Rick Scott and fangate: the limits of ignorance

[See update below]

Apparently the rules of the Florida gubernatorial debate forbade the contestants from using electronic equipment.  Rick Scott refused to participate (until his handlers told him how silly he looked) because Charlie Crist brought a fan on to the stage.

Yes, I know that there’s no legal minimum IQ required to become the governor of a state. But really, is it too much to expect the the former CEO of a big health- care company to know the difference between “electronic” and “electrical”?

Update Well … not perzackly. A reader points out that the debate rules banned “electronic devices (including fans).” Now, I still insist that passage is nonsensical, since a fan is an electrical device, as opposed to an electronic device such as a cell phone. I suppose there might be some sort of fan with semiconductor controls that was, to that extent, electronic – in which case the rules would bar such electronic fans, as opposed to normal fans,  but an ordinary air-moving machine with an electric motor is not, by any normal definition, an “electronic device.” So to me, the phrase is about equivalent to “birds (including bats)” or, in Lincoln’s example, “legs (including tails).”  To make sense, the phrase would have had to read “electronic devices or fans.”

Apparently Crist’s penchant for cooling himself was well-known.  And apparently his handlers didn’t agree to the conditions as suggested by the organizers, but added to the signature page *with understanding that the debate hosts will address any temperature issues with a fan if necessary.”

My understanding of the law is that when one party modifies a contract before signing it, the other party has the choice of accepting the contract as amended or refusing it. So it can’t, I think, properly be said that Crist broke the rules he had agreed to. Clearly, the organizers were remiss in not bringing the amendment to the attention of Rick Scott, which left Scott’s handlers believing that Crist was breaking a rule.

It was, still, I submit, unbelievably foolish to try to use that as an excuse to duck the debate, and it’s remarkable that it took the Scott corner six long minutes to figure out they couldn’t get away with it. But the original post wasn’t right to suggest that Scott doesn’t know that a fan isn’t a cell phone. After all, what are the odds that someone who cheated the federal taxpayers out of most of a billion dollars and never went to jail for it is actually that stupid?

Cheap power is progressive

According to a statistic I just made up, 97.3% of all technical “breakthroughs” trumpeted in press releases turn out to be either wrong or minor. Moreover, it’s well known that fusion is the energy source of the future, and always will be. When I was ten years old, economically relevant fusion power was thirty years away, and that number hasn’t changed in the half-century since.

Still, the folks at the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works aren’t very likely to be either fools or hoaxers, so when they say they’ve figured out how to make magnetic-confinement fusion practical and that they think they can have a prototype in five years and a production model in a decade, that’s worth paying attention to.

The gimmick, if it works, would have all the features that have made fusion such a dream: no greenhouse-gas emissions, no meltdown risk, no waste-disposal problem, no weapons-proliferation issue, and effectively unlimited fuel supply. Even better, they’re talking about 100-megawatt reactor that fits on a flatbed truck, not a 1000-megawatt behemoth like the current generation of fission reactors. That would make producing the devices a manufacturing problem rather than a construction project. (Even more so if you could retrofit a power plant now running on coal by simply substituting half a dozen of the new gadgets.)  With luck, this could put a big hole in fossil-fuel production and the environmental and political disasters it creates.

Of course the Lockheed Martin folks could turn out to be wrong about the physics (though that doesn’t seem especially likely), or (much more plausibly) one of the ancillary problems such as materials development could turn out to be insoluble or too expensive to be economically practical.

But the only reasonable reaction to this from someone not invested in Exxon or Koch Energy or Putinism is a (somewhat hesitant, because the idea is still more likely to fizzle than to work) “Yippeeeeee!!!!”

Therefore, I find it frustrating (and only wish I found it surprising) that ThinkProgress, run by people who consider themselves “progressives,” is rushing to pour cold water on the idea because the timeline can’t meet the arbitrary deadline someone in the global-warming PR business has dreamed up. (Really, of course, because cheap non-polluting energy would help reduce the relevance of a bunch of Green ideas about regulating this and subsidizing that, and because at some point after 1973 gloom and fear got to be the official emotions of the progressive movement, when by rights they belongs to conservatives.)

Since there’s no hope in Hell our current set of technical options, working under our current set of political and economic arrangements, are going to stop the rise of GHG levels by 2040, let alone 2020, bellyaching that a game-changing technology might come in a decade or so behind the current unattainable target is plain silly. If all we needed to deal with is a gap of a decade, or even two, there are geoengineering options that could be used to limit the damage in the meantime.

Every argument for subsidizing conservation and renewables applies with at least as much force to pouring money into this new version of magnetic-confinement fusion until it hits a brick wall, as it probably will. Since there’s no way a patent-holder could possibly internalize the social gain from making this work, the case for public funding is overwhelming. The social value of the discovery, if it can be perfected, couldn’t possibly be less than $10 trillion,  so spending $10B or so on even a 1% chance of success is an obviously positive-expected-value gamble.

