Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Warming Wednesdays: Two approaches to why some people are climate change skeptics

Graphic by way of Grist.

Though I don't think he'd deny the message of the graphic, science journalist Chris Mooney is about to publish a new book, The Republican Brain, that challenges the liberal assumption that it suffices to fight nonsense with facts, or at least entirely with facts. He is exploring the scientific research on persuasion and bias. We need to get to work understanding what the advertising industry knows so well :

A more scientific understanding of persuasion, then, should not be seen as threatening. It’s actually an opportunity to do better—to be more effective and politically successful.

Indeed, if we believe in evidence then we should also welcome the evidence showing its limited power to persuade--especially in politicized areas where deep emotions are involved. Before you start off your next argument with a fact, then, first think about what the facts say about that strategy. If you’re a liberal who is emotionally wedded to the idea that rationality wins the day—well, then, it’s high time to listen to reason.

Go read the whole thing.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

No-fly list used as extrajudicial punishment for Muslims

Guest post today. Since this blog's inception, I have frequently written about the "no fly list" having had my own run in with this unaccountable instrument of government overreach masquerading as "security". The post that follows is an oped by Munia Jabbar and Gadeir Abbas, staff attorneys for CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations. What happened to me, a white female peace activist, bears no comparison at all to violation that our government is inflicting on U.S. Muslims who find they have little recourse against anonymous charges against them.

What if you left the United States for a short trip abroad, but when you tried to come home to your job, family and life in America, your government would not let you on the plane? What if, when you asked when you could fly home, you were told "never"?

For some American Muslims, this is not a hypothetical scenario but a brutal reality that destroys families, finances and careers. A growing number of American Muslims have been placed on the no-fly list while they were traveling overseas, effectively barring their return to the U.S. Others are placed on the list while at home, and suddenly find themselves unable to travel by plane.

The list's latest targets were two Portland, Oregon area Muslims of Libyan origin who flew to that nation after the fall of Qaddafi, one to visit family and the other to perform humanitarian work on behalf of an Oregon relief agency.

One of these men, Jamal Tarhuni, attempted to fly home in January by way of Tunisia, but was stopped at the airport in Tunis and told U.S. officials were barring him from returning home. FBI agents from the Portland field office flew in to question him. They demanded that Jamal take a lie detector test as a precondition for permission to return to the U.S. He was willing to take the test, but when he refused to sign a waiver of his Miranda rights, the FBI agents told him that the test was irrelevant because they were already convinced of his guilt. His crime? Discussing Sharia, the body of Islam's religious precepts and customs, with other Muslims. These FBI agents seemed to believe that a Muslim discussing Islam was an indicator of criminal wrongdoing.

Mustafa Elogbi, also from the Portland area, was similarly stopped halfway through his return journey at the behest of U.S. officials. Mustafa was detained in London and jailed for two days. Upon his release, he returned to Libya to try to arrange to go home.

Mustafa and Jamal retained a Portland attorney and asked the Council on American-Islamic Relations for help. Both were finally cleared to fly to the U.S., but were told that neither could fly within 24 hours of the other. After a long ordeal and many setbacks, Mustafa and Jamal are now home.

Earlier this month the Associated Press reported that the number on the no-fly list has jumped from 10,000 to more than 21,000 people who now cannot fly over United States airspace.

Mustafa and Jamal's cases demonstrate just how the no-fly list ballooned: by eliminating a rational basis in the criteria for placement on the list. The new standards for inclusion on the no-fly list are not even about aviation security anymore. Instead, anyone who is a "broader threat" to national security will be placed on the no-fly list.

The government's interpretation of this "broader threat" standard has not been publicly articulated. But because CAIR regularly gets calls from American Muslims who find themselves on the no-fly list, we've gleaned a few indicators that provide some insight into how the standard is being applied:
  • Doing humanitarian work for Muslims: A traveler working to aid in humanitarian missions serving Muslim populations may be placed on the no-fly list.
  • Muslim cultural items: A traveler carrying a typically Muslim food or personal item may be pulled aside for additional screening, questioned about the item, and subsequently placed on the no-fly list.
  • Personal and professional travel to Muslim countries: Travelers are frequently placed on the no-fly list shortly after going abroad to study Islam, see family members, or at the direction of a legitimate employer.
  • Social and professional relationships with other Muslims: Simply associating with other Muslims on the no-fly list, whether socially or professionally, can get a traveler placed on the no-fly list. The placement may occur mere days or minutes after association with other Muslims becomes known to the government. In these instances, the timing of one's placement on the list makes it clear that it is their association with other Muslims that led to their placement.
A unifying principle of the above criteria is that they punish travelers simply for associating with other Muslims. Another common theme is that they punish Muslims for being Muslim—having Muslim family or talking about or studying Islam.

Unfair targeting of Muslims for placement on the no-fly list is nothing new, but the expansion of the list using the above "criteria" suggests growing government brazenness in its compilation. What happened to Jamal Tarhuni and Mustafa Elogbi are but the latest indicators.

The no-fly list has become a means through which the FBI doles out extrajudicial punishment to Muslims for no legitimate security reason. It is well past time for this approach to be revisited and revised.

There's a lot of gas being emitted these days in the context of the Republican primary clown show about attacks on religious liberty. If those old white men in the Catholic Church want to see a real assault on religious freedom, they could look at what is being done by the U.S. government to criminalize and terrorize U.S. Muslims.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Voting on marriage equality is "ridiculous and offensive" but we are winning!

The New Jersey legislature recently voted to approve same sex marriage. The Republican governor, Chris Christie, immediately vetoed it. He says maybe it would be okay if the state put gay marriage up for a referendum and voted it in, but he is not going to let mere elected representatives change this law.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker was asked about the referendum idea at a press conference. His response seems far more authentic than what we usually hear from politicians. It's worth watching this nearly five minute clip.

"We should not be putting civil rights issues to a popular vote! No minority should have their rights subject to the passions and sentiments of the majority … we've created a second class citizenship in our state. …Let's stop the ruse. We have two types of citizens in our state … we're not treating everybody equally under the law. …We're talking about equal protection under the law; that was never something that should go out to a popular vote….Thank God -- Jackie Robinson, there wasn't a popular vote whether he should be a professional baseball player. .. [The debate on same sex marriage is] ridiculous and offensive …"

Since many politicians aren't ready yet to do the right thing, the fight goes on. The current phase includes getting the Democratic Party on record in favor of legalizing same sex marriage. That should happen in the 2012 party platform. For this, there's a clear majority among Democrats. And marriage equality polls well among independents as well. It's fast becoming a non-issue except for some Republicans. (Graphic depicts the results of five recent polls via Daily Kos.)

