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Saturday, September 07, 2002
 
A Decision Tree


The Cogent Provocateur provides an interesting and important contribution to the analysis of potential regime change in Iraq. The Cogent Provocateur ("CP")
first identifies the "Standard Argument" for regime change in Iraq through territorial conquest as being:

(1) Saddam Hussein's Iraq is developing potent Weapons of Mass Destruction (notably, nukes and delivery systems).

(2) When Saddam has WMD, he will damage the US ... either directly, or by extortion, or acting against US interests (notably Israel), or by equipping third parties (notably, Islamic terrorist networks).

(3) Forcible regime change in Iraq will prevent this damage.


The CP then analyzes each of those statements to look not only for the most likely scenario but also for other, lower chance possibilities. He generates quite a list of possibilities and more could be found. With regard to the first argument, CP writes as follows:

"(1) Saddam is developing potent WMD."

This seems highly probable, but not certain. Informed sources disagree. Have we missed any salient possibilities?

(1a) Saddam was developing WMD, but has abandoned the program.

(1b) Saddam's WMD program is a deliberate bluff.

(1c) Saddam is developing strategically insignificant WMD (WWI-vintage mustard gas, poorly-dispersed anthrax, etc.).

(1d) Saddam is developing impractical WMD using technically incompetent designs.

(1e) Saddam is developing potent WMD susceptible to undisclosed U.S. countermeasures.

(1f) Saddam's WMD program is susceptible to intelligence, and thus amenable to "editing" with finer-tipped policy instruments.

(1g) Saddam's WMD program is impenetrable in research mode, but at strategic scale becomes susceptible to intelligence.

(1h) Saddam is procuring/deploying WMD by means other than Iraqi R&D on Iraqi territory.

(1i) Saddam is a year or more away from strategic WMD capability. (If the timeline were much shorter -- and we really bought the Standard Case -- we wouldn't invade ... we'd launch).



His analysis of the second and third legs of the "Standard Argument" is similar.


We do not necessarily agree with CP as to the magnitude of the possibility of each outcome and CP freely acknowledges that his list is not comprehensive. Nonetheless, the analysis he suggests, if performed meticulously, could result in the construction of a decision tree of possible outcomes of various policies towards Iraq. The existence of such a decision tree would permit direct comparison of various potential policies.



The decision tree would list each decision node (invade in October or await more information concerning Saddam's WMD program; ask for a Security Counsel resolution or don't; acquire allies or go it alone etc.) and list all outcomes with any significant possibility. Each listed outcome of each branch of the decision node would itself spawn another decision node with its own array of outcomes. By continuing the process of listing each possible outcome of each branch of each decision node, one would eventually have a complete decision tree. It should be noted that the listing of all potential outcomes with significant chance of occurring is a very non-trivial process. One must then assign a probability to each potential outcome. That process is also massively difficult.



Once the tree is built, it could be "folded back" to determine the probability of each final outcome on every branch of the tree. Knowing the probability of each potential outcome is insufficient for the task at hand. One must also be able to assign some quantifiable measurement of success ("utility") of each outcome. That process is way beyond "very non-trivial" or even "massively difficult." A sensitivity analysis of each decision node and each outcome probability would allow the decision maker to identify the assumptions underlying the analysis that have the greatest impact on final utility. Whew.



It has been more than two decades since PLA sat in Decision Analysis class at Duke. We have not the skill nor the information required to construct or analyze the decision tree. One may hope that the State Department, the Defense Department and the White House have, in fact, performed the meticulous analysis suggested by CP's post. We have neither read nor heard of any such analysis and would not exprect to have read of it as it would be highly confidential.


PLA's very crude "back of the envelope" decision analysis based on woefully inadequate information combined with much "gut level feeling" suggests that a stringent inspection system combined with deterrence and diplomacy would make it more likely than not that we could prevent Saddam's use of weapons of mass destruction. That conclusion, however, is the beginning and not the end of the analysis for two very large reasons. First, long experience with daily use of decision analysis on far simpler problems suggests that our lack of information substantially reduces the reliability of the analysis.