Of course, if we have to triple energy prices in order to prevent a global-warming disaster – which might well prove to be the case – we should accept that, and the economic disruptions that would result, rather than accepting a 3-degree-Celsius rise in average surface temperature and the catastrophes that would result from that. But I’d rather not, thanks.

If cheap energy gets to be real again, that will be a tremendous boon to the planet, and especially to its poorest inhabitants. And if as a result we have to stop saying that 40,000-square-foot mansions are environmentally unsustainable, and have to go back to saying that they’re grotesque and vulgar, is that really such a steep price to pay?

A progressive movement that, in its heart, prefers scarcity is not one I really want to be part of, and it’s not one likely to command majority support.


“They have learned nothing, and forgotten nothing”

One of the difficult moments in a research career comes when you’ve made an unjustified attack on work you only partly understand (and desperately want not to understand) and get your hand slapped by the people you accused of being “accomplices” to a con job.

When you’ve demonstrably mis-stated the question, gotten the intellectual history completely wrong, missed most of the policy history, ignored almost all of the empirical evidence, and misquoted key implementation details of the idea you’re attacking, prudence generally counsels backing off.

Alas, as Talleyrand said of the restored Bourbons, some researchers learn nothing (about the world) and forget nothing (about their prejudices).

Of course, those are merely general remarks. As an interested party, it would be out of place for me to comment on this rejoinder to this (admirably restrained) critique of this attack on the idea of swift-certain-fair sanctioning systems (mislabeled “HOPE”) from advocates of the competing assess-and-treat paradigm, incorporating the Risk-Needs-Responsivity assessment process. So I will outsource the commentary to the colleague who alerted me that  the journal Federal Probation had finally published all three items. He summarizes the rejoinder:

The HOPE research is OK so far as it goes (we can’t find any fault with the conduct of the Hawaii Randomized Controlled Trial [RCT]), but it has limited external validity, and there is other research suggesting that threats have limited capacity to influence behavior. And here is a long list of bad things that will probably happen if HOPE is widely adopted.

Meanwhile, we know that RNR works, because we know that it works.

RCTs? We ain’t got no RCTs.  We don’t need no RCTs. We don’t have to show you any stinkin’ RCTs.

I will note, as a mere matter of objectively checkable fact, that the rejoinder addresses none of the substantive points in the critique; rather than either acknowledging or challenging the evidence and analysis that make nonsense of the claims in the original article, the rejoinder merely restates those claims at a higher pitch.  And it ignores the suggestion in the critique tht  the difference of opinion might be adjudicated by doing an experiment, with one group of offenders assigned to RNR and the other to SCF.  That might suggest – to someone with a suspicious mind – that the authors share my view about how that experiment would come out.

As Upton Sinclair remarked, it is remarkably hard to get someone to understand a point when his (or her) paycheck (or academic reputation) depends on not understanding it.

The (Drug Control) Empire Strikes Back

By and large, I’m not a fan of the work of the (self-appointed) Global Commission on Drug Policy. The Commission’s latest report draws strong conclusions:

Ultimately the most effective way to reduce the extensive harms of the global drug prohibition regime and advance the goals of public health and safety is to get drugs under control through responsible legal regulation.

Unfortunately, those strong conclusions aren’t backed with strong evidence or strong argument. Calling your drug laws “regulations” or “taxes” rather than “prohibitions” doesn’t make them any easier to enforce. The claim that it’s possible to “get drugs under control through responsible legal regulation” has, for now, to be filed under “Interesting, If True.” Experiments with legal supply of “cannabis, coca leaf, and certain novel psychoactive substances” are a good idea, but of course most of the action in the “war on drugs” is in cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine; the drugs we would most like to legalize in terms of reducing the costs of prohibition would be among the hardest to legalize successfully in terms of public health. (We always have the bad example of  alcohol – which causes more violence, more health damage, and more addiction than all the illicit drugs combined – staring down at us.)

That said, the frustration with current drug policies that motivates the Global Commission is entirely justified. Changing the goals and means of the current international drug control regime in the direction of less violence and less incarceration is harder and more complex than denouncing the drug war in abstract terms, and less dramatic than legalization, but it’s necessary and important work, and someone who reads the Commission’s reports but doubts the existence of a regulatory utopia might be motivated to engage in that work.

Naturally, the international drug control empire is going to fight back. Yuri Fedotov, one of its Grand Pooh-Bahs as Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (serving, one might note, as the representative of a government with an especially stupid, vicious, and unsuccessful set of drug policies), says of the Commission report that “It’s very hard to reconcile these recommendations with the major provisions of drug-control conventions.” That, of course, is true.

