Man Without Qualities

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Associated Press Botches Execution, Morality, Journalism (So What Else Is New?)

Do reporters and editors have to go to some special school, or have some exotic surgery performed on their brains to remove the moral center, to run an article about a "botched" execution without a single mention of the name of the killer's victim or the circumstances of the murder, and without any mention of any attempt on the reporter's part to obtain the views of the victim's family?

Does it matter that the killer is fully named in the article, described by his named relatives in the most sentimental terms possible ("God chose my uncle to change history!") and that his irrelevant ethnicity is specified, while his victim is dismissed as a nameless "manager of a Miami topless bar 27 years ago?" Does it matter that the article is without any mention of the hideous aggravating circumstances of the victim's murder that warranted imposition of the death penalty?

Here is an entire article from the Associated Press - a very sick place:

Family denounces botched Fla. execution

Fri Dec 22, 11:54 PM ET

A Puerto Rican man whose botched execution in Florida renewed opposition to the death penalty in the United States and this island territory was buried Friday in a ceremony attended by about 100 people.

Angel Nieves Diaz, a career criminal condemned for killing a manager of a Miami topless bar 27 years ago, was given a second dose of deadly chemicals as he took more than half an hour to die on Dec. 13.

At the funeral in suburban Rio Piedras, family members said they hoped the notoriety of Diaz's case would boost the international campaign against capital punishment.

"God chose my uncle to change history," said Jackeline Nieves. "Now the death penalty isn't seen as something normal. It's seen as the worst, most inhumane method."

Medical experts said the 55-year-old convict could have experienced severe pain as needles that were supposed to inject drugs into his veins were instead pushed all the way through the blood vessels into surrounding soft tissue.

The case prompted Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to suspend all executions in the state as a commission examines its lethal injection process.

The U.S. Caribbean territory abolished capital punishment in 1929. However, federal prosecutors can seek the death penalty in some cases because Puerto Rico is subject to U.S. federal law.

The Associated Press doesn't think the victim is worth his name, but I'll publish it here: Joseph Nagy. I never heard of Mr. Nagy before, but I have known some Hungarians by that name - and since the AP saw fit to belabor his killer's ethnicity, I'll mention this groat of evidence concerning his victim's possible heritage. The AP tells us that about 100 people attended the killer's funeral (but no mention as to how many attended for larger political purposes). But neither the AP nor the public court records available online provide a clue as to how many people showed up to see Mr. Nagy off this earth - or what his family had to say at the time or now.

Even in the flush of advancing its political agenda in an article like this, the AP has an obligation to remember that the life of a long-dead manager of a Florida topless bar had value, the man who harbored that extinguished life had a name, and the circumstances of his death have meaning. So here - reproduced from an Eleventh Circuit opinion rejecting one of the killer's appeals - are the aggravating circumstances of the murder on which the death penalty was imposed:

The four ... aggravating circumstances were "Diaz was under sentence of imprisonment, had previously been convicted of another capital felony, ... committed the murder during a kidnapping, and committed the murder for pecuniary gain.
It's also worth noting the Florida Supreme Court's direct-appeal opinion had noted that the killer's "prior record in this instance includes an armed robbery, two escapes, the assault and battering of correctional officers, and a conviction for murdering the director of a drug rehabilitation center by stabbing him nineteen times while he slept."

I wouldn't wish unnecessary pain on anyone, even a killer in the course of his execution. But unnecessary pain sometimes happens. And if it has to happen to someone, it couldn't happen to a more appropriate person that someone like the killer described in this AP article.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Mr. Rago Dissents

Is it odd that having run an article subtitled "Wow, Time magazine really is out of touch with the Internet age" (reproduced from American Spectator) only yesterday, Opinion Journal today carries an article by the Journal's editorial staffer Joseph Rago proving that Wall Street's own can at least match Time magazine on that particular out-of-touch front?

Mr. Rago's effort will doubtlessly attract lots of Blogosphere commentary, so I will indulge in but a few observations. I leave it to the reader to determine if she agrees that Mr. Rago comes dangerously close to ignoring many of the enormous differences among blogs - starting with the title of his article (which he may or may not have chosen): The Blog Mob. I also ask the reader to consider whether the best blogs have any of the characteristics Mr. Rago purports to identify.

