Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Regulations and Employment

The Republicans in general and Mitt Romney in particular are running against "job-killing regulations". This drew an angry response from Ruth Marcus, one of the Washington Post's stable of left-leaning columnists.

If an employer's costs increase as the result of a regulation, Livermore notes, that is another way of saying that the employer has to hire workers to, say, install new technology while other employers hire workers to produce the new equipment.

At the same time she does admit that there are problems with estimates from both sides.

Lesson One: If you plug your cherry-picked assumptions into your preferred model, it's easy to obtain the desired result. Lesson Two: Jobs are only part of the larger picture

Starting with the first quote, it is true that regulations often result in hiring new workers. From a short-term, limited basis, new regulations can create jobs. But let's look further than that. If costs increase because of regulations, it means that productivity has decreased. While some small losses in productivity can be absorbed, large losses have to be passed on. This means price increases.

Things can go in three different ways from there. If a producer has foreign competition without the additional regulatory burden then it places the American company at a disadvantage and leads to lost sales. From there a company may have to reduce its workforce (think GM) or move its operations overseas (think Apple). Both lead directly to long-term job loss.

The final possibility is if a product has no foreign competition and outsourcing is not possible. Examples of this are power companies and gasoline. In both cases, new regulations lead to increases in costs which are passed on to the consumers. This acts as a drag on the economy as a whole. The new regulations may have helped a few sub-industries but the money to pay for them come from everyone's pockets. That means less money is available for other things.

This is known as the Broken Windows Fallacy. If I break the windows of the shoemaker's house then I have created economic activity for the glazier (window maker) but taken money from the shoemaker. There is no net economic gain.

Marcus is correct that jobs are only part of the larger picture. We have clean air laws today because in decades past the air quality was bad enough to affect people's health. But, the environment is much cleaner than 40 years ago. Additional improvement carries a high price tag so the benefits of the new regulations have to be measured against the economic hardship they cause.

As a member of the left, Marcus sees expanding government authority as a good thing and excuses it by insisting that it creates jobs but, as she pointed out, different models give different results. The models that show net job gain tend to look at it fromt he point of view of the glazier and ignore the shoemaker.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Who trusts the news?

Major, formerly reputable, news operations like NBC have given up completely on journalistic integrity in favor of controlling the message. Two recent incidents with NBC show my point.

First there is the matter of the edited 911 call made by George Zimmerman in the Travon Martin case. By the time NBC picked up the story it was already being cast as an instance of racism. The 911 call did not support that so a senior NBC editor doctored it. In the original call, Zimmerman described Martin's behavior as suspicious but only added martin's race when prompted. NBC (and CNN) removed the 911 operator's question leaving the impression that Zimmerman included Martin's race as something that made him suspicious.

Later analysis of all of Zimmerman's 911 calls showed that he never identified someone's race until asked. Further, it was a mix-ed race neighborhood so simply seeing a black youth would not have been suspicious. It was his behavior, standing in rain in a yard instead of on a sidewalk, that Zimmerman was reporting. By editing the tape, NBC made it seem that Zimmerman was reporting someone for walking while black.

More recently, NBC reported on Rudolph Giuliani had endorsed Mitt Romney. Except the footage they played was from earlier when Giuliani was supporting Newt Gingrich and complained about Romney flipping on issues. Showing an anti-Romney soundbite is likely to leave more of an impression than reading a pro-Romney endorsement. So, by choosing the right footage, they turned a pro-Romney story into an anti-Romney one. This is a rather stunning case of bias.

Monday, April 23, 2012

A dog-eat-dog campaign

It started out as a funny story that one of Romney's sons told about how strictly his father stuck to plans:

Around 30 years ago the Romney family was taking a road trip to Canada. They wanted to bring their dog but there was no room in the car so Mitt figured out a way to strap the dog's carrier to the roof. Along the way the dog had a case of diarrhea and they had to pull over so that Mitt could hose off the car and clean the cage. Since this was an unscheduled stop, the family was not allowed out of the car for a bathroom break.

