Don’t hate the game, hate the players

Honestly, the biggest problem with media coverage of politics is not any sort of liberal or conservative bias, it is the fact that reporters treat politics as one big game with embarrassingly little concern  for policy and underlying questions of healthy democracy.  E.g., not “should America torture suspected terrorists?”, but rather “is this a winning issue for Democrats or Republicans?”  Glen Greewald (who writes a great blog I am embarrassingly late in discovering), spotlights an absolute perfect example of this problem with a recent episode of Hardball covering the DOJ “purgegate” scandal.  You can watch the Hardball clip here.  Though I think the clip is quite notable for focusing on the events entirely in the “game schema,” Greenwald strongly emphasizes the clubby, don't-rock-the-boat nature of the inside the beltway Washington Press Corps:

Whatever one thinks of how convincing the available evidence is thus
far, nobody who has an even basic understanding of how our government
functions could dispute that the accusations in this scandal are
extremely serious. Presumably, even those incapable of ingesting the
danger of having U.S. attorneys fired due to their refusal to launch
partisan-motivated prosecutions (or stifle prosecutions for partisan
reasons) at least understand that it is highly disturbing and simply
intolerable for the Attorney General of the U.S. ? the head of our
Justice Department ? to lie repeatedly about what happened, including
to Congress, and to have done so with the obvious assent and (at the
very least) implicit cooperation of the White House. Even the most
vapid media stars should be able to understand that.

And yet so many of them do not. They continue to defend the administration by insisting that even if the accusations are correct,
there was no real wrongdoing here. Add Fred Hiatt to that list, as he
defends the Bush administration's prosecutor firings in his Washington Post Editorial today by insisting that Gonzales appears “to have tried to cover up something that, as far as we yet know, didn't need covering. U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president . . . .”

These are not journalists who want to uncover government corruption or
act in an adversarial capacity to check government power. Rather, these
are members of the royal court who are grateful to the King and his
minions for granting them their status. What they want more than
anything is to protect and preserve the system that has so rewarded
them — with status and money and fame and access and comfort. They're
the ludicrous clowns who entertain the public by belittling any facts
which demonstrate pervasive corruption and deceit at the highest levels
of our government, and who completely degrade the public discourse with
their petty, pompous, shallow, vapid chatter that transforms every
important political matter into a stupid gossipy joke.

Anyway, you really should watch as this is just a terrific example with what is so wrong with mainstream political coverage. 

Want aggressive kids with good vocabularies? Daycare is the answer

The results of a major study about daycare were released this week in which the most talked about finding has been the fact that children who were in daycare centers before the age of 5 were found to be more aggressive than their peers and more likely to create behavior problems in class many years later in 6th grade.  The difference was small, but statistically significant.  Those who attended “high quality” centers were also found to have a slight advantage on vocabulary scores in 6th grade.  Though the researchers have confidence in the existence of these effects, they were actually quite modest– that of course does not sell newspapers and create controversy about daycare.  Of course, the question is why should these kids create more trouble in school.  I've got two theories that have nothing to do with the actual daycare experience. 

1) Parents whose children spend large amounts of time in daycare are more likely to feel guilty (see my earlier post on “mommy guilt“) about it and hence over-indulge their children, i.e., let them get away with more bad behavior.  Hence, these kids will grow up not behaving as well. 

2) Parents who do not rely on daycare, largely stay-at-home moms, are more likely to hold traditional values with regards to family and discipline and therefore have kids who are more disciplined, i.e., better behaved, in school.

I was quite intrigued when the MSNBC article I linked to said that the study “controlled for parent quality.”  Really– just how do they measure that?  From my reading of the actual study, their measure of parent quality was “years or maternal education.”  I don't know about that.  On the bright side, this means that my kids benefit from the best parental quality on the block. 

A new Gilded Age?

The political era of the latter portion of the 19th century is often referred to as “The Gilded Age” in reference to the fact that under the gleam of strong and dominant political parties, government was rotten and corrupt.  The extreme corruption from the political parties led to the Progressive movement and a variety of policy changes designed to undercut the extreme influence of partisanship in the operation of government (e.g., secret ballot, primary elections, civil service reform).  Largely, these reforms worked and have led to a much healthier democracy since this time.  When one looks at the hackocracy George W. Bush is trying to create, it really seems he is doing his best to take us back to this gilded age when everything in government was about partisanship.  Here's the latest (Salon's summary of the Washington Post story):

As the House and Senate Judiciary Committees investigate charges
that the Bush administration tried to politicize the Justice
Department's prosecutorial function, Henry Waxman's House Oversight and
Government Reform Committee is looking into whether the administration
has tried to use the General Services Administration to help
Republicans win elections.

