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"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"

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Friday, 12 May 2006
Facts and Figures: Fun with Numbers
Topic: Backgrounder

Facts and Figures: Fun with Numbers

In the political world, on Friday, May 12, 2006, was all numbers. And the first had to do with the big story that broke the previous day. This big story was, of course, the news that the National Security Agency (NSA) has compiled a database of domestic phone-call records from data provided by the three biggest telecommunications corporations - AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth. This would be a record of pretty much every telephone call made in America since sometime around a month or two after the events of September 11, 2001, involving around two hundred million people, and more than a billion calls. The National Security Agency has the number called, the number placing the call, and the duration of each call, stored in what seems to be the largest database in the world - but they don't have any idea of what was said in any given call. That's not the idea. The idea is to run all sorts of data-mining algorithms against the data and look for patterns, but how that would work, and what patterns would show what, is hazy. All this was done with no approval, other than the president authorizing the NSA to go for it - no court order or warrants - and no oversight - it was secret. Congress, save for a few who were told not to talk, knew nothing of this - and it may be massively illegal. The source item is here.


There was a ton of comment about this, or several tons, from the left and right, from those who don't think much of the president and his administration, and from those who think the man and his crew are brilliant and brave. Much of that was covered here.

Some comment was surprising. The politicians spoke - and even Newt Gingrich, right there on Fox News, said "I'm not going defend the indefensible." Really. You can watch the video here.

But expect for Arlen Specter and a few other Republicans, things lined up as they should. The Democrats said the usual about what they saw as the two core issues - first, civil liberties, specifically Fourth Amendment stuff having to do with everyone's right to left alone (no "unreasonable search and seizure") except if there's "probable cause" that they may have done or be doing something really wrong and there's a court-issued warrant allowing the intrusion, and second, the administration claim, once again, that everyone in well over two hundred years had really misunderstood the constitution and the president really does not have to follow any law or court order that messes up his plans, and the choice is his and his alone to decide which laws he should follow. The Democrats didn't like that at all. The Republicans argued this was no big deal, just collected business records and hardly wiretapping (not "unreasonable search and seizure"), and even if it somehow was, it was justified as the country is in the gravest peril ever - what we now face is far worse than the Soviet Union with ten thousand nuclear warheads aimed at our cities for decades, all those missiles on a hair trigger ready to launch, as this was a shadowy group of a few thousand people who didn't play by the rules and could grab airliners and fly them into buildings, or something like that. So in this special case the president really didn't have to follow the fancy pants rules - in fact, he shouldn't, as that would be dangerous, and he bravely recognizes that.

What did the public think? Thursday night the Washington Post conducted a flash poll (small sample and wide margin of error) and came up with this - "63 percent of Americans said they found the NSA program to be an acceptable way to investigate terrorism."

So that's that - until the next poll.

There's a long discussion of the poll here from Glenn Greenwald -
The reaction is painfully predictable. Bush followers are celebrating with glee, as though the issue is resolved in their favor and they won, while some Democrats are quivering with caution, urging that this issue be kept at arm's length lest they take a position that isn't instantaneously and overwhelmingly popular.
Maybe it was nothing and the left is just being hysterical (some call them "drama queens"). We'll see how it all plays out. Is it a slippery slope thing, or the other metaphor, boiled frog, as in the story of the frog that doesn't realize, as the pleasant warm water get a little more warm, then warmer, then warmer, that he's being cooked dead? Who knows? Being safe is an immediate concern. The concept of what happens, down the road, as you incrementally give up a few basic rights and some privacy, now, for quite practical reasons, is massively abstract. Americans are a practical people. Considering that abstract stuff is for skinny French guys smoking odd cigarettes and sipping bad coffee at some café off rue Bonaparte on the Left Bank some rainy Paris evening, if they still do that.

But it will get more interesting, as we see here - that Tice fellow who blew the cover on the original story of NSA warrantless spying on America citizens (scandal one), will testify next week on the "all phone records everywhere database" story (scandal two), as congress considerers confirming General Hayden, who ran both operations, to head the CIA. Tice says those first two were minor. Hayden's NSA was doing lots more. This would be scandals three and forward.

And Matthew Yglesias has an interesting comment here -
Perhaps this is obvious, but the thing about the big NSA phone records dragnet is that this gives us the previously missing explanation as to why the administration thought it was so important to illegally wiretap people without warrants. That used to be a bit mysterious - if the idea was to spy on people with al-Qaeda connections, getting a warrant should have been easy. The problem is that the evidentiary basis for believing the people in question had al-Qaeda connections now turns out to have been illegally obtained evidence from the broader NSA program. And then the problem reiterates itself - if the listening-in stage of the program reveals anything interesting, you can't use that in a court either. You can't use it to get further warrants, you can't use it as the basis of a prosecution, basically you can't use it at all. So if you want to act, you're going to need to do one of these detention-without-trials deals or maybe a "rendition" or a military tribunal or what have you. And then, once the guy's in custody, if he tells you anything you can't use that either. So the whole process starts again and soon enough there's an entire parallel justice system operating entirely in secret without any oversight or real rules.