Secondly, and far more importantly, the fact that we believe that it is more likely than not that action short of invasion would work is simply not very relevant. We are not prepared to risk a 40% chance that one or more American cities will be reduced to radioactive rubble. Indeed, it is not clear that we are willing to accept a 0.1% chance of such a result. It should be said, however, that a military invasion aimed at regime change in Iraq does not eliminate the possibility of such a result and under certain assumptions may in fact increase it.



The important point is that if such analysis exists, and if it supports regime change by invasion, it forms a powerful tool for the administration in making its case to Congress and close allies. If it does not exist, members of Congress should insist that it be performed prior to approving a resolution of war. One may hope that this administration prizes meticulous analysis along with its much vaunted moral clarity.
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Friday, September 06, 2002
 
More Time Travel

Recently, Greg Greene noted (link curtsey of Matt Yglesias) that Georgia Republican candidate Saxby Chambliss had accused Democratic Senator Max Cleland of time travel. Chambliss accused Cleland of voting to raise Social Security taxes in 1996 when Cleland did not join the Senate until 1997.

Now Texas Republican Senatorial candidate John Cornyn accuses Democrat Ron Kirk of time travel. Cornyn contends that Kirk killed the nomination of Justice Priscilla Owen to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. That nomination died this week in committee. Mr. Kirk will not take office until after he defeats Cornyn and is sworn into office next January. If Cornyn needs to blame a Texan for Owen's defeat, he should point the finger at White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales. As a member of the Texas Supreme Court, Gonzales noted that Owens was a judicial activist who allowed her personal feelings to interfere with her judicial decisions.



 
Montana’s Senate race


Montana’s Senate race pits four-term incumbent Democrat Max Baucus against former businessman and State Senator Mike Taylor. It was a very close call as to whether this race should have been classified as a “Safe Democratic” seat as opposed to its current status as a “contested race.” Baucus seems to have an overwhelming lead in stature, money, name recognition and other political assets. We chose to list it as “contested” for three reasons. First, Montana is a very conservative state. George Bush carried the state by landslide proportions in 2000. Secondly, the infamous Karl Rove PowerPoint analysis of the mid-term elections had Montana listed as a “possible Republican pickup.” Finally, although early polling had Baucus with a substantial 57-24 lead, we know of no poll results since April. Out of an abundance of caution, we listed Montana as a contested state.

Max Baucus was first elected to the Senate in 1978. He has served four full terms and is now seeking his fifth. He won his last election by a five percent margin (50% to 45%). Baucus is a Stanford Law graduate with deep roots in Montana. He is a sixth generation Montanan from a prominent ranching family.

Baucus currently is the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. From that position, Baucus is in a good position to protect the political and economic interests of Montana. That post also gives a platform from which to earn free media.

Baucus’s voting record shows that he is a conservative Democrat, as befits a Democrat in as conservative a state as Montana.


The Montana Standard reports in a September 5, 2002 story that Baucus announced that he would support President Bush on whatever position the administration takes on Iraq. That position is to the right of Republican Senator Conrad Burns. Baucus’ unconditional support of Bush on Iraq is particularly of note in that Bush did not specify what policy Baucus would be supporting.

Baucus not only voted for Bush’s tax cut but a picture of Baucus and Bush at the signing ceremony is featured on his official Web Site. He voted against most gun control measures as is required of Montana politicians. He voted for Gale Norton's confirmation at Interior. He voted for a Balanced Budget Amendment. He voted to amend the Constitution to prohibit flag burning. He voted to retain current CAFE standards and to increase roads in the National Forests. He voted for missile defense. He is consistently for free trade.

On other issues, Baucus is more liberal. He is consistently pro-choice. He voted for minority set-asides in construction contracts. He voted to prohibit discrimination against gays. He voted for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. He voted to increase the minimum wage. All in all, Baucus’ voting record suggests a model for Democratic survival in conservative states.

