a government.” You would be
silly to vote for the person and not the party. The party's views are
what counts. The person's own views are almost irrelevant.

Even
under the American arrangement, there is nothing ignoble about voting
the party line. It is an efficient way to minimize your information
costs. Voting is an irrational act: Despite what they drum into you
starting in kindergarten, your vote does not matter unless
it's a tie. And even 2000 was not a tie. The more effort you put into
learning about the candidates, the more irrational voting becomes, and
the more likely you are not to bother. A candidate's party affiliation
doesn't tell you everything you would like to know, but it tells you
something. In fact, it tells you a lot–?enough so that it even makes
sense to vote your party preference even when you know nothing else
about a candidate. Or even vote for a candidate that you actively
dislike.

Kinsley considers the example of Connecticut's Chris Shays– a solid person and quite moderate Republican by all accounts.  Yet, Shays is just 1 of 435 members of the House and he will vote for Republican House leadership.  If somebody is opposed to the agenda of the Republican leadership, they should vote against Shays, period.  I'm proud to be a yellow dog Democrat.  I'd rather have an incompetent boob pursuing policies I agree with than a skillful politician pursuing policies I think are bad for the country.  I've often said that my own yellow dog would be preferable to George Bush.

At least she wouldn't screw things up.  And she'd surely be much better at diplomacy. 

 

Terrorists are Democrats?

A rather disturbing theme from Republicans lately has taken to suggesting that insurgents/”terrorists” in Iraq (I think a case can be made that the two are quite distinct) have stepped up the level of violence in order to help the Democrats win the midterm elections.  A pretty scurilous and accusation, but pretty typical for this gang.  The Carpetbagger has been good enough to document some recent quotes:

Q: Are the terrorists trying to influence our election in your view?

Cheney: I think they're very much aware of our political calendar
here, I really do. And when you see the kinds of things that happened
this year, for example, when the Democratic Party in Connecticut purged
Joe Lieberman, in effect, drummed him out of the party on the grounds
that he had supported the President in the global war on terror, that
sends a message to the terrorists overseas that their basic strategy of
trying to break the will of the American people may, in fact, work. [..]

Q: I have a Pentagon source that tells me there are websites out
there that they've just recently translated that actually refer to the
election and ask for an up-tick in violence to try and influence the
election, is that accurate?

Cheney: I wouldn't be surprised. It sounds right to me….

Cheney: “[T]he terrorists are actually involved and want
to involve themselves in our electoral process, which must mean they
want a change.”

Bush: “There?s certainly a stepped up level of violence, and we?re heading into an election.”

Tony Snow: “[I]t is possible that [terrorists] are trying to use violence right now as a way of influencing the elections.”

Rumsfeld: “Here they are, getting up every day saying, 'We've got an
election in two weeks in America, gang, and we want to change horses
over there because we don't like the folks we're having to deal with
now; they're a little tough on us. So let's get out there and let's
make some noise.'”

I was going to write my own summary, but I'll just go with the Carpetbagger's:

How painfully ridiculous. First, Bush has already admitted that there's no intelligence to suggest that terrorists are trying to influence the elections.

And second, if terrorists were intent on affecting our campaign cycle, who, exactly, would they want to help? Al Qaeda wants the war in Iraq to continue, the RNC is paying considerable amounts of money to publicize enemy propaganda film, and the CIA has intelligence showing that bin Laden has timed messages to help Bush politically, for fear that a Democrat might undermine al Qaeda's gameplan.

I'll just second that and say it seems pretty clear that the Bush administration is about the best recruiting tool Islamist milititants have ever had. 

My family is bucking the trend

Interesting story in the News & Observer this week about how blue eyes are becoming ever more rare in the United States:

Once a hallmark of the boy and girl next door, blue eyes have become
increasingly rare among American children. Immigration patterns,
intermarriage and genetics all play a part in their steady decline.
While the drop-off has been a century in the making, the plunge in the
past few decades has taken place at a remarkable rate.

About half
of Americans born at the turn of the century had blue eyes, according
to a 2002 Loyola University study in Chicago. By midcentury that number
had dropped to a third. Today only about one of every six Americans has
blue eyes, said Mark Grant, the epidemiologist who conducted the study.

