Archive for July 2010
This will be a somewhat longer and more complex post than WC ordinarily produces. The subject is more complex, and worthy of a longer read.
Richard Dawkins spoke at the University of Alaska Fairbanks on July 15, 2010. Davis Auditorium was packed, with a number of folks standing and still more watching in another lecture hall and on the Web.
For anyone living under a rock, Richard Dawkins is one of the pre-eminent philosophers and ethologists in the world. A respected scholar of evolutionary biology, he is unflinching in his willingness to think through the implications and lessons of biology and, in particular, evolution. He is also, famously, an atheist, and not a bit shy about it.
His lecture was a compressed summary of the evolutionary aspects of religious belief. The shockingly bad acoustics in Davis Concert Hall, combined with the intellectual pace Dawkins keeps in his lectures, made it a significant challenge to keep up. It’s almost as if Dawkins is intentionally challenging his audience to keep up. But, with the benefit of a Mac Book Pro and skillful, sometimes amusing slides, Dawkins made a series of points.
He noted religion is ubiquitous, which implies it must have some purpose. Why does it exist? After reminding us that he views evolution as operating at the level of the gene – the reductionist approach to evolution that he champions – he asked how a religions can confer an evolutionary advantage on a gene.
He rejected the standard reasons out of hand, because they do not operate at the level of the gene: willingness to take additional risk, because death is not the end of all things; preservation of social order; or as a utility of nature. None makes sense at the genetic level. None of these explanations makes sense as maximizing something for the benefit of the gene. All, in Dawkins’ view, are non-Darwinian explanations for religion.
So, asks Dawkins, what good is religion in the Darwinian sense, when measured at the gene level? He asked this question while showing a slide of a man photographing a group of women dressed in head and body covering burkhas. It’s a nice way of making the point that religion, like the photo, doesn’t always make a lot of sense.
One theory is that religion provides comfort and thereby reduces stress, with attendant evolutionary advantages. But as Dawkins noted, teaching young children that they will burn for all eternity in Hell if they are bad isn’t exactly stress reducing. And, as you look around society today, there is little evidence that any religion is reducing stress.
Another idea is that evolution operates at the level of tribe. There are several difficulties the the hypothesis. First, where one tribe has a war-like God, and the other has a peaceful God, it’s hard to see any evolutionary advantage to religion. While it might be good for one religion in competition with others, it doesn’t help the gene. It doesn’t work as ecological competition. It’s not a model of Darwinian selection.
If it’s not good for the gene, is it good for the meme, Dawkins asked. Good for the meme? Dawkins promised to return to the matter of memes, if time permitted. In the event, under time pressure and the desire to answer audience questions, he did not.
Dawkins turned an anti-evolutionist argument around and asked, “Is religion intelligently designed?”
He lanced lanced Scientology, calling L. Ron Hubbard “a shameless opportunist.” He called Joseph Smith “the enterprisingly mendacious inventor” of Mormonism and “an obvious charlatan.” But still the right target for the obvious question, why have these two recent religions been so successful, given their dubious origins.
In the event, Dawkins concluded that religion is a symptom of a series of predispostions which manifest as religion: childhood creduilty, a child’s tendency to attach a purpose to everything and what he calls “vacuum behavior.” He explained each predisposition in some detail.
Childhood credulity has a survival value; children are taught to obey their elders. Dawkins’ example was, “Don’t play in the river, there are crocodiles there.” Children who don’t obey the warning are less likely to survive. Credulity – the will to believe – has obvious Darwinian benefits. But not all elder direction has survival benefits.
Dawkins also pointed out children as natural theists: they ascribe purpose to random events. It’s possible to discern a Darwinian advantage to seeing unknown agencies. Was that a leopard in the grass, or just the wind? The doctrine of asymmetric benefit operates: Pascal’s Wager. You can err by a false positive – thinking there is leopard when there isn’t; or you can err by deciding it’s the wind when it’s a leopard, a more serious consequence. But science arose when people began to shake off the suspicion of agency. Sometimes humanity can be viewed as a hypersensitive agency detector.
Finally, there is what Dawkins calls “vacuum behavior.” He showed a video of his dog trying to bury a bone on the carpet. It’s activity inappropriate to the situation. The behavior might be appropriate in one setting, but it is carried over and acted out in a situation in which it is inappropriate, because of the absence of a recognized appropriate conduct. For Dawkins, “vacuum behavior” explains why adults retain the child behavior of theism and credulity. That “vacuum behavior” is what leads an athlete who score a touchdown to thank God.
We are, as Dawkins notes, a social species. Part of being a social species is the debt-gratitude-grudge cycle. Dawkins says we have an innate mechanism to track mutual obligations. Before we had money, we had a kind of mental currency in mutual obligations. The obligation network can become quite complex. Dawkins seems to imply that the mutual obligation network has a Darwinism value at the gene level. That obligation network is an important factor in how religion is practiced. That obligation network, too, fires off in inappropriate situations. Gratitude, guilt and resentment fire off in a vacuum, and trigger these behaviors.
So Dawkins concluded, then, that the urge to confess, athletes thanking God, and the sense of unfairness all trace to the same root behaviors: credulity, animism and inappropriate behavior being acted out in situations where there aren’t known behavior maps. Religion, in Dawkins’ view, is appropriate childish behavior being carried over into inappropriate situations. The childish behavior has Darwinian benefits for children, but gets carried forward into wildly wrong areas in adults.
Unfortunately, Dawkins ran out of time to carry the discussion into memes. Memes are an idea largely originated by Dawkins. If you’ve read The God Delusion you know that memes play a major role in his analysis of religion, but he didn’t have time for it in his July 15 presentation. He did reserve time for question and answer. Without going into detail, WC was pleasantly surprised at the civility, intelligence and courtesy of the questions and the answers.
Perhaps the most interesting dialog came on the issue of consciousness. Dawkins was asked if he could define consciousness. He quoted Bertrand Russell, and then drew a distinction between consciousness and ethical consciousness. He sees consciousness in many animals; he sees ethical consciousness only in humans.