One obstacle to the Dems doing the right thing on marriage equality is the President's position: though his administration has been very good for LGBT equality, he's personally still weaseling about marriage -- still "evolving." One of the ways we hold the President's feet to the fire on this is to push the Democratic platform committee to adopt a marriage equality plank and to support Dems in states where marriage equality will be on the ballot.

A petition urging the committee to do the right thing seems a worthy cause.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Update on that body on Julian Street

This week while walking to church we encountered new reminders of that disquieting situation we saw last week. It has since emerged that person whose body lay on the curb last Sunday had been murdered.

Friends have put out an altar in the victim's memory. Somehow, it is good to know he had friends.

Meanwhile, down the street, the police are seeking information.

Thought for a Sunday morning ...

Captured by a friend in Lodi, California.

God and Good

Robert Wright has been writing exceptionally sensible things about Iran in his Atlantic Monthly blog -- so much so that I figured I had better check out his big 2009 book, The Evolution of God. This was nominated for a Pulitzer prize for non-fiction and widely praised. So why was I surprised and disappointed by it?

Erasing its nuance, I would summarize Wright's thesis like this: globalization has been good for (the human imagination) of god. Warmed over current game theory and some facets of biological science agree, in the Beatles' formulation, "things are getting better all the time …"

Wright seems to have two audiences. The first is people who take their reading of scripture(s) very seriously and literally, probably most of them believers. Four fifths of the book is a once over lightly history of religious beliefs as embedded in Hebrew, Christian and Muslim sacred writings. I'm no scholar, but I've done a good deal of reading in this arena. The historical explication that Wright presents of these scriptures seems to me neither novel nor particularly interesting. Most modern scholarship takes for granted what he seems to offer as upsetting novel interpretations of the evident fact that human descriptions of god have changed over time. (If interested in a far more insightful tour of the Christian journey toward God, try Diarmaid MacCulloch's Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. I haven't found any history quite as good for the Muslim story, but readers won't go wrong with Karen Armstrong's Islam: A Short History and/or Reza Aslan's No God but God.)

The other audience Wright seems to be addressing is secular intellectuals who are dismissive of religion and god. He writes as if looking over his shoulder hoping he has enough accumulated credibility and enough scholarly apparatus so he won't be thrown out of the club of serious people for this book. Hence this:

… occasionally I've suggested that there might be a kind of god that is real. This prospect was raised by the manifest existence of a moral order -- that is, by the stubborn, if erratic, expansion of humankind's moral imagination over the millennia, and the fact that the ongoing maintenance of social order depends on the further expansion of the moral imagination, on movement toward moral truth. The existence of a moral order, I've said, makes it reasonable to suspect that humankind in some sense has a "higher purpose." And maybe the source of this higher purpose, the source of the moral order, is something that qualifies for the label "god" in at least some sense of that word.

The previous sentence is hardly a fervent expression of religious faith; in fact, it's essentially agnostic. Even so, I don't recommend uttering it at, say, an Ivy League faculty gathering unless you want people to look at you as if you'd started speaking in tongues. In modern intellectual circles, speculating seriously about God's existence isn't a path to widespread esteem.

I was disappointed by this book because, at root I agree with most of where Wright is going here. I do believe that history is the story of "movement toward moral truth." That movement I have no particular qualms about naming "God" (capitalization intentional; this is Important!).

I live and work in a thoroughly secular environment where most folks view all religion as the last refuge of fools and bigots -- and in dreadful glare from the Republican primary, I'm not about to fault them for believing the evidence of their eyes. But still, but still -- there is in human experience a drive toward something better that keeps resurfacing when convention and everyday self-interest would seem to preclude it. I don't understand it, but I believe it is Good. That's important.
Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature covers some of the same ground as The Evolution of God more thoroughly and, to my reading, more originally. Pinker is probably more skeptical of the god concept than Wright -- and utterly fascinating even when I question his conclusions.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Dangerous women on the streets

A silly and timid Indiana Republican Representative points to a fearsome menace.

The Girl Scouts of America and their worldwide partner, World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS), have entered into a close strategic affiliation with Planned Parenthood. You will not find evidence of this on the GSA/WAGGGS website—in fact, the websites of these two organizations explicitly deny funding Planned Parenthood.

Nonetheless, abundant evidence proves that the agenda of Planned Parenthood includes sexualizing young girls through the Girl Scouts, which is quickly becoming a tactical arm of Planned Parenthood. …Denver Auxiliary Bishop James D. Conley of Denver last year warned parents that "membership in the Girl Scouts could carry the danger of making their daughters more receptive to the pro-abortion agenda.

A Girl Scouts of America training program last year used the Planned Parenthood sex education pamphlet "Happy, Healthy, and Hot." The pamphlet instructs young girls not to think of sex as "just about vaginal or anal intercourse." "There is no right or wrong way to have sex. Just have fun, explore and be yourself!"

…Many parents are abandoning the Girl Scouts because they promote homosexual lifestyles. In fact, the Girl Scouts education seminar girls are directed to study the example of role models. Of the fifty role models listed, only three have a briefly-mentioned religious background – all the rest are feminists, lesbians, or Communists. ...

Boys who decide to claim a "transgender" or cross-dressing life-style are permitted to become a member of a Girl Scout troop, performing crafts with the girls and participate in overnight and camping activities – just like any real girl. The fact that the Honorary President of Girl Scouts of America is Michelle Obama, and the Obama's are radically pro-abortion and vigorously support the agenda of Planned Parenthood, should give each of us reason to pause before our individual or collective endorsement of the organization.

cookie seller.jpg

Me, I'm scared of the havoc these young women may cause. One of my co-workers was ambushed by them and came away with a store of secret treats. Today, under the pressure of adding up petitions for the SAFE California campaign, she reports that she opened a box and ate half of it before she knew what she was doing. She says they were the "Peanut Butter Sandwiches" so at least there was some protein.

If it had been me, it could have been the "Thin Mints." I think that's what this sneaky young woman is pushing … You can't be too careful these days!

Friday, February 24, 2012

California is not loved …

I don't get it. According to Public Policy Polling, my state is viewed less favorably than any other in a national opinion survey. A lot of people don't like us: California ranks 27 percent favorable and 44 percent unfavorable, lower in positive responses than any other state. Huh?

In the cross tabs there is some data about who thinks well of us and who doesn't. Note that there is nothing overwhelming in any of this; these opinions seem more vague notions than some decided revulsion.


Men like us a lot less than women.


Republicans really don't like us, while Democrats feel a little better. Note these are Republicans nationally -- there are lots of states where Republicans make up a larger fraction of the whole than in California.


