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October 2016

Candidates' science report cards misleading if you only read the headline or summary. Like most science stories.

Scientific American's "Grading the Presidential Candidates on Science" article is not without value, but it has some eccentricities that make it seriously misleading to just read the candidates' scores without reading the whole thing to see what the questions actually were, and how they were graded. It does not test candidates' scientific literacy or mastery. And even the breadth, detail and seriousness of their science-related public policies takes a back seat to some oddball factors that don't matter that much to anyone but the authors:

  1. The test puts surprisingly great emphasis not on scientific literacy or policies, but on following instructions in detail when taking the test. They asked for very specific policies on specific questions, not overall generalities. Even though describing overall general policy preferences and methods can be useful and instructive, and is often the best use of  candidates' and the public's time in a campaign. Gary Johnson came off more like he answered it on the fly without reading the instructions, and so didn't get credit for a lot of detailed, solid, moderate policies on energy and other science-related issues that are described on his web site or on an independent "candidates on the issues" site. 
  2. Though the graders didn't look outside the test answers for material that bolstered a candidate's scientific literacy, they did so to find positions and statements that would lower a candidate's grade or would, in their view, contradict their answers to the test. That hurt all candidates but Hillary. 
  3. A significant fraction of the test was government-funding issues, which it treated as showing whether a candidate would be good for science, ignoring any economic arguments about whether that's the best way to do things. (Or penalizing all market-based arguments, relying on a single study, far outside the graders' expertise, that they treated as authoritative on all economic questions.)
  4. The graders also got extremely, unscientifically doctrinaire on a couple issues: Stein was deemed an ignoramus for having misgivings about nuclear power, whereas apparently there's a total scientific consensus that nuclear is hunky-dory. Who knew? And although Johnson says global warming's a man-made program that needs governmental solutions, he's severely penalized for saying we should be open-minded to various dissenters and that some widely proposed solutions aren't necessarily worth the cost. 

Grading the Presidential Candidates on Science: Scientific American evaluates responses from Clinton, Trump, Johnson and Stein to 20 questions

By Christine Gorman and Ryan F. Mandelbaum in Scientific American


Clinton too extreme, rejects First Amendment's core rights: political speech, democratic participation

The most important reason not to vote for Clinton is her hostility to the First Amendment -- several positions that are neither extreme liberalism nor extreme conservatism, as we have usually understood those terms, but are all the more extreme for being totally unplugged from liberal or conservative traditions.

As for everything else, a lot of her imperfections are things we've had before in presidents; obviously she's not the first big-gov't economic lefty, nor the first to tactically hatemonger and demonize her fellow-citizens who disagree with her on that. I don't remember how Wilson, FDR, Truman, Johnson & Nixon did that, but Bill & Obama at least sounded like they still valued all Americans and beckoned the misguided back to the fold, while the media happily did the dirtier work for them. They usually singled out legislators & advocacy group leaders as the evil extremists. HRC, on the other hand, pretty clearly indicates that if you're opposing or obstructing anything, then none of your rights or interests matter, you don't matter, and you should just get swept off the chessboard.

But that's not what disqualifies her: it's the hostility to the First Amendment and her vow to amend it. First there's all the attacks on people's right to morally disapprove of, and choose not to participate in, certain actions that their religion has disapproved of for millennia. That's already been going on in the Obama administration and at every level of government. And the campaign finance reform, extending the notion not just to giving money to officeholders and candidates, but against any political speech against candidates, or even about referenda, if the speech costs money or involves banding together in groups, e.g. Citizens United. Which means any speech that's significant & effective enough to make any difference.

The First Amendment is what makes us America. We'll always have differences about where to draw lines in the gray areas around it, but somehow liberalism has turned around 180 degrees from when I was a proudly liberal Democrat in the 70s and 80s, and it now wants to cut out the heart of the 1st Amendment as it has always been understood from the founding up through the present: political speech and freedom of conscience.


Can there be an objective verdict on Hillary's ethics history? We begin at the Travel Office ...

Everything I needed to know about Hillary Clinton* [*until now], I learned in the first year of law school, the first year of Bill's presidency. We didn't have the internet, so we had to remember news events and utterances that were important to us, and we couldn't -- and weren't required to -- whip out a shareable web link to prove everything we said. (Such exercises were reserved for the junior law review editors, miserable creatures who lived in the library seeking citations to back up such statements as "The sun rises in the East".). I didn't have a TV, and newspaper reading varied depending on exam preparation, internship work, etc. I heard a lot but I missed a lot. Like most people who nonetheless think they have a right to express opinions about their government.

