Its all politics (even when it shouldn’t be)

One thing we have the right to expect in this country is that US Attorneys, who have very important positions of upholding federal laws, should be honest, good at what they do, and able to keep their jobs based primarily on those criteria.  Alas, it seems the Bush administration does not see it that way.  In a criminally under-reported story (I'll save more media bashing for another day), the Bush Department of Justice has purged a number of qualified attorneys for what appear to be completely political reasons– and these are not supposed to be political jobs, mind you.  At first, the DOJ lamely insisted these individuals had weak performance evaluations only to then claim that the performance evaluations missed a lot (like being a political hack, apparently) when it was revealed that the fired attorneys had good evaluations. 

In a NYT Op-Ed earlier this week, Adam Cohen makes a persuasive case for just how problematic this is:

Carol Lam, the former United States attorney for San Diego, is smart
and tireless and was very good at her job. Her investigation of
Representative Randy Cunningham resulted in a guilty plea for taking
more than $2 million in bribes from defense contractors and a sentence
of more than eight years. Two weeks ago, she indicted Kyle Dustin
Foggo, the former No. 3 official in the C.I.A. The defense-contracting
scandal she pursued so vigorously could yet drag in other politicians.

In
many Justice Departments, her record would have won her awards, and
perhaps a promotion to a top post in Washington. In the Bush Justice
Department, it got her fired.

Ms. Lam is one of at least seven
United States attorneys fired recently under questionable
circumstances. The Justice Department is claiming that Ms. Lam and
other well-regarded prosecutors like John McKay of Seattle, David
Iglesias of New Mexico, Daniel Bogden of Nevada and Paul Charlton of
Arizona ? who all received strong job evaluations ? performed
inadequately.

It is hard to call what?s happening anything other
than a political purge. And it?s another shameful example of how in the
Bush administration, everything ? from rebuilding a hurricane-ravaged
city to allocating homeland security dollars to invading Iraq ? is
sacrificed to partisan politics and winning elections.

U.S. attorneys have enormous power. Their decision to investigate or
indict can bankrupt a business or destroy a life. They must be, and
long have been, insulated from political pressures. Although appointed
by the president, once in office they are almost never asked to leave
until a new president is elected. The Congressional Research Service
has confirmed how unprecedented these firings are. It found that of 486
U.S. attorneys confirmed since 1981, perhaps no more than three were
forced out in similar ways ? three in 25 years, compared with seven in
recent months.

Check out the whole column and let your disgust grow with the Bush administration putting politics above good government at every turn.  On the bright side, with Democrats controlling Congress we can expect appropriate investigations into this unjust politicizing of Justice.  You can bet that would not have been the case with Republicans in control.  Here's hoping that the Congress takes appropriate action to get to the bottom of this.  I won't even bother hoping that the newsmedia gives it the coverage its due. 

UPDATE: Just a short time after I initially posted this, the Washington Post went up with an article about how one of the fired attorneys believes he lost his job because Republican lawmakers had been pressuring him to issue indictments of Democratic politicians before the November elections. 

Fame vs. Quality

I was intrigued during lunch the other day with a couple of fellow liberal political science professor colleagues to find that Bill Richardson was the top choice for Democratic presidential nominee for all of us.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of the voting public has not even heard of the man who has far and away the best governing and best political resume to win the presidency.  It did make me wonder about the nature of Richardson's supporters– the smart, ear-to-the-political-ground, NPR, professorial set?  I am genuinely curious.  Alas, with no more than 7% support in any national polls, it would even be hard to do the statistical analyses to meaningfully answer that question.  Matt Yglesias had a nice column recently in the American Prospect pointing out just how ridiculous it is that Richardson is being completely ignored despite his extraordinary credentials (which I talked about briefly last month):

We'll leave aside, momentarily, the fact that
Richardson is clearly more qualified for the White House than anyone
else in the race, since everyone knows that doesn't
matter. Just consider the bare fact that he's the popular, second-term
governor of a swing state — you know, the sort of person who back in
the day used to win presidential elections. And it's not as if
Richardson isn't getting attention because the field is crowded with
popular second-term governors of swing states. No. We're too excited
about the first-term senator from Illinois whose only competitive
election in the past was against Bobby Rush — and who lost. Or that
vice presidential nominee from a losing ticket…