The Obama campaign has seized on this with mock outrage - he strapped a dog to the roof of a car! That's abuse!!!!!

This is ridiculous. The Romney family says that the dog enjoyed the ride and there is no reason to doubt them. Since then many states have passed laws requiring that dogs be transported in dog crates. Most dogs, when loose, will stick their head out the window. The Romney family dog was better off than the dogs that ride in the back of pickup trucks but no one is calling that abuse.

Still, if someone yells "Abuse!" loud enough, people listen and nod their heads in agreement.

So, the right has begun to push back. Someone discovered a passage in President Obama's first autobiography where he tells about eating bugs, dog, and snake as a child. A thousand jokes were born overnight.

Obama's defenders correctly point out that the dog-eating took place when he was a child and he never indicated a preference for dog. This is true but irrelevant. He wrote the book as an adult (assuming that it was not ghost-written) and included this passage as an example of how exotic his life has been. When running for president in 2008, he pushed his background as a major qualification for the office. He never indicated that any of it was distasteful. Instead he describes seeing a chicken being killed for the first time and going to bed that night thinking how lucky he was.

Obviously Obama's detractors do not think that he is only keeping Bo around for Thanksgiving dinner but the dog-eating jokes are no less serious than the faux outrage over Romney's dog.

The Obama campaign wants to keep reminding us that Romney is "different" (code word for "Mormon") and "out-of-touch". Several columnists have reminded us that Romney's great-grandfather was a polygamist. This is a poor strategy since Obama's background is far stranger than Romney's and Obama's father was a polygamist.

Likely this is how the campaign will progress.  Obama's surrogates will keep bringing up trivialities. Romney's supporters will find something equivalent and silence that line of attack. During all of this Romney will continue to hit Obama on the economy and Obama will try to convince the country that the economy is doing well.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Is Barack Obama a nice guy?

What sort of person is Barack Obama? A recent poll showed that more people like him personally than Mitt Romney. Is this valid?

The book The Obama's tells us a lot about the President's personality. He is ultra competitive. He is a bad loser but he is also a bad winner. He is the type of person who will rub it in your face when he wins and sulks when he loses.

There is a picture of the first Superbowl party. Obama wanted to have a small gathering of friends but his political advisers talked him into inviting Congressional leaders from both parties as a chance to socialize and lobby. The problem was that Obama only cared about the game so the picture shows him celebrating a touchdown with his arms up while the rest of the room looks on.

Obama's dislike for politics and socializing forms an iron-clad rule. He spends most nights with his family in private.

The Obamas have few friends and when they went to DC they decided that they would not make any more. After all, everyone has an agenda and they worried that people they met would just be friends to push their agenda. When he was in the Illinois Senate, Obama had no friends among the other legislators.

The President has a temper. It probably is not as bad as Bill Clinton's red-faced rages but he can be sharp. This comes out occasionally in press conferences when he snaps at reporters. He is also convinced of his own superiority to everyone else. He told at least two people that it was difficult for him to select a cabinet because he could do everyone's job better than they could.

Obama is often petty and tends to demonize the opposition. He uses loaded terms like "fat-cat bankers". During the 2010 mid-term election he regularly told a story comparing the economy to a car that the Republicans drove into a ditch then stood on the top drinking a Slurpee while the Democrats did the hard work.

None of this paints a very nice view of the President and much of it comes from supporters.

When Ted Kennedy died, the press was full of stories of his friendship and kindness to people from both parties. No one will say this of Barack Obama.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Obama Economy

Three years ago President Obama promised us a new economy based on green energy, health care, and education. Unlike the previous economy it would not be based on boom and bust cycles. With Obama coming up for reelection, let's see how he is doing on that new economy.

Green energy has been a bust. Several factors have gone into this. A big one is natural gas. With new drilling techniques we now have a glut of natural gas which has pushed the price to historic lows. This is a big blow to green energy since it was already expensive. Gas burns cleaner than coal which removes some of the urgency for green power.