For example, does Mickey Kaus's blog, Kausfiles, ever show serious signs of the mob mentality Mr. Rago conjures? Please. Is it true, as Mr. Rago insists, of even the better reaches of the Blogosphere - again keeping Kausfiles in mind as but one example - that "Every conceivable belief is on the scene, but the collective prose, by and large, is homogeneous: A tone of careless informality prevails; posts oscillate between the uselessly brief and the uselessly logorrheic; complexity and complication are eschewed; the humor is cringe-making, with irony present only in its conspicuous absence; arguments are solipsistic; writers traffic more in pronouncement than persuasion . . ." And if Mr. Rago's criticisms are to be limited to the less well done portions of the Blogosphere (taking that "by and large" escape hatch), they would amount to the nearly tautological observation that the not-well-done is not well done, on the Blogosphere as everywhere. Yes, indeed. And it is also true that a man is liked by his friends, Mr. Rago.

But it is with respect to the Blogosphere's relationship with the mainstream media that Mr. Rago's errors are most interesting - perhaps because he considers no examples at all (other than Henry James and his arthritis). He is certainly correct that the Blogosphere draws heavily on direct reporting of the mainstream media. But the mainstream media - in the past often working in far less than fully competitive environments - have developed many ways of distorting the products of their own reporting. One need look no further than Rathergate to see the valuable role played by the Blogosphere in blocking an election-distorting gambit practiced by CBS News repeatedly for many years. So is Mr. Rago correct that "The blogs are not as significant as their self-endeared curators would like to think. ... Instead, they ride along with the MSM like remora fish on the bellies of sharks, picking at the scraps." Perhaps that is a question best asked of now minimally employed "sharks" such as Dan Rather and Mary Mapes.

Mr. Rago apparently considers himself to be a "shark." My guess is that his own belly is bound to be nipped by lots of his "remoras." Somehow I think he's about to find out how insignificant their bites really are.

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Sunday, December 17, 2006

Gloria Wise Boys and Girls Club? What's That?

This New York Times article by Elizabeth Jensen and Lia Miller purports to recount what the article calls the "short but contentious history of Air America." Many odd characters and twists are recounted in a history where "business and politics always mixed, and that was the problem, critics contend." Tart recriminations are now reportedly flying.

But none of those reported recriminations has anything whatsoever to do with the Gloria Wise Boys and Girls Club. Indeed, the Times article make no mention of that organization at all. Its name is not mentioned. Not even an allusion to this worthy organization made.

All of which is more than passing strange, because Air America has an extensive history and economic relationship with the Gloria Wise Boys and Girls Club, as the New York Post summarized:
Six officials of the Gloria Wise Boys and Girls Club stole $1.2 million from the group, money meant for needy kids and seniors, a city probe has found. Investigations Commissioner Rose Gill Hearn calls it "disgusting" - the worst case of wrongdoing by a non-profit contractor she's seen since taking office.
Thank goodness the thieves will be going to jail for a very long time - and paying back every cent, and then some.
Well, actually, that's not quite true.
In fact, nobody is going to jail.
Not even for a single day.
And the crooks get to keep most of the cash they stole. Four weren't even charged, and after a few brief years, the two who were charged can return to nonprofit work - to loot again, perhaps.
For that wrist tap, thank Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, whose office prosecuted the case.
Something is wrong with this picture.
Hearn was right to label the shenanigans "disgusting." Her report said fraud "was an accepted way of doing business" for these execs. "Rather than reflecting actual events," the group's records "were made to say whatever suited the executives' purposes." Want details?
* Under their direction, the group improperly gave $875,000 to left-wing Air America radio (which features comedian Al Franken) while a Gloria Wise exec maintained a financial stake in it.
There's plenty more. For example, the New York City Department of Investigation has commented:

DOI asked Air America to repay the $875,000 to an escrow account controlled by DOI. Thereafter, Air America repaid only $50,000 to an escrow account that is not controlled by DOI. DOI is pleased that Piquant LLC, the current owner of Air America, has agreed to DOI's request that, in lieu of making $50,000 quarterly payments, Piquant transfer the full $875,000 to the escrow account.
And lots more.

