The Fox Knows Many Things….like how to take advantage of a Government shutdown.

This one warrants me breaking my blogging hiatus/temporary retirement:

The government shutdown, now entering its third week, has sidelined groundskeepers at the White House, who are barred from tending Michelle Obama’s kitchen garden and other White House plant life beyond the most basic acts of watering and taking out the trash.

 

“The wildlife that lives on the historic 18-acre campus—including a newly arrived fox now making a home at the White House—are having a field day,” Kohan reports. “Thanks to the shutdown, groundskeepers have given up on their efforts to catch the elusive creature, who showed up to live inside the White House gates more than two weeks ago. [The fox] has been spotted many times at dawn and dusk” according to the White House sources she says are “highly reliable and multiple.”

 

A Fox! At the White House! Because of partisan intransigence and blind faith in the power of one’s own beliefs over reality! love literally everything about this story. While the hedgehogs in Congress stick to knowing just one thing at a time, the Foxes move in…..

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Takedown of Fox News Charlatan

Fox News has a report up about a “whistle blower” who claims that Special Operators could have been in Libya in time to stop the attacks that killed American embassy personnel on September 11, 2012. It’s nonsense on the face, and there’s nothing that pisses me off more than charlatans (who, in this case, hide behind anonymity) fuel nonsense conspiracy theories. We have legitimate security issues that need to be addressed; the Libya situation has important lessons to teach us about unintended consequences, the importance of on the ground intelligence and about the important (and dangerous) work done every day by the Department of State. These conspiracy theories distract us, so it’s good to see such an epic take-down of the allegations:

On April 30, 2013, Fox News aired an interviewwith a supposed member of U.S. Special Operations Command who said that members of “C-110,” who were training in Croatia on September 11, 2012, could have both arrived at the Benghazi consulate in 4-6 hours and arrived before the second attack on the annex during which Tyronne Woods and Glen Doherty were killed. The mystery man critiques the Obama administration’s decision-making, yet offers no information as to how C-110 would have influenced the battle in such a way that the outcome would have been different. Perhaps because it was actually impossible for C-110 to arrive before the attack, and if they did, they would not have been able to do anything that would have prevented our heroes, Woods and Doherty, from being killed.

Read the whole thing. He shows that this guy is either a publicity hound or just has no idea what he’s talking about – the fact is that the attack took less than 8 hours. The U.S. military is highly competent, but the world outside of Hollywood simply doesn’t allow a large organization to act that quickly (and, as the author points out, there’s no guarantees that the SPECOPS would have been able to save any lives. The later deaths were caused by mortar rounds – which SPECOPS soldiers aren’t immune from).

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One Year

One year ago, a classmate was killed in Afghanistan. He was married to a good friend, and was truly taken too soon. He chose one of the hardest and most dangerous jobs around, and died serving his country. Fair winds and following seas.

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Beat them to it

I’m taking a rare break from my blogging hiatus to highlight this website, bostonmarathonconspiracy.com. It’s currently just a white page with some simple text, explaining that the domain was purchased just to keep conspiracy nuts from getting to it first.

It’s an unfortunate truth that conspiracy theories about yesterday’s tragic event sprung forth almost immediately, before literally ANYTHING was known about the attacks. They will continue.

The best thing that can be done is just to ignore them, or, failing that, marginalize. I can think of nothing better than making sure that the very first result for a Google search of “Boston Marathon Conspiracy” points to this website first, instead of some (aptly named) “Conspiracy Kook”‘s website. So I’m posting a link to add my own (exceedingly meager) PageRank to this website – SEO can be used for good, too.

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Double Dose of Overthinking Like a Fox

I’m back over at Overthinking It, this time in both podcast and blog form.

First, I’m on the Podcast this week, talking about the Hobbit (which I haven’t seen) and Life of Pi (which I have). It’s the usual mix of jokes and attempts at analysis, so if you haven’t listened to me on the POdcast before, give it a shot.

Second, I’m Overthinking two of my favorite Christmas movies, It’s a Wonderful Life  and Miracle on 34th Street:

Bailey Building and Loan vs. Macy’s Incorporated

Shortly after the close of World War II, two Christmas classics were released just six months apart. It’s a Wonderful Life (Dec. 1946) and Miracle on 34th Street(May 1947) have both found a place as feel-good Christmas classics, still shown 60 years later to children that grew up on them. Likely because of their close proximity to the good feelings of VJ day and the return of so many soldiers, both are firmly placed as Christmas staples. In addition to their close release and Christmas theme, the two share certain plot elements as well. Both films take place firmly in the world of business and commerce, with the Baily Brother’s Building and Loan and Macy’s Department Store supplying the bulk of the setting. Both stories share a central conflict of a decent man facing wrongful imprisonment and a triumphant ending that rights the wrong.

Because of the centrality of capitalism and justice to the plot, both films have a lot to say about the American dream and the values of democracy and capitalism. While both Miracle and Wonderful Life tell an ultimately uplifting tale, the two films have diametrically opposite statements about the relationship between moral people and moralinstitutions.