When Obama refers to green power he usually means solar and wind. Solar has the obvious problem of night. Wind has similar problems with availability. Both need back-up gas-fired generators in order to deliver constant power which pushes up the cost even more. In addition, there are transmission problems with both. Both need big open spaces. Wind generators are noisy and have to be away from nearly everyone. This means stringing a lot of power lines and building a lot of switching equipment. Up to half of the power generated this way is lost in transmission.

Green power, especially solar, has been through a speculation bubble. Originally a lot of Silicon Valley investors got in on it figuring that they were smart enough to solve all of the problems. These are people who expected a return on investment within three years while industries like solar need at least ten year cycles. A huge difference between the software that these investors were used to financing and manufacturing processes is that manufacturing does not necessarily scale well. The only way to find out is to build a factory and see if it works. That's where the money went with Solyndra.

Even if everything worked, green power does not generate many jobs. Ten years ago we were exporting wind generators to China. Now they build their own and market them to the rest of the world.

Spain cut back support for green power after a study found that it destroyed 2.5 jobs for every job created.

What about health care? President Obama was not forthcoming about it but insider books such as Confidence Men show that what he means is jobs nursing an aging Baby Boomer generation. In economic meetings early in his administration, Obama considered this his great solution to the fact that manufacturing jobs are not coming back.

Then there is education. The President is a great believer in higher education but this carries an ever-growing price tag. The overhead of student loans is already slowing the economy. Many graduates continue to live with their parents for years after graduating because of the cost of their student loans.

Student loans were a focal point of the Occupy Movement last Fall. Many of the protestors demanded forgiveness for their loans. the President even mentioned rising tuition costs in his 2012 State of the Union speech, threatening universities if they don't keep down costs.

Clearly we have not made the transition to Obama's new economy and many parts of his goals are hurting the overall economy rather than helping it.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Government by Gimmick

President Obama stopped governing last Summer, opting instead to make proposals that he knew were unacceptable to the Republicans then castigate them for not acting. Now the rest of the Democratic Party (or at least the ones in the Senate) have followed with their attempt to pass the Buffett Rule.

Keep in mind that the Buffett Rule is not about closing the deficit - it would raise a few billion per year when the deficit is over a trillion. It would not create jobs or help the economy. It might even hurt the economy. It would not close a gaping tax loophole. Only a few thousand would be affected and they are all people who invested wisely. It is not comprehensive tax reform - it would simply add a new level of complexity. It isn't about making the rich pay their fair share. The corporate earnings that translate into capitol gains are taxed at the highest rate in the world.

What the Buffett Rule aims at is the appearance of tax fairness.

What the Senate voted on isn't even that. They knew that the measure was likely to fail. They were counting on it. It would have been a disaster for them if it had passed.

The Democrats regarded the Buffett Rule as a trap for the Republicans. They wanted it to fail so that they could use it as an election issue. If they really wanted it passed they could have done so two years ago when they had a filibuster-proof majority.

We have reached the point where it is more important to the Democrats to set traps for the Republicans than to govern. The same thing is true for the budget. The White House's budget was voted down overwhelmingly. The Republicans produced their own budget. Granted it is more of a wish list than a working document but it puts them on the record for how they will handle the fiscal emergencies that face the country. The Democrats regard this as another trap and refuse to even offer this much.

What happened to the promises of post-partisanship?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

A Nasty Campaign

If you don't have any fresh ideas, then you use stale tactics to scare voters. If you don't have a record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone people should run from. - Barack Obama, 2008

Mr. Obama was right about this and in the next several months we are going to see his reelection campaign attack every aspect of Mitt Romney. The problem with a negative campaign is that sometimes it backfires. Yesterday Hilary Rosen complained that Ann Romney "had never worked a day in her life." Attacking a candidate's wife is always a bad idea. The Romney campaign immediately pounced on Rosen's remark. Rosen tried to explain herself but there is no getting around the fact that she denounced stay-at-home mothers.