The majority of white respondents disapprove of us; others are more mixed with Latinos most favorable. The latter is not surprising; Latinos are the largest ethnic group on the state.

All I can draw from this is that California is on the cutting (sometimes bleeding) edge of continuing changes in what this United States is becoming. And these changes make all the groups who perceive themselves as losing status uncomfortable. We're a laboratory for diversity and social egalitarianism as well as smog and sprawl.

I do love California. I moved here almost 50 years ago because, unlike either the Rust Belt where I was born or New England whose mountains speak to my soul, this place draws in fascinating, jostling people still making an uncharted future. It's a mess -- often -- but it is never boring and sometimes revelatory.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Ash Wednesday in front of Wells Fargo

The Christian "Ash Wednesday" always strikes me as a healthy practice in our culture. We so much want to pretend we'll stay young and live forever. But really there is no alternative to the admonition spoken when ashes are applied to our foreheads:

Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.

Ash Wednesday inaugurates Lent, a 40 day season of reflection and turning away from what does not promote the good. (Yes, that's what "repentance" means.)

Today the clergy and people of the my little church St John the Evangelist Episcopal/El Buen Samaritano joined the San Francisco Organizing Project in a clergy press conference meant to point out that not only individuals (who could probably use a little turning back), but also the grand institutions of our society could use some turning away from the social evils they embrace and engender.

1The Rev. Gloria del Castillo.jpg

On the streets of San Francisco's financial district, in front of corporate headquarters, the Rev. Gloria del Castillo, Vicar of El Buen Samaritano Episcopal congregation, explained how the mortgage she took out with Wells Fargo has been caught up in the real estate crash and foreclosure crisis with the result that she is likely to lose her home of eight years. The crisis of the poor and middle class is not some distant disease of the less fortunate; it is her life too.

2richard smith speaking.jpg

The Rev. Dr. Richard Smith, Priest Associate at St. John the Evangelist, read the letter that the assembled interfaith clergy intended to take to Wells Fargo bank's chairman.

3pearson, gordon, smith.jpg

The Rev. Bertie Pearson, Priest-in-Charge at St. John the Evangelist, displays a check withdrawing parish funds from Wells Fargo Bank, flanked by Senior Warden Rebecca Gordon on behalf of the Vestry. Fr. Richard Smith explained the parish's decision to the small crowd. The clergy urged other churches to "move the money" out of big banks that have failed the community by squeezing the poor while accepting taxpayer bailouts in the financial meltdown.

The local ABC news affiliate ran a surprisingly sympathetic report.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Warming Wednesdays: different truths for different folks

Dave Roberts tries to bridge the divide between policy wonks and street activists on climate change.

… climate change is poorly suited to activism. It is huge, distant, and abstract, playing out on spatial and temporal scales beyond our daily experience, difficult to grasp intellectually and almost impossible to feel viscerally. The science is complex and, in the areas most relevant to us (e.g., regional impacts), devilishly uncertain. We evolved to prioritize risks with faces and fangs, but climate change confronts us with error bars and probability distributions. There are as yet few human faces, at least few faces familiar to wealthy Westerners, associated with it. The main harms are in the future, as are the main benefits of policy solutions, while the sacrifices required by policy are immediate. And finally, wonk-approved policy solutions are just as broad, abstract, and bloodless as the problem itself, apprehended via the intellect and not the gut. (Contrast cap-and-trade with, say, gay marriage.)

You’d have trouble creating a problem less suited to getting people passionate, off their asses and into the streets, risking arrest, pushing and nagging at politicians, creating iconic events, conflicts, symbols, and art, and generally agitating for social change. When it comes to climate change, advocates and activists start with huge, built-in disadvantages.

This has shaped the course of the climate fight in several ways. First, the initial wave of climate advocates came to it through science and analysis rather than direct experience. There were no burning rivers or choking children, only graphs and projections. They grasped the problem intellectually first, and there has been a cerebral tenor to the conversation ever since. “Look at the science!” they said, assuming everyone would think through to the consequences just as they did. …

For now, climate activism involves a lot of left-brained groping toward right-brain resonance. It is not always pretty. There aren’t many easy or obvious ways to make viscerally affecting stories out of the models and statistics of climate science. “Cap-and-trade” certainly stirred no one’s loins. Activists are now looking around for other stories.

In Keystone XL, they found one. …From the perspective of activism and social change, such energy and enthusiasm is to be tended like a precious spark. Who knows if it will fade to embers after the Keystone fight is over. Maybe. All activists can do is fan it and hope it catches and spreads.

…No one should say false things. That is a baseline expectation that, one should note, opponents of climate action violate with numbing regularity. But there’s a lot of space between “precise, fully hedged, caveated, and footnoted truth” and “lie.”

…The consequences of failure on climate change are potentially existential. Climate activists are freaked out. (Why isn’t everyone?) They are underpowered and overmatched, figuring sh*t out on the fly. They exaggerate sometimes. They flail sometimes. But their opponents in the carbon status quo have bought a good chunk of the government and funded a whole cottage industry devoted to lying — in service of institutions and practices that, if left unchecked, will lead inexorably to widespread global suffering.

That's more than I usually like to quote from someone else's article, but for those of us who believe in the necessity of activism as well as understanding -- who aren't about to go down without a fight -- I can't think of a more important perspective. Go read the whole thing.

Despite every other legitimate concern, we cannot ignore that our economic and social system is rapidly making the planet less habitable. So I will be posting "Warming Wednesdays" -- unpleasant reminders of an inconvenient truth.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The wars drag on ...

Busy today, digging out from under piles of (mostly) valid signatures that will put the SAFE California Act to shut down death row on next fall's ballot. We'll see whether I have brains and energy to blog more later. Probably not.

Cartoon encountered on Cab Drollery.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Who wants a U.S. war on Iran?

That's unfortunately pretty simple: some Israelis and most U.S. Republicans. Not anyone in their right mind. The U.S. military and spook agencies agree -- Iran is nowhere near making a nuclear weapon. Even if the country was bent on going nuclear, it wouldn't necessarily be a threat. After all, U.S. military spending is 98 times more than Iran's.

But the bluster flies about. And unchecked bluster is dangerous. As Middle East analyst Phyllis Bennis explained recently

… the danger, of course, is that this kind of rhetoric can box leaders in, making them believe they cannot back down from their belligerent words.

