Monthly Archives: October 2009

Post Writers Read Obama’s Mind?

One of the greatest responsibilities a president has is to decide to send American women and men into combat.  He should make that decision on his own, after carefully considering all the information and opinions of his advisors.

Anne Kornblut and Greg Jaffe make a call I’m not sure they have enough evidence to make.  They seem to be reading Obama’s mind.

The military chiefs have been largely supportive of a resource request by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, that would by one Pentagon estimate require the deployment of 44,000 additional troops. But opinion among members of Obama’s national security team is divided, and he now appears to be seeking a compromise solution that would satisfy both his military and civilian advisers. [emphasis added]

“Appears to be seeking a compromise”?  That, if true, is a damning observation, and surely will seized by Republican critics.  A president shouldn’t be arbiter-in-chief.  He shouldn’t “satisfy” his advisors. He should make the call based on what he thinks is right, not try to find middle ground among his advisors.

But that might not be the case, as there is nothing in the story to suggest he is looking for a compromise.  I’d love to know why Kornblut and Jaffe make that call.

Calling It Like She Sees It

Kudos to Lori Montgomery and her editors at The Washington Post for being objective, rather than a faux balance.  She writes about the House Democrats estimate for the cost of their healthcare plan.

Republicans on Capitol Hill are challenging an assertion by House leaders that their new health-care package comes in under President Obama’s spending limit of $900 billion over the next decade. The true cost of the measure, the GOP argues, is more than $1 trillion.

A House leadership aide dismissed the charge as "GOP spin." But, in this case, the spin is essentially true. [emphasis added]

According to a preliminary estimate by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, expanding coverage to an additional 36 million Americans would cost $1.055 trillion over the next decade under the House plan, counting tax breaks for small businesses, subsidies for low- and moderate-income families, and the largest expansion of Medicaid since its inception more than 40 years ago.

House leaders prefer to emphasize a different number: the net cost of expanding coverage. That’s $1.055 trillion minus money that would be raised from penalties on people who failed to buy insurance and employers that failed to offer it. Those adjustments would bring the cost down to $894 billion over 10 years, just under Obama’s limit.

You can argue who is right. This might not be the best example, but at least she is willing to make a call, something I wish more reporters were willing to do.

High-Tech Workers Shun 3rd World Countries—Like the U.S.!

The potential arc of this economic downturn should be sobering for Americans.  We are increasing viewed as akin to a third-world country, or at least a developing country.  To wit:

[W]ould-be immigrants from India and China are finding new career opportunities at home as those economies grow relatively quickly while the U.S. economy sags and its political climate appears less welcoming.

Vivek Wadhwa, a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley who has studied H-1B visas, said that trend has been compounded by what he sees as rising anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S. "The best and the brightest who would normally come here are saying, ‘Why do we need to go to a country where we are not welcome, where our quality of life would be less [emphasis added], and we would be at the bottom of the social ladder?’" Mr. Wadhwa said.

The gist of this story is that the H-1B visas that are required for highly skilled people to be hired by American companies are down sharply.  Historically, all the allotted visas were snapped up, sometimes in a matter of hours after they are offered by the U.S. government.  The reason, for the most part, is that the tanking economy  has simply lessened the number of jobs for which these potential employees are needed, mainly in the high-tech industry.

But within the story, there are other dynamics that offer a glimpse of where we’re headed as a country.  We like to think of ourselves as the birthplace of great ideas and especially technological innovation.  Maybe not.

While the number of visa holders is small compared with the U.S. work force, their contribution is huge, employers say. For example, last year 35% of Microsoft’s patent applications in the U.S. came from new inventions by visa and green-card holders [emphasis added], according to company general counsel Brad Smith.

Google Inc. also says that the H-1B program allowed it to tap top talent that was crucial to its development. India native Krishna Bharat, for example, joined the firm in 1999 through the H-1B program, and went on to earn several patents while at Google. He was credited by the company as being the key developer of its Google News service. Today, he holds the title of distinguished research scientist.

Many politicians like to make the argument that the U.S. has the best and brightest and our systems are the envy of the world.  Lately, you hear especially Republicans making the claim (which is patently false) that we have the greatest medical system in the world.  Maybe if you want to get a tummy-tuck, but our health outcomes are mediocre compared to other countries.  Granted much of that may be due to our poor diet.  But we aren’t the best at everything.

The falloff in H-1B visa applications is also attributed to the anti-immigrant prejudice we are perceived as embracing.  Moreover, American companies, who must prove they can’t find Americans workers with the skills they need before being granted an H-1B visa, don’t cotton to having their motives questioned.

