Mourning Facts

Did you know that Facts has died?  On April 19, the Chicago Tribune published an obituary for Facts brilliantly conceived and written by Rex W. Huppke.

Facts, 360 B.C.-A.D. 2012

In memoriam: After years of health problems, Facts has finally died.

Over the centuries, Facts became such a prevalent part of most people’s lives that Irish philosopher Edmund Burke once said: “Facts are to the mind what food is to the body.”

To the shock of most sentient beings, Facts died Wednesday, April 18, after a long battle for relevancy with the 24-hour news cycle, blogs and the Internet. Though few expected Facts to pull out of its years-long downward spiral, the official cause of death was from injuries suffered last week when Florida Republican Rep. Allen West steadfastly declared that as many as 81 of his fellow members of theU.S. House of Representatives are communists.

Facts held on for several days after that assault — brought on without a scrap of evidence or reason — before expiring peacefully at its home in a high school physics book. Facts was 2,372.

It’s very depressing,” said Mary Poovey, a professor of English at New York University and author of “A History of the Modern Fact.” “I think the thing Americans ought to miss most about facts is the lack of agreement that there are facts. This means we will never reach consensus about anything. Tax policies, presidential candidates. We’ll never agree on anything.”

Facts was born in ancient Greece, the brainchild of famed philosopher Aristotle. Poovey said that in its youth, Facts was viewed as “universal principles that everybody agrees on” or “shared assumptions.”

But in the late 16th century, English philosopher and scientist Sir Francis Bacon took Facts under his wing and began to develop a new way of thinking.

“There was a shift of the word ‘fact’ to refer to empirical observations,” Poovey said.

Facts became concrete observations based on evidence. It was growing up.

Through the 19th and 20th centuries, Facts reached adulthood as the world underwent a shift toward proving things true through the principles of physics and mathematical modeling. There was respect for scientists as arbiters of the truth, and Facts itself reached the peak of its power.

But those halcyon days would not last.

Yes, anything can be stated and if done so with enough authority it is believed to be factual.  There is, in my opinion, a failure to distinguish between fact and opinion.  It is a fact that I am sitting at my computer on Aril 27 at 6:11 am typing these words.  It is my opinion that the budget plan proposed by Paul Ryan is bad for the economy.

Facts was wounded repeatedly throughout the recent GOP primary campaign, near fatally when Michele Bachmann claimed a vaccine for a sexually transmitted disease causes mental retardation. In December, Facts was briefly hospitalized after MSNBC’s erroneous report that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s campaign was using an expression once used by the Ku Klux Klan.

But friends and relatives of Facts said Rep. West’s claim that dozens of Democratic politicians are communists was simply too much for the aging concept to overcome.

As the world mourned Wednesday, some were unwilling to believe Facts was actually gone.

Facts is survived by two brothers, Rumor and Innuendo, and a sister, Emphatic Assertion.

Services are alleged to be private. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that mourners make a donation to their favorite super PAC.

Representative West can be proud:  He is responsible for finally killing Facts.  But we all helped.

Fear of polls

It doesn’t matter whether you support Romney or Obama.  When a new poll is released you start to parse it.  Who did the poll?  Are they a Democratic or Republican leaning pollster?  How is it different from the last poll you saw?  What do the pundits say?  Does the result make me happy or anxious? 

This morning RealClear Politics had these numbers:

Average:  Obama +3.2

Electoral College:  Obama 227   Romney 170  (270 needed to win)

Intrade:  Obama  60.4    Romeny 38.2  

Nate Silver, my poll guru, had some advice the other day.  If you are a political junkie, read the whole article, but here are some of the highlights for me.

1. Be patient. Many of the poll-watching habits you learned for the primaries you will need to unlearn for the general election.

In the primaries, it is often worth paying a tremendous amount of attention to how recently a poll was conducted. Because voter opinion shifts rapidly in primaries, a poll that is even two or three days old might have substantially less information value than one that was released today.

That just isn’t true in the general election, when there are fewer swing voters, the candidates are better known, and voter preferences are more rigid. Instead, polls have a much stronger tendency to revert to the mean, and what is perceived to be “momentum” is often just statistical noise. In October, it might be worth sweating just a little bit if there seems to be a two- or three-percentage point shift against your preferred candidate. Right now, it probably isn’t; a poll released on April 20 isn’t going to be much better in the long-run than one released on April 10.

2. Take the poll average. This ought to be obvious, but you should generally be looking for a trend to show up in several different polls from several different polling firms before you start to view it as newsworthy.

5. Pay attention to likely voters versus registered voters. It is worth looking at whether the poll is conducted among registered voters, likely voters or all adults.