But all of that escapes Elizabeth Jensen and Lia Miller. And apparently nobody at Air America cares enough to hurl any recriminations on this topic. But, then, if the ever-opportunistic, pseudo-crusading Mr. Sptizer doesn't care, why should the Times?

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Friday, December 08, 2006

Some Questions Regarding Herr Doktor Professor Paul Von Krugman's Wages Theory

What Herr Doktor Professor Paul Von Krugman wrote in his October 6, 2006 column The War Against Wages:
So what's keeping paychecks down? Major employers like Wal-Mart have decided that their interests are best served by treating workers as a disposable commodity, paid as little as possible and encouraged to leave after a year or two. And these employers don't worry that angry workers will respond to their war on wages by forming unions, because they know that government officials, who are supposed to protect workers' rights, will do everything they can to come down on the side of the wage-cutters.
What the New York Times reports on the front page today:
After four years in which pay failed to keep pace with price increases, wages for most American workers have begun rising significantly faster than inflation. .... The average hourly wage for workers below management level - everyone from school bus drivers to stockbrokers - rose 2.8 percent from October 2005 to October of this year, after being adjusted for inflation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only a year ago, it was falling by 1.5 percent. .... The fall in unemployment to 4.4 percent and the recent surge in wages, however, raise the prospect that the job market could be on the brink of another strong run, much like the one that lifted incomes in the late 1990s.

Of course, "wages" are just one component of overall compensation, which includes a variety of other expensive and valuable benefits. "Wages" and "paychecks" matter more than they should to Herr Doktor Professor and the Times generally; indeed, they are drawn to "wage" and "paycheck" arguments like moths to flames. There is, for example, no disclaimer or distinction made between of "wages" or "paychecks" and "overall compensation" in either Herr Doktor Professor's October column or in today's "news" article. On the other hand, nobody seems to have a good grasp on what is happening to true worker compensation in the United States - including people who focus on overall compensation. So although one can go far criticizing Herr Doktor Professor and the Times broadly on this count, I prefer to ask a far narrower question today:

If, as Herr Doktor Professor says, what had been keeping paychecks down was major employers like Wal-Mart having decided that their interests are best served by treating workers as a disposable commodity, paid as little as possible and encouraged to leave after a year or two, then does the recent rise in paychecks reported today in the Times mean that major employers abandoned or softened that approach? Have those major employers decided since October 6 that their interests are not best served by treating workers as a disposable commodity? If so, why? Why now?

And, most importantly of all: Why does the Times' "news" article, which takes up plenty of column inches with various analyses of why wages have fluctuated, not even mention Herr Doktor Professor's key theoretical insight into the main cause of wage stagnation?

Sheesh, you'd almost think that the economic reporters at the Times don't care a bit about what Herr Doktor Professor has to say on this topic. Surely that can't be true. Can it?

Just asking.

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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The New York Times Sinks Into A Florida Swamp

Even by the low standards of New York Times economic reporting, David Leonhardt's article in today's edition surely reaches a new low in breathlessly announcing:

The truth is that the official numbers on house prices — the last refuge of soothing information about the real estate market on the coasts — are deeply misleading. ... In reality, homes across much of Florida, California and the Northeast are worth a lot less than they were a year ago.
Unlike Mr. Leonhardt, the Man Without Qualities takes no position on what the "truth" or "reality" of the current residential real property market may be. I have no idea what the real estate market is doing right now, and (again unlike Mr. Leonhardt) I have no idea where to look for that "truth" and "reality" other than in those admittedly imperfect statistics reporting actual sales that he finds so unworthy.

