January 2009 Archives

sex, lies, science and the gop

GOP to The Base? Wait! Come Back! We'll Talk About Sex!

If you managed to avoid cynicism in the first week of the administration, the congressional tussling over the stimulus plan might convince you that politics today is just what politics was before January 20th. No change.

The Republicans especially, seem intent on pushing the economy further into the tank while riling their party's baser instincts. Evidently at their wit's end trying to get their hand back in the till, the GOP engrosses itself in reinvigorating the lowest common denominator of civilian interests while Rome burns -- so to speak.

As Obama's team nudges Limbaugh towards the edge, the radio host's marbles spilling all over like codeine pills from some drug-addled alley dweller's puffy hands, the fine leaders of the GOP seem to be assuming his mantle. Smart move?

68 Pages of Science Management Challenges and the Honorable Senator Wants to Talk About Porn?

I was at first dubious about accusations that the GOP was baiting Democrats on funding for birth control and STD prevention in the stimulus bill. Oh please, I thought, reading this:

"Prompted by Drudge and Limbaugh, the Republicans are lurching around like less-cool, less-serious Beavis & Butthead knockoffs, snickering at the mere mention of birth control...say[ing] "STDs" and "contraceptives" on television and thus making the bill appear silly, salacious and borderline immoral."

I don't know whether STD funding belongs in the plan. But I am becoming convinced that some representatives in the GOP have a weird preoccupation with sex and derailing science. Today Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) announced he would try to halt $3 billion dollars worth of funds to the National Science Foundation (NSF) because of a 'porn scandal'. As he put it when announcing the six incidents of viewing porn reported by the NSF:

"The semiannual report raises real questions about how the National Science Foundation manages its resources, and Congress ought to demand a full accounting before it gives the agency another $3 billion in the stimulus bill"

Grassley, in a disingenuous interview with FOX News, reported that he was launching an inquiry and demanding "all documents" related to the NSF's findings so he could get to the bottom of the horrible scandal. On cue, the internet went wild with "ugghh" and "gross", and jokes about scientists who like sex, and "Go Grassley!" -- so intrepid -- protecting our interests like that.

OK. I'm a person who happens to be most intolerant of all aspects of the porn industry. I am also, like everyone else on earth, against government waste. I've approvingly covered Senator Grassley's efforts on other issues, lobbying, bisphenol A, etc. But c'mon, wake up.

Here's the full NSF 68 page semi-annual report to Congress from last year, with 3 pages of revelations about 6 cases of computer abuse involving porn during work hours.

The Senator is Launching an Inquiry? Getting More Details?

The only reason that the Senator got his hands on the apparent GOP treasure trove in the first place is that NSF is compelled by law to print for public consumption every last detail of its management oversight audits. This is good governance meant to expose waste. What private company sends you a biannual report that includes each sex scandal they're investigating? OK. So abiding by the governance standards set out in this law, the NSF wrote in great detail about:

"six cases of viewing, downloading, saving, and/or sharing pornographic images and videos, and one case of extensive participation in pornographic chat websites and the concomitant significant waste of official time."

This last, the most egregious case, was a "senior official" who has since been fired or left the agency. I assume the person has a problem. Like a prescription drug addiction. The report is very clear about the official's sacking, and the fact that "the agency has now installed filtering software" and is implementing further policy changes. I'm not saying $50,000 isn't a lot of waste, but are there some other priorities the GOP needs to focus on?

To me Grassley's interview with FOX, when he claims he doesn't know what the agency is doing or what happened to the individual, seems like nothing more than a gratuitous exchange about sex, with science as the scapegoat.

As far as I can tell there's nothing left for Grassley to "inquire about" or "investigate", unless he has some lurid agenda of his own. More details? All the documents? Who's the sick puppy here?

Studies Find that 25% of Employees with Computer Access Download Pornography. Audit Finds 6 Cases for Over 1000 NSF Employees

Six offenses found and thoroughly delineated. The NSF has over 1000 employees. To be fair, the report emphasized that the search was limited in scope. But these results are far from surprising. If anything the small numbers are unusual given the incidence of workplace computer misuse, especially in large companies.