In the past eight presidential election cycles or so, the Republican candidate has done a net of about two percentage points better on average in likely voter polls than in registered voter polls.

6. Keep paying attention to Mr. Obama’s approval ratings. In the early stages of general election campaigns, a president’s approval ratings have often been at least as accurate a guide to his eventual performance as the head-to-head numbers. Thus, for at least the next couple of months, I would pay as much attention to Mr. Obama’s approval ratings as his head-to-head polls against Mr. Romney.

It is probably slightly better to look at Mr. Obama’s net approval rating — his approval less his disapproval — than the approval rating alone.

11. Read the polls in the context of the news. Polls don’t just shift on their own; they change because people are reacting to changes in their circumstances and to different news events.

Political reporters have beats and deadlines and need to turn stories around every day. But most of the day-to-day squabbles that the campaigns have don’t matter to most voters. If there is a shift in the polls, it is much more likely to be real rather than illusory if it follows something like an Israeli air strike on Iran or a stock market crash than something like this or this.

The other caution is that even when major news events do shift the polls, they sometimes have a half-life with the effects fading over time. These events may produce long-term and permanent effects on how voters see the candidates, but they often overshoot the mark in the close term. Recent examples include the uptrend in Mr. Obama’s approval ratings after the death of Osama bin Laden or the downtrend following the debt ceiling negotiations, both of which persisted for some weeks but then faded.

My conclusion:  This is going to be  close election.  Closer than in my opinion it should be.

 

Mittens the mean

Whether you are going to vote for him or not, Mitt Romney has kinda a nice but clueless rich guy image.  Don’t let that fool you.  Joan Vennochi reminds us of his history here in Massachusetts.

Massachusetts is where Romney first showed his appetite for running over any candidate who stands between him and political office. Here, it happened to be women.

When Romney decided to run against Ted Kennedy in 1994, Republican Janet Jeghelian, a former talk radio host, was in the race. Once Romney jumped in, he and the state GOP kept her off the primary ballot.

Jeghelian wasn’t a strong candidate, but she was a prescient one. After she was forced out, she predicted he would waffle on abortion rights. It took awhile, but he did.

Seven years later, Romney muscled out acting Governor Jane Swift, who had his pledge that he would not challenge her for the nomination. But fresh from running the winter Olympics, Romney jumped in, and without so much as a courtesy phone call, pushed out the politically weak Swift.

Realizing the delicacy of kicking aside the Bay State’s first female chief executive, Romney recruited another woman, Kerry Healey, to run as his lieutenant governor and vouch for his pro-choice credentials. Once elected, he relegated Healey to back channel roles, but she remains loyal and supports his presidential bid.

These tactics should be familiar to Rick Santorum and the other Republican candidates only there he did it with his super Pac and advertising.

Joan’s point is that all of this leads to a lack of trust which hurts him particularly among women.  And while he has flip-flopped on a number of issues two matter to women.  The first is his support of abortion rights during his Massachusetts Senate campaign.  And he has done a major flop on Massachusetts health care reform.

As Shannon O’Brien, the Democrat he defeated in 2002, points out, “The choice issue is just one glaring reason why women can’t trust Mr. Romney. The broader, more profound issue is about what he will do to protect and preserve family health care across the country. Where he had such promise as governor, setting the stage for using Massachusetts as a national model, now he’s saying he didn’t mean it, never said it, doesn’t want it. That’s the biggest flip-flop-flip that women should be concerned about.’’

Massachusetts Democrats are gleefully reminding voters of Romney’s singular role in health care reform. He pushed for the individual mandate. He personally escorted the first woman who signed up for Romneycare. At his request, his official State House portrait, which hangs in the reception area of the governor’s office, includes the artist’s rendition of Romney’s wife, Ann, and a stack of papers representing the state’s health care law.

Will he have his portrait replaced next?

Men and women run against each other with regularity these days.  Look at President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton.  The point is that Mitt doesn’t seem to care about the niceties.  He could have run in a primary against both Swift and Jeghelian and maybe he would have won.  Maybe it is just coincidence that the two candidates he ran over were women and we will never know whether he would have jumped in if they had been men.  I think he just would have competed in the primary and blasted his opponent with negative advertising.

So all of you fellow Obama supporters take heed:  this is not a nice guy and brace yourself for a negative campaign and he tries desperately to recapture the women’s vote he needs to win.  Luckily, I don’t think he can flip again on either abortion or health care as that flip will cost him his Republican support. 

We can only hope he stays perplexed.

 

Paying a Fair Share or the Buffett Rule

I’ve gotten several email recently from the President, from Elizabeth Warren and from other progressive organizations about the Senate vote on the Buffett rule.  Since I’m pretty sure that Senator John Kerry will vote for the bill and Senator Scott Brown will vote against it, I haven’t called, emailed or written either of them about it.

