Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Hurricanes and Global Warming

The horrible news coming out of New Orleans reminds us that the damage done by natural disasters depends in large part on the works of men. Kevin Drum raises important questions about whether the federal response to Katrina has been hampered because the Bush administration has put political hacks in charge of FEMA. Eric Holdeman argues that FEMA has been "systematically downgraded and all but dismantled by the Department of Homeland Security." Josh Marshall provides lengthy exerpts from a New Orleans Times-Picayune article describing federal budget cuts in funds for levee maintenance and improvement.

Another aspect of this story that should not be ignored is the possibility that hurricanes are becoming more intense because of global climate change. Time magazine has a piece on how hurricane intensity, as measured by wind speed, has gotten worse over the last 50 years, and how increased ocean temperatures could be the culprit. According to a Belfast Telegraph report, no less an authority than "Sir David King, the British Government's chief scientific adviser, has warned that global warming may be responsible for the devastation reaped by Hurricane Katrina."

According to King:
The increased intensity of hurricanes is associated with global warming . . . We have known since 1987 the intensity of hurricanes is related to surface sea temperature and we know that, over the last 15 to 20 years, surface sea temperatures in these regions have increased by half a degree centigrade. So it is easy to conclude that the increased intensity of hurricanes is associated with global warming.

The same article notes that other scientific experts disagree with this assessment, including William Gray, a Colorado State University meteorologist "who is considered one of the fathers of modern tropical cyclone science." Gray believes that the increase in hurricane intensity is part of a natural cycle.

Citizen Cain doesn't know who is right about the causes of the current trend in increasing hurricane intensity. But it certainly is the case that global climate change models predict greater hurricane strength as a result of higher ocean temperatures. We would be foolish not to consider the possibility that storms will continue to worsen as we continue to pump greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere and warm the oceans.
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Monday, August 29, 2005

Pundit Innumeracy

In today's LA Times, Rachel Shteir notices that there sure is a lot of theft going on. How bad is it? Why, "a tweedy dealer of antiquarian books and maps" was recently charged with stealing valuable maps from the Yale library. But Shteir doesn't depend on anectdote alone. She reports that "according to the latest FBI Uniform Crime Reports, a theft occurs every three seconds."

Having established that theft is common, Shteir glides into stating that "theft has exploded today . . ." because of a variety of social forces, including the workings of market capitalism, the real estate boom, habits derived from music "file sharing," and moral laxness (referring to habitual stealing as "theft addiction.") But how much evidence does she supply that theft is actually increasing? None, zilch, zero.

So Citizen Cain will help out by checking the data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics National Crime Victimization survey. What does it show? Theft victimization rates of more than 400 per 1000 households in the mid-1970s, plummeting to just over 100 per 1000 by 2003. Gee, sure doesn't seem like theft is increasing.

Shteir is fond of the Uniform Crime Reports. Citizen Cain prefers the National Crime Victimization survey. But, let's look at the UCR too-- the UCR index of property crime (burglary, larceny-theft and auto theft). This measure shows a 23 percent decrease between 1994 and 2003.

Like many innumerate pundits, Shteir doesn't seem to know the difference between asserting that there's a lot of X, and stating that X is increasing. She's writing a book on kleptomania. Perhaps before she finishes it, she should learn this difference. While she's at it, she might want to think about the implications for her argument of the decrease in theft. If theft is decreasing, it's hard to see how the real estate boom and the overly forgiving term "theft addiction" are promoting theft.
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Sympathy for Brooks; Defense of Krepinevich

Yesterday, in an effort to be kind to David Brooks, I referred to his column on "Winning in Iraq" as "a very good column." I liked that his column was based on Andrew Krepinevich's article on "How to Win in Iraq," which I consider an honest effort to develop a strategy that, unlike the current approach, holds some prospect for succeeding.

Two estimable bloggers, Brad DeLong and Matt Yglesias, disagree. Both focus on Brooks's statement that:
For fear of straining the armed forces, the military brass have conducted this campaign with one eye looking longingly at the exits.

DeLong asserts that:
David Brooks's attempt to shove responsibility from the Bushies to the military is indeed the most idiotic thing I've seen this month.

I don't see it that way. Prior to his statement about the military brass, Brooks sets the context by asserting that:

the U.S. didn't adopt this blindingly obvious strategy because it violates some of the key Rumsfeldian notions about how the U.S. military should operate in the 21st century.

Doesn't sound like giving a pass to the Bushies. I see the fact that our military brass has conducted the campaign with one eye on the exits as being forced by the Bush administration-- by the fact of Rumsfeldian doctrine and deliberate constraints on resources (remember, Rumsfeld spent the years before the Iraq War trying to cut back the Army), and by the Bush administration's assumption that we would just turn over Iraq to Chalabi and get out within months. Brooks could have stated this point more explicitly, but I think it's too much to accuse him of shifting all of the blame to the military.

Yglesias states further that Brooks's column "actually offers the definitive refutation" to Krepinevich.

It's nice to point out that if America's capacities were much larger than they actually are, that if we used those capacities cleverly we could do all kinds of stuff, but what does it really mean at the end of the day? Not much, as far as I can see.

This is unfair. While there are legitimate criticisms to be made of Krepinevich's article, it is not the case that his proposal is based on having larger military capacities. Krepinevich actually argues that his strategy would allow us to get by with a slightly smaller force immediately, and to draw down further over time. Is he right? Citizen Cain doesn't know. But Krepinevich's proposal does not assume larger forces, nor is part of a campaign to shift blame away from the Bush administration.

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Sunday, August 28, 2005

Oil Spot, or Partial Disengagement?

Citizen Cain has been hard on David Brooks before, but today Brooks has produced a very good column. Brooks bases today’s column on an article by Andrew Krepinevich in Foreign Affairs on "How to Win in Iraq." As Brooks describes, Krepinevich proposes an "oil spot" strategy for Iraq. Krepinevich’s article is well worth reading.

As opposed to the current strategy of using search and destroy missions to kill insurgents, such a strategy would focus on protecting civilians in key areas. Once a safe haven is established, reconstruction assistance would target the secure area, which would gradually expand, like an oil spot spreading across pavement. Insurgents would have increased freedom to operate outside of the secure areas, because search and destroy missions would be reduced, but within the secure areas, life should be considerably improved. By providing security and economic renewal in these areas, we would hope to gain increased support from the civilian population. In addition to improving security in the 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces that are already relatively secure, Krepinevich suggests commencing a focused effort on creating additional safe havens in Baghdad and in Mosul.

Krepinevich also has some interesting suggestions on what we should be measuring in order to determine whether we are being successful. Insurgent numbers are difficult to ascertain, and number of incidents is a poor measure of insurgent strength. Krepinevich recommends instead focusing on numbers of assassinations of government officials and religious leaders, percentage of contacts with the enemy initiated by coalition forces, percentage of intelligence tips received through the civilian population as opposed to military reconnaissance, and the size of the bounty insurgents need to pay to induce Iraqis to plant improvised explosive devices and to commit assassinations. These metrics would help us better gauge the strength of the insurgents and the success of our strategy in creating security and earning cooperation from the Iraqi population.

The oil spot approach is based successful counter-insurgency efforts by the British in Malaya and by the Filipinos against the Huk insurgents, while the search and destroy approach follows the Vietnam model. Krepinevich also argues that the oil spot strategy could be implemented with no more than the 140,000 troops currently in Iraq, and perhaps slightly fewer– he suggests 120,000. The smaller troop requirement arises from the curtailment of search and destroy missions, and from the expectation that steps such as increasing the number of U.S. advisors embedded within Iraqi units and retaining the most effective U.S. generals for extended tours in Iraq would multiply the effectiveness of U.S. and Iraqi forces.

If the strategy is successful, U.S. force levels could gradually be drawn down. However, Krepinevich admits that it will take a long time– "at least a decade"– and will not be easy.

There will of course be great difficulties in carrying out such a plan. First, creating a coalition for a grand bargain will prove challenging, given the long-standing animosities between segments of the Iraqi population, the Iraqis' suspicions of Americans, and the cultural ignorance of U.S. forces and policymakers. Second, the U.S. military must walk a fine line between risking the increased casualties that extended embedding of American soldiers in Iraqi units will produce and risking a collapse of recruitment and retention efforts that could result from a continued reliance on large U.S. troop deployments. Third, setting up effective Iraqi security forces will be a fitful, long-term process, and oil-spot operations could prove frustrating to a U.S. military that prefers to take the fight to the enemy through traditional offensive operations. Finally, coordinating and integrating security, intelligence, and reconstruction operations will require a level of U.S.-Iraqi cooperation and an integrated U.S. effort far beyond what the interagency process in Washington has produced -- including strong central coordination and leadership from the senior political official on the scene, the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad.

Even if successful, this strategy will require at least a decade of commitment and hundreds of billions of dollars and will result in longer U.S. casualty rolls. But this is the price that the United States must pay if it is to achieve its worthy goals in Iraq. Are the American people and American soldiers willing to pay that price? Only by presenting them with a clear strategy for victory and a full understanding of the sacrifices required can the administration find out. And if Americans are not up to the task, Washington should accept that it must settle for a much more modest goal: leveraging its waning influence to outmaneuver the Iranians and the Syrians in creating an ally out of Iraq's next despot.