As you can see here, our three red-haired, blue-eyed boys are bucking the trend. 

On a side note, when I was trying to find this article on-line, I also came across this article about a recent Norwegian study that suggests that blue eyes can be a clue to paternity.  Don't worry, I've got blue eyes in my family :-).  Here's the study in a nutshell:

According to their study, blue-eyed men find blue-eyed women more
attractive than brown-eyed women due to an unconscious male desire to
be able to determine paternity.

The laws of genetics result in offspring of two blue-eyed parents
having blue eyes while if both parents have brown eyes then
three-quarters of the children will have brown eyes and one-quarter
will have blue.

As the brown-eye section in genes is dominant over blue, it follows
that if a child born to parents who both have blue eyes does not itself
have blue eyes then the blue-eyed father is not the biological father.

The researchers argue that is therefore “reasonable” to expect that
a man would be more attracted towards a woman who displays a trait that
increases his paternal confidence and the likelihood that he could
uncover his partner's infidelity.

New Jersey’s Gay Marriage decision

It is a little early to see what the political impact of the New Jersey Supreme Court's decision on gay marriage will be, but I wanted to go ahead and weigh in with some thoughts on the decision.  Basically, what the court decided is that New Jersey must allow civil unions– whether they will be “marriage” or not is up to the state legislature, but the legal rights of a marriage, i.e., taxes, survivorship, health care decisions, etc. cannot be denied to same sex couples. This is actually quite similar to the position the Vermont Supreme Court took several years ago.  It is also worth noting that in the 4-3 decision, the dissent did so because they thought the NJ Constitution demanded actual marriage, not just civil unions. 

Surely, the conservative Christian right sees this as a big break before the elections to help mobilize their base.  It may very well do that (though I think at this point it would take a lot more to keep the House from going to the Democrats).  Nonetheless, this decision actually captures, as well as any can, the sense of the American public on the issue.  Public opinion polls tend to show that, by a small margin, more Americans are in favor of some sort of legal recognition for same-sex unions (marriage or civil union) than are completely opposed to gay marriage or civil unions. 

There is admittedly some variance based on question wording, but the civil union position clearly has wide acceptance. 

In her Slate.com column, Dahlia Lithwick also nicely explained that this is not judicial activism, as its critics are surely already claiming.  I'll let her have the last word:

This case is about New Jersey. It's about that state's constitution
and that state's statutory scheme, which rejects the treatment of
homosexuals as “second class” citizens. This 4-3 decision reflects a
compromise position between mandating gay marriage and tolerating
bigotry. It also happens to reflect the preferences of the majority of
New Jersey citizens?not that this matters for legal purposes, but it
should certainly diffuse claims about judicial activists who override
the will of the people.

If you care at all about states' rights
and state autonomy, read this decision. If you believe in judicial
minimalism, read this decision. If you think judges should engage in
careful scrutiny of state law, read this decision before blasting it as
activism. This was a state court taking care of state business.

Memo to Karl Rove: Those who oppose this decision aren't opposed to judicial activism. They are opposed to judges.

Frogs!

It's been a while since I've had an interesting (or at least I think
they are) animal posting.  Today's Post had a very intersting story on the highly endangered Golden Frog of Panama.  The story details how a hotel in Panama has basically become an endangered species sanctuary for this frog, which is beloved in Panama. 

“Thus is the lot of Panama's — and perhaps the world's — most unusual
hotel VIPs, the darling little Panamanian golden frogs of El Valle de
Anton. The frogs, considered so lucky in Panama that their images
appear on lottery tickets, are in big trouble. They're on the run from
a vicious fungus that has already wiped out as many as 120 species of
amphibians in Central America.”

Frogs all over the
Americas are dying out from a fungus that attacks their skin.  Amphibians breathe through their
skin, so the fungus basically causes them to suffocate.  Over 120 species of frogs in Central America have already gone extinct.  I've been following this story for a while, as red-eyed tree frogs are a big deal in our household (as can clearly be evidenced by David's 6th birthday cake). 

This past winter, Quirks and Quarks had a disturbing story on this growing problem.  Here's an NSF press release detailing the extent of the problem.  I recall that one scientist suggested that Amphibians could potentially be the first complete Class of animals to go extinct since the dinosaurs.