But I do know this: Auctions of houses of the type described in this article generally produce prices quite a bit lower than what could be obtained if the house were marketed in the usual way. That's why the "usual way" is "usual." So it is nothing short of idiotic for Mr. Leonhardt and the Times to look to such an auction in Naples, Florida for the "truth" and "reality" of the housing market in the "finding" that "on average, the houses that changed hands at the auction had fallen about 25 percent in value since 2005."

Here's a hint for Mr. Leonhardt and his handlers at the Times: Pretty much any competent realtor or probate or bankruptcy attorney will tell you that an auctioned house brings in about 25% less than the then-current market value of the home - although the statistical spread can be wide. This effect is not a secret. Many home buyers look to buy homes from probate sales, for example, even in the absence of an auction. But "normal buyers" generally don't go to such auctions - only speculators and bottom fishers normally go. One reason for that is that unlike normal real property sales such auctions allow for no financing or any other contingencies. In other words, don't even think about making a bid at such an auction and then going to your bank for the appraisal and loan and detailed home inspection. At an auction, you pretty much just write the check for the full purchase price on your way out the auction house door. That kind of thing tends to push prices down - and a 25% reduction on usual market prices is a pretty good result in a house auction.

Since the auction described by the Times yielded prices about 25% off year-ago prices, the auction appears to actually suggests that the Naples single family home market has not changed much over the last year. But Mr. Leonhardt completely misses all of that.

Of course, Mr. Leonhardt does not just rely on this one auction for his conclusion that the "truth" and "reality" is that home prices are in free fall. No, no, no. He also quotes a few realtors, who opine that in their local markets the "truth" and "reality" is that home prices are in free fall without any supporting data whatsoever, and despite government and other statistics to the contrary. And, despite his reliance on realtor oracles, Mr. Leonhardt apparently never asked his realtor contacts what the normal relationship is between the prices of auctioned homes and homes sold in the usual way - an enquiry that would have deflated his Naples example.

So economic reporting in the New York Times has come to relying on what realtors tell the reporter. No support required. No follow up questions. Just like that.

Could the Times go any lower?

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Saturday, December 02, 2006

Is The Court Planning To Excise The Religion Exception?

The New York Times reports regarding a federal court challenge to some aspects of the President's faith-based initiatives:
Judge John C. Shabaz of Federal District Court dismissed the lawsuit for lack of standing, finding that the officials activities were not sufficiently tied to specific Congressional appropriations. Taxpayers objections to the use of general appropriations could not be a basis for standing, he said. The president's Faith-Based and Community Initiative was created through a series of executive orders and not by Congress, he noted.

The decision was overturned, and the lawsuit reinstated, in a 2-to-1 ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, in Chicago. Writing for the majority, Judge Richard A. Posner said the distinction cited by Judge Shabaz made no difference. Judge Posner said the plaintiffs were entitled to challenge the conferences as propaganda vehicles for religion even if they were neither financed through a specific Congressional appropriation nor made grants directly to religious groups.

As a general matter, people do not have standing, based solely on their status as taxpayers, to challenge the expenditure of federal money. The Supreme Court's precedents have carved out religion cases as an exception to this general rule.

In its appeal, Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation, No. 06-157, the administration is arguing the exception is a narrow one, designed to prevent the specific historic evil of direct legislative subsidization of religious entities, a definition that the administration says does not apply to the conferences. For the federal courts to permit such a lawsuit, its brief asserts, would upset the delicate balance of power between the judicial and executive branches and open the courthouse door to anyone with a generalized grievance.
The Administration's position may be insufficiently ambitious. The exception that the Court has carved out for religion cases to the general rule that plaintiffs do not have "standing" based solely on their status as taxpayers to challenge the expenditure of federal money is all but indefensible. There is no good reason to treat religion as a special case. Indeed, the Court's exception runs quite contrary in spirit to the growing body of Court precedent affirming that generally applicable rules may not carve out religious exceptions. Moreover, there are many signs that at least the conservatives on the Court view the Court's "standing" rules as needing tightening. That was, for example, much in evidence during the Court's recent hearing regarding "global warming." Federal court "standing" requirements are essential to upholding the Constitution's requirement that federal court jurisdiction be limited to "cases and controversies." There is no good reason to suspend or weaken that requirement just because religion is involved. And there are plenty of indications that the Court is fed up with the annual deluge of religion cases brought on what often seem like general policy grounds by plaintiffs with no real connection to the issues supposedly driving the action. (One can almost hear the annual wails from the great white palace on Capitol Hill: "What, yet another damn slew of annual creche cases!?")