If the Bush administration were to propose such a strategy, perhaps some of us who think that the invasion of Iraq was a terrible mistake could reluctantly support it. Some of us believe that we owe the Iraqi people a better effort to help them establish a decent society, and that to allow a return of Baathism, an imposition of a Taliban-style regime, or a descent into full-on civil war would be a catastrophe.

The Bush administration’s refusal to accept that the current strategy isn’t working, and to insist that staying the course is an adequate strategy, has pushed many toward the position that the best course of action is immediate withdrawal. This is the dynamic that is now playing out in the press– Bush versus Cindy Sheehan. Stay the course versus bring them home.

I would propose that the more interesting debate would be between the engagement strategy that Krepinevich has suggested and some variation of Juan Cole’s proposal for a partial disengagement. Cole has proposed that U.S. ground troops be withdrawn as soon as possible from urban areas, leaving Iraqi forces to police their own population. U.S. ground forces would be drawn down, though some might stay to train Iraqis, and we would continue to provide air support in order to prevent the formation of large insurgent forces. Cole’s strategy seems
consistent with pursuit of Krepinevich’s "more modest goal" of utilizing our "waning influence to outmaneuver the Iranians and the Syrians in creating an ally out of Iraq’s next despot."

Given the current state of affairs, in which there are no good options, either Krepinevich or Cole’s suggestions strike me as responsible and worth debating. I would suggest that the press should be making more efforts to help us understand the pros and cons of these different options– reengagement with a oil spot strategy, or partial disengagement. Brooks has performed a service by making a larger public aware of the oil spot strategy. Perhaps he could devote a future column to a fair presentation of the partial disengagement option?
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Saturday, August 27, 2005

Hitchens Slimes Wilson and Clarke

In the Weekly Standard, Christopher Hitchens defends his view that the war in Iraq is "A War to Be Proud Of." Citizen Cain doesn't agree with this perspective, but will concede that Hitchens makes some valid points. However, Hitchens goes off the deep end with this attack on war opponents:
There are an astounding number of plain frauds and charlatans (to phrase it at its highest) in charge of the propaganda of the other side. Just to tell off the names is to frighten children more than Saki ever could: Michael Moore, George Galloway, Jacques Chirac, Tim Robbins, Richard Clarke, Joseph Wilson . . . a roster of gargoyles that would send Ripley himself into early retirement. Some of these characters are flippant, and make heavy jokes about Halliburton, and some disdain to conceal their sympathy for the opposite side.

Citizen Cain has no desire to defend George Galloway or Jacques Chiraq, and doesn't know well enough the views of Michael Moore or Tim Robbins to comment. But Richard Clarke? Joseph Wilson? These are both men who have proven rather better than Hitchens their commitment to defending the United States against terrorism. Could Hitchens bother to defend the charge that they are "plain frauds and charlatans?" Can he support the charge than they each "disdain to conceal their sympathy for the opposite side?" Maybe Hitchens doesn't accuse them of that crime-- in his sleazy phrasing he might be accusing them of the rather less troublesome error of being "flippant" and making "heavy jokes about Halliburton."

This is cheap and slimy.

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Friday, August 26, 2005

Hooray for Patrick Lang!

On Wednesday night, Hardball led off with a substantive discussion of Iraq with former Defense Intelligence Agency official Patrick Lang. The discussion made clear that while the insurgency in Iraq is primarily homegrown, and is led by Baathists and former military officers. The Bush administration likes to emphasize the non-Iraqi, jihadi, elements of the insurgency, the better to tie the war in Iraq with the war on global terror.

Lang noted that the Iraqi military leadership understood from the beginning that they couldn't defeat the United States in a conventional military battle, and that they showed considerable savvy in planning a guerrilla resistance. Then Chris Matthews lowered the quality of the discussion with this question:
MATTHEWS: Why do you think they stood up to us and refused to participate in all the demands made by President Bush and the other allies if they couldn‘t beat us and they were that smart?
LANG: I‘m not sure they...
(CROSSTALK)
MATTHEWS: And they may still be smart, but they weren‘t smart enough not to avoid this war.

The question constains the dubious assumption that "they," the leaders of the insurgency, had the ability to control Iraq's actions prior to the U.S. invasion. Citizen Cain thinks that the one guy who had this ability is now in a Baghdad prison. But the real howler in Matthews' question is the assertion that Iraq "refused to participate in all the demands made by President Bush and the other allies." Right up until just prior to the war, the demand made by President Bush and "the other allies" was that Iraq disarm, and that they cooperate with U.N. inspectors. Just prior to the war, President Bush added the requirement that Saddam Hussein must step down because:

Today, no nation can possibly claim that Iraq has disarmed. And it will not disarm so long as Saddam Hussein holds power.

And since then, Bush and other conservative politicians have continued to state falsely, with the acquiescense of the liberal media, that Saddam Hussein refused to cooperate with U.N. inspectors. See Citizen Cain's report on how Jean Schmidt got away with spreading this falsehood on Hardball. Now Matthews seems to be spreading it himself.

But hooray for Patrick Lang! Here's how he responded to Matthews bogus question.

LANG: Yes. Yes. I know that.

But I‘m not so sure that, in fact, that they saw it exactly that way, because if you look at the records of what the international inspectors were doing on the ground in there, they were—they encountered some delays and things of that kind. But, in general, if they asked to go someplace, they ended up going there.

As we know, in fact, the Iraqis didn‘t have anything to hide in the way of WMD things, because we looked all over the country for it and we couldn‘t find it. You know, it is really difficult to prove a negative, isn‘t it?

MATTHEWS: Yes.

LANG: If you‘re going to try to prove you don‘t have a nuclear weapons program and you don‘t have one, it is pretty hard to prove that.

So, contrary to Matthews' question, Iraq actually did what the international community demanded of it-- it ended its WMD programs, and it cooperated with U.N. inspectors. Well done Mr. Lang.

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To Mickey: We Already Have Brent Bozell and Bernald Goldberg. We Don't Need Another One!

During my brief blogging hiatus, things have gotten out of control. Over at Slate, Mickey Kaus suggests that the Democratic party doesn't need a strong spokesman. Why? Because:
After all, there already is an effective anti-Bush opposition party in America. It's called the media. We don't need two of them! (emphasis in original)
Blech. We already have a right-wing media and a mainstream media staffed by a combination of, on the one hand, liberals who don't seem to particularly care whether their side wins or loses, and on the other hand, conservatives who are willing to function as Republican operatives. So yes, it is rather important for the Democrats to have strong spokesmen.
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Friday, August 19, 2005

Hiatus

I am heading off on a vacation to clear brush on the ranch and get in some bike riding. Unfortunately, I am unlikely to have reliable internet access. Regular posting should resume on August 25.
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Hanson: Invade Gaza!

Is any major pundit worse that Victor Davis Hanson? For Citizen Cain’s money, no other regular contributor to a major newspaper matches Hanson’s special combination of crappy writing, pomposity, and loony world view. To read a smack down of Hanson for packing factual errors and plain hooey into his pretentious history lessons, click here.

Hanson, according to Harold Meyerson, is President Bush’s "favorite historian." Therefore, we have to pay attention to what he says.

In today’s Chicago Tribune, Hanson says that however bad the situation seems in Iraq and Afghanistan, we’re better off there than in "Gaza, Iran and North Korea-- where the U.S. has let others handle the mess." Hanson writes so badly that it is frequently difficult to tell what he means or what he is proposing. This column, however, seems pretty clearly to be saying that the United States should eventually invade Gaza, Iran, and North Korea.

You see, bad things are happening in places that the United States hasn’t invaded, and we just can’t tolerate that.
For now, I doubt whether Palestinians, Iranians and North Koreans will be pacified by the deference of others. Sooner or later they may well have their own rendezvous with the quiet Americans now in the shadows.
U.S. foreign policy, under Condoleeza Rice’s stewardship, seems to be pulling back from the grand ambitions of the first Bush term, and adopting more modest goals and more multi-lateral, Kerry-esqe tactics. But Hanson is having none of it. Let’s keep invading until we’ve knocked off the entire axis of evil, he says, and the Palestinians too while we’re at it.

It isn’t clear yet whether Bush and Cheney are truly committed to a retrenched foreign policy. But surely they cannot be considering anything like what Hanson is proposing? Let’s hope that Bush has a new favorite historian.
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Thursday, August 18, 2005

Forget Policy; Let's Talk PR With Nora O'Donnell

Cindy Sheehan’s protest against the Iraq war provides an opportunity for the press to ask substantive questions about the war in Iraq and about its impact on the home front. Do the Bush administration’s policies make sense? What are the alternatives? What went wrong? How do other military families feel about the burden that they are carrying?

