Archive for January, 2009|Monthly archive page

Michael Steele elected Chairman of the Republican Party

The new Chairman of the Republican Party, Michael Steele

The new Chairman of the Republican Party, Michael Steele

Michael Steele has just been elected Chairman of the Republican Party.    This blog is pleased with this result and has supported Steele’s candidacy since the beginning.  A simple majority (85) of the 168 votes was needed to win.

Mike Duncan, who President Bush tapped to head the party, bowed out after the third ballot.

Steele had 51 votes after the third round, having increased his support in each round.  After four rounds Steele had 60 votes, trailing only South Carolina party chairman Katon Dawson, who had 62. Just before the fifth ballot former Ohio Secretary of State and gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell dropped out and endorsed Steele.  In that round of voting Steele captured 79 votes, just six shy of being elected in the then three person field; Dawson had 59.  The sixth round was down to just Steele and Dawson, Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis having dropped out after the fifth ballot.  In that final round, Steele got 91 votes fo Dawson’s 77.

The Republican Party emblem, sometimes called the gophant.

The Republican Party emblem is sometimes called the gophant

Mr. Steele is well qualified to lead the U.S. Republican Party.  He  was Chairman of Maryland’s Republican Party before serving as Lt. Governor of that state from 2003-2007.  He was the failed U.S. Senate candidate in Maryland in 2006, doing better than expected in a poor year for Republicans and in a heavily Democratic state.  Since then he has been chairman of GOPAC, which raises funds and supports Republican candidates at the state and local level.  He is familiar with the national media and talk show circuit and is an excellent communicator; Slate was right when they called him the best speaker among all the chairman candidates.

Not only is the President of the United States now an African American, but so is the Chairman of the Republican National Committee.  How about that?  Steele is the first black person to hold said post.

Steele, age 50, is a lawyer by training, though he spent three years as a Roman Catholic seminarian and considered taking holy orders.  See his Wikipedia article (which, incidentally, I started) for more information about him.  This blog wishes Mr. Steele all the best as he leads the Republican Party for the next two years.

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Guys with uncommon names more likely to commit crimes

MSNBC has a story discussing a new study published in the journal Social Science Quarterly which indicates that guys with less common names are more likely to commit crimes than guys with more common names.

David E. Kalist and Daniel Y. Lee of Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania compared the first names of male juvenile delinquents to the first names of male juveniles in the population. The researchers constructed a popularity-name index (PNI) for each name. For example, the PNI for Michael is 100, the most frequently given name during the period. The PNI for David is 50, a name given half as frequently as Michael. The PNI is approximately 1 for names such as Alec, Ernest, Ivan, Kareem, and Malcolm.

Results show that, regardless of race, juveniles with unpopular names are more likely to engage in criminal activity. The least popular names were associated with juvenile delinquency among both blacks and whites.

Correcting for race is obviously needed; Hispanics, blacks, and whites often follow different naming conventions for their children.  However, the study would also need to be correct for income; wealthy people and poor people may well follow different conventions when naming kids and poverty often correlates with criminal activity.  The presence of a father also correlates with tendency towards criminality and it seems possible to me that whether a child is named only by his mother or by both his mother and father may influence the sort of name he is given.

While the names are likely not the cause of crime, the researchers argue that “they are connected to factors that increase the tendency to commit crime, such as a disadvantaged home environment, residence in a county with low socioeconomic status, and households run by one parent.”

“Also, adolescents with unpopular names may be more prone to crime because they are treated differently by their peers, making it more difficult for them to form relationships,” according to a statement released by the journal’s publisher. “Juveniles with unpopular names may also act out because they consciously or unconsciously dislike their names.”

I am dubious about using a kid’s name to tell how likely he is to commit crimes.  Why not just look at socio-economic status and family situation itself to decide where to focus resources and aid?  Parents should definitely not worry about what name they give their son; just be good parents and he’ll probably turn out fine.

For my part, I would simply point out that according to the Social Security Administration Jacob has been the #1 name for baby boys in the United States for every year between 1999 and 2007 (the latest year for which data are presently available).  You could therefore say that I should be at low risk for committing crimes.

People procrastinate more on abstract than concrete matters

I’ve been putting off writting this blog post for a while.  Anyway, as reported in The Economist, a team of psychologists lead by Sean McCrea of the University of Konstanz, in Germany, conducted a series of experiments whose results indicate that people procrastinate more when asked to think abstractly than they do when asked to think in more concrete terms.

