Freedom's Watch Not Immune to Financial Crisis

| Tue Dec. 9, 2008 4:33 PM EST

After little more than a year in existence, conservative advocacy group Freedom's Watch is closing up shop. The group's primary financial backer was Sheldon Adelson, the owner of Las Vegas Sands Corp. and Forbes' third richest man last year. But Sands Corp. stock has taken a 95% hit in 2008, and Freedom's Watch seems to be one of the first casualties along with Adelson's net worth ranking.

There were signs that Freedom's Watch was on its way out before yesterday's announcement. According to the Washington Times, the group spent $30 million on political races this year—a relatively small sum considering it originally planned to hand out $200 million to conservative candidates. Before that, when the cash was still flowing, it funded a $15 million campaign to promote the surge in Iraq. Here's one of those ads:

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NME Best Singles of 2008 List All About 2007

| Tue Dec. 9, 2008 3:58 PM EST

mojo-photo-bestof20087.jpgWe know it's hard. Singles get released in one year, then the album's released the next; UK release dates come months before we get them here; or maybe you got a promo copy (or—gasp!—a leak) in December, and it didn't go on sale until January. Then there's human error: what if you just didn't get around to checking out that Amadou and Mariam album until 2006? Keeping your year-end best-of list to the actual calendar year can be tough, but you'd think British music mag NME would at least try to stick to the rules. The magazine released their "tracks of the year" last week, but amusingly enough, fully half of them came out in 2007. Check out their list and my bitter commentary after the jump.

Patrick Fitzgerald Is Back: Maybe This Time GOPers Will Not Attack

| Tue Dec. 9, 2008 2:44 PM EST

Patrick Fitzgerald is back.

With his dramatic arrest of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich on an assortment of corruption charges--including the allegation that Blagojevich wanted to sell the Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama--Fitzgerald, the hard-charging U.S. attorney in Chicago, has returned to the national stage as a scourge of dishonest government. His last star turn was as the special counsel who successfully prosecuted Scooter Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, for having lied to FBI agents and a grand jury during the investigation of the leak that outed CIA officer Valerie Plame Wilson.

Throughout that investigation, the no-nonsense Fitzgerald repeatedly insisted that the case was about a simple matter: whether Libby had lied. But he did note it had wider implications. When Fitzgerald presented his closing argument, he declared, "There is a cloud on the vice president." He added: "And that cloud remains because this defendant obstructed justice." Two weeks later, after winning a guilty verdict on four of five counts, Fitzgerald noted, "Mr. Libby had failed to remove that cloud....Sometimes when people tell the truth, clouds disappear. Sometimes they do not." And when Bush commuted Libby's sentence, ensuring that Libby would serve no prison time, Fitzgerald huffed, "It is fundamental to the rule of law that all citizens stand before the bar of justice as equals."

His not-too-subtle point was that when it came to integrity, the Bush White House--or at least Cheney's wing--was, well, cloudy. (The trial had revealed much about Cheney's hard-edged political operation.)

The Libby case, for some, was a hard-to-follow affair, and conservatives and Republican allies of Libby and the Bush administration had rampaged against Fitzgerald and tried mightily to muddy up the episode. Thus, Fitzgerald's implied indictment of the Bush crowd partially got lost in the middle of a partisan mud fight. With the Blagojevich case, Fitzgerald is once again championing honest government, but this time he appears to have a case less likely to get caught up in the distracting swirl of ideological attacks. After all, Blagojevich has few friends who will go on cable TV to blast Fitzgerald for being a run-amok prosecutor. There may even be Republicans who praise his pursuit of Blagojevich, a Democrat.

Blago Update

| Tue Dec. 9, 2008 2:04 PM EST

BLAGO UPDATE....Thanks partly to this being a slow news day and partly to the sheer juiciness of the whole thing, the blogosphere is ablaze with chatter about the arrest of Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich on corruption charges. Main theme: the guy has been under investigation for three years by the same prosecutor who convicted both Scooter Libby and the previous governor of Illinois, but he was merrily blathering away to friends anyway about selling off Barack Obama's senate seat to the highest bidder? What kind of fucking moron is this guy?