But on MSNBC, they prefer to focus on different questions, questions relating to how the White House is or isn’t managing its public relations effort. On Hardball last night, the first segment was a taped interview of White House Communications Director Nicolle Devenish. Here are the first four questions that guest host Norah O’Donnell asked her.
  1. [Is] the president . . . concerned that Cindy Sheehan‘s cause has grown into a national movement?
  2. What would be the down side to the president meeting with her? He has met with her once before a year ago. Why not invite her in, pray with her or send First Lady Laura Bush to meet with her?
  3. The president plans to stay in Crawford for another three weeks to finish his vacation. And Cindy Sheehan said she is not leaving until she meets with the president. What will happen to Crawford? And you are the president‘s communications director. How do you deal with something like this when there is now this growing group of people in Crawford, hundreds, and now across the country. The media following her so closely.
  4. CNN, "USA Today" Gallup Poll shows 54 percent of Americans say the U.S. made a mistake by sending troops to Iraq. Is the White House, the president going to launch a new effort in the fall to help better explain to the American people why we’re at war in Iraq and when U.S. troops are coming home?
    (I have removed the preambles to some of the questions; the punctuation is the responsibility of MSNBC.)

Note that O’Donnell didn’t ask Devenish to explain why we are at war in Iraq or when U.S. troops are coming home. She asked whether there would be a new fall effort at explanation.

O’Donnell’s next question seemed like it might be about something substantive. But at the last moment, O’Donnell saved it. She veered away from the substantive question she was starting to ask, and veered back into her favorite subject– management of public opinion.

August was one of the deadliest months on record for National Guard and reserve troops. Americans want to know what is the strategy in Iraq? There was an interesting story in the "Washington Post" on Sunday which said U.S. officials in Washington and Baghdad say the Bush administration is significantly lowering expectations for us in Iraq. Why are we lowering expectations?

Of course, Devenish never had to explain the strategy in Iraq. But she did have to address the question of whether we are lowering expectations.

In her final question to Devenish on this topic, O’Donnell again started with the suggestion of substance, then again quickly veered away.

Because a senior administration official was quoted in the "Washington Post" as saying, what we expected to achieve in Iraq was never realistic given the timetable or what unfolded on the ground. This from an official who was involved in policy since the ‘03 invasion. Was that official off the reservation? Not speaking in tune with the rest of the White House?

Needless to say, this is turf that the White House communications director was happy to play on. Imagine her relief at getting such questions. Read the transcript. She did quite well. How well would she have done if O’Donnell had asked about whether the Bush administration is happy with the budding theocracy in Iraq, or about whether the Administration’s attempt to conduct the war with minimal resources has prolonged the conflict and increased the hardship for military personnel and their families? We’ll never know.

Having been such a gracious hostess to the White House Communications Director, O’Donnell introduced the next segment:

Is Cindy Sheehan‘s protest overplayed? And has she become a puppet of the left?
Coming up, we‘ll ask Pat Buchanan and former Senator John Breaux.

It got worse from there. Incomparably, Bob Somerby exposes O’Donnell’s "combative ridicule" of Sheehan and Iraq war protesters generally in her questioning of Buchanan and Breaux. We endorse Somerby’s words. But we draw your attention to another aspect of this horrific performance. First O'Donnell explores the White House’s communications strategy regarding the Iraq war generally and Sheehan’s protests specifically. Then she frames the following discussion as whether Sheehan "overplayed" her protest. Perhaps if Sheehan had focus-grouped it first she would have hit it just right. She might have distanced herself from the left, and avoided rhetoric shown to be unpalatable to five out of eight soccer moms.

O’Donnell, like most of her media star colleagues, shows little interest in policy or in foreign affairs, but she does show keen interest in the management of public opinion. She might have chosen to focus on how we might make the situation better in Iraq, or on whether U.S. presence is helping or harming the situation, or on the hardships of military families and how they might be alleviated. Instead, she preferred to explore ways that Presidents or protesters might market themselves better.

Is there a more serious issue than the war in Iraq facing us as a country? Is this really the best discussion we can have about it?

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Wednesday, August 17, 2005

ABC Coverage of Afghanistan

Yesterday I posted about weaknesses in newspaper coverage of accusations that the Pakistani military is training Taliban forces who then cross the border to fight in Afghanistan. Paul Watson’s excellent coverage of this issue in the Los Angeles Times stands out as an exception. Today, let’s consider how one of the networks has performed on this story.

A Nexis search of ABC News transcripts since June 1 reveals no mention of these accusations, and very little coverage of Afghanistan at all. The closest that ABC News came to discussing the Taliban training camps was in a June 8 report. In this report, Brian Ross reported on an al Qaeda training camp in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, where terrorists are being trained "allegedly on the outskirts of the Pakistani army’s headquarters, apparently run by a major Pakistani politician." The politician is Maulana Fazlur Rehman. No mention was made of possible connections between this training camp and the war in Afghanistan.

The most extensive coverage of any story coming from Afghanistan related to the search for missing Navy SEALs. There were also occasional mentions of American war dead in Afghanistan, particularly after 16 Americans were killed in a helicopter crash. There were also numerous mentions Afghanistan in stories that focused on topics other than Afghanistan. For instance, Afghanistan was mentioned in retrospectives of Peter Jennings's career, in stories about how British Muslims feel about the presence of British troops in Afghanistan, and in stories about the demands of terrorist organizations that Western troops leave Afghanistan and Iraq and about the backgrounds of the London bombers.

The American press is failing to properly cover Afghanistan. Its near silence on the possible renewal of Pakistani support for the Taliban is a disturbing example of this failure.

(edited since original posting)
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Tuesday, August 16, 2005

More Liberal Bias

For all the talk of liberal bias in the media, is there any cable news show host, or regular guest host, who could keep his job after saying that the Republicans are pathetic losers, and that he hopes that they will never win another election? Is there any who would even want to say it?

The current state of cable news allows conservative talkers to say things that a liberal could never get away with. Last night Monica Crowley was guest hosting on The Situation with Tucker Carlson on MSNBC. She was responding to voicemails left about previous shows.
JEFF, ALTOONA, PENNSYLVANIA: This is Jeff calling from Altoona, Pennsylvania and just watching Friday‘s show with Chuck Rangel from New York State and he typifies the reason why Democrats will never win a major election in this country in the foreseeable future because they‘re living in a fantasy world. You know they can‘t see the truth or anything that makes sense even if it bites them on the ear like Mike Tyson.

CROWLEY: All right, Jeff, I have to say I‘m with you 100 percent. We like Charlie Rangel. We‘re so glad he came on the program but the Democratic Party is suffering from a girth of ideas [sic-- she probably meant dearth] on Iraq, on the war on terror, on tax policy, on Social Security, so maybe if they could get their acts together they might start winning presidential elections. I don‘t want to see that happening, I‘m just saying . . .
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Failures in Covering Afghanistan and Pakistan

Paul Watson of the Los Angeles Times has been almost alone in covering accusations that Pakistan is providing support to Taliban fighters, helping them kill Afghan civilians and government forces, as well as U.S. soldiers. Citizen Cain has already praised a July 28 story by Watson about Pakistan’s connection to the Taliban. This story made some important assertions:
  1. The Taliban is using numerous bases in Pakistan.
  2. The Pakistani military is providing training to the Taliban at these bases, according to Afghan officials, including Sayed Anwar, acting head of Afghanistan’s counter-terrorism department.
  3. As a result, the Taliban is infiltrating increasing numbers of guerrillas from Pakistan into Afghanistan and is conducting increasingly lethal attacks.

The story quoted the denials of Pakistani officials, and Anwar admitted that he did not have a "smoking gun" linking the Pakistani military to Taliban training. However, according to Anwar "reports from intelligence agents across the border and 50 captured prisoners describe an extensive network of militant training camps in areas of Pakistan’s federally administered North Waziristan tribal area where government forces are firmly in control." Moreover, Zulfiqar Ali, a freelancer for the Times, confirmed that once-closed Pakistani training camps for Taliban fighters have recently been reopened.

Clearly, this is an important story and, at a minimum, other newspapers should be reporting the same information. One might also hope that the story could be advanced through additional evidence about whether or not the Pakistani military is involved in training the Taliban, and through reactions from U.S. officials on theses accusations by one ally (Afghanistan) against another (Pakistan).

The Los Angeles Times followed up on August 11 with another story by Paul Watson which described continued battles between the Taliban and Afghan government forces backed by the U.S., and re-iterated that Afghan officials accuse Pakistan of responsibility for the Taliban resurgence. The story also reported accusations made by Maulana Fazlur Rehman, leader of an alliance of six Islamic parties that are the primarily political opposition to the government of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. Rehman accused the Musharraf administration of transporting Taliban fighters to training camps in the Northwest Frontier and "covertly aiding cross-border attacks on U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan." Rehman, who is described as "a longtime Taliban supporter and fierce critic of the West" stated that "we will have to openly tell the world whether we want to support jihadis or crack down on them. . . . We can’t afford to be hypocritical any more."

So, let’s see how our leading newspapers, the New York Times and the Washington Post, have performed on this story in the three weeks since the Los Angeles Times article.

The New York Times confirmed in an August 5 dispatch from David Rohde and Somini Sengupta that the Taliban is "resurgent" in Afghanistan, and provides some additional evidence that Taliban training camps are operating in Pakistan. It also describes how "violence on Pakistan’s side of the border has taken a vicious turn upward," and describes battles between the Pakistani government and militants, and the loss of government control in some areas. This story appeared on page 6. An editorial the same day mentions Pakistan’s "tolerance of Taliban activities" and "passive enabling of the Taliban." It goes so far as the say that:

once the snows began to melt this March, Taliban fighters started showing up in greater numbers and with suspiciously sophisticated gear in regions of Afghanistan that border Pakistan. Afghan military and intelligence officers are convinced that they are coming from Pakistani training camps.

