Mojo - August 2005

In Defense of NARAL

| Tue Aug. 9, 2005 4:49 PM PDT

I'm pretty sure I've posted something similar before, but in light of this misguided swipe at NARAL today over at Daily Kos, it seems time for another go. Kos isn't happy because the abortion-rights organization would dare endorse a pro-choice Republican, Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island, over a pro-life Democrat, Jim Langevin (who eventually dropped out of the race). Kos sees this as precisely the wrong strategy, and argues that NARAL should stick with Democrats come hell-or-highwater: "[T]urning the Senate Democratic is far more beneficial for their issue (women rights) than anything the Republicans can muster." Well, no. That's not necessarily true.

A quick finger experiment. Let's pretend, for the sake of argument, that it's Chaffee (pro-choice R) vs. Langevin (pro-life D) in a Rhode Island Senate race, and that NARAL's endorsement makes a shred of difference. Here are the scenarios that pro-choice advocates face face:

1) Republicans keep the Senate in 2006 and Chaffee gets elected. Well, that's bad news. But notice, whenever the Republicans slap down some bit of legislation restricting abortion rights, Chaffee will be voting against it (remember, he votes pro-choice 100 percent of the time. 100 percent!).

2) Republicans keep the Senate in 2006 and Langevin gets elected. Worse news. Republicans are still in charge, but now whenever they slap down abortion restrictions, Langevin will likely vote for them, giving pro-life legislation one extra vote and making it more likely to pass. Clearly outcome #2 is worse for NARAL than #1. But then we have...

3) Democrats retake the Senate and Chaffee gets elected. Hooray! Now whenever Democrats want to push through some legislation expanding abortion rights, Chaffee votes for it, making it more likely to pass. Which is still better, from NARAL's perspective, than...

4) Democrats retake the Senate and Langevin gets elected. This scenario is worse than 3, since that legislation expanding abortion rights suddenly becomes harder to pass—at the very least, you'll have to do Langevin some favor elsewhere to get him to vote for it. But odds are, he won't vote for it!

So NARAL's preferences here are ranked: 3, 4, 1, 2. Endorsing Chaffee, then, is a pretty optimal choice—it makes either 3 or 1 more likely, rather than 4 or 2. The wild card here, of course, is the scenario in which control of the Senate actually hinges on who wins in this race, Chaffee or Langevin—in which case, the choice would be between outcome #1 and #4. But the probability of that seems pretty small, all things considered. So, yes, it makes sense for NARAL to endorse the pro-choice Republican over the pro-life Democrat. Meanwhile, in light of various liberal intellectuals getting ready to throw abortion rights overboard in order to win more elections, NARAL certainly has every reason to worry that it needs to hold the party's feet to the fire. Traditionally, interest groups that get too cozy and complacent with one particular party—see, for example, unions with the Democratic Party, or evangelicals with the Republicans—get taken advantage of pretty easily.

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Building Worse Mousetraps?

| Tue Aug. 9, 2005 2:59 PM PDT

This rat-poison story seems a bit arcane, but here's a noteworthy paragraph from the Washington Post's coverage:

The battle over how to regulate rat poison started in August 1998 when the Clinton administration approved its use as long as manufacturers added a bittering agent and a dye that made it more obvious if a child ingested the poison. Three years later, Bush administration officials rescinded the requirements, on the grounds that they would make the poison less attractive to rats and could damage household property.

Let's see, dead children or stained rugs? Guess we know which one the Bush administration would pick. Meanwhile, Joshua Kurlantzick reported the backstory on this whole affair for Mother Jones earlier this year:

[The Environmental Protection Agency]'s career scientists began preparing a full assessment of the dangers [of rat poison], which was completed in September 2001. In keeping with standard procedure, the report was to be made available to the pesticide industry and the public for up to 90 days, allowing interested parties to review it. The document, which said rat poisons were toxic to "nontarget species" -- that is, humans and other animals -- presented strong evidence for limiting the sale of some of the chemicals to licensed users.

But in a departure from normal procedures, the EPA held the comment process open for more than a year. During this period, it allowed the pesticide industry, organized in a coalition called the Rodenticide Registrants Task Force (RRTF), to go well beyond making the usual technical corrections.