Mike Taylor, the Republican challenger, is a newcomer to state level politics. His background is business. He started a barbershop and built both a chain of such shops as well as a hair care supply business. He successfully branched out into the ranching business. After selling his hair care company, he successfully ran for State Senate. Taylor seems outclassed in this race. He has not demonstrated the ability to raise sufficient money to be competitive. He went on television in early September with a less than one-week buy. The ads themselves are unremarkable.

Taylor is pro-life, pro gun, anti-tax, and anti-regulation. He supports greater use Montana’s natural resources including increased timber harvesting and increased mining. He opposes unfounded federal mandates. His prescription for health care is medical savings accounts. He is for higher paying jobs in Montana. In sum, Taylor takes safe but mundane positions on most issues. His issue profile does not seem to take any risks. If a relative unknown with little funding is to knock off a four-term Senator, some risks should perhaps be taken.

Baucus has a substantial lead in fundraising. According the Center for Responsive Politics, Baucus has raised in excess of $5.6 million and has more than $2 million cash on hand. His opponent, Mike Taylor has raised slightly more than $850,000 and has less than $125,000 remaining.
There has been a paucity of publicly reported polling from Montana. In an April poll, Baucus had a commanding lead 57%-24%.

The most important event in this race was the decision of GOP National Chairman and former Governor Marc Racicot not to challenge Baucus. While Racicot would have been very competitive or better, Taylor simply is not.

It would be a shock if Baucus did not win this race.

Running totals: (democratic totals include Jeffords)


Democrats not up for re-election 37

Safe Democratic Incumbents 6

Races called by PLA 2

Total Democrats 45


Republicans not up for re-election 29

Safe Republican incumbents 11

Races called by PLA 0


Total Republicans 40


Remaining races: Six Democratic incumbents; Five Republican incumbents; four open seats.


 
The Constitution, War and Max Baucus


Article 1, Section 8, Clause 11 of the United States Constitution delegates the power to declare war to the Congress. The Constitution designates the President as Commander in Chief. The President and members of the Congress each have an independent role to play in the decisions regarding war and peace.

President Bush began consultation with the Congress after deciding that he would seek approval of Congress for any plans to oust Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. While laying out the case that Saddam poses a threat to the United States and must be removed, the President fell short of articulating a specific policy towards Iraq.

At an appropriate time, and after consultations with the leadership, I will seek congressional support for U.S. action to do whatever is necessary to deal with the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s regime.


The president reiterated that he had not decided whether or not to strike Iraq.

A Senator is charged by the Constitution with making an independent assessment on issues of war and peace. Before making that assessement it might be helpful to have detailed information concerning the threat posed by Iraq to the United States. In addition, a Senator might wish to know whether or not alternatives to war that would eliminate the threat have been fully explored. A Senator might wish to know the costs in blood and treasure of a military invasion of Iraq. A Senator might wish to know whether we would have international support for an invasion of Iraq. A Senator might wish to know whether the removal of Saddam would consist of air strikes and special operations forces combined with local support, on the one hand, or a full scale invasion by hundreds of thousands of American troops on the other hand. A Senator might wish to know what sort of regime will follow Saddam.


Indeed, some Senators, from across the ideological spectrum were interested in answers to questions before making up their minds about Iraq. Senator Daschle listed some of those questions:

What new information exists? What threat can be quantified? What has changed in recent months or years? What will be the reaction of our allies? How much will it cost? If we change regimes, who will be in the new regime and has that been thought through? I think it would be very hard for us to come to any conclusion on a resolution until those questions and, as I said, many other questions are answered.


Conservative Republican Senator Conrad Burns of Montana also reserved judgment. Burns, through a spokesman stated that “we don’t take the idea of war lightly.” Burns's spokesman said that any attack would have to be quick and decisive. He ruled out use of nuclear weapons. Senator Burns, apparently, wishes to know what policy the president proposes before signing on to the policy.