However, the editorial does not say what it means by "Pakistani training camps." Readers might fairly draw the conclusion that this phrase means "training camps in Pakistan (that the government has no control over)." Neither the editorial nor the news story mentions the accusation that the Pakistani military is actually involved in training Taliban fighters at these camps. Nor has the New York Times published any reaction from a U.S. official.

The Washington Post, in an August 5 article by N.C. Aizenmann, described President Musharraf’s "contradictory record as one of the most important allies in President Bush’s war on terrorism." The article reports that Musharraf has made a show of cracking down on Islamic militants, but without significant impact and, according to some critics cited in the article, without much conviction. It also described how the Taliban’s Pakistani allies are becoming increasing powerful within Pakistan, and mentioned a training camp for Kasmiri militants. However, with respect to possible Pakistani military support for the Taliban, it mentions only that "although the Pakistani army killed more than 300 militants in a campaign against Al Qaeda bases near the Afghan border last year, it has since proved unable or unwilling to stop fighters from the ousted Taliban militia from slipping back into Afghanistan to launch bombings and attacks."

Is it really true that the Pakistani military is training Taliban fighters? Citizen Cain doesn’t know. Perhaps the Taliban training camps in Pakistan are being run outside of Pakistani military control. Perhaps the Pakistani government is powerless to control the situation. Perhaps Afghan officials and Pakistani opposition leaders have reasons to lie or stretch the truth when they make these accusations. But shouldn’t these accusations be covered, when they are made by an important Afghan official and a major Pakistani politician and ally of the Taliban? Isn’t it possible that they are true? Shouldn’t the press attempt to determine whether they are true? Shouldn’t U.S. officials be asked their opinion? Shouldn’t we find out what the United States plans to do about the situation?

The New York Times and the Washington Post have provided scant coverage to this situation. They have referred to training camps and to cross-border infiltration of Taliban, but without specifically describing the accusations against the Pakistani military.

How can this not be a major story? The attacks of 9/11 have their origins in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Afghan war against Soviet occupation radicalized Arab volunteers, including Osama bin Laden, who were supervised by Pakistani military intelligence and supported by the United States. The Taliban was created by Pakistani military intelligence amidst the chaos that followed the Soviet defeat, in order to provide security along trade routes. The close relationship between al Qaeda and the Pakistan-backed Taliban, allowed al Qaeda to grow and plan increasingly sophisticated attacks from their Afghan base.

Even after the Taliban were ejected from Kabul, Afghanistan and Pakistan remained crucial to the war on terror. Osama bin Laden is widely thought to be hiding in Pakistan. The London bombers had a connection to the radical Pakistani religious schools, or madrassas. The Taliban is growing stronger again, and is making use of bases in Pakistan. Surely it is a major story when the Pakistani military is credibly accused of renewing its support for the Taliban.

The Bush administration turned its attention away from Afghanistan very quickly, shifting intelligence assets to Iraq that could have been used to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and his followers before they escaped to Pakistan. Just because the Bush administration prefers to minimize the importance of this region, however, doesn’t mean that the American press should follow suit.

While coverage of Afghanistan has become increasingly sparse in American newspapers, it is still disappointing that major newspapers have yet to inform their readers of accusations made more than three weeks ago by the head of Afghan counter-terrorism that the Pakistani military is training Taliban fighters. It is also disappointing that major newspapers have not seen fit to inform their readers that a Pakistani ally of the Taliban also asserts that the government of his country is aiding the Taliban. All praise and rosebuds to the Los Angeles Times and to Paul Watson for covering these important studies. Raspberries to the New York Times and Washington Post.

If readers are aware of any coverage that bears on these issues that I have missed, in these papers or elsewhere, please post a comment to let me know about it.

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Friday, August 12, 2005

How Bozell Does Press Criticism

In the New York Times Sunday Book Review section on July 31, Judge Richard A. Posner praises a number of books for documenting "the bias in some of the reporting in the liberal media." For a critique of Posner's article, see Media Matters. I want to focus on one of the books Posner singled out--Weapons of Mass Distortion: The Coming Melt-Down of the Liberal Media , the 2004 tome by L. Brent Bozell III, head honcho at the Media Research Center. Imagine my humiliation, as a press critic, at never having read this masterwork.

Naturally, I headed straight to the library to correct this grievous error. This will be a short review, because one amusing anecdote pretty much says everything you need to know about this book. It comes at the beginning of chapter 5.

Bozell goes to a CNN studio to tape an interview for story on “a breaking Hollywood scandal.” But oops! A snafu at CNN puts Bozell into the wrong studio, to talk about the wrong subject. Before he realizes it, a live show has started, and he’s supposed to discuss Oscar contending films on Showbiz Today, along with other “film critics."
One small problem though: “Film critic” Bozell had not viewed a single one of the Best Picture nominees and had no idea what was going on with the other categories! But I was stuck, and so for the next half hour, I bluffed. I didn’t want to answer “I have no clue” to every question, so I winged it, proffering one uniformed opinion after another. I was especially proud of myself when I spoke of being impressed by the cinematography of one film, and won enthusiastic agreement from my fellow critics, causing me to wonder if any of them had watched these movies either.
Funny stuff! What a great story. My only complaint about it is that it shouldn’t come in chapter 5. It should be in the preface; if possible, I would like to see it printed on the cover. Should readers really have to wait until chapter 5 to learn that Bozell is willing to go on national TV and just make stuff up? Should they even have to open the book? What does it say about a man that he offered “uniformed opinions”—in fact that he lied-- for no better reason than that he “didn’t want to answer ‘I have no clue’ to every question?”

Bozell says that “this story comes to mind whenever I ponder how some in the news media cover economics.” For me, this story will come to mind whenever I ponder how L. Brent Bozell does press criticism.
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Autism Epidemiology

While we're all waiting to see whether David Kirby will concede that the data show continued increases in the California DDS caseload of autistic young children, let's clear up some issues about the use of California DDS data for assessing the impact of autism on vaccines.

Two formidable commenters, Autism Diva and Jim Laidler, have graced our pages with comments on these issues. The Autism Diva reminds us that:

The administration of the DDS is such that the numbers are too unreliable for epidemiology, which is why they have specifically asked that their numbers not be used for epidemiological purposes.
Jim Laidler points out that:

the prevalence within each birth year cohort continues to rise well into the late teens. This is not consistent with the natural history of autism, and so indicates that the California DDS data . . . is . . . not reliable for tracking autism prevalence.
Laidler also points out that we don't need to rely on flawed California DDS data because there are better ways, implemented in peer-reviewed studies, to assess autism incidence. I highly recommend more detailed statements on these issues from Autism Diva and Jim Laidler.

So, if the California DDS aren't useful for autism epidemiology, why is Citizen Cain engaging in a discussion with David Kirby over what the California DDS data mean? Let me explain.

One school of thought holds that autism didn't exist, or that it was comparatively rare, until babies began to be exposed to thimerosal in vaccines starting in the 1930s. Incidence increased further, the argument goes, in the 1990s, because changes in vaccination schedules increased the amount of exposure to thimerosal. According to this theory, autism incidence will decline as children's exposure to thimerosal declines. Since autism is often diagnosed among children aged 3-5, and since significant reductions in thimerosal exposure began in 2000, or maybe 2001, we ought to start seeing reductions in autism incidence about now if this theory were true.

People being naturally impatient, they want to know now whether autism incidence is decreasing among young children. They don't want to wait for an epidemiological study to be published in a peer reviewed journal. So they latch onto such data as exist now, like the California DDS data, which is published every quarter. As Laidler points out, this data is unreliable for assessing past changes in autism incidence, since increased caseload almost certainly reflects changes in diagnostic criteria (even, contra Kirby, within the category of "full-blown autism"), increased awareness, and changes in the level of services available to those who receive a diagnosis of autism.

But I would argue that it might not be so unreasonable to use the California DDS data to get a first read on whether or not autism incidence is now decreasing. Awareness of autism hasn't decreased over the last five years. Diagnostic criteria, as far as I know, aren't becoming more strict. Availability of services, to the best of my knowledge, isn't decreasing. So if, say, over the next year or two, we were to see a sharp drop in the California DDS caseload of young autistic children, we would have a fact that required explanation. It wouldn't prove that autism incidence had decreased, but it would sure make me want to look more closely to see what's going on. People who don't have their minds made up about possible connections between thimerosal and autism find it very persuasive to hear that caseload out in California is starting to decrease, just as the theory predicts! And despite my best efforts, that's what people are hearing.

So rather than just say that the data isn't suitable for epidemiological purposes, I prefer to engage in the discussion and try to establish some ground rules on how to interpret the California data. Reasonable people should be able to agree that what we're looking for is a significant drop in autism caseload among young children, corresponding to the period during which thimerosal exposures decreased. If we see such a drop, we have to look further to see what's going on, because one possibility would be that the drop is the result of reduced thimerosal exposure. Reasonable people ought to agree that the best way to see whether such a decrease has occurred is to track the number of new cases among young children over time. If such data is not available, the next best way is to track the number of total cases among young children (3-5 years old). Reasonable people should also be able to agree that the tracking changes in total caseload is a lousy way to look for such a decrease. Reasonable people should not insist, once the issue has been explained to them, that a decreasing rate of increase in the total caseload indicates a decrease in autism in young children.

