Thursday, October 26, 2006


Celebrities often support causes. They do this in three ways. The classic way is for a celebrity to become interested in a disease and to raise money for it. Jerry Lewis is an example of this, raising millions each year to help research MS. Others are victims of a disease and offer themselves as examples of why you should be generous or change your behavior. Before he died Yul Brynner did a public service spot saying warning that smoking killed him so you should stop while you can.

Then there are celebrities who have medical problems and want Democrats elected so that the government will find a cure for the disease that is killing or crippling them. Chris Reeve was an example of this. He made it very clear that he wanted a cure for himself. Never mind that most people with comparable spinal injuries would not be able to walk again, even if their spines were cured. Reeve could afford the physical therapy needed to keep his body from atrophying.

This leads to a recent dust-up between Michael J. Fox and Rush Limbaugh. Fox has been appearing in ads in favor of Democrats because they will support embryonic stem cell research. In the ads, Fox shows all the symptoms of Parkinson's disease which he has been fighting for years. Limbaugh made the news after suggesting that Fox may have been exaggerating his disease. From the reaction, Rush would have been better drowning puppies on live TV.

The issue is nowhere near as cut-and-dried as it is made out to be. For one thing, Rush may have been right. In his autobiography, Fox says that he was not taking his medication when he testified before Congress so that his Parkinson's would be more obvious. If he did it once he might do it again. Fox appeared on Boston Legal this season without any tremors.

But that is really beside the point. There are bigger issues. The first is that, unlike Jerry Lewis, Fox is not willing to ask for your money. He wants the government to take it in the form of taxpayer-funded grants. This goes beyond the normal appeal of "If you feel sorry for me then give generously," and raises it to "If you feel sorry for me them make everyone give generously."

Second, he is not lobbying Congress, he is trying to change the controlling party. Stem Cell research may be an over-riding issue for Fox but for most voters it comes after the economy, Iraq, terrorism, immigration, health care, the deficit, and a host of other issues.

Then there is the fact that embryonic stem cell research is not only legal, but government-funded already. Researchers want more funding and more lines of cells which is different from the message that Fox is giving. For that matter, not all of the candidates he has supported have voted in favor of stem cell research. There is the blanket assumption that Democrats are for it and Republicans are against it.

I will not even go into the moral issues of embryonic stem cell research. I am against it for other reasons.

The thing is that embryonic stem cells will not live up to their promises. They can't. They have been brought out as a literal magic bullet that will cure nearly everything. Someone told Christopher Reeve and Michael J. Fox that stem cells will cure them. They believed the promises because they are too close to the problem and are willing to grasp at straws.

There are three major obstacles for the stem cell researchers to overcome. The first is getting the cells to grow differentiated cells. If you want to fix someone's spine, you have to grow nerve tissue, not just stem cells. The second is getting the cells to grow in the right place. The final problem is getting them to stop growing. This is the big one. Right now all indications are that use of stem cells will result in uncontrolled cancerous growths.

No one is positive that these obstacles can be overcome. Many researchers are downright pessimistic. Even the most optimistic ones doubt that Parkinson's can be cured through stem cells. Chris Reeve's spinal injury was simple compared to the wide-spread damage brought on by Parkinson's. The same is true for Alzheimer's. Other therapies have a lot more promise and don't involve changing the government.

This brings me to the biggest problem with celebrity causes. Being an actor does not make you an expert but it lets you imitate one. Even having a disease does not give you the knowledge that your doctor has.

It is too bad about Michael J. Fox and I wish that he did not have Parkinson's but I will not let sympathy for an actor change my vote.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Heated Lawsuits

Katrina was a disaster so someone must be responsible, right? Most of the blame has been going to President Bush but he doesn't have deep pockets so lawyers have moved on to different targets. Who has enough money to attract Katrina-inspired lawsuits? "Dozens of oil companies, utilities, and coal producers, from Chevron and Exxon Mobil to American Electric Power and Xcel Energy."

