Tuesday, November 26, 2002

Anecdotes = Facts

Lee Bolin (Tempe, AZ) emailed his comments about the origin of the phrase I asked about in a prior posting (Blogger link may not work; it's the posting for 11/18) that "the plural of 'anecdote' isn't 'facts'":

"I believe that the original aphorism is "The plural of anecdote is data." The negation, that the plural is NOT data, seems to be a recent reaction by academics to the original phrase. I do recall that I read the original quote from Senator Moynihan in Time, Newsweek, or U.S. News over a decade ago, but I do not now know the specific citation. I also do not if it was Senator Moynihan's original thought, or if he had borrowed it from someone else.

A variety of other people, notably Ben Wattenberg, have used that phrase over the years. Senator Moynihan's own use of it appears from time to time in the Congressional Record. The negation, "The plural of anecdote is not data", seems to have arisen fairly recently and is popular with persnickety social scientists.

Here is an earlier and more specific -- and also more infamous -- rendering of Senator Moynihan's dictum:

"One death is a tragedy; a million deaths are a statistic."
-- Josef Stalin

He could have written the current administration's HIV/AIDS policy."

I'm now told that the Homeland Security column will run in tomorrow's paper--with an opposing piece by a Tribune editor.
Not Factual Enough for The Tribune?

This week's column didn't run. The reason given by my editor is that the paper's "wire editors have opposed running your column because it doesn't jibe with a NY Times story last week detailing who put what in the Homeland Security bill. These folks are pretty thorough and don't often object to running an opinion column due to factual issues. You might want to check the Times archive."

So I did, and found the following:

"Even in the last week, Democrats became incensed at a last-minute move by House Republican leaders to include several pro-business provisions in the bill. Senator Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader, called the move "shabby government" and said the Republicans should be ashamed of such actions.

But the Democratic effort to strip the bill of the provisions fell short today on a 52-to-47 vote that came after extensive arm-twisting of wavering senators by President Bush. Three Democrats and three moderate Republicans said they were persuaded to vote the president's way after the Republicans promised to alter three of the most bitterly contested provisions early next year.

The three provisions would establish a university research center for domestic security, most probably at Texas A&M University; would allow many businesses that have left the country to avoid federal taxes to contract with the new department; and would provide legal protection to companies that make ingredients for vaccines."

David Firestone, "Senate Votes, 90-9, to Set Up Homeland Security Department Geared to Fight Terrorism," New York Times, Nov. 20, 2002.

The article notes that Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) claims she has an "iron-clad" promise to "revisit" the offending provisions next year, but in my opinion that's bogus. Hence the column. Write your own headline. I'll add the "real" one if the column ever runs.


If Democrats has engineered the Homeland Security act that just swept through Congress, with its stupid premises, fundamental flaws, and special-interest giveaways, the din of outrage would split your ear. But because this puppy is George W. Bush’s, it basically gets a free pass.

Oh, sure, The Tribune editorialized last week about major conceptual problems with the act. It gives virtually total immunity to almost any company with a government contract. In addition to expanding the “government contractor defense” beyond recognition, the act also locks up private and public information, and authorizes collecting data on everybody, with only the scantiest connection to protecting against terrorism.

The act also gutted the ban on homeland defense contracts with companies that relocate overseas to avoid U.S. taxes. There’s a requirement that some government official find that contracting with such a foreign-based entity wouldn’t cost anything more. Now that’s reassuring -- Congress is firmly insisting that the government not pay more of our tax dollars for the opportunity to deal with corporations which leave the U.S. to avoid paying those taxes themselves.

There’s the basic conceptual problem that moving around boxes on the government organizational chart won’t accomplish much (and will cost plenty) without a lot of thought and care given to the substance of what this new department is supposed to accomplish. And the act manages to leave all that up in the air, to be determined later.

But there’s more. The act also contains a gift to pharmaceutical companies by giving them immunity from any potential lawsuits by parents becoming convinced that preservatives used in childhood vaccines -- but not tested on kids beforehand -- may have helped caused diseases and behavioral problems like autism. What’s that got to do with the war on terrorism? Nothing. But it has everything to do with rewarding an industry that dumped millions of dollars into last-minute “issue” ads designed to help the GOP win some tight House and Senate races.