As the team report in Psychological Science, in all three studies, those who were presented with concrete tasks and information responded more promptly than did those who were asked to think in an abstract way. Moreover, almost all the students who had been prompted to think in concrete terms completed their tasks by the deadline while up to 56% of students asked to think in abstract terms failed to respond at all.

Check the article for details on how the several experiments were conducted.

The Economist story reminded me of another one on procrastination that I’d read in Slate last spring.  The author of that piece argues that we need to examine procrastination across different cultures to see what trends, if any, pop out and laments that not enough such research has been done among, for instance, the indiginous people of New Guinea.

Did perhaps just one anthropologist ever think to ask a penis-gourd-wearer if he wakes up some days and thinks he’s going to make a new penis gourd, but instead this happens and that happens, and making the new gourd just gets put off, along with everything else that he’s supposed to be doing, until he feels terrible and the only option seems to be to move to a place where no one notices that his gourd is outmoded?

Anyway, the Slate article indicated that Japanese respondants to a survey reported higher levels of procrastination than did Americans; New Zealanders reported less procrastination than did people from the States.

Explore space with probes and telescopes, not people

The Economist has an interesting short article criticizing manned space exploration and praising the Obama administration for appearing ready to reprioritize America’s goals in space.

Mr Obama’s transition team had already been asking difficult questions of NASA, in particular about the cost of scrapping parts of the successor to the ageing and obsolete space shuttles that now form America’s manned space programme. That successor system is also designed to return humans to the moon by 2020, as a stepping stone to visiting Mars. Meanwhile, Mr Obama’s administration is wondering about spending more money on lots of new satellites designed to look down at the Earth, rather than outward into space.

These are sensible priorities. In space travel, as in politics, domestic policy should usually trump grandiose foreign adventures. Moreover, cash is short and space travel costly.

The article recommends using space probes and robots, like New Horizons (going to Pluto), Cassini (already at Saturn), and Mars Pathfinder to explore our Solar System.

While it'd be neat to have people on the Moon, this is a bad idea

While it'd be neat to have people on the Moon, the idea is not cost-effective at all

While nothing is as cool as people in space, I wholeheartedly support investing our scarce space dollars in robotic and remote exploration instead of for crewed (“manned” is a bit androcentric) missions.  For instance, NASA’s Moon Base proposal, despite being very modest, will still cost hundreds of billions of dollars. And it is unlikely that the knowledge and experience that we gain from such a base will justify the expense.  The last Apollo missions were canceled and we haven’t been back to the Moon since the early 70s precisely because the place isn’t all that interesting.  (For a good critique of NASA’s moon base idea, see “Moon Baseless“, an article by Gregg Easterbrook, who has been following the space program for decades.)

By contrast, excellent science is being done by our newest space probes and robots—and for far less money.  New Horizons will have a total mission cost (from planning through the end of operations) of just $650 million; the total cost of the Cassini-Huygens mission is about $3.26 billion (including $1.4 billion for pre-launch development, $704 million for mission operations, $54 million for tracking and $422 million for the launch vehicle).  Telescopes are also very cost effective.  The Sptizer Space Telescope itself cost just $800 million and the planned James Webb Space Telescope will have a total cost (including planning, launch, and operation) of about $4.5 billion.

In short, for the cost of a Moon base we can explore the entire Solar System with probes and robots and explore the depths of space across all portions of the spectrum via orbiting and ground-based telescopes.  If funding were unlimited things would be different; but it’s not and they aren’t.  We have limited money for science, so we should spend it wisely.

Tories favored by 12 points over Labour

In a new poll released today by the Guardian, if the United Kingdom held elections for Parliament today 44% would vote Conservative, 32% for Labour, 16% for the Liberal-Democrats, and 8% would vote for another party. 

Across the poll, Labour is flatlining – the charge once thrown at struggling Conservative leaders who could not lift their party’s support below the low 30s. Labour has been on 31%, plus or minus two points, since August in ICM polls.

The prime minister can draw comfort from the fact that this new support has come almost entirely from the Lib Dems and smaller parties. Labour support is down only one point, and at 32% is well above the low points in the mid-20s it hit in the early summer last year.

