Monday, July 19, 2004

The Anti-Gay Minority

This week's column uses a historical artifact, as if anyone remembers the superconducting supercollider anymore, to try to illuminate the Federal Marriage Amendment debate.  I was on a radio program on Friday and was asked about gay marriage; one of my co-panelists kept talking about how uncomfortable it made her, and I finally erupted, "Then you don't go, and send a nice gift instead."

Check out the headline; Bob Schuster was on vacation, so it's better than usual for my side.

East Valley Tribune, July 18, 2004

In the 1980s, the hottest thing in science was the Superconducting Supercollider.  The SSC would have been a huge underground "racetrack," with superconducting magnets that would accelerate and smash atomic particles into each other at fantastic speeds.  Physicists could have conducted otherwise impossible experiments into the very nature of matter and energy.

Particle physics was as "hot," in scientific terms, as genomics, nanotechnology, and Donald Trump -- the kind of science that nobody in government could explain, but everybody wanted a piece of the action.  It was The Future, and many states made big publicly-funded bets on landing the SSC.

In 1987, the Reagan administration announced plans to build the SSC, and 43 different sites submitted applications to host the project.  Most states picked their best location, then started working the system to win the selection contest.  States hired lobbyists, generated publicity campaigns, and got their congressional delegations working hard to bring home the subatomic bacon.

Typically, Arizona took a different approach.  We didn’t pick a single site as the state’s best; that would have been too easy.  Instead, we submitted two different locations, one in Maricopa County and one in Pima.  Both sites met the criteria set out by the Department of Energy, but it shouldn’t surprise you that when DOE chose the site in November, 1988, they chose Texas and not us.

Probably (due to the politics) Texas would have won anyway, but looking back, there’s no way we could have expected people in Washington, DC to pick one of two different Arizona sites as the best in the nation -- not when Arizona couldn’t even decide which was better.  If we wouldn’t pick one as the state’s best, would outsiders ever select one of them as the nation’s best?

Arizona’s misguided effort in the SSC site selection process was echoed this past week when Senate Republicans couldn’t even decide on which version of a so-called Federal Marriage Amendment they wanted.  If the red-meat social conservatives -- you know, the types who want to get government where it belongs, out of your wallet and into your underwear -- couldn’t choose how they wanted to defile the Constitution, did anyone really think the rest of us would help select one for them?

This year’s misguided FMA effort, as Kevin Drum noted for The Washington Monthly, was anti-gay side’s best shot.  Republicans, who have seized upon homosexuality as the last acceptable prejudice, control all three branches of government.  It’s an election year, and when most people think about gays, there’s still a "yuck" factor.  (Not that there’s anything right with that.)  Despite all those advantages, the FMA lost 48-50; its proponents not only didn’t get the two-thirds needed for a constitutional amendment, they couldn’t even muster a majority.

What’s more, time isn’t on the right-wingers’ side.  Most people born after 1980 or even 1970 view the "threat" of homosexuality about as seriously as the threat represented by that other Biblical abomination, shellfish.  How does two women getting married in Massachusetts affect anyone else’s marriage? The Republicans couldn’t even keep the vice president’s own wife and daughter on the reservation.

Just watch -- in another 20 or 30 years, conservative talking heads will discuss how Sen. Rick "Man on Dog" Santorum or Sen. John "Marry a Box Turtle" Cornyn have given up the gay-bashing and "grown" or "evolved" -- just like Strom Thurmond did.  (There’s your "yuck" factor.)

The SSC never was built; soon after construction started in Waxahachie, Texas, Congress lost interest in a single state’s Big Science pork project and stopped the funding.  And just like the SSC, the FMA will never get built, either.  Ain’t progress grand?

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Next Time, Wait a Day Before Sending Congratulations

The Arizona Republic editorial page might want to reconsider today's stirring tribute to the stalwart Government of the Philippines.
Let's Keep Subsidized Religion Out of Politics!