This will be very tricky to prove. First, the lawyers will have to prove that the world has warmed and that humans are responsible. That alone is tough. There is general agreement that the world has warmed over the last century and a half but many, including the National Council of Scientists, think that there was a period of world-wide cooling prior to that. At least some of the warming can be attributed to the world coming out of a cold phase. How much was natural and how much was human-induced? Both sides can trot out expert witnesses as long as the courts will let them without reaching a consensus.

Assuming that human-induced warming can be proven to the satisfaction of the court, the next question is how much did it influence Katrina? The answer seemed much clearer last year when we had a record number of storms. With only three hurricanes and none causing significant damage, 2005 looks more like a fluke than a trend.

More important, the people who predict hurricanes at NOAA think that Katrina and the increased storm levels of 2005 were part of a natural trend.

So we have three big questions to answer right off the bat - is the world warming, is it human-induced, and did warming cause bigger storms? That still leaves the biggest question - are oil and gas companies responsible for carbon-dioxide output? Yes, if you use their product as intended, it will produce carbon dioxide but the alternative is to put a sudden, complete stop on civilization (and breathing which also produces carbon-dioxide).

Will any court in the land rule that the fuel that runs civilization is a menace and producing it punishable? Well... maybe but I doubt that it can stand on appeal.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

A Democrat Congress

The Democrats are already popping champagne corks on their impending sweep of both houses of Congress. Their celebration might be a bit premature. It is true that polls show that the approval rating for Republicans is terrible (in the 30%s) but the ratings for Democrats isn't much better (40%s). Further, people have been giving their own congressman a much higher ranking (60%s) than his party, whichever party he belongs to. Throw in voters' tendency to be closet Republicans, and this election may be a fizzle instead of a sweep.

But, assume that it is a sweep of both houses - what will that do to the Democrats? Personally, I think that it will destroy them. Here's my reasoning:

First, it has become a truism among Democrats that the republicans have moved so far to the right that former moderates are now considered progressive. They've been saying this for years but it isn't so. The movement has been on their part. This is especially true of the "Netroots" movement lead by MoveOn, DailyKOS, Huffington Post, and the Democratic Underground.

Democrats hate to admit it but the reason that Bush won the 2000 election was that the more progressive wing of the party was tired of Clinton and moderation. They wanted a progressive platform and Gore, even with a bit of class-warfare, just didn't do it for them. A lot of them stayed home or voted for Nader in protest. Micheal Moore even campaigned for Nader on the idea that there wasn't enough difference between Bush and Gore to matter.

Even assuming that most of Nader's Florida vote came from people who would have stayed home, it is likely that he drained enough voters from Gore to give Bush the election. Most Democrats thought so in 2004 and snubbed him in a mild purge.

In 2003, Howard Dean quickly amassed a huge war chest based on Internet donations. His appeal was that he was from the "liberal wing" of the Democratic party. Again, the eventual candidate was seen by the Netroots as being too moderate although they swallowed their distaste and supported Kerry anyway.

In 2006, the party conducted what is sure to be the first of many purges. The 2000 VP candidate, Joe Lieberman, was judged a traitor to the cause and forced off the ballot. Listening to the Netroots cheer about a "historic election" and "the people taking power back", you would have thought that this had been the first open election in decades.

Along the way, Democratic leaders such as Minority Leader Nancy Pilosi and Sen. Hillary Clinton angered the Netroots with their refusal to push for an immediate troop pull-out in Iraq. There was also widespread discontent that the Democratic leadership didn't fight tooth and nail to block Bush's Supreme Court nominees.

The Netroots movement has been gaining power within the Democratic Party. In 2004, their spending about equaled Kerry's. They expect a return on this investment. If Democrats take Congress, the Netroots will have a list of demands. most of these will be counter-productive. These include:

The impeachment and eventual arrest of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rove, and a long list of others. This has been a major goal of the Democrats since the day after the 2004 election. John Conyers already warmed up by holding his own unofficial hearings into impeachment. The image of Rove being arrested and "frogmarched" is a recurring one in the Netroot messages boards. The problem for the Democrats is that their grounds for impeachment ("Bush lied") is unlikely to succeed and, as the Clinton impeachment showed, this will play badly with the voters.