But that simply suggests the party is on course for a big defeat rather than a calamity. One estimate suggests that the Conservatives would win around 360 seats on today’s figures, a majority of about 70. Labour could expect to win around 240, 30 more than it did at its nadir under Michael Foot in 1983.

The results seem largely driven by economic concerns. 

Elections must be held on or before 3 June 2010, as the maximum length of a Parliament is five years; however, Prime Ministers typically call elections after four years—unless they’re guaranteed defeat and think they can turn things around if given another year.  If elections are held this year, 4 June is a likely date, as they would then coincide with elections for the European Parliament.

This blog, which is more favorably predisposed to the Conservatives, predicts that Gordon Brown will not call elections this year and will let the current Parliament expire, or come very close to it before elections are held next year.  Furthermore, it is likely that David Cameron, the leader of the Conservatives, will probably be the next Prime Minister.

Netanyahu wants to expand West Bank settlements

Former Prime Minister of Israel and current leader of the opposition Benjamin Netanyahu says he will expand Israeli West Bank settlements if he becomes Prime Minister again after February 10th’s elections.  Based on current opinion polls, it appears likely that Netanyahu’s party, Likud, will secure a  plurality of seats in the Knesset and be able to form a government.

“I have no intention of building new settlements in the West Bank,” Netanyahu was quoted as saying. “But like all the governments there have been until now, I will have to meet the needs of natural growth in the population. I will not be able to choke the settlements.”

Israel’s West Bank settlements, constructed on land captured in the 1967 Six-Day War, are probably illegal under international law and are certainly a major obstacle to a lasting peace deal with the Palestinians.  It is therefore unfortunate that Netanyahu is willing to allow them to expand.

Settlement construction in the West Bank has been a key obstacle to peace talks over the years. The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank as part of a future independent state that would also include the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. They say Israel’s settlements, now home to 280,000 people in the West Bank, make it increasingly difficult for them to establish a viable state.

Nearly all Israeli settlement construction over the past decade has taken place in existing West Bank communities. And Netanyahu’s positions do not significantly differ from outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has allowed construction in existing settlements to continue even while holding peace talks with the Palestinians.

The West Bank. Israeli settlements in purple, areas where Palestinian movement is restricted in pink.

The West Bank. Israeli settlements in purple, areas where Palestinian movement is restricted in pink.

The settlements (see Wikipedia article) are home to about 280,000 Israelis and make it harder to the Palestinians to form a viable state.  They also require significant security infrastructure due to violence against them from Palestinians.  While the violence is deplorable, the anger which motivates it is understandable—how would you feel if foreigners came into your country and effectively claimed permanently as their own by building cities there?  Also keep in mind that about 40% of the land on which the settlements are built is privately owned by (unremunuerated) Palestinians.  Additionally, it is not simply the land on which they sit that Palestinians are deprived of; the settlements effectively cut up the West Bank, making travel and transport through the area difficult.

There are a lot of passions involved with the Israeli-Palestinian situtation.  For a possibly less charged example of a similar sort of activity, consider the Chinese policy of trying to tightly wed Tibet, which they conquered militarily, to the People’s Republic by settling ethnic Chinese people there.

These settlements make Israel less secure, not more secure.  They are furthermore one of the biggest obstacles to peace, right up there with continued Palestinian violence.  They are increasingly costing Israelis the good will of their allies, including, quite possibly, the United States under the new Obama administration.

Kadima party leader and Prime Minister candidate Tzipi Livni has vowed to dismantle the settlements, if elected.  This blog very much hopes that she will get that chance.

An analysis of Israel’s strategic decision-making

8. The precise shade of blue is not specified.

The Flag of Israel, shown with the correct hight/width ratio of 11:8

Foreign Policy magazine has an interesting new piece out, “The myth of Israel’s strategic genius,” which attempts to analyze the wisdom of that nation’s strategic decisions since its founding.  The author, Stephen M. Walt, concludes that while Israel gets a lot of credit for making good decisions, its actions have not helped it achieve long-term security and, indeed, some, such as supporting Hamas in the 1980s, have done much to imperil the country.

The article looks at pretty much every major armed crisis involving Israel since the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, including the 1956 Suez Crisis, the 1967 Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War, and all the way up to the current Gaza action.

