Friday, February 29, 2008

What the Clinton campaign should have done (it's not what everyone says)

I mostly agree with this Ezra Klein post that beyond the issue of the Clinton campaign and its tactics is the issue of Clinton the Senator, who worked only on small-bore legislation instead of leading high-profile fights that would have made her the candidate of change.

Still, tactics also play their role, and I disagree with the conventional wisdom that the campaign's mistake was in its failure to put sufficient resources and time into the post-February 5th contests, where Obama has picked up unstoppable momentum. This argument seems to believe the money and time spent on the later contests would have come out of thin air, when in fact it would have reduced her position in the earlier contests and give Obama more momentum and "hope" in the later fights.

You don't beat a phenomenon by outlasting it, your only chance is to snuff it in the bud. The Clinton campaign's mistake was in not diverting more resources to the pre-February 5th campaigns, especially Iowa. Had she gone all-out there and won, combined with her New Hampshire win, it could have been different. African-Americans only switched to Obama when he had proven himself viable, so in this scenario she might have kept South Carolina and the campaign would have been over.

It probably wouldn't have worked, and then everyone would say it was stupid not to plan for a long campaign and I'd have no effective response, but I think the odds are better than the odds Clinton now faces.

As for why I posted on February 7th that Obama would win when most of analyses I read seemed to think Clinton had done well - Obama fought her to a draw when people knew her the best and him the least. I thought people tended to like Obama more as they heard him more and got used to him as presidential material. The average voters in later contests have more time to get exposed to him, so I felt he would keep doing better. I'm not sure that this is the right reason, but it does seem like the right prediction.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Grass-fed versus irrigated-pasture cattle

There are important climate-related reasons to eat less meat, as well as other environmental reasons for cutting back. My somewhat-defensive, omnivore's response is that grass-fed cattle can be comparable or even superior to plants as a food source since it doesn't necessarily involve changing land from a closer-to-natural state. (Yes, the vast majority of cattle in the US and much of the cattle in other developed countries are grain-fed.)

There's a complication to my argument. Grass-fed cattle could also be grazing in irrigated pasture. Here in Santa Clara County, there are thousands of acres of irrigated pasture. That type of pasture is only somewhat more valuable as habitat than lawns or farms, and water use could be significant (I'm not sure how it compares to typical farm use).

So the ideal beef is from grass-fed, non-irrigated pasture cattle. When can we get the labeling for that?

Monday, February 25, 2008

John McCain also loaned money to his campaign (in 1982)

Turns out that McCain also delved into murky area of loaning money to his campaign, albeit in 1982. He loaned $167,000 from his wife's fortune to break into politics and win a contested Republican primary in an open seat. That's $376,000 in today's dollars, and has the same ethical problem of subsequent campaign donations repaying the loan and going directly into his pocket. Arizona Democrats looking to dig up some dirt on McCain might research who donated money to his campaign after he won the primary - the district was heavily Republican, so any donations from that point on until the debt was paid, had the sole effect of going into McCain's bank account.

McCain had no other tough Congressional or Senate contests, so I doubt he loaned money again. I was able to check FEC records for his 2000 and 2008 presidential campaigns, and no personal loans are listed.

I suppose it's also worthwhile to ask whether Obama loaned money to any of his early campaigns.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Recognizing Kosovo's independence was a bad idea

So many organizations are called "Friends of __", but I've wanted to start something called "Enemies of Symbolism." People commit so much stupidity with heartbreaking results for no other reason than the symbolism of the act. The current case in point is Kosovo.

Kosovo already had de facto independence, or could acquire any other aspect of sovereignty short of de jure independence simply by threatening to declare independence. But instead they wanted the symbolism of declared independence. It doesn't make sense, and even if it did, it would make more sense to wait another five, ten, fifteen years to let the fact of actual independence sink in less painfully.

I can't blame the Kosovars too much, given the brutal oppression they experienced, but we foreigners had to then take the next symbolic step of recognizing their independence. The price so far is only one person dead in the Belgrade riots, but the real flash point is northern, Serb-majority portion of Kosovo.

I can't see any justification for Kosovo independence that doesn't also justify reuniting the Serb-majority part of Kosovo with Serbia.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Kulick at SameFacts has two mistaken posts in a row about this issue. The second post attempts to make an argument, denying that recognizing Kosovo provides supports to the approximately one billion other separatist movements on the planet, and labels this comment as "apposite":
"The problem is after granting independence to Kosova (which is possibly an economically unsustainable unit as a state in any case) what do you say tomorrow to Rspblika Srpska in Bosnia?"