But now we're getting back to the small matter of
qualifications. Traditionally, Americans have turned to governors to
serve as president, thinking that experience in executive office and
with complicated managerial tasks outweighs the experience with federal
policy issues that members of Congress can count in their favor.
Happily, Richardson spent over a decade in the House of Representatives
before becoming governor. In between, he was America's
ambassador the United Nations, wracking up a level of national security
experience that none of the other contenders can match. And did I
mention he was also Secretary of Energy? Too bad nobody thinks energy
independence and global climate change are important policy areas in
which it would be good for the chief executive to have some knowledge.
Oh, well.

Yglesias goes on to argue (interestingly, but not entirely persuasively) that having a chance at being president now is all about being famous.

In retrospect, however, Bush was less the last of
the governor presidents than a transition to the new era in which, to
be president, you need to be a famous celebrity. Mayors of New York
City are always famous, because the people who run the media live in
New York. Hence, Rudy Giuliani is a serious candidate (and even Michael
Bloomberg is considered a more serious possibility than he should be).
John McCain spent all of 1999, 2000, and 2001 chasing positive press
and became famous in the process — so he's a serious candidate. Barack
Obama has an extremely interesting personal story and was one of the
only Democratic successes in 2004, so he became famous and now he's a
serious candidate. John Edwards got famous running on a national
ticket, so he's a serious candidate. Hillary Clinton's husband used to
be president (you may have heard), so she's famous and she's a serious
candidate. Most absurdly, Mitt Romney happened to preside over the
Massachusetts gay marriage controversy, thus becoming famous and,
therefore, a serious candidate…

The overall pattern, however, is a striking
change from the past. What's more, the change seems driven almost
entirely by the national media, which simply decided unilaterally some
years ago to only cover people who were already famous.

Sadly, I do think that Yglesias is probably right in laying the majority of the blame for the media.  However, the media is always an easy scapegoat.  Whether its Obama vs. Hillary or Anna Nicole Smith, they just give us what we want.  Yglesias concludes, and I agree:

This isn't something we should
take lying down. I'm not going to tell you to vote for Bill Richardson,
or even that I'm going to vote for Bill Richardson. But, at a minimum,
I'd like to learn more, and you should, too.

Boys and Guns

Jonathan Turley, GW law professor and father of two boys and one girl, had a great essay in yesterday's Washington Post about letting our kids play with guns.  A social liberal who is no big fan of guns, Turley nonetheless lets his boys play with toy guns (his daughter has no interest), and has interestingly found himself a social pariah at the playground and other places simply because his boys were playing Buzz Lightyear.  Like many a good liberal, Turley actively tried to keep his boys from becoming interested in guns only to find that before long they were “shooting” each other with celery.  The Y chromosome is a powerful thing.  Among the most interesting parts of the article is Turley's catalog of some of the extreme over-reactions to boys playing with toy guns.  Here's a couple:

· In Arkansas, an 8-year-old boy was punished for pointing a cooked chicken strip at another student and saying “pow, pow, pow.”

· In Georgia, a 5-year-old student was suspended after he brought a plastic gun the size of a quarter to his kindergarten class.

Other than water guns, David has never had too much interest in guns.  He does love a good light saber battle though (he would make a fine Jedi Knight).  Somehow, I think he'll end up okay.  Anyway, its a great essay that touches on developmental psychology, gender differences, and crazy zero tolerance policies.  You should read the whole thing.