From the article’s conclusion:

In virtually all of these episodes — and especially those after 1982 — Israel’s superior military power was used in ways that did not improve its long-term strategic position. Given this dismal record, therefore, there is no reason to think that Israel possesses uniquely gifted strategists or a national security establishment that consistently makes smart and far-sighted choices. Indeed, what is perhaps most remarkable about Israel is how often the architects of these disasters — Barak, Olmert, Sharon, and maybe Netanyahu — are not banished from leadership roles but instead are given another opportunity to repeat their mistakes. Where is the accountability in the Israeli political system?

The moral of this story is that there is no reason to think that Israel always has well-conceived strategies for dealing with the problems that it faces.  In fact, Israel’s strategic judgment seems to have declined steadily since the 1970s — beginning with the 1982 invasion of Lebanon — perhaps because unconditional U.S. support has helped insulate Israel from some of the costs of its actions and made it easier for Israel to indulge strategic illusions and ideological pipe-dreams. Given this reality, there is no reason for Israel’s friends — both Jewish and gentile — to remain silent when it decides to pursue a foolish policy. And given that our “special relationship” with Israel means that the United States is invariably associated with Jerusalem’s actions, Americans should not hesitate to raise their voices to criticize Israel when it is acting in ways that are not in the U.S. national interest.

Those who refuse to criticize Israel even when it acts foolishly surely think they are helping the Jewish state. They are wrong. In fact, they are false friends, because their silence, or worse, their cheerleading, merely encourages Israel to continue potentially disastrous courses of action.  Israel could use some honest advice these days, and it would make eminently good sense if its closest ally were able to provide it. Ideally, this advice would come from the president, the secretary of state, and prominent members of Congress — speaking as openly as some politicians in other democracies do. But that’s unlikely to happen, because Israel’s supporters make it almost impossible for Washington to do anything but reflexively back Israel’s actions, whether they make sense or not. And they often do not these days.

Also touched on briefly are some of the failed peace initiatives, including the Camp David meetings presided over by Bill Clinton.  Unfortunately, the article doesn’t go into detail about the proposals and their perceived deficiencies.

The article additionally mentions the West Bank settlements.

More importantly, after seizing the West Bank, Golan Heights and Gaza Strip during the [Six Day] war, Israeli leaders decided to start building settlements and eventually incorporate them into a “greater Israel.” Thus, 1967 marks the beginning of Israel’s settlements project, a decision that even someone as sympathetic to Israel as Leon Wieseltier has described as “a moral and strategic blunder of historic proportions.” Remarkably, this momentous decision was never openly debated within the Israeli body politic.

As I blogged about previously, Israel’s West Bank settlements are a major obstacle to peace and should be dismantled immediately if Israel is interested in a workable, long-term peace deal.

Obama takes oath of office… again

Due to some technical difficulties with the oath of office as given on Tuesday, Barack Obama had Chief Justice John Roberts administer the oath again Wednesday evening.

Due to an apparent misunderstanding of where Roberts would pause in the oath for Obama to repeat after him, Roberts flubbed part of the Constitutionally-stipulated oath, reversing the order of some words. As Article II of the U.S. Constitution says:

Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation:

“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Here is the original oath:

The administration and legal scholars said this probably wasn’t necessary, but was done out of an over abundance of caution.

Craig, the White House lawyer, said in a statement Wednesday evening: “We believe the oath of office was administered effectively and that the president was sworn in appropriately yesterday. Yet the oath appears in the Constitution itself. And out of the abundance of caution, because there was one word out of sequence, Chief Justice John Roberts will administer the oath a second time.”

The Constitution is clear about the exact wording of the oath and as a result, some constitutional experts have said that a do-over probably wasn’t necessary but also couldn’t hurt. Two other previous presidents have repeated the oath because of similar issues, Calvin Coolidge and Chester A. Arthur.

Hopefully Justice Stephens, who delivered the significantly longer Vice Presidential oath to Joe Biden without incident, isn’t giving Roberts a hard time about all of this back at SCOTUS headquarters.

Factual error in Obama’s inaugural address

Well, Obama was president for all of maybe seven minutes* before he made his first mistake, a factual error.  It came in the second paragraph of his inaugural address:

Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents.

Of course, we do need to remain faithful to the ideals of our forbearers and to our founding documents; and of course the oath of office has been taken amidst many circumstances.  However, it has not been taken by 44 Americans, despite the fact that Obama is the 44th president.