Go f*** yourselves.

Recent history matters in terms of international sympathy.

Well, that's just great. Next step in our moral evolution after having people die for symbolic reasons is to impose collective punishment. I'd expect that over 70% of the Bosnian Serbs weren't military-age males and well over 95% of the population is innocent of war crimes. Very apposite.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

If Exxon can lie, then so can I

Not much climate blogging out there on this issue: Exxon-Mobil did a significant blogger outreach over a year ago, promising to stop lying about climate change by funding climate denialists. I had some doubts about it. Turns out I wasn't doubtful enough. Environmental Law Prof Susan Smith has the goods (and she's not happy at being taken in herself). Exxon gave $180,000 to Frontiers of Freedom, a denialist astroturf group in 2006, when they said they stopped doing that. Smith lays out the denialist nonsense that FoF comes up with.

To be generous to Exxon, maybe they decided to stop lying through funding in the middle of 2006 after giving away the money, and were just inexact in their January 2007 discussion. We'll see what they disclose for 2007 donations, then.

Enough with Exxon's lies, what about mine? I said I'd stop writing about Hillary Clinton's $5m loan. Ha! Via emailer Jeff, Matt Yglesias and Ben Smith are still on the issue. Smith found out that Clinton's charging 1.26% interest on her loan, apparently unheard of even in the murky world of candidates loaning money to their campaigns (UPDATE: turns out it's not unheard of, Kerry charged a far higher rate to his own campaign in 2004). I posted this comment at Yglesias' site:

What's interesting to me though is that [the interest] may set up HRC to treat non-payment of the loan, should she decide to forget about getting repaid, as a capital loss to set off against her other capital gains.

In other words, if she just gave $5m to her campaign, she's $5m poorer. But instead, if she loans the money following IRS regs for arms-length below-interest loans, and decides later to not get paid, she writes off $5m against any capital gains she and Bill make in the tax year. Bill's cashing out of a partnership, so he'll have a lot of capital gains. Not a bad way to get $1m-plus tax benefit off her donation. The rest of us get no tax writeoffs from political donations.

I'm just speculating though. A tax specialist/accountant should really look into this.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Obama winning the space race

I've got no idea who will win the primary race today in Wisconsin, but I definitely agree with Matt Yglesias and disagree with Chris Bowers that Obama is winning the space race against Clinton by de-emphasizing the human spaceflight program.

Specifically, Obama has called for delaying the over-budget Constellation mission to return to the moon (with a vague pretense of eventually going to Mars), in order to fund math and science education. As Yglesias correctly points out, Bowers' counter-argument points to the science benefits of the useful, unmanned space program to argue for human spaceflight which has almost no science value (doing it an additional time here, too). In fact the budget overruns from manned spaceflight meant "we took a couple of billion out of [unmanned space] science" in the words of NASA Administrator Mike Griffin. So if you like the science results that Bowers points to, you should support Obama.

Bowers tries to come up with non-science reasons for human spaceflight, and it's just the same vague nothings that I see all the time on the space websites. Yglesias tries to give developing countries reasons to put people in space, but I think resource-constrained societies have much better things to do with money than throw it away. If they want to spend money on high-tech, do clean energy. Or, get involved in aviation. China could have built a competitor to Boeing with the money they burned to put a couple guys into orbit. Was that a good expense?

Meanwhile, Obama has taken a lot heat from the space nuts who like our useless human spaceflight program. Not the hugest possible difference in the world, but it does take some guts to take on the political patronage involved in NASA.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

My 95% serious suggestion for Al Gore

He should become a celebrity contestant on Dancing With the Stars reality show. For those unfamiliar with it, the show features a diverse array of celebrities, paired off with professional dancers, and competing against other celebrity-dancer pairs to see who's the best.

Having seen a few of the shows, they do an interesting job with the backstory and with showing the celebrity practicing with their expert dancer. I really believe that going on the show could help Gore reach an audience that hasn't paid attention to climate change. To be received positively, he doesn't need to be the best dancer - all he has to do is to show he's making an effort and that he improves somewhat as a dancer. It could really help humanize him and remove the Gorebot image.