Autism Diva and Jim Laidler seem to think that David Kirby is not a reasonable person. Let's see. Kirby promises to sort through the data and respond next week. Let's give him a chance!

I hope that we'll be able to agree that autism caseload is continuing to increase among young children in California, and therefore that the DDS data provide no suport for the idea that autism incidence is decreasing in response to reductions in thimerosal exposure.

Moreover, a knowledgeable correspondent informs me that California DDS recently published an evaluation that illustrates the impact of new cases and drop-outs on net changes in total caseload. See page 7. This evaluation makes it clear that significant number of cases drop out for one reason or another-- the number of drop outs was more than 20 percent of the number of new cases in 2004. Moreover, the number of drop-outs is highly variable, making use of changes in total caseload a poor measure of the trend in new cases. New cases increased from 2,355 in 1999 to 3,524 in 2002. New cases decreased slightly in 2003, before increasing again in 2004, to 3,554. Unfortunately, this analysis does not break out new cases and drop-outs by age.

To summarize-- the best data from California show a recent leveling off in the total number of new cases per year, and continued growth in total cases among young children. In no way can the data be interpreted to show a decrease in new cases among young children.

One final issue to address. After having claimed that new cases seem to be decreasing, Kirby now states that maybe it's too early to start seeing a decrease, because maybe thimerosal exposure didn't really start decreasing until as late as 2003. My knowledgeable correspondent point me towards an article in the December 17, 2003 JAMA which indicates that there were significant shortages in many vaccines, including DTaP, between late 2000 and spring of 2003. As a result, stockpiles of vaccine produced prior to 2000, or 2001, were likely used up pretty quickly. While some may have still been around in 2002, certainly the exposure levels were decreasing. And since the argument is that increased exposures in the 1990s caused increased autism incidence, decreased exposures in 2001 or 2002 should be leading to decreased incidence among 3-4 year olds, if the theory were correct.
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Thursday, August 11, 2005

Life of a Pundit

The life of a pundit is an easy one. You can say just about any damn thing you want, and you don't have to back it with evidence. It doesn't even have to make the slightest bit of sense.

Which brings us to David Brooks. In today's New York Times, he encourages smart kids to study cultural geography. I have no problem with that. But then he proceeds to denigrate other ways of understanding the world. Where did this gem come from?

The economists and scientists tend to assume that material factors drive history - resources and brain chemistry - because that's what they can measure and count.

Let's leave aside the silly swipe at the economics profession and consider whether "scientists tend to assume" that "brain chemistry" "drives history." Is there any scientist who believes this? What does it even mean? The mind, and the brain chemistry, boggles. The decline of feudalism was caused by increased seratonin production, maybe? How do scientists "measure and count" historical brain chemistry anyway?

He warns budding cultural geographers of the danger of studying "why and how people cluster, why certain national traits endure over centuries, why certain cultures embrace technology and economic growth and others resist them." What is that danger? You guessed it. Liberals.

This is the line of inquiry that is now impolite to pursue. The gospel of multiculturalism preaches that all groups and cultures are equally wonderful.

Some versions of multiculturalism may preach that "all groups and cultures are equally wonderful," but each in their own way. If Brooks is unhappy with such an attitude, he's free to make an argument against it. But that's not what he does. He instead claims, with no evidence, that multiculturalists insist that all cultures have the same attitudes towards technology or towards economic growth, and are therefore hostile to cultural geography. You'll probably find these multiculturalists hanging out with the scientists who believe that brain chemistry drives history.
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Questions for David Kirby-- Dataphobes Beware

David Kirby’s response regarding the California autism data is interesting and perplexing on a number of levels. He notes that we aren’t certain about the extent to which thimerosal remained in vaccines between 1999 and 2003, and that it may be too early to tell whether reduction in thimerosal has had an impact on autism caseload in California. I agree. I wouldn’t myself have trumpeted the California DDS numbers as proof of anything. It is Kirby, in his Huffington Post article, who holds up the California data as reflecting the "gold standard of autism epidemiology" and who claims that "if the numbers in California and elsewhere continue to drop – and that still is a big if -- the implication of thimerosal in the autism epidemic will be practically undeniable."

Even after reading Kirby’s response, I can’t tell whether he still thinks that the numbers in California show a "drop." Gratifyingly, Kirby says that Citizen Cain is "absolutely correct," though it isn’t clear what I am "absolutely correct" about. I contend that the California Department of Developmental Services data show a steadily increasing caseload of autistic children aged 3-5, from at least the third quarter of 2002 through the second quarter of 2005. Kirby responds with some unfamiliar numbers on "new entries" into the California DDS system since the third quarter of 2003, which show a decline for two quarters, then start climbing up. He also reiterates his original position that the "California numbers" are "dropping," but that he "will certainly point out this new, and perhaps confounding, development."

I admit to being confused about what this means. But let’s try to work through it. The truth is out there! We may never find it, but we should be able to get closer to it.

Kirby and I seem to have very different approaches to looking at the numbers. Mine is pretty straight-forward– look at the caseload of 3-5 year-olds with autism. Is it decreasing? No. Is it increasing? Yes. Every quarter, for a total of 38 percent since the third quarter of 2002.

Kirby’s approach is more complicated and, to my eyes, confused. He provides data on "new entries" to the California DDS autism caseload, and then says that these "entries" are more correctly called a "net gain" in cases. Then he continues to refer to "entries." The two things are very different: "new entries" would tell us how many new cases of autism among a given age cohort have been registered in a given quarter. To the best of my knowledge, California DDS does not report such data. The data that I’m aware of just shows caseload by age. If California DDS also reports new entries, I would appreciate being informed of where to find this information.

But I don’t think that new entries really are reported, because Kirby says that "entries" really means "net gain." A net gain would be an increase, quarter over quarter, in the number of persons within a given age cohort that are part of the California DDS autism case load. Therefore, a "net gain" within an age cohort is a very different thing than "new entries." Why? Consider 3-5 year olds. If there were a steady state (zero net gain) in the autism caseload, and no deaths or drop-outs from the system, there would be new 3-5 year old entries into the system every quarter, and these new entries would be matched by an equal number of children that would no longer be in the 3-5 year old category for the simple reason that they turned 6 years old. In a steady state, there would be no net gain, but continual new entries. If there were 5000 cases, and during the next quarter 1000 of them turned 6 years old, and there were 1000 new entries, there would be zero net gain.

Therefore, a positive net gain of any size means that autism incidence is growing among 3-5 year old Californians (if we assume, just for the purposes of this discussion, that the California DDS data really reflect autism incidence). For the numbers to be "dropping," we would need to see actual decreases in caseload and a negative net change. Kirby seems to think, if I understand him correctly (a big if) that if the rate of increase in caseload slows then autism incidence is decreasing. A steady state, for Kirby, seems to involve a steady rate of increase in the number of 3-5 year olds with autism. Wrong. Autism caseload among 3-5 year olds is increasing every quarter. The amount by which it increases varies slightly, but in no sense can a reduction in the increase be considered a decrease in incidence.

But what the heck are these numbers that Kirby provides as either "entries" or "net gain." Kirby says that he got them from Rick Rollens; could Rick Rollens or Kirby let us know where these data have been published? Because the numbers don’t make sense as either "new entries" or as "net gain." The caseload numbers that I compiled XXX show a net gain of 139 3-5 year old cases in the second quarter of 2005, compared with Rollens/Kirby’s 449. For every quarter, the Rollens/Kirby numbers are higher by far than the actual net gain in California DDS caseload. So the Rollens/Kirby numbers are too high to represent net gain.

Hmm. Could the Rollens/Kirby numbers actually represent "entries" rather than "net gain." No, because the Rollens/Kirby numbers are much too low to represent entries. There is no way, with new entries averaging 397 cases per quarter over the last 8 quarters (as the Rollens/Kirby data portray) that the number of cases among 3-5 year olds could be 5446 and growing (as the California DDS data indicate). Since children don’t enter the system until they are 3 years old, and since there are 12 quarters in the three year age spread, there would have to have been an average of at least 454 new 3-5 year old entries per quarter to sustain a caseload of 5446. In reality, the number of new cases would have to be substantially larger than 454 cases per quarter, given that some children do not enter the caseload until they are 5 years old (or older), and therefore the distribution of 3-5 year old cases will be skewed towards the older end of the range. As a result, more than 1/12 of the caseload would be turning 6 years old every quarter, and an equivalent number of new entries would be needed just to maintain a steady state.

So– some questions for Mr. Kirby– where do these numbers come from? What do they represent– new entries? Net gain? Something else? Do you concede that the numbers are not, in fact, "dropping?" Do you concede that the relevant numbers (caseload among 3-5 year olds) are increasing every quarter, with some fluctuations in the rate of increase?