Other, slightly more substantive comments from around the 'sphere:

  • Who are the six possible candidates for Obama's senate seat mentioned in the idictment? Adam Serwer tries to track them down.

  • It wasn't just senate seats in play! Blago also told the Tribune Company that he wouldn't approve any state financial assistance for their effort to sell the Chicago Cubs unless they fired some editorial board members who had been critical of him. Apparently Blagojevich told the Tribune Company's representative, "our recommendation is fire all those [expletive] people, get 'em the [expletive] out of there and get us some editorial support."

  • Is Barack Obama implicated in any of this? At a press conference today, prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald said no: "I should be clear that the complaint makes no allegations whatsoever about the president-elect or his conduct." What's more, the indictment quotes Blagojevich telling a friend that he wasn't willing to appoint Obama's favored candidate to the Senate because "they're not willing to give me anything except appreciation. [Expletive] them."

    Still, Time's Michael Scherer thinks this is going to be a problem for Obama anyway: "The President of the United States has a higher burden than just about any elected official anywhere. His staff will be called on by the press to account for all their conversations with Blagojevich and his aides. Obama will have to explain what he knew about these discussions." Etc. My guess is different: I think Obama will be so open about this, and so obviously uninvolved, that it won't cause him any pain whatsoever. It's an Illinois story, not an Obama story.

  • My colleage Jonathan Stein runs down the corruption record of Illinois governors since 1973. It's not pretty.

  • Bizarrely enough, despite his 4% approval rating and ongoing corruption investigation, Blago seriously considered appointing himself to Obama's open senate seat because he thought it would a good launching pad for a 2016 presidential run. The mind reels.
    Anyway, that's your Blago roundup for the morning. More, much much more, to come later, I'm sure.

In a Wonderful Synthesis of Today's Blog Posts...

| Tue Dec. 9, 2008 1:45 PM EST

We've already mentioned that Obama-Biden domains are on sale on eBay. We've also mentioned that Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich tried to sell Barack Obama's former Senate seat.

Thus, we would be remiss not to point out that Barack Obama's former Senate seat is now on sale on eBay. Oh, you internets...

And in another funny coincidence, today is International Anti-Corruption Day.

The Kids These Days....Part 476

| Tue Dec. 9, 2008 1:38 PM EST

THE KIDS THESE DAYS....PART 476....Here's the latest international report card on how American kids are doing in science and math. Short answer: not badly, really. According to the latest TIMSS report, eighth grade Asian kids outscore everyone, and American kids outscore nearly everyone who's not Asian (only Hungary, England, and Russia do slightly better). The story in science is about the same. TIMSS doesn't conduct their tests in every country, but among the countries that do worse than the U.S. are Australia, Sweden, Italy, Norway, and Israel.

Full results here. They're pretty much the same as in years past, by the way. It would obviously be nice if American kids were doing even better, but the evidence hardly suggests that the United States is some kind of educational hellhole. In science and math, anyway, we're better than most and roughly average among our first world peers.

UPDATE: Sorry, I guess the charts are a little hard to decipher. Basically, they show what percentage of kids scored at or above various levels on the TIMSS test. For example, 92% of American eighth graders scored above the cutoff point for low performance on the math test and 67% scored above the intermediate level, compared to an international average of only 75% and 46% respectively. Basically, at every single level, more American kids scored above the cutoff point than the international average.

However, keep in mind that these international averages include lots and lots of very poor countries. If you look only at other rich countries, the United States is right around average.

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Social Happiness

| Tue Dec. 9, 2008 12:50 PM EST

SOCIAL HAPPINESS....Remember all those news reports from last week hawking a study about how happiness is spread via social networks? Via Justin Wolfers, a couple of spoilsports have done a competing study that looked at a few other characteristics. From their writeup:

As we intended to investigate potential biases in previous methods, we looked at three health outcomes that could not credibly be subject to social network effects and were available in all three waves of the data: self reports of skin problems, self reports of headaches, and height over time.