Since 1993 or '94 I haven't been much interested in anything purporting to prove Hillary's criminal or corrupt, because I already knew I wouldn't vote for her based on what I "knew" about the Travel Office firings and her "Let them eat cake" moment -- saying she wasn't responsible for "every undercapitalized entrepreneur in America" as a way of shrugging off any concern about her health care proposal's effects on small businesses and jobs. This piled elite nonchalance on top of an ugly tactic I was then observing in bullies everywhere, from brutal, racist cops to university administrators to politicians who would leave a market half-free, half-constrained, and then blame the resulting chaos on the free market. Cuffing a guy's hands behind your back, knocking him down and then laughing at him and belittling him because he can't pull yourself up by his bootstraps, can't hold his pants up, etc. Or saying students, employees or customers needed to be "responsible", but only as a way of disclaiming any responsibility for what you and your institutions do to them.

The Travel Office firing was chilling and clearly very wrong to five or six of its seven employees, but there's a whole history of investigation that shows no crime Hillary could be reasonably prosecuted for, and only ambiguous scraps of evidence that might point to her being flagrantly unethical. And likewise, even a cheat sheet covering a lifetime of possible scandals, by the unsympathetic Washington Examiner, shows nothing really damning. Bottom line, her character is dingy and battered, grungy, and if she has committed crimes herself, the most likely and numerous ones are the administrative/regulatory kind that many respectable people accumulate over a lifetime. But her zeal and anger inspire loyal staff to do cruel and unusual, perhaps criminal, things on her behalf, for reasons ranging from Arkansas patronage, to foiling potential enemies, to transcendent ideology.

Whoever really was responsible for the firings was pretty clearly acting (1) legally and (2) unethically, meanly, nastily, and with utter disdain for ordinary working people and how one's actions affect them. Which fit perfectly with the "undercapitalized entrepreneur"  attitude. The Travel Office staff formally served "at the will of the President" and could be dismissed at any time, so it was totally legal to fire them. But in practice they were non-political career employees, just like the kitchen and housekeeping staff. Five "had no financial authority in the office."

 The director of the travel office, who had worked his way up from the bottom from 1962 to 1982, may have been doing a fine job getting travel arranged for everyone, but he had no use for, nor knowledge of, conventional accounting, and devised his own "country storekeeper" method for collecting advance payments from media businesses sharing the costs of press pool travel, and refunding or collecting any difference afterwards. It sounds like whenever paper records were left over he piled them in a closet. All of that was not necessarily illegal -- this wasn't a business that had to pay taxes, and I don't know what kind of record-keeping the law actually required for that government office, but it reasonably could dovetail with the only criminal charge against any of the travel staff --  embezzlement of $54,000 from refunds and $14,000 from petty cash, using a personal account as the office's petty cash fund. He was tried for that, and acquitted. But the White House can't be blamed for investigating -- it would have been a scandal not to.

But White House had fired the entire seven-person staff at once and meanwhile called in the FBI to investigate the office's finances, announcing both actions to the press at once. On top of the usual effects of being fired, this certainly made it look to any potential future employer, and everyone else they interacted with, as if they had all been fired for some criminal wrongdoing.  All seven later "testified that the accusations by the Clinton White House had ruined them financially by forcing them to incur massive legal bills to clear their names," the LA Times said. And replacing them with the Clintons' associates and cousin, who had been lobbying for the investigation and the positions, made it look as if the Clintons had not only fired, but tried to incriminate and prosecute, ordinary, innocent working people simply to make jobs for their cronies. As if, as Vince Foster wrote in his suicide note, "Ruining people is considered sport." That's probably not a crime, but it's still vile.

But Hillary's actual involvement is not so black-and-white. After all the investigations by Kenneth Starr and his successor, long after I had stopped listening, it sounds like all she had to do is indicate once that she implacably wanted those people gone, and the Clinton's senior staffer did the rest, leaving the Clintons' hands sort of clean. Like with Henry II and St. Thomas à Becket. Well, she also apparently kept reminding aides that she wanted the situation resolved through swift action, but she may not have had to get any more specific than that, at least on paper. The Special Prosecutors' verdict was thatHillary had testified falsely when she said two years later that she had no involvement at all, but that there was insufficient evidence to convict her of knowing or intentional perjury or obstruction of justice. Indeed, it looks like the firing was mostly the doing of staffers who firmly believed from experience that they had to move ruthlessly to not only remove, but discredit and destroy, anyone who stood in the way of what Hillary wanted. As Clinton aide David Watkins wrote,  "We both know that there would be hell to pay [if] we failed to take swift and decisive action in conformity with the First Lady's wishes."

There is a remarkable level of consensus about the known facts of this scandal. Even a site claiming that all Clinton scandals have been debunked has nothing to say about this one except that the firings were legal and the Special Prosecutors found insufficient evidence of perjury or obstruction of justice by Hillary. The White House later issued a self-critical report, apologized to the staffers and found jobs for five of them; the director and one other staffer retired.

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