Final thoughts on Mark Warner

Thought I'd stick with the Democratic nomination campaign of 2008 and add in some final thoughts on Mark Warner (here's my earlier thoughts) based Ryan Lizza's recent article in The New Republic (subscription only).  I speculated that maybe Warner really did not want to run and really meant it when he said he wanted to spend time with his family.  After spending time with him on the campaign trail here are some of Lizza's comments on the matter:

But, no matter how well things seemed to
be going for Warner, privately he was filled with self-doubt. He had
built a machine that was hurling him forward toward a presidential race
that he actually didn't want to enter….

Up in the air flying home from his
successful but draining trip to New Hampshire, Warner turned around in
his seat to chat with me. It was his daughter's birthday, and, instead
of being with her, he had been buying garlic bread at a farmer's market
in Keene and answering hostile questions from TV reporters about why he
refused to denounce the Nevada caucuses as “reprehensible.” Even worse,
he was now trapped on a seven-seater airplane with a reporter who had
been shadowing him for an exhausting 48 hours. I pressed him on whether
he was really going to run. His response shocked me at the time. He
bent in close, looked me in the eye and asked, “Would you want to do this?”

Here's Lizza's conclusion (not all that different from mine):

Every governor or senator thinks about
running for president. Most do so because they are ambitious and see
the presidency as the next rung on America's political ladder. The big
question they often ask is strategic. How can I make it through the
process and get elected? In the end, that's not the question Warner
asked. His advisers swear that the nuances of the primaries and the
details of how to topple Hillary Clinton never came up in his final
deliberations. Warner asked not whether he could be president, but whether he should
be president. The irony of Warner's answer is that the kind of person
who dwells on that question is the kind of person you want to be
president.


My thoughts on Obama

A lot of political discussion this week has been over Illinois Senator Barak Obama's admission on Meet the Press that he is seriously considering a run for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 2008.  The amount of attention this has generated says a lot about Obama and his potential chances.  Democrats are looking for an anti-Hillary and with Mark Warner dropping out there are not too many contendors for that role. 

Obama is a great political candidate who seems to have all the political intangibles that cannot be bought, i.e., charisma, instincts, great speaker, great intellect (though, that one unfortunately does not count for enough politically), etc.  But being a great political candidate is not the same as having a solid political resume.  I love all of Obama's intangibles but less than a full term in the U.S. Senate and time in the Illinois state Senate are far from the ideal credentials for a presidential candidate.  One of the reasons that Mark Warner seemed to have so much promise was that he was a very successful Democratic governor from a red state.  There's just not all that much Obama can do as a Senator to convince voters that he really has what it takes to be president.  If Obama would make a good president I think it is largely because of his intangibles and I don't think another term in the Senate would really make him all that much better prepared.  I personally have a strong bias for former governors– just not from Texas :-)– but I think it is better to have somebody with the right political skills and abilities from the Senate than to have a person lacking the essential political abilities coming from a governor's mansion.

The reason Obama is drawing so much political attention is because he truly has a rare (shall we say, “Clintonian” and I don't mean Hillary) set of political abilites.  Democrats are really hungry for a candidate with that potential superstar appeal that has not existed since Bill Clinton.  As a professional observer of politics, I think it would be fascinating to see how the conflict between his great skills but thin resume would play out in the primaries.  On the one hand, we already saw that to some degree with Edwards in 2004, but I suspect that Obama's tremendous abilities as a speaker give him a leg up on Edwards.  Here's hoping that we'll see. 

Duke Lacrosse and Confirmatory Bias

A very interesting and thorough commentary on the Duke Lacrosse case recently at the “Durham in Wonderland” blog extensively details the utter failings of the Durham PD in properly investigating the Duke Lacrosse case.  Some highlights:

First, what the police didn'?t investigate:

On
April 6, in her first and (as far as we know) only written statement to
police, the accuser described a crime in which Kim Roberts played a
central role. Roberts had already given her statement, on March 22, the
first time she met with police. So too did the captains. So too did the
accuser?s ?drivers.? So too, to my knowledge, did every witness in this
case?except for the accuser. For reasons never revealed, the police
waited 21 days after first interviewing the accuser to take her
statement.

