Wednesday, July 26, 2006

COLUMN -- Outside the circus, but inside a puzzle

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:39 AM |  

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

"I am disgusted with what we've witnessed in the past couple of weeks. It's an ugly political circus." So says John James, Independence Party candidate for attorney general. He's talking about the byplay that led to the withdrawal from the race of DFL candidate Matt Entenza. "The tragedy of the Entenza affair is that it diverts focus from the issues," says James.

While Republican and DFL candidates run separate campaign offices, "Team Minnesota," the Independence Party shorthand for its slate, operates out of common loft space decorated with the clutter of creative activity. It was there I met with James.

Well spoken and consistently on message, James, a Minneapolis lawyer, comes to the Independence Party by way of the DFL and community activism. He served as commissioner of revenue under Gov. Rudy Perpich. He's also been a director of 1000 Friends of Minnesota, an organization he describes as focused on "community-friendly" land development. If one takes a dim view of aggressive regional planning, 1000 Friends is intent on making Minnesota over in the image of "the People's Republic of Portland."

And therein lies the crux of the conundrum that is the Independence Party. On the one hand, it is a party focused on issues that believes government can and should try to make good things happen. On the other, for government to define what is "good" and impose policies to achieve it, even in the guise of a democratic majority, requires force and coercion.

Consider the attorney general's office. Traditionally, the attorney general assumes the role of Minnesota's chief legal officer, which entails both seeking justice for Minnesota citizens through legal actions and acting as the lawyer for state government. He may be asked for a legal opinion on legislation, but the attorney general is generally not part of the policy-making process.

James contends that if the attorney general's office acts independently and confines itself to its traditional role, Minnesotans are not getting their money's worth.

"We want people and organizations to comply with the law, but we also want laws that conform to the needs of Minnesotans and their communities. The attorney general should play a part in delivering both," he said.

The attorney general's office, James contends, should help shape new laws and ensure that government programs comply with existing laws. Policy direction comes from the governor's office, but the attorney general has a role, says James: ensuring that laws actually make the agreed-upon policies happen. Health care provides an example.

The Independence Party health care proposal calls in part for aligning incentives for citizens, health care providers, insurers and employers to get better results at a better price. In a market system, the market participants define incentives. In a system where government aligns incentives, incentives are defined by carrot-and-stick legislation and regulation — "making it more expensive to do the bad things," James said.

An attorney general should ensure that the process for complying with regulation and legislation really does create a better system. "Process includes ensuring that citizens dealing with government are treated fairly," said James.

"Fairly," however, is open to interpretation. Being treated "fairly" before the law is not the same as a "fair" law. Is it "fair" to create incentives to benefit some at the expense of others? James would address that question on a case-by-case basis. He believes, on the main issues, we can define what is "good" and systematically work toward it.

Not your father's major party. The Independence Party systematic approach to government contrasts with legal actions like those taken against HMOs by current Attorney General (and DFL candidate for governor) Mike Hatch, which are "sideshows" to the health care problems, according to James. It also contrasts with the conflicted Republican governing approach, which mixes a little free-market with a bit of government oversight without accounting for conflicting incentives.

By default, the Independence Party becomes a thinking voter's alternative. But as Adlai Stevenson noted, a candidate who gets every thinking person's vote still needs a few more to win a majority. Whether or not the Independence Party translates dissatisfaction with the DFL and GOP into an upset in November, by resisting the temptation to run away and join the political circus, it earns itself some consideration.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

COLUMN -- Integration opened the door, competition is diversifying game

Posted by Craig Westover | 10:19 AM |  

Thursday, July 20, 2006

In 1863 Ned Cuthbert of the Philadelphia Keystones recorded baseball's first stolen base. Also in 1863, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. At Gettysburg he wondered if a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal could long endure.

Baseball and racial conflict are both part of the American experience. Pioneer Press sportswriter Gordon Wittenmyer reminded us of that last week in a three-part look at "Baseball's Blackout," the declining number of African-Americans in major league baseball.

Despite a nagging undercurrent of implied racism, the gist of the series supports a more complex explanation for the decline of African-American players in baseball. What Wittenmyer reveals about race and baseball is what also lies outside the lines; integration opens competition. Dealing with race is an individual, not just an institutional, issue.

Redemptive Liberalism. Conservative Shelby Steele, who is African-American, describes a view of difficulties — poverty, crime and poor education — that presumes them to be beyond the control of black communities. He contrasts that with a view that does not deny the possibility of outside influence, but refuses to presume it and instead takes responsibility.