The act also provides millions of dollars of “pork” to Texas A&M University, in the home state of the president, the House majority leader, and the House whip -- all GOP stalwarts. If this program were located at, say, the University of Arkansas, can you imagine how loudly, repeatedly, and vituperatively The Tribune and the right wing “Mighty Wurlitzer” would be decrying this perfidy by Democrats? But as it’s Republican pork, what we get is earnest, soft-spoken, and almost apologetic pleas that Congress “revisit” these issues next year.

The GOP will show as much desire to “revisit” these issues next year, and do it about as often, as George W. Bush showed up to do his draft-avoiding stint in the Alabama National Guard. First, you know that old comparison between making legislation and sausage? Actually, there’s an even more accurate analogy. The legislative process is more like digestion: Once something actually emerges, nobody wants to touch it.

But more importantly, those conservative voices oh-so-politely calling for a “revisit” just don’t understand that the Republicans got the Homeland Security bill they wanted. The giveaways aren’t some oversight, but rather Republican design. And they’ll stay in the bill unless all you right-wingers scream bloody murder -- just like you would have if Clinton had pulled these stunts.

This so-called “war on terrorism” has been such a convenient excuse for GOP pork-barrel spending and tax cuts for the very richest. Now it’s a way to reward the pharmaceutical companies, Texas A&M, and foreign-based companies. And if you oppose it, George W. Bush says you’re unpatriotic and care more about special interests than national security.

Apparently, unless we reward GOP contributors, the terrorists will have won.

Monday, November 18, 2002

If The Economy Is Improving, What Are These 150 Resumes Doing Here?

I wanted to lead this week's column with a quote that "the plural of 'anecdote' isn't 'facts'" but I couldn't find the attribution from a source I trusted in time for my deadline. It's been absolutely amazing the number of resumes we've gotten for our file clerk position, as well as the qualifications of some of the applicants. Spooky. Is my law firm that good a place to work, or are we that lucky to have a job?

Here's the link to the column in yesterday's East Valley Tribune. My editor put the final two sentences of the fifth graf in larger type. I would have probably used the lines about the universities bearing the brunt of the cuts, but that's our differences in ideology for you. Rather dire headline, too. And on Sunday, the Cardinals didn't do anything to make the last line less appropriate.

East Valley Tribune, Nov. 18, 2002

It’s probably only random chance if I draw accurate conclusions about the economy based only on my experience. But if the recent experience of our small law firm means anything, it’s a pretty sickly job market.

We need a new file clerk. Now, I like my law firm and think it’s a great place to work, but not everybody may agree, and working as a file clerk -- organizing paper for 10 busy lawyers -- is not necessarily a dream job.

When we last needed a file clerk, about two years ago, we got maybe three responses. This past week, our want ad for a file clerk drew over 150 resumes. Our receptionist had to alphabetize them just to keep track. And we’re still getting more.

I doubt that classified advertising became that much more effective over the past two years (although if it has, you can call The Tribune at (480) 898-6465; operators are standing by!). Despite relatively stable unemployment figures overall, the job market at the entry level and in the “FIRE” (finance, insurance, and real estate) and related sectors seems the weakest we’ve seen in Arizona in years.

This glut of job applicants may help us find our new file clerk more quickly than two years ago. And a too-tight job market can harm future economic development; new businesses avoid locations where it’s too hard to hire new employees. But this “loose” a job market can’t be good news for Arizona.

So here are two economic predictions, based solely on personal experience and reading the newspapers. Hey, it’s bad data, but I have about the same chance of being right as those business page experts:

Budget estimates will be wrong, again. Just as state budget wonks consistently underestimated revenues during the boom years, estimates during the current economic malaise will understate both the drop in revenues and the squeeze on downturn-sensitive spending.

Perhaps the economic models didn’t account for how boom market gains goosed revenues, and will miss how much recently-accumulated losses will depress revenues for several years. Perhaps retail sales estimates are missing how much consumers are spending through catalogs or over the Internet, avoiding state taxes.

Whatever the reason, expect a repeat of this year’s budget performance for the next year or two (or more). The Legislature will strain and groan, painfully adopt a budget, and then have to return for special sessions for additional mid-year cuts when revenues don’t meet forecasts.

We’ll sell the future short. We did something remarkable this past spring in raising a combination of (mainly) public and (some) private funds for the International Genomics Consortium. We don’t do that much around here; cooperation isn’t seen as a virtue, and spending money on science and research (instead of tax cuts) contradicts the prevailing ideology. But it took lots of highly professional spin, salesmanship, and misdirection (remember those other cities allegedly bidding for the IGC? Well, neither do they.) It’s a remarkable orchestration, not likely to be repeated.