The specific policy proposed by the President is completely irrelevant to Montana Democratic Senator Max Baucus. "At some point in the near future, we may have to exercise a number of military options. I will support the President” said Senator Baucus in a statement released Wednesday. The choice between those options is of no concern to Mr. Baucus.



The Constitution requires that the Congress decide issues of war and peace. That delegation of authority requires that a Senator support or oppose a policy. The Constitution does not require a Senator to support or oppose a politician. Mr. Bush contends that he has not yet decided on a policy. It is difficult to see how Mr. Baucus can fulfill his constitutional role before he knows what policy is proposed. If Mr. Bush decides to invade Iraq, Mr. Baucus is committed to supporting that decision. If Mr. Bush decides not to invade Iraq, Mr. Baucus is committed to supporting that position as well. The Constitution requires that Mr. Baucus exercise independent judgment on the issue of war and not simply defer to the president. If Mr. Bush decides on an invasion as appropriate policy and if the Congress approves that policy, then it is appropriate to support the President regardless of any reservation one may have had before the decision was made. Senators should avoid committing their support for a policy that has not yet been formulated.



 
Control Over the United States Senate


The political events of the next two months will determine which party controls the United States Senate. Control over the Senate is particularly important for several reasons. First, the party that controls the Senate controls the confirmation process for the Federal Judiciary, Cabinet and sub-Cabinet positions. Secondly, the party that controls the Senate also controls the Senate’s schedule. The majority leader can accelerate, delay or prevent consideration of specific legislation. Finally, the majority party in the Senate elects the Chairmen of the various committees. The Chairman provides control over the agenda of the committees as well as subpoena power during oversight investigation.

This post is the second in a series that will explore the individual races that will determine ultimate control over the Senate. The first post analyzed the Georgia Senate race.

The Basics


Currently, the Senate is comprised of 50 Democratic members, 49 Republican members and one independent. The independent, James Jeffords of Vermont, caucuses with the Democrats. In effect, the Democratic majority is 51-49.

Thirty-four Senate seats are up for grabs this November. Of those 34, 14 seats are currently held by Democrats and 20 are held by Republicans. Before the first ballot is cast in November the Democrats are assured of having 36 seats plus the independent Jeffords. The Republicans are assured of 29 seats.

Not all of the 34 Senate races are competitive of course. Incumbents tend to win. The Democrats are running incumbent Senators for reelection in all 14 of the seats they are defending. By contrast, four current Republican Senators, Helms of N.C., Thurmond of S.C., Thompson of Tenn., and Gramm of Texas are retiring leaving an open seat up for grabs.

We believe that eleven incumbent Republican Senators running for reelection are substantially safe. Those eleven are Cochran of Mississippi, Craig of Idaho, Domenici of New Mexico, Enzi of Wyoming, Hagel of Nebraska, Inhofe of Oklahoma, McConnell of Kentucky, Roberts of Kansas, Sessions of Alabama, Stevens of Alaska and Warner of Virginia.

Similarly, six of the 14 Democrats are safe for reelection. Those six are Biden of Delaware, Durbin of Illinois, Kerry of Mass., Levin of Michigan and Rockefeller of West Virginia.

If we are correct on the safe seats, the parties enter the contests for open or contested seats with the Democrats having 42 seats plus Jeffords and the Republicans having 40 seats. Of the remaining 17 seats, eight are being defended by incumbent Democrats, five are being defended by incumbent Republicans and four seats are open. Democrats need to win 8 of the open or contested seats to retain control of the Senate. Republicans need to win ten of the open or contested seats to wrest control of the Senate back.

We will examine each of the open or contested races in later posts. We have previously analyzed the Georgia Senate race between incumbent Democrat Max Cleland and Republican challenger Saxby Chambliss. Check our archives for that post. In that analysis, we concluded that Cleland was likely to win reelection. The conclusion is “soft” in that no statewide polling has been published since Chambliss won the primary.

Two months is a lifetime in politics. Many things could change. President Bush’s decision to seek Congressional approval of Regime Change in Iraq could potentially put Democratic candidates in a box. No news since the Cleland-Chambliss post has changed our view of the race. We continue to expect a Cleland victory.