The percentage of African-American ballplayers is clearly in decline. Today, 8.8 percent of major leaguers are African-American. That's the lowest total since the major leagues were fully integrated in 1959, down from a high of 27 percent in the 1970s.

"Could (the decline) have been predicted," writes Wittenmyer. "Maybe prevented — by even a modest amount of attention to the cultural structure of the major leagues?"

Steele characterizes such sociological questions as presuming a necessity for societal intervention. The assumption is society has the moral obligation to act.

Under that assumption, actions are evaluated as much, perhaps more, for their redemptive value for society as they are for actual benefit. Indeed, the genesis of Wittenmyer's question is that major league baseball has a moral obligation to maintain the "cultural structure" of the league.

The greatest generation. Douglas Hartmann, a University of Minnesota sociology professor quoted in the articles, suggests that the conditions in baseball parallel integration in the larger society.

"You have this high point in the '50s and '60s where Americans as a nation realized the faults of slavery and Jim Crow and stood up against that and started creating policies to sort of reverse those trends," he said. "And starting sometime in the '80s, as people are willing to spend less money on those specific programs, you start to see gains African-Americans have made at least stagnate if not decline."

Steele, writing in "A Dream Deferred," provides a contrasting view. He notes that in the first half of the 20th century, about 50 percent of the entire black population of the United States uprooted and left the poverty and racial bigotry of the South and moved north. Without "community" leadership, without white support, in the face of the long odds of poverty and poor education, this generation, perhaps the real "greatest generation" of Americans, within roughly 50 years pushed the nation to repeal virtually all institutionalized vestiges of discrimination.

Why, asks Steele, do many African-Americans today remain in northern inner cities decades after the jobs have gone, in some instances no farther than the suburbs? Why can uneducated immigrants with little or no English come into the same neighborhoods and thrive? Why, we might ask, has the percentage of Latino ballplayers increased from less than 10 percent in 1990 to nearly 30 percent of major league rosters today?

Individualism and race. One answer, which presumes the decline of African-American ballplayers is due to external influences, is that Latino ballplayers are taking advantage of dozens of baseball academies in countries like the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.

Presuming that is a cause and assuming the moral obligation of Major League Baseball to African-American players, the prescribed action is Major League Baseball responding with a similar program. And it has, opening this spring the Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif. And as Wittenmyer notes, in its zeal to show how much it is doing to reverse the decline in African-Americans playing baseball, Major League Baseball has made false claims about the project's success to date.

That is not a knock on the effort, but rather an observation of what happens when the motivation to act is personal redemption rather than connecting with the problem; public relations precedes accomplishment. Contrast that with the relatively quiet action of the Twins' Torii Hunter.

Hunter, writes Wittenmyer, grew tired of waiting for others to address the issue. Acting as an individual, he is working with Little League Baseball's Urban Initiative to rebuild under-funded, at-risk city programs (www.toriihunter48. com). Hunter's personal involvement has inspired African-Americans and other players to get involved — up close and personal. He's making things happen.

Lesson to be learned. Institutions can provide access to opportunities, but individuals act on them, or not. Integration opens competition. Jackie Robinson opened the door for African-American ballplayers, and also for Latinos and, today, Japanese and Korean players. If African-American baseball heritage is to survive, individuals, not institutions, must drive the effort — whether for the sake of integration or simply love of the game.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

History haunts Mayor Coleman

Posted by Craig Westover | 3:21 PM |  

David Downing of Downing’s World posts that as part of St. Paul's observance of the anniversary of James J. Hill’s arrival in St. Paul, an actor portraying the "Empire Builder" will disembark from a riverboat Friday afternoon in downtown St. Paul and will be greeted by Mayor Chris Coleman.
I wonder what kind of greeting the mayor will give him? I ask, because I remember the harsh words mayor Coleman had for Hill just a few months ago. The Hasbro company was doing a publicity stunt for its Monopoly board game, asking people to vote for properties around the country that could be included on an updated version of the game board. Real estate candidates from the Twin Cities included the Mall of America, the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis (built by Hill for the Great Northern), and St. Paul's Summit Avenue, anchored by the Hill mansion, now a historic site.

Told that the monster mall was leading the voting, the Pioneer Press quoted mayor Coleman as saying, "Summit's getting its ass kicked in the contest, but there's no question that that should be the symbol. It's the symbol of monopoly. It was the home of J.J. Hill, one of the biggest robber barons of all time."

Mayor, where's the love?