Want to be more popular? Lie

The Washington Post's Shankar Vedantam had a very interesting article about lying earlier this week in the context of Scooter Libby's perjury trial.  According to psychological research, we lie all the time:

Experiments have found that ordinary people tell about two lies every
10 minutes, with some people getting in as many as a dozen falsehoods
in that period. More interestingly — and Libby might see this as the
silver lining if he is found guilty — Feldman also found that liars
tend to be more popular than honest people…

“It is not that lying makes you popular, but knowing when to say
something and not be completely blunt is in fact a social skill,”
Feldman said. “We don't want to hear hurtful things, so a person who is
totally honest may not be as popular as someone who lies. This is not
to say lying is a good thing, but it is the way the social world
operates.”…

“We want everyone to be honest, but it is not clear what to do when
honesty bumps up against other values — caring about another person,
their feelings,” said Bella DePaulo, a social psychologist at the
University of California at Santa Barbara. “People say they want to
hear the truth, but that is in the abstract. Would you tell someone,
'Tell me all the things about me you don't like, all the things that
annoy you'?”

Of course, every husband/boyfriend understands that lying is a key to a happy relationship– “do these jeans make me look fat?”  David's favorite cartoon, Lilo and Stich, had a great episode where the evil genuis scientist created a lie detector that made a noise when anyone lied.  The original purpose of this creation was to undermine an enemy society.  Why?  “Because lies are the fabric that hold society together.” 

The fact that liars tend to be more popular also reminds me of one of the more intriguing theories I learned about way back in my Intro to Social Psych class: Self Monitoring Theory.   Basically, there is considerable individual variation on how closely we monitor ourselves and adjust our behavior to fit into different social situations.  Not surprisingly, high self monitors tend to be more socially successful.  I've always liked this theory because I had a real light-bulb moment when I learned about it.  My childhood best friend, Stanley Bean (who I sure hope is not reading this entry), accused me of being a hypocrite for my different actions/statements in different social settings.  When learning of this theory in class, I realized that I was a classic high self monitor and to a classic low self monitor like Stanley, I just appeared like a big hypocrite.  It really explained a lot.  So, maybe I am a hypocrite, but at least I am a socially well-adjusted one. 

Romney

Mitt Romney certainly presents an intriguing candidate for 2008.  He's aiming to be the choice of Christian conservatives despite the facts that 1) he is on the record being nice to gays; 2) he's on the record supporting Roe v. Wade; and 3) he's a Mormon and a sizable minority of Christian conservatives do not consider Mormons to be real Christians and consider that a dealbreaker in voting for President.  What is really amazing is the lengths that Romney is going to in order to revise his clear public record and appeal to Christan conservatives.  Certainly, we all expect politicians to pander and adjust their positions for electoral considerations to some degree, but Romney truly seems to be world class in this endeavor.  Two recent Washington Post columnists skewer him quite effectively on the matter.  First, Richard Cohen:

I have been following the zigs and zags of Mitt Romney, the former
Massachusetts governor and now Republican presidential candidate,
watching him grow progressively less progressive, sort of making
himself up as he goes along. As a result, I surf the Web with
trepidation, bracing myself for the story that I fear might be coming:
“Romney Says He Is Not Really a Mormon.''…

If there is one thing to say for the system, though, it is that it
subjects presidential candidates to a kind of torture. We learn early
on which of them have principles, backbone and pride in themselves –
the sort of integrity we want in a president. Since all politicians,
like lovers and mattress salesmen, lie a bit, we do not expect purity.
But Romney has taken things too far. I don't know whether he has any
respect for himself, but he sure as hell has none for us.

And Ruth Marcus:

From there, Romney proceeded to expound one of the odder positions I've
heard in years of listening to politicians talk about a subject most
would prefer to avoid: “I can tell you what my position is, and it's in a very narrowly
defined sphere, as candidate for governor and as governor of
Massachusetts,” he said. “What I said to people was that I personally
did not favor abortion, that I am personally pro-life. However, as
governor I would not change the laws of the commonwealth relating to
abortion.

“Now I don't try and put a bow around that and say what
does that mean you are — does that mean you're pro-life or pro-choice,
because that whole package — meaning I'm personally pro-life but I
won't change the laws, you could describe that as — well, I don't
think you can describe it in one hyphenated word.”…

Romney's “Extreme Makeover: Political Edition” goes beyond abortion
rights. Once he supported allowing gays to serve openly in the military
and backed a federal law to prohibit discrimination on the basis of
sexual orientation — not anymore. He's gone from saying “I don't line
up with the NRA” to becoming, last August, a life member.