Long story short, they found network effects for all three of these things even though network effects almost certainly don't exist. The problem, they say, is that shared environments (same school, similar eating habits, etc.) can explain much of the supposed "contagion," but the datasets used for social network studies often don't include enough information on individual environments to allow it to be factored out.

In other words, be careful accepting breathless claims about the spread of this or that via social networks. Maybe it's true, maybe it isn't. On the other hand, it can't hurt to have happy friends, can it?

BCS Uber Alles

| Tue Dec. 9, 2008 12:19 PM EST

BCS UBER ALLES....Via Lee Sigelman, apparently this has been circulating virally:

After determining the Big-12 championship game participants the BCS computers were put to work on other major contests and today the BCS declared Germany to be the winner of World War II.

"Germany put together an incredible number of victories beginning with the annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland and continuing on into conference play with defeats of Poland, France, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands. Their only losses came against the US and Russia; however considering their entire body of work — including an incredibly tough Strength of Schedule — our computers deemed them worthy of the #1 ranking."

Questioned about the #4 ranking of the United States the BCS commissioner stated "The US only had two major victories — Japan and Germany. The computer models, unlike humans, aren't influenced by head-to-head contests — they consider each contest to be only a single, equally-weighted event."

German Chancellor Adolph Hiter said "Yes, we lost to the US; but we defeated #2 ranked France in only 6 weeks." Herr Hitler has been criticized for seeking dramatic victories to earn 'style points' to enhance Germany's rankings. Hitler protested "Our contest with Poland was in doubt until the final day and the conditions in Norway were incredibly challenging and demanded the application of additional forces."

The French ranking has also come under scrutiny. The BCS commented "France had a single loss against Germany and following a preseason #1 ranking they only fell to #2."

Japan was ranked #3 with victories including Manchuria, Borneo and the Philippines.

Time for Obama to get cracking on that college football playoff he says he favors. That would be change we can believe in.

So. Who Will Appoint the Next Illinois Senator?

| Tue Dec. 9, 2008 11:43 AM EST

Pat_Quinn_Photo%20Small.jpg Looks like it is Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn, the man on the right. He better have zero uncovered corruption scandals in his past, because the entire national media is going to turn its eyes to him as soon as it's done digesting Fitzgerald's complaint.

Given the track record of Illinois governors, I'm not optimistic. Here's the list of pols who have recently held that position: Blago (2003-present?), George Ryan (1999-2003), James Edgar (1991-1999), James Thompson (1977-1991), and Daniel Walker (1973-1977). Blago is Blago. Ryan was convicted of 16 charges of conspiracy, fraud, and lying under oath and currently resides in federal prison. (Patrick Fitzgerald, apparently the greatest prosecutor walking the planet, was Ryan's prosecutor.) Edgar was indicted (but not charged) with saw his subordinates charged with giving a sweetheart deal to a major campaign contributor. Thompson does not appear to have run into any legal trouble, but the law firm he heads did represent Ryan against Fitzgerald. And Walker was sentenced to seven years in federal prison for his role in a savings and loan scandal after leaving office.

So that would be... four three of the last five Illinois governors charged with some kind of wrongdoing. Excellent work, Land of Lincoln.

* Correction made. Thanks to the commentor.

Malaria Vaccine

| Tue Dec. 9, 2008 11:26 AM EST

MALARIA VACCINE....My morning paper reports some spectacularly good news for Africa:

A vaccine against the parasitic disease malaria cut illnesses by more than half in field trials and could be safely given with other childhood inoculations, two studies have reported.

....Malaria kills nearly 1 million people each year and sickens about 2 million others, according to estimates from the World Health Organization. Most of the deaths are among children younger than 5 in sub-Saharan Africa, the population that the vaccine targets.

More here.