P.L.A. - A Journal of Politics, Law and Autism

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Saturday, June 21, 2003
 
Fear And Loathing On The AM Dial

After being gone for about a month, Digby has returned home. Many have asked the question “Where is Digby?”

I cannot answer that question. Wherever he has been, I think that he has been reading Hunter Thompson again. Consider, for example, this:
In fact, I am alive and well and returned from a journey into the heart of darkness of George W. Bush’s America. Eschewing my pansy-assed effete internet habit for a time, I stupidly got myself hooked on the hard stuff and ended up ripped out of my mind on Rush's AM Ecstasy. Living on burnt meat and raw porn, Fox news and liberal bashing, my mind devolved into an altered state of consciousness, awash in arrogance and testosterone, transformed into the hostile fugue state of the talk radio junkie.

That style of writing is reminiscent of Fear and Loathing On The Campaign Trail, no?



 
A Juror’s View

I am always eager to hear about people’s experience serving on juries. Robert of Byrd’s Brain recently served as foreperson of a jury deciding a relatively small personal injury action. A nine year old girl was hurt in a car wreck. She suffered relatively minor injuries (a total of $3,800 in chiropractor and physical therapy bills with, apparently no hospital charges or treatment by an M.D.). The defendant admitted liability. The only issue remaining for jury determination was damages.

All in all, it was not a momentous case (although I am certain it was important to the people involved). It was the type of small tort case that is tried in courtrooms across America every day. I was struck by Robert’s report on the seriousness of the jury:
I was quite impressed with my fellow jurors, besides picking me to be the Foreman, they impressed me with how seriously everyone took the trial. The jurors were variously bored, didn't want to be there and having fun. But no matter what their background, or their desire to serve, each juror had opinions and cared about reaching the right verdict. This wasn't surprising to me, but it was heartening to see. The jury system does work.

In my experience, almost every juror makes a concerted effort to reach a fair result. They listen to the evidence and arguments from both sides and do their best to apply the law as the judge instructs.

Juries do not always arrive at the decision I would prefer but I am consistently impressed with seriousness with which they approach their thankless task.


Thursday, June 19, 2003
 
Could You Footnote a Source Please?

As has been widely discussed, former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair has been fired for simply making up facts and putting them in news stories. Much of the criticism of the Times resulting from Blair’s dishonesty is justified. After all, it is not that difficult to fact check the stories, and accuracy is the most important quality of a newspaper.

Some of the criticism of the Times I found to be simply ironic. For example, in a Townhall column, Ann Coulter, in her inimical style, wrote:
The New York Times is to be commended for ferreting out Jayson Blair, the reporter recently discovered making up facts, plagiarizing other news organizations and lying about nonexistent trips and interviews. A newspaper that employs Maureen Dowd can't have had an easy time settling on Blair as the scapegoat. Blair's record of inaccuracies, lies and distortions made him a candidate for either immediate dismissal or his own regular column on the op-ed page.

It has been said that a writer should write about what he or she knows. That certainly qualifies Coulter to write about “inaccuracies, lies and distortions” in op-ed columns. For instance, Coulter begins her latest Townhall column as follows:
If you are one of the millions of Americans who recently canceled your subscription to the New York Times, you may not know that we are in the middle of a civil-liberties emergency...

Is it true that “millions of Americans” have “recently canceled your subscription to the New York Times”? That does not seem to be a difficult fact to check. The New York Times is a publicly traded company and the circulation of a newspaper is certainly an item of information that many potential investors would want before buying the Times’ stock.

A quick Google search for “New York Times circulation” located this page on the first page of listings. That page shows the circulation figures for the Times from 1988 through 2002.

The totals are remarkably consistent with daily circulation running about 1.1 million copies and the Sunday circulation about 1.6 million copies. Those figures do not show the current circulation numbers but is it obvious that Coulter’s claim to “millions” of recently canceled subscriptions is simply false as the Times has never had “millions" of subscribers to lose.

Perhaps Ann Coulter should beware of throwing too many stones about inaccuracies on op-ed pages when her house is constructed of glass.


 
Invested in Scandal

Grace Slick, formerly the lead singer for the Jefferson Airplane quit the rock and roll business once she turned fifty remarking that "I don't like old people on a rock and roll stage -- me included."

The same should be true of political scandals. Unfortunately, some members of the right are so invested in the Clinton Scandal industry that, like an aging rock star, they simply cannot hang it up.

Despite the fact that Bill Clinton has been out of office for two and a half years, many of the Clinton Scandal mongers pine for a return to the heady days of the 1990s when they could have a daily fix of pseudo-scandal with their morning coffee.