WC enjoyed the lecture very much. Alaska’s various loose nuts were on generally good behavior – although handing out bibles at the entrance was a little over the top. Thanks to Professor Richard Dawkins for coming to Alaska. An excellent lecture.
WC gets lots of email and snail mail about Social Security. Most of it is borderline hysteria: the Social Security system is going broke tomorrow, or doubling the deficit, or is in some other kind of deep crisis. WC had even assumed some of it might be true. A search on Google using “social security going broke” produces almost 12 million hits. The Cato Institute, a famously conservative think tank, has dozens of articles on the problems facing Social Security. But after an email from MoveOn.org, WC decided to look instead of simply accepting what others were saying. As it turns out, most of what you hear is untrue. Using MoveOn.org’s structure, WC sets out what he found:
Myth #1: Social Security is going broke.
Reality: There is no immediate Social Security crisis. By 2023, Social Security will have a $4.6 trillion surplus (yes, trillion with a ‘T’). It can pay out all scheduled benefits for the next quarter-century with no changes whatsoever.
The last 5 Trustees Reports have indicated that Social Security’s Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI) Trust Funds would become exhausted between 2037 and 2041 under the intermediate set of economic and demographic assumptions provided in each report. If no legislative change in enacted, scheduled tax revenues will be sufficient to pay only about three fourths of the scheduled benefits after trust fund exhaustion
So even after 2037, it’ll still be able to pay out 75% of scheduled benefits—and again, that’s without any changes. The program started preparing for the Baby Boomers’ retirement decades ago. Anyone who insists Social Security is broke is misinformed or parroting someone else’s agenda.
Myth #2: We have to raise the retirement age because people are living longer.
Reality: MoveOn.org calls this a red-herring to trick you into agreeing to benefit cuts. WC agrees. Retirees are living about the same amount of time as they were in the 1930s. The reason average life expectancy is higher is mostly because many fewer people die as children than they did 70 years ago. What’s more, what gains there have been are distributed very unevenly—since 1972, life expectancy increased by 6.5 years for workers in the top half of the income brackets, but by less than 2 years for those in the bottom half. But those intent on cutting Social Security love this argument because raising the retirement age is the same as an across-the-board benefit cut.
Myth #3: Benefit cuts are the only way to fix Social Security.
Reality: Social Security isn’t broken. But if you want to strengthen it, and fund it past 2037, there’s a much better way: either raise or eliminate the cap on social security contributions. If the wealthy rich paid taxes on all of their income, Social Security would be sustainable for decades to come. Right now, high earners only pay Social Security taxes on the first $106,000 of their income. When conservatives insist benefit cuts are the only way to “save” social security, it’s because they want to protect the wealthy from paying more to the Social Security fund.
Myth #4: The Social Security Trust Fund has been raided and is full of IOUs.
Reality: Actually, the Social Security Trust Fund is full of U.S. Treasury Bonds. And those bonds are backed by the full faith and credit of the United States. The reason Social Security holds only treasury bonds is the same reason many Americans do: the federal government has never missed a single interest payment on its debts. Former President Bush wanted to put Social Security funds in the stock market—that wouldn’t have worked so well, would it?—but luckily, he failed. So the trillions of dollars in the Social Security Trust Fund, which are separate from the regular budget, are as safe as can be. Anyone with a safer investment, offering a higher rate of return is invited to contact WC by comment with details.
Myth #5: Social Security adds to the deficit.
Reality: By law, Social Security’s funds are separate from the budget, and it must pay its own way. That means that Social Security can’t add one penny to the deficit. The T-bonds would have been sold to someone else, if not to the Social Security Fund.
The fact is, Americans rely on Social Security. Consider the following chart:
The reality is that half of Americans over 65 rely on social security for 80% or more of their income. Three-quarters of Americans rely on it for more than half of their income. And they don’t live all that well, either: 43% of all Americans 75 years old or older get by on less than 200% of poverty level. And those numbers aren’t likely to change. Folks still working have a savings rate of less than 4% of disposable income. Gen-X and Gen-Y are counting on Social Security, too.
WC doesn’t expect to convert any neocons on this issue. The “social security is broke” story has been told so long, in so many ways, that it’s gotten into the political DNA. But maybe these comments will at least force folks to think a bit before parroting the myths.
Silk Parachute, by John McPhee, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (March 2, 2010)
John McPhee, in WC’s opinion, has for some 25 years been America’s greatest non-fiction writer. Whether it has been his epic, four volume series of geology, or esoterica like The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed, or his best work, Coming into the Country, McPhee writes on an extraordinary range of subjects by finding and writing about the amazing people he has encountered, who give us insights into the subjects McPhee has selected.
But not this time. This time the personality is John McPhee, writing about things that have happened to him. Whether it is the delightful title essay, “Silk Parachute,” which is worth the price of the book itself, or his lyrical exploration of The Chalk, from England and through France, for the most part these are stories about McPhee, or jokes McPhee tells on himself. And, just occasionally, a glimpse of a truly extraordinary writer, doing what he does best.
WC owns every published book from McPhee. I have read and re-read them all. This small collection ranks in the top 10%. Highly recommended.
WC studied a lot of geology in undergraduate school. And he’s never quite shaken his interest in the area. Alaska’s geology is fascinating. To paraphrase John McPhee, most of Alaska, like most Alaskans, originally came from somewhere else. A case in point:
Up until a little less than 10,000 years ago, a very large lake covered much of eastern southcentral Alaska. The scope of the lake is still being researched, but it clearly extended north to Mentasta Pass, along the Tok Cutoff, east some distance up the Chitina River valley, and west to Tahetna Pass on the Glenn Highway. Recent geological data would have the lake look something like this:
Like most glacial lakes, Lake Ahtna was subject to catastrophic discharge events; the glaciers that dammed the rivers, creating the lake, would fail as dams, triggering massive flows of water down the lowest points around. There’s evidence of that kind of massive flood events down the Matanuska Valley into Cook Inlet, down the Tok River into the Tanana Valley and down Devil’s Canyon on the Susistna River. Some of these flood events may have involved 2,500 cubic kilometers of water. These were Lake Missoula-sized floods. At its largest. Lake Ahtna was much larger than present Lake Michigan; Ahtna may have had a peak water volume of 6,200 cubic kilometers; present Lake Michigan is estimated at 4,900 cubic kilometers.