Romney is clearly a politician seriously lacking in integrity and unfit to serve as president.  I wonder about all those conservatives so quick to suggest that Bill Clinton governed by public opinion polls and that John Kerry was a “flip-flopper” will actually hold this against Romney.  Actually, I don't wonder.  Partisanship can be an incredibly blinding force (if not, Bush's approval ratings would actually be in the single digits where they belong). 

Don’t tell your kids that they are smart

Very intriguing and parentally useful article in New York magazine this week about how and (more importantly) how not to talk to your kids.  In our culture obsessed with self esteeem, it turns out that building high self esteem is not the key to your kids doing well in life.  In fact, it is well known that psychopaths tend to have very high self esteeem.  Some educational psychologists have been doing some interesting experiments on the effects of how we praise our children:

According to a survey
conducted by Columbia University, 85 percent of American parents think
it?s important to tell their kids that they?re smart. In and around the
New York area, according to my own (admittedly nonscientific) poll, the
number is more like 100 percent. Everyone does it, habitually.
The constant praise is meant to be an angel on the shoulder, ensuring
that children do not sell their talents short.

But
a growing body of research?and a new study from the trenches of the New
York public-school system?strongly suggests it might be the other way
around. Giving kids the label of ?smart? does not prevent them from
underperforming. It might actually be causing it.

For
the past ten years, psychologist Carol Dweck and her team at Columbia
(she?s now at Stanford) studied the effect of praise on students in a
dozen New York schools. Her seminal work?a series of experiments on 400
fifth-graders?paints the picture most clearly.

Dweck
sent four female research assistants into New York fifth-grade
classrooms. The researchers would take a single child out of the
classroom for a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of
puzzles?puzzles easy enough that all the children would do fairly well.
Once the child finished the test, the researchers told each student his
score, then gave him a single line of praise. Randomly divided into
groups, some were praised for their intelligence. They were told, ?You must be smart at this.? Other students were praised for their effort: ?You must have worked really hard.?

Why
just a single line of praise? ?We wanted to see how sensitive children
were,? Dweck explained. ?We had a hunch that one line might be enough
to see an effect.?

Then
the students were given a choice of test for the second round. One
choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the
researchers told the kids that they?d learn a lot from attempting the
puzzles. The other choice, Dweck?s team explained, was an easy test,
just like the first. Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent
chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The ?smart? kids took the cop-out.

It turns out that praising children for their innate intelligence can be extremely counterproductive:

In follow-up interviews, Dweck discovered that those who think that
innate intelligence is the key to success begin to discount the
importance of effort. I am smart, the kids? reasoning goes; I don?t need to put out effort. Expending effort becomes stigmatized?it?s public proof that you can?t cut it on your natural gifts.

Repeating
her experiments, Dweck found this effect of praise on performance held
true for students of every socioeconomic class. It hit both boys and
girls?the very brightest girls especially (they collapsed the most
following failure). Even preschoolers weren?t immune to the inverse power of praise.

The article makes quite a compelling case.  After reading it I have already changed the way I talk to David when he is doing his homework.  I am praising his hard work, but not his intelligence.  Alas, there's no control to see what difference this may make.  Perhaps I'll praise Evan for his intellect and see who ends up performing better in school eventually.  What's the point of being a social scientist if you cannot experiment on your own children :-).

Lose weight– sleep more and turn the heat down

Really interesting podcast on obesity from Quirks and Quarks this week.  Apparently, there's a lot more to how much you weigh than diet and exercise (and even genetics).  Among the more interesting recent findings, it appears that the ratio of the particular types of bacteria in your intestine may have a significant effect on how you put on weight (the effect is quite clear in mice who carry similar types of bacteria to humans.  Additionally, the evidence is pretty good, that at least for some people being infected with a particular type of adenovirus makes your body more likely to put on fat.  Furthermore, a number of changing environmental/cultural factors, such as decreased sleep, increased maternal age at birth, and more climate control may very well be contributing to rising rates of obesity.  Give it a listen

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