Yes, that's what is scary about the noisy vilification of Iran. The powers-that-be might lose control of what was supposed to be just rhetoric for the rubes. In The Better Angels of our Nature, Steven Pinker describes the very human instincts that could lead to a terrible mistake:

People, especially men, are overconfident in their prospects for success; when they fight each other, the outcome is likely to be bloodier than any of them thought. People, especially men, strive for dominance for themselves and their groups; when contests of dominance are joined, they are unlikely to sort the parties by merit and are likely to be a net loss for everyone. People seek revenge by an accounting that exaggerates their innocence and their adversary's malice; when two sides seek perfect justice, they condemn themselves and their heirs to strife.

Certainly the experience of the last decade offers no reassurance that these dynamics might not take over.

Fortunately, there are people in power who don't seem to want a U.S. war on Iran. The Obama administration seems to oppose the war hawks. The President says so. I think he means it, most certainly because a major disruption of oil supplies would further inflate gas prices and endanger his re-election. He's got enough problems caused by international oil anxiety already.

And last week, that former administration official and perennial U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross who can be assumed to still have his tentacles in the mix seems to have offered terms to Iran that the proud oil rich state might be able to agree to. Writing in the New York Times, Ross opined:

Iran can have civilian nuclear power, but it must not have nuclear weapons.

That's more or less what Russia and France negotiated a few years back and what the U.S. then rejected. Let's hope our rulers have come to see that it is in everyone's interest to come to a peaceful accommodation.
It also seems worth mentioning that we used to think that going to war required at least acquiescence from the citizens of this country -- what an anachronistic thought! All this bluster presumably is designed to get us to accept yet another foolish and unnecessary war. They'll keep doing this as long as we're suckers for empire ...

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Body down ...

There was a dead body on Julian Street in the North Mission this morning. Police blocked off the street and clustered round.

Passersby, including those of us on the way to the church on the corner, took in the reality and walked on.

How to react to the death of someone you know nothing about on those rare occasions when confronted with the visual evidence that someone has died? There doesn't seem to be any culturally approved ritual or reaction to fall back on. We did pray for the person, whoever he/she was, in our service.

I once happened to see someone jump off the Golden Gate Bridge. That too felt meaningless. Where do you put the sight of someone outside your ken leaping to his death?

A van marked "Medical Examiner" drove up. Apparently it wasn't an open and shut case (are there such things?) as the police were still clustered about several hours later when we emerged from church.

cops cluster round.jpg

UPDATE: It turns out this person died by violence, a stabbing and robbery, according to Mission Loc@l. A friend of ours did call in the police when he came on the scene in the early morning. Neighbors apparently are agonizing that they heard cries and did nothing.

Some years ago, I wrote a post that deals with social science research on what happens when we fail to respond: apparently we are following social cues that counteract our instinct to intervene because we (wrongly) conclude that everything must be alright. The social scientists even suggest what to do if we need help -- be specific, yell "call the police now!" not "help". Well, maybe.

BART for the birds too

pidgeon at 24th.JPG

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Saturday scenes and scenery: BART riders are readers!

These days, I commute on BART. Everyone should be so lucky.

I've been collecting cell phone portraits of my brother and sister passengers. Here are few of them, using their commute time for literate fun and perhaps self-improvement.

chinese-woman-w-bookL.jpg reader-w_-small-hatR.jpg

reading-L.jpg girl-doing-homeworkL.jpg

black-woman-white-woman-book-R.jpg reader2R.jpg

reader1L.jpg reading-manL.jpg

Yes, I took these snaps without alerting my subjects. I didn't steal their souls. I just hope they wouldn't mind.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Republicans in alternative universe

Thanks to Noahpinion for the pic.

Okay, I can't resist passing this on: the Republican presidential primary is taking place in an alternative universe. Timothy Egan explains in the New York Times:

…the small fraction of Americans who are trying to pick the Republican nominee are old, white, uniformly Christian and unrepresentative of the nation at large.

None of that is a surprise. But when you look at the numbers, it’s stunning how  little this Republican primary electorate resembles the rest of the United States.  They are much closer to the population of 1890 than of 2012.

Go read the whole thing.

This is no surprise to any Californian. Ever notice that our state went from spawning Ronald Reagan to becoming one of Barack Obama's bastions? We've become radically diverse demographically and culturally, the very opposite of the Republican party. In the 1990s, California Republicans -- at the least the segment that in 2009 became the Tea Party -- tried to hold back the demographic tide of the young and brown through a series of racially tinged initiatives that would structurally impede the absorption of young people of color into the political system; they sought to stigmatize and expel immigrants while ending state sponsorship of affirmative action. Since they were then the majority, they won.

But their barriers could not hold. Today they are a dwindling minority and California is a solidly Democratic state. So is New York. Even the coastal old South -- Virginia, North Carolina, Florida -- is changing in this direction as demographic shifts work their way into the electorate.

So we get to watch the Republican clown show. These people are wacky. Ever notice that Mitt Romney's Super Pac is named "Restore Our Future"? There's an instance of linguistic incoherence if I ever heard one; haven't these people noticed that time runs in one direction only? This is usually thought of as forward. Perhaps not.

Concurrently, as Joan Walsh points out, Rick Santorum is

running for Pope, not POTUS.

That's not likely to go far. There's no sign that most of us want a Pope.

Too busy to blog

office two weeks out.JPG
We're surrounded by petitions in the SAFE California office this week.

No wonder -- even the paid signature gatherers who supplemented our volunteers were amazed at how eager folks have been to replace California's death penalty with life sentences. In an article about how the prices paid for signatures for by contractors (usually $1 and up) have been low this season, the interviewee explained that some petitions were still good business:

... a higher price isn't necessary because voters are so eager to sign a petition.

This latter situation -- popularity that makes gathering easy -- may be the case with the death penalty measure. In one San Gabriel Valley parking lot, I saw a half-dozen people lined up just to sign it.

When we dig out from under all this mail, we're going to get this measure on the ballot!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Efficiency is good for me

Sometimes I worry that I'm turning into a mindless enthusiast for my health maintenance organization ... but I hope I can claim to have kept my critical faculties.

But when I read something like what follows in Consumer Reports on Health, I thank my lucky stars that when I left the last employer who had me on a group plan, he'd recently switched us to Kaiser Permanente and that I've been able to stay with this HMO ever since.

Here's a bit of the article that inspired the thought:

Too much medication?
When was the last time you gathered up all your medication and took it with you for a check up? ...

A medication review is "one of the single most important things that happens in the context of an office visit. " says Jerry Gurwitz M.D., chief of the division of geriatric medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester ...

Many people aren't taking the right medication. About 60 percent of those taking five or more prescription drugs [ [half of us over 57!] had at least one that was unnecessary ...

