2012 - %3, April

Are Campaign Ads Coming to PBS?

| Tue Apr. 17, 2012 5:01 AM EDT

Last Thursday, the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco struck down a seven-decade-old ban on political ads on noncommercial TV and radio stations. Not surprisingly, the prospect that Elmo and the Dowager Countess now might have to share the airwaves with attack ads prompted a mild freakout.  

Former PBS board member and American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Norman Ornstein told Reuters that the decision might "fundamentally change the character of public television and radio." The court's one dissenting judge similarly warned that the ruling could "jeopardize the future of public broadcasting." Craig Aaron, president and chief executive of Free Press, told the Los Angeles Times, "Viewers don't want to see Sesame Street being brought to them by shadowy Super PACs." But such concerns may be premature.

The court's decision (PDF) was in response to a $10,000 Federal Communications Commission fine levied on the Minority Television Project, a San Francisco public TV operator that had aired nonpolitical ads from Chevrolet and State Farm. That move violated an advertising ban dating back to the beginnings of noncommercial broadcasting in the 1940s. While the court upheld the ban on ads for "goods and services by for-profit entities," its two-judge majority found that banning ads that are political or "regarding issues of public importance or interest" violated the First Amendment. (The fine against Minority Television Project still stands.)

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The Bush National Guard Story Lives!

| Mon Apr. 16, 2012 6:04 PM EDT

Joe Hagan has a long story in the current issue of the Texas Monthly about George Bush's adventures in the Texas Air National Guard, and as a longtime Bush National Guard junkie I was eager to read it. As it turns out, it doesn't really break a lot of new ground, but it's got a few new tidbits here and there and overall it's a pretty good take on the whole affair. It's worth a read. 

Since I spent so much time on this story in 2004, I hope everyone will indulge me for diving into a few of the details that Hagan brings up. But first, I want to say that I agree with this summary of Bush's National Guard service, which was distinctly spotty during his final couple of years:

[Bush's] story, taken as a whole, isn’t particularly damning; it was typical for young men of Bush’s social standing. But it fundamentally undermines an element of Bush’s political identity: the “badass” jet pilot for whom flying was a “lifetime pursuit,” as he once put it. And because of Bush’s stonewalling on the issue, the power of the unanswered questions about this period of his life would take on a life of their own.

That's pretty much what I took away from the story too in February 2004: "Bush cut a few corners and was less than zealous about finishing his 6-year commitment. Given Bush's age, the tenor of the times, and the winding down of the Vietnam War, this is hardly noteworthy." In a nutshell, Bush pulled strings to get into the Guard and, in one way or another, messed up during his fourth year and pretty much disappeared. Nothing happened to him, though, because Vietnam was winding down, no one really cared that much about a superfluous pilot, and nobody wanted to make trouble for the son of a Republican Party bigshot anyway. It's hardly a laudable story, but frankly, it was never all that contemptible either. It was only a big deal because Bush eventually ran for office himself and felt like he had to cover up the failings of his youth. 

And now for a few little details that caught my obsessive eye. As you recall, this whole story became infamous in 2004 after 60 Minutes II aired a segment that featured several documents critical of Bush that were allegedly written in 1972 by Jerry Killian, Bush's commanding officer at the time. Mary Mapes, the producer of the segment, got copies of these documents from a guy named Bill Burkett. Here's Hagan:

Over several days of questioning, Burkett told Mapes he’d gotten the documents from a former Guard colleague named George Conn, who had previously vouched for Burkett’s credibility in press reports. But Mapes never found Conn to corroborate the story.

This has always struck as one of the least believable parts of the story. By 2004 Mapes had been running down these allegations for more than four years, and in all that time she said she had never been able to connect with Conn. But I talked to Conn. I got his number from a friend, called him in Germany, and we chatted for about 20 minutes. He wasn't willing to say very much, but I had no trouble finding him. Several other reporters talked to him too. So is it really plausible that after four years of digging Mapes didn't manage to talk to him? I've always wondered. Especially considering that, for various reasons, Conn was probably about the least likely source imaginable for these documents, and it would have set off ear-splitting alarm bells if anyone had known he was supposedly the source.