The lake lasted perhaps 20,000 years, easily long enough to deposit vast amounts of mud on its lake bottom. When a flood discharge event occurred, lake bottom would become river bottom again, until the ice dams rebuilt as glaciers replaced what the high water had washed away.
As you drive down the Richardson Highway from just below Meiers Lake to Tiekel River, you are crossing the old lake bottom. The impressive Copper River canyon is eroded down through the lake bottom. If you look closely at the bluffs above the river, you can see the layers of lake bottom mud, graveled river bottom and, because this area is near the moderately active Wrangell volcanoes, the occasional layers of volcanic ash as well. This bluff is on the Edgerton Highway:
This impressive pile also contains swamp mud, wind-blown glacial flour and less identifiable stuff.
The present-day Copper River has eroded down through these deposits, but you can see the old lake bottom still in the flatness of the terrain above the canyon.
As you drive down the Edgerton Highway, east off the Richardson, the road drops down a series of old lake terraces, marking old lake shores of a vast lake that is now long gone, but has left its geologic fingerprints all over the landscape of Southcentral Alaska.
It’s part of what makes geology so much fun. It’s a puzzle in which we live, often entirely unaware.
For the last 20-25 years, Daniel Schorr was a commentator for National Public Radio. In particular, he did a week in review exchange with NPR host Scott Simon on Saturday mornings. Schorr’s insightful, incisive comments were a delight. His 70 year career as a highly-principled, highly-skilled journalist were brought to bear on current issues. He was able to offer listeners amazing insights in just a few words.
And now it has ended. Daniel Schorr died yesterday after a short illness. One Saturday he was exchanging jokes with Scott Simon; the next he is gone. Forever.
Schorr was also a link back to a time when skilled reporting and the discovery and reporting of truth had a far more important role than it seemingly does today. He worked with Edward Murrow at CBS. He conducted the first ever interview with Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev, where he obtained a level of candor that got him banned from the Soviet Union. He refused to reveal his source for a leaked CIA assassinations report, which led to his eventual departure from CBS. He left CNN when that network tried to force him to pair with a politician. He didn’t think journalism should be compromised by mixing it with a politician, creating pseudo-journalism. A prescient decision.
And Schorr had the preeminent badge of honor: he made Richard Nixon’s infamous Enemies List.
But mostly he brought an incredible amount of experience, high journalistic principles and an insightful analysis to the task of making the news and current events comprehensible. He was the last of his generation, and he did his generation proud.
Saturday mornings aren’t going to be the same without him. Schorr, and the principles he embodied, will be sorely missed.
R.I.P. Daniel Schott, 1916-2010.
The Anchorage Daily News‘ excellent Julie O’Malley has a nice piece today on the ex-Gov’s bad grammar and the mock Shakespearean quotes it has generated in the Twitterverse.
But there is a much darker side to the cause the Caribou Cathy was clumsily trying to support. The issue is a proposed mosque near the site of the former World Trade Center. Robert Wright has a nice essay on the issue in the New York Times. Wright wrote:
But I’d have thought that opinion leaders of all ideological stripes could reach consensus by applying a basic rule of thumb: Just ask, “What would Osama bin Laden want?” and then do the opposite.
Bin Laden would love to be able to say that in America you can build a church or synagogue anywhere you want, but not a mosque. That fits perfectly with his recruiting pitch — that America has declared war on Islam. And bin Laden would thrill to the claim that a mosque near ground zero dishonors the victims of 9/11, because the unspoken premise is that the attacks really were, as he claims, a valid expression of Islam.
WC likes that guidepost. If bin Laden would like it, oppose it.
But those who oppose the mosque – including a candidate for governor of New York state – attack the proposal by attacking its sponsors. It’s the old McCarthy and John Birch Society technique. The wife of a sponsor had an uncle who was associated with another mosque which has a web site which has a link to an alleged radical Islam website. Not proof of anything, but guilt by very remote association.
WC thought we’d gotten over the kind of hair-trigger paranoia that leads to these ridiculous claims. Naive, WC knows.
But let’s turn the ex-Gov’s position around: suppose that a former governor of New York took a public position on a proposed Jewish synagogue or a LDS Temple in downtown Wasilla? What would the Refudiator say? She’d say, “Butt out,” and she’d be right.
Besides, to quote New York City Mayor Michael Bloomburg, “Government should never — never — be in the business of telling people how they should pray, or where they can pray.”
So WC’s message to the Quitter on the proposed mosque? “Sarah, butt out.” It’s not your business, and it’s not government’s business.
Want to watch the Dunning-Kruger Effect in real time?
In January 2008, the satiric site The Onion posted a completely fake video of a completely fake Congressional bill that pressed every single neoconservative hot button. These are the same folks who just reported a tornado destroyed the White House (“Local Family Homeless After Tornado Destroys White House”).
A year and a half later, the neoconservatives have discovered the faux video, but can’t understand that it is a fake. Their reaction to something that doesn’t exist is hysterical. And WC doesn’t mean that it is funny.
These are people who are so incompetent that they can’t recognize their own incompetence. A classic illustration of the Dunning-Kruger Effect.
And they probably think “irony” is rusty water.
The only scary part about this is that their votes count the same as WC’s.
Note: WC has been accused of “beating up on” U.S. Senate candidate Joe Miller. Nonsense. What the Duck says it well:
WC isn’t even using the good bat. On to the blog entry.
WC’s mother used to warn him that he would be judged by the company he kept. Joe Miller’s mother either didn’t warn her son, or Candidate Miller didn’t listen to his mom.
First, there was the Joe Miller float in the parade in Eagle River’s Bear Paw Festival. Candidate Miller’s entry was a big, black Hummer and a mob of heat-packing, beer-bellied citizens exercising their Second Amendment right to be utter and complete asses. The video clip is at www.youtube.com/watch?v=HAGdoBcnjWQ. That’s the way to reach out to voters at a family-friendly event. You can bet that if Miller gets the Republican nomination, that little clip will get generous air time. Because, Joe, you really are judged by the company you keep.
