Archive for January 2014

Because People Should Have To Choose Between Eating and the ER

January 11, 2014

Via TPM, here’s why the unemployed must go without:

Just as a bipartisan deal was coming together, Senate negotiations on extending jobless benefits for 11 months mysteriously broke down Thursday over obscure procedural disagreements….

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was pushing hard to offer an amendment that pays for a revival of emergency jobless benefits by delaying Obamacare’s unpopular individual mandate for one year (which is projected to save money by reducing Obamacare subsidies and Medicaid outlays, as well as raise insurance premiums).

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Giving the benefit of the doubt to the Republicans (I know…wait for it), assuming that McConnell doesn’t actually take pleasure in the sufferings of others, what could lie behind tying unemployment benefits to an attempt to undermine delivering health care to millions?

The usual:

The move was aimed at whipping up fodder for GOP Senate candidates to attack Democrats in the November congressional elections, where the Republicans hope to take back the majority.

In the very best construction of GOP motives here, it could be that some of them actually think that the damage done by Democratic control of the Senate is so threatening to the Republic that some collateral damage — actually, the misery and perhaps even deaths of Americans, incurred through the ills of poverty or gaps in the health care system — is just the price to be paid.  The tree of liberty and all that.

Except the “patriots” sacrificed in this case are not volunteers for the cause; they’re pawns, objects and not agents, to be sacrificed to advance McConnell and his buddies towards power.

Factio Grandaeva Delenda Est.

Image: U.S. Food Administration. Educational Division. Advertising Section. You Are Lucky…c. 1917-1919.

I Want One (Well, Not Really, But Still…)

January 9, 2014

Via Twitter buddy @AstroKatie, I find this:

Now, I’m not actually going to pony up five Benjamins for a rumba dancing robot spider, but the idea that it exists does make me smile.

All hail our robot arachnid overlords!

Well, this is awful

January 8, 2014

A North Carolina teenager suffers from schizophrenia. His family calls the cops for help during an episode.  The first officers on the scene taser and restrain the boy, Keith Vidal, 18 years old. Another car rolls up, and, according to the boy’s parents, Mark Wilsey and Mary Vidal, the new officer on the scene decides to handle the situation his way:

“We don’t have time for this,” Wilsey recalled one of the officers saying before he fired in between the two officers who were holding the teen down.

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You can guess what comes next:

The Boiling Spring Laes Police Chief has cleared his officers of any wrong doing at the scene. Chief Brad Shirley says an internal review shows his officers did not break any laws.

That may not be the last word. The local prosecutor is investigating:

DA Jon David offered few new details other than that the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) had been called in to investigate. He said that it would take time to determine if a crime had been committed…

…but the parents have their doubts:

the family said that they were not invited to attend….Outside the press conference, the family held signs, demanding justice for Keith Vidal.

It is early days, of course, and the lawyer for the cop suspended after the incident says his client will be seen to be innocent, which is the presumption until a jury says otherwise.  All the usual disclaimers apply.

But on the facts established so far (like this one: “The first unit on scene reported a confrontation in the hallway, but told Brunswick County Dispatchers several times that everything was OK.”), this looks very bad indeed.

And even if there are mitigating circumstances that come to light, still, this is what happens when guns are the first tool you reach for instead of the last.

That’s the deep problem with American gun (nut) culture.  There are just too many guns out there, available to anyone “responsible” or not.  The reality, of course, is that there are lots of situations where guns are inappropriate and lots of people for whom guns are just a really bad idea.

Some of those people are cops.

The last full measure of the misery of this story?  The same couple whose kid  was just gunned down in front of them just lost their daughter to a car wreck.  I can’t imagine…

I hugged my son extra hard when I got home last night, I can tell you.

Image:  Pieter Breughel the Elder, The Triumph of Death, c. 1562.

 

David Brooks Goes One Toke Over The Line

January 4, 2014

This story has been covered plenty, and the deep problems with David Brooks and Ruth Marcus and their takes on marijuana legalization lie with the actual policy — the racism built into drug prohibition in the US, the folly and cost of the drug war, the relative risks of cannibis vs. such legal drugs as tobacco and the demon rum and all that.  David Weigel nailed both Marcus and Brooks for many of those stupidities yesterday, and there’s plenty more good work showing just how awful was the work issuing from these supposed paladins of public intellection.  I’ve got another axe to grind, perhaps just a hatchet, though, and it doesn’t seem to have been given much internet notice, so I’m back on my David Brooks is Always Wrong™ beat.

I have to admit, what first got me going on this one was Brooks relentless self-righteous self-congratulation — to wit:

We graduated to more satisfying pleasures. The deeper sources of happiness usually involve a state of going somewhere, becoming better at something, learning more about something, overcoming difficulty and experiencing a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

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I don’t have much to say there — others said it better* — and anyway, I couldn’t get much past thoughts of Brooks engaged in anatomically improbable auto-erotica, possibly involving oxidized farm implements.

Worse, to me anyway, was how swiftly this “moderate” least-government possible type went  for the jackboots.  He wrote about folks’ “deep center” and the moral decay that comes when we fail to do the right thing, like continuing to criminalize America’s favorite weed.  To Brooks, what’s wanted is

…government [that] subtly encourages the highest pleasures, like enjoying the arts or being in nature, and discourages lesser pleasures, like being stoned.

So much fail in so little space. You could fisk this almost word by word for the craptastic silliness on display.