This week's column is part of a long-running battle between my editor and me over Arizona's "Clean Elections" system of public financing for campaigns. You can read the Goldwater Institute column here, my column here, and the response from the Tribune's editor the very same day that my column ran here. I hope you enjoy the wolf-sheep line in bold.

East Valley Tribune, Jul. 11, 2004

The Tribune, and its tax-deductible “nonpartisan” friends at the Goldwater Institute, detest Arizona’s Clean Elections system, and while consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, on this issue just watch how very inconsistent these minds can be.

For example, note what Clean Elections opponents call in this argument, but not in others, “public money.” This past Friday, the Goldwater Institute’s guy lit into Gov. Janet Napolitano, a supporter of the voter-approved Clean Elections program, who said that “It’s not like your income tax money is going into the Clean Elections fund.”

According to the Goldwater Institute representative, this is wrong. Taxpayer money does so go into Clean Elections, he wrote, because it’s funded partially by “tax payments that tax filers can redirect from the General Fund into the Clean Elections account. That is, money that would otherwise be in the General Fund to pay for everything from highway patrolmen to the classroom goes into a fund to finance politicians’ campaigns.”

Two quick appetizers before our entrĂ©e: First, Clean Elections is also funded by surcharges on parking tickets and other fees, [ADD: and also by a tax-return checkoff that's legally identical to the tax credit,] but they’re legally severable, so let's concentrate on the tax credit mechanism generating funds which the Goldwater guy says are also “taxpayer money.”

Second, it’s not like the Goldwater Institute has ever supported spending more money on “everything from highway patrolmen to the classroom.” Their entire reason for existence is spending less on such things. When the Goldwater Institute frets about underfunding public services, it’s like the wolf complaining that we taxpayers really aren’t doing enough to support sheep.

But today’s main course is that if the “tax payments that tax filers can redirect from the General Fund into the Clean Elections account” is public money, then so are other tax credits under Arizona law -- including one of The Tribune’s favorites, the private school tax credit.

Under Arizona law, taxpayers can make donations to private schools, which are overwhelmingly religious in nature, and get a similar dollar-for-dollar tax credit. The credit reduces a taxpayer’s state income tax liability by the same amount as the donation, exactly like the Clean Elections credit.

Private school boosters, like The Tribune, get around the Arizona Constitution’s ban on aid to religious institutions (more restrictive than the U.S. Constitution’s establishment clause) by claiming that the tax credit mechanism really doesn’t involve taxpayer money. Then, after pausing briefly to catch their breath, the same people, like The Tribune, claim that the Clean Elections tax credit mechanism is taxpayer money.

In both cases the taxpayer is essentially redirecting money that otherwise would be in the General Fund, in exactly the same way. But it’s not public money when The Tribune likes the program; it’s only public money when The Tribune doesn’t like the program.

You should know that Clean Election opponents aren’t making the “it’s taxpayer money” argument in court. The courts so far have rejected challenges to the private school tax credit, and Clean Elections opponents’ lawyers are smart enough to know that if they won the public money argument, it would doom their beloved private school credit, too. The opponents are instead making this argument only in newspaper columns and political campaigns, where apparently a different standard of truthfulness applies.

So in this case, you’ll have to be the judge. Either Gov. Napolitano was right, Clean Elections funding isn’t taxpayer money, or else The Tribune supports the unconstitutional use of taxpayer money for religious institutions. Either a tax credit mechanism involves the use of public money, or it doesn’t. And if The Tribune keeps making the “it’s taxpayer money” claim, then you’ll know exactly how weak its arguments against Clean Elections really are.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

Reclaiming the Low Ground

Still off my regular schedule; I need to write again tonight and then maybe I'll be back in my regular Sunday rotation.

I had fun with this column. I also got a block quote, the sentence at the end of the "Kristoff says" paragraph. The newspaper version is available here, at least for about a month.

Civility in Politics

East Valley Tribune, July 8, 2004

You want civility? Go Dick Cheney yourself if you want civility. Liberals should get to behave just as badly as conservatives. Desperate times do call for desperate measures.