More importantly, I'm a little agog over Hagan's apparent agnoticism about whether the Killian memos were forgeries. As you'll recall, as soon as 60 Minutes aired its segment, a conservative blogger named Harry MacDougald argued that they were fake because the fonts in the memos couldn't have been produced by 1972-era typewriters. Others immediately piled on, but Hagan says we now know this wasn't true:

MacDougald’s arguments about the documents turned out to be inaccurate. He acknowledged as much in an interview with me in 2008. And in a speech given that same year, Mike Missal, a lawyer for the firm that CBS hired to investigate its own report, said, “It’s ironic that the blogs were actually wrong. . . . We actually did find typewriters that did have the superscript, did have proportional spacing. And on the fonts, given that these are copies, it’s really hard to say, but there were some typewriters that looked like they could have some similar fonts there. So the initial concerns didn’t seem as though they would hold up.”

This is eye watering. It's not a question of whether any typewriter in the world could have produced the Killian documents, it's a question of whether the typewriters at the National Guard base in Austin could have produced them. And we know they couldn't have because Killian's secretary, Marian Carr Knox, has told us which typewriters she used in Killian's office in 1972: an Olympia and a Selectric. And neither one of those typewriters could possibly have produced those memos.

There are a whole bunch of other reasons to be quite sure that the memos are fakes, not the least of which is Bill Burkett's preposterous story about how he came by them, which he offered up after he'd been forced to admit that he lied about getting them from George Conn. But no matter where they came from, the key question has always been why anyone would have held onto them in the first place. Why would Jerry Killian have kept them? And even if he did, why would someone have cleaned out Killian's files when he died in 1984 but saved just those six documents? At the time, George W. Bush was a nobody. It simply makes no sense that someone would have taken those six files, and only those six files, and then would have held onto them for 20 years without ever showing them to anyone.

There's a lot of other evidence that the documents are forgeries beyond just their dubious provenance, and I've long believed that Bill Burkett was pretty obviously the source. One of the enduring mysteries about the memos is why a forger would create documents that look for all the world as if they were created in Microsoft Word with all the default settings intact. You'd have to be a helluva technical bonehead to do that! But as it turns out, that describes Burkett pretty well. I talked to Burkett for a couple of hours back when I was reporting this story, and toward the end of our conversation Burkett got sidetracked into an odd rant about PCs and technology that he was having trouble with. It was obvious that he simply knew nothing about computers or typewriters or pretty much anything related to them. In other words, he's exactly the kind of person who (a) knew enough about the Bush record to invent memos that sounded right, (b) lacked just enough Air Force background (he was Army National Guard) to screw up the lingo a bit, and (c) was ignorant enough of technology not to realize that a document created in Word looks nothing like a document created on a typewriter in 1972. Nobody will ever be able to prove that Burkett forged those memos unless he fesses up someday, but he sure seems like the prime candidate.

In any case, there's a mountain of evidence that the Killian memos are fake, and it's sad to see Dan Rather tell Hagan, "I believed at the time that the documents were genuine and I’ve never ceased believing that they are genuine." That's just delusional.

Will Pennsylvania Reverse its Gag Order on Fracking Chemicals?

| Mon Apr. 16, 2012 3:56 PM EDT
A natural gas pipeline in Plains Township, Pennsylvania.

As the debate over a controversial "gag" provision in Pennsylvania's new natural gas law ratchets up, state legislators are considering revoking the provision altogether.

The law (known as Act 13), which went into effect on Saturday, allows drilling companies to keep information about the composition of fracking fluid from the public in the name of guarding proprietary information. Pre-existing Pennsylvania law grants an exception to this rule for health professionals, who have the right to request and receive information about fracking fluid composition in order to diagnose or treat a patient who may have been exposed to the chemical.