That's something I'm never going to have to worry about with my doctor. At Kaiser all my medical records are computerized. Any drug I have ever taken or am currently taking pops up on the screen when any doctor or specialist meets me. If there are known interactions between drugs I've been prescribed, the screen will also flag that.

Perhaps as importantly, it is in the interests of Kaiser to keep me on no more drugs than I really need; the organization's incentives are to keep me healthy and see me less, not to perform repeated procedures. I'm sure that if I had some medical condition that was extremely unusual, Kaiser might also have an incentive to deny me access to expensive tests or a rare specialty. But most of what makes most of us sick is pretty ordinary; doctors see the same conditions every day. For those ordinary problems, the structure of an efficient HMO avoids over treatments.

The health insurance reform that will kick in over the next few years, assuming Republicans don't run Obama out of office, aims to push these efficiencies into more corners of the medical system. This doesn't scare me; I've gotten my health care from such a system for over a decade and the experience makes me confident this is a smarter, better way. Thrive, indeed.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Warming Wednesdays: on moving beyond protest

The email pleas started flooding in yesterday from every environmental and liberal advocacy group on the net -- sign the latest petition to the Senate to oppose Republicans' latest attempt to resurrect the Keystone XL tars ands oil pipeline. We did. The counter at reads 802,180 as I write this. That fight goes on. Thrust and parry; pipeline pushed forward and pipeline blocked ...

Jim Schultz at the Democracy Center has some sharp observations about this struggle. Shultz has been around a lot of fights, from California's initiative wars of the 1990s through Cochabamba, Bolivia's water revolt against privatization. He recounts the story of how the Keystone XL pipeline become a prime issue for environmental campaigners, beginning with Nebraskans who raised the alarm about the harm Canadian oil might do to their water supply. Their cause was joined by climate change activists bent on curbing carbon-spewing fuels who saw an opportunity to push President Obama in election season. Publicity and a mass civil disobedience encouraged Obama to delay the pipeline and then to deny it a permit. Opponents were jubilant while Republicans still think they have been handed a stick to beat the President with, that citizens worry more about gas prices than the hypothetical dangers of global warming. That's where the matter stands today.

Schultz has some thoughts:

Why is the battle against the Keystone pipeline so urgent? If there is one thing we have learned from the fight against coal (by far the single largest U.S. contributor to climate change) it is that once corporations have made big investments in infrastructure, they will fight tooth and nail for decades to squeeze the last return possible out of that investment, environmental concerns be damned. Another 50-year infrastructure investment in petroleum in the U.S. means another 50 years of political battle to wean our economy off oil.

Converting Keystone XL from being an invisible issue to being a global cause is a major achievement, as was convincing President Obama to reject permits for the pipeline. But in politics, on issues this big, leveraging can work in the short-term – but in the end public opinion bats last. Now that actions at the White House have made Keystone a major national issue, we are going to have to win not just the protest game but public opinion as well. That won’t be easy. Keystone backers have a far bigger megaphone and have already spent millions in donations to Congress to buttress their case.

It is in the nature of strong advocacy to expect a backlash. Ultimately winning depends on your ability to meet that backlash head on and defeat it. To ultimately win, opponents of Keystone XL need to make the case on the merits to the public, not just on the politics to the President. We need to make clear that the jobs estimates are wildly overblown; that the winners from all that environmentally reckless oil transport will not be families and communities but corporations; and that those who oppose the pipeline are all kinds of Americans not just one kind. Finally, we are going to have to make and win the most fundamental case of all on climate – that the environment we will bequeath to our children and their children matters so deeply that this time we need to leave the oil right in the ground where we found it, even if someone has to sacrifice a hefty profit in order to do so.

My emphasis. That is, election year pressures from strategic sectors (such as some Democratic donors) won't win this battle over the longer term. If we want to move toward policies that guard and preserve the habitability of the planet, we must convince strong majorities that action is necessary and an urgent priority.

Though most citizens (Tea Party die-hards excepted) believe that global warming is happening, less and less of us are concerned enough to want to make hard choices about what to do.

And that is Schultz's point: the Keystone XL project will keep coming back until strong majorities slap it down and additional carbon-fuel exploitation comes to seem unthinkable, perhaps suicidal.

That's the way of democratic decision making. Interested minorities can keep bringing their pet hobby horses back even when majorities think the issue has been settled -- look what we're seeing from the Catholic bishops as they try again to enforce their condemnation of birth control. It's extremely unlikely that fight will help the President's detractors -- he has the people on his side. But on climate issues, the public is not there with us yet. So winning against the Keystone XL won't stick unless the public becomes convinced that ending fossil fuel exploitation expresses their values. Stopping Keystone XL can't seem some kind of worthy but rotten-tasting medicine pushed on them by enviro freaks. We've got a ways to go.

Despite every other legitimate concern, we cannot ignore that our economic and social system is rapidly making the planet less habitable. So I will be posting "Warming Wednesdays" -- unpleasant reminders of an inconvenient truth.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A citizen changes his mind

I would like to think that, if I had worked on a campaign that succeeded, and later concluded the measure or person I'd worked for was detrimental to the kind of society I believe in, I'd have the guts to do what Ron Briggs did on Sunday. Briggs is the son of the John Briggs, the proponent of the gay bashing California initiative memorialized in the movie Milk. Though that notorious 1978 measure was defeated and is remembered as a signal victory for gay rights, most of us are less aware of the Briggs family's other initiative that year. That one mandated California's death penalty regimen, now a monument to dysfunction.

Still a staunch Republican conservative (he's an El Dorado Country rancher and elected supervisor), Ron Briggs wants the world to know that his family now thinks that 1978 initiative has created a "monster." He believes it is time to replace the death penalty with sentences of life without the possibility of parole. Writing in the Los Angeles Times he explains:

I cannot think of a single turning point in my thinking on the death penalty. My Catholicism teaches me that all life is precious, and that's certainly part of my viewpoint these days. But what resonates more in my mind is Dad's fondness for saying "facts are stubborn things." With hindsight's 20-20 vision and three decades of obstinate data, it's clear to my family that we created a fiscal monster that's taking a human toll on the very people we wanted to protect.

The ineffective legal beast created by California's death penalty laws costs taxpayers more than $100 million annually and ties up the lives of prosecutors and victims who could be moving on to other things.

We thought our 1978 initiative created a system to support victims' families. It didn't. The only people benefiting today are the lawyers who handle expensive appeals and the criminals who are able to keep their cases alive interminably.

The Briggs death penalty law in California simply does not work.

Had I known then what we do today, I would have pushed for strong life sentences without the possibility of parole. I still believe that society must be protected from the most heinous criminals, and that they don't deserve to ever again be free. But I'd like to see them serve their terms with the general prison population, where they could be required to work and pay restitution into the victims' compensation fund.

