political convention

political convention

Thursday, July 18, 2013

What Is It About Iowa?

Two recent decisions by higher courts in Iowa might make you wonder what judges are drinking in that state. In the first case, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that a dentist who fired his assistant because she was too attractive had acted legally. The dentist was afraid that he would start an affair with the woman, even though she had worked for him for 10 years and had always acted professionally on the job.  The justices held that the firing didn’t violate the law because it was prompted by the man's feelings rather than illegal gender discrimination. It was earlier revealed that the Dentist’s wife had discovered that he was sending Twitter messages to the assistant.

In the other case (see LaughingStockNation post July 11, 2013), an Iowa appellate court overturned the conviction of a man who beat his puppy to death with a baseball bat for peeing on the carpet. Judges Larry J. Eisenhaur and Mary E. Tabor, who made up the majority of the three-judge panel, concluded that the man’s behavior didn’t rise to the level of depravity, sadism or torture required by the law. “I have some great difficulty understanding how you can beat a puppy to death and not have sadistic intent,” said a local attorney concerned with animal welfare. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Dangerous Assumptions in the Case of Trayvon Martin and Geoge Zimmerman
A few days after a jury acquitted George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin case one of the jurors gave an anonymous interview to CNN. The New York Times has now published some of the juror's comments.

What the juror said:
Zimmerman feared for his life and had no choice but to shoot Trayvon Martin.

For whatever reason Trayvon Martin decided to confront Zimmerman and threw the first punch.

“I think his [Zimmerman’s] heart was in the right place” because he just wanted to protect the neighborhood. “It just went terribly wrong.”

“It pretty much happened the way George said it happened.”

The fact that Martin was black did not drive Zimmerman to suspect or follow him…Martin appeared to be walking aimlessly in the rain, looking in houses.

“I think he just profiled him because he was the neighborhood watch and he profiled anybody who came in and saw them acting strange.”

The scream recorded on a neighbor’s cell phone “was a long cry and scream for help [by Zimmerman]—whoever was crying was in fear for their life.”

“Trayvon got mad and attacked him.”

What the juror didn’t say:
 How she knew that Zimmerman feared for his life.

How she knew that Zimmerman had no choice but to shoot Martin, who was unarmed.

How she knew Zimmerman’s “heart was in the right place” as he followed Martin.

How she knew that Trayvon Martin “got mad and attacked” Zimmerman. 

How she knew that Trayvon Martin threw the first punch. 
Why she was so certain that it was Zimmerman’s voice crying for help when expert witnesses were unable to make positive identification.   

How she was so confident that Zimmerman’s story was the truth. 

Why she didn't consider Trayvon Martin's actions to be in self defense when he was the one being followed.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Is “Fairness” the Same as Accuracy?
Not In Presidential Debates or the Nightly News

The quest for the fairness in media coverage of politics has a long and difficult history. Consider the example of the telecast of the 1980 presidential debate between Carter and Reagan.  Not since Kennedy debated Nixon in 1960 had presidential candidates met on television. But because many journalists and scholars had noted bias in the 1960 telecasts, the Carter-Reagan debate was carefully designed to avoid any hint of favoritism. Directors chose camera shots and angles for visual equality rather than to simply follow the ebb and flow of the debate.

But the plan failed because Reagan was more active on camera than Carter. Close up shots showing Reagan smiling were followed by identically framed shots of Carter looking down at his notes. Carter seemed weak and disinterested. Things got worse when the director juxtaposed longer shots of the candidates. One high angle shot of Carter diminished his physical stature, making him look small and insignificant compared to his opponent. The whole telecast was an exercise in distortion.

But despite this demonstration that mechanical evenhandedness doesn't work, television networks continue to mold news and public affairs broadcasts to give equal weight to “both sides" of an argument, no matter the actual substance of the different viewpoints.

Two recent examples come from the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, the top-rated broadcast news show. Reporting on the passage of tough new restrictions on abortion in Texas, an NBC correspondent interviewed abortion rights advocates who said the new law would close down a significant number of abortion and women’s health clinics thus leaving many women without important medical services.  For an opposing viewpoint, the reporter interviewed a conservative senator who voted for the legislation. She claimed that the law was not as drastic as abortion rights advocates made out. Its primary goal, she said, was to protect women's health not just to curtail abortion. On the surface, matching these two opposing positions seemed reasonable and fair. However, there was one big problem. The senator's statement was not true.The wording of the law and numerous speeches by proponents, including the governor, made clear that the motive for the legislation was ending abortion not improving women's health. Nevertheless, the correspondent's "fair and balanced" report gave the senator's misleading comments the same weight as the well documented arguments of abortion supporters.