It will be interesting to see what sort of nice things Coleman has to say about Hill at the event this Friday. What praise will he heap upon "one of the biggest robber barons of all time"?
I wrote a column for the St. Paul Legal Ledger that tongue-in-cheek admitted that government did create jobs and then illustrated with examples. The mayor's history lesson is worth repeating.

Mayor Chris Coleman -- Job Created: City Historian.

St. Paul’s Summit Avenue is, said Mayor Chris in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, “getting its ass kicked” in a vote to see which Twin Cities property is represented on an updated version of the board game Monopoly. “But there’s no question that [Summit Avenue] should be the symbol. It’s the symbol of monopoly. It was the home of J.J. Hill, one of the biggest robber barons of all time.”

Robber baron? A brief history lesson.

The Union Pacific and Central Pacific met at Promontory Point, Utah, completing the first transcontinental railroad in 1869. The project was spawned by the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862, which granted the railroads huge tracts of federal land and the right to secure more based on government incentives that encouraged inefficient construction practices. Following the Civil War, the railroads were back before Congress looking for more funding.

Meanwhile, James J. Hill built the Great Northern Railway, running from the shores of Lake Superior to Washington State, with private capital.

While subsidized railroads used government authorization to grab public and private lands, Hill spent his own money to relocate farmers along his rail route. He knew that his railroad would prosper only if the region it ran through prospered. Hill funded agricultural research and livestock breeding to ensure that farmers, and his railroad, had something profitable to ship.

In tough economic times, when subsidized railroads fell on hard times, Hill and other private railroaders built spurs into Glacier, Yellowstone and Grand Canyon National Parks, creating a tourist industry and introducing Easterners to the grandeur of the American West.

Robber baron?

Oh yeah. Hill’s railroad made him rich. That was his sin. Had he built the Great Northern with government subsidies, instead of naming a Monopoly street in Hill's (dis)honor, the mayor might be building a government office building bearing his name.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Jeffers to name immigration reformer as running mate

Posted by Craig Westover | 9:56 PM |  

Ruthie Hendrycks, who founded Minnesotans Seeking Immigration Reform, waves a U.S. flag during a rally calling for tighter immigration controls on April 29. -- Jayme Halbritter, AP

Sue Jeffers will name Ruthie Hendrycks, a Republican from Hanska in southern Minnesota, as her running mate in the Republican primary. Hendrycks is founder of Minnesotans Seeking Immigration Reform.

Hendrycks is an interesting choice. She adds another element of feistiness to the Jeffers’ ticket. Like Jeffers, her motivation for entering the race lies in dissatisfaction with the current political parties.

Also like Jeffers, Hendrycks lacks experience running for political office, but her work with Minnesotans Seeking Immigration Reform demonstrates an ability to organize. It also separates the Jeffers campaign from the open border philosophy of the Libertarian party, so expect the predictable Republican party “Jeffers flip-flops on immigration issue” release. The fact is, if immigration is the political hot button that Republicans believe that it is, Hendrycks, who has already walked the walked that Pawlenty and company are just talking about, may have more credibility on the issue with Republicans that are concerned about immigration than does Pawlenty.

Official announcement of Hendrycks will be made tomorrow.

FROM THE ARCHIVES -- Who'll stop the sunshine?

Posted by Craig Westover | 12:42 PM |  

Given the forecast of sunshine and soaring temperatures for the coming weekend, it's a good time to remind readers that there is no safe level of exposure to sunlight. This column appeared in the Pioneer Press on June 21, 2004

Who'll stop the sunshine?

Attending the Taste of Minnesota over the Fourth of July weekend, I was horrified to find not a single designated "non-sunshine area" anywhere on Harriet Island. Promoters of the "Taste" callously ignored the conclusive scientific evidence of the health hazards of exposure to the sun's ultraviolet rays — and the St. Paul City Council did nothing to stop them!

"Big Sunshine" promoters not only scheduled the Taste when the sun is firing its solar salvos directly at our northern state, they offered food, amusement rides and musical performances — marketed to impressionable children and young people — to keep them in the sun for prolonged periods.

And speaking of vulnerable children — beyond the harmful effects to preschoolers out in the white hot heat of the sun, how much harm was suffered by the wee ones watching adult role models carelessly enjoying themselves in the sunshine, oblivious to the dangers of solar saturation?

In order to purchase food at the Taste, I often had to stand in line, out in the open, unprotected from the sun. Tents and awnings sometimes provided a little cover from direct sunlight exposure, but offered no protection from the hazardous glare of "secondhand sunshine."

The only offering for non-sunshiners at the Taste was the potentially dangerous fireworks display held after dark, but even then, in order to find a good viewing spot, one had to stake a claim by early evening.