And now the racist, bigoted leader of the Tea Party Express Mark Williams and his Tea Party Express have been kicked out of the Tea Party. Purges are common in extremist organizations. The Anchorage Daily News reports,
On CBS’s “Face the Nation,” federation spokesman David Webb said, “We, in the last 24 hours, have expelled Tea Party Express and Mark Williams from the National Tea Party Federation because of the letter that he wrote which he, I guess, may have considered satire but which was clearly offensive.”
It’s Mark Williams and the Tea Party Express that have promised all those bucks to Candidate Miller’s campaign. The Daily News also reports, “A spokesman for Miller’s campaign, Randy DeSoto, said on Sunday that Williams’ views were his own and didn’t appear on ‘anything directly linked with the Tea Party Express.’” Just the founder, Mr. DeSoto. Just the leader.
If Miller were a statesman, if Miller cared about the company he is keeping, he’d disclaim the Tea Party Express and refuse their money. The malapropism of his other famous supporter is “refudiate.” Not going to happen. Of course, if Senator Murkowski were a statesperson, she’d refuse oil industry campaign contributions, instead of leading that pack of sycophants. Also not going to happen.
But WC has little expectation that candidates have any principles any longer, other than getting elected. They certainly don’t care about the company they keep.
WC drove back out to Eagle Summit Sunday. The weather was dicey in Fairbanks, but the web forecast for Central wasn’t as discouraging. And there isn’t much time left; migrants will be leaving soon. WC’s readers will recall it was windy and wet on June 13, 2010.
It was still a bit windy, and there was one shower, but generally the weather was good and the birding was terrific. Mixed flocks of juveniles and the occasional adult. Some sample shots follow:
WC expects this guy to be leaving for Arizona in the next week or two.
This little guy has a longer flight. Wheatears winter in Africa, an amazing migration for a songbird.
This last bird is a bit of a mystery. The consensus in WC’s household is that it is probably a Horned Lark Juvenile, but the face pattern is pretty different from what’s shown in Sibley and in BNA.
If any of you birders have an opinion, WC invites your comments.
All in all, a very pleasant Sunday.
WC got an email from the Ethan Berkowitz for Governor Campaign yesterday. Understand, WC has supported Berkowitz, even to the point of campaign contributions. The email proudly announced “Ethan’s Royalty Plan.” It might as well have announced Ethan’s Pandering Plan. The following quotes are lifted directly from that email.
1. With Ethan’s plan, the royalties go to Alaskans. With Sean Parnell’s ACES tax, the money goes to the government. Ethan thinks Alaskans surviving these hard economic times need the money more than our government, which is already running billions of dollars in surpluses. The Royalty system ensures that the Legislature doesn’t run off and spend your children’s college fund on pet projects. ACES gives YOUR money to the Legislature. Ethan’s Royalty plan sends YOUR money to YOU.
Berkowitz has a degree in government and economics from Harvard. Presumably, he understands multipliers and the importance of government-funded infrastructure to long-term economic health. WC regards the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend program – not the Permanent Fund but the citizen dividends – as the late Jay Hammond‘s biggest mistake. It demolished the connection between citizens and the services citizens receive from government. Alaskans are conditioned, by decades of permanent fund dividends, to expect something for nothing. Government services and government checks.
It would be called Socialism is any other political environment. But Alaskans, of course, are conservative, capitalist and big fans of Adam Smith. And resolve the contradiction between reality and belief by denial. “It’s not Socialism because it’s me receiving the money.” Sorry. It’s still Socialism. And hypocrisy.
Putting more money in the permanent fund pot feeds the lie. That can’t be good.
2. With Ethan’s Royalty plan, the government works harder and, as a result, your PFD gets bigger. With Parnell’s ACES system, the government doesn’t try and you just get by. Ethan knows YOU are working hard for your paycheck, and he thinks it’s time the government did too. Sean Parnell telling you “it’s too hard to negotiate field by field” is just another way of saying “I don’t want to try, so let’s keep the mediocre system we have”. Ethan thinks that is insulting. Under the Royalty system, sure, the government, including Ethan, works harder, but it’s you who takes home the bigger check year after year!
Berkowitz has a couple of different ideas mixed up in this paragraph. First, he correctly notes that the real solution to an appropriate oil field taxation system is a case-by-case approach. The oil industry hates that. The industry wants low, predictable taxes. But then he claims that all of the revenue from such an approach would go to the Permanent Fund. If so, exactly what is the motivation of the Alaska state government to maximize oil revenue? A selfless desire to increase the Permanent Fund Dividend? Heh.
Why not put the same effort into the General Fund. Why not address deferred maintenance, or better funding for schools, or funding the expanded health care services that Sean Parnell vetoed? As oil and gas revenues contract, the squeeze is going to hit critical government services hard. How does Berkowitz propose to pay for those critical services if the remaining oil field revenues are going to the Permanent Fund? Because voters have come to expect services without taxes. It’s going to be a crisis. Under Berkowitz’s scheme, the crisis will be unnecessarily magnified.
3. With Ethan’s Royalty system, the Permanent Fund grows and grows. It’s PFD insurance! When the oil is long gone, Ethan’s Royalty system will leave a bigger Permanent Fund for our families and all Alaskans. With ACES, your family will have to scrape by for generations to come. Ethan isn’t going to let that happen. That’s not what leaders do.
Their are a lot of problems with those five sentences. The governor of Alaska must run a state government, not the state Permanent Fund. Making the Permanent Fund bigger at the expense of funding critical government services isn’t good policy or even sensible. The civically dubious goal of bigger Permanent Fund Dividends shouldn’t trump delivery of governmental functions.
And the lines, “your family will have to scrape by for generations to come,” seems to imply Berkowitz’s goal is the make the PFDs so fat that Alaskans don’t have to work at all. Anyone with a calculator can prove that’s not possible, assuming it is even desirable. Apart from attracting to Alaska every deadbeat with air fare.
Now Ethan Berkowitz is a smart guy. He knows and understands everything WC has said in this blog entry. Why is he talking about routing all oil and gas tax revenues to the voters’ PFDs?