For Rosen, this was a natural mistake. A successful professional woman and a liberal, she probably doesn't even know any stay-at-home mothers. It has been a central point of the feminists that a woman only fulfills herself through work.

Not all of the country shares this attitude so her attack on Ann Romney hurt the Obama campaign.

So far the Obama campaign has yet to come up with anything positive. The President has attacked the Republican budget as "social Darwinism" and made fun of Romney using the word "marvelous". Obama's current gimmick is the Buffett Rule which would raise taxes on millionaires. He even admits that this is a gimmick but it is still the centerpiece of his campaign. Vice-President Biden went a step further suggesting that it be renamed the Romney Rule although he didn't give a reason.

The main positive achievement that the President is running on is a small increase in domestic oil production. The problem there is that he had nothing to do with it. Oil production on public lands has been flat. It is oil production on private lands that is up.

A president with a strong record can sail to reelection, ignoring his opponent and acting as if it is inevitable that he will win. That is how Clinton handled his reelection in 1996. Reagan had an even stronger record to run on and crushed Mondale in 1984 with a 49-state win.

On the other hand, Obama's principle achievement, Obamacare, is deeply disliked and in danger of being declared unconstitutional. He did get us out of Iraq, but he did it on George W. Bush's schedule. The troops are scheduled to pull out of Afghanistan but that country could fall apart immediately after and even if it doesn't, presidents are seldom reelected based on their war records (just ask George H. W. Bush).

So Team Obama will try to pounce on every aspect that they can. It was inevitable that they would try to attack his wife. She is well-thought of, just as Michelle Obama is more popular than her husband. But, Ann Romney not only raised five kids, she is also a cancer survivor and suffers from multiple-sclerosis. Attacking her is a bit like kicking a puppy.

Expect the attacks to get nastier and more personal.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Johnson vs Goldwater

The newest from President Obama:

President Barack Obama said on Tuesday that the choice facing voters this November will be as stark as in the milestone 1964 contest between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater.

Does he really want to go there? Granted Johnson beat Goldwater by the biggest margin in modern politics but there are plenty of reasons that Obama should shy away from mentioning LBJ.

First, is this really as stark a choice as Obama claims? I would put it closer to 2000 when the far-left Al Gore ran on a soak-the-rich platform against center-right George W. Bush. Another apt comparison would be Carter and Reagan. That's the one that Obama wants to avoid at all costs. In 2000 Carter seemed clueless about the economy and helpless about Iran. Unable to run on his record, Carter ran an attack campaign warning about how bad things would become in Reagan was elected. It is too easy to draw parallels between Carter and Obama.

Second, Johnson did not run as a liberal against a conservative. He ran as a peacemaker against an intolerant war-monger who would get us into an unwinnable nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Remember the "Daisy" ad where a young girl is playing with a daisy until a nuclear bomb goes off? That ad was not about Medicare.

Casting himself as Johnson is risky for Obama. Yes, Johnson was one of the most liberal presidents ever. He expanded Social Security and created Medicare and Medicaid. All of those programs face financial crisis in the foreseeable future. Johnson also lied us into Viet Nam. His administration was marred by race riots and violent anti-war protests. No one who lived through that period wants to see it happen again.

Casting Romney as Goldwater is also problematical for the President. Few people remember much about Goldwater. Those who do are hard-core conservatives. They credit Goldwater with laying the foundation for the Reagan Revolution. Hard-core conservative/libertarians are almost as fond of Goldwater as they are of Reagan. Romney's biggest problem in the primaries was convincing the base that he is a true conservative instead of a moderate. It only helps him to be compared with Goldwater. In fact, I can't think of a presidential candidate this side of Reagan who would help Romney more.

Johnson in 1964 was a special case. Kennedy had been dead less than a year and the country was still in shock. Johnson's victory was equal parts sentimentality over Kennedy's legacy and worry over Goldwater as being too anti-communist. Four years later Johnson dropped out of the primaries when it became obvious that he was likely to lose.