Didn't the Taste promoters realize that after a day of continuous exposure to sunlight even twilight enhances the cumulative effect of prolonged exposure to UV rays. Or didn't they care?

What do promoters of the Taste of Minnesota know about the addictive nature of summer in Minnesota, and when did they know it?

Why, in the face of this obvious conspiracy to provide Minnesotans with summer outdoor events has not the St. Paul City Council acted to protect employees and patrons from Big Sunshine?

At the very least, why hasn't the state stepped up to its responsibility to regulate the marketplace and ensure affordable paba-free protective sunscreen for the most vulnerable Minnesotans? How long must we wait for a single-source sunscreen provider?
Why hasn't some progressive city council member called for a citywide ban on outdoor summer events? Why hasn't Gov. Pawlenty stepped up and called for a statewide ban?

I realize narrow-minded civil libertarians might consider such a ban an excessive curtailment of individual rights. Some people, they say, might "choose" to go to outdoor events, and if the rest of us don't want to be exposed to sunshine, we can just stay home.

But what about the rights of the health conscious? Why in order to purchase deep-fried cheese curds at a "public event" must we run a gantlet of flagellating ultraviolet rays?

And what about employees at these events? Must they sacrifice their right to a healthy sunshine-free work environment in order to keep their jobs?

An immediate solution, a modest proposal if you will, is legislation that requires all "outdoor" festivals in Minnesota to be held indoors under non-toxic artificial light. State-subsidized domed stadiums for the Vikings, Twins and Gophers are a good start. But why not subsidize a dome over Harriet Island as well?

As a compromise, designated sun areas might be provided at outdoor events for those who don't care if they expose themselves to harmful sunlight. These areas, adjacent to the indoor venues, should be equipped with darkroom-type doors to prevent secondhand sunshine from seeping into the event when "sun worshipers" re-enter the building. It goes without saying that employees at these events should not be allowed to serve food where they might be exposed to sunshine.

It's time for St. Paul to take a leadership role in preserving Minnesota's tradition of pasty white complexions and protecting the health of its citizens.

Unless the council acts, I predict that next Fourth of July St. Paulites will flock to Minneapolis and the Metrodome. I can hear Twins public address announcer Bob Casey now — "There is nooooooo sunshine in the Metrodome."

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Smoking bans and intellectual honesty

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:23 AM |  

This is why it is hard for be to believe that there is any intellectual honesty among those yelling the loudest for smoking bans.

On MNspeak (where he now goes to bad mouth my columns through personal innuendo rather than addressing the issue head-on), Bob Moffitt of the American Lung Association of Minnesota writes in response to a question about smoking on outdoor patios --
We [ALAMN] don't have an official position on outdoor smoking areas per se. We do know are some places in Minneapolis (The Saloon and Ultra Escape Lounge) that have tried to get cute and construct a "smoking room" rather than a true outdoor space. In any case, that's a matter for Minneapolis officials to decide, as it is their ordinance.

I don't know about you, but I like the increased number of patios around town. I saw one in at the NE Palace recently that is terrific -- it even had a waterfall!

There have been a number of articles on the rise in patio space in the Twin Cities lately, including an insert in the June 29 - July 5 issue of The Onion that quotes yours truely.

»» Submitted by »»» alamn at 1:30 PM in the post Miscellaneous Local Links - 7/12/06
If there is “no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke,” why doesn’t the ALA have an official position “per se”? We’re not talking about a political position (they aren't under an obligation to have a political position), but given there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke, according to the surgeon general's report that they use to justify smoking bans, who is protecting employees that have to serve smokers on an outdoor patio? Who is protecting innocent passersby from people smoking outside (instead of inside where non-smokers can choose not to go)? More to the point -- how can Bob endorse (but not per se) patios where people are exposed to toxic levels of secondhand smoke?

As for getting “cute,” here’s why the Escape Ultra Lounge found it necessary.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

COLUMN -- Trading principle for popularity

Posted by Craig Westover | 7:55 AM |  

Thursday, July 12, 2006

Correction: I screwed up. Plain and simple. No excuses. I messed up. Looking for the 2004 smoking ban language in the 2006 Republican Platform, I didn’t find it. Searching the document electronically to double check, “smoking” and “ban” didn’t turn up. I just plain missed that the language had changed. Opposition to smoking bans in bars and restaurants is still there. From the 2006 Republican Platform, Section 7 – "Enjoying and Protecting Our Natural Resources" item N. --

Support for the right of all commercial property owners to govern the
legal consumption of tobacco within their properties.
I’m glad it’s still there and that the Republican platform is holding to its principles. My characterization of the Republican Party on smoking bans is wrong in the following column, but the argument vis a vis the characterization of Reps Meslow and Severson still holds. Should a statewide ban surface at the legislature this year, it will be interesting to see how the GOP vote breaks.