The evidence: It did.

As the Washington Post
reports this morning, several witnesses have told committee
investigators that GSA Administrator Lurita Alexis Doan and Karl Rove
deputy J. Scott Jennings met with dozens of GSA officials in January to
discuss Republicans' electoral prospects. The witnesses say that
Jennings showed the officials a PowerPoint presentation on post-2006
polling, and then Doan asked the officials how they could “help our
candidates” in the future.

Doan allegedly raised the idea of using “targeted public events, such
as the opening of federal facilities around the country,” to help GOP

It's all part and parcel for anyone who's been paying attention. If
you're willing to fire U.S. attorneys to make way for your friends or
to retaliate for not prosecuting your enemies, why not assemble dozens
of federal officials to orchestrate petty political games around
building openings?

The good news is that this stuff was perfectly okay in the 1800's and now its illegal.  And with the Democrats in control again, Congress will actually do something about this. 

Brain Damage and Murder

In the latest William Saletan (you may need to scroll down a little):

In a small study,
when presented with moral dilemmas (e.g., would you smother a baby to
prevent bad guys from finding and killing people in hiding), people
with damage to a specific part of the brain were two to three times more willing to kill than were normal people.

This recent study reminded me of a great book I read a few years back: Base Insticnts: What Makes Killers Kill.  The author, Jonathan Pincus, argues that frontal lobe brain damage is almost always present in killers.  Another reason to wear motorcycle and bicycle helmets, I suppose.  That, and I once knew a resident who worked in an ER and he said the physicians there referred to motorcycles as donorcycles. 

Mommy guilt

Dads may be catching up to moms (though still lagging far behind) in housework and childcare, but despite spending more time with kids than their own mothers did, it appears that today's mothers are wracked by “mommy guilt.”  The key info from the Post:

According to a University of Maryland study, today's mothers spend
more hours focused on their children than their own mothers did 40
years ago, often imagined as the golden era of June Cleaver,
television's ever-cheerful, cookie-baking mom.

In 1965, mothers
spent 10.2 hours a week tending primarily to their children — feeding
them, reading with them or playing games, for example — according to
the study's analysis of detailed time diaries kept by thousands of
Americans. That number dipped in the 1970s and 1980s, rose in the 1990s
and now is higher than ever, at nearly 14.1 hours a week.

This is
especially striking because it is at odds with how today's mothers view
their own lives: Roughly half of those interviewed said they did not
have enough time with their children.

“It's almost like it
doesn't matter how much they do, they feel they do not do enough,” said
sociologist Suzanne M. Bianchi, the study's lead author.

So, basically what this tells us is that society is basically telling women to feel guilty for not spending enough time with their children.  I think this is just part of the larger problem of parenthood seeming to be so socially competitive these days: “The Miller's started their kids in soccer and dance at 3!” “My 4 year old can read at the first grade level” etc.  Part of this results in a sense of competition of proving how good a parent you are by how much “quality time” you spend with your kids.  Sounds like mommy guilt is a lot worse than Daddy guilt, but I am not going to feel guilty for just hanging out in the same room with my kids reading the newspaper (how do you think I stay so informed?) instead of always directly engaging with them.  Nobody ever falls down the stairs when I'm reading the paper– though Alex's rate of impishly pushing Evan over does seem to be higher when I am distracted. 

Dads are catching up!

The Washington Post had a very intriguing story about “Mommy Guilt,” which I hope to get to in my next post.  For now, I'll start with the accompanying story on how much better fathers are today than those of the past.  Or, as the sub-headline put it: “Fathers are no longer glued to their recliners.”  In a nutshell:

In what is surely a sign of modern life, recent research shows that
over the past four decades, fathers like Clark have nearly tripled the
hours they spend focused on their children.

They still lag behind
American mothers, who put in about twice as many hours directly
involved with their children and doing housework. But, as researcher
Suzanne M. Bianchi put it, today's fathers “do a lot more than their
fathers did.”

A comprehensive study of “time diaries” by researchers from the
University of Maryland shows that fathers have increased their
child-care work from 2.5 hours a week in 1965 to seven hours a week in
2003. There is a similar trend with housework: Dads did 4.4 hours a
week in 1965 and 9.6 hours a week in 2003.