Porn site hits are highest during office hours, according to M.J. McMahon, a company that tracks the adult video industry. You can read all about the widespread problem of pornography viewing and activities in the workplace. Ask Microsoft, ask IBM, ask financial companies, ask any company. They keep it low profile, for obvious reasons. The NSF is compelled by law to air it all publicly.

A Nielsen Online survey in October, 2008 found that 25% of employees who use the Internet visit porn sites during the workday. Perhaps fewer are purposeful, but various surveys have found similarly alarming results. Workplace computer misuse is persistent and increasing. It's quite awful but it has nothing to do with the NSF, with scientists, or reviving the economy.

Stay Focused People -- Change, America, Economy, Jobs...

Perhaps Chuck Grassley, with his affiliations to prayer breakfasts and the Family Research Council, with his stellar right to life credentials, has some agenda with sex. Perhaps science also falls conveniently in his sights, for reasons beyond me. I do know its a popular pairing, but a cheap shot.

Not long ago, in , we wrote about the Republican's insistence on taking pops at science:

"At the root of the McCain campaign's choice to play enfant terrible to scientists and science, there's a very popular ideology at work that will not die with an incoming Obama administration."

There's a lot of debate now about which initiatives will create jobs and which initiatives won't. Science initiatives do create jobs and strengthen the economy. Gratuitous talk about sex and family values with FOX News or Politico is, especially at this moment in history, a distraction.

There are more expensive and critical problems at the NSF that the report detailed in the other 65 pages of the report. These more serious challenges are relevant to science and to the NSF's mission. These more serious challenges are critical to the future of science in America, to the future of America. These issues were the focus of the report. The should also be the focus of congress and the focus of Americans. Today.

Hope For America's "Everyday Man"?

The Inauguration

Many wept. Some for Obama, some for a lifetime of waiting; some because they'd miss Bush, still others because they'd thought Bush would never leave. Even Bush himself brushed tears from his face as he hopped up the helicopter steps. (The loss of power must be a blow.)

Who wasn't somehow moved by the reality of new presidential leadership? Less often now, my stomach churns before I check the news. I'm slowly deprogramming my habit of bracing for the next stunner, the next mendacious policy announcement, the next hair-raising revelation from the White House. I'll admit, in the past couple of weeks I've even lapsed into moments of (naive) hope.

  • Hope for inclusiveness, triggered by small, many would think irrelevant episodes. Like when Pete Seeger showed up at the preinaugural concert to sing an Arlo Guthrie song with his grandson and Bruce Springsteen. Seeger may be an ever popular folk hero now as he approaches 90 years, with a new album and glowing biographical movie. But it wasn't always like this. He was blacklisted and banned from radio in the 1950's and 1960's on account of his "subversiveness".

    In the early 1960's Seeger refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) on First Amendment grounds, a decision which through him into economic hard times and patriotic hot water. But before that he had performed for US military chiefs in Theodore Roosevelt's White House. His father administered music programs as part of FDR's New Deal.

    Patriotism is so subjective isn't it?

  • Hope derived from the crowds at the inauguration, good-natured people of cultural, racial and political diversity. Hope for religious tolerance. In his inaugural address Obama described a "nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus -- and non-believers". How observant. According to a Pew Center report, about 16% of Americans identify as non-believers, but not one member of Congress does. It was surprising recognition for what a Beliefnet writer calls the "untouchables".

  • Words that warmed my heart on a chilly day, Obama promising in his speech to "restore science to its rightful place". Indeed, on the first couple of days of his administration Obama overruled the ban on international funding for organizations that provided contraceptives, overturning Bush's ruling which overturned Clinton's policy. Obama also promised to revive stem cell funding.

    Bravo for science awareness!

Dashing Hope

Obama's first moves gave us plenty to be optimistic about. But as Mark Slouka wrote in this month's Harper's:

"It would be churlish to quibble.