Read the rest for details. "Bush administration privileges industry buddies over scientific evidence" isn't exactly a new story, but that doesn't make it any less important.

Bad Religion, Too?

| Tue Aug. 9, 2005 1:36 PM PDT

Permit a hit-and-run post here, but Cosma Shalizi has written one of the best broadsides against intelligent design I've ever seen: "The thing is, this leads to bad science, and, if an unbeliever can say so, bad religion. The stakes are more serious here than with silly 'devotionals with mathematical content,' but the issues are not that different. Doing what you must know is shoddy science, in the hope that it will provide cover for propagating the gospel, shows a poor opinion of your fellow creatures, of the gospel, and of God. Of your fellow creatures, because you are resorting to trickery, rather than honest persuasion or the example of your own life, to win converts. Of the gospel, because you do not trust its ability to change lives and win souls. Last and worst, of God, because you are perverting what you believe to be the divine gift of intelligence, and refusing to learn about the Creator from the creation. And for what? To protect your opinion about what measure you think it fitting for God to employ."

Nicely put. For more on the subject, see this post from ThomH.

Don't Give the Public What it Wants

Tue Aug. 9, 2005 12:45 PM PDT

As John Tierney points out in today's New York Times, the public furor over meth usage is only the most recent fracas related to a long series of poor drug-policy decisions. And why are the policies created? Beating up on drugs, and drug users, is an easy way for the political class to score points with a crime-fearing public. When the media (including journalists) hypes the threat, they are only priming the pump. On this issue, good politics makes bad policy, and will until public perceptions about the efficacy of our drug laws come to match reality.

Mark Kleiman has a good post on why meth, as it stands now, is probably not a good candidate for legalization, as Tierney sort of suggests it might be. That step might work for say, pot, and not much else. But there are lots of reform possibilities, including decriminalization of small amount possession, that might go a long way towards helping addicts of more dangerous drugs. The point here is that even common sense steps like these fall victim to joint public-politician lust for the prohibition war.

Federalism: The Big Issue

Tue Aug. 9, 2005 11:14 AM PDT

Of course most of the noise about what's at stake in this and other Supreme Court nomination battles concerns the hot-button 'cultural' issues: gay rights, abortion, etc. That's understandable: passions are high, motivated constituencies are well-formed, and the issues are clear, at least on a emotional level, to a wide swath of the public.

A couple of conservative nominees will of course, cause progressives headaches on all these issues, and with enough time reverse a lot of important gains that have come through the courts. But even more damage can be done if the Supreme Court starts chipping away at the federal government's authority to make laws for all states. There has already been some movement in this direction under this court, but another justice à la Thomas would firm up the anti-federalist block, and put 60 years of laws at risk.

So it is certainly good news that Senator Arlen Specter, the Republican Chair of the Judiciary Committee, has decided to bare his moderate chops and demand some answers from Roberts on his thoughts about how far Congress's authority to regulate interstate commerce ought to go. I have little doubt that Roberts will say the right answers. But at least he'll be asked the right questions.

When to Worry

| Tue Aug. 9, 2005 10:45 AM PDT

A hint that the Bush administration realizes all is not well in economic recovery-land:

Treasury Secretary John W. Snow acknowledged yesterday that the fruits of strong economic growth are not spreading equally to less educated Americans, as he and the rest of President Bush's economic team prepared to meet today to discuss wages and income distribution in an otherwise surging economy.

Really? Does the rest of the White House also acknowledge that? That's a pretty big deal. Hm, a little further down in the piece:

Administration officials now acknowledge they have a problem, at least with voters' perceptions.

Ah yes, sound the alarm.

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Watch the Incentives

| Mon Aug. 8, 2005 3:35 PM PDT

In Slate today, Alexandra Starr has a marvelous take on those notoriously low test scores among American high-schoolers:

You could conclude from these exams that American high-schoolers are ill-taught and ill-prepared for the competitive global economy. But what if you look at these tests like a capitalist rather than an educator? Nothing is at stake for kids when they take the international exams and the NAEP. Students don't even learn how they scored. And that probably affects their performance. American teenagers, in other words, may not be stupid. It could be that when they have nothing to gain (or lose), they're lazy.