It’s political pandering. WC defines pandering as promising something to the voters that is either unobtainable, or saying something that you don’t believe, just to get elected. John McCain and Hillary Clinton’s advocacy of a gas-tax holiday back in 2008 certainly fit the definition. It was a suggestion that had little prospect of becoming law, made no sense either environmentally or economically, but might have won over a few voters. Ethan’s Royalty Plan is 2010′s gas-tax holiday.
WC reminds candidate Berkowitz of the etymology of “pandering.” In Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem Troilus and Criseyde (1370), Pandarus was a debauched letch who furthered illicit love affairs, and his name entered out language as a synonym for pimp.
WC thinks Ethan’s Royalty Plan is pimping for votes. It’s pure pandering. Sad, but true. At least, WC hopes it is pandering. The alternatives are all worse.
1. There’s a lot of mystery surrounding Joe Miller’s resignation as a part-time, assistant Borough Attorney. There’s rumors Miller accused the Borough Attorney of ethical violations. WC thinks Fairbanks North Star Borough Attorney Rene Broker is one of the most ethical and scrupulous attorneys in Fairbanks. She was also Joe Miller’s boss. If it comes to Miller claiming unethical conduct by her, Wickersham’s Conscience thinks voters need to look at the person slinging the mud.
2. Part of being a professional is doing the work it takes to protect the client, even if it means sacrificing long-planned trips. WC would have caught a lot more steelhead trout in his career, and spent more Christmas holidays with his family, if vacations trumped the obligation to get the work done on deadline for the client. It’s part of being a professional. Rumor has it Miller quit, at least in part, because he was asked to work when he had a “long-planned elk hunt.” Think it over: would you want a Senator who missed a key vote because he had a “long-planned elk hunt”?
3. Miller’s campaign issued a statement:
Joe Miller and the Campaign will not allow the borough to hide behind the attorney-client privilege when he needs to describe the reasons why he voluntarily left,” the statement said. “Joe Miller’s seven-year record with the Fairbanks North Star Borough was second to none.
Oh, please. Some very skilled, very competent lawyers have worked in the Borough Attorney’s Office. This is even more arrogant than Miller’s earlier claim to have “mastered the law” in three years (a claim that has been excised from his recently buffed website). Joe Miller’s service as a part-time assistant Borough Attorney is second to, say, Jim Nordale’s, or Rene Broker’s. Humility remains an unexplored territory to candidate Miller. WC doesn’t think we need more arrogance in our elected officials.
4. Miller is hiding the ball. Andy Halcro and others are suspicious of the circumstances of Miller’s departure from the Borough. Miller has been less than forthcoming. Let’s be clear: Miller has the absolute right to obtain his Borough personnel file and to make it public. Any parts contained privileged materials can be redacted. He has chosen not to do so. Instead, he has engaged in misdirection, claiming he can’t talk about his departure from the Borough because the Borough has failed to waive the attorney-client privilege. His explanation is not responsive. It’s not an explanation. It gives rise to the inference that he has something to hide.
This is best the Tea Baggers and the Ex-Gov can do? Someone who has held at least six different jobs in 15 years? Private lawyer, magistrate, acting judge, federal magistrate, assistant borough attorney, private attorney; and this person wants a job that requires at least six years of hard work. Multiple six year terms to acquire seniority. On the evidence, candidate Miller’s attention span is about 2.5 years. Not 6 or 12 or 18 years.
The voters can do better. A lot better. WC thinks they can hardly do worse. Don’t let the outside Tea Baggers buy Alaska. Vote for somebody else.
UPDATE: Miller has released both his resignation letter and a confused/confusing letter from his attorney to special counsel for the Borough. The letter confirms Miller’s resignation was in fact because assigned work would interfere with his vacation plans. WC is sorry, but WC looks for a lot more professionalism and a lot more concern for clients in lawyers who are candidates for public office. Miller’s releases argue forcefully in favor of voting for someone else.
SECOND UPDATE: The News-Miner’s Dermot Cole has joined those calling for Miller to release his personnel file.
Sorry, but WC cannot get on board the St. George train. The news is full of adulation, but WC thinks George Steinbrenner was the worst thing to happen to Major League Baseball since the Black Sox scandal. Some specifics:
- In November 1974, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn suspended Steinbrenner for two years — a term later reduced to 15 months — after he pleaded guilty to two criminal charges, one a felony and the other a misdemeanor: conspiring to make illegal corporate contributions to President Richard M. Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign, and trying to “influence and intimidate employees” of his shipbuilding company to lie to a grand jury about the matter. He was fined $15,000 in the criminal case but given no jail time. He was later pardoned by Ronald “Law and Order” Reagan.
- Steinbrenner hired and fired the late Billy Martin as manager an extraordinary five times. It sure seemed like more. WC doesn’t have to tell his readers no one else is even close to that record. The most bizarre sequence began on July 24, 1978, when Martin resigned as manager, presumably a step ahead of being fired, after saying of Reggie Jackson and Steinbrenner: “The two of them deserve each other. One’s a born liar; the other’s convicted,” a reference to Steinbrenner’s guilty plea in the illegal contributions case. Only five days later, on Old-Timers’ Day at Yankee Stadium, Martin was introduced as the Yankees’ manager for 1980. Instead he returned in June 1979, replacing the fired Bob Lemon, only to be fired himself a month after that season ended. Amazingly, at the time of his death, Martin was preparing to manage the Yankees a sixth time for the 1990 season, to the point of having assembled a coaching staff.
- Dick Howser was named manager in 1980 and led the Yankees to a division championship, but soon after the season concluded, Steinbrenner announced that Howser was leaving to pursue “an outstanding offer in real estate,” an opportunity that remained a mystery.
- Steinbrenner went through an astonishing 20 managers in his 23 years of active ownership. Again, no one comes close. When you consider that Joe Torre lasted 11 years, the turnover is truly appalling.
- After the Yankees lost to the Dodgers in Game 5 of the 1981 World Series at Los Angeles, Steinbrenner broke his hand. He said he had punched two men who insulted him and the Yankees in a hotel elevator. But the supposed assailants were never identified.