Still, let's."

Slouka points out that Obama won in a perfect storm of economic disaster and Republican failure, that Obama was an exceptionally talented and articulate candidate. Given all this he still only got 53% of the vote. What about the others Slouka asks, those who thought Palin would be a fine Vice President, or who couldn't discern any difference between the candidates therefore didn't vote? Slouka worries about American citizens' choices and what he sees as an overwhelming contentment with ignorance.

"When one of us writes a book explaining that our offspring are bored and disruptive in class because they have an indigo "vibrational aura" that means they are a gifted race sent to this planet to change our consciousness with the help of guides from a higher world, half a million of us rush to the bookstores to lay our money down."

We're doomed, he concludes.

I'm not quite so cynical. But the barriers to "change" look high. Not to be a wet sock, but should stem cell policy changes and international funding for organizations that inform people about birth control options assure us that science is in its "rightful place"? Of course not. From these quick executive changes, we're convinced only that politics determines the place of these science policies.

True, nothing can happen overnight. More policy changes are in the works. Obama is set to increase NIH biomedical funding. He ordered the Department of Transportation to get to work completing emissions standards. He's told the EPA to review California's request for a waiver. But we have a long way to go to meet the President's promises on the environm ent and science.

Tunnel Vision

Will it happen in time? If the citizens cannot to be trusted, than we should look to their leaders. While the Republicans argue about every aspect of the stimulus bill, the economy sinks further. And if politicians seem unbearable, what about the corporations groveling about, looking for their next hand-out, planning their next party, all the while complaining how they can't possibly improve their product, honor a warranty, concede a dollar, accept a regulation.

Will we emerge from this tunnel in time? Or are Americans indeed doomed? While carmakers argue that technology doesn't allow them to raise emissions standards, a Chinese engineer, one year out of college, cooly introduced a new electric car from Chinese automaker BYD (Build Your Dreams) at a recent autoshow. The car? "A $20,000 plug-in hybrid that can go 60 miles before the gas engine kicks in, or the e6, an all-electric crossover that cruises 250 miles on a single charge."

According to The Atlantic the BYD car was parked next to the $500,000 Maybachs, the Lamborghinis, Maseratis, and Bentleys. Taking in the expensive American cars draped with bejeweled women, the Chinese engineer noted: "Those beautiful vehicles are for the very handsome men, those high in society. They're not for the everyday man."

Will Congress please slap its cheeks to alert itself to the dire straits of the situation and start working for us, the everyday man?

"Be The Change"? But We Believed! Obama Goes All Gandhi.

Obama's Pronoun Switcheroo

Everyone wants change. Anyone who voted for Clinton, Obama or McCain voted for a candidate running on a "change" slogan. We voted for economic change, government change, education change, health care change, political change (not to mention science policy change). Obama ran and won the election on two change slogans.

First, the reassuring "Change You Can Believe In" that both Hillary Clinton and John McCain copied. Acronym Required wrote about "Obama's Change Challenge" last May. In September, Obama changed his slogan to "Change We Need".

At the time, Obama's Chief Strategist for the campaign, David Axelrod, bullshitted to reporters about the alteration: "It's not that we're moving away from it, but we're incorporating it...there's a real distinction between more of the same and the change we need and so that's a part."

Now Obama's PR group is slinging a new slogan change. As commentators clamor doubtfully about Obama's various choices and decisions, his change slogan changes again. As of tomorrow you can buy an inaugural poster of Obama which says "Be The Change".

Is that our best hope? Gandhi said "Be the Change You Want in The World". That may have been helpful half a century ago, coming from a sage man swaddled in muslin and leaning on a stick** -- but Obama! We believed!

The Obama camp pulled a not-so-subtle pronoun change, from the implicit "I" will change things (and you can believe in me), to a "we" will change things (together, all of us), to the "you" are the only one who can change (anything). Ouch. But Obama! We believed!


**Not that I'm not a Gandhi fan. I even own the movie Gandhi.

Change After Crisis?