On a more serious climate communications note, here's a great, short movie disproving the "urban heat island is the cause of so-called warming" argument in about 10 seconds, assuming that urban sprawl isn't a major factor in the Sahara, Siberia, and the Arctic Ocean. (Via luminous beauty.) Also useful if you freeze the movie at the 1935-1944 frame and then compare it to modern times - a nice visual contrast showing that we're much warmer now.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Stuff white people like, and other stuff

Here's a new blog: It's less than a month old, has over 400,000 hits, and deserves it. Funny in a painful way. I wonder how painful it is for some non-white people too, when they see themselves in it. This post was a little revelatory for me - really loved that show, and until now I noticed never the cast's complexion. Oh well, Glenn Beck would just tell me that I'm colorblind.

Along similar lines:

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Hitting some tip jars

Atrios is holding a fundraiser, now in its last week. He was right about not invading Iraq for the right reason (no WMDs) while I sat on the fence, so I hit his tip jar. (Climate denialists must be scratching their heads at that reasoning - "what is this concept, of accountability if you're wrong?").

Because I fear John Mashey, I'll send a little money to Andrew Rice running for Senate against the climate denialist James Inhofe.

I donated to Obama after Hillary's loan of money to her campaign that I said I wouldn't post about any more. I'm also holding off on gloating about being right for once with my political predictions, but it's getting harder....

Last on my to-do list for donating is Talking Points Memo, the public radio of the internet as far as I'm concerned.

Monday, February 11, 2008

A tale of two senators' homes (last post on the loan issue)

Alaska Senator Ted Stevens has had his name dragged through the mud, and deserved it, for allowing a company with important governmental dealings to rebuild his house at apparently below-market rates. Stevens may ultimately face criminal charges for this and other misdeeds.

For the 1996 special election to replace Oregon Senator Bob Packwood, Democratic candidate Ron Wyden self-financed a significant part of his campaign by loaning the campaign money that he obtained by mortgaging his home. Wyden won the election and remains a Senator today. As it was a loan, I presume subsequent donations to Wyden were used to pay back the loan.*

In both cases, donors with financial interests in governmental actions paid for substantial parts of senators' homes. The one difference is that what Wyden did was certainly legal - but should it have been?

The response to Clinton's $5 million loan has been muted, I think. Some people have the same concern as me:

If HRC wins the election, or if she doesn't and goes back to being a powerful senator, there's going to be a fundraising drive to pay off the debt. Those contributions, unlike routine campaign contributions, will go directly into her pocket. Won't that put her under a special obligation to those donors? And, since those contributions won't actually help her get elected to anything, won't they be especially likely to come from buyers-of-access rather than political supporters?

The Center for Responsive Politics has a longstanding concern over the issue:

An increasing number of federal and state candidates are financing their campaigns, wholly or in part, with loans from themselves. In order to pay themselves back, many of these candidates, once elected, raise money from PACs and wealthy individuals interested in gaining special access and influence. During the campaign, voters have no way of knowing who these contributors are; the pre-election disclosure forms only show the loans.

At the link above, it mentions legal limits on loans as a somewhat-useful political reform.

I really hope this issue doesn't go away, although it seems to be fading quickly as far as it applies to Clinton. Incredibly, her supporters seem only more motivated to give her money after she loaned money to her campaign. Amazing how differently people react to the same piece of information.

*I'm writing the Ron Wyden information from memory - financial disclosure info I've found doesn't mention loans. I am certain I remember reading it in the Oregon newspapers.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

A question for the Clinton campaign about the $5 million loan

Here's the question:

"Can you guarantee that all the small donor contributions to the campaign will be used for electing Clinton president instead of paying back the $5 million loan and ending up in her pocket?"

I think it's a fair question. Suppose that Sarah Saintly, a widow living on a small fixed income, gives her last extra cash to the campaign in the belief that Clinton had the best chance to beat the Republicans and enact a progressive legislative agenda. Sarah has the right to know whether a portion of her money will not be used for that purpose and instead be redirected into the pocket of the multi-millionaire Clinton family. And if the Clintons loan more money to their campaign as has been suggested, an even larger-percentage of Sarah's donation goes the the Clintons instead of the purpose Sarah intended.

Some other questions: what are the terms of the loan? Does the campaign have to pay back with interest? That could really lend itself to abuse. The McCain campaign released the document showing the bank loan it received - can we see the actual document?

When will we know if Clinton will loan more money to her campaign, and how much? Will Bill Clinton loan money to the campaign? Is there any legal distinction between a loan from Hillary and a loan from Bill?