An immediate pull-out from Iraq. This is a surrender and the American people will see it as such. If they don't then al Qaida will be sure to send messages telling us so. If Iraq is a recruiting tool now, imagine it after the terrorists say that they defeated the US. We will lose international credibility for decades to come.

A near-doubling of the minimum wage. Progressives want the minimum wage raised to $10/hour and refuse to admit that there could be economic consequences.

A roll-back of all Bush tax cuts. Voters are going to love seeing their taxes go up.

A repeal of NAFTA and a new round of trade barriers, many based on ecological concerns or foreign labor laws . Voters are going to love seeing the price of everything go up.

An implementation of Kyoto treaty and new taxes on gasoline or a general carbon tax. Voters love seeing gas and heat prices rise.

None of these will help the Democrats with the general public. Most will hurt them. This puts the Democratic leadership in a trap. If they act on much of the Netroots' agenda they will hurt the party. This will anger the Netroots who will conduct more purges. They are already considering replacing Pelosi with John Murtha and have put Hillary on notice.

This is where the Democrats will have real trouble. They do not have a shared agenda beyond gaining power and the progressives feel that they have been out of power too long (since around 1968). They want their chance. At the same time, their world view hasn't changed much from FDR's failed economic policies. Iraq by itself is enough to tear the Democrats apart.

Given all of this, the Democrats will be in terrible shape by 2008.

In the meantime, a couple of years out of power in Congress will force the Republicans to reevaluate their own policies. Their policies for the last six years have revolved around forming a permanent Republican majority. They did this by ejecting the fiscal conservative and libertarian principals of the party, figuring that they didn't bring in votes. This has alienated many of the Republican faithful who think that a few years out of power would be good for the party.

It could work. Impeachment proceedings on Bush could cause the party to circle the wagons. With Bush unable to run again and Cheney unlikely to get the nomination, a new face could reinvigorate the conservative cause. The FDR coalition of Unions, blacks, and Jews is long gone but the Reagan coalition of Libertarians and religious conservatives is still viable. This could launch the Republicans back into power for another decade or more.

A lot more if there is another terrorist attack after the Democrats take Congress.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Columbus Day

Happy Columbus Day.

Of course, the calendar shows Columbus Day as having been last Monday (one of the mobile Monday holidays) but today is the date on Columbus's log when he found land.

If you want to really quibble, the Julian calendar had built up an error of ten days by 1492 and Columbus Day should be October 22.

None of this matters. I am here, writing this because Columbus started a chain of events that led to the modern world. In all of history, not many people have done that. During the last thousand years it is difficult to think of any single event that affected so many people. The invention of the printing press is the only contender that I can think of.

I celebrated the legal holiday by helping to re-christen the Columbus Santa Maria. It was a wonderful day for it - sunny, a bit hot. Not a protester in sight.

I understand that the protests are scheduled for today. The last I saw, there were snow flurries in the air.

I don't have any patience for the protesters. They lie a lot. They blame an explorer who died nearly five hundred years ago for the policies of the US government in the late 1800s. They magnify the modern world's faults and totally ignore the horrors of 1492 (human sacrifice, torture of strangers, cannibalism). They are also unwilling to admit that, like me, they only exist because of Columbus's voyage.

But, most of the protests have died down since 1992. The people most likely to protest Columbus are so consumed with hatred for President Bush that they no longer care about events 514 years ago.

So we are left with a holiday that is mainly celebrated by government workers with little thought about why we celebrate.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

What it REALLY Means to be a Liberal

Geoffry Stone has a column in the Chicago Tribune on What It Means to be a Liberal. This is a combination of wishful thinking and nostalgia. Here's my take on what liberals actually believe.

1. Liberals believe that they have a monopoly on the truth. Conservatives are exhorted to listen to them but they refuse to allow conservatives to speak. John Stossel, for example, has trouble getting his book reviewed even though he is an anchor of a major new show and his books are best-sellers. Universities have protests over conservative speakers and, when they are invited, try to shout them down. Al Gore refers to critics as "digital brownshirts" (Nazis) and has called for the suppression of further debate on Global Warming.