Until now Obama has studiously avoided any comparisons with Johnson. It was probably a mistake to bring him up now.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Are Conservatives Stupid?

There seems to be a drumbeat of works showing that conservatives are stupid or at least not as smart as liberals. The latest to come to light is a study that shows the cognitive performance as a child is a predictor of "right-wing ideology". A quick summary of the paper can be found on the Huffington Post.

And now there's the new study linking conservative ideologies to "low-effort" thinking.

"People endorse conservative ideology more when they have to give a first or fast response," the study's lead author, University of Arkansas psychologist Dr. Scott Eidelman, said in a written statement released by the university.

Does the finding suggest that conservatives are lazy thinkers?

"Not quite," Dr. Eidelman told The Huffington Post in an email. "Our research shows that low-effort thought promotes political conservatism, not that political conservatives use low-effort thinking."
The actual paper is here. I read the entire paper hoping that the authors would define exactly what they meant by "right-wing ideologies". This is never spelled out although it is alluded to in a footnote:

We focused on social-cultural conservatism rather than economic conservatism, given that the former is more clearly related to prejudice.

Oh. So their definition of right-wing ideology has nothing to do with things like free-market economics. Instead it is based on the notion that far-right equals Nazis. For a discussion about the relationship between Fascism to modern politics, see here. This has nothing to do with modern political parties.

Next we have an article from Rolling Stone: Can Drinking Make You Conservative? Again, this is based on the idea that conservatives use low-effort thinking. The reasoning is that something that would impair your higher-effort thinking might make you conservative. The Rolling Stone article was written by Chris Moody who is pushing his book The Republican Brain. His thesis is that conservatives look at the simple answer while liberals think the issue through and see aspects of the issue that elude conservatives. Here is one of his examples:

Or think about global warming. It's easy and, in a sense, natural to dismiss the reality of climate change whenever there's a big snowstorm. ("See, it's getting colder, not warmer!") It takes more effort to understand that climate is the statistical average of weather, to model the climate system and consider different greenhouse gas emissions scenarios, and to try to craft policy that will stave off a future risk, while fully admitting there's some lingering uncertainty about how quickly and strongly it will manifest itself.

I love this one because we have just seen several articles saying "We are having a warm Spring so it must be global warming!" even though global temperature has not increased significantly in 15 years. Maybe Moody's superior liberal brain has an explanation for this that goes beyond his example... but I doubt it.

Just to be sure that conservatives are not offended by this article, Moody ends with this:

Many liberals will be tempted to cite the latest research to argue that they're in some way superior, while conservatives may feel insulted by this new assault from academics (who, they're already convinced, are radical socialists). But in truth, neither interpretation seems to be the correct one. The real upshot, it seems to me, may be that conservatives have a built-in political and communications advantage, simply because human beings, in their busy lives, cannot be expected to be in "liberal" mode all the time, or even most of the time. Or as the study authors conclude: "Our findings suggest that conservative ways of thinking are basic, normal, and perhaps natural."

In other words, you could argue that liberals are really the outliers here. They're the ones in the position of having to spin out complex, nuanced explanations for their views – explanations that, to much of the populace, feel like so much fancy-pants posturing. And while this may work for academia and wonkland, it can also get in the way of political effectiveness and leadership. 

No wonder another recent study finds that liberals, on average, drink more alcohol. Perhaps they just need to escape from their liberal brains sometimes. To me, that sounds pretty understandable.

Of course, Moody himself is one of the liberals who feels superior to conservatives. But he tries to mollify us by pointing out that liberals drink more, presumably to escape from the awful curse of knowing so much.

On to the study itself. Researchers stood outside a bar in New England and asked patrons who were leaving if they would answer a 10-question survey in exchange for knowing their Blood Alcohol Content (BAC). They were also asked to rate themselves politically. Later the survey questions were compared to a standard based on their political rating to how well their rating predicted their answers. Follow-up studies rated people's attitudes while under cognitive load which would also interfere with higher thought.