If all of our assumptions and predictions are correct the running totals for control of the Senate are as follows (the Democratic totals include Jeffords):


Democrats not up for reelection 37

Safe Democratic Incumbents 6

PLA called for Democrats (Ga) 1

Total 44


Republicans not up for reelection 29

Safe Republican Incumbents 11

PLA called for Republicans 0

Total 40


Remaining races: Seven Democratic incumbents, Five Republican incumbents, and 4 open seats. Next up: the Montana Senate seat.

Update


Matt Weiner writes to note that although the above post states that there are six safe Democratic incumbents, only five were listed. The sixth safe Democratic seat is Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island. Matt's note serves to once again prove that there are three types of people in the world. Those who can count and those who can't.



Thursday, September 05, 2002
 
Thanks


Many thanks to Body and Soul, Unmedia, and TCMits for linking to PLA and/or providing some kind words.




Wednesday, September 04, 2002
 
Ivins, Begala on Haliburton's Aid to Iraq

Atrios links to a Molly Ivins' column. In her column, Ivins excoriates Vice President Dick Cheney for doing business with Iraq while Cheney was the CEO of Haliburton. According to Ivins, two Haliburton subsidiaries sold in excess of $23 million of spare parts needed for oil production to Iraq after the Gulf War. Haliburton used European subsidiaries to evade American law prohibiting such sales. The sales, according to Ivins, allowed Saddam "to get his dilapidated oil fields up and running so he to could afford to build weapons of mass destruction."

Atrios comments that it is about time someone brought up this issue (actually Atrios used rather more colorful language).

Paul Begala on the August 8, 2002 Crossfire questioned Republican political operative Charlie Black concerning Haliburton’s sale of spare parts to Iraq:

BEGALA: There's a political albatross here, even if he's cleared. This is a firm that did business with Iran, Iraq and Libya while Cheney was the CEO……

BLACK: ... Dick Cheney had a distinguished career at Halliburton. It's a great company. As he said yesterday, 80,000 great employees. They haven't done anything wrong, and no investigation is going to show that. But more important, more important: the American people admire Dick Cheney for 30 years of public service in big jobs under four presidents, secretary of defense at wartime. They know him for two things: competence and integrity, and they're not buying any of your nonsense…..

BEGALA: What about money they made in Iraq? What about the money they made in Iraq?

(CROSSTALK)

BLACK: ... unless you're a Democrat, and he wasn't.

BEGALA: If Al Gore had been the CEO of a company that had traded with Iraq, Iran, Libya, what would you be saying about...

BLACK: Well, I don't know about the Iraq thing. Maybe Bob can say whether that's right or not. BEGALA: It is.

BLACK: Well if it was done, it was legal...

BEGALA: It was done through subsidiaries to avoid the U.S. law that made it a crime. But even if it was technically legal, don't you think it's immoral to do business...

BLACK: What did they do Iraq?

BEGALA: They had two subsidiaries, Ingersoll-Rand and Rand Dresser Pump that sold spare parts to Saddam Hussein. That's what they did. And they had a British subsidiary that did that to evade the American laws against it. I think that's unpatriotic, don't you?

BLACK: Well, I'll look into that. It's not illegal, or you wouldn't, certainly, be saying that. And if they didn't do anything illegal...

NOVAK: I'll tell you, I don't know the answer to that, but I will bet you as I sit here that that is at least 90 percent wrong because everything else that comes from...

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: There's a man named Guy Marcus (ph) who confirmed this on ABC News two years ago...


It is outrageous that, apparently, only two members of the media think the Vice President's role in helping Iraq acquire foreign currency to use in their effort to create weapons of mass destruction is a scandal. Begala asks two good questions. First, regardless of the legality, was it patriotic for Cheney's company to use European subsidiaries to assist Saddam? Secondly, if Al Gore had done so, would Charlie Black, Bob Novak and the remainder of the media be so passive about such sales?




