Science, expert opinion, who needs it?

Certainly not President Bush.  Not when he can just rely on what he knows to be true (that's obviously worked so well in Iraq).  The lede of this New York Times story seems pretty innocuous:

President Bush has signed a directive that gives the White House
much greater control over the rules and policy statements that the
government develops to protect public health, safety, the environment,
civil rights and privacy. In an executive order published
last week in the Federal Register, Mr. Bush said that each agency must
have a regulatory policy office run by a political appointee, to
supervise the development of rules and documents providing guidance to
regulated industries.

As Steve Benen points out, though, this is far from harmless:

Experienced policy experts were helping set regulations on worker
safety, for example, at the Occupational Safety and Health
Administration. Through this new executive order, the president has
said cut career employees out of the picture, so inexperienced
political hands at the White House can gut those worker safety
regulations. The same goes for every other federal agency.

A few years ago, former domestic policy advisor John DiIulio said,
?There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on
in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus. What you?ve got is
everything ? and I mean everything ? being run by the political arm.
It?s the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis.?

As it turns out, DiIulio was off a bit. He made this comment in
2003, when there were still some civil servants with power in the
executive branch. Now everything is being run by the political arm.

Sadly, this just continues the 6 year pattern of ignoring the advice of career experts in favor of dubious political appointees (I might also mention here that the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq was staffed by persons who had to prove their conservative bona fides on gay marriage and abortion– two issues obviously crucial to the reconstruction of Iraq). 

Does your political opinion count?

It depends upon how rich you are.  So argues Larry Bartels, one of the smartest political scientists I have had the privilege to meet.  In an analysis of Senator's voting records in relation to the opinions of their constituents, here's what he found:

Senators appear to be considerably more responsive to the opinions of affluent constituents than to the opinions of middle-class constituents, while the opinions of constituents in the bottom third of the income distribution have no apparent statistical effect on their senators? roll call votes.

In a sense, most of us probably already assume this to be true, but when backed up by Bartels' first-rate analysis (i.e., believe me, you can trust these results), it is really an amazingly damning statement about how our democracy works. 

Shamefully, rather than coming across this paper through my job as a political scientists, I actually just learned of it in a great New Republic article by Bradford Plumer that makes a pretty good case for why we have government by the rich.  With the recent populist tone of the Democratic party (e.g., Jim Webb's excellent response to the State of the Union), conservatives have been firing back by arguing that economic inequality does not matter.  Alas, one thing political scientists do know with pretty good certainty is that economic inequality really does matter, and Plumer lays out the case in the article.  Not even good liberals are going to argue that we need income equality, but certainly the greater disparity in income between rich and poor the greater disparity in political representation– something which really should be more equal. 

Death penalty

I'm a little delinquent on linking to this story from The News & Observer about how amazingly incompetent counsel often fails on grounds for appeal on death penalty cases, but it not any less relevant because I waited a week. You may not like that a murderer's own history of maltreatment and abuse is supposed to count as mitigating factors in whether he receives the death penalty, yet courts have held that these factors do need to be considered in deciding whether a capital sentence is warranted.  Given that these are important mitigating factors, you would think that an attorney's utter failure in addressing such factors thereby allowing his client to receive the death penalty might be successful grounds for an appeal.  You'd be wrong.  Here's the damning summary from the story:

A McClatchy Newspapers review of 80 recent death penalty cases in
Virginia, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi found that the safeguards
that were missing in Vinson's case are failing regularly:

* Of
the 73 cases in which defense attorneys never investigated their
clients' backgrounds, only two death sentences have been overturned.

Eleven of the 73 inmates have been executed after exhausting their
appeals. No court ever noted their attorneys' failures or ordered a

* The remaining 60 cases are on appeal, and the outlook
for them isn't promising in three of the states. In Mississippi, no
death sentence has been reversed for poor lawyer performance since
1993, according to state records. Only three death sentences each in
Virginia and Alabama have been overturned for bad lawyering during the
past decade. In Georgia, 11 death sentences have been overturned for
poor lawyer performance in the past decade, but courts in the state
still sometimes overlook the worst efforts.

* The U.S. Supreme
Court, although inundated with requests to intervene in cases in which
lower courts ignored lawyers' failures, hasn't moved to enforce its

Courts are supposed to determine two things about
lawyer performance when reviewing death penalty cases: whether the work
was deficient and whether a better performance might reasonably have
resulted in a different outcome. There should be a particular emphasis,
the Supreme Court has said, on reviewing what kinds of background
investigations the attorneys conducted into their clients' lives.

the McClatchy review found that courts in these four states rarely hold
attorneys to exacting standards. They excuse glaring oversights or
omissions, explaining them as “strategic” decisions that aren't
negligent. They have given credit to lawyers for describing their
clients as “good guys” while failing to note the clients' history of
mental retardation.

In the rare instance when they have found an
attorney's performance lacking, the courts have concluded that a better
lawyer wouldn't have mattered.

I find this story especially compelling because I recently read two excellent books that catalog the failings of our justice system in very different ways.  John Grisham's successful foray into non-fiction, The Innocent Man traces the incredibly heinous injustices against one man falsely sentenced to death.  Courtroom 302 traces a year in the life of a single Chicago courtroom and shows the futility of the war on drugs and the injustice meted out to those who cannot afford better, even in a system of people who are trying to do right.  Both are very much worth reading.  You can see my other recent reviews as well.