There are few "do-overs" in life, especially in politics. With the death penalty, though, 34 years later I have an opportunity to set things right. The Briggs family has decided to endorse the SAFE California campaign, a fall 2012 ballot initiative that would replace the death penalty with a punishment of life without the possibility of parole. The state has another chance at real justice. We should embrace it.

The SAFE California act will be on the ballot in November. The state's voters are getting a chance for a "do-over". Click the link to get involved and help us make this momentous course correction.
So I have to ask myself, have there been campaigns about which I've had that kind of change of mind and heart? Nothing among the issues I've worked for jumps to mind. But there have been a few candidates who were disappointments once in office, notably our current President. Despite being a constitutional law professor, he seems as attached to executive power unbound by laws in the national security state as did his predecessor. Not that I won't vote for him again; the alternatives really are worse.

Campaigns are inherently both polarizing and lend themselves to dividing the opposing sides into camps that almost have to believe "we're all right and you are all wrong." That's not inherently a bad thing; picking the best alternative available and pushing for it, then living with the majority's choice, is what citizenship feels like in a big, complex and democratic society. Schemes that try to smooth out the divisions that manifest themselves through "yes" and "no" votes -- like San Francisco's "ranked choice voting"-- just undermine engaged citizenship.

But the corollary to such engaged citizenship has to be continuing to look at the results of the choices we make: did these policies work? After the heat of the moment, can we see other avenues to the social goals that formed our choices? Is this office holder still serving the interests and purposes of a majority? Office holders who abhor such scrutiny are in the wrong business. Democracy doesn't work if we all just go home after an election and forget about it.

Kudos to Ron Briggs for looking honestly at the wrong turn his family and a majority of California's voters took in 1978. That's never easy.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Rays of Effing Sunshine: Rice Broker -- try it while you can

We ate out over the weekend -- a rare event -- and seized an opportunity that won't last forever.

The tiny restaurant space currently housing the Rice Broker at 1058 Valencia Street used to be a Kentucky Fried Chicken. Then it moved up in the world, becoming Spork, a pleasant neighborhood mid-price eatery that served a delicious "Inside Out Burger." That restaurant lost its lease in December as the owner plans to tear down the grungy little building and replace it with condos.


But one of the previous restauranteurs has reopened temporarily as Rice Broker, serving a very limited menu in rudimentary circumstances (you order at the cash register and are asked to bus your own dishes).

I didn't expect much, but the "Pork and Ginger Meatball" rice bowl was simply delicious.

This imported beer in a can wasn't bad either.


Rice Broker may be history any day, but meanwhile, it's a nice surprise.

I don't want to just gripe here all the time. I do after all, quite frequently, encounter things and people that delight me. Hence this feature: occasional posts labeled "rays of effing sunshine."

A Facebook detractor's vindication: something smelt rotten here

Thanks to Barry Ritzholz writing in Washington Post, I've learned that Facebook counts me as a "Daily Active User" for the purposes of its gazillion dollar IPO (stock sale). The truth is I hate Facebook; if I want to interact with friends, I contact them. I cruise the World Wide Web for the opportunity to encounter the new and unfamiliar, not to float in my social circle. I pass through Facebook only for practical purposes to check on occasional event invitations.

But I'm a "Daily Active User" because this blog automatically publishes to Facebook, whether anyone looks at it there or not. This is accomplished by some blog widget whose source I've forgotten.

But to make the maximum amount of money for Mark Zuckerberg and friends, Facebook has invented some vastly inflated metrics to describe its usage. Ritzholz reports:

Facebook’s SEC data [purported] to show how fast the firm was growing. FB was becoming a “daily habit for more users,” and the numbers from the IPO filing were extraordinary: 845 million Monthly Active Users and 483 million Daily Active Users.

MAU? DAU? I had never heard of either metric, and novel accounting for public companies is always a red flag. Don’t just take my word for it, ask a Groupon investor.

It turns out that Facebook "users" don't necessarily visit the site. If you hit a "Like" button anywhere or, automatically publish there from another site as I do, your "usage" has been invoked inflate Facebook's value.
Ritzholz summarizes his conclusions:

What I learned from Facebook’s filing was that they have 161 million active users who actually go to each month. That’s not shabby -- but it’s a far cry from the MAU claims of 850 million. That definition of active users is probably overstated by a factor of 500 percent. I suspect that the $100 billion valuation may be overstated by nearly as much.

Facebook may turn out to be the goose that laid the golden egg yet, but somehow this detractor is not surprised that there are some phony implications in its self-description.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Catholic bishops working toward Darwin award

The other day gay Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson was reported making an observation that I found stunning:

On whether the Catholic Church at large will allow gay bishops anytime soon, Robinson is hesitant to state a timeline, but he does say that Christianity, Islam and Judaism will appear “increasingly irrelevant” if they continue to distance themselves from the LGBT community.

“I’m of the opinion that the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in the church, the mosque, and the synagogue is inevitable,” says Robinson. “All we’re talking about is timing. How long will it take to make that a reality? I believe that’s God’s will, and the church, the synagogue and the mosque may have gotten this wrong for this many years, but God has never gotten it wrong.”

Now Gene is an optimist and a person of glorious faith, but this seems a bit much. Hidebound religious authorities affirming that God loves everyone? Not bloody likely.

Watching U.S. Roman Catholic bishops claim they are suffering religious persecution because federal law requires them to offer contraception to their employees as part of their insurance makes me wonder whether Gene might be right, though getting there is likely to be ugly. According to reporting by Laurie Goodstein, the bishops planned for and sought a confrontation with the administration about contraception. In 28 states, they already do what the new federal law orders -- include contraception coverage as part of health insurance for all employees -- but they wanted this fight at this time. Obama offered them a face saving compromise that was applauded by the nuns who actually run Catholic hospitals and by women's health advocates, but that's not good enough for these guys. They'd rather whine.

In a week in which women have risen up and stomped on the Susan G. Komen Foundation's political decision to cease funding Planned Parenthood, this is wandering into Darwin award territory for religious institutions. Individuals and species that are out of touch with the realities of their environment die off. The bishops apparently have not noticed that they lost the ability to lay down the law for most citizens of advanced countries some centuries ago. They have to convince people to share their values; they have no automatic legitimacy to order people around. Ninety-eight percent of U.S. Catholics use birth control at some time in their lives; the bishops are undermining their own institution by picking this fight. Maybe health insurance shouldn't be tied to anyone's employment, but if Catholic institutions are going to employ non-Catholics, they have to play by everyone's rules.