It’s a Wonderful Life is deeply cynical about the institutions that dominate American life. Capitalism gets it the worst – the defining characteristic of the villainous Potter is that he’s a banker. He is greedy and horrible, the embodiment of everything that wrong with a capitalist society. He is practically cartoonish in his villainy, with a skull on his desk, an evil cackle and a  mute body-servant.

But Potter isn’t the only enemy – capitalism itself does its level best to destroy George Bailey. We’re shown repeatedly that George is the best and brightest of his generation, but the dire economic circumstances of his family and his town prevent him from doing anything more than getting by. Capitalism is supposedly a meritocracy, but George’s life is dominated by harsh economic reality.

From a philosophical standpoint, capitalism isgenerally justified by the argument that we’re all better off if everyone acts in his or her own rational self-interest. Bailey Bros. Building and Loan, we’re told again and again, is the antithesis of this idea – George runs the S&L not to make a profit but for the benefit of the town. We’re shown quite explicitly that his selflessness is literally the only thing standing between the town of Bedford Falls and ruin.

Government is treated little better. While the government employees of Bedford Falls are not really against George Bailey, the government itself is utterly beholden to the moneyed interest. Despite being George’s friend, the prosecutor is (mostly) powerless against the need to arrest George if he can’t come up with the missing money. The bank inspector is a family man but is still portrayed as the worst sort of bureaucrat, completely captured by a system that demands obedience. In the world of Wonderful Life government is, at best, not actively out to destroy the little guy, but largely powerless to help.

(hit the link for the rest!)

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Election Eve Predictions

Well, the election is almost over, and with that done we can get back to the stories that matter – petty squabbling over the legitimacy of the election results, bitter partisan fights over the looming fiscal cliff and brutal recriminations inside the losing party. Wait, was I supposed to make you feel better? OK, how about this – no more ads. No more robo-calls. No more surveys. Pretty soon we’ll be into the college football conference championship games, and then we’re into the bowls and NFL playoffs. Soon we’ll be eating Thanksgiving turkey and putting up Christmas lights. All will be right with the world, regardless of who wins. The news cycle will be back to semi-normal, filled with nothing but groundless speculation about the 2016 election by political junkies desperate for a fix. Darn, I was doing well there for a second.

Anyway, since the election is tomorrow, and this blog is at least nominally about making predictions  I figure I should probably make some, though you’re probably a lot better off just listening to Nate Silver. I’ve found the attacks on him over the last week or two to be somewhere between distasteful and disgusting. If you want to criticize the results, criticize the model, not the man – he’s been extremely transparent about his methods. He’s not a pundit, if you don’t like what his numbers say, figure out why the numbers are wrong, but don’t attack his motives or character – it’s clear to any one paying attention that if the numbers were for Romney he’d reporting them in the same way.

So here’s some predictions:

1. Obama will win the election – Obviously this is not a earth shattering prediction, but it’s also consistent with the one I made last year, when Obama appeared to be a much more vulnerable candidate. I was wrong, though, about the reason – I suspected that Romney would lose a couple percentage points off of his base due to his Mormon faith, and there’s been no evidence of that so far. Whether I overestimated the negative effect that Mormonism would have or underestimated the hatred for President Obama, I think Romney will have troubles locking down his base.

The problem, though, is that he’s having a tough time locking down any one else. The Democrats have done a pretty solid job of locking down a wide array of different voting blocs, and Romney’s extreme positions in the primaries severely limited his tactical mobility in going after some of those blocks.

Ultimately, I think Obama will win in 2012 for the same reasons that Bush won in 2004. Obama and Bush both came into a reelection bid with a notionally weak position, but a reserve of goodwill and likeability. The Democrats in 2004 and GOP in 2012 both saw blood in the water, and figured their best chance was with an “Anyone-but-_____” candidate. Kerry and Romney present a similar appeal to the voters – a smart but stiff guy who you’re not quite sure where he stands. In the “Who would I want to have a beer with?” test, Kerry and Romney both lose pretty solidly to Obama and Bush.

Mini prediction – expect to see a lot of 2004 2012 comparisons once the dust settles on this election.

2. The popular vote will be extremely close, and might even break to Romney – but you shouldn’t care. Signs are pointing that Obama may be gaining slightly in the national polls, indicating the popular vote might go his way. That said, I think the popular vote will be really, really tight. It’s been that way throughout the cycle, and I think the Democrats in particular are going to suffer from an enthusiasm gap in their “Safe states” like California where they would pad their vote totals. Compound that with solid-blue states New York and New Jersey recovering from Sandy, and you’ve got a lot of Democrats potentially not voting – this won’t effect the Electoral College too much, but might depress Obama’s margins enough to flip the popular vote.