Let me repeat my thanks to Mr. Kirby for responding so graciously. I hope the conversation will continue.
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Wednesday, August 10, 2005

David Kirby: Stand Up Guy

Citizen Cain gets results! David Kirby, author of Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy has quickly responded via e-mail to my recent needling about his previous lack of response to my refutation (in my opinion) of his Huffington Post article. This article argued that autism among young children in California has decreased recently, possibly in response to reductions in the mercury content of vaccines. I argued that the California data in fact show continued increases in reported autism among young children in California.

Much praise, and a rosebud, to David Kirby for responding! And for doing so in a most gracious manner. I will post my response to this e-mail message as soon as possible. But for now, David Kirby has the floor:
Dear Citizen,

I greatly appreciate your email and your obvious interest in this subject. I will take heated opposition over apathy any day, and you are to be commended for your vigilance.

Forgive me for not responding sooner, as I only recently saw the post on your site and, yes, prepping for Russert is pretty time consuming.

Anyway, you are absolutely correct. I checked into what you were saying, and indeed, even though ALL new entries into the system in California have dropped in recent quarters, in the 3-5 year old range, they have actually ticked upward in some of them, including the last two.

According to the figures as I see them (They were provided to me by Rick Rollens of California; please tell me if your figures show otherwise), in the 2nd quarter of 2005, a net gain of 449 3-5 year old autism cases entered the DDS system: an increase of 36 cases over the first quarter of 2005, which had 413 entries (or, more correctly, net gain). This inturn represented an increase of 49 more cases over the 4th quarter of2004, which had a total of 366 new entries.

Meanwhile over the same period, among the six-to-nine year olds, the numbers went up slightly, and then back down again, as follows: 4th quarter 2004: 699 cases; 1st quarter 2004: 701 cases; 2nd quarter 2005: 642 cases.

I discovered this prior to going on MTP, and, had it come up, I would have gladly discussed it, as I am certainly not afraid of the truth.

But in this case, the truth is a little murky, and it is why I ALWAYS warn caution when the numbers game comes up (yes, even on the HuffingtonPost). The bottom line is that it is just too early to tell if we are seeing a trend or not, in my opinion. Here is why:

Quarterly numbers always vacillate. There is never a uniform number of entries each quarter of the year, and they almost always change from quarter to quarter. Here are the recent numbers as provided to me. Again, please let me know if your numbers show differently:

QUARTER ____3-5 y/o ____6-9 y/o
____________Entries ____entries
3/03_________ 519 ______792
4/03 _________383 ______786
1/04 _________327 ______691
2/04 _________336 ______713
3/04 _________386 ______708
4/04 _________366 ______699
1/05 _________413 ______701
2/05 _________449 ______642

As you can see, among the 3-5 year olds, there was a big drop in new cases between the 3rd and 4th quarters of 2003, it dropped again the next quarter, and then went back up the next. In fact, on this chart, the 3-5 year old new entries have gone up four times and gone down three. Among the 6-9 year olds, the change has been positive twice and negative five times. In both cases, however, entries in the 2nd quarter of 2005 are still lower than the third quarter of 2003.

Much more importantly, however, is the question of when thimerosal actually began to disappear from childhood vaccines sitting on the shelves of doctors' offices and clinics in California. It is a myth that "most" mercury came out in 1999. It wasn't even until July of 1999 that the government suggested that manufacturers begin to remove the mercury "as soon as possible." Factories did not get approval for, and begin making thimerosal-free vaccines until 2000 at the earliest (Except for Merck, which got approval in Sept. 1999 to make Hg-free Hep-B vaccine, though it is not clear when this new formula actually appeared on the shelves of doctors offices).

On Meet the Press, Dr. Fineberg said that some mercury containing pediatric vaccines expired in 2003. I have reason to believe it was later than that, as many vaccines without thimerosal were not even produced until 2001 or 2002, and most vaccines have a shelf life of about three years from manufacture, it is my understanding. (Again, correct me if I am wrong). Plus, it takes quite some time for new lots to work their way through the distribution system, and new stocks arenot ordered until old stocks begin to run low, as far as I can discern.

By this account, there were still mercury-containing vaccines on the shelf, potentially at least, until very recently. This matter is being investigated right now by the United States Senate, and we should have an answer soon, even if the Senators must subpoena the information (which they will, their staffs have indicated).

But let's take Dr. Fineberg at his word for now. He said at least some mercury containing vaccines (we don't know how many because the FDA won't say) expired in 2003. Meanwhile, 3-5 year old children entering the system now were born no later than June, 2002. In fact, we don't have the breakdown of individual birth cohorts, but one would imagine that there were more five year olds (born in 2000, when many kids were still getting the full amount of mercury in their shots) entering the system last quarter than three year olds, born in 2002. However, early intervention programs are lowering the age of diagnosis, and perhaps this ratio is changing as well.

Anyway, my point is that we don't yet know what the California numbers are telling us, and I never said we did. I have said they are "dropping" (they are, though I will certainly point out this new, and perhaps confounding, development). I have said they are "interesting" and"intriguing" and "bear watching." But I never held them out as proof of anything. Check the record and check the book, where I discuss other
possible reasons for the change in numbers, both up and down.

My guess, and it is admittedly a guess, is that MOST 3-5 year olds entering the system today, on average received relatively high levels of mercury in their vaccines. If the FDA would release the pertinent information, we would know exactly how much that was.

Again, many thanks for your correspondence, and for pointing out a very important wrinkle in the confusing California numbers. I certainly will not shy away from them.

All the best

David Kirby
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Dowd is Back; Citizen Cain isn't Happy

Maureen Dowd returns to the op-ed page of the New York Times today. Time off hasn't changed her preference for rhetoric over thought. A good column could have been written about the Bush administration's lousy management of the Iraq war, or about its efforts to keep bad news about Iraq out of public consciousness-- witness Bush's failure to show up at any military funerals and the Defense Department's prohibition on filming the transport of military coffins.

But this column, built around Cindy Sheehan, the protesting mother of a slain Iraqi soldier, isn't it. Dowd has the rare ability to irritate me even when she's writing things I basically agree with. For one thing, there's her maddening mixture of moral condemnation (she thinks that Bush is only "selectively humane") with crass political calculation-- "It's amazing that the White House does not have the elementary shrewdness to have Mr. Bush simply walk down the driveway and hear the woman out, or invite her in for a cup of tea." Her tone in this column, and in nearly everything she writes, makes it obvious that what she really despises is politicians who don't do a good job at managing the news. There are downright silly accusations-- Bush's dispatch of his national security advisor to talk to Sheehan illustrates "the inhumane humanitarianism of his foreign policy." But most of all, there's that preposterous conclusion:
But his humanitarianism will remain inhumane as long as he fails to understand that the moral authority of parents who bury children killed in Iraq is absolute.

Does Dowd really believe this? She might reconsider when other parents of children killed in Iraq tell her that she should "support the troops" by reporting only good news from Iraq. Is their moral authority absolute? Of course not, but once again, Dowd chooses rhetoric over thought.
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Tuesday, August 09, 2005

David Kirby: Bring it On!

It has now been three weeks since I posted a refutation of David Kirby's article claiming that autism caseload is declining among young children in California. I have e-mailed him twice, asking if he will correct the record and state that in fact caseload is continuing to increase, or alternately, explain why his use of the data is defensible. I also have posted my interpretation of the data in the comments on the Kirby's Huffington Post article.

Shockingly, he hasn't responded, even though I have provided clear evidence that he has gotten the evidence backwards. Contrary to Kirby's claims, despite the significant reduction in the amount of thimerosal in vaccines, autism caseload among young children in California is continuing to rise. This is a pretty simple factual dispute-- I'm not asking Kirby to say that thimerosal doesn't cause autism. I just want him to admit that autism caseload among young children in California isn't decreasing.

Okay, so maybe he's been busy and hasn't read my e-mails. After all, prepping for an appearance with Tim Russert has got to be time consuming. But sincere people, whose only crime is their failure to read Citizen Cain (see previous post), are being mislead by Kirby's bogus interpretation of the California data.

So David Kirby, I'm calling you out. I hearby institute a David Kirby "chicken-out" watch. This is day one. Respond, either on the Huffington Post, or through an e-mail to me (which I promise to share in full with my vast audience), either by admitting that you were wrong or by explaining why you still think you're right. There is no disgrace in making a mistake, if you stand up and admit it. And if you don't think you made a mistake, well then, tell me where I'm making a mistake. Bring it on.
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Avoid Embarrassment; Read Citizen Cain

Thanks to Orac, I have recently become aware of a population that is suffering . . .from lack of reading Citizen Cain. HealthLawProf quotes a reader, in this post, making a blunder that could have been easily avoided had the reader, or the HealthLawProf, only made Citizen Cain a daily part of his/her reading. The post states (links and emphasis added):
I just read Arthur Allen's article in Slate after linking to it from your blog. I am the father of an eight-year-old autistic boy, and, like many parents of kids on the autism spectrum, I think it's premature to take one side or the other on the thimerosal debate. I certainly do not accept the thimerosal/autism connection hook, line and sinker. I also agree with others who believe RFK, Jr.'s recent article overstated the case. Mr. Allen's article, on the other hand, goes way, way too far in the other direction, IMHO. He glosses over some facts, conflates issues (e.g., citing research tending to invalidate the MMR vaccine/autism connection, which has nothing to do with the thimerosal debate) and, most tellingly, completely ignores at least one major development -- the recent DECLINE in the incidence in autism diagnoses as measured by the State of California, a decline which roughly coincides with the removal (or least reduction) of thimerosal from childhood vaccines. . . . The data are far from conclusive, and the decline, at least from my lay perspective, seems modest, but how does Mr. Allen get away with ignoring this news?