Instead, this year’s budget battles will slice funding for the three state universities. Our best hope for attracting and growing top-tier jobs is by having first-rate institutions of higher education. The universities are our “seed corn” for the future. Instead, we’ll grind them into short-term “telemarketing tacos.” In our term limits world, only losers worry about the future.

Perhaps our new governor can prevent it. But I also recall what a difference a new head coach supposedly would make for the Arizona Cardinals -- several times already. Let’s hope a good governor with a bad Legislature does better than a good coach with a bad team.

Monday, November 11, 2002

The Election Column

There will be time for serious analysis of the election results. This week, it was time for serious fun at the expense of Matt Salmon --who finally conceded late Sunday night. To web page readers (as opposed to the newspaper and email kind), sorry about reusing the opening line.

There's another interesting fact about last week's election. In the Attorney General's race, Terry Goddard far outpaced a right-wing wacko, running ahead of both Janet and Prop. 202 statewide. He even carried Maricopa County, which is 3:2 Republican in registration. Much of that margin probably came from the extreme views of his opponent (Grant Woods said that the Republican, after the primary, would have to move back to the middle, but in his case it meant the Middle Ages), but in a Clean Elections world, where down-ballot candidates have very little money to spend and are matched and capped in fundraising, name identification is paramount. Even where a candidate last ran statewide in 1994, and even if that election was a loss, that kind of name ID can win a statewide race for any office other than governor.

Hmm. Excuse me, I gotta go and make some phone calls....

East Valley Tribune, Nov. 10, 2002

Welcome to Arizona -- one of the few places electing Democrats this year.

So Massachusetts just elected yet another GOP governor, and a Republican also wins in Maryland. Meanwhile, Democrats capture the governorships in Arizona, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Wyoming. As the kids say, what’s up with that?

I’m more accustomed to the usual pattern, where we Arizona Democrats get our heads handed to us but can take solace from successes in the rest of the country. This past week, I’ve been relatively sanguine about what happened elsewhere because we had good results here, including winning the big enchilada. Who’da thunk it?

Even poor, beleaguered, and underfunded George Cordova managed to finish within 3 points of Rick Renzi. Consider it a moral victory. Check out here, where the fourth place finisher in the Democratic primary tries to convince you that his race was “virtually a four way tie.” By that standard, Cordova is a “virtual winner.” Who says close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades?

I know everybody’s gun-shy from miscalling states on election night in 2000, but the governor’s race is over, done, finished. Oh, they need to count more ballots than the margin, but there’s just no way the result changes. Trust me on this one; I’ve been on the wrong side of these final counts so many times, hoping somehow that ballots in one box are statistically different than those in every other box. Of course, if you believe that, the next time the doctor wants to take a blood sample, don’t let her take just that one little tube -- make her take it all.

By this week’s deadline, Matt Salmon still hasn’t woken up and smelled the numbers. Instead, he’s asking for “closure” and talking about how “everybody has a right to have their vote counted” and that we must “count every ballot.” He’s even sounding like Al Gore now.

If he hasn’t conceded by the time today’s paper hits your driveway, it’s only a matter of time before Salmon starts wearing earth tones, grows a beard, and invents the Internet.

Salmon’s putting off conceding as long as possible, because what on earth does he do now? The man managed to lose the Arizona's governor’s race during a historically exceptional Republican year. You don’t think J.D. Hayworth won’t be reminding every GOP donor (and/or people with business before the “powerful Ways and Means Committee,” as the cliché goes) for the next four years how Matt managed to blow it and doesn’t deserve another chance?

Also, as soon as he concedes, Salmon goes back to lobbying. Maybe he can hook up with Alfredo Gutierrez; they’ll both have about the same juice under the new regime. Those make-work jobs and consulting gigs are a lot easier to snag when you’re on the way up.

Fair? Of course not. But who said politics is fair? After all, this is a country where it’s appropriate, even applauded, if Sen. Hillary Clinton gets booed at a benefit for 9/11 victims and relatives, but it’s an unspeakable vulgarity (of which we won’t cease speaking) for Democrats to get too rowdily partisan at the Wellstone memorial service. Whether we get booed or do the booing, it’s always the Democrats’ fault. Welcome to our world, Matt.