In the event, the accuser claimed that:

  • Roberts was crying, in the house, after racial epithets occurred in the dance;
  • she
    was separated from Roberts at the bathroom door, with three other
    lacrosse players dragging Roberts off into parts unknown;
  • Roberts and one of the people who attacked her dressed the accuser after the attack.

Roberts?
statement contained nothing even resembling these items. Moreover, if
true, the accuser?s statement meant that no fewer than six people at
the party committed a crime that evening?the three people who attacked
her, and their three accomplices who dragged Roberts away from her at
the bathroom door….

If Roberts was never re-interviewed, how did
Nifong determine that the accuser?s version of events was more credible
than that of Roberts? And on what basis did Nifong?as he did in
May?clear the other 43 white members of the lacrosse team of all
suspicion, since according to the accuser, at least three more of them
committed a crime?

It would seem as if Nifong employed the following investigative technique:

  • He believed only the elements of the accuser?s story that aided his desire to get indictments before the election;
  • He
    disbelieved the elements of the accuser?s story that he hadn?t
    described as elements of the crime in his March 27-April 3 publicity
    barrage (i.e., that three players tore Roberts away from the accuser at
    the bathroom door, an allegation the accuser first made on April 6);
  • He
    declined to re-interview Roberts so he could avoid basing arrests on an
    accuser?s tale that a police investigation had proven false.

Basically, the police and Nifong were quite guilty of what psychologists refer to as “confirmatory bias.”  As defined nicely at wikipedia, “Confirmation bias is a phenomenon wherein decision makers have been
shown to actively seek out and assign more weight to evidence that
confirms their hypothesis, and ignore or underweigh evidence that could
disconfirm their hypothesis. As such, it can be thought of as a form of
selection bias in collecting evidence.” 

What strikes me is that time after time when I read about the wrong people being arrested, this is exactly what happened.  The police “find their man,” stop investigating, and discount all further evidence that does not support their original (and premature) conclusion.  The destructive power of this bias in policework is made no more clear than in one of the most brilliant documentaries I have ever seen, “Murder on a Sunday Morning,” about the mis-arrest and police abuse of a teenage Black male in Florida.  You really, really should watch it. And as for the Duke Lacrosse case, this is just further evidence of a miscarriage of justice.

“Stay the Course”

One thing that amazes me about the Bush administration is their willingness to make outright, bald-faced lies that can be easily refuted.  The latest example, as nicely summarized at Think Progress, was Bush disavowing “Stay the Course,” now that Republicans have realized this slogan is a failure…

STEPHANOPOULOS: James Baker says that he?s looking for something between ?cut and run? and ?stay the course.?

BUSH: Well, hey, listen, we?ve never been ?stay the course,? George.
We have been ? we will complete the mission, we will do our job, and
help achieve the goal, but we?re constantly adjusting to tactics.
Constantly.

The reality:

BUSH: We will stay the course. [8/30/06]

BUSH: We will stay the course, we will complete the job in Iraq. [8/4/05]

BUSH: We will stay the course until the job is done, Steve. And the
temptation is to try to get the President or somebody to put a
timetable on the definition of getting the job done. We?re just going
to stay the course. [12/15/03]

BUSH: And my message today to those in Iraq is: We?ll stay the course. [4/13/04]

BUSH: And that?s why we?re going to stay the course in Iraq. And
that?s why when we say something in Iraq, we?re going to do it. [4/16/04]

BUSH: And so we?ve got tough action in Iraq. But we will stay the course. [4/5/04]

Dan Froomkin's latest column nicely summarizes what this all really boils down to:

But as I wrote in Friday's column , even the best and most flexible tactics, in pursuit of an ill-chosen strategy, will not achieve the desired goals.

Cutting
through the rhetoric, it's quite clear what Bush's Iraq strategy has
been up until now. In short: American troops will be there to provide
security as long as it takes for a democratic central government to
take hold. But there will be no clearly defined metrics against which
to measure success, no ultimatums to the Iraqi government, and no
timetables — because those would embolden the enemy.

Thus far,
Bush has remained steadfast in this strategy — even as American
casualties spike, as the country descends into a state of civil war,
and as the central government has yet to provide any evidence
whatsoever of its ability to take real control over anything.

The administration does this because they count on the so-called liberal media not calling them on their outright lies.  It will be interesting to see what happens in this case.

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