How could I pass up the chance to write a headline like that? Though the Bill O’Reilly-trumpeted “news” story, as examined by the folks at Orcinus, is contemptible even by wingnut standards.

Gosh, the things I miss out on by not subscribing to the FreaxNews Channel.

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The Moron Magnet

May 19, 2007

Science and science education will take a giant step forward this Memorial Day when a 50,000-square-foot magnet for morons is activated in rural Petersburg, Kentucky, just over the state line from Cincinnati, Ohio. (If you follow the link, be sure to scroll down from the white space — some curious formatting at the site.)

The builders of this moron magnet, officially called the Creation Museum, expect the facility will generate a field of intellectual vacuity strong enough to attract some 250,000 ninnies, flakes and feebs in its first year of operation. They may be right. After all, the nonprofit ministry Answers in Genesis managed to attract $27 million in moron monies (aka, private donations) to build the facility, which will boast a huge replica of Noah’s Ark and animatronic displays showing Adam and Eve mingling with dinosaurs.

This moron magnet, like a smaller facility due to be activated in Florida, operates on the principle that there are plenty of people who are determined to swindle themselves and their children out of an education, and will travel great distances to pay upwards of two sawbucks each to be fed a comforting pablum of lies and superstition.

Science educators around the country are denouncing the moron magnet, as well they should, but I think we should also recognize the great public service being performed here by Answers in Genesis. Anyone who willingly goes out in public wearing swag from the Creation Museum gift shop is telling the world he is a gullible rube ripe to be taken advantage of by any con artist with a good line in Gospel patter. Any educator who tries to book a field trip to the Creation Museum is warning parents and administrators that he is a conniving fraud and a potential source of expensive litigation. Any church that sends its kids to the Creation Museum is notifying the community that it is a spawning pool for Christianist nonsense, and apt to engage in other forms of political and/or social mischief.

So by all means, let the Creation Museum fling open its doors. If the morons get to waste money on their own make-believe museums, they’ll have that much less time and energy to spend on trying to infiltrate places where real science is respected and taught.

A couple of days ago I wrote some blog posts indicating that the heavy-breathing reports alleging a terrorist plot to attack Fort Dix were a little less than persuasive. In fact, given the Bush administration’s well established record of distortion and outright lies on the matter of terrorism, I suggested that the credibility of the “Fort Dix Six” pizza plot story might end up having a shorter shelf life than a salmon in