Perhaps even more
striking, the total workloads of married mothers and fathers — when
paid work is added to child care and housework — is roughly equal, at
65 hours a week for mothers and 64 hours for fathers.

Sure men are laggards when it comes to housework, but 1) we're way better than we used to be, and 2) when you put all work (including household and childcare) men do surprisingly well.  In fact, it seems almost too well.  I wonder if the researchers investigated whether men were more likely to inflate their time totals in their diaries. 

I also found this particular tidbit interesting:

Thinking about the generational change, Stuart Melnick, 44, said
that it starts right at a baby's birth. In his father's era, he said,
men stayed in the hospital waiting room and passed out cigars. Today,
“every man I know” is in the delivery room, part of a child's life from
the beginning.

Melnick, who has one son, said his involvement as
a father is an economic reality, too. He and his wife are lawyers, and
“my wife could not function if I didn't do much,” he said. “You can't
not be involved.”

As my mom always likes to say, “everybody needs a wife.”  And when it comes to a successful two working parent household that clearly means both parents need to pick up the slack around the home.  The increasing workplace success of women is clearly in part attributable to the fact that men are increasingly stepping up at home.  I'll be honest, sometimes I think it must have been nice to be a dad back in the day when you could expect to come home and just relax while your wife continued to take care of the kids.  But as one dad in the article expressed things:

Thinking of generational differences, he recalls that he once
mentioned to his father the joy of having a baby sleep on his chest.

“Did you do that with us?” he asked his father.

“No, I never did,” he recalled his father saying.

I gotta say, moments like that are more than worth all the additional housework and childcare men do today.  (Not in the least to suggest men have it rougher than women– I'm not looking for angry email here). 

Rotten to the core

As I was listening to the NPR coverage on Alberto Gonzales' role in this shameful scandal while driving to this hospital earlier today, the thought that came to me was, “what a miserable partisan hack.”  Then it occurred to me, how often have I thought that about persons throughout the Bush administration?  Lots!  Sure, Gonzales is an embarrassment to the AG's office, but how many embarrassments with no meaningful sense of accountability (“mistakes were made”) has Bush placed throughout the highest level of government.  It is just so clear that Bush has nothing but disdain for a well-functioning bureaucracy and the rule of law and has elevated partisan hackery above all else.  Somebody is choosing all these rotten apples and is therefore rotten himself.  Now that the Democratic Congress is finally able to reveal to the broader public what those of us who hang out in the blogosphere have long known, George Bush will surely go down in history as one of our most damaging (to democracy) and shameful presidents.  

Hospital blogging

The blog rate is really slow due to the fact that my oldest son is in the hospital with really bad pneumonia (post-surgery, his lungs are draining into the pleur evac 6000 right next to me as I type).  Thanks to morphine (David is dosing away content) and hospital wifi, here I am.  I have to say, it pains me not to have the time to blog about the most recent corruption uncovered in the Bush administration.  If the morphine keeps at it, I'll try and get out one post tonight.

Anyway, this whole experience here has made me especially grateful for our excellent health insurance.  It is enough stress without worrying about what will surely be a bill in the many 10's of thousands when all is said and done.  If this had happened to me as a kid, it would have surely bankrupted my self-employed, uninsured parents (as discussed in the previous post). My choice of occupation really should not determine the fact that this is a serious, but manageable financial hit to us whereas it would be absolutely catastrophic to so many others. 

Health care for Realtors

The New York Times ran a story this week about how dicey and fragile and middle-class existence can be without decent health care benefits.  They profiled a self-employed real estate agent who could not find health insurance after recovering from cancer.  Well, she could have, if she could afford $27K for health insurance on a $60K income.  What this profile makes patently clear is the absurdity of tying health care benefits to the vagaries of employment.  A realtor who makes deals for Century 21 is likely out of luck whereas one who buys land for a government agency or a university will have good health care.  This issue really resonates for me as both my parents are self-employed, my dad as a realtor my mom as a piano teacher.  I was part of a middle-class family that never had health insurance while growing up because my parents could not afford a policy on their own.  Fortunately, we never faced any significant health hardships till I was taken care of by various university policies and my parents made it to Medicare age.  Still, there is just no sensible reason for basing your health care status upon for whom you work.  Here's the solutions offered to the woman in the article:

When Ms. Readling was shopping for insurance, she found two responses
particularly galling. One insurer, she said, suggested she return to
her prior job, at a furniture company, so she could participate in its
group health plan, though she loved her work as a real estate agent.
Another insurer suggested she remarry her former husband to get back on
his insurance plan.