It might be a little difficult for the Obama campaign to push the issue - prominent supporter John Kerry apparently did the exact same thing as Clinton in 2004. Still they should - it's the right thing to do and will help their campaign. And nothing would stop reporters from asking these questions.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

"The scandal isn't what's illegal; it's what's legal."

The Michael Kinsley quote I used for this post's title will probably always be true.

Last October I posted this at the John Edwards community blog:

Romney's campaign loans = legalized bribery

Romney has loaned $10 million to his campaign, and will probably keep on loaning.

So what happens if he were to win the Presidency, and a big corporate fatcat made a donation to his campaign?

It's bad enough normally in terms of campaign influence, but when a candidate has loaned money to his campaign, these donations go straight into the newly-elected official's pocket.

Someone needs to explain to me the difference between this and "normal" bribery. Money from the donor goes almost straight into the candidate's pocket.

I hope JRE picks up on this and points it out, and watches for any candidates on our side doing the same.

What's good for the gander is good for the goose. Hillary's loaned $5 million to her campaign and may loan more. (Interesting that it came out the day after Super Tuesday and not 24 hours earlier - wonder if there's a story behind that?)

Wealthy corporations, unions, and individuals who give money to her campaign from now on will be putting a portion of that money into Hillary's pocket, until the debt is eliminated. It's legalized gifts of money to a political candidate, a potential President, and a sitting Senator. Tell me that doesn't raise ethical questions.

Donating massive amounts of money to one's campaign raises some disturbing issues, but loaning the money is far, far worse. Hillary needs to immediately convert the loan into gift, and not do it again.

P.S. And if she does win the nomination, I'll still vote and volunteer for her. Part of the scandal of something being legal is that makes people think it's not wrong. My giving money to her became less likely though. An appearance of impropriety....

P.P.S. The only good news for Clinton is that post-Super Tuesday I now think she's going to lose the nomination, and given the past accuracy of my political predictions, Obama's in trouble.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Looks like I'm not betting Dr. L Graham Smith

Ecomyths blog decided it had arrived in the blogging world because I emailed the climate denialist author, Dr. L Graham Smith, to see if he would bet over his denials. Actually, I only came across his blog in a fairly random blog search on climate, and I don't claim that my sending someone an email is an earthshaking event.

So I had sent him a polite email and he sent a polite response nearly immediately, saying he'd think about betting. Since then, no answer, other than some speculation on his blog about why I'm asking him to bet (from the link above):

...the implication being that a refusal to accept the bet is either:
  • cowardly and/or
  • a lack of commitment to my perspective and/or
  • because my views are wrong.
I don't have much interest in the "cowardly" implication, but "lack of commitment" is probably an accurate rephrasing of "refusing to bet because the denialist doesn't actually believe his own nonsense." I also don't understand the "views are wrong" implication, except as a repeat of the implication that they're lying. Of course any particular skeptic might honestly not be interested in betting, but the widespread lack of interest tells you something. As for my motivation, Smith misses the possibility that I might want to make some money while arbitraging money in the scientifically-correct direction.

Smith isn't finished though:
My concept of science comes from reading Popper, Kuhn and Wilbur. I am trying in vain to remember where betting as a strategy for refutation and conjecture fits in with either scientific method or understanding.
I actually think betting fits pretty well with Popper's theory of falsification, and it uses money to figure out which hypotheses are credible enough to be tested. Kuhn isn't particularly relevant. I'm not sure who "Wilbur" is, but if it's this guy, then he's totally irrelevant.

By way of contrast to Smith, I'll point to James Annan's description of the bet process he, William Connelly, and I worked out against Joe Romm's prediction of early Arctic ice melt:

Brian originally bravely offered to stake a spare button and an old stick of part-chewed gum. William offered up $500, and I suggested $1000. At this point, Brian decided he could be a bit braver and Joe started to sound a bit lukewarm. In the end we agreed to evenly share $1000. It is interesting to observe, and experience, how the contemplation of putting down hard cash (even if not very much) focusses the mind!
It's an educational enterprise, but the denialist types don't seem interested in learning. (Smith in particular doesn't even allow comments on his blog, so it's a correction-free zone.)

Finally, Smith asked that I post his email reply, so here's the relevant part:
As to the bet I don't gamble generally but will consider your proposal if only to avoid having you assume it is from a lack of conviction on my part.