Another NBC report discussed the battle between Democrats and Republicans over the Senate filibuster rules. Noting that action in the Senate was frequently impeded by animosity between the parties, the anchor announced that the two party leaders, Democrat Harry Reid and Republican Mitch McConnell, would appear on the network’s Sunday interview program. He urged viewers to tune in to see the two men who share equal responsibility for Senate grid lock.

This observation says much about the fairness pitfall. Reid is not personally appealing and you could easily conclude that he's a typical self-serving politician. However, he is not in the same league as McConnell when it comes to legislative obstruction. The number of Republican filibusters since President Obama took office (241) has exceeded by scores the totals compiled during past administrations. In addition, filibusters are now being used by Republicans to block cabinet and judicial appointments not traditionally subject to filibuster. In short, the current Republican minority is the most obstructive on record and it is an egregious distortion to say that Reid and McConnell are equally responsible.

Though presidential debates and everyday reporting are different in purpose and scale, the bogus quest for fairness comes from the same undiscerning—or maybe timid—mindset. In both cases, using elementary arithmetic to give the appearance of fairness is a formula for distortion.


Thursday, July 11, 2013

Shocking Case of Judicial Indifference

Appellate Court Frees Man Who
Beat Puppy to Death for Nervous Incontinence

An Iowa appeals court has ruled that a man who clubbed his 7-month-old puppy to death should not be punished under the state’s animal cruelty law because his actions were not “depraved” or “sadistic” as specified by the law. 

Testimony in the man’s trial alleged that he was irritated by the puppy’s undisciplined behavior and repeated “accidents” in the house. After one such occurrence the man carried the puppy outside and returned with a bloody baseball bat and the dead body of the animal.   

A dissenting justice noted that the defendant’s behavior should have been considered animal torture “because it was an extreme response to an ordinary and foreseeable occurrence” and that the beating caused “severe physical pain.” 
(Source: Reuters and USA Today)

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Who's a Moderate?
The Media Muddles the Gun Control Debate

AP top News Headlines (on-line 4/9/13)
“….At least five Republicans have indicated an openness to support the Democratic effort to begin debate [on gun restrictions].  That would give Democrats the votes they would need—assuming no moderate Democrats defect, which is possible.”

To most of the media, including leading TV reporters, pundits and online and print journalists, moderates are the better angels of our politics because they are the only ones who can get things done

But is this the full story? In reality, many members of Congress called moderate by the media are actually engaged in situational moderation. During 2010 healthcare debate, for example, several Democrats, sounding like conservatives, were set to join the Republicans in opposition. However, they soon waivered under pressure and moved toward the Democratic position. Reporters then proclaimed them to be moderates because they were adept at dancing along the fault line between the two parties.

In another noteworthy case, a Democratic senator announced that he was a moderate on an education bill because he took the middle road between ardent Democrats on one side and fervent Republicans on the other. However, this same senator later joined far right Republicans to support legislation, opposed by Democrats and law enforcement, to relax gun control laws. In one instance he was a “moderate” and in the next he was “immoderate.”

Dictionary.com definition of moderate:  Kept or keeping within reasonable or proper limits; not extreme, excessive, or intense….”

Under this definition, who are the “moderate” Democrats and who are the extreme, excessive, or intense ones?  Is a “moderate” Democrat one who dithers on the issue of sensible restrictions on rapid-fire weapons of the type used for mass murder?  Or, is a Democrat being immoderate when he or she supports such legislation?

Parts of this post were first published 11/24/11



Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Paul Ryan Comes Around and Goes Around

Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, has released his latest plan to balance the federal budget and it’s nearly identical to the one submitted in 2011. You might say that it's a case of deja vu all over again. You might say that, but you'd be wrong. This level of redundancy is either blatant cussedness or dimentia. You pick.