Again, the Republican Party continues to support the right of property owners to govern how tobacco is consumed on their private prperty. Without any sarcasm and egg on my face, I was wrong.


In Sunday's Pioneer Press, Republican Reps. Doug Meslow and Dan Severson criticized my characterization of opposition to smoking bans as a "traditional Republican position." I was going to respond by quoting the Republican Party platform: Republicans stand for "Opposing any state or local adoption of a smoking ban on privately owned restaurants and bars."

That phrase is found in the 2004 party platform. The "tradition" of opposing smoking bans conveniently disappeared from the 2006 Republican Party platform. So I stand corrected — principled opposition to smoking bans in privately owned restaurants and bars was never a Republican position.

Yes, that was sarcasm.

Let's be intellectually honest — just as they took the safe track on public financing for the Twins stadium, the GOP is backing off a traditional principled position because smoking bans are politically popular.

Correction: The Republican Party has not backed-off the issue as noted above, but Representatives Meslow and Severson are bucking the party position, which is what I hoped to say in the first place. Nonetheless, I was wrong about the GOP. The Republican Party still maintains support for property owners to control legal tobacco use on their properties.

Analysis versus whim. "Republicans don't blindly endorse every regulation that is proposed," write the representatives. Nor, they say, do they automatically oppose them. They consider regulations on a case-by-case basis. A large majority of Republicans, they point out, have concluded that "removing dangerous airborne toxins from public gathering spots is the right thing to do."

Great. Nothing wrong and a lot right with changing one's position — for good reasons. However, a case-by-case approach to regulation requires issue-independent criteria by which such judgments are made. Otherwise, "case-by-case" judgments are simply autocratic whims. Consider Meslow and Severson's case-by-case analysis supporting a smoking ban.

As "conservatives," they believe smokers "have every right" to inhale tobacco smoke into their own lungs, but they won't fight for smokers' right to blow the "poisons in tobacco smoke into the lungs of innocent bystanders in indoor workplaces and public gathering spots."

Small nit — the surgeon general has stated there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke. Nada. Zero. Zilch. If one really believes the surgeon general's analysis, smoking anywhere is a health threat to innocent bystanders. Inside bars or outside on patios. In public buildings, on private property where the public gathers and in private homes.

Where, I would ask the representatives, does that analysis lead?

Politically popular vs. the right thing to do. Meslow and Severson contend that banning smoking in privately owned public gathering spots frequented by and employing consenting adults is the "right thing to do." Yet, they ignore much stronger scientific evidence that secondhand smoke negatively affects the health of children.

If "doing the right thing" is what Meslow and Severson are all about, then why, to protect children, are they NOT clamoring for much broader regulation of smoking or even a complete ban?

Why? Because their support for smoking bans is less about public health, less about doing the right thing, less about protecting children, than it is about getting on the politically correct side of the issue. I find that position disingenuous.

First, Republicans desert conservative principles — abandon defense of private property rights and individual choice ostensibly to protect public health. Then they ignore the arguably more significant public health threat to innocent children while soliciting kudos for imposing restrictions on consenting adults. That may be popular, but it's not "doing the right thing."

Correction: That the Republican platform still maintains support for property owners right to govern tobacco use, this paragaph should not have been generalized to "Republicans" but should have been confined to Reps. Meslow and Severson, who claimed to speak for many Republicans.

Politically risky versus politically popular. If one really believes the surgeon general's claim that there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke, and one believes government should do something about it, anything less than a total ban on smoking anywhere is irresponsible policy.

I don't agree with the total ban position (science doesn't support it), but at least it is intellectually honest.

Meslow and Severson, on the other hand, believe smokers blow poison into the lungs of "innocent bystanders." That premise — that smokers are literally poisoning those around them — does not support an incremental, public-places-only smoking ban approach. It does not justify preventing an adult from smoking in a bar that people freely choose to enter but then putting no restrictions on that adult smoking at home with children present. Poison is poison.

I am not naive. I can kick and scream all I want in principled opposition to smoking bans, but popular sentiment makes supporting bans a risk-free no-brainer for opportunistic politicians. Smoking bans are as inevitable as death, taxes and light rail. There is no consolation but much amusement, however, in how quickly Meslow and Severson deny their political heritage, adopt the inevitable and try to make it look like a plan.