So, does this study prove that liberal viewpoints are the result of deep thought while conservatives think with their gut? No. There are several major problems with the study.

The obvious ones are that their studies were too small (85 people) and too localized (one town in New England). They did not make any effort to determine people's views ahead of time. They simply compared results under stress against a predictor. The smaller the test group the less likely this will be.

The biggest problem with this study is the assumption of how opinions on different issues is formed in the first place. My opinion on ownership of property (one of the ten questions) was formed a long time ago based on serious thought about different economic systems. When asked, I do not recreate that process on the spot. But, the study seems to be based on the assumption that our attitudes are in constant flux. While I do reevaluate my positions over time, I do this when presented with new data, not when given a survey while drunk.

The way that they rated people is a little odd considering their conclusions. They used Kerlinger's Social Referent Scale which was last updated in 1984 (actually they used a subset of it). This was written during the Cold War and ranks attitudes accordingly. Global warming is not on the list so the effect of drinking or stress on belief in global warming is pure speculation. The point of Kerlinger's work was to show that conservatives and liberals have completely different sets of values instead of a simple attitude bipolarity. In researching this post I found that researchers testing variations of Moody's thesis throw out the conservative list of values and concentrate on the liberal list. This had 14 items but Moody only asked 10 so he trimmed Kerlinger by nearly 2/3s.

Anyway, given that the people being tested were college-age and came from a monoculture, it is possible to come up with a completely different conclusion than Moody's. It is likely that the people being tested said that they were more conservative than they really are because it is more socially acceptable. When drunk or under stress, their real attitudes showed through because they didn't have time to self-censor.

I have my own proof that self-censorship happens. During the 2004 presidential election, the only poll that correctly predicted the results was conducted by Rasmussen. This poll used prerecorded questions instead of a live person asking the questions. Rasmussen explained his results were more accurate because people being polled by a live person are more likely to give the answer that they think the pollster wants to hear. People who hated President Bush were far more vocal so people were more likely to say that they were planning to vote against Bush than to admit the truth.

The same probably happened here - someone in a New England town asks you if you are a liberal or a conservative. You say that you are more liberal than you really are because you don't want them to think less of you.

A third possibility is that Kerlinger's SRS is outdated and many people think of them selves as liberal but actually have several conservative viewpoints. There was no sign that Moody tried to control for this.

To summarize - the case for conservatives being stupid still has to be made.

Monday, April 09, 2012

The Conservative Case Against the Volt

In a recent column, Froma Harrop asked why conservatives hate the Chevy Volt? She throws around a few numbers, mentioning that Chevy sold twice as many Volts in March as in February but she mixes her figures. Examine the following paragraph:

Lo and behold, U.S. car sales were hot last month, with General Motors selling over 100,000 vehicles that get at least 30 miles to a gallon. And sales of its Chevy Volt more than doubled from the month before.

So, how many Volts were sold last month? She doesn't say. That 100,000 figure includes all high-mileage cars. The actual figure for the Volt is 2,289 - just 2% of the high-mileage cars sold. Something else that Harrop doesn't say is that this was the most Volts sold in a month. GM was hoping to sell 45,000 of these cars per year so, even if they continue to sell at the March rate, sales will be half of what was projected. Normally a car that sells so far below projections would be dropped but Chevy is committed to producing the Volt as part of its bailout deal with the government.

Before I go further I have a question of my own for Harrop: why would a liberal support the Volt? The car is basically a Chevy Cruze with an exotic powertrain. At $40,000, it costs more than twice as much as a Cruze. It only seats four and has a tiny trunk (the batteries take up a lot of space). This is not a family car unless the family never leaves town. Even if you want insist on a hybrid you can get a Prius Compact for $19,000. The Volt is a car for the 1%.

But no one pays $40,000 for the Volt. They pay $32,500 and the government pays $7,500. Even with this government incentive the Volt is an expensive car - too expensive for most people.