Faithful readers, having read this post, you know why Mr. Allen could safely ignore the supposed news of a decline in autism diagnoses in California. Because there is no such decline, despite an erroneous David Kirby article in the Huffington Post. Autism diagnoses among young children continue to rise; there has been a slowdown in the rate of increase in the overall autism case load, likely because of increased numbers of older autistics dropping out of the system.

Let this be a lesson. To avoid embarrassing blunders, read Citizen Cain every day.

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Monday, August 08, 2005

Matthews Continues to Beat Up Kerry. Unfairly

Throughout the 2004 Presidential Campaign, Chris Matthews echoed the Republican line that John Kerry was a flip-flopper on the Iraq war, whose vote to authorize the use of military force contradicted his subsequent criticism of the war. Matthews continued this theme on Friday night, when he played Hardball with Chris Galloway, President of the Young Democrats of America.

Matthews asked Galloway whether the Young Democrats oppose the war. Galloway replied "Absolutely. The Young Democrats of America are not supportive of this war. The young people that I talk to are not supportive of this war. . . ."

Hmm. If Citizen Cain had been hosting, the next question would have been whether Galloway meant only "not supportive of the decision to go to war," or also "not supportive of continuing U.S. military involvement in Iraq.

Matthews wasn’t interested in such clarifications, however. Here’s how the subsequent questioning went:

MATTHEWS: Did you—did you vote for John Kerry this last election?
GALLOWAY: I did absolutely vote for John Kerry.
MATTHEWS: Well, how did he vote on the issue of whether to start this war or not?
GALLOWAY: Well, I think the real issue here is that...
(CROSSTALK)
MATTHEWS: Where did Hillary Clinton vote? Hillary Clinton voted to authorize the war. John Kerry voted to authorize the war. I just wonder what it means to say you are against the war if you vote to give the president a blank check. I don‘t see any clarity from the Democratic Party on this.

Let's leave aside for now Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party, and focus just on John Kerry. Did he "vote to give the president a blank check"? Let’s remember the situation back when the vote occurred, on October 11, 2002, there were no UN weapons inspectors in Iraq, and there were serious doubts about whether Saddam Hussein would allow them to return. Consensus opinion, at the time, was the Iraq possessed chemical weapons and was actively pursing nuclear weapons. In this context, John Kerry stated the following, on October 9:


. . . the enforcement mechanism through the United Nations and the reality of the potential of the use of force is so critical to achieve the protection of long-term interests, not just of the United States but of the world, to understand that the dynamic has changed, that we are living in a different status today, that we cannot sit by and be as complacent or even negligent about weapons of mass destruction and proliferation as we have been in the past.
. . .
When I vote to give the President of the United States the authority to use force, if necessary, to disarm Saddam Hussein, it is because I believe that a deadly arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in his hands is a threat, and a grave threat, to our security and that of our allies in the Persian Gulf region. I will vote yes because I believe it is the best way to hold Saddam Hussein accountable. And the administration, I believe, is now committed to a recognition that war must be the last option to address this threat, not the first, and that we must act in concert with allies around the globe to make the world's case against Saddam Hussein. As the President made clear earlier this week, "Approving this resolution does not mean that military action is imminent or unavoidable." It means "America speaks with one voice."Let me be clear, the vote I will give to the President is for one reason and one reason only: To disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, if we cannot accomplish that
objective through new, tough weapons inspections in joint concert with our allies. In giving the President this authority, I expect him to fulfill the commitments he has made to the American people in recent days--to work with the United Nations Security Council to adopt a new resolution setting out tough and immediate inspection requirements, and to act with our allies at our side if we have to disarm Saddam Hussein by force. If he fails to do so, I will be among the first to speak out.
. . .
In voting to grant the President the authority, I am not giving him carte blanche to run roughshod over every country that poses or may pose some kind of potential threat to the United States. Every nation has the right to act preemptively, if it faces an imminent and grave threat, for its self-defense under the standards of law. The threat we face today with Iraq does not meet that test yet. I emphasize "yet." Yes, it is grave because of the deadliness of Saddam Hussein's arsenal and the very high
probability that he might use these weapons one day if not disarmed. But it is not imminent, and no one in the CIA, no intelligence briefing we have had suggests it is imminent. None of our intelligence reports suggest that he is about to launch an attack.
Is this an excessively "nuanced" position? Would it have been better for Kerry politically to have voted against authorization? Perhaps. But it doesn’t contradict his later opposition to the invasion itself nor his criticisms of the war’s conduct. He voted to authorize force in a situation where voting against authorization might have led to the failure of the UN effort to re-introduce inspectors, and would have left the United States unsure of whether Saddam Hussein was continuing to pursue weapons of mass destruction.

And it worked! Hussein let the inspectors back in. But Bush did not keep his promise to treat the war that Congress authorized as a last resort. Let’s see Matthews harp on that.
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Saturday, August 06, 2005

Matthews Declares a Winner

What should a TV public affairs show do when it stages a debate, and one side performs badly and doesn’t make its points effectively? One approach, displayed on Hardball last Tuesday, is to pressure the bad performer to do better, and when she fails, declare her the loser. Another approach might be to learn something about the issue before hand, and bring relevant facts into the debate if the debaters fail to do so. This approach would better inform the viewers, but it's definitely not the Hardball style.

Chris Matthews was playing Hardball with Mike Johnson of the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools and Kathy Miller of the Texas Freedom Network. The topic was a curriculum developed by the National Council, purportedly on the Bible as literature, which critics, including Miller, accuse of being an academically weak and thinly disguised course on the Bible as Truth.

Miller claimed that the course contains many errors. When Matthews asked her to name some, she mentioned that it took an explicitly Protestant perspective on the Bible, and did not recognize the Catholic or Jewish perspectives. When asked to cite actual errors, rather than instances of bias, she mentioned that the book spelled Hanukkah three different ways. Matthews responded “So what,” and asked for additional errors.

Then the following discussion ensued:
MILLER: They use creation science to—as the foundation of science in the Bible.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: OK, give me another error. Give me another error, Kathy.

I am giving you plenty of time. Take all the time you want.

MILLER: I'm sorry?

MATTHEWS: Give me another—give me the biggest error in the book, the Bible studies program, the biggest one you got.

(CROSSTALK)

MILLER: The biggest error in the book is the fact that pages and pages are lifted verbatim from questionable sources with little or no citations.

MATTHEWS: Like what?

(CROSSTALK)
After a bit more floundering from Miller, Johnson proceeds to reassure Matthews that the course involves no proselytizing and that it just helps young people develop cultural literacy.

This is how Matthews completes the segment.
MATTHEWS: We have to get out of here.

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Kathy, Kathy, you lost the argument.

Michael, you won the argument this time.

(CROSSTALK)
Suppose that instead of merely refereeing a debate and then pronouncing a winner, Matthews had instead done a little homework. A New York Times article from the previous day would have informed Matthews of the following facts about the curriculum:
  • It falsely “cites supposed NASA findings to suggest that the earth stopped twice in its orbit, in support of the literal truth of the biblical text that the sun stood still in Joshua and II Kings.”
  • It claims to offer "scientific documentation" of Noah’s flood.
  • It gives credence to dubious assertions that the Constitution is based on the Scriptures.
A quick visit to the website of the Texas Freedom Network would have found the following additional accusations about the curriculum:
  • properly endorses the Bible as the “Word of God””
  • it “erroneously implies that historians generally believe that the Bible, even more than the Constitution, is the nation’s “Founding Document””
  • it “cites a “respected scholar” who claims that archaeological evidence “always confirms the facts of the Biblical record””
  • it “identifies a creation scientist as an expert and recommends materials from his Creation Evidence Museum to explain the origins of life.”
  • it is full of errors (such as the dates of historical events, the identities of key individuals, and the details of biblical stories), faulty logic, unsubstantiated claims and unclear wording, including (for examples, follow the link).
Apparently Ms. Miller was not well briefed enough to make these points, or perhaps she was too flustered by the being on TV, or by the cross-talk and by Matthews’ hostility. Clearly, her performance could have been better.

But what about Matthews? A journalist who was treating the discussion seriously, rather than as a debating game, would have raised these issues. Half an hour of research would have been more than sufficient to find these points, which could have been addressed to Mr. Johnson. Matthews might also have asked Johnson how his portrayal of the secular nature of the course fits in with the statements on this organization's website that “There has been a great social regression since the Bible was removed from our schools” or that "The world is watching to see if we will be motivated to impact our culture, to deal with the moral crises in our society, and reclaim our families and children." Perhaps Mr. Johnson would have had good responses to these questions. But we don’t know, because Matthews couldn't be bothered to do a minimum of homework, and didn’t take the discussion seriously. As a result, a group that appears to be trying to put religious indoctrination into the schools in the guise of a Bible as literature course got to portray itself as a victim of pointless carping.
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Friday, August 05, 2005

McCain's Credibility on Iraq

So Paul Begala, along with just about every other pundit, thinks that John McCain has tremendous "credibility" when it comes to Iraq. See our previous post. While McCain has "the same substantive position" on the Iraq War as President Bush, the public believes that Bush "misled us going into the war" and has "calibrated too far over to the happy-talk side of things." By contrast, McCain takes the view that "this is very tough, it's bloody, it's awful, but we're in it and we've got to win it."