Of course, even in their salad days, the worst of the scandal mongers never let actual facts disrupt their fantasies. They do deserve partial credit in one respect. While the pseudo-scandals may not have been based in truth, some, at least, were based on made up facts that, if true, would have been actual scandals. If Hillary had really killed Vince Foster and moved his body from her lesbian love nest to Fort Marcy Park, that would have been a real scandal. If Bill Clinton had really sold missile secrets to the Chinese in exchange for campaign contributions, that would have been a real scandal.

Today, those fully invested in the Clinton Scandal industry do not even have a good story line. Take for instance, the latest missive from Newsmax.

The headline trumpets Dick Morris’s new book and the latest scandalous revelation about the Clintons. What dastardly thing did Bill do? The headline blares: "Dick Morris: Bill Weighed Pardon for Hillary."

That is more pathetic than Keith Richards still rocking in skin tight leather pants. In the first place, a real scandal would require Hillary to have committed a crime. The Office of the Independent Counsel determined, after exhaustive investigation, that insufficient evidence existed to even indict her.

In the second place, it would seem that a real scandal would require Bill Clinton to have actually issued the pardon. Since he did not, it is hard to get outraged. The scandal industry has, apparently, now moved beyond what Bill Clinton actual did and even beyond what they imagined that he did. They have moved into the realm of allegedly heinous acts that Bill Clinton decided not to do.

Third, the article itself is far less inflammatory than the headline. The article makes clear that Hillary Clinton did not seek a pardon. When informed of the idea:
She flew into a rage, saying, 'If [Starr] decided to play that way, I will fight it with all that I've got. I don't want any pardon. I won't take any pardon."


The body of the story also makes clear that instead of a serious proposal, Bill Clinton was “thinking out loud” and that the thought was simply “speculation.”

Dick Morris has given an exclusive to Newsmax in an effort to feed the Clinton Scandal Freeperati who are desperate for a fix. They have no real scandal to feed their Jones. They are even out of made up scandals. Now they are reduced to fantasizing about how terrible it would have been if Clinton had chosen to do something he decided against.

A Paul Revere and the Raiders reunion with Herman’s Hermits as the opening act would be more current and less pathetic.


 
Avoid Dementia --- Play Bridge

Researchers have now confirmed what bridge players have known for many years. Mental exercise such as playing bridge, chess, and other board games greatly reduces the risk of Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. The Washington Post reports:
Playing chess, bridge or a musical instrument significantly lowers the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia, according to the most comprehensive study to examine the benefits of challenging intellectual activity among the elderly.

Seniors who regularly engaged in pastimes that stretched their minds -- sorry, watching TV doesn't count -- lowered their risk of developing Alzheimer's disease and other dementias by as much as 75 percent, compared with those who didn't exercise their minds, researchers said yesterday.

The report bolsters a growing body of evidence that exercising the mind through board games, social activities and education offers powerful protection against mental deterioration and disease.

Bridge is a perfect way to use both your intellect and your competitive instinct. To play on-line go here or here. You can watch or play against a World Champion or Warren Buffet or the head of Bear Stearns (Jimmy Cayne) almost any night (it is polite to know what you are doing before you sit down to play against the better players).

Look for me at OkBridge.com. I go by the name of DAM. To locate a face to face bridge club in your area click here. If you would like to download free software to learn to play, go here.

If you think competitive bridge is only for your grandmother or the tea and crumpet set, you should try it and find out how wrong you are.

Wednesday, June 18, 2003
 
Give This Guy a Job

Dick Cheney’s press secretary is Jennifer Millerwise. I know very little about her so she must be doing a first rate job.

If Millerwise were to decide to spend more time with her family or to move to the private sector, who would be in line to replace her?

I have come to the conclusion that the logical replacement for Millerwise would be conservative author, commentator and general flack Dinesh D’Souza. That regrettable conclusion is really not my fault. The blame falls squarely on TBogg.

A short while ago, TBogg posted a link to McSweeneys. The link was to a transcript of outtakes for a DVD commentary on the Alien movies. Believe it or not, the commentary was provided by Dinesh D’Souza and Ann Coulter. As I was quickly moving on to read the next post, I noticed that TBogg instructed his readers to click through the link. “No excuses” said TBogg. Well, having “no excuses” I clicked through and read the transcript. What I found was perhaps the funniest thing I have read this year.

What does any of that have to do with Dick Cheney’s press spokesperson? Well, in reading D’Souza’s comments on the Alien movies, I noticed that he seemed to have perfect answers to some questions that could be addressed to the Vice President.