There is a media double standard -- yes, even in the So-Called Liberal Media. It’s more than the usual hack stuff, where the location of a Democratic fundraiser gets a snarky remark as either too nice or too plebian, but Republicans hold events wherever they please. But when conservatives also get to say whatever they please, it’s time for liberals to reclaim the low ground.

Liberals must fight this double standard. Maybe that’s what’s happening with Fahrenheit 9/11; people know they aren’t getting the truth from mainstream media, much less Fox and the other right-wing outlets. What, only conservatives can complain about media bias? That’s bull-Cheney.

Nicholas Kristoff, of The New York Times, bemoans liberals who call George W. Bush a liar. He thinks Bush probably sincerely believed stuff he said that wasn’t true, or that Bush’s statements were “overzealous” or “self-deluded” exaggerations. Yeah, that’s the ticket!

Just like Fahrenheit 9/11, which isn’t always coherent and which gives impressions more nefarious than the script’s actual text. Just like how Bush implied that Iraq posed an imminent danger. So as fellow Times columnist Paul Krugman noted, let’s hold Michael Moore to the same standards as the president. If Moore’s self-deluded or overzealous, I guess he’s honest enough to be president. Or are only Republicans never held accountable?

There’s no way liberals should let conservatives -- or even liberal pundits paying homage to the false idol of on-the-other-handism -- force us into behaving better than conservatives. If George Bush can say stuff that isn’t true and it’s fine because he believes it, or if he can imply all sorts of stuff and it’s fine because he left himself a rhetorical out, then sign us up for these conveniently lower standards.

Every Democrat was expected to denounce some anonymous person’s submission to a website linking Hitler to Bush. Within hours, the website sponsor removed the offensive submission, and started screening everything submitted before making it publicly available. But now the official Bush-Cheney website posted an ad linking Hitler and Kerry, using the excuse that a Democratic-leaning site previously made the comparison. Hitler analogies are officially fine for Republicans, only verboten for Democrats. Even Hitler is now a double standard.

Kristoff says that conservatives “have always been quick to detect evil empires. But liberals love subtlety and describe the world in a palette of grays -- yet many have now dropped all nuance about this president.” In other words, only conservatives can indulge in baseless speculation and rumor-mongering; liberals are required to behave better. To Cheney with that.

So let’s treat Michael Moore with the exact same disdain that conservatives treat those who gave currency to claims that the Clintons had Vincent Foster murdered -- like Rush Limbaugh and The Wall Street Journal editorial page. Limbaugh’s a fine example; he’s paunchy like Moore, so fat jokes won’t work. Let’s condemn Moore to the same purgatory where we put Limbaugh after his over-the-top innuendo and invective. That means Moore can be an honored guest at the Capitol, sit in the First Lady’s box at the nominating convention, and get hired as an expert commentator by NBC. That’s one well-paying purgatory.

Actually, Moore should get [ital] better [unital] treatment than Limbaugh; Moore doesn’t have all those divorces -- or the drug problem. From a “family values” perspective, Michael is far superior to Rush.

So conservatives: Stop yapping about the movie, and show the same respect you demand for Limbaugh.

And liberals: Let’s behave only as well as conservatives do. They deserve it.

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Kerry Doesn't Even Need Mickey Kaus to Make Hair Jokes!

“We’ve got better vision, better ideas, real plans. We’ve got a better sense of what’s happening to America — and we’ve got better hair,” Kerry said, laughing.

Monday, July 05, 2004

Jim Finkelstein for U.S. Senate

A friend from my hometown of Johnstown, PA is a long-shot candidate in the Democratic primary for the open U.S. Senate seat in Georgia. The primary is a veritable Duke Law School alumni reunion, with four graduates (including Jim). It's a long-shot candidacy, but worth reading about--and having read about it, thinking about supporting Jim.

I think the Scholastic Quiz episode had Jim answering that the result was 50:50 and the announcer saying, no, the correct answer is 1-to-1. But that's the sort of detail only I would remember.