Baby Einstein

Alright, my last comment on the State of the Union.  How absurd was it for the President to tell the story of some genuine heroes and then move on to Julie Aigner-Clark, founder of Baby Einstein?  Tim Noah has a nice smackdown of this absurdity over at Slate:

What is Aigner-Clark's achievement? She got rich marketing videos to
infants. No one told the president, I presume, that this profit-making
scheme ignores advice from the American Academy of Pediatrics that
children under 2 years of age shouldn't watch TV….

“Essentially,” Harvard Medical School psychologist Susan Lynn told the Chicago Tribune “Media Mom” (and occasional Slate contributor) Nell Minow in December 2005,

baby video industry is a scam. There's no evidence that the videos are
educational for babies, and a review of the research on babies and
videos concludes that while older babies can imitate simple actions
from a video they've seen several times, they learn much more rapidly
from real life…

“The reality,” wrote the American Academy of Pediatrics, “is that
parents play the videos to give themselves some time to do other
household chores, like cooking dinner or doing laundry. However, they
shouldn't be led to believe that it helps their baby.”

Personally, I think never letting toddlers watch TV is a little extreme.  There were a number of times back in our early days of parenting the precociously terrible two David that Blues Clues videos were the only thing that saved us.  But the idea that you are actually going to make your baby smarter with videos is pretty absurd.  Noah sums it up beautifully:

There's a sucker born every minute, but only a select few get to be president of the United States.

Malpractice Myth and reality in SOTU

One of the most frustrating things about Bush's presidency for those of us who study public policy is the utter disdain that Bush shows for smart and sensible policy in obeisance to his ideological beliefs.  His proposed caps on malpractice are a case in point.  What this plan does is limits the redress for legitimate victims of medical mistakes.  It does nothing to reduce medical errors or actually limit medical costs.  In a terrific book, the Medical Malpractice Myth, by Tom Baker puts the lie to these malpractice cap policies.  The problem is not that jury awards are too high, it is that there is way too much malpractice.  Furthermore, the evidence suggests that malpractice (including so-called “defensive medicine”) makes up an incredibly trivial portion of our overall health care spending.  Consumers Union (publisher of Consumer Reports) nicely summarizes:

Furthermore, the President is expected to call
for a controversial plan to limit the legal damages awarded to patients
in medical malpractice cases. Putting caps on such damages will not
solve the problem of rising malpractice insurance rates. Such limits
are not only ineffective; they are unfair to the patients who are
injured and to the families of those who die because of grossly
negligent behavior by health care providers. There is no guarantee that
this plan will lower rates. It does nothing to enhance patient safety
or reduce medical errors, and it puts an unfair burden on innocent
victims of malpractice.

Every ten years or so, we hear about a medical malpractice insurance
“crisis,” eventually followed by an evening out and lowering of medical
malpractice insurance rates. The reason is that insurance companies
rely on both premiums and investment earnings to pay claims. When the
stock market is doing well, insurance companies often lower premiums to
the point where they are unprofitable, simply because they can invest
those premium dollars in the market and make money. When the stock
market falls, as it has in the last two years, premiums go up.

Rather than support this proposal, Congress should help doctors by
forcing insurers to better manage malpractice premiums, spread risk
among doctors for the high cost of insuring high risk specialties, and
force insurance companies to make public their insurance practices.
Congress should look at repealing the insurance industry's special
exemption from antitrust suits and consider creative ideas such as the
possibility of a fair and equitable no-fault system for malpractice


Open Ended

Time for a little commentary on English.  One thing that has bugged me for a while is that President Bush says that our commitment in Iraq is not “open-ended,” yet at the same time we cannot stop fighting until we win.  Sounds like the definition of “open-ended” to me, yet rarely is called on this absurdity.  Fred Kaplan, who as readers of this blog know, writes great stuff about Iraq and military policy, calls Bush on this and several other absurd features of his Iraq policy in his latest column.  Highlights…

What is most head-shaking of all is that, after four years of this war,
the president once more fell short of making its case. As in the past,
he said that it's very important ?”a decisive ideological struggle,” he
called it, adding, “nothing is more important at this moment in our
history than for America to succeed.” And yet he also said that
America's commitment to the war is “not open-ended.” How can both
claims be true? If nothing is more important, it must be open-ended. If
it's not open-ended, it can't be all that important…

He then said, “Americans can have confidence in the outcome of this
struggle because we are not in this struggle alone. We have a
diplomatic strategy that is rallying the world to join in the fight
against extremism.”

This is mind-boggling. The largest
“coalition” partner, Great Britain, plans to pull out by the end of the
year. Most of the others have long since vanished. There is, clearly,
no “diplomatic strategy,” no “rallying” to recruit others to the fight.
A diplomatic strategy and energetic leadership are precisely what
everyone is waiting for. They are what President Bush once more failed
to offer tonight.
(emphasis mine).

What I REALLY thought of the State of the Union

If you read carefully, you can see what I really thought about the State of the Union here.  And, if you are coming across this a couple days from now, sorry, but Slovaks apparently don't believe in keeping their links active for a long time. 

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