So, before the war, Bush misled us.

How about McCain. Here’s the straight-talking Senator in September of 2002 on how easy the fighting would be:


. . . in 1991 there were some very well informed strategists and tacticians who said that there would be thousands of body bags, I did not believe it at the time. It's clear that Saddam Hussein is much weaker than he was in 1991. Look, we're going to send young men and women into harm's way and that is always a great danger, but I can't believe there is an Iraqi soldier who will be willing to die for Saddam Hussein, particularly since he will know that our objective is to remove Saddam Hussein from power. [snip] I don't believe it's going to be nearly the size and scope that it was in 1991.

Deaths of U.S. military personnel in Gulf War I: 148 battle deaths, 145 nonbattle deaths
Deaths of U.S. military personnel in Gulf War II: 1,404 battle deaths, 412 nonbattle deaths

And in February 2003 on Saddaam’s weapons of mass destruction and support for al Qaeda:
Proponents of containment claim that Iraq is in a "box." But it is a box with no lid, no bottom, and whose sides are falling out. Within this box are definitive footprints of germ, chemical and nuclear programs, and from it has come blood money for Palestinian terrorists, and support for the international terrorism of Al Qaeda and Ansar al-Islam. And as he has done before, at a time of his choosing, Saddam Hussein will spring, like a jack-in-the-box, to reign devastation on his people and his neighbors, a devastation against which the daily curse of living in the shadow of his terror will pale.
And in March of 2003, on Hardball, predicting easy going in post-war Iraq:

MATTHEWS: Are you one of those who holds up an optimistic view of the post-war scene? Do you believe that the people of Iraq or at least a large number of them will treat us as liberators?

MCCAIN: Absolutely. Absolutely.

MATTHEWS: And you think the Arab world will come to a grudging recognition that what we did was necessary? I mean by that the modern Arab leaders, the people
that we have to deal with.

MCCAIN: Not only that, they'll be relieved that he's not in the neighborhood because he has invaded his neighbors on several occasions.

Hmm. Doesn’t seem to me that McCain’s pre-war statements are much different from the President’s. If President Bush can be accused of misleading the nation into war, surely the same could be said of Senator McCain.

How about after the war? Here a case can be made that McCain has been more willing to confront the problems of the occupation. He has asserted, beginning in August of 2003, that we do not have sufficient troops in Iraq to maintain and he has spoken out about the failures at Abu Ghraib. But McCain is not exceptional in being a war hawk who has been critical of the administration’s performance on the war. Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Richard Lugar, and Chuck Hagel arguably have all been more pointed in their criticisms than McCain, and all were more measured in their enthusiasm about going to war than McCain. But somehow McCain is usually the example that comes up when liberal pundits are looking for a shining example of a credible hawk. And of course those who warned of the unwisdom of the war to begin with get no credit at all.

Our punditocracy loves McCain, and praise him to the skies for the most ordinary statements. Here’s Chris Matthews sucking up on Hardball back on March 12, 2003. McCain was expressing some common sense about future U.S. relations with France.

MCCAIN: . . . . after the Iraqi conflict is over, it's going to be in all our interests to start working together again because there's just too many challenges. North Korea, Iran...

MATTHEWS: Yes.

MCCAIN: You saw recently the Iranian nuclear build-up that they're...

MATTHEWS: You're a man of vision, Senator. You can see ahead of this mess.

McCain’s perspective certainly is sensible– it’s in our interest to work with our allies. But is it visionary? Is it exceptional? Isn’t it easy to imagine President Bush or John Kerry or Al Gore saying the same thing? Would Matthews call them visionary if they did?

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Thursday, August 04, 2005

A Free Pass For McCain on Iraq: Because He's Credible

Yesterday on CNN’s Inside Politics, "Democratic strategist" Paul Begala was giving the President a hard time about the war in Iraq. How? By contrasting him with likely 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain.

Host Joe Johns asked Begala if the Bush administration was failing at "public relations." Here’s how the ardent liberal responded:
PAUL BEGALA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes. I think so. If you look at Senator McCain, a Republican in the Senate who's probably the chief supporter of the war in either party, he's seen as the most credible guy in American politics. People respect him and admire him; some agree, some disagree. The president, however, has a credibility problem that McCain doesn't have. They have the same substantive position, but completely different views of credibility. Why? Well, in part, now a majority of Americans in a Gallup poll, 51 percent, say the president misled us going into the war and since then, I think the president has calibrated too far over to the happy-talk side of things and not as far to sort of McCain side of -- as Torie just said, this is very tough, it's bloody, it's awful, but we're in it and we've got to win it. That's a message that even opponents who are like me, I think, could rally to. But I think the president has -- at least has given the public a sense that he's not leveling with us. And when a politician loses his credibility, he loses everything.

Tough talk about the President from the fervent liberal. Bush "misled us going into the war and since then," at least according to the opinion polls. But what about McCain? Does Senator Straight-Talk still have his credibility on the war, even though he has "the same substantive position" as the President. We’ll address that issue in a subsequent post.

Before we get to the question of McCain’s credibility, consider poor John Kerry. During the 2004 Presidential campaign he was blasted every day for being excessively nuanced on the Iraq War. Kerry’s position was that giving the President the authority to go to war was the right thing to do because it gave him the leverage to get UN weapons inspectors re-introduced into Iraq, but that the President should not have attacked Iraq given that the inspectors had been allowed back in. Apparently, this position was too complicated for most of the American press to understand, or to repeat accurately. So Kerry was attacked for criticizing the President over Iraq while having a position that was sort of similar to the President’s, in the both were willing to threaten force in order to get UN inspectors into the country. Bush, in fact got points for his tremendous strength and clarity because he didn’t really care whether UN inspectors were allowed in or not, and therefore attacked Iraq anyway. Kerry, by contrast, was portrayed as a flip-flopper and a weakling because he stuck to the position that if the inspections were working, we shouldn’t attack Iraq.

So contrast this now to Bush versus McCain on Iraq. They have the "same substantive position," but Senator Straight-Talk is great because he holds this position with "credibility" while the President gives us nothing but Happy Talk.

But oops! Host Johns followed with a clip of the President:
BUSH: The violence in recent days in Iraq is a grim reminder of the enemies we face. These terrorists and insurgents will use brutal tactics because they're trying to shake the will of the United States of America. That's what they're trying to do. They want us to retreat. They want us, in our compassion for the innocent, say we're through. That's what they want. They will fail.
Doesn’t sound like Happy Talk to me! Former Pentagon spokesman Victoria Clarke was on opposite Begala, and she noticed too.
CLARKE: No. I just disagree slightly with Paul and his characterization of the president. . . . To say something is a grim reminder of the brutality of these people, that's hardly happy talk. And when there is a bad patch, that president has been out there more than previous commanders-in-chief in tough times like this. So, I give him credit for trying to be as straight as possible. Of course, he has to be positive and optimistic about the ultimate outcome. He absolutely has to be. It's a tough, tough job and it is easy to sit somewhere else and criticize and talk about all the bad things that are happening. It's harder to be the one that leads the strategy and the plan all the way through.
BEGALA: Yes, but how do you explain that McCain is so trusted and the president so distrusted when they have the same position?

Hmm. Maybe it’s because the press corps, including ardent liberals, just loves McCain so much that they keep giving him a free pass.

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Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Missing the Point on Wal-Mart

In today's New York Times op-ed page, Pankaj Ghemawat and Ken A. Mark make the case that while Wal-Mart has "some issues to tackle" regarding it's treatment of workers, the benefits that the retail behemoth provides in productivity and lower prices to consumers far outweigh any costs that they impose by "securing subsidies, destroying jobs in competing stores, driving employees toward public welfare systems and creating urban sprawl."

Is this true? Citizen Cain doesn't know. But Ghemawat and Mark also claim that increased wages for Wal-Mart workers would necessarily lead to higher prices. In making this claim, they fail to address the arguments of Wal-Mart's critics. Ghemawat and Mark say that a $2 per-hour pay increase would wipe out Wal-Mart's profits:
Such a possibility would be unacceptable to Wal-Mart's shareholders, who include not only Sam Walton's heirs but also the millions of Americans who invest in mutual funds and pension plans. Instead, the more than 100 million Americans who shop at Wal-Mart would most likely just end up paying higher prices.

But Wal-Mart's critics argue that poor treatment of Wal-Mart workers, including low wages and lousy benefits, leads to high employee turn-over. As a result, what Wal-Mart saves through wage stinginess is largely offset by high costs for hiring and training new employees. Costco pays higher wages and gives more generous health benefits, and as a result gets a more productive work force and much lower turnover.

These arguments are well known. The Times doesn't advance the state of knowledge on this issue when it publishes op-eds that pretend that these arguments don't exist.
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