Friday, July 02, 2004

Cellular Cacaphony

My Tribune column is still not back on schedule; this Sunday's Lack-of-Perspective section is a July 4 spectacular, and I hadn't planned on writing a July 4th themed piece. So instead I'll write over the weekend and it'll run on Wednesday. Then maybe I'll be back on the next Sunday.

If you want to read the column to which I'm reacting, it's here. If you want the newspaper version of my piece, it's here. I got a "block quote" of the fifth paragraph: "The creative argument that we should let infertile couples 'adopt' . . . humorous delusion." How about that--a newspaper using "fallacious" and "delusion" in the same article. What do they take me for, Christopher Hutchins or something?

East Valley Tribune, June 27, 2004

Last Sunday, Phillip Moon took The Tribune to task for sullying the memory of Ronald Reagan by joining with Nancy Reagan in calling for the Bush administration to lift its ill-conceived ban on stem cell research. I mean, really -- who knows better what Ronald Reagan would have wanted, his widow, or an adjunct physics professor at Chandler-Gilbert Community College? Think about it, and get back to me.

This is the latest right-wing rhetorical tactic, lecturing Nick Berg’s father claiming to know better what his son really thought, and droning interminably about Bill and/or Hillary Clinton’s real motives. I guess if the “facts on the ground” aren’t going well, conservatives have to claim psychic mind-reading abilities, even of the dead. Also, it’s not like anyone believes that conservatives’ current hero, George W. Bush, can hold more than one thought in his head.

In opposing stem cell research, Moon claims to know better than Nancy what Ronald Reagan would have wanted because he “went so far as to write a 100 page pro-life essay” in 1983. This is an interesting epistemological problem: Who really thinks Reagan actually wrote a 100-page essay, as opposed to signing something somebody else wrote?

Moreover, Reagan’s political genius was that he could just utter sentiments, but never had to act on them, to satisfy the anti-abortion crowd. Exhibit A: Who appointed Sandra Day O’Connor, the swing vote preserving the right to choose, to the Supreme Court? Reagan was too good a politician to give his base real substance on this issue, and a good enough politician that his base settled for pandering. If only W had that talent, but (and fellow Democrats, repeat after me), “He’s no Reagan.”

Stem cell research opponents like Moon try to muddy the issue by making up facts, as Bush did in claiming that researchers already had access to many robust stem cell lines before the ban took effect. That was false then, and it’s false now. At least Moon, unlike Bush, abandons the other false claim that adult stem cells would work about as well.

But people making the absolutist argument -- any fertilized embryo is human life just the same as you and me -- founder on the shoals of in-vitro fertilization. Moon makes a creative argument, that we should let infertile couples “adopt” these embryos! That’s cute, but a total misunderstanding of how IVF works. In-vitro fertilization depends on numbers: Doctors use a squadron of fertilized embryos to improve chances that one actually succeeds. Moon’s claim that “it would be very easy to get these innocent frozen embryos into loving homes” is a humorous delusion.

So if Moon, channeling Reagan’s spirit, claims that every single embryo is as human as you or me, he can’t just argue against stem cell research. IVF itself causes the destruction of fertilized embryos, and under the absolutist position, also should be illegal -- even though that argument is a political loser.

We utilitarians have the easier time; using Bush administration logic, we don’t have to prove that stem cell research will cure Alzheimer’s; we just have to show that there’s a “relationship,” or “links” or “connections” -- all the proof Bush needed to send 800+ members of our armed forces to death in Iraq.

You absolutists, however, lose the argument by making the utilitarian and political compromises needed to keep in-vitro fertilization legal. Plus, you’re fighting the wrong battle. If you ban IVF, then we lose the best argument for allowing stem cell research -- and the source of these precious embryos.