[I]mmigration lawyers say some would-be employers are put off by a crackdown on fraud. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which administers the H-1B program, has been dispatching inspectors on surprise company visits to verify that H-1B employees are performing the jobs on the terms specified. The fraud-detection unit in coming months is expected to inspect up to 20,000 companies with H-1Bs and other temporary worker visas.

"It’s an invasive procedure that is both stressful for the employer and the foreign national employee," said Milwaukee lawyer Jerome Grzeca, whose employment-visa business is down 40% since last year.

Politicians, of course, like to claim that these foreigners are taking jobs away from Americans.  Well, be careful what you wish for.  Soon, they may be taking the best jobs, keeping them for themselves in country, and exporting other jobs to Americans, whose crashing economy has forced them to work for less.

If people, especially those who are driving invention and tech progress, don’t want to come here, in part because they feel their “quality of life would be less,” what does that say about our future?

Will the dynamic that we’ve had for the past decades, indeed centuries, change?  Will India and China begin to outsource their work to Americans who are adjusting to lower wages and investments?  Will we become the new Indians and Chinese – skilled but more cost-efficient because of our lowered standard of living?

Afghanistan Trade-Offs

Not all trade-offs are logical, and certainly this one can be argued.

In particular, one of the most compelling arguments against more troops rests on this stunning trade-off: For the cost of a single additional soldier stationed in Afghanistan for one year, we could build roughly 20 schools there.

Could be naive. But,

…Greg Mortenson, author of “Three Cups of Tea,” has now built 39 schools in Afghanistan and 92 in Pakistan — and not one has been burned down or closed. The aid organization CARE has 295 schools educating 50,000 girls in Afghanistan, and not a single one has been closed or burned by the Taliban. The Afghan Institute of Learning, another aid group, has 32 schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with none closed by the Taliban (although local communities have temporarily suspended three for security reasons).

Before you conclude that education is not the answer, consider one group that does.

When I travel in Pakistan, I see evidence that one group — Islamic extremists — believes in the transformative power of education. They pay for madrassas that provide free schooling and often free meals for students. They then offer scholarships for the best pupils to study abroad in Wahhabi madrassas before returning to become leaders of their communities. What I don’t see on my trips is similar numbers of American-backed schools. It breaks my heart that we don’t invest in schools as much as medieval, misogynist extremists.

It might not be a panacea, but we need to ensure we are making an investment in educating Afghans and Pakistanis.

Phillies Take Game 1

Lee-Ruiz After a complete game performance by Cliff Lee, reportedly the Yankees held a clubhouse meeting after the game.  They agreed that if the Phils keep playing like this, the Yanks will concede after three games.

Baring All for Science

Exposing a woman’s breasts on mainstream media programs is not supposed to happen, short of a “wardrobe malfunction.”

But in a four-part report on [breast cancer] beginning Thursday night, WJLA, Channel 7 in Washington, will break TV’s unspoken taboo by showing two women fully exposed on its late-afternoon and evening newscasts.

The station claims there isn’t enough, ahem, detail shown about how women should examine their breasts to catch the cancer early.  Oh, OK.  Well, if there’s a good reason….  In fact, there is a really, really, very good reason.

The reports will air on the first two days of TV’s traditional "sweeps" month, a period in which stations air their most eye-catching stories to boost ratings that are used to set advertising rates.

Eye-catching, indeed. Nonetheless, station manager Bill Lord said that’s just a coincidence.  And besides,

Lord said he did not expect many viewer complaints, in part because the reports will be preceded by "viewer discretion" disclaimers. Further, he said, WJLA’s 5 p.m. newscast follows "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and its 11 p.m. newscast on Thursday follows the ABC medical drama "Private Practice," both of which have audiences largely made up of women. On Friday, the 11 p.m. news follows "20/20," a news program that has an older following.

“[A]udiences largely made up of women”?  Not those nights, baby.  And the guys won’t be complaining.

Reportedly, next ratings period, the station is going to demonstrate, in detail, how you can catch syphilis. (OK.  That’s not true, but I’ll let you know if the station calls me to thank me for the idea.)

GOP Hypocrisy on Abortion

Margi Vanderhye, a state delegate representing the northern edge of Fairfax County, Virginia, is in a tight race with Barbara Comstock, who has a reputation as a street fighter in GOP.  Her party, of course, for many years used abortion to win races.  As that tactic isn’t working anymore for them – but is for pro-choice candidates, the GOP is shameless being hypocritical.  Here is the opening of a letter to the editor of a Fairfax weekly paper.

Since Del. Margi Vanderhye (D-34) has decided to make the divisive issue of abortion a major part of her campaign instead of focusing on jobs, transportation and education, I would like to address this diversionary tactic.

GOP lemmings probably don’t even recognize the irony.  Listen to how sympathetic GOPers now are about abortion.

