2009 - %3, February

Bobby Jindal's Stimulus Lies

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 10:41 PM EST

Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor of Louisiana, gave the GOP response to President Barack Obama's speech to Congress Tuesday night. I'll leave the analysis of how Jindal did to David Corn, but it's important to note that Jindal repeated two fairly common Republican lies about the stimulus package. Here's the relevant portion:

[The stimulus includes] $8 billion for high-speed rail projects, such as a magnetic levitation line from Las Vegas to Disneyland, and $140 million for something called "volcano monitoring".

The truth is that the stimulus bill does not allocate any high speed rail money for specific projects. In fact, any stimulus money for high speed rail would be allocated by Obama transportation secretary Ray Lahood—a Republican.

The 'volcano monitoring' part is almost as misleading. According to ProPublica, the relevant portion of the stimulus money is for "U.S. Geological Survey facilities and equipment, including stream gages, seismic and volcano monitoring systems and national map activities." It seems obvious that employing geologists, building facilities, buying equipment, and paying people to map the country all have a stimulative effect. But more importantly, why does Bobby Jindal think monitoring volcanoes is a bad thing for the government to be doing? There doesn't seem to be any immediate way for private enterprise to profit from monitoring volcanoes (maybe selling volcano insurance?), but there is obviously a huge public benefit from making sure volcanoes are monitored: warning people if a volcano is going to erupt. Isn't that obvious?

Apparently not to Bobby Jindal. But, of course, Bobby Jindal is the person who just tried to tell the nation that the problem with the government's response to Hurricane Katrina was that bureaucrats demanded that people have proof of insurance and registration. It wasn't.

(There's no money in the stimulus to save the San Francisco salt marsh mouse, either.)

UPDATE: You want a cool video on maglev trains? You got a cool video on maglev trains.

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SF Chronicle Could Be Shut Down or Sold

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 8:05 PM EST

Hearst said today that it may sell, or totally shutter, San Francisco's main daily newspaper. The San Francisco Chronicle lost $50 million in 2008, and has been losing money consistently since 2001. If the paper cannot recoup losses "within weeks" via job cuts and other measures, Hearst officials said via a statement today, "...we will have no choice but to quickly seek a buyer for the Chronicle or, should a buyer not be found, to shut the newspaper down." According to Reuters, the Chronicle employs nearly 300 people on its news staff alone, and is the 12th largest daily in the nation.

So what does it mean for San Francisco to lose the Chronicle? For Bay Area folks, there are a number of newspapers that could possibly step up coverage to fill the gap, like the excellent San Jose Mercury News or the Oakland Tribune. Television news crews could conceivably lengthen their broadcasts. So far, all I've seen is that one of the of the city's smaller dailies, the San Francisco Examiner, is hiring. The Examiner also has only half the Chronicle's circulation, and is given away free instead of sold. While many San Franciscans have pooh-poohed the Chronicle for its heavy slant toward lightweight stories, surely the Examiner is not what they envisioned as a solution.

More disturbing than the Examiner taking over San Francisco is the idea that liberal, literate, San Francisco might not have a newspaper to call its own. Even Cleveland and La Crosse, Wisconsin, have their own papers. Granted, a Sunday morning in San Francisco will show you as many people reading the New York Times as the Sunday Chronicle, but still, the Chronicle has been there and there really isn't another paper in town of similar quality or distribution. As much as I'd like to think a major city can survive without a newspaper, I'm not super-excited to try the experiment personally. San Francisco has some of the nation's most tech-savvy citizens, but are they really ready to get their local news only from virtual sources? If the Chronicle gets shut down within weeks, as seems to be Hearst's intention, they may have no choice but to find out the hard way.

Arrested Development Movie a Go

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 7:17 PM EST
"Sources say." Rumors of a film version of cult-favorite TV show Arrested Development have been flying around like badly-imitated chickens for a while now, with everybody from Jeffrey Tambor to David Cross jumping on board. But young Michael Cera, now a big movie star, appeared to be the last holdout, and you couldn't make an Arrested Development movie without George Michael. But now, E Online has it on good authority that Cera has agreed to do the film. "Insiders" are saying production may even get going by the end of the year, with show creator Mitchell Hurwitz as writer/director. Finally, I'll be able to eat frozen bananas again without crying.

Republicans Do Know How to Use the Internets and Make Videos

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 7:13 PM EST
The bailout got you down? Does it feel like the members of Congress just aren't listening? Got a video camera and too much spare time? Don't fret, sad little big-government-haters: You can heed the advice of Meghan McCain, get your fifteen micro-seconds of fame, and win your bailout burden back.

Yes, Republicans do know how to use the internets.  Right.org (you got to give them credit for the snazzy URL), launched an online video contest that asks DIY film makers to "Be creative. Make us laugh. Teach us. Above all, make us oppose the bailouts."

The winning entry receives $27,599, or one person's share of the bailouts. Entrants will flood YouTube until a winner is chosen by a "panel of qualified judges" in July. The idea for a video contest follows hard on the heels of the Best Job in the World put on by the Queensland Tourism. Though there are, understandably and sadly, far fewer bikinis in the Right.org contest.

Obama's Mortgage Plan

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 5:38 PM EST
Is Barack Obama's plan to help out distressed homeowners unpopular?  Rasmussen asked the following question to find out:

Some people say that having the government subsidize mortgage payments for financially troubled homeowners puts the government in the position of rewarding bad behavior. Is the government rewarding bad behavior when it provides subsidies to those who are most at risk of losing their homes?