- In 1985, Yogi Berra, the Yankees’ Hall of Fame catcher, had become the manager. After declaring that “Yogi will be the manager the entire season, win or lose,” Steinbrenner fired him with the team off to a 6-10 start – that’s a whopping 16 games into the season – and dispatched the Yankees executive Clyde King to give Berra the news. Berra, furious, refused to set foot inside Yankee Stadium until Steinbrenner apologized 14 years later.
- In July 1990, Commissioner Fay Vincent ordered Steinbrenner to step aside as the Yankees’ managing partner for making a $40,000 payment to a confessed gambler named Howard Spira in return for Mr. Spira’s seeking damaging information about Winfield. Steinbrenner had been displeased with Winfield’s performance on the field, and the two had feuded over contributions Steinbrenner was to make to Winfield’s philanthropic foundation.
- By October 1995, when he was fined for complaining about the umpires in a playoff series with the Seattle Mariners, Steinbrenner had accumulated disciplinary costs of $645,000. Again, no other baseball owner comes close.
“Some guys can lead through real, genuine respect,” Steinbrenner told Cleveland Magazine in 1974. “There are some guys who people would walk through a wall for, O.K., but I’m not that kind of a leader.” He likened himself to George Patton: “He was a gruff son of a bitch and he led through fear. I hope I don’t lead through fear, and I would hope it was more love and respect, but maybe it isn’t.” It wasn’t.
In the Yankees, Steinbrenner created a baseball team that pays more in “luxury tax” – the $26.9 million penalty imposed upon the Yankees for excessive salaries – than several smaller market teams pay in total salaries. Sure, Steinbrenner bought winning teams, but in the process he grossly distorted the economics of baseball, drove ticket prices through the roof and made baseball team managers farcical. In the words of Lou Pinella, two-time Yankee manager in the 1980′s, “George is a great guy, unless you have to work for him.” WC would add, “Or unless you care about baseball.”
The current Republican and Tea Bag political position is that we can’t afford the government we have, that the United States is nearly bankrupt and the federal deficit is exploding and completely out of control. For example, Senator John Kyl said,
“[Y]ou should never raise taxes in order to cut taxes,” said the Arizona Senator during an appearance on Fox News Sunday. “Surely Congress has the authority, and it would be right to — if we decide we want to cut taxes to spur the economy, not to have to raise taxes in order to offset those costs. You do need to offset the cost of increased spending, and that’s what Republicans object to. But you should never have to offset cost of a deliberate decision to reduce tax rates on Americans.”
So what has made the deficit so big?
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, by far the largest contribution to the deficit is Bush-era tax cuts. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy organization working at the federal and state levels on fiscal policy and public programs that affect low- and moderate-income families and individuals. So far as WC knows, the Center is genuinely non-partisan.
The big tickets contributors to the deficit are not the TARP, or the bailout of the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (“Freddie Mac”) or Federal National Mortgage Association (“Fannie Mae”); you need a magnifying glass to find that portion of the federal deficit in relation to the others. It’s not the other recession recovery measures. They aren’t a significant part, either.
No, there are three big elements to the $1.3 trillion deficit: two land wars in Asia, the shrinkage in government revenues associated with the recession and the largest, Bush-era tax cuts. If you track the graph out to 2019, the impact of the tax cuts is truly frightening.
Under present economic circumstances, there are only three ways to meaningfully reduce the deficit:
- repeal the Bush tax cuts and force the wealthiest Americans to pay their share,
- get us out of Bush’s two wars (and reduce the Department of Defense budget) or
- provide economic stimulus to improve the economy.
But the Republicans oppose all three. Senator Kyl has made clear he’s not willing to make even the very modest effort at economic stimulus that might result from an extension of jobless benefits. And his continuing heartfelt concern for protecting the incomes of the very richest Americans means no effort to reduce the budgetary impact of Bush’s tax cuts. Kyl’s position doesn’t seem to be any different from other Republicans.
So it’s a kind of con game, Hide the Lady at the political level. With a flavor of The Big Lie thrown in. Pound on the table about the deficit and the national debt, use it as an excuse for inaction, while refusing to do anything about the root causes of the problem. It’s trying to trick the voters with shouts of “Fire” while pouring on the gasoline and lighting the matches.
The evidence of Republican plans is crystal clear. The only question is: Are American voters dumb enough to fall for it?
The first of the original Dunning-Kruger experiments involved a group of undergraduate students who were asked – just as they walked out of a final exam – to rate their performance for the class just completed. In particular, they were asked how well they had mastered the course material, and what they predicted their raw score would be on the test they had just taken.
After comparing the student’s own impressions with their actual performance, a clear pattern emerged in Dunning and Kruger’s data: the worst students grossly overestimated their own performance, while the top students somewhat underestimated theirs. You can get a clear sense of the extremity of the poor students’ tendency to overestimate their own performance when you consider these results: in the bottom quartile, while their actual performance may have
put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated their mastery of the course material to fall in the 60th percentile and their test performance to fall in the 57th.
Bottom performers tended to overestimate their performance by roughly 30%; a general pattern that has been replicated in subsequent studies many times since.
Subsequent studies have also underlined the key component of the Dunning-Kruger Effect: ignorance cannot recognize ignorance.
For WC, this explains much of recent American politics, including George W. Bush, Sarah Palin and most of the Teabag movement. Those who vote for them are too ignorant to recognize how ignorant they are. Dunning and Kruger often refer to a “double curse” when interpreting their findings: people fail to grasp their own incompetence, precisely because they are so incompetent. And since overcoming their incompetence would first require the ability to distinguish competence from incompetence, people get stuck in a vicious cycle.
The skills needed to produce logically sound arguments, for instance, are the same skills that are necessary to recognize when a logically sound argument has been made. Thus, if people lack the skills to produce correct answers, they are also cursed with an inability to know when their answers, or anyone else’s, are right or wrong. They cannot recognize their responses as mistaken, or other people’s responses as superior to their own.
So they become fans of Sarah Palin. They become climate change deniers. They become Obama birthplace crackpots. They become Teabaggers.
And colleges men from LSU
Went in dumb. Come out dumb too
Hustlin’ ’round Atlanta in their alligator shoes
- Randy Newman, Rednecks, from Good Ol’ Boys (1974)
But this is the human condition. It exists everywhere, although studies show it is far more prevalent in Americans. What Bush, Palin and some Republicans have done is aggravate the Dunning-Kruger Effect in two important ways.