But as MoJo's Kate Sheppard reported previously, a last-minute provision in Act 13 requires health professionals to sign confidentiality agreements with gas drilling companies, which critics argued would prohibit doctors from discussing the fracking fluid formula with their patients. Gov. Tom Corbett's top energy official since clarified that doctors would still be allowed to share information about fracking fluid chemicals with patients, just not with a broader audience.

"It leads some to believe that it's not about that, but it's about keeping the public in the dark."

That distinction isn't made clear in the statute (PDF), says Sen. Daylin Leach, a Democrat representing the 17th district. When the bill passed in March, Leach called the provision "broad" and "troubling." Now he plans to introduce a new bill (due out later this week) that will challenge the confidentiality provision and seek to clarify its terms.

"Act 13, as written, raises a number of issues which impede the timely and appropriate provision of health care to patients, and put health care professionals needlessly at legal risk," Leach wrote in a public statement released Friday.

Big Oil Outspends Obama Ten to One on Energy Ads

| Mon Apr. 16, 2012 3:04 PM EDT

Energy issues are shaping up to be a major focus of this year's presidential election, and from the looks of it, oil, gas, and coal interests are willing to do whatever it takes to shape the debate to their liking: A new analysis by the Center for American Progress finds that groups supported by those industries' money have already spent a whopping $16.75 million on energy-related ads in 2012. How does that compare with the Obama campaign and its backers? So far, they've spent just a tenth of that amount—$1.67 million—defending the administration's energy record. Ouch.

Here's a breakdown of some of the biggest anti-Obama spenders and the ads they financed:

  • Crossroads GPS, the Karl Rove-linked PAC, has spent $2.85 million since January on ads, including $1.7 million on ads criticizing Obama's energy policies. This one that proclaims "No matter how Obama spins it, gas costs too much"—never mind that the president has essentially no impact on gas prices in the short-term.
  • The Koch-financed PAC Americans for Prosperity is spending $6 million on an ad hyping the much-discussed bankruptcy of the solar company Solyndra, raising the spectre of "FBI raids" and implying that Obama approved the grant—which was initially advanced by the Bush administration—in order to satisfy major campaign contributors. At the end of the ad, the narrator says "Tell President Obama: Workers Aren't Your Pawns"—rich coming from a group that's sought to undermine worker protections at every opportunity.
  • The American Petroleum Institute, the primary mouthpiece for the oil industry, has spent $4.3 million since January, according to reporting by the Washington Post—a figure which puts them ahead of everyone but a few super PACs in terms of campaign spending. One typical ad asks viewers to stop "another bad idea from Washington"—the "bad idea" being putting an end to oil industry tax breaks—while others simply beat the oil-and-gas-jobs drum. If you haven't noticed the API stamp on many ads, it's because they tend to run under innocuous-sounding names like "Energy Nation," "Energy Citizens," and "EnergyTomorrow," with the API acknowledgement in fine print.
  • The American Energy Alliance, which also receives funding from the Koch brothers, has spent around $3.6 million on ads warning that "nine dollar gas" is on the horizon as a result of Obama administration policies and dropping in sensationalist references to Solyndra, Keystone, and (gasp!) Europe—none of which has anything to do with the hike in gas prices.

And there's more where that came from: The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity has pledged to spend $40 million on ads touting the benefits of clean coal—despite the fact that clean coal technology doesn't actually exist, and isn't likely to anytime in the near future—while groups like the US Chamber of Commerce have bankrolled ads for candidates who favor oil interests.

Elizabeth Wilner, a political ad expert with Kantar Media/Campaign Media Analysis Group, told the Los Angeles Times that the Center for American Progress' numbers may already be out of date. On target or not, the real figures are sure to grow as the campaign ad wars ramp up. Stay tuned.

Jim Kim is Now the President of the World Bank

| Mon Apr. 16, 2012 2:01 PM EDT

Despite a surprisingly vigorous campaign from the American politico-economic blogosphere, Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala will not be the next head of the World Bank. Instead, just as it's been for the past 60 years, the next president will be the U.S. nominee, Dartmouth College’s Jim Yong Kim. Apparently the blogosphere still has approximately zero influence on great power politics. Maybe next time.