And that's the optimistic scenario in which all of the relevant people are maximally honest, honorable, and competent. Leaving aside the reality that nobody with a single shred of honesty or basic human dignity would be working for George W. Bush at this point, that's simply not a realistic picture of any large-scale enterprise. Things are bound to go wrong - badly wrong - when you have all these people operating outside the law without any checks or scrutiny.
An entire parallel justice system operating entirely in secret without any oversight or real rules? Would sixty-three percent of Americans find this an acceptable way to deal with terrorism? Probably.


The big news Friday was this - federal agents searched the house of the resigned CIA agent Kyle "Dusty" Foggo in the morning -
Federal agents Friday morning raided the home of Kyle "Dusty" Foggo, who stepped down this week from the No. 3 post at the CIA amid accusations of improper ties to a defense contractor named as a co-conspirator in the bribery case of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham.

... Foggo resigned his post at the CIA on Monday, after the FBI began investigating whether he improperly steered contracts to Brent Wilkes, a Poway defense contractor and longtime friend of Foggo's. The CIA's inspector general has been investigating Foggo for at least three months.
The home, a rental, was in DC, not Poway (inland San Diego county and a nice little place where one of the nephews lives). But it was all over the news, and there was more - the FBI raided his office too, at CIA headquarters in Langley, which is really strange. He has a few more days there, but they escorted him out of the building and took away his security badge. And they didn't give a heads-up to his boss, Porter Goss, still there until General Hayden is confirmed and moves in.

The Justice Department and FBI bust the CIA, with guys from the CIA's Inspector General's office and the IRS tagging along? There's something you don't see every day.

The Cheney administration does, of course, hate the CIA. The CIA kept saying all that stuff about Saddam Hussein and his weapons programs didn't quite add up, no matter what Ahmed Chalabi said was so, and no matter what Rumsfeld's newly formed alternative mini-CIA had been saying.

They paid the price. The message? They were always all crooks.

Comparing Numbers

CNN decided to tick off the remaining twenty-nine percent of Americans who approve of the president with this, bringing up the Great Satan himself -
In a new poll comparing President Bush's job performance with that of his predecessor, a strong majority of respondents said President Clinton outperformed Bush on a host of issues.

... Respondents favored Clinton by greater than 2-to-1 margins when asked who did a better job at handling the economy (63 percent Clinton, 26 percent Bush) and solving the problems of ordinary Americans (62 percent Clinton, 25 percent Bush).

On foreign affairs, the margin was 56 percent to 32 percent in Clinton's favor; on taxes, it was 51 percent to 35 percent for Clinton; and on handling natural disasters, it was 51 percent to 30 percent, also favoring Clinton.

Moreover, 59 percent said Bush has done more to divide the country, while only 27 percent said Clinton had.
That wasn't nice. What about the pure, innocent, underage Saint Monica sweetie that Clinton defiled? And he lied about it, didn't he?

It seems that doesn't count anymore, or it seems minor compared to what now matters to most people. Times have indeed changed.

But that's just CNN. In the extended family out here, quite conservative (not only Poway but Carlsbad), no television is ever tuned to CNN. If it's the news, it's Fox. (But with the grandkids it's usually cartoons, so it doesn't really matter much.)

But this is interesting - "In the first poll of its kind, (using the first choice of TV news network as a demographic variable), in the second OpEdNews- Zogby People's poll has learned that except for viewers of right wing news show, Fox News, poll respondents believe that the 2004 presidential election was stolen."

What? But the New York Times had been saying that only a few fringe extremists and some unhinged bloggers were jabbering on about the theft of the election.

But "of the people who watch Fox news as their primary source of TV news, one half of one percent believe it was stolen and 99% believe it was legitimate. Among people who watched ANY other news source but FOX, more felt the election was stolen than legitimate."

This is very curious, as in -
ABC - Stolen 56% Legitimate - 32%
CBS - Stolen 64% Legitimate - 31%
CNN - Stolen 70% Legitimate - 24%
FOX - Stolen 0.5% Legitimate - 99%
MSNBC - Stolen 65% Legitimate - 24%
NBC - Stolen 49% Legitimate - 43%
Other - Stolen 56% Legitimate - 28%
How odd, but then, among those responding, there was this -
... 37% watched Fox news, more than any other single network. CNN came in second with 21% with MSNBC third, with 13%. It makes sense for these three 24/7 news networks to be the top in this category, since the others air news for limited parts of the day.
Volume, or market share, matters.

Here's another way of looking at it -
These numbers are astounding, because they indicate that at least half of Americans believe that the last presidential election was stolen - unless they watch Fox News. And it isn't that the networks have been beating the Great Drum of Diebold, either. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find ANY coverage of the problems with DRE voting machines in the mainstream media at all. And yet, those who watch even the kind of Bush-coddling news that's been served up by the networks, MSNBC, and CNN for the last five years, believe the election was stolen.