First, they have made ignorance a badge of honor. Palin, in particular, seems to be extraordinarily proud of her ignorance in any number of areas. The logical fallacy of the appeal to ignorance is well known, and used in arguments by politicians of all stripes. (WC was once confronted by an evolution denier who argued he had never seen a mouse give birth to a monkey as “proof” evolution didn’t exist.) But when you combine ignorance, the Dunning-Kruger Effect and pride in that ignorance, together with an unwillingness to development judgment skills, well, you’ve got Sarah Palin.
Second, an appalling number of right wing commentators have made cynical, manipulative use of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh – assuming they don’t suffer the same problem – can only be viewed as taking advantage of the ignorance of their listeners. D-K Shock Jocks, as it were. Not since Huey P. Long was assassinated has there been such a broad-scale, systematic effort to manipulate the body politic through its ignorance. WC saw this comment recently:
Pundits like ‘ol Rush, regardless of their position in the political spectrum, specialize in taking a single factoid and expanding it into a Potemkin Village of opinion masquerading as a City of Truth. They are the electronic age’s equivalent of demagogues and polemicists, stirring up the unwashed populace of the slums for personal and political gain.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect used to personal advantage. WC suspects that’s not what Jefferson and Madison had in mind when they created the country and gave citizens the franchise.
WC is not so arrogant as to believe he cannot himself fall to the Dunning-Kruger Effect. But WC also finds a lot of truth in Sir Isaac Newton’s observation, late in life: “I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself, I seem to have been only like a boy, playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
WC is aware of his limitations. Palin? Teabaggers? No so much.
WC likes technology, and can usually be found with various electronic gadgets. But not Microsoft; never Microsoft.
But it is amusing the Microsoft killed its new smart phone, the Kin (formerly Pink), just seven weeks after first shipping it. There’s a pretty amusing obituary over at Infoworld.
Consumer products that are very cool can be expensive; there are millions of Apple iPhones that prove that. Consumer products can be geeky and inexpensive; the increasing numbers of Android smart phones and their cousins prove that. But products cannot be klutzy and expensive, or expensive to use and targeted to kids who can’t afford expensive.
There was a time when Microsoft could dictate taste. That time is at least a decade behind us. In the technology universe, that’s forever. That’s ten generations of smart phones. Now Microsoft is in catch-up mode, but seems to lack the imagination to keep up.
Perhaps its a sign of old age. WC, increasingly, is having a hard time keeping up, too. Some corporations can stay nimble. Apple, so far.
Microsoft, not so much.
Excuse me, have to take a call on my cell phone.
Reporter: “I see, Senator … And just how long does it take a man to completely renounce everything he’s always stood for?
Candidate: “At least 36 hours – the paperwork’s incredible!”
- G. B. Trudeau, Doonesbury, August 18, 1976 (#760818)
Lisa Murkowski is a moderate Republican, pro-choice and reasonably concerned about social issues. But Alaska’s closed Republican primary system and Joe Miller are shoving her to the extreme right.
This is difficult for WC. A buddy of WC’s was abducted by the government in Oaxaca, Mexico, tortured by the police or death squads, and then held in a scummy Mexican prison without charges. Lisa Murkowski worked hard to spring my buddy and get him and his family back to the U.S. WC is grateful for her help. But.
Senator Murkowski starts with a handicap: her father. WC will have to do a separate blog entry on the former Senator for All of Alaska’s Banks. Being appointed to the seat by her own father was a serious problem; she was barely able to defeat the shopworn Tony Knowles, 48% to 45%. Even after the win in 2004, the nepotism remains a problem today.
And she’s already matched her dad in one regard: Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) ranks her among the 22 most corrupt members of Congress. But hey, the ex-gov didn’t endorse her, at least one point in Murkowski’s favor.
However, the Senator’s bigger problem is the candidacy of Joe Miller, and the threat of significant financial support for him from the Outside tea bag movement. The Republican primary in Alaska is closed; that is, only registered Republicans can vote to select the Republican candidate. In primaries, the hard core base tends to vote as a higher percentage than in the general election. The result is an unseemly rush among the Republican candidates to be – or at least appear to be – the most conservative.
That’s hard for our senior Senator. She’s a moderate Republican, an endangered species in the current political climate. She’s not just a leopard trying to change her spots. She’s a leopard trying to convince everyone that she has always had those brand new spots.
So you see her doing things like misrepresenting the EPA’s position on CO2 in an effort to prevent the agency from acting on greenhouse gases. The background on that failed effort is particularly troubling. And the Senator, who previously argued global warming was gravely impacting Alaska, melting the permafrost and altering habitats has now reversed field. While she co-sponsored “cap and trade” legislation with Ted Stevens, she now opposes any “cap and trade” bill.
It will be interesting to see how Alaska’s senior senator deals with the federal spending issue. Murkowski has prided herself on following the fine Alaska tradition of bringing home the bacon. And while she is no Ted Stevens, she has been reasonably successful at it. Joe Miller claims to be opposed to federal spending. If he’s serious, it’s a ticket to an epic financial crisis in Alaska, which is heavily dependent on the federal monies. But it’s a serious dilemma for Murkowski, who must justify spending at a time when the tea baggers are decrying all federal spending.
Instead of trying to educate her electorate, she is pandering to the far right. We’ve had U.S. Senators from Alaska who actually believed in what they said, and stuck to their positions, trusting the voters to do the intelligent thing. Even Ted Stevens. How can you support a candidate who dramatically changes her positions depending on which way the political winds are blowing? Who intentionally misrepresents what a federal agency is doing?
As between Miller and Murkowski, Murkowski is clearly the lesser evil. But don’t confuse that with praise or WC’s endorsement.
Note: WC finally found the cartoon referenced at the top. It was close to what WC recalled, but not exactly right. Fixed it so it’s now correct.
Jeanne Devon has written an exceptionally powerful essay on the state of Prince William Sound more than 21 years after the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef.