I have, however,  wondered what the bill actually does.  So thank you to Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog in the Washington Post this morning for his explanation.  The big vote everyone is talking about is actually a bill introduced by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse from Rhode Island.  He explained the bill to Ezra who explains it to us.

In other words: The “Paying a Fair Share Act” doesn’t mean someone making $1,500,000 will pay at least the same percentage of his income in taxes as the average middle-class family. It means he would pay a somewhat higher marginal rate on the income he earns over $1 million — in this case, on the excess $500,000.

Moreover, that higher marginal rate would only reach 30 percent on income over $2 million. Between $1 million and $2 million, the Buffett rule phases in so as to avoid a sharp “tax cliff” at the million-dollar mark.

But would it still raise money to help ease the deficit?

Another misconception: The proposal doesn’t raise $47 billion over 10 years. Or, rather, it does, but only if you use the “current law baseline” that assumes the full expiration of the Bush tax cuts. No one really uses that baseline. If you look at Paul Ryan’s budget, for instance, its appendix tables use a “current policy baseline,” which assumes, among other things, that the Bush tax cuts are extended.

Compared with that baseline, the Paying a Fair Share Act actually raises about $160 billion. Still not enough to solve our deficit problems on its own, but nothing to sneeze at.

So as usual it is a little more complicated than the President makes it sound, but still a good thing to support.

 

 

Creating Jobs: which party does better

The Republicans will campaign on the idea that lowing taxes on the wealthy (I think Romney wants to keep the Bush tax cuts and even cut more) creates jobs because the money the wealthy do not pay in taxes goes to create jobs.  Fay Paxton has looked at the history of job creation and posted an analysis on Winning Progressive.   Her conclusion:  Democrats create more jobs.  These charts describe private sector job creation.

Yes, the first months of the Obama Administration were rough, but as the chart shows, we started bleeding jobs under George W. Bush.

Ronald Reagan wins among Republicans, but he wasn’t afraid of raising taxes.

So what about federal public sector jobs?  The Republicans always claim that the Democrats are the party of big government.  Is this true?  Paxton says

Republicans talk about being conservatives who believe in small government and reducing the federal workforce. The numbers don’t bear out their claims.  In a press conference, House Speaker John Boehner said, “In the last two years, under President Obama, the federal government has added 200,000 new federal jobs.”  The Republicans even advanced legislation calling for a reduction of 200,000 federal employees.

Here’s the truth:

According to the Office of Personnel Management, it is true that the federal workforce increased by 237,000 employees. What Boehner does not tell…150,000 of the employees added to the roles were uniformed military personnel, no doubt to accommodate the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The 237,000 figure also includes temporary Census workers.

Despite claims of huge government expansion, historically, Democratic presidents reduced the size of the federal government workforce. The federal employment numbers, according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, the department charged with tracking the number of employees, the data shows the following:

Paxton summarizes

If we combine the totals for all federal employees, including the military:
Reagan began office with a total of 4,982,000 employees and ended his term with 5,292,000 employees. While President Obama took office with a federal employee roster of 4,430,000 employees (fewer than Reagan). At the end of 2010 President Obama’s federal workforce numbered 4,443,000; that’s 849,000 fewer employees than Reagan, the advocate of small government! Add to this the fact that President Reagan governed during peacetime, while President Obama inherited two wars.

So the figures don’t lie:  Democrats do a much better at creating new private sector jobs and reducing the size of the federal government.

 

This is an excellent and important post about our freedon of expression. We are much too quick to want to ban anything that might offend us personnally. The Inferno is one of the great books of all times.

Prometheus Unbound

I feel personally broadsided. As someone who assigns Dante’s Divine Comedy (in Allen Mandelbaum’s great translation) to college students at least once every year-and-a-half or so, the following news headline, from London’s Telegraph, is disconcerting (to say the least):

Dante’s Divine Comedy ‘offensive and should be banned’

The headline represents the serious position of a (self-described) human rights organization, based in Italy, which is calling for Dante’s Divine Comedy to no longer be taught in schools and universities.  The “human rights organization” calls itself Gherush 92, and the Telegraph says it “acts as a consultant to UN bodies on racism and discrimination.”

I wonder how one actually gets a job consulting at the UN on racism and discrimination, but if I had such a job, here’s what I’d say about any proposal to ban a literary text like Dante’s Divine Comedy:

It is racist, discriminatory, and patronizing to assume…

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Neighborhood design, the foreclosure crisis and the death of Trayvon Martin

Neighborhood design?  Is she nuts?  What does that have to do with Trayvon Martin?  Isn’t his death related to race, guns and stand your ground laws?  My reaction when I saw the headline in yesterday’s Boston Globe.  But after reading Zach Youngerman’s op-ed, it all became clear.