Is it Science or Is It Bullshit? (Cookie Crumbling Edition)

| Mon Apr. 16, 2012 12:17 PM EDT

Sarah Kliff reports on a new study showing that portion size matters. Here's the nickel version: If you offer kids a bowl full of cookies, they eat more than if you offer them a bowl full of smaller cookies.

Well, that sounded interesting. But I was curious about the details. So I found the original dissertation, which is ungated, and browsed through it. First there was this:

Recruitment was performed in an elementary school attended by one of the experimenter's children. School director and legal guardians (i.e. mother/father) gave all written informed consent and both 1st and [] 6th grade classes participated voluntarily. The experimental protocol was approved by the Ethical Committee of the Faculty of Psychological Sciences of the Université Libre de Bruxelles.

OK, that has nothing to do with the research. It just cracks me up. They had to get IRB approval to feed some kids whole cookies and other kids half-size cookies! This is modern science, red in tooth and claw.

Moving on, there's a detailed description of the cookies (several layers of wafers filled with milk chocolate topping) and the number of kids (85 total, about half of them girls). The experiment took place at 2:45 pm (the children's "usual snack time"). Here's the experimental design:

Kids were called up in alphabetical order, reported pre-study hunger (4-point scale labeled ‘not at all’, ‘a little’, ‘fairly’ and ‘a lot’) and were randomly assigned to a room and table. Children were seated in front of square tables. Individual plates were used in order to stick to maximize external validity, as all children bring their own afternoon snack. For first graders, nine tables were filled with four and one with three children. For sixth graders, ten tables were filled with four and two with three children. Children were told they could eat as much or as little as desired and were informed they would be given a refill if they liked to. They were allowed to talk but not to share their food. Experimenters ensured that the foods were not shared and if not consumed, were left on the table.

Let's just stop right here. There's a grand total of 85 kids in this experiment, about 20 in each experimental group (half in each grade level, half of each getting whole cookies and half getting small cookies). It was, apparently, run once. It was preceded by having the kids report their "pre-study hunger." Kids were trooped over to a table and given instructions so specific that even a six-year-old would know something was up. Eight kids were excluded from the analysis due to an unexplained algorithm based on "presence of food allergies, overweight, weight problems, dieting behavior, food intake control in order to gain / lose weight and not hungry." On the remaining data, "One-sample Kolmogorov-Smirnov was used to examine normality of data distributions and chi-square tests to analyze the independence of the sampling distributions for the habit to eat cookies." The study apparently made no effort to see if reduced cookie eating had any effect on total caloric intake for the rest of the day. Nor did it follow up to see if the children's behavior remained the same if they were offered the different cookie choices repeatedly over a period of weeks or months.

Look: portion control is probably important. No argument there. But this study is ridiculous. I have no idea how stuff like this gets published. The small sample size and one-time nature of the experiment should be enough to get it laughed out of town immediately, and the rest of the problems are just icing on the cake (so to speak). Unless someone can convince me that I'm being unfair here, I'd say that on the "Is it science or is it bullshit" scale, this one qualifies pretty firmly as bullshit.

UPDATE: For what it's worth, no one in comments has convinced that this study is non-ridiculous. After reading a few of the defenses, however, I'm starting to have some doubts about the modern scientific enterprise.

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The Reign in Spain Is Not Keynes

| Mon Apr. 16, 2012 11:18 AM EDT

Via Brad Delong, here is Wolfgang Münchau writing about the latest mushrooming economic crisis in Europe, this one centered on Spain:

News coverage seems to suggest that the markets are panicking about the deficits themselves. I think this is wrong. The investors I know are worried that austerity may destroy the Spanish economy, and that it will drive Spain either out of the euro or into the arms of the European Stability Mechanism.