2. Liberals celebrate the fringe over the norm. If you are a minority or ethnic in some exotic way then you are superior to middle-class America. This often leads to protected classes and attempts to legislate "hate speech" come close to thought police. A member of a minority group who does not subscribe to the approved (liberal) norm is derided as a turncoat.

3. Liberals also believe in activists. If you make a noise about an acceptable cause then action must be taken. Relationships to reality often take a back seat over the need to do something.

4. The right to abortion is absolute. Any woman who considers having an abortion or who is college age and might go to college must have an abortion. Any group that a pregnant woman contacts for advice must council her to have an abortion. This is often obscured with code words about reproductive freedom and privacy.

5. It's not enough to make reasonable, good-faith efforts to respect rights. Look at the flap last year over Justice Alito. A "questionable
 ruling allowed that a police officer who had asked for a warrant covering all occupants of a building was justified in searching all occupants, even though the description on the warrant was abbreviated for lack of space. Liberals believe that any articulate minority member in jail must have been framed and should be freed.

6.The poor are good and the rich are bad. It is the government's job to flatten society by penalizing the rich and supporting the poor. It does not matter if programs to help the poor are too expensive, if they cause long-term social problems, or if they have failed in other countries. They are sacrosanct and will never be reevaluated. Liberals believe in the rights of the group over individual rights.

7. Liberals reject any notion of morality as sectarian faith. Christianity is evil and should be suppressed. Liberals are against any public acknowledgement of Christianity including the very word Christmas. Even having a cross where it can be viewed from a public waterway is considered too much. Liberals are willing to allow Christians to practice their faith in private although they don't like having Christians gathered in large numbers. Look at the reaction to the mega-churches. Liberals encourage other faiths. Moslem's are allowed to broadcast prayers over loud speakers but Christians are not.

8. Liberals believe in invented rights. The Right to Privacy is not in the constitution. Ohio's courts interpreted the state constitution to read that the state's main duty is to run the schools and all other functions are secondary. Last year the liberal wing of the Supreme Court ruled that property could be seized and given to developers in order to increase tax revenue.

9. Liberals oppose any actions taken by conservatives to secure the country from external threat. They deliberately misrepresent actions and intention. They are sure that the enemy at home is worse than the enemy abroad.

10. Liberals assume that anyone held by the government must be innocent and demand American trials for prisoners who are not citizens and have never been on American soil. Even the military tribunals called for by the Geneva Convention are insufficient.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Free Speech in a World with Fanatics

Last week a Mozart opera was cancelled. The reason given was fear that it would offend Muslim extremists. Many people, both conservative and liberal are upset by this action. I count this as a win for free speech. Here's why.

First, the opera as staged ends with a denunciation of religion. The heads of various religious figures including Mohamed are displayed. The opera company felt that this was likely to offend Muslim sensibilities. They checked with the German government which could not guarantee their safety so they cancelled the opera.

There are several ways that this could have played out. The possibly offending scene in not in the opera so opera company could have removed it or kept it in but removed references to Mohamed or they could have kept it in and hoping that no one noticed and reacted if someone did complain.

The first option is exactly what the various world-wide protests are about. They are staged in order to make the secular west grant special treatment to Islam. Choices like this are probably made weekly, maybe even daily. No one wants to be the next person to offend Muslims world-wide.

If the opera company had left the scene alone and someone had complained then they would be in the same position as the newspapers that ran the Mohamed cartoons. Critics across the world would be condemning them for not being sensitive to Muslims.

The strange thing is that the same critics took the opera company's side against possible Muslim sensitivity in this case. Without world-wide riots, people realized that this is a very basic free-speech issue.

So, by seeming to acquiesce to Muslim demands but by doing it pro-actively and publicly, they changed the argument. South park did the same thing by running a caption saying that they were not allowed to show Mohamed.

Others need to follow suit. We need to raise a little righteous indignation of our own.