Barbara understands that there are good people on both sides of this difficult issue and that there are many more issues that we agree on than disagree. She has always worked with men and women on both sides of this issue with mutual respect and she has the strong support of men and women on both sides of this issue because she has a record of producing results on kitchen table issues that matter to our district.

I’m getting all choked up about this “difficult issue.”

The issues that get addressed in the state legislature are those such as limiting taxpayer funds for abortion, providing parental involvement in the decision of a young girl to have an abortion or health and safety regulations to protect women. There already exists in Virginia a bipartisan consensus on these issues and it would be a waste of our legislature’s time to do what Del. Vanderhye wants to do, reopen these divisive social issue debates when there are so many other important issues we need to address for our community.

In other words, don’t undo all the restrictions Virginia Republicans put on abortions over the years.

They say this stuff with a straight face.

‘Dismal Quality of Many Big Papers’

There is much gnashing of teeth over the erosion of newspaper readers.  Former Washington Post online journalist Mark Potts says sure the economy and the Internet are reasons for the slide, but

Probably hardest to measure, but certainly a factor in the decline, is the increasingly dismal quality of many big papers as the result of slashing staff cuts over the past couple of years (and don’t expect those cuts to be over, especially with ongoing declines like these circulation figures). Many American dailies, not very good to begin with, are turning into virtual shoppers; even the best papers are noticeably reduced versions of their former selves, as coverage has been pruned and sections shrunken or dropped. Readers clearly are noticing.

Indeed, they are noticing.  But beyond being “reduced versions of their former selves,” newspapers are abandoning their role as seekers of truth.  They instead trying to be “balanced.”  “He said, she said” and using labels to mark people, ideas and organizations leaves most readers lost in their search for solid information.

Strike Out Political Labels

What does a label do for a story?  Liberal, moderate, conservative.  Describing a person, idea or organization with such labels is epidemic in many media.  To what end?  And in the journalistic interest of brevity, can they be deleted without harming the story?

This morning’s Washington Post story about Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) including a public option in the healthcare bill has the word liberal or moderate in the story.  (Notably, there was no use of the word conservative.)

It’s as if the reporters want to signal to readers what they should think about an idea by labeling it as liberal, conservative or moderate.  What other use can they have?

Look at the sentences below from the story and tell me what would be lost if they were either eliminated or replaced by a neutral term?  (I’ve struck out instances of those words and replaced some with bold type.)

Reid’s decision was a reversal from two weeks ago, when the Nevada Democrat appeared inclined to set aside the idea — among the most divisive in the reform debate — in an attempt to avoid alienating some in the party moderates.

Engineered by Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) as a compromise between moderates those who want a smaller government role and liberals those who prefer a single-payer system, the opt-out proposal is so new to the reform debate that it was never put to a vote during weeks of deliberations by two Senate committees.

Moderate Some Democrats in both the House and Senate are leery of a public insurance plan, calling it an overly aggressive expansion of government that could eventually place new pressures on the federal budget.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid announced Monday that he will include a government-backed insurance plan in the chamber’s health-care reform legislation, a key concession to liberals senators who have threatened to oppose a bill without such a public option.

In a speech at the liberal Center for American Progress, Romer said a public option would serve as "a potentially important source of cost containment" by offering consumers "a competitive, alternative choice, constraining the ability of insurers to raise premiums, and thus containing the growth rate of costs."

Liberal Senators who had threatened to vote against a bill with no public option said they are pleased with Reid’s compromise.

While Democrats praised its ability to control costs, the opt-out public plan represents a much less dramatic approach to federal coverage intervention than liberal advocates had sought — or insurance companies had feared.

I would imagine if you want people to make clear decisions on issues, don’t prejudice the reader by describing the ideas as coming from one end of the spectrum or the other.  If an idea is preceded by “liberal,” conservatives will likely dismiss without considering it, and vice versa.  Besides, what purpose do the labels have in objective, tightly edited stories?

The labels are imprecise at best.  What is a conservative?  What makes a liberal?  What if someone is pro gun ownership, wants to reduce entitlements and supports continuing involvement in Afghanistan?  Does that make me a conservative?

Scalia Likes the Schools of Ol’ Virginny

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia says the constitution means exactly what the framers meant it to mean.  The framers were so narrow-minded that the didn’t allow for any change in society’s mores.

"Does it include same-sex marriage? A requirement for equal pay for equal work?'' he mused. Scalia said those who believe in an "evolutionary'' approach "close your eyes and decide what you think is a good idea.''

Using his "originalist'' philosophy, Scalia said he likely would have dissented from the historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that declared school segregation illegal and struck down the system of "separate but equal'' public schools. He said that decision, which overturned earlier precedent, was designed to provide an approach the majority liked better.

(Thanks to Politico for the link.)

UPDATE:  Looks like the newspaper may have been incorrect in quoting Scalia.