A running joke during the Cold War was that the statues of Russian leaders in Kremlin were on wheels, making it easier to roll them out of public view when a history rewrite was necessary. Reps. Meslow and Severson are doing a little of that wheeling and dealing on traditional Republican opposition to smoking bans in privately owned restaurants and bars.

Correction: As noted above, while this is a fair column as it pertains to the specific comments of Reps. Meslow and Severson, I was wrong to extend the characterizations to the Republican Party in general. The Republican party continues to support property owners right to govern the legal use of tobacco on their properties.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Now this is funny

Posted by Craig Westover | 1:16 PM |  

A West Texas cowboy was herding his cows in a remote
pasture when a shiny new BMW advanced out of a dust
cloud toward him. The driver, a young man in a Brioni
suit, Gucci shoes, Ray Ban sun glasses and a Yves
Saint Laurent tie, leans out the window and asks the
cowboy, "If I tell you exactly how many cows and
calves you have in your herd, will you give me a

The cowboy looks at the man, obviously a yuppie, then
looks at his peacefully grazing herd and calmly
answers, "Sure. Why not?"

The yuppie parks his car, whips out his Dell notebook
computer, connects it to his Cingular RAZR V3 cell
phone, and surfs to a NASA page on the Internet, where
he calls up a GPS satellite navigation system to get
an exact fix on his location which he then feeds to
another NASA satellite that scans the area in an
ultra-high-resolution photo. The young man then opens
the digital photo in Adobe Photoshop and exports it to
an image-processing facility in Hamburg, Germany.
Within seconds, he receives an email on his Palm Pilot
that the image has been processed and the data stored.
He then accesses an MS-SQL database through an
ODBC-connected Excel spreadsheet with email on his
Blackberry, and, after a few minutes, receives a
response. Finally, he prints out a full-color,
150-page report on his miniaturized HP LaserJet
printer and finally turns to the cowboy and says, "You
have exactly 1,586 cows and calves."

"That's right. Well, I guess you can take one of my
calves," says the cowboy. He watches the young man
select one of the animals and looks on amused as the
young man stuffs it into the trunk of his car. Then
the cowboy says to the young man, "Hey, if I can tell
you exactly what your business is, will you give me
back my calf?"

The young man thinks about it for a second and then
says, "Okay."

You're a Congressman for the U.S. Government", says
the cowboy.

"Wow! That's correct," says the yuppie, "but how did
you guess that?"

"No guessing required," said the cowboy. "You showed
up here even though nobody called you, you want to get
paid for an answer to a question I already knew and
never asked, you tried to show me how much smarter you
are than me, and you don't know a thing about give me back my dog."

Thursday, July 06, 2006

COLUMN -- Talking science, but walking politics (updated)

Posted by Craig Westover | 9:13 AM |  

Thursday, July 6, 2006

"People don't want to think … They'll bless and follow anyone who gives them a justification for not thinking."
— Dr. Floyd Ferris, State Science Institute

Last week U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona issued "a comprehensive scientific report" that concludes, "There is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke." The debate is "unequivocally" over. "The evidence is conclusive. Smoking bans are the only way."

The surgeon general says science has spoken, but he's not speaking science. It is leadership with an agenda that would shut off debate and call it "consensus."
"Nitpicking," you say. We're talking about puffing pariahs spewing poison. But what if the victims of policies based on nonscientific "science" were instead innocent children?

The surgeon general's political statement. If there is any doubt that the surgeon general's report, "The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke," is not a scientific document, consider this report language:

"This report uses the term secondhand smoke in preference to environmental tobacco smoke … . The descriptor 'secondhand' captures the involuntary nature of the exposure, while 'environmental' does not. This report also refers to the inhalation of secondhand smoke as involuntary smoking, acknowledging that most nonsmokers do not want to inhale tobacco smoke."

That is laughable as objective science. The attitude of the nonsmoker is irrelevant to the effects of the tobacco smoke he inhales. The surgeon general, however, is not testing a scientific hypothesis; he's justifying smoking bans irrespective of the data. The report is about creating the perception tobacco smoke is evil, not proving it.

Why should you believe hobby columnist Craig Westover over the U.S. surgeon general? You shouldn't. You should look at the data. But the report is a daunting 727 pages. Reporters on deadline don't have the time, and smoking ban advocates won't take the time, to read the whole thing. And the rest of us, says government scientist Ferris, simply don't like to think. That's what leadership with an agenda is counting on.