For instance, Dick Cheney was formerly the CEO of Halliburton. There were some funny accounting practices at Halliburton during his tenure. Apparently, Halliburton was reporting cost overruns as revenue even before its customers agreed to pay the cost overruns. In addition, Dick Cheney made a controversial videotape praising Arthur Anderson of Enron fame. Finally, questions have arisen over Halliburton being given non-competitive contracts for work in Iraq. How should the Vice President’s spokesperson answer questions on those topics? Here is Dinesh D’Souza discussing the Aliens movies:
D'SOUZA: … Does wanting to get rich by betraying your friends, or opportunistically using the Marines, necessarily make you a bad guy? Of course not.

That is such a perfect answer to unwarranted liberal attacks on the Vice President that I am surprised that D’Souza is not already working for the administration.

Mr. Cheney has also taken heat for his work on the Energy Task Force. Some have suggested that Mr. Cheney listened carefully to the energy companies while ignoring environmental concerns. D’Souza is ready to deflect any environmental criticism of the Vice President:
D'SOUZA: And look at the splendid, bucolic backdrop Ripley's looking at here. How beautiful the earth looks in the future. I think there's a lesson here for those alarmist, organic-farming, fruit-juice-drinking, garbage-sorting enviro-nuts who —

COULTER: That's actually a TV screen Ripley is looking at. Those trees aren't real.

D'SOUZA: Well, it's a great simulation, an ingenious solution.

If Mr. Cheney’s energy policy results in losing all of our trees, D’Souza has an ingenious solution. We can just replace the trees with pictures of trees. Nobody but an “alarmist, organic-farming, fruit-juice-drinking, garbage-sorting enviro-nut” would object.

Remember, if the administration hires Dinesh D’Souza as a spokesman, it is all TBogg’s fault.

Update: It was not clear to at least one reader that the post above and the "transcript" linked to were both intended as satire. It now is.


 
Neuroeconomics

The New York Times reports that researchers are developing a new field of study known as neuroeconomics:
These researchers are busy scanning the brains of people as they make economic decisions, barter, compete, cooperate, defect, punish, engage in auctions, gamble and calculate their next economic moves. Based on their understanding of how fluctuations in neurons and brain chemicals drive those behaviors, the neuroscientists are expressing their findings in differential equations and other mathematical language beloved by economists.

Among the techniques of the new science is to scan brains while people play what is known as the ultimatum game:
In the ultimatum game, the first player is given, say, $10 in cash. He must then decide how much to give to a second player. It could be $5, the fairest offer, or a lesser amount depending on what he thinks he can get away with. If Player 2 accepts the offer, the money is shared accordingly. But if he rejects it, both players go away empty-handed. It is a one-shot game, and the players never meet again.

Most people in the shoes of Player 2 refuse to take amounts under $2 or $3, Dr. Cohen said. They would rather punish the first player than feel cheated. "But this makes no economic sense," he said. "You're better off with something than nothing."
Brain images showed that when players accepted an offer they viewed as fair enough, a circuit in the front of their brains that supports deliberative thinking was activated.

But when they rejected an offer, the insula — which monitors bodily states, including disgust — overrode the frontal circuit. The more strongly the insula fired, the more rapidly the person rejected the offer, Dr. Cohen said. Moreover, the insula fired well before the person pushed the button to refuse an offer.

Economists can use this finding to quantify the contribution of emotion and deliberation in making decisions, Dr. Cohen said. It is possible to calculate how much emotion goes into evaluating the worth of economic activities and to study the neural underpinnings of bargaining when people don't want to let others take advantage of them.

I think that the development of neuroeconomics is a great advance. I have spent long hours trying to understand the functioning of the human brain without success. I have also spent considerable time trying to understand various aspects of economics, again without much success.

The beauty of neuroeconomics is that instead of two subjects I do not understand, I can combine my ignorance into one tidy subject. That is known as efficiency.

There is no reason to stop at neuroeconomics. I propose a new field of study known as chemistrycarmechanicology. Again, two subjects in which my ignorance is legion combined into only one subject.

The possibilities are endless. Whatwomenwantstockpickingology.

Quantumphysicspopularmusicology.

At this rate, the number of subjects of which I am completely ignorant should be reduced by half. That is a huge advance in my book.




Tuesday, June 17, 2003
 
Today’s Tour

Natasha has a wonderful post about growing up with undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome. The post is not only a compelling personal story but also provides lots of good advice for others. It is a must read for anyone on the spectrum or for anyone who has a loved one on the spectrum.


Oliver Willis smacks Bill O’Reilly with a copy of the Constitution.


Billmon is concerned about the trade deficit. The implications are pretty scary.