WC’s crystal ball doesn’t have to work very hard to forecast that this is the future of the Gulf of Mexico, too. 21 years from now, some Louisiana-based essayist will make a similar trip, and write a similar essay. Because our ability to make massive environmental messes vastly exceeds our ability to remediate those environmental messes. Corporate America cares about the environment only so long as it jeopardizes earnings. When the media’s attention turns elsewhere, BP will declare victory in the Gulf, announce the cleanup is complete, and fight tooth and nail to avoid paying any money to anyone. Lawsuits will follow. And the legal system will fail the people of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, just as it failed the people of Alaska.
In the summer of 1999, WC camped on Crafton Island, in Knight Passage, Prince William Sound. Every stone you turned over on the beaches of Crafton Island had globs of sticky oil sludge underneath. WC put a chunk in a plastic pill bottle and brought it home. It sits on a shelf there today, to remind him to be prudent in his use of resources. WC is utterly confident that if he visited Crafton Island today, the oil sludge would still be there. It is not physically possible to clean it all up. And the poisons it puts in the water will continue to contaminate the estuaries for decades to come. Gulf of Mexico residents: this is your future, too.
The oil industry repaired and re-named the Exxon Valdez, and sent her elsewhere. She’s presently at anchor off the coast of Brazil, in fact, under the name Dong Fang Ocean. The mess she and Exxon created is still in Prince William Sound. It might as well stand for a metaphor for the industry.
Friday night July 2, WC, Mrs. WC and the dogs piled in to the pickup and headed to Kenny Lake by way of Black Rapids and Paxson. Why Kenny Lake? Because that small pond is one of the truly amazing vagrant traps for Alaska birds.
We got as far as Delta Junction when the electrical systems on the pickup went the way of all good intentions. After a jump start at Delta Texaco, we nursed the pickup back to Fairbanks, where it died a sudden death at Airport Way and the Rich. After an adventure with Ron’s Towing, and help from a buddy, we got home at 12:30 AM. Not the way WC would have chosen to start the 4th of July weekend.
We tried again the next morning, this time with two people and two large dogs and a lot of gear crammed into a Toyota Prius. The drive to Paxson was uneventful, and Audie and Jenny’s wedding party was a delight. We had to leave a bit early to make it to Kenny Lake and Wellwood Bed & Breakfast by 9:30 PM. There was a lot of rain until just north of Glenallen.
We tried birding Kenny Lake both in the evening and the next morning, without much luck. We did get three male Ruddy Ducks in the scope, but much too far away for photos. There was no trace of either the reported Sora or the Eared Grebe.
At Mrs. WC’s insistence, we drove down to Chitina, which has actual sidewalks now. Decades ago, when WC was dipnetting, there were no paved roads and folks would have laughed at the idea of sidewalks.
We drove back up to the Lodge at Black Rapids for Sunday night and enjoyed the excellent hospitality of Mike and Annie Hopper. After supper, we did some birding in the sweet, evening light, only moderately troubled by the 30 mph winds.
The wind kept most of the birds down, but this Dark-eyed Junco posed prettily.
Over night, the storm that had been threatening all day finally arrived. WC got the car windows up – they had been down to let the dogs get some air – before too much water blew into the Prius.
The next day, after a fine breakfast, we headed back to Fairbanks via the Delta Barley Project. The storm we had left was piled up against the mountains in dramatic fashion.
And while there were few birds, there were an amazing number of butterflies perched along the back roads we use. Getting a low angle can be tough:
Despite a dead pickup, lots of misses on cool birds and sometimes nasty weather, the trip is a qualified success. Any trip where your vehicle averages 55 miles per gallon has to count as some kind of success.
WC and Mrs. WC were delighted to be in Paxson for the occasion of the wedding party for Audie and Jenny. Denali Highway Cabins was closed for the occasion. A wonderful event for two wonderful people. The threatening rain mostly held off until the outdoor ceremony was completed. The company – and especially meeting everyone’s families- was great. The party was fine. WC avoided entirely stepping on the bride’s feet while dancing.
So here’s <clink> to the happy couple. All the best.
This weekend WC and the rest of America will celebrate the 234th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Flags will be waved, speeches will be made, barbecues cooked and excessive food and drink consumed. That’s all fine; it’s fun and usually casualties are kept to a minimum.
But at the risk of injecting speechifying into the pretty Norman Rockwell picture, WC offers the following thoughts:
1. The flag is important, but the flag is a symbol. A symbol is not the thing. Dishonoring the flag is not dishonoring the United States. Frankly, WC finds it nearly as offensive to see a flag-design t-shirt stretched over a gross-out beer belly as a demonstrator torching flag that was, in all likelihood, made in the Peoples Republic of China anyway.
2. Uncritical patriotism – my country, right or wrong – is bad citizenship. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison – WC’s faves – never once asked citizens to switch off their critical thinking when listening to them. They’d be horrified at the idea. You can still love and be proud of your country if you admit she has also made some terrible mistakes.
3. Understand that some of what you were taught in your U.S. History classes was a lie. Lies of omission, lies of simplification, white lies and half truths, but lies none the less. Before you work yourself into a froth over this, WC suggests reading James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Taught Me as a starting point. Love your country for what it is, not the Bowdlerized version they may have taught you in school.
4. Your duties as a citizen include, foremost, your ability to think, to reason, to listen critically and to act intelligently. And that includes bringing a sense of balance, proportion and judgment to what you do. An utterly corrupt politician who is strongly anti-abortion is still a bad choice, and unworthy of your vote. A completely ineffectual pro-choice candidate is still a bad choice, and also unworthy of your vote. And don’t give your vote to Rush Limbaugh, Donna Gilbert or, for that matter, WC, by blindly following their instructions. Investigate. Try to listen to all sides. Balance your choices. Think for yourself.
Decades ago, when WC was going to school in Chicago, Pabst Brewery made a bottom-of-the-line beer (“the dregs of the kegs”) called Red White and Blue. Knocking back a few Red, White and Blues was known in WC’s circles as “flying the flag.” So enjoy the holiday, fly the flag a bit, but think about these four points, too. WC would like the country to survive another 234 years, and he’s not sure it will without a little more thinking and a little more citizenship on the part of its citizens.