Denying the autism epidemic. In the late 1980s children were diagnosed with autism at a rate of about 1 in 10,000 live births. By the end of the 1990s, that rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control, climbed to 1 case in 166 live births.

One hypothesis is that thimerosal, a vaccine preservative that is 49.6 percent mercury, is a contributing factor to the autism epidemic. Additions to the immunization schedule over the same 10-year period nearly tripled the mercury exposure of a child in the first 18 months of life.

Public health leadership has responded with denial that an autism epidemic exists. The numbers, they say, simply reflect better diagnosis. They deny that thimerosal and vaccines are a contributing factor in autism.

In 2004 the Institute for Medicine issued a "conclusive" report stating, "The body of epidemiological evidence favors rejection of a causal relationship between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism."

It recommended channeling funding into other areas of autism research. This after federal health officials recommended the removal of thimerosal from most childhood vaccines as a "precautionary measure" in 1999.

Science is subversive. The surgeon general's report and the Institute of Medicine report talk science but walk politics.

For example, the surgeon general in his public statements implies that even brief exposure to secondhand smoke puts one at risk of heart disease and lung cancer. That conclusion is not supported by the report, which indicates prolonged exposure before one is at a slightly greater risk than the general nonsmoking population.

The institute's report is based on five epidemiological studies that, aside from methodological flaws, assume a population with a consistent genetic base. Clinical research indicates a genetic inability to excrete mercury among a significant percentage of autistic children. The institute did not consider that and other "merely theoretical" clinical studies in making its recommendations.

Science is a subversive pursuit in which each new piece of evidence raises new questions, engenders more debate and motivates more study. However admirable political objectives, they are not justification for following along and not thinking, for not examining bullet-point conclusions in the context of data, for not questioning public policy based on polluted science.

By the way: There is no Dr. Ferris, and no State Science Institute. The quote at the beginning of this piece echoes from the dark world of Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged." It reflects a view of politically controlled science that is closer to reality than either the surgeon general's or the Institute of Medicine reports.

Think about it.

Update: You can’t ask for better support. Here’s the lead from a Star Tribune editorial on the surgeon general’s report --
It's probably a safe bet that few people would consider the new U.S. Surgeon General's report on secondhand smoke to be a "must read" this summer. Yet downloading even its 27-page executive summary ( would be a great eye-opener for anyone who: smokes in the presence of a child, works in a smoky restaurant or bar, spends any time at all in smoke-filled environments or simply lives in a state -- like Minnesota -- that has no comprehensive smoking ban covering restaurants and bars.
That’s precisely the point. That’s what people with a smoking ban agenda are counting on. Read only the executive summary, and one gets a very slanted misrepresentation of what is actually in the report. If the folks at the American Lung Association were really concerned about public health, that should alarm them.

Not all of surgeon general’s report is bunk. As I’ve written before, there are some very good studies with statistically valid result indicating inhaling secondhand smoke poses a significant health hazard for infants and young children. The report cites these studies. That information should not be taken lightly. But when it is framed by a ridiculous claim, its importance is compromised.

“There is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke” is not just an idiotic and unscientific statement. It is damaging to the objective of reducing the number of people that smoke and especially those that smoke around infants and children. If that were really true, what justification is there for NOT immediately making smoking completely illegal, anywhere?

Well, there are political issues and civil rights issues and we just can’t ban smoking in private homes and . . . .that’s all crap. We ban use of marijuana in homes. We ban the use of legal products like certain types of fertilizers in homes. We can ban any product that is a certified danger to public health. If there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke, then there is no morally justifiable reason for not banning smoking in homes and around young children. To do otherwise is irresponsible.

And doing otherwise is what the surgeon general recommends. What are his recommendations? I’ll let Dr. Michael Siegel, a 20-year tobacco control researcher that supports smoking bans but is intellectually honest about the misrepresentations in the surgeon general’s report, take that one.
This primary message [in the report] of the communications about the findings of the report [ostracize and isolate smokers and make them social pariahs] seems, at least in my eyes, to contradict the very title of the report: "The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke."

If secondhand smoke exposure is involuntary, then people do not have a choice about avoiding it. If people are able to heed the Surgeon General's advice about staying away from smokers, then is it not true that their secondhand smoke exposure is not involuntary at all?It occurs to me that you can't have it both ways. You can't propose as a solution to the problem that people stay away from smokers and at the same time try to convince us that exposure to secondhand smoke is involuntary. If people can avoid it by staying away from smokers, then is it not voluntary? If simply avoiding the smoke is the appropriate solution, then isn't the problem actually one of voluntary exposure to secondhand smoke?The materials accompanying the Surgeon General's report are laced with advice to the public to avoid exposure to secondhand smoke.