The Volt's main selling point is that you can go up to 35 miles on battery power. But, it takes hours to charge and you have to have a special charging station (for $2,000). This means that you can save, at most, a gallon of gas per day over a Cruze or Prius. At $4/gallon, it would take you ten years to save enough on gas to recover the extra you paid for a volt. Even if gas jumps to $5/gallon, it will take you eight years to recover the extra cost. And I'm not figuring the cost of electricity into this calculation. Note - if you drive at least 35 miles each way and your employer has a charging station then the cost-recovery figures would be halved.

A couple of other considerations - not many people who can afford a $32,500 car will keep it 8-10 years. They tend to trade every 2-3 years so they would never recover the extra cost. There is also the question of long-term value for the Volt. Batteries have a limited life. Ten years would be amazing. Once the batteries die then so does the car. A new battery pack for the Prius costs $2,000 and the Volt has a lot more batteries so figure that battery replacement will cost a few thousand. How much would you pay for a used car knowing that you would have to pay for this replacement? I suspect that the trade-in value for the Volt is going to be low which must also be counted against the cost of buying it.

For those who worry about greenhouse gas emissions, I should point out that building a car creates a lot of CO2. The longer a car stays on the road the fewer replacements are needed. When you figure this in then the Cruze probably has a lower life-time emission than the Volt.

And that is the conservative case against it. It isn't that much more efficient and it costs far too much for most people to buy. The government is subsidizing a toy for the rich. Drop the subsidy and the mandate for GM to produce it and let it stand or fall on its own. If GM decides that they can keep producing it then conservatives would have no objections.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

The President Comes Out Swinging

On Monday during a joint press conference with the presidents of Canada and Mexico, President Obama was asked to comment on the Supreme Court and the ACA (Affordable Care Act aka Obamacare). He seemed incredulous that the Court could even question a law passed by a "substantial majority in Congress". He went further, commenting on "unelected judges".

The President's comments were incendiary enough to provoke a reaction for all sides. Even liberals thought that he went too far in denouncing "judicial activism". This is understandable. After all, Roe v. Wade is a stellar example of judicial activism.

Obviously the President's handlers let him know that he had gone too far. In a press conference on Tuesday he backed away from the most inflammatory statements. At the same time he made some comments about constitutional law that left observers wondering about his familiarity with the subject. This is not a good thing for a former instructor of constitutional law.

I think that his off-the-cuff remarks on Monday were closer to the President's true feelings. He has already shown that he has little respect for the Court, even lecturing them during the State of the Union address.

After softening his stance on the Supreme Court, Obama launched into his other target - Mitt Romney and the Republican budget. Among other things, Obama outright made fun of Romney:

He said that he's very supportive of this new budget. And he even called it 'marvelous,' which is a word you don't often hear when it comes to describing the budget. It's a word you don't often hear generally.

That was a cheap shot, especially since Politico found three instances where Obama himself has used the word since becoming president.

Obama spent a lot of energy complaining about the Ryan budget, saying that it would lead to "social Darwinism". This is interesting for a few reasons. First, Obama's speech reminds me of Jimmy Carter warning that electing Ronald Reagan would lead to pitting white againt black, rich against poor, old against young. Following Jimmy Carter's playbook is not a good way to win reelection.

"Social Darwinism" is not a term that is used often, much less often than "marvelous". It also has an interesting pedigree.

"Social Darwinism" was first described by Oscar Schmidt of the University of Strasbourg, reporting at a scientific and medical conference held in Munich in 1877. He noted how socialists, although opponents of Darwin's theory, nonetheless used it to add force to their political arguments.

On the other hand, some major Progressives like H. G. Wells and Jack London were believers in social Darwinism.

The President's attack on the Ryan budget was to be expected. He decided some time ago to pretend that there are no problems with entitlements or the deficit. Instead he lets the Republicans advance proposals for dealing with these problems, mis-characterizes them, and attacks them on that basis. This was a winning formula for him in 2008 when he told seniors that they would have lost their Social Security under a proposal from President Bush, even though Bush excluded people over 50. The Democrats won a special election in Florida by showing a Ryan-look-alike literally throwing a senior over a cliff.