Enough of this kind of nonsense from religious leaders and the dwindling pack of continuing believers may indeed finally notice what Gene Robinson knows already -- whatever God is, God is about loving everybody.

The rest is just fuss and furor, entitled old men trying to hold on to an authority they lost years ago. They just look silly.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Hidden history in the Financial District

One of my tasks these days is to pick up the campaign mail from a private mail box and haul it through downtown streets to our office. There are all sorts of interesting oddments in small byways along the way. This plaque is one.

Who was William Alexander Leidesdorff and why does he merit a plaque affixed to a bank tower?

According to Wikipedia, this early Californian businessman (1810-1848) was very like the sort of people of mixed ethnic and racial heritage who are so much of the population of modern California. He was a West Indian of Afro-Cuban, possibly Carib, Danish, and Jewish ancestry who became a U.S. citizen in New Orleans in 1834. Migrating to California, he became a Mexican citizen in 1844 and was given a land grant along the American River near present-day Sacramento -- a land grant where after his death rich seams of gold were mined. The far west turned out well for this migrant.

This classic California racial and ethnic mutt became a prominent and important citizen of early San Francisco. After the United States annexed California, he was again a citizen of the republic and was chosen president of the growing city's first public school board and later city treasurer.

A financial district alley is named for Leidesdorff. There's more of interest among the granite canyons than I would have thought if I'd never walked here.
leidesdorff alley sign.jpg

Friday, February 10, 2012

Just wondering … do the images really tell us what is going on?

A couple of days ago, the Atlantic's Robert Wright wrote:

I wonder if national leaders are more sensitive to international shaming now than they were back before electronics made the world seem small. Or maybe it's just that the things they're ashamed of are harder to cover up; the images coming out of Homs [in Syria] must make it harder for Russia to walk away. (In 1938 Chamberlain famously described turmoil in Czechoslovakia as "a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing." Today you couldn't say that about Papua New Guinea.)

I'm not so sure about that.

Environmental leader Bill McKibben's outfit,, has urged us to speak out against the recent coup that forced Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed from office.

President Nasheed was the first democratically elected leader of his country and a global voice for action to address the climate crisis.

I'm inclined to believe on this -- they seem a responsible organization. But I sure am not going to pretend I have any idea what is going on the Maldives.

India is a lot closer by and has strategic interests in the Indian Ocean island nation. But this Indian newscast seems only slightly more informed than I feel I am.

Friday cat blogging

I should know where I got this, but I'm afraid I don't remember. But it rang true.

Busy today. The SAFE California campaign to replace death sentences with sentences of life without parole in California is on the verge of submitting the over 700000 voter signatures we've collected to put the initiative on the ballot. Visualize phone calls, emails, faithful volunteers pouring over illegible handwriting, and stacks of paper everywhere. Posting may be slow for awhile since I have major responsibilities in all this.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

When doctors and patients don't know what to do

This book disappointed me. From listening to the authors on Fresh Air, I had hoped to encounter a thoughtful and useful discussion of how we judge how much medical care is enough, personally and as a society. But Your Medical Mind -- How to Decide What is Right For You by Dr. Jerome Groopman and Dr. Pamela Hartzband didn't give me much to go on.

As I slogged through the early chapters, I felt that I was reading a book whose authors had never quite discerned who their audience should be. Was the book written for doctors who ought to be more aware that patients approach their care from a variety of perspectives and values? Or was it for patients who had to decide how much deciding they wanted to do? Reading stories of people who sought multiple medical opinions and interviewed several doctors, I found myself asking: what world are these authors writing about? In the U.S. medical environment, most of have very few choices about what doctor we may see about our complaints. We therefore mostly feel constrained to take that doctor's say-so about our treatment. Mitt Romney may be able to fire his insurance company and therefore have choices about what doctor he sees, but most of use feel lucky to have either insurance or any doctor.

I will say I found the discussion of patients' and doctors' discernment about end of life care more nuanced than some of the other sections. I know from trying to be present over several years to my own mother's decline and eventual death that meaningful conversations about final wishes may not be possible. I would like to think that I'll eventually find the courage to be able to face my death and to be clear with whoever is caring for me about my wishes -- but I recognize that if faced with the need to do this tomorrow, I wouldn't know my own mind.

These authors include a good description of the pressures on the medical system that contribute to some patients nearing death without having their wishes discovered or heard.

The need to provide more individual attention and spend more time with very sick patients will collide with a modern medical system that increasingly rewards "efficiency." Prominent health policy planners, and even some physicians, envision the hospital and its clinic as a factory and assert that medical care should be delivered in an industrialized fashion. Visits with patients are shaved down to a few minutes; conversations are structured to meet standardized protocols and quality measures. But the difficult and often changing decisions patients make about what and how much more to do in the midst of a life-threatening condition are not "products" that "efficiently" roll off an assembly line. Guiding a patient and her family as she nears the end of her life is neither an easy nor an efficient process. It takes time and effort because it is not direct, not linear; it involves much back-and-forth discussion, often without coming to a decision or after deciding, reversing that choice and then later changing choices again. This new medical system might be more efficient in delivering certain types of care, but it often ends up not caring for the patient.

Or, to put it more charitably, this efficient system makes itself unable to listen to the patient.

I don't know what we do about this. We want the marvelous healing that modern, expensive, scientific medicine can deliver, at its best. Maybe it's just that, at some point, for all of us, medicine can do no more -- and no improvements in efficiency are going to change that. At some point, medicine is no longer about decisions; decisions are over. The whole thrust of the healing discipline fights that end; no wonder it doesn't handle it gracefully.
No wonder also, it turns out that medicine has little scientific idea how to predict life expectancy in the sick. This can cause all sorts of additional conundrums for doctors and patients. Medical researchers call -- no surprise here -- for better research. It seems that might help us all.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

The return of the undead

If I didn't read Ed Kilgore at the Washington Monthly, -- if you enjoy campaigns as sport you should -- I wouldn't have known that Mitt Romney has been so foolish as to tout an endorsement from former California Governor Pete Wilson. Wilson deserves credit as the guy who in 1994 put the GOP on track to become the party of inciting hatred against immigrants to win political points -- and hence to oblivion wherever the Latino-origin population is entering the political system.

Here's Kilgore on the stupidity of Mitt's latest move:

... in a year when the Latino vote nationally could well be the ballgame, it’s just bizarre that a candidate who already has problems with this segment of the electorate would make this gratuitous gesture of contempt. It’s not as though Wilson is some conservative celebrity who will help him nail down the nomination, either; hard-core California conservatives consider him a squish on issues other than immigration.