The brochure that accompanies the report instructs people how to protect themselves from the hazard discussed in the 727-page report. And the advice given is: "do not breathe secondhand smoke." "Visit smoke-free restaurants and public places." "Ask people not to smoke around you and your children." "Do not allow anyone to smoke near your child." "Use a smoke-free day care center." "Do not take your child to restaurants or other indoor public places that allow smoking." "Teach older kids to stay away from secondhand smoke." "Choose restaurants and bars that are smoke-free." "Be very careful not to go where [you] will be around secondhand smoke.

"If this is the appropriate solution to what is cast as being a devastating public health problem, then isn't the title of the report misleading? Doesn't this advice cast secondhand smoke exposure as being largely voluntary? If you can choose to avoid it, then you're not involuntarily exposed.My point here is that, once again, the communications surrounding the report are inconsistent with the report itself.

If the solution we are proposing to the public is that they should "stay away from smokers," then isn't the problem one of voluntary exposure, and what we're trying to do is to shift the decision that people are making from one of being around smoke to one of avoiding smoke? Then why title the report "involuntary exposure to tobacco smoke?

"I'm not arguing here either that secondhand smoke exposure is truly voluntary or that telling people to avoid secondhand smoke is inappropriate. I'm simply pointing out the inconsistency of the communication to the public in light of the title and findings of the Surgeon General's report.
And that’s the point. Just reading the executive summary as the Strib recommends, and you get a misrepresentation of what the data within the report indicates. Ironically, that hurts the very objective that smoking ban proponents claim to support -- public health.

Update: A previous post on the political nature of the IOM report.

READER RESPONSE -- Forever Young

Posted by Craig Westover | 8:37 AM |  

Eva Young responds in the Pioneer Press today to my column of last week. She objects that the column leaves the impression that that all opposition to Michele Bachmann on the issue of contraception is Democratic. In response to her comment left on the post of my column, I added an update acknowledging that the headline, which I didn‘t write, could lead to inference that those commenting were all Democrats, however, that implication is specifically not made in the column.
“Democrat” is only used in the column to identify Blois Olson as a Democratic pundit, which is why he was on the panel -- an opposite to David Strom who is definitely a conservative commentator generally taking Republican positions. “Democrat” is also used in analysis of contraception as a wedge issue -- in the same context used in the NY Times in the article that spawned the controversy. Both uses are accurate.
That said, whether Eva calls herself a Republican or a Democrat is immaterial. Political labels are shorthand for a set a principles. When Republicans criticize Republicans and Democrats criticize Democrats it should be on the basis of party principle. Eva’s attacks on Bachmann focus on the personal and follows the DFL line.

In her response Eva writes --
Michele Bachmann's Web site states "Michele believes that human life must be protected from conception to a natural death." Voters in Michele Bachmann's district have the right to know what she means by this statement. Does this mean that she believes that in vitro fertilization should be banned? After all, this process produces excess fertilized eggs, some of which are destroyed because they typically aren't all used. Some extremist so-called "pro-lifers" claim that various methods of contraception such as the pill and the IUD act as "abortefacients" since they act to prevent implantation of the fertilized egg in the womb.
That is the kind of wedge-issue rhetoric I characterized in my column as making Democrats look silly. It makes Republicans that spout it look even sillier.

Democrats are losing the rationality side of the abortion debate. Regardless of their positions on whether government should ban or regulate abortion, most Americans consider abortion a serious moral issue. There is something unseemly about shrill rants demanding abortion as a “right” and parades where participants smile and wave and brandish bloody coat hangers. Abortion as merely another choice for birth control is morally unsettling to reasonable people.

Consequently, as noted in the NY Times, Democrats need a wedge on the abortion issue, and think they have one by raising exactly the kind of issues Eva raises in the Pioneer Press. Republicans (pro-life candidates) aren’t biting. And the more a candidate is asked for a position on "the uterine wall controversy" or some such vaginal issue, the more reasonable voters are going to recoil.

If Eva wants the Republican label, then she should challenge Republicans to defend government intervention in abortion in terms of limited government principles. If Eva wants the Republican label, her objective should be making Republican candidates better, not dumping them. If Eva wants the Republican label, then her objective should be making the party better by pointing out where it fails to follow its principles.

If Eva wants the Republican label, then she should act like one.