Obama's speech set what will probably be the tone for the campaign. With few achievements to run on, Team Obama will be nagative and play fast and loose with the truth.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Conservatives and Science

Are Republicans really anti-science? A new book by Chris Moody claims that Republicans are anti-science and deny reality and uses brain scans and other testing to prove its point.

I will admit off the bat that I am not going to spend $14.27 (Kindle edition) to be insulted. Instead I'm going to look at some recent controversies and see how the two sides react.

I will concede evolution to Moody. A lot of creationists seem to be conservatives and there just isn't any hard science to back up creationism.

Climate change is a different matter. A liberal says, "Last month set heat records across much of the US. We have to close coal-fired power plants now!" A conservative says, "The world temperature record as maintained by three separate institutions, all staffed with warming true-believers, says that the warming stopped fifteen years ago. What's the rush?" Which is really looking at science and which is simply reacting to a scare?

Stem-cell research is far more complicated than most liberals let on. No one opposes adult stem cell research and most of the breakthroughs have involved adult stem cells. There is no trouble getting funding for adult stem cell research. The issue is with embryonic stem cells - ones made from a fetus. When this first came up, very little progress had been made so little private money was available for research. Scientists wanted the government to fund it, promising quick and startling breakthroughs. President Clinton passed on providing research money. President Bush did approve government financing but, because of ethical considerations, only on stem cell lines already in existence. This limitation only applied to government money but, because there was so little private money, the world acted as if Bush had ended funding for stem cell research instead of being the first to approve it.

President Obama made a show of lifting Bush's limits on funding. Still, no breakthroughs have been made and other, more ethical, sources of embryonic stem cells have been discovered in the meantime.

The debate comes down to the question of the ethics of fertilizing a human egg cell, producing a unique human being, only to tear it apart before it can develop. This is an outgrowth of the abortion debate in which liberals claim that a fetus is a non-human clump of cells until it is born and conservatives claim is a complete human being while it is still microscopic. Both sides have valid points and declaring the conservative side to be anti-science is pure arrogance.

Childhood Vaccines - A lot of people are convinced that mercury in childhood vaccines causes autism and most of these people are leading liberals. Think RFK jr.

Cervical Cancer Vaccines - this is the exception. Liberals want it administered around puberty, just in case girls become sexually active at age 13 or 14. Conservatives are appalled at a policy that seems to encourage underage sex and want the vaccine given when women are more sexually mature. The exception is Michelle Bachman who confused a story about a normal childhood vaccine with the vaccine for cervical cancer.

Genetically Modified Food - conservatives this that this is the answer to world hunger. Liberals want it banned.

Fracking - conservatives see this as the route to making the US the world's leading supplier of gas and oil. Liberals want it banned.

BPA - this chemical is used to coat cans to prevent the contents from reacting with the metal in the cans. It is also found in many plastic drinking containers. Conservatives point to studies done by the EPA showing that it is harmless in the limited exposure that humans receive. Liberals point to animal studies with mega-doses and want it banned.

Animal testing - conservatives think that this advances knowledge and saves lives. Liberal want it banned on ethical reasons.

High Voltage Power Lines - conservatives thing that these are harmless. Liberals worry that they cause health problems in children.

I could go on but the pattern is clear. Something new is introduced that will help people. Conservatives generally are for it and liberals are against it. Liberals are easy to panic while conservatives are more likely to ask for proof for claims that products are harmful. The one exception (not counting evolution) is stem cell research and even this is more of a political argument than a scientific one.

On a related note, studies have shown that conservatives rank actions according to six different sets of values while liberals only use three of those values. That means that conservatives are often actin in ways that are totally incomprehensible to liberals. Instead of making the liberals wonder what is wrong with their value system, it enforces their sense of superiority (we are smarter because we act rationally and conservatives do not). That is the point of Moody's book, to boost liberal's conviction that they are morally superior because there is something fundamentally wrong with conservatives.