But what Fedotov doesn’t say, and which is also true, is that it’s very hard to reconcile the premises of the drug-control conventions with observable reality. The Single Convention was written in 1961, before anyone knew about neurotransmitters and receptors. Why should we allow the outdated concepts embodied in that treaty and its successors – treating drugs with abuse potential as evil rather than risky, and assuming that the answer to illicit markets is always more and more law enforcement - to continue to dominate our thinking?

It’s too bad that many of the folks who are willing to say that the existing international drug control regime is based on fantasy insist on pushing the equal and opposite fantasy that there’s a magic wand called “regulation” that we could wave at the problem to bring it under control. But the first step in fixing something is noticing that it’s broken and the Global Commission has at least taken that first step. UNODC and its sister agency INCB, and their allies around the world, are still – if you’ll pardon the use of a technical term – in denial.






Colorado Congressman David Lamebrain Lamborn, who represents Colorado Springs and serves on the House Armed Services Committee, responded to one of his constituents, who asked a question that referred to “the Muslim Brotherhood in the White House” with a noncommittal
“I can’t add anything to that.” But the lamebrain added:

A lot of us are talking to the generals behind the scenes saying, hey if you disagree with the policy that the White House has given you, let’s have a resignation. Let’s have a public resignation and state your protest and go out in a blaze of glory.

Now of course a general who thinks the White House is seriously misguided has the legal right, and sometimes the moral duty, to resign and speak out. (Equally of course, he or she cannot speak out without resigning; that’s what “civilian control” and “chain of command” and “Commander in chief” mean.)

But for a politician to lobby serving officers to quit as combat action starts up is about three inches shy of inciting insubordination. If there are any actual patriots left in the GOP, they will join the rest of us in denouncing this grossly inappropriate behavior and demanding that official GOP bodies distance themselves from Rep. Lamborn. Their failure to do so will testify once more to how totally the Party of Lincoln is now in the hands of its lunatic fringe.

Footnote It ought to be remarkable that a serving Member of Congress should smile and not protest as of his dimwit constituents repeats war criminal Dick Cheney’s cowardly lie that the Administration has “supported the Muslim Brotherhood” (cowardly because Cheney said it behind closed doors to a bunch of GOP Congresscritters, to ensure that the falsehood would be reported but maintained Mr. Five-Draft-Deferments’ deniability). But of course the Weimar Republicans abandoned any pretense to civility years ago. In sober fact – and this goes back to Dennis Hastert and Tom DeLay stabbing Bill Clinton in the back over Kosovo – most Republican politicians act as if they prefer American defeats as long as a Democrat is in the White House.

It’s simply not in Obama’s repertoire to express the appropriate righteous anger over this behavior. But I wish someone would. Maybe Bill Clinton?

Shame on you, Comedy Central!

1. I don’t think there should be a sports team called the “Redskins” anymore than there should be one called the “Kikes” or the “Micks” or the “Dagos.” This isn’t rocket science.

2. I think Jon Stewart is not only a very funny man but the most incisive political analyst currently on the scene, except when Stephen Colbert is really on his game.

3. Making fun of Redskins fans who don’t want to give up the name, and who pretend or actually believe that it’s not racially offensive, is entirely justified, and if some of them were foolish enough to agree to appear on the show, it’s their lookout if Stewart & Co. make them look silly as long as there’s no deceptive editing involved.

4. But – you knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you? – if the producers promised the guests that they would not be confronted with Native American activists when in fact they had such a confrontation planned – as the guests assert, and the producers don’t deny – then they, especially producer Jason Jones, behaved shamefully: not quite at the O’Keefe level, but in that direction. Apparently some of the Redskins fans were reduced to tears by the verbal abuse they took from the activists. Promises are to be kept, and people are not to be wantonly damaged just for laughs.

5. If the guests’ consent to appear based on the assurance of non-confrontation, then I wonder whether consent based on a false pretense is legally binding. I hope the Comedy Central team gets to find out the hard way.

The test oath: the Air Force does the right thing

Some good news: though apparently there’s no one in the Air Force capable of reading the Constitution and drawing the correct conclusions, the DoD General Counsel office labors under no such disability, and accordingly the Air Force will return to its pre-2013 practice (matching the practice of the other services) and make the phrase “so help me God” optional in its enlistment oath.

Patrick Vaughan, General Counsel for the American Family Association, had a very interesting post on the original decision. He reports, citing a 1951 case, [U.S. v. Slozes, 1 CMR 47],

Long ago, the Court of Military Appeals clarified that “In cases of affirmation the phrase ‘So help you God’ will be omitted”

Since the statute allows an affirmation as an alternative to an oath, that precedent would seem to dispose of the argument that the Air Force was simply following the statute. That makes the original decision that much more outrageous; I hope the Secretary of the Air Force will ensure that this outrage has career consequences for whoever made it.