Why not try to change the terms of the debate? All you conservative clairvoyants: Isn’t that what Reagan would have wanted?
Say Goodnight, Ralph

I promised more news on Schultz v. Nader when it happened, and it happened this morning. Prior to the start of the trial this morning, the Nader attorneys withdrew his petitions and did not contest the lawsuit; he's off the ballot in Arizona. Here's the AP report.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

I haven't posted a column for a while because my publishing schedule got messed up. My column that should have run on June 20 somehow didn't get to the editor's email, so it ran on June 25 instead--but I was out of town, so it's just being posted today.

If the column seems a bit tepid, remember that two weeks ago was a slow week. I didn't want to write about Rumsfeld admitting to violating international law two weeks in a row--another day, another legal outrage. Ho hum. Hey--if the Bush administration can say the Constitution gives it the authority to override treaties and statutes, can't San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome say the same thing and keep issuing those same-sex marriage licenses? Or can only Republican executives self-interpret the Constitution--at least until the Supreme Court has had enough?

Now for the column. I don't agree with the headline; I didn't assert that there was a connection between vaccines and autism, but I gave the claim a hearing, and I suppose you have to take responsibility for that. Kind of like what Rush Limbaugh and the Wall Street Journal editorial page aren't doing about giving a respectful hearing to claims that Vincent Foster was murdered.

Newspaper version here.

East Valley Tribune, June 25, 2004

You could convince most Democrats to name more stuff after Ronald Reagan -- anything named after Reagan then couldn’t be named after George W. Bush -- but the best liberal tribute to Reagan is fact-checking yourself, after the fact. After all, as Reagan once said, “Facts are stupid things.”

Of course, Reagan was mangling a quote from John Adams’s legal papers from his defense of the soldiers in the Boston Massacre trial in 1770: “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

I prefer the original version to the “cover.”

So in honor of President Adams (also the superior original version), I need to admit my mistake and retract part of a column from November 2002. I ranted about three unrelated provisions slipped at the last minute into the bill creating the Department of Homeland Security, without debate and without any apparent connection to homeland security: a major appropriation to Texas A&M University; a repeal of a ban, adopted with great fanfare a couple months earlier, on government contracts with companies that relocate overseas to avoid paying U.S. taxes; and a provision giving immunity to pharmaceutical companies in potential lawsuits over childhood vaccine preservatives.

I got that last one wrong, in two ways. First, I never thought that Congress would revisit the immunity issue; the GOP majority would just ride out the criticism for a favored industry. But Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, stuck to her guns, and the provision got repealed. We’ll leave it to historians to determine how much ill-informed outcry like mine was needed to force Congress to follow through on the promise to reverse the provision.

Second, subsequent developments have proven invalid the scientific theory underlying my outrage, that “preservatives used in childhood vaccines -- but not tested on kids beforehand -- may have helped caused diseases and behavioral problems like autism.” In April, the medical journal The Lancet withdrew its 1998 article that claimed to show a link between the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. Other studies, such as a 2001 Institute of Medicine report, found no connection, and other researchers had criticized the 1998 study’s methodology and data, but now the principal evidence suggesting a link has been discredited.

The Lancet editors learned that the British researchers who conducted the study were funded by a legal-aid service looking into whether families could sue the vaccine manufacturers. The journal’s editor called the undisclosed funding a “fatal conflict of interest,” and said the article should not have been published.

Yes, I only wrote “may cause,” and I still don’t think such unrelated provisions belonged in the Homeland Security bill -- what, you don’t recall the impassioned debate about vaccine-liability issues during the 2002 campaign? -- but proponents of the vaccine-autism link now have lost the principal support for that theory.

Proponents still have what we could call “negative support,” as anyone can find problems with any contrary study, and researchers still may be investigating links to neurological impairments other than autism. It’s also always harder to prove a negative, especially to people who really, really want to believe.

But ultimately, science can’t fall to the level of so-called “intelligent design” theory, whose proponents have nothing positive to assert but instead base their arguments entirely on nit-picking of evolution, or of Iraq war supporters, who also are convinced that we can justify war because “the absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence.”

For parents reading this far, the moral is: forget the politics, the essential scientific debate is over. Please, please get your kids vaccinated.