Once I have had chance to view your site and perspective I will respond again., although at first glance I'm not sure what the bet would resolve: few if any would dispute that mean global temperature has risen over the past 100 years, nor dispute that the increase has been the 0.6 C +- 0.2 over that interval as per the IPCC -- the dispute is:
  • what proportion of the increase is anthropogenic?
  • what part of the change that is anthropogenic is due to rising levels of carbon dioxide (as opposed to land use changes etc.), if any?
  • does it matter? i.e. how is this a crisis requiring intervention?, and:
  • given that temperatures were at this level 1000 yrs. ago without any link to carbon dioxide levels, what is the provenance for the AGW theory?
I'm not sure how your bet would answer these questions.

Moreover, I would contend that AGW is a belief and as such there are no facts that will alter the opinion of someone who subscribes to this belief (see Tierney's post in the NYT): facts don't alter beliefs only the acceptance of alternate constructs [ed. note: he may be onto something here - but where facts don't alter beliefs, money might]. By proposing the bet I would infer that you view the issue as simply one of scientific evidence: I do not.

Should you decide to post my blog amongst those you have challenged, you may wish to show your own sense of principle and also post this reply to your request when referring to ecomyths.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Liberal myths to match conservative myths

Kevin Drum came up with the following five conservative myths, and asked for liberal ones to match:

  1. A 30% national sales tax is a workable substitute for all income and payroll taxes in the United States.

  2. Global warming is not primarily caused by human activity. In fact, global warming might not even exist.

  3. Intelligent design is a viable scientific theory that ought to be taught in biology classes.

  4. Even with marginal tax rates at current levels, reducing taxes will increase revenues.

  5. Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11.

His criteria for comparable liberal myths: (a) reasonably consequential; (b) held by a nontrivial cross-section of actual politicians, think-tankers, and pundits, not just by a small lunatic fringe; and (c) not mere differences of opinion ("abortion is murder," "preventive war is bad"), but things that are demonstrably false.

I came up with three examples, and also two marginal ones:

  • Most genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) under most circumstances are dangerous to the environment and/or dangerous to human health.
  • Bilingual education has better academic outcomes for English-as-second-language children than English language immersion.
  • Animal testing and experimentation has very little medical or scientific value.

To expand a little, I said "most" GMOs because they can be dangerous in some circumstances. As for animal testing, Kevin didn't expect universal support, just a non-trivial cross-section, so I think it qualifies.

My two marginal ones: first, I'll bet it's more liberal scientists who doubt that the first peoples to reach the New World are responsible for the extinction of Ice-Age mammals. Second, liberals were probably more willing to apply post-modern theories to the sciences, although that's dying down and conservatives are starting to get worse.

Kevin's commenters had two more valid nominations: 9/11 was an inside job; and massive vote-stealing gave the 2000 and 2oo4 elections to Bush;

Marginal commenter ideas are that gun control laws have been proven effective at reducing gun violence; that the death penalty isn't a deterrent to murder; free trade hurts the middle class more than it helps; vaccines cause autism; and storing nuclear waste is a significant environmental risk (then I ran out of comment-reading steam). These are marginal for several reasons - in some cases they might not be completely disproven.

UPDATE: Based on the comments, I'll add "Subsidies for emerging technologies have been proven to generally pay for themselves." Glenn in the comments thinks the liberal's stronger enviro emphasis means they bear disparate responsibility for the myth that subsidizing corn ethanol is a good environmental practice, while I think the fact that so many conservatives espouse the same myth means it can't be blamed on liberals. Take your pick.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Don't bother with The Golden Compass movie

This film adaptation of The Golden Compass/Northern Lights book is just insipid and boring. The mildly-bad rating at Rotten Tomatoes is way too generous. They removed all that was good, or at least interesting, about the book - the ethical ambiguity, the dogmatic-religion-bashing - and left the rest as the level of the Narnia film.

The director has apparently promised to do a better job if sequels come out, which I've read is unlikely. That's probably a good thing instead of counting on the same team to do better in the future. I'd rather see this project die for a decade or so, and then have someone else do a much better job from the beginning.

If you want something more than reading the Dark Materials books, try the radio play version produced by BBC. has it, and it's excellent. I'd be very interested in a DVD that just filmed the play that was made from the books, but I'm not aware of it having been filmed.

Also on the subject of fantasy/sci-fi, I watched Cube Zero, a mediocre and unworthy follow-up to the excellent if somewhat bloody Cube. I think I'll skip the other follow-up movie, Hypercube.