Kudos to Vaughan for Saying the Thing That Is even when he and his employer might have preferred it to be otherwise.

The Baptist Joint Committee is pleased; Pat Robertson is angry that the Air Force backed down in the face of “one little Jewish radical.”

I have to agree with Robertson: little Jewish radicals have always been a pain in the butt.


Scotland ducks a bullet

I’m going to go out on a limb – based on exit polls – and call the Scottish independence referendum for the “No” side. That seems to me like the right call for the Scots to have made.

Gordon Brown’s speech – in effect, defending the Union in the name of the Scottish Enlightenment of Hume and Adam Smith – reminds me how queasy nationalism makes me, even when it’s not explicitly racist.

Self-determination is a just demand for oppressed nations, but take away the oppression and the case gets pretty weak. And yes, that argues against the American Revolution, except insofar as it was republican and anti-aristocratic rather than merely separatist. (After all, part of what the colonists wanted was a free hand against the Native Americans.)

Brown made a strong case that independence would be a practical disaster for Scotland. What he didn’t say is that it would also help cement David Cameron’s Tories in office. So I’m glad the referendum failed: assuming that is, that it did fail.

Still, we Reality-Basers are so relentlessly fair-minded that we astonish ourselves.

So here, with a blistering dissent, is Robert Burns, given voice by Steeleye Span:

And here’s Alistair McDonald, with more traditional interpretation.

Continue Reading…

“Abhorrent to our tradition”: the Air Force and the test oath

A serving airman was refused re-enlistment because he crossed out the words “So help me God” in the oath he told to take. (This is based on reporting by Air Force Times – not an especially radical journal – and the story quotes an Air Force spokeswoman, so I’m treating it as fact rather than mere allegation.)

According to the AF official, reciting the oath in full is required by statute. But until last October, the implementing regulations included a conscience clause; that somehow got omitted when the regulations were re-issued.

Of course the statute without the conscience clause is transparently unconstitutional; Article VI provides that “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” (It also allows officials to make an “affirmation” in place of an “oath.”) As the Supreme Court said back in 1946, “The test oath is abhorrent to our tradition.” Its use to bar non-Anglicans from public life (and the professions) in England was one of the grievances that spurred the Puritan/Quaker/Catholic exodus to the American colonies.

The aggrieved party in this case appears to be an atheist, but there are also pious Christians (e.g., Quakers) and Jews who scruple at invoking the Name, or indeed at swearing at all (thus the “affirmation” provision in Article VI). As a famous rabbi once said (Matt. 5:33-37:

Ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths. But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne, nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.”

No doubt the airman will win his case, though if he does he will, equally undoubtedly, return to service a marked man with limited career prospects.

But if I were the President, or the Secretary of Defense, or the Secretary of the Air Force, or a member of one of the Armed Services Committees, I wouldn’t be satisfied with having the victim reinstated and the regulation re-issued in its previous, Constitutionally compliant, form. I’d worry about the bureaucratic culture within the Air Force that led to a deliberate decision as recently as last year to impose a burden on the scrupulous.

The Air Force Academy is in Colorado Springs, a hotbed of Religious Right activism, and the Christian Dominionist tendencies that have become problematic throughout the armed services seem to be especially strong in the Air Force. Cleaning out this problem may well require a small river. But the job will never be completed if it’s never started.

Bargaining – and threatening – for justice

Of course I’m always delighted to see Republican politicians nailed for corruption: how else are we going to recruit conservatives to the cause of criminal justice reform? And there seems to be no doubt that Gov. McDonnell was using his office to line his pockets, though it’s less clear what Star Scientific thought it was going to get for its money.

But I just stumbled on a story that ran just after the indictment reporting that McDonnell was offered a plea deal and turned it down. The deal was for a plea to a single felony, no prison time, and no indictment of his wife. Instead he chose to fight the charges, and now both he and his wife face years behind bars.

To my eyes, that’s a problem, and the symptom of a bigger problem.

Start with the charges against Maureen McDonnell. I haven’t figured out the facts, so I can’t judge how responsible she was for what went on. It appears that on a personal level her guilt was in some sense greater than her husband’s, but he was the office-holder. In any case, whether she was charged with a crime should not have depended on whether someone else took a plea. If she deserved to be charged, she should have been; else, not.

Whether or not Maureen McDonnell deserves to go to prison, it seems to me obviously wrong for the prosecutors to use her as a pawn in negotiations with her husband, and to put her husband in a position where his decision to exercise his Constitutional right to a trial put his wife’s liberty in jeopardy.  She shouldn’t be punished (or given a break) for someone else’s actions, and he shouldn’t have to face the threat that his intimates might be punished as well as himself if he decides to fight the charges.

This criticism puzzles my friends who are prosecutors. They tell me I just don’t understand how things work. In fact, I do understand. I just don’t approve. Continue Reading…