Looking at the matter from another perspective, one might ask: Why has the Court accepted review of a Seventh Circuit case written by one of the most able judges in the country, Richard Posner, where there is no split in the Circuits, and Judge Posner's opinion itself is probably correct - and certainly not seriously wrong? It is highly unlikely that Judge Posner needs "correcting" - he knows how to construe existing Supreme Court precedent better than almost any other person in the world. Moreover, the "exception to the exception" his opinion overturned has little independent merit if one accepts the Court's existing precedent. So why did the Supreme Court agree to review Judge Posner's decision?

Well, if the Court wants to reverse its own precedent and abolish the exception that the Court has carved out for religion cases, one would expect the Court to accept an appeals court decision that gets the existing law (that is, existing the Supreme Court precedent) right - and then reverse. (UPDATE: In fact, that appears to be just what the Court is doing to reverse its own recent decision permitting the limited use of racial criteria in public education.) Is that what the Court is up to now?

We'll just have to wait and see.
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The Two Misters Webb

The "icy exchange" between President Bush and Virginia Sen.-elect James Webb has occassioned a great deal of comment (here and here and here and here, for example). We are told that perhaps the exchange has turned Webb into something of a folk hero among critics of the president, who have longed for someone to challenge his bravado, or that maybe his refusal to play "gentlemanly political games" has renewed questions about how well Mr. Webb fits in Congress, where compromise is almost always key. Others assert that Webb was a "jerk" - or perhaps, on the contrary, that it was Mr. Bush who made sounds of the "rattling little aggressions of our day" (this last take seems particularly far fetched).

With all respect to the many commenters, the copious commentary may be missing the most likely root of this exchange: Senator-elect Webb's son probably does not agree with his father's anti-war stance. If that's true, then the elder Webb has very good reason to fear being drawn into a conversation with the President that a more customary response to "How's your boy?" would have occassioned. If the Senator-elect had been drawn into the conversation that the President invited, Mr. Webb père might well have faced the need to either admit that his son supports the war or to dissemble to the President. It's not surprising that the new Senator would choose to evade that choice after his original plan - completely avoiding the President at this gathering - was frustrated by Mr. Bush's attempt to be friendly.

And a serious difference of opinion between father and son probably does exist on this point. How likely is it that Mr. Webb fils - who volunteered as a marine, is now serving in Iraq, and who grew up in a Republican household - is as opposed to the Iraq incursion as the Senator-elect or his supporters? Not very, in my opinion. Moreover, "I'd like to get them out of Iraq, Mr. President," is not the same thing as "He and his buddies would like to get out of Iraq, Mr. President." And the ultimate response of Mr. Webb père, "That's between me and my boy, Mr. President," suggests that father and son may not see eye-to-eye. (According to an anonymous source in The Hill, Mr. Webb confessed that he was tempted to slug the President.) Similarly, another high profile war critic, Cindy Sheehan, has never been deterred by the fact that her son, now-deceased Charlie, re-enlisted after the launch of the Iraq incursion, knowing that his unit would be sent to Iraq. Of course, we don't (yet) know the opinion of Mr. Webb fils, and one would expect him to decline public comment if he does forcefully disagree with his father (although the son's marine buddies may be willing to say more than he would if some enterprising reporter were to ask them). This entire line of thought may therefore be validly criticised as "mere speculation" or "just a guess," at best speculation or guessing supported by general evidence of no great substance. But then, the many other commenters on this "icy exchange" are speculating and guessing no less where they pronounce on what the elder Webb was thinking at the time, or how the President might react in the long run, or how other Senators might take to someone apparently so out of sync with their long established ways (or "gentlemanly games") or how the public might or should respond. The line of thought presented here has at least as much supporting it as do any of those pronouncements.

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