Once again, Ryan and the Republicans propose to dismantle Medicare and diminish other popular government safety net programs. One of their main ideas is to convert Medicare to a voucher system where seniors get a fixed amount, say $6,000, which they can use when negotiating for health care coverage with an insurance company. That's it. If the policy they can buy with their voucher isn't adequate to cover essential testing and treatment, tough luck.

Ryan believes that by forcing Medicare recipients into the private insurance market the government will save billions in healthcare costs and thereby balance the federal budget within 10 years. This approach to Medicare was rejected by voters in the 2012 with the re-election of President Obama. But that doesn't worry Ryan and his Republican colleagues.  Ryan told reporters that he's going to stick to his free market principles no matter how people voted or what the consequences for older people. 

The following is LaughingStockNation's response to Ryan's first Medicare proposals in May 2011.


Ideology, Medicare and the Ryan Plan

Medicare and Social Security are by far the most popular government programs. To conservatives, however, they continue to be a throbbing irritant to their ideology, which views the private marketplace, not government, as the solution to society’s most pressing social problems.

An ideology is a pattern of thinking that turns philosophies and suppositions into conventional wisdom accepted without question. That means that on a subject like the future of Medicare, alternative viewpoints are about as useless to a conservative as skepticism is to a believer in ghosts.

Recently, the most notable example of the conventional wisdom is Republican congressman Paul Ryan’s deficit-cutting budget proposal. His idea for Medicare is to turn it into a voucher program where beneficiaries receive a fixed allocation of money from the government, which they can then use to pay for medical services through a private insurance company. Though this plan would significantly cut costs for the government, it would put at risk many of the elderly whose vouchers were not enough to cover all their medical expenses. Recipients would have to negotiate with an insurance company for the lowest price. But full coverage could entail extra premiums to be paid out of pocket.

This plan is motivated ostensibly by the desire to reduce the cost of Medicare in the future as the program accommodates an increasing number of old people. Without such drastic steps, Ryan says, the United States will amass an insurmountable fiscal deficit in just a few years. One conservative commentator put the problem succinctly: “If we don’t reform the program, the country will go broke.”

Here the conventional wisdom speaks, but does it have the answers? And, for that matter, is it asking the right questions? Of course not. The conservative ideology forces the issue of Medicare into a marketplace model that is concerned more with retailing insurance policies than serving the medical needs of the elderly. It also undermines a highly successful single-payer national healthcare plan on the pretense of fiscal responsibility.

Here are the questions the ideology doesn’t ask: Why can’t the American people provide the best and most effective medical care for all of our elderly citizens? And, how can we accomplish this goal and fund it in a fiscally responsible way?

The conventional wisdom responds by saying that health care is an individual responsibility and must be worked out as far as possible in the marketplace. In addition, Medicare in its present form is a government entitlement and like all big government programs it’s inefficient and disempowers individuals. The fiscally responsible thing to do is to severely cut the program to avoid large government deficits.

In short, the conventional wisdom tells us the Ryan plan will work because, as everyone knows, 80 year olds are tough customers when it comes to negotiating with big business for fair prices. It also tells us that caring for the elderly is less important than holding the line on taxes for the wealthy and continuing huge government subsidies for big oil and big agriculture. Unfortunately, fair taxes and reduced subsidies, which would actually cut the deficit and save Medicare, have been taken off the table. To conservatives, blinded by their ideology, these options are simply invisible.


Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Not So Breit

Breaking news (3/12/13): 

Breitbart.com, founded by the late political provocateur and fraud monger Andrew Breitbart, has fallen for a second news hoax in little more than a month.  Breitbart reported as true the made-up story that Chuck Hagel, newly appointed Secretary of Defense, had accepted money  from an organization called Friends of Hamas.  The fake news was floated as a joke by a reporter and some people took it seriously.  Now Breitbart.com,  joined by one other far right website, has distributed a story that says respected New York Times columnist and Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman has filed for bankruptcy.  In his twice-weekly column in the Times, Krugman often belittles Republicans for their self-serving fixation with the U.S. budget deficit. Krugman reminds his readers that under President Obama the deficit has actually declined.  Republicans don’t want to believe it.  Imagine their glee on hearing that Krugman is a fiscal dead beat who can't even balance the family budget.  Turns out the bankruptcy story is fake. But it proved irresistible to an organization that likes that kind of news best.