Further emphasizing the senselessness of our current system, Tim Noah had a great satirical column up in Slate this week entitled, “Would you privatize Defense?: The case for socialized medicine.”  His opening paragraphs make the point quite strongly:

Suppose the national defense of the United States were relegated to
the private sector. Instead of the publicly funded Army, Navy, Air
Force, and Marines, the country would be defended by private militias
funded mainly by insurance companies. In the event of foreign attack on
U.S. soil, the militias would defend those citizens in the affected
areas who'd paid defense insurance premiums through their places of
work (or, if self-employed, as individuals).

The best-armed
troops would defend the wealthiest and most hawkish segments of the
population, who would have paid the highest premiums.

less-wealthy and more dovish customers who'd chosen a less-generous
policy would likewise be defended against attack, but they could expect
to pay heavily out of pocket because their insurance would only cover
costs for weapons and manpower above a fairly high deductible. The
doves' militias might or might not call in air support, knowing the
insurance company would pay for it only in the most dire
circumstances?difficult to calibrate as bombs are dropping all around

You don't hear many of those raising fears of “socialized medicine” complaining about “socialized defense” do you.

Why the Democratic Congress matters

The recent purge of US Attorneys has been getting pretty good media coverage (like the front page of today's Post).  The simple reason is that the Senate is holding hearings on the matter.  And why is the Senate holding hearings?  Because Democrats are in control.  You can bet if Republicans were still the majority party, these antics of the Bush administration would have been ignored and swept under the rug, like so much wrongdoing during Bush's first 6 years.  The simple truth is that government actions drive the media's agenda.  This story would have been uncovered and led to endless outrage in the left-wing blogosphere even if Republicans were in power.  But, it would have died and withered away there without the general public ever catching wind of it.  Now that there are Congressional hearings to cover, the story is receiving the wider audience it deserves.  It is kind of unfortunate that a story like this cannot stand on its own merits without government action, but given that's the way the media world works, it is a damn good thing Democrats are in charge of Congress, thereby forcing the press to cover the malfeasance of the Bush administration. 

Join Society’s elite: get married

According to the latest demographic statistics, it turns out that marriage is not for everybody anymore:

Punctuating a fundamental change in American family life, married
couples with children now occupy fewer than one in every four
households — a share that has been slashed in half since 1960 and is
the lowest ever recorded by the census.

As marriage with children
becomes an exception rather than the norm, social scientists say it is
also becoming the self-selected province of the college-educated and
the affluent. The working class and the poor, meanwhile, increasingly
steer away from marriage, while living together and bearing children
out of wedlock.

I saw the headline to the article and thought about how virtually every couple I know is married.  A great example of why we should not generalize too much from our own experiences.  Being a college professor, most everybody I know socially is college-educated, affluent, or both– though you won't find this combination too often among professors :-).  Anyway, the article has a number of interesting observations, e.g.,

Marriage has declined across all income groups, but it has declined
far less among couples who make the most money and have the best
education. These couples are also less likely to divorce. Many
demographers peg the rise of a class-based marriage gap to the erosion
since 1970 of the broad-based economic prosperity that followed World
War II.

“We seem to be reverting to a much older pattern, when
elites marry and a great many others live together and have kids,” said
Peter Francese, demographic trends analyst for Ogilvy & Mather, an
advertising firm.

Due to “assortative mating” wealthy elites tend to marry other wealthy elites, etc., and society becomes more stratified.  I don't have any groundbreaking insights to add, just thought this was interesting.  The whole article is worth a quick read. 

Understanding the purge of the U.S. Attorneys

I recently wrote about the Bush administration's shameful and unprecedented firing of US Attorneys for purely partisan reasons.  One of my favorite columnists, Slate's Dahlia Lithwick, nicely explains exactly what's going on.  If the case interests you, just read the whole thing.  For those only mildly interested, here's the conclusion:

Perhaps the most important lesson to be drawn from the purge isn't that
the Bush administration puts ideology above the rule of law. That isn't
exactly news. The real point may be that between inexperienced fumblers
at Justice, energized Democrats in Congress, and a public that seems
finally to have awoken from its slumber, it's just become harder for
the administration to get away with it.