True enough. In a similar vein, one of the most innovative proposals that I've ever heard for boosting scores—and, one would hope, actual learning—among students in low-performing schools also involves incentives. What if students simply got paid for getting good grades? Recently, Roland Fryer, Jr., an economist at Harvard has been trying to do just that with a pilot program in low-income public schools in the Bronx. Third-graders get $10 per good test, and seventh-graders $20. Some have objected that this would mean the death of "learning for its own sake," but come on. A number of well-off parents reward their kids for doing well in school; this is no different, really.

CLOB is DOA

Mon Aug. 8, 2005 1:38 PM PDT

One of the 9/11 Commission's recommendations (PDF) called for the establishment of a board to monitor how civil liberties issues were being dealt with at the various federal intelligence and law-enforcement agencies. Today's Washington Post reports that the board, later established by Congress as the and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, hasn't met once since formally constituted in June. Of course, it's also under-funded and over-mandated. And as TalkLeft pointed out a while back, Bush's board appointments, including Ted Olsen (who as Solicitor General argued the administration's "enemy combatant" position before the Supreme Court), are conservative and don't exactly inspire confidence as civil libertarians. Oh well. At least it was a nice idea.

Hispanic Voters Revisited

| Mon Aug. 8, 2005 1:33 PM PDT

Stanley Greenberg's new survey (PDF) of Hispanic voters addresses a number of interesting points, but two really stand out here. The first is the rather obvious truism that candidates really do matter come election time. George W. Bush, of course, captured a near-historic percentage of the Hispanic vote, 40 percent in 2004. But he did this in part by distancing himself from the negative perceptions that Hispanics had of the Republican Party in general. Only 18 percent of Hispanics consider the GOP to be "accepting of different cultures"—indeed, the Democratic Party has a 40 point lead on the issue—but 30 percent thought the same of Bush himself. 30 percent is nothing to brag about in tolerance contests, but difference came in handy on election day. Unfortunately for the GOP, no other presidential name for 2008 seems to carry a similar personal advantage.

Now as to why Kerry did relatively poorly among Hispanics, some 39 percent claimed that they had no idea "what he stood for." Yeah, well, so it goes, we've heard this ad infinitum and it's not clear what Democrats can do about this besides, perhaps, run a more comprehensible candidate (Hispanics give Bill Clinton, for instance, an overwhelmingly warm personal rating). Anyway, the second reason—28 percent—had to do with Kerry's "permissiveness on abortion and gay marriage," which would appear to give "centrist" Democrats yet another excuse to sacrifice abortion rights in order to reclaim swing voters. But if you look a bit farther down, a pro-life Democrat would run only slightly better than a pro-choice Democrat, and support for stem cell research pretty much swamps any edge an abortion foe could bring. (Obviously a pro-life, pro-stem cell candidate would do best, but Bill Frist's delusions of the White House aside, there aren't many presidential contenders who take this view.)

Meanwhile, one should note that Hispanic voters under 30 and Hispanic voters with a college education are overwhelmingly pro-choice (60 and 62 percent respectively). So Bush may have won himself a slight advantage in 2004 on the issue, but over time—given changing demographics and, one would hope, a greater proportion of Hispanics going to college—abortion will turn into a much less successful wedge issue for Republicans to wield. For that matter, read Digby's weekend post on this very topic—although I'd note that, at least as far as the polls are concerned, the left-liberal position on both the intelligent design debate and the Ten Commandments-in-the-courthouse debate seem to be spectacularly lost causes. But other than that...

Up the Command Ladder

Mon Aug. 8, 2005 12:16 PM PDT

This update in today's New York Times on the prosecution of soldiers involved in two deaths at Bagram base in Afghanistan raises a vital question: "What is the responsibility of more senior military personnel for the abuses that took place?" As it turns out, the soldiers involved in the Bagram deaths (two are at issue here—both stem from the application of "severe trauma to the men's legs") have relatively strong claims that they were trained to treat the prisoners in a way that ultimately resulted in these two deaths. That could mean that the military will have more difficulty portraying these abuses as wildcat actions by a few bad guards or interrogators.

Of course, we know that the culture that promoted the actions leading these deaths goes right to the very top. But so far this hasn't meant any responsibility for commanders or civilian policy makers. I won't hold much hope, but maybe the little noted Bagram deaths can net some bigger fish.