If that happens…

3. Hilarity will ensue. A popular/electoral college split is extremely rare – there have only been 3 in history, so it would be pretty unlikely, but it’s interesting that the last one happened in very recent memory. This means that unlike in 2000, each side’s pundits and talking heads will have taken positions on the legitimacy of a President who fails to win the popular vote – and will have to scramble to reverse themself.

This blog was inspired by Philip Tetlock, a political scientist who has studied predictions extensively. One of the things he says is most notable about our system of pundits and “experts” is that there is virtually zero accountability for past predictions and positions that turned out to be wrong. If Obama wins the Electoral College but loses the popular vote, we will all get the joy of watching people on both sides of the aisle scrambling to reverse the positions they wrote so eloquently for their 2000 Op-Ed pieces about the brilliance/stupidity of the Electoral College. And that will be hilarious to watch.

*: Interesting conspiracy theory/note: The first two Electoral/Popular splits happened in 1876 and 1888 – 12 years apart. The last one happened in 2000 – 12 years ago. Maybe we’re due. The Redskins also lost, so a popular vote split allows the true believers of that theory to keep it alive for a little while longer.

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The Defense of an Undecided Voter – Part 4

My last two posts discussed my preference for President Obama’s on social matters and Governor Romney’s on economic. I expressed some doubt in both categories, primarily related to my skepticism about the President’s real role in those two roles. Today, I’ll talk about the one area where I think the President makes the most difference – foreign policy.

In domestic policy, the President is hamstrung and checked and balanced at every turn – Congress makes the laws, the Supreme Court exercises scrutiny on their interpretation and the States have overlapping authority in nearly any given area of economic and social policy. As a man, the President is certainly more powerful in these realms than any other given individual, but the power of the Presidency is not even close to the cumulative power of everyone that ISN’T the President.

In foreign policy, that’s not really the case. The President can act all but unilaterally – the courts have been entirely unwilling to check the “political branches” on matters of national security and foreign policy and Congress for the last 20 years or so has essentially given the President and the DOD a blank check in anything overseas. About the only place that Congress plays a substantial role is on DOD budgetary matters, which affects foreign policy in the long run, but only in the VERY long run.

The President is pretty much driving the foreign policy bus, so to me, it’s by far the most important issue to get right in Presidential politics. Whether for good or ill, I think it’s impossible to say that we would have invaded Iraq if Al Gore had been President – that decision was 100% the product of who was in the Oval Office.

That same example, though, shows the pitfalls of relying on foreign policy in deciding who to vote for – there was nothing in the 2000 election campaign to suggest that the vote was going to decide whether or not we would invade Iraq or not. Neither Bush nor Gore was particularly hawkish in the campaign.

As the debate showed, the two candidates are, and almost always will be, close together on foreign policy – the President matters a great deal in foreign policy, but it’s questionable whether or not a DIFFERENT President would make a big difference. The analogy I’ve heard before is that the President is sitting down in the middle of a chess game that’s already in progress – he is fairly constrained in what he can really do. If Romney gets elected, he will very quickly get inundated with advice from a huge bureaucracy of Generals, intelligence analysts, Ambassadors, etc. – a President CAN turn the ship of state, but for the most part they don’t and won’t – they’ll listen to the same advisers, get the same advice and make the same decisions.

Except. Except. Except. There are two places where a President will matter.

The first can be loosely termed as “leadership” or “tone”. We got into Iraq because Bush ran the White House in a certain way – one that made it clear what result he wanted, and discouraged dissenting voices. I’m sure that if you just looked at the advice and intelligence that came into the White House in 2003, you would have thought there were WMDs too – because of the way the decision was made, dissent was never heard.  It’s difficult to measure, but to be an effective President means encouraging dissent, encouraging an effective decision making process and select diverse, intelligent advisors.

The second is of course the “gut” calls – when the advisers are split down the middle and the buck stops at the Resolute desk. From all accounts, the bin Laden raid fits firmly in this category – there was NOT a solid consensus whether or not it was really bin Laden, much less whether or not a SEAL raid was the way to go. The President was the final arbiter of a) whether or not the intelligence was enough to act and b) which of a menu of options to use (Tomahawk, drone strike, commando raid, etc.)

On this front, I have to favor Obama, if for no other reason than on a “devil you know” basis. I have overall been very pleased with the President’s performance in foreign affairs. He has struck an effective balance between restraint and backbone – one one hand, we don’t want to end up in a quagmire, but we also can’t be afraid of using ANY force. The invasion of Libya in 2010 seemed to me to be pretty much exactly the right balance of strength and restraint.*

Romney, of course, might be equally effective – but I have no way of knowing. For most of the campaign he’s been way too hawkish for my taste – he’s moderated somewhat, but he’s given me reason to doubt.

From the perspective of an active duty military member, the question I ask is: Who is more likely to deploy me and my million-plus colleagues in uniform effectively? Who is more likely to get us involved in a conflict that results in men and women dying for no good reason?

On that one, I have to trust Obama marginally more – not because I have particular reason to believe Romney CAN’T make the wrong decision, but he hasn’t proven to me yet that he WILL.

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