I could go on.  As Weigel and many others pointed out, favoring prohibition is fundamentally racist; as Maia Szalavitz writes at Time.com, Marcus and Brooks are deeply, profoundly ignorant of basic science of marijuana use and its impacts.

Shooting one’s mouth off in the absence of any real understanding of a subject is the mark of the pundits that dominate so much of Washington discourse.  It’s a profound sin to me, a betrayal of the central obligation of any journalist: to get it right for their readers — where right doesn’t simply mean avoiding trivial errors of fact, but distortions of the frame of the story that leaves “accurate” quanta of knowledge utterly misrepresented.  Unfortunately, there’s no real penalty in modern elite journalism for simple deception, as long as Politifact doesn’t actually find out that you weigh less than a duck.

But Brooks did cross another journalistic line in this column.  In one six word phrase Brooks goes all Reefer Madness on his readers, emphasizing the damnable fury of ol’ Mary Jane.  He writes  in a list of the bad things about marijuana “that it is addictive in about one in six teenagers”…

That’s the complete quote, by the way.  I’m not leaving out any modifiers or expanded context.

And here’s the thing:  its simply wrong — and should have been obviously so.

I think I know where Brooks got his 1/6 figure.  One quick bit  of Googling led me to this summary from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.  It states:

It is estimated that 9 percent of people who use marijuana will become dependent on it. The number goes up to about 1 in 6 in those who start using young (in their teens)…

Already, you can see the error.  Brooks says marijuana is addictive for 1/6 teenagers, full stop.  Not so: it’s only 1/6 of those who use the stuff.

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Go one step deeper into the literature.  In the underlying paper [PDF/paywall] to which the NIDA document refers, it turns out

The lifetime risk of dependence in cannabis users has been estimated at about 9% rising to one in six in those who initiate use in adolescence.

Same problem: the risk of dependence is only for those who use.

Note one complication:  there’s an issue with what it means to use here.  Daily? Weekly? Annually? This paper implies that the term refers to at least a weekly date with Mssrs. Zig and Zag, but the underlying source for the figure on adolescent dependence is a book to which I don’t have ready access.  So take that as a bit of unfinished business.

In case a little more context might help, one more turn to the internet turns up the invaluable Monitoring the Future folks, who provide a wealth of data about what Kidz Theze Dayz are really thinking and doing.  (Thanks again to Maia Szalavitz for help getting to the right sources for this post.)There you find that regular (daily) teenage marijuana use (PDF) runs about 1% for 8th graders, and rises to about 7% for high school seniors.  Loosening the definition of user to all those who blow a little dope once a year, (PDF) you get the scarier numbers — about 17% for the younger cohort and close to 40 % of twelfth graders.  Those numbers still don’t get you close to any reasonable interpretation of Brooks’ throwaway remark.

This isn’t rocket science.  Rather, we’re talking journalism 101.   That line should have tickled any experienced newshound’s bullshit detector.   If you read Brooks as claiming that one in six teenagers will be addicted then you run up against the actual lifetime risk for marijuana dependence, which, depending on the study, runs between 4 and 8 % of the population.  You just can’t get from here to there.

And if you read him as saying that there’s some independent measure that whether or not they actually smoke, still, if they did, one in six kids would be unable to control their ganja jones, you have to ask, how could you know that?  What possible experiment could show how many of the majority of teenagers who do not use marijuana even once a year would nonetheless be utterly unable to control their urges after that irreversible first toke?  It’s just nonsense…

…which makes me wonder, first does no one edit the Op-Ed. pages anymore?  Even if Brooks can’t or won’t do the work needed to deliver a minimally competently reported piece, someone else had to have read it before it hit print.  If I were the boss of the Times, I’d be asking who missed what and why.

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The thing is, Brooks commits sins like this all the time, but usually disguises them better.  Here he just flat out blew it, which makes it easy to say that this is the kind of crap journalism a place like The New York Times simply shouldn’t allow to reach the outside world.  But don’t mistake this as an aberration; this is how Our David rolls.  The wonder is that the Times seems willing to trade little bits of its credibility with each new BoBo-ism for the clicks and visibility that the mysteriously but undeniably influential Brooks delivers.

Sad…and in the long run a bad bargain for the Grey Lady, if you ask me, which they didn’t — and won’t.

*Weigel really did nail it, but for sheer awesomeness, no one did better than Gary Greenberg, whose remembrance of bonging with Bobo had a lot of folks fooled earlier in the day.  Check this out:

…let’s just say that when Dave wrote this morning that in a healthy society “government subtly encourages the highest pleasures” I remembered a time we were parked out at French Creek and he stood up on top of the Vista Cruiser and gave a speech to us about what Jefferson really meant by the “pursuit of happiness,” and how a government should uphold our right to get as high as possible, and how George Washington grew pot and old Edmund Burke must have smoked it, and I wondered if Dave was sending his old posse a secret message.

Read the whole thing. Really. Just great stuff.  (Also — what’s great is the list of folks who believed Greenberg’s piece was true.  Andrew Sullivan, for one (appending a correction to his post after a bit) but my favorite reaction came from Tim Carney, who snapped at  those ridiculing the gullible, tweeting, “That’s about a dozen good journalist friends of mine you’re talking about.”

‘Bout sums up the state of the too much of the media, wouldn’t you say?

Images:  Adriaen van Ostade, Peasants Drinking and Making Music in a Barn, c. 1635.

Nicolaes Neufchatel,  Portrait of Nurenburg Schoolmaster Johann Neudörffer and a student, 1561.

Quentin Massys, An Allegory of Folly, early 16th century.