Now I'd like to see a poll about what percentage of Americans believe that the Bush Administration allowed the 9/11 attacks to play out so they could have their war in Iraq.
Well, that's unlikely.

But where's it all lead?

Note this at the journal of the neoconservative crowd, the Weekly Standard -
D. Quinn Mills is worried. The respected Albert J. Weatherhead, Jr. Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School fears that America may be headed toward calamity.

Convinced that two straight elections which he characterizes as "tied and disputed" have gone to the Republicans and that good-faithed, but fatigued, Democrats have "exhausted all other legal options," Mills cautions that a third straight cliffhanger marred by Republican skullduggery could well result in a civil war. By which he means a real, honest-to-goodness Civil War, except this time around it won't be the Blue and the Gray but the Blue and the Red. To warn America about this gathering storm, Mills has written a novel titled Blue! Red! (available online here) and is conducting a sparsely attended online seminar on the subject for the Harvard community...
The rest of the item ridicules Mills - one more effete liberal crybaby, from Harvard of course, where no one know anything about the real world, and the man is clearly a fool, or so they imply.

They didn't read the Zogby poll. It could happen. Or not.

Economic Data Reframed

Thursday there was this - "The Senate gave final approval Thursday to a $70 billion election-year package of tax cuts that will extend lower rates for investors and also save billions for families with above-average incomes."

The president's tax cuts get extended for a few more years, but the seventy billion pretty much goes only to those who earn more than a half-million a year. Those who earn less would have been considered, but there were a lot of arguments and no one could decide what to do about them, so that's for later, if they get to it. Nothing's perfect.

Friday there was a lot of bragging on the Republican side on how this was going to turn things around - now voters would stop this flirtation with the idea of changing congress, and make sure those who delivered on cutting taxes would remain in power. Everyone loves it when taxes are cut.

That'll work, excepting people tend to reframe big numbers, like seventy billion dollars, so they understand the numbers on a somewhat more personal level, as in this -
Here's how the just-passed tax cut "benefits" you:

If you earn $50,000 or less per year you will save $2 - $46

If you earn $50,000 - $100,000 per year you will save $110 - $403

If you earn $100,000 - $1 million per year you will save $1388 - $5562

If you earn $1 million or more you will save $41,977 (average)

Here's what was deleted in the new package:

Deductions for state and local taxes
Deductions for college tuition fees
Deductions for school supplies for teachers who pay for them out of their pockets
Deductions for businesses hiring welfare to work (bringing people out of welfare)

It's pretty clear who wins in this one. Just the concept of tax cuts when we're at war, facing a $10 trillion deficit with notes worth hundreds of billions of dollars held by China and Japan should tell you just how much these guys love America and care about its people.
But they say they care, and expect the votes of the grateful. And this will keep the economy booming.

But people do persist in looking at the details, and not at the big picture. It's a day-to-day pay-the-bills thing. Bummer.

A Careful Examination of Demographic Data Indicates Hot and Heavy Sex is Necessary, Now

Now this is interesting -
On the May 11 edition of Fox News' The Big Story, host John Gibson advised viewers during the "My Word" segment of his program to "[d]o your duty. Make more babies." He then cited a May 10 article, which reported that nearly half of all children under the age of five in the United States are minorities. Gibson added: "By far, the greatest number [of children under five] are Hispanic. You know what that means? Twenty-five years and the majority of the population is Hispanic." Gibson later claimed: "To put it bluntly, we need more babies." Then, referring to Russia's projected decline in population, Gibson claimed: "So far, we are doing our part here in America but Hispanics can't carry the whole load. The rest of you, get busy. Make babies, or put another way - a slogan for our times: 'procreation not recreation'."
At the link you can find the video clip, and the base data the got Gibson started, but the implication is clear - it's a racial thing. White women get naked and open wide. It's the only hope for the white race, whatever that is.

Most curious. Fox News is mighty odd. The "master race" could lose this one? One thinks of Germany in the late thirties.

Beyond the Numbers Previews of Coming Attractions

Note this - "Within the last week, Karl Rove told President Bush and Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten, as well as a few other high level administration officials, that he will be indicted in the CIA leak case and will immediately resign his White House job."

That's from a real journalist, Jason Leopold, who has actual sources inside the White House. There are lots of details. The planning for a post-Rove administration is underway, as is a spin strategy to assert that the removal of Bush's Brain really makes no difference at all. Of course not. The irony is too delicious. The late-night comics will be all over that.

But it's only a rumor, and the trading in news futures shows only a thirty percent consensus in the market that Rove will be indicted, with a fifty-six percent consensus he'll resign. Go stake out a position and see how you do.

The numbers are always shifting. Check daily.

Posted by Alan at 22:53 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 12 May 2006 23:01 PDT home

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