House of Mirrors

The unraveling of the financial economy shocked many who predicted endless prosperous times for unregulated capitalism in its zenith. Alan Greenspan and Robert Rubin scratched their heads with airs of befuddlement. However others weren't surprised. Some Chinese now recall how they compared derivatives to mirror images of mirror images of mirror images of a book as far back as 1999 (and how they perhaps amassed U.S. treasuries in anticipation.)

I'm sure you've heard that the word "crisis" in Mandarin combines word for "danger" plus "opportunity"? It's actually no more than a myth about the Chinese language that persists, famously forwarded by presidents like JFK in 1959. We can safely say that ancient Eastern philosophy didn't predict today's New Age affirmations. But yet people from all sides of the political spectrum insist that crisis brings opportunity and brings change.

In August, the Financial Times wrote an article titled "Fannie and Freddie crisis is Paulson's big moment". According to the FT, the US Treasury Secretary would "make use of the virtually unlimited powers he was given by Congress" to avert further disaster. Paulson et al. eventually architected a solution and after some finagling all the banks got cash infusions, but all of their efforts failed to jumpstart or even stabilize the economy. Last week Paulson talked to FT about his lack of power, and what turned out to be his not-so-big-moment. The FT headlines tell his spin on the protracted tale:

  • On December 30th:"Paulson rues shortage of firepower as battle raged".
  • December 31st: "US lacked the tools to tackle crisis, says Paulson".
  • January 1st and 2nd FT: "Paulson says crisis sown by imbalance" (version I), and version II: "Paulson says excess led to crisis". 1

Often what looks like the gold ring from a distance turns out to be tarnished nickel once you gallop into close range on your plastic merry-go-round horse. The first bailout round of $700 billion got grabbed up quickly, but still, banks aren't lending, job losses accumulate and the economy sputters. Whose opportunity was this crisis? Who spews forth these dubious ditties?

Not to say there isn't opportunity for some cash-rich people who are traipsing around the suburbs cash in hand looking good deals, including Chinese tourists on house hunting tours in Los Angeles. A few of the most cash rich institutions like: Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, the Bank of China, ICBC, and China Construction Bank may realize tremendous opportunity. But as time goes on, more and more people people lose confidence in capitalism, monetary policy, even macroeconomics.

Paulson's plan didn't do the trick and there was no great "defining moment" for him, rather an ongoing crisis. Barack Obama warned yesterday that the financial crisis demands on more government cash, which will further deepen the country's debt, accruing years and years of trillion dollar deficits.

Change In Crisis

But if opportunities look sparse don't crises still present openings for change? So they say. For some, like George Soros it's the end of a certain fundamentalist capitalism. For others, like the Cato Institute, it's a time to pursue greater deregulation. Cato blames government intervention for the crisis, saying government precipitated ruin by pursuing a bastardized version of laissez-faire economics.

Even scientists see an opening with the financial crisis. For Bruce Alberts, the Editor-In-Chief of Science Magazine, the "financial meltdown", brings hope for recognition of the "centrality of science and engineering for successful modern societies", and promise of a "new sense of reality". Everyone hopes for change.

Same, Same?

We're skeptical. Not of change necessarily. After the Asian Tsunami they built a warning system. After denying global warming for decades, the world woke up. After eight years of the Bush administration the world's a different place. Change happens.

But some thirty percent of the population approved of the job Bush did. And people who forecast or promise change are often plain wrong. After 9-11 we heard about "the end of the age of irony". After the Berlin Wall fell we listened to the folks at the US Department of State and scholars like Samuel Huntington (RIP) predict a "new" era, when tribal and religious strife would threaten the relevancy of states and a "clash of civilizations" would dominate politics.

We can't predict precisely what might change, or whether the future government and it's financial policies it will benefit more people than current policies, or less. But we should be alert to our own fatal collective tendency for hopeful thinking. Now is the time to speak up for change, about science, about laissez-faire, and most of all, about the evolving new government.


1 And is he engaged in a little what psychologists interviewed by the NYT called "ego protecting?"

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