55% said yes and only 32% said no.  But it's a leading question!  When the Washington Post and New York Times asked a more straightforward version of the question (Post: "Would you support or oppose the federal government using 75 billion dollars to provide refinancing assistance to homeowners to help them avoid foreclosure on their mortgages?") the results were reversed.  Over 60% supported the plan.  Matt Yglesias converted these results into handy chart form, which I've stolen and displayed over on the right.

The basic meme in the leftosphere is that Rasmussen deliberately chose conservative wording here and the results aren't to be trusted.  But I want to push back on that a bit.  There are two points to make here.

First, these poll results aren't necessarily contradictory.  It could well be that some people think Obama's plan is likely to reward bad behavior in some cases but they support the plan anyway.

Second, there's something to be learned here if we don't dismiss Rasmussen's results out of hand.  Here's the problem: liberals often suffer from poll literalism, a disease in which we look at simple poll questions and think they show that everyone supports us.  60% support national healthcare! 70% support more spending on education!  Hooray!

But those numbers are largely meaningless. The real question is, How many people still support national healthcare after conservatives have spent months scaring everyone into thinking it means they'll never be allowed to see their old family doctor again?  Probably not as many.  Likewise, how many people will support Obama's mortgage plan after they've heard all the conservative talking points against it?  Probably less than the Post and the Times say.

Now, my guess is that once everyone's had their say, Obama's plan will still garner considerable support.  But it might not, and understanding how Republican talking points affect public opinion is valuable.  That's what Rasmussen has told us here, and it's worth paying attention to.

DC Will Soon Have Voting Rights; Is Statehood Next?

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 5:14 PM EST
The District of Columbia is poised to finally obtain voting representation in Congress. Is statehood next? Little known fact: Obama supports it.

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Dear Everyone, Please Care Less About the Dow

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 4:53 PM EST

Ned Hodgman at the very underrated Understanding Government blog has had it with the media's unrelenting need to put the stock market at the center of the American economic recovery.

Today's Wall Street Journal front page headline, scanned this morning over coffee by the Journal's 1.7 million subscribers, is "Stocks Drop to 50% of Peak." I’d say we're better off with 50% of the nonsense we had when the Dow Jones Industrial Average was the default indicator of the country’s economic health.

It’s not just the numbing predictability of the news every day — again with the Nikkei average, again with the S&P 500, and now every morning we're supposed to care about the stock futures too.

That's force of habit (and a lack of imagination) from the nation's news outlets. The real problem is that the Dow Jones Industrial Average is only one measure of prosperity in this country, and certainly not the most reliable. Let's look back a year or so and see if the Dow's "peak" was a reliable indicator of anything except the coming crash.

Ned has some suggestions on what might make better indicators of the recovery. Might I suggest Bhutan's Gross National Happiness?

Books: Fact-check, Mate

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 4:37 PM EST

Joel Best's Stat-Spotting: A Field Guide to Identifying Dubious Data, belongs on the nightstand of anyone who regularly encounters statistics—which is to say, everyone. In my line of work as a fact-checker, the book's case studies are even more of a must-read.

Take, for example, this health statistic, repeated on a number of websites: Each year, 20,000 people die from taking aspirin.

Habeas at Bagram

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 3:42 PM EST
Should prisoners held at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan have the right to file habeas corpus suits challenging their imprisonment?  Both the Bush and Obama administrations say no.  Hilzoy has a good post exploring the issues:

On the one hand, had anyone asked me in, say, 1991 whether Iraqi prisoners whom we were holding in Kuwait were entitled to file habeas petitions in US court, I would have said: of course not. They are entitled to lots of things, many of them detailed in the Geneva Conventions. But it would have seemed bizarre to me to suggest that they were entitled to habeas rights.

I still feel this way about those detainees at Bagram who were captured on or near an actual battlefield. To say that I do not think they are entitled to habeas rights is not to say that I do not think they are entitled to anything. Afghanistan is a signatory to the Geneva Conventions. Its soldiers are entitled to the rights of prisoners of war. Any civilians we capture are likewise entitled to those rights until "a competent tribunal" determines that they are not prisoners of war.

The problem is that not all the prisoners at Bagram were captured on a battlefield.  Some, like Amin Al Bakri, were abducted in Thailand and then flown to Bagram, and this makes it impossible to simply assume that everyone there is a POW:

It was neither me nor the federal courts that muddied the distinction between the jurisdictions of the federal and military courts, thereby making it impossible for the federal courts to simply defer to the military in these matters. It was the Bush administration. They were the ones who sent CIA agents all over the world kidnapping people, flew those people from places like Thailand into a war zone, and then turned around and said: heavens, you cannot scrutinize what we did — you'd be interfering with the conduct of the military in wartime!

Read the whole thing for a pretty good, nuanced discussion of the issues at hand.  This is a tough one to unwind.

New (Leaked) Music: Yeah Yeah Yeahs - It's Blitz!

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 3:33 PM EST
It's BlitzHas everybody in America thrown out their guitars? When do we get to call this a trend? Okay, sure, a quick look at the iTunes Top 100 shows All-American Rejects and Jason Mraz still wielding the axes in the Top 20. But there's something New Wave-y in the air when even rapper Flo Rida hits #1 with a Dead or Alive cover and bisexual robo-pixie Lady Gaga is America's sweetheart. Into this synthtastic moment strut the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and while Nick Zinner's noisy, careening guitar work has always defined the band's sound, they're also respectably New Wave, with an appreciation for accessible, dramatic pop melodies, not to mention Karen O's colorful outfits. Over the last few years, they've even started offering up their hits for remixes, and Zinner himself has tried reworking the band's songs for the dance floor. It feels completely natural that they'd turn to drum machines and keyboards on It's Blitz!, and they still wring an organic, rich noise out of their gadgets.