....The periodic episodes of market panic about Spain have always tended to follow an austerity announcement. One such episode came with the discussion that led to the recently introduced draft budget, which included a deficit correction of 3.2 per cent of gross domestic product for 2012. When Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister, began to outline the deficit cuts for 2013 last week, the markets panicked again and drove Spanish 10-year yields back to 6 per cent. The targeted fiscal adjustment amounts to 5.5 per cent of GDP over a period of two years. It is one of the biggest fiscal adjustments ever attempted by a large industrial country. It is perfectly rational for investors to be scared.

Let's put that into perspective. The GDP of the United States is $15 trillion. So 5.5% of GDP would be $820 billion. This means that Spain's two-year target would be the equivalent of the United States cutting its annual budget by $410 billion. No one — literally no one, not even Paul Ryan — has suggested budget cuts anywhere remotely near those levels. Even though the U.S. economy is in much better shape than Spain's, everyone believes that budget cuts of that magnitude would wreck our fragile recovery.

And yet, in Spain, which currently has unemployment levels about the same as ours during the Great Depression, that's the plan. It's barely short of insane.

So I'm not sure what to say about this, aside from writing interminable blog posts about how crazy it is. But if you want an analytic thought, here it is: Our titans of global finance usually talk like fiscal conservatives. They want low inflation, balanced budgets, and a restrained central bank. But during an economic downturn their actions speak differently. When they actually get all the stuff they say they like, they panic. In their guts they may be tea party conservatives, but when it comes time to actually risk their wealth, they make Paul Krugman look like some kind of milksop Austrian.

Mitt Romney's Underwhelming Tax Plan

| Mon Apr. 16, 2012 9:35 AM EDT

What is Mitt Romney's real tax plan? Apparently we got a rare glimpse of this when reporters overheard a private conversation Sunday night with supporters at a fundraising party:

"I'm going to probably eliminate for high income people the second home mortgage deduction," Romney said, adding that he would also likely eliminate deductions for state income and property taxes as well. "By virtue of doing that, we'll get the same tax revenue, but we'll have lower rates."

Okey dokey. If Romney could actually get Congress to agree to this, I figure it would bring in roughly $100 billion in revenue. That's assuming a complete elimination of the deduction for all state, local, and property taxes. In return, this would allow tax rates to go down across the board by about one percentage point. Maybe one and a half. Or, alternatively, it might allow tax rates on the rich to go down by five or ten points. I wonder which he has in mind?

Bread and Circuses on Capitol Hill

| Mon Apr. 16, 2012 8:57 AM EDT

Congress is all set to begin its show trial of Jeffrey Neely, the GSA nitwit who decided to spend nearly a million dollars for a Western Region conference in Las Vegas a couple of years ago:

Neely’s conduct as the organizer of a four-day team-building event that cost $823,000 will be under scrutiny on Capitol Hill starting Monday, when the first of four back-to-back congressional hearings is scheduled.

.... Transcripts provide evidence of a freewheeling spending culture in the offices of the four Pacific Rim states where Neely oversaw federal real estate and government purchasing. “What this guy did was try to use private business practices to justify spending that is out of line with the private sector,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), one of numerous lawmakers asking how things spun out of control with no oversight from Washington.

I suppose Neely deserves his chance to be publicly tarred and feathered on front pages around the country, but I wonder if I'm the only one who wishes Congress could summon up this same level of energy for things that actually matter. You know, global warming, drug policy, immigration rules, stuff like that. I enjoy a feeding frenzy as much as the next guy, but I feel a little sated lately. If Congress spent half the time on actual serious issues that it's spent on nonsense like Solyndra and Fast & Furious and the GSA and — starting soon I'm sure — Secret Service agents and their Colombian hookers, we might actually solve a problem or two. You never know.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 16, 2012

Mon Apr. 16, 2012 8:55 AM EDT

Staff Sgt. Mark Scott, from The National Guard, pulls security from his battle position during an escort detail in Afghanistan, April 7, 2012. Scott is a Security Force member of Provincial Reconstruction Team Farah. Photo by the US Army.