Teddy at ISTES has a couple of very interesting posts. First, Teddy argues that at least in terms of employment, the current downturn is approaching historic levels. Secondly, in this, post, Teddy points us to a Prudent Bear article concerning the possible consequences of households using refi funds to purchase financial assets. The Prudent Bear article notes that homeowners are borrowing against their homes at interest rates greater than they receive when the money is reinvested in bonds and equities. Should that position unwind, a real possibility of a liquidity trap could ensue with a host of dire consequences.











Monday, June 16, 2003
 
Milestones

Eighteen years ago yesterday, I made the best decision of my life. Happy Anniversary Deb. Eight years ago today, our lives changed again. Happy Birthday Bobby. Your mom and I love you very much.

Sunday, June 15, 2003
 
Medical Malpractice – By The Numbers

Kevin Drum has two excellent posts concerning medical malpractice suits and the administration’s proposed cap on non-economic damages. In those posts, Kevin looks at the data to try and determine whether caps would be an effective reform. I admire Kevin’s writing in this area because Kevin, unlike many, is in search of truth and not self-justification.

As part of his analysis, Kevin linked to data from the National Practitioner Data Bank. That data bank contains information about payouts in medical malpractice cases (including payouts for judgments as well as settlements) broken out by year and state.

While it seems true that a medical malpractice insurance crisis affecting some medical specialties in some locations exists, it may be helpful to try to gain some perspective on the size of the problem.

According to the National Practitioner Data Bank, there were 15,304 medical malpractice claims that resulted in payment to the plaintiff either through settlement or judgment in 2002. The total of all those payments was approximately $4.2 billion with a mean payout (the sum of all payments divided by the number of payments) of $275,000 and a median payout (the number at which there are an equal number of payments above and below the figure) of $150,000. The $4.2 billion figure includes all of the payments to the victims of medical malpractice and includes all amounts paid for medical expenses, lost earnings, pain and suffering and punitive damages.

I thought that those numbers needed to be placed in some perspective:
*The amount of medical malpractice payouts in 2002 would have paid interest on the national debt for about eight days.

* I am writing this on Sunday. By Thursday, the Federal Government’s deficit will have increased by more than the total payments to medical malpractice plaintiffs for the entire year of 2002.

* According to the Census, there are approximately 280,000,000 Americans. The cost of all payments in medical malpractice cases comes to about $15 per American per year.

* According to HealthAffairs.com, the per capita cost of health care in the United States is $4,631. Payments to medical malpractice plaintiffs amounts to three-tenths of one percent of that cost.

* The total amount of payments to medical malpractice plaintiffs is roughly the same as the yearly sales of Estee Lauder. We await the Time Magazine cover proclaiming that “we have a make-up crisis in America.”

* According to MSNBC, in 2001 the tobacco companies spent $11.2 billion on advertising and promotion of tobacco products. That is almost three times the amount paid to medical malpractice plaintiffs in 2002.

* There are about 700,000 medical doctors in the United States. In 2002, approximately one doctor in 46 made a payment to a medical malpractice plaintiff. The total cost of all payments made to medical malpractice plaintiffs in 2002 comes to about $6,000 per doctor.

*The amount paid on medical malpractice claims in 2002 was approximately five times the amount Americans spend on Cheerios in a year.

* The amount spent on medical malpractice settlements and judgments is approximately one-sixth of the amount spent worldwide on dog and cat food.

* $4.2 billion is less than a week of sales at Walmart.

* Next season, the minimum salary for an NBA player with one year’s experience will be more than twice the average payout in a 2002 medical malpractice case.

* When a local Ohio car dealership ran a newspaper ad with a thumbnail-sized picture of Arnold Schwarzenegger without the actor’s permission, the Terminator sued claiming he had been damaged in an amount equal to the average payout for 80 medical malpractice victims. Link via Jim Capozzola.

*Although Tenet Healthcare performed poorly last year, its CEO, Jeffrey Barbakow received compensation roughly equal to the payout for more than 450 victims of medical malpractice.

* Bill Gates owns 1,209,713,228 shares of Microsoft. MSFT closed at $24.65 last Friday. Since its 52 week low of $20.71, Bill Gates’ net worth has increased by more than the cost of all payments made to medical malpractice plaintiffs in 2002.

None of the above is intended to imply that the medical malpractice system does not need reform or that real problems of insurance availability and outrageous insurance premium increases do not exist.

The problem, however, is not of a size to be unmanageable. The Federal Government deals with issues involving hundreds of billions of dollars all the time. Before we all go into serious panic mode about medical malpractice reform, please remember that, as a matter of dollars, it is a problem of about the same magnitude as the value of the make-up sold by Estee Lauder in a year.