It’s stuff like this that makes me wonder if Mitt is really the remorselessly efficient robo-pol he’s cracked up to be. Embracing Wilson is the kind of thing a novice candidate desperate for any kind of support might do. For Mitt Romney, it’s simply an unforced error.

Daily I become more hopeful I'll never have to write "President Romney."

This news provides me a chance to pass on another bit of Pete Wilson trivia I just ran across in Walter Shapiro's One-Car Caravan. Apparently it's Pete's fault the modern presidential primary calendar has become such a front-loaded, byzantine mess.

Once upon a time -- that is, as recently as 1992 -- the presidential caucuses and primaries unfolded at a sensible pace that encouraged deliberation by the voters and, not incidentally, provided political reporters with a natural narrative arc filled with exciting reversals of fortune and dramatic comebacks. Back then, February belonged to Iowa and New Hampshire, which winnowed the field; the cluster of southern primaries in March known as Super Tuesday reduced the contest to an undisputed front-runner and a desperate challenger; the race was generally decided when the big industrial states such as New York and Illinois weighed in come April; and any remaining doubts were dispelled as California, Ohio and New Jersey went to the polls on the first Tuesday in June.

But then -- hiss! boo!! -- the Republicans ruined everything in 1996. California jumped its primary to the first Tuesday in March in deference to the outlandish presidential fantasies of GOP Governor Pete Wilson. New York moved up as well, as Al D' Amato gamed the system to boost his Senate patron, Bob Dole. The result was a slam-bang-thank-you-ma'am calendar that effectively truncated the presidential race from four leisurely months to three pin balling weeks. This was politics reshaped to fit the attention span of an eleven-year-old boy weaned on Mortal Kombat video games and computer-generated movie mayhem.

There you have it: Walter Shapiro at his baroque best; Pete Wilson in his usual role as comic book villain. Ain't politics great?

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

The Prop. 8 decision


I'm supposed to have a strong opinion -- and I'm certainly glad the decision recognized that there is no rationale except bigotry against gays for denying us the right to marry -- but this graphic by way of Radical def will have to do to sum up my feelings.

Chasing the Big Story

If for nothing else, I'd delight in Walter Shapiro's One-Car Caravan: On The Road With The 2004 Democrats Before America Tunes for this snapshot of how campaigns really work:

As [Dick Gephardt's pollster Ed] Reilly explained, "In any campaign, you have that list of bad ideas that come up from the candidate, his spouse, his family, the fund-raisers. It's not worth the pain to blow these ideas out of the water yourself. You let the focus groups do that."

Yup -- that's the function of many focus groups: to blow the candidate or the campaign committee out of their complacent fantasies and show them how ordinary, unconcerned voters respond to their favorite arguments or turns of phrase. Depending on how out of touch they are, the experience can be shocking.

It also can be lucrative for the consultant or pollster who puts on the focus group because if the experience of watching your "little darlings" get stomped by citizens is traumatic enough, it can encourage dependence on the smart guy who showed you the inconvenient truth. Campaign consultants dance a complex dance; many are responsible professionals, good at their work, but the openings for abuse are many.

Shapiro's book is just what the title says, an account of the 2004 Democratic presidential field before any primary votes were cast, before Dean "screamed," before Kerry "voted for it before he voted against it," before Lieberman was revealed as a vengeful jackass. That story line seems ancient history. But this account of the nuts and bolts of a Democratic pre-pre-primary (such as we may see in 2016) is still great fun if you like that sort of thing.

Shapiro is not much of a fan of "issues" as the deciding factor in why people make candidate choices (and my experience runs in the same vein.) Thus we get this:

Personality may not be destiny -- or the ebullient Hubert Humphrey would have defeated Nixon in 1968. But in presidential primary politics, temperament matters more than any other factor beyond the direct conscious control of the candidates. Voters may not be able to decipher which of the candidates secretly felt inadequate as a child, but they can judge personality. …

Imagine waking up every morning fired up with the faith that today you'll raise $100,000, work out the kinks in your health-care plan, corral that elusive endorsement and rouse campaign audiences to a fever pitch. Imagine what it must be like to believe that the inevitable setbacks in a campaign are momentary detours on the road to fulfilling your destiny. But it's more than inner self-confidence. When radiating from a presidential candidate, optimism is contagious; it is the essential quality that convinces voters that, hey, he really means it; maybe this time we'll get a president who does something for me. TV coaches can teach a candidate how to smile on cue and even how to feign sincerity. But optimism isn't learned behavior; it is bred within the fiber of your being.

During the primaries we're searching for glimpses of what we call "character." Perhaps that insight says something about the current phenomenon of people warming to Mitt Romney less over time, the more they see of him.

Shapiro is not only insightful, he's thoughtful. I hadn't noticed this about horserace journalism:

Despite incessant coverage of the presidential race, the fact that three leading Democratic contenders have lost parents in the last two years is never discussed in print, not even as a way to explain a candidate's occasional dour mood or to put the ordeal of campaigning for president in a larger human perspective. No other subject is off-limits for political reporters -- not sexual escapades, youthful drug use or medical history. But parental death has long been a taboo topic.

He further points out that parental deaths tend to occur in the age group of these aspirants and that it can mark a real life change for mature adults. But about this one very human passage, we seldom practice our accustomed political voyeurism.

I suspect that Shapiro was not surprised by President Obama's difficult relationship with much of the Democratic electorate. Back in 2003, he described what he sees as a recurrent theme among Democrats:

Democrats have long been beguiled by the fantasy of the white knight president, the FDR-like leader who will somehow uplift the nation, inspire us to something greater than the next way or the next tax cut, and yet never lose his easygoing sense of authenticity. For sixty years, longer than most of us have been alive, the Democratic Party has been waiting for that transcendent next president. John Kennedy, for all the myth that has come to surround his memory, was too much a creature of muscular Cold War verities to measure up to this august standard when he was alive. Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton, such enormous talents in such flawed containers. And yet for all the disappointments and the undelivered promises, there is the enduring hope that maybe the next election will somehow fulfill these idealistic dreams.

No, Obama didn't fulfill our hopes either -- and I've read enough of the history of FDR to know that the populist left nipped at this heels throughout his presidency. We want a fairer, more caring country and we don't give up.

But One Car Caravan is something more than wise; it's fun. I'd go a long way to read a fellow who describes the profession of political journalism like this:

For let's face it, if political convention decreed that the 2004 campaign began with a three-legged race in Enid, Oklahoma, I'd probably make the trip and then spend my time worrying that 1 was somehow missing the Big Story.

You can read Shapiro's 2012 horserace coverage at The New Republic.