PUBLIC OPINION about the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla., shifts every time new evidence emerges, as though each of them had a fixed character that could be revealed as easily as a video recording can be enhanced. But behavior is not simply a matter of character; it is also a matter of setting. Less than 1.2 percent of the population in Sanford walks to work, and the subdivision where the killing took place is designed for driving, so something as human as walking is odd behavior. Suspicious even.

“It’s raining, and he’s just walking around, looking about,’’ Zimmerman told the 911 dispatcher during his first exchange. Martin was in front of the clubhouse at the Retreat at Twin Lakes. He may have been looking for a sidewalk.

Depending on which way Martin entered the subdivision, he would have found at the clubhouse either a rare length of sidewalk merging into a parking lot or leading away into a sort of jogging path encircling an artificial lake. If Martin chose simply to cross the street from the corner where he was, he would have been forced to transgress in the most literal sense. The 30-foot street (enough for two driving lanes and one parking lane on Mass. Ave. [in Boston or Cambridge]) doesn’t have a painted crosswalk. Probably because the other side only has private lawns and driveways.

Most of the Retreat at Twin Lakes lacks a conventional sidewalk – a public pedestrian thoroughfare parallel to vehicle traffic but protected by a curb. Together with a landscaped tree belt, parking lanes, and occasionally bike lanes, sidewalks and roads make up what is called the public right of way. Without public rights of way, we would all be constantly having to trespass on private land or pay tolls to get anywhere. This was the situation Martin faced inside and outside the gated subdivision. On his mile walk to the nearest convenience store, the sidewalk ends twice and becomes a no-man’s-land of grassy highway shoulder. If Martin were trespassing, he had no choice but to do so.

So you have a place with wide streets, few sidewalks along the street and those not connected, and a rainy night with a teenager walking and not driving.  You can see how George Zimmerman might have been thinking that Trayvon Martin was casing the neighborhood.  Youngerman goes on

After a tragedy, we try to imagine alternatives. What if we change the laws? What if we raise awareness? To those important questions I would add: What if we design places differently, places for people?

Houses with front porches rather than driveways bring residents outside even in rainy weather and put “eyes on the street,’’ as the pre-eminent urbanist Jane Jacobs described it. When houses are closer to the property line and on narrower streets, residents feel like they are more responsible for what happens outside. Zimmerman was a self-titled neighborhood watch volunteer. Design can make residents neighborhood watch volunteers naturally.

In a place meant for people with a denser residential street, maybe the man and the boy might have felt less like they were all alone. In a place meant for people with sidewalks and street lights, maybe they would have been less alone. Maybe a couple of neighbors could have stopped the altercation before it got out of hand.

Of course, some people did hear the altercation after it started and there are accounts from the 911 tapes, Trayvon’s girlfriend, and some neighbors so this was not a totally isolated incident.  But Youngerman does have a point:  a kid walking in the that community, for at matter, anyone walking in that community was unusual enough that George Zimmerman followed the walker. 

I wanted to see the location myself to confirm Youngerman’s description so I did a search for The Retreat at Twin Lakes and like a lot of Florida, there are a number of houses for sale including bank owned properties (REO’s) and some on the market as short sales.

This is one of the REO’s.  The picture is a little fuzzy since I had to enlarge it, but it does show some of the surroundings.

Property Photo

This is a better picture of the surroundings.  It appears there are sidewalks but not, as Youngerman pointed out, conventional ones parallel to the street.

The Tampa Bay Times had a story about the community on March 25 which  pointed out that there were to be 263 houses built and at the time of the story 40 were vacant and half were rented not owned.  This is what happens when the housing market bottoms out and you have a foreclosure crisis.  Whether the property is under foreclosure or not, no one can sell.  The community was not stable.  This is the kind of place where break-ins happen and they had started there. 

This picture from the Tampa Bay Times makes the place look like an apartment complex, different from the real estate sales pictures appearing to showing single family homes or Youngerman’s description.  But the sidewalks in the picture are between buildings and not near the street.

Cheryl Brown, with the family’s boxer, Sake, says she and her family are rattled by the fatal shooting inside their gated community.

So the density that Youngerman was looking for might have been there, but the layout was poor with sidewalks between building, but none parallel to the street and with people moving in and out and lots of vacancies, Retreat at Twin Lakes may have contributed to the confrontation between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin that lead to Martin’s death just by its design and circumstances.  The bottom line:  Zach Youngerman is right about the impact of design if not right about all of the details.  This was a driving community, not a walking one and people did not know their neighbors.