Speaking of double standards, Gov.-elect Janet Napolitano will be constantly reminded that she won a “narrow” victory, “barely” got elected, and “squeaked” into office. The people -- and reporters -- making these statements, of course, never seem to remember that each of them applies to George W. Bush.

Still, Janet has one thing on the president. At least she got more votes than her opponent.

Thursday, November 07, 2002

The Election

Let's try and understand this one. Massachusetts elects a Republican governor, but Arizona (and Oklahoma, and Wyoming) elect Democrats. What's up with that?

Monday, November 04, 2002

My Kids' Schools

We'll leave it for another day whether it makes any sense for a particular school district to have so many advantages over every other district in the state. But there really shouldn't be any argument that the district in metro Phoenix with these advantages isn't making the most of them, and that none of the discussion about Scottsdale schools ever concerns that fact. My hat's off to the long-suffering leadership of the Scottsdale Unified School District.

In other developments, isn't it interesting that Republicans are allowed and expected to be outraged for weeks, months, or even years over Mel Carnahan's death and Jean Carnahan's election, or over the political nature of the Wellstone funeral service. However, Democrats are supposed to get over it in a couple of days, max, when the Supreme Court decides to determine a presidential election.

East Valley Tribune, Nov. 3, 2002

For all the occasional public uproar surrounding the Scottsdale Unified School District, it’s good to remember that it would be pretty hard to mess up the actual schools. Based just on the demographics, student achievement always will rank at the top in Arizona.

Forget about teaching, facilities, textbooks, or computers -- the best predictor of student achievement, in education and life, is parents’ income and wealth. Period. Unless everyone in Scottsdale suddenly takes a vow of poverty, our students always will do just fine when compared to Arizona peers.

So it’s probably no surprise that when this paper or parents talk about Scottsdale schools, one of the last things discussed, if ever, is actual education. Instead, we have last month’s editorial decrying the district’s decision to stop paying to have school board meetings broadcast on cable television.

When all governments are being urged ad naseum to cut costs to the max, Scottsdale found a way to save about $100,000 that had absolutely no impact on what happens in classrooms -- and both The Tribune and the Scottsdale teachers union opposed the cut.

What are the most important issues facing the Scottsdale School Board? If you read the newspapers and listen at parent forums, it’s school construction, attendance boundaries, the traffic situation at Cherokee (imagine, making all those drivers of all those fancy cars dropping off their kids at the same time wait in line!), administrator contracts, and televising board meetings.

All these things may be important in their own right, but they have one thing in common: None has anything serious to do with student achievement.

This lack of focus on educational excellence is a species of the “tyranny of soft expectations” that President Bush used to mention back when he cared about education. The Scottsdale schools always will rank among the best Arizona districts, and that seems to be enough for most folks.

It doesn’t seem to bother anyone that overall, Arizona really doesn’t have very good schools, so what Scottsdale is accomplishing with all of its advantages is the equivalent of hitting .300 in the low minors. Sure, Scottsdale contends for the batting title, but it’s the Instructional League. Too bad that our kids, once they graduate and head to college and the work force, will face truly Major League pitching.

The real competition for Scottsdale isn’t other districts in Arizona, a state that underfunds, undervalues, and underperforms in education. Instead, based on the demographics, Scottsdale’s real competition is America’s top 50 school districts serving similarly-advantaged, wealthy suburbs around the country: New Canaan, Connecticut; Piedmont, California; Belmont, Massachusetts; Bethesda, Maryland.

That’s the league in which Scottsdale should be playing. We need to match up with Scarsdale, not worry about whether we can beat out Peoria or Agua Fria -- districts that simply cannot touch Scottsdale’s advantages.

Scottsdale student scores shouldn’t be among the best in the state; those scores, and college placements, and student success should be as good as anybody in the nation, because the district has the same (or greater) advantages as any district in the country. Instead of demanding the ability to watch school board meetings on cable (it’s so much easier for reporters to cover those boring meetings from the comfort of home, you know), parents and citizens should be demanding, and working cooperatively to achieve, levels of student achievement that match Scottsdale’s economic and demographic advantages.

Most times in life, “good enough” is good enough. And even if the most vocal parents and voters want to spend more effort on traffic flow than education, the Scottsdale schools will be good enough.

But given Scottsdale’s advantages, it’s a shame we don’t fight about doing better.