This man's defeat in the 1888 presidential election screwed up Obama's inaugural address

This man's defeat in the 1888 presidential election screwed up Obama's inaugural address

This is because, including Obama, only 43 people have held the office.  Why?  Because Grover Cleveland was both the 22nd and the 24th President of the United States, having served two non-consecutive terms—the only person, thus far, to do so.  C’mon, Barack, don’t be hatin’ on one of your predecessors.

The fact that Cleveland takes up two ordinals has some other consequences.  For instance, there will be two $1 coins minted for him in the Presidential Dollar Coin program (presumably with somewhat different designs, unless the mint just wants to be cheap).

Incidentally, Cleveland was a good president, according to the assessments of most historians.  He issued 414 vetoes, more than all other presidents up to that point combined and more than any other two-term president (Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who served just over three terms, vetoed 635 bills); only two bills were passed over Cleveland’s veto.  Over 200 of those vetoed bills concerned Civil War pensions for individual people, many of whom never even served in the military (one would have given a government pension at taxpayer expense to a man who fell off his horse on his way to enlist and so never served).

One further anecdote concerning Grover Cleveland may be informative.  In 1902 there was a serious strike of coal miners who wanted better working conditions.  But this was a serious threat to the country, which used coal in most of its industry and to heat many private homes in the winter.  President Theodore Roosevelt put together a commission to get the facts of the situation and wrote the following to his predecessor on 11 October of that year:

In all the country there is no man whose name would add such weight to this enquiry as would yours.  I earnestly beg you to say that you will accept.  I am well aware of the great strain I put upon you by making such a request.  I would not make it if I did not feel that the calamity now impending over our people may have consequences which without exaggeration are to be called terrible.

Cleveland replied “You rightly appreciate my reluctance to assume any public service. … [However,] I feel so deeply the gravity of the situation, and I so fully sympathize with you in your efforts to remedy present sad conditions, that I believe it is my duty to undertake the service.”

Cleveland’s only substantial savings were invested in the anthracite industry, and due to possible conflicts of interest, he had to sell those assets, which he did at the then-deflated prices.  However, Roosevelt never subsequently called upon him to serve on the planned commission.  It was an unfair way to treat a good man—much moreso than simply forgetting that he’d served two non-consecutive terms.

* Note that, under the Constitution, Obama took office at noon, even though he didn’t take the oath until about 12:05.  Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution just says that “Before he enter on the execution of his office, he shall take the following oath or affirmation…” [emphasis added]; he still holds the office prior to that point, according to legal scholars.

Godspeed, Mr. President

I am setting this post to automatically be published at noon on the 20th of January 2009—at just about the moment when power transfers from George Walker Bush, the 43rd President of the United States, to Barack Hussein Obama, the 44th.  To our new Commander in Chief I have only this to say: Godspeed, Mr. President.

The official portrait of President Obama

The official portrait of President Obama

Vice President Biden will be sworn in first, just before noon.  And then Obama will take the Constitutionally mandated oath of office; he will follow tradition and use his full name: Barack Hussein Obama, contrary to some reports (and the official programs) which said he’d only use his middle initial.  Then after a 21-gun salute and “Hail to the Chief” he’ll delivery his inaugural address.

To commemorate the event, here are the actual words to “Hail to the Chief“, which are only very rarely sung:

Hail to the Chief we have chosen for the nation,
Hail to the Chief! We salute him, one and all.
Hail to the Chief, as we pledge cooperation
In proud fulfillment of a great, noble call.
Yours is the aim to make this grand country grander,
This you will do, that’s our strong, firm belief.
Hail to the one we selected as commander,
Hail to the President! Hail to the Chief!

In terms of patriotic music, it’s not bad; but I do see why it’s not often sung.

In the movie My Fellow Americans, two ex-Presidents played by Jack Lemmon and James Garner discuss their annoyance at hearing the song played wherever they would go. Apparently unaware that it really does have lyrics, they both admit they made up their own lyrics in their head and imagined them whenever hearing the tune.  I would imagine that the real president is at least aware that it has lyrics, even if he doesn’t know them by heart.  I also don’t think he ever gets tired of hearing the tune.  (Though Gerald Ford had the Marine Corps marching band play the fight sonf of his alma mater, the University of Michigan, in lieu of “Hail to the Chief.”)

Anyway, all the best, Barack.