 
Be Careful What You Ask For


Super investor Warren Buffett once remarked that he liked to buy companies that could be successfully run by an idiot because, sooner or later, they will be. Buffett’s comment comes to mind with regard to the current debates on the Homeland Security bill and the status of American citizens designated as “enemy combatants.”

The Senate begins debate on the Homeland Security bill today. The parties are largely in agreement that a new cabinet agency with 170,000 employees will be created and that some functions of several diverse governmental agencies will be folded into the new department.

The political dispute is over whether or not the employees of the new agency will be included in the Civil Service system. President Bush has threatened a veto if the final congressional bill does not give him sufficient “managerial flexibility.” Managerial flexibility appears to mean the authority to hire or fire employees of the department without following the procedures of the Civil Service. Democratic sponsor of the legislation Joe Lieberman insists that the new Homeland Security employees be part of the Civil Service system.

There is a term to describe government jobs that are not subject to the Civil Service Act and for which the President may make unilateral hiring and firing decisions. That term is political patronage. Indeed, the Civil Service Act was created in large part to avoid the abuses of political patronage.


Regardless of your political identification, the other party will eventually come into power. When that occurs, is it really wise to have added 170,000 political patronage positions to the power of the President? The issue is not simply whether or not this President would use those patronage jobs to reward political supporters and punish political opponents. The issue is not solely whether this President would allow political ideology to trump knowledge, ability, competency and efficiency in the staffing of the Homeland Security Department. The issue is also whether or not the worst, least efficient, most political, most corrupt President that we elect in the future would do so. When Warren Buffett buys a business, he wants one that can succeed even under a bad CEO because he knows that eventually the business will have one. We established a Civil Service to avoid the inefficiencies and corruption caused by the party temporarily in power having full hiring and firing authority. When establishing the Homeland Security Department, we should keep in mind that eventually we will elect a President inclined to use patronage jobs to reward his friends and punish his enemies. If we don’t, we may wish that we had heeded Warren Buffett’s advice.

Warren Buffett’s advice also should be heeded in the debate over the rights of Americans being held as enemy combatants. Jose Padilla and Yaser Esam Hambi are American citizens. They are being held by the Bush administration without charges being brought and without the right to a hearing or a lawyer. The Bush administration contends that it may continue to hold those citizens until completion of the War on Terrorism. Its power to hold American citizens, the Bush administration argues, derives from a finding by the President that the detainees were “enemy combatants” in the War on Terrorism and from the President’s constitutional authority to conduct war.

Furthermore, the administration contends that the determination that Padilla and Hambi are enemy combatants is final and not subject to review by any court. The administration’s position is that once the President declares an American an enemy combatant, the person may be imprisoned without charges, without a hearing, and without a lawyer for the duration of the conflict and that no court or other authority may challenge either the designation or the incarceration.

The detainee has no right to go into any court to argue that a mistake was made or that there is no evidence to support the finding. As no charges need be brought, it is impossible for the detainee to refute those charges. The detainee’s only recourse, according to the Bush administration, is to remain imprisoned until the end of the War on Terrorism or until the administration decides to release the detainee.

Heeding Buffett’s advice, we should analyze the wisdom of that position not solely by asking whether or not this President is abusing his power in the two specific cases but rather by asking whether that power could be abused by any future President.

Should President Richard Nixon, in 1971, have had the unilateral power to arrest and hold Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for the duration of the Vietnam War with no competing authority empowered to review that decision?

During the bombing of Kosovo, should President Bill Clinton have had the power to declare Ken Starr an enemy combatant and have him dragged off to a brig never to be heard from until the end of a nebulous “War Against Ethnic Cleansing?”

It could be argued that political outrage would prevent the most egregious examples of the abuse of indefinite detentions not subject to judicial review. In many cases political outrage would, in fact, deter such conduct. When an executive has unlimited power to jail his political opponents or critics, however, the use or potential use of such power may have a chilling effect on the critiques of the policy. Assume a future President designated a political enemy to be an enemy combatant and hauled him off to jail with no hearing and no charges. A critic of the President publicly condemns the arrest. If the President then jailed the critic, the next possible critic may be slow to speak up.

When we give to the executive branch the unlimited power to hire, fire or imprison, we should consider not just how the current President might use the power but also how the most power-hungry and corrupt President we might ever elect would use it. As Buffett would point out, eventually the worst President will also wield that power.




Tuesday, September 03, 2002
 
Thanks Kos


Many thanks to DailyKos for his link to our articles on Georgia politics. His analysis of the RINO and DINO effects are excellent and should be required reading before anyone pulls a "Green" lever in a voting booth. Kos also has shocking news about the Ohio Governor's race and the approaching Democratic tidal wave in Illinois.

Sunday, September 01, 2002
 
Autism, Paul Lynde and Obsession


If Paul Lynde were here, he would be in grave danger. Many of you may remember Lynde from his role as the wise cracking center square on Hollywood Squares. I do not. To me he is and will always be the voice of Templeton the Rat in the animated version of the E.B. White classic, Charlotte's Web.

Autistic people often obsess on certain objects. The object can be anything from
a book, a toy, running water or light shining through a prism. When such an obsession occurs, nothing short of a World Wrestling Federation Smackdown Texas Death Match will separate the autistic child from the obsession. Children with autism have a "fascination with the familiar." Often they are unable to make the transition from one activity to another. They obsess on one object to the exclusion of everyone and everything else. The professionals call that obsession "self-stimulating behavior." Which brings us back to Paul Lynde.

We arrived at Grandma's house a little after midnight after a five hour drive. Obviously refreshed from a short nap in the car, Bobby, our seven year old autistic son, showed no sign that sleep was at all eminent. Instead of going to bed, Bobby looked for his latest item of obsession, a videotape of Charlotte's Web.

Bobby's current obsession is not with the whole of Charlotte's Web. Bobby does not simply put the tape in and let it play. Rather, Bobby is obsessed with the song sung by Templeton the Rat about the joy a rat feels when attending a county fair where he can encounter a Smorgasbord of garbage. Bobby wants to see and hear that song and only that song. And he wants to hear it over and over again.

Upon arriving at Grandma's house, Bobby ran off in search of the backpack that contained his treasure. Finding it, he made a beeline for the TV where he fast-forwarded to Paul Lynde's grating voice belting out the Smorgasbord song. Once he heard it, he immediately rewound to the beginning and played it again. And again. And again, And again. And...

Nothing we could do would stop his compulsion. Gentle reminders that it was late were ignored. Offers of bribes using his favorite foods held no allure. Physically picking him up and putting him to bed not only awoke the house but had only temporary effect as Grandma's house does not have the locks and gates we use at home to restrict Bobby from the "self-stim." Self-stimulation is a positive feedback loop. The more he hears the song, the more he is compelled to hear the song again.

Why, oh why, did you not hide the tape?

We used to ask such questions ourselves. The compulsion arises from the autism and not as a result of any one tape. We can hide a tape but we cannot hide the autism.

The real compulsion is to engage in the self-stimulating behavior and Charlotte's Web is only the means. If it had not been Templeton, it would have been the introduction to Mary Poppins, or the Casey Junior song from Dumbo. If he had no videotape, it would have been a book or a toy or Grandma's lotion or a bottle of shampoo or a myriad of other things. At least Charlotte's Web involves no mess and no breaking of family heirlooms. At 3:30 a.m. he finally fell asleep.

Grandpa and Grandma, bless them, allowed us to sleep in and took care of the kids. It was the first time Deb has slept for more than 4 hours straight in about 3 weeks. Upon rising, I left the bedroom and headed for the shower. As I turned the corner, I heard the first notes of Smorgasbord coming from the living room. Paul Lynde is lucky he is dead already.

UPDATE
Liberal Oasis writes to inform us that the voice of Templeton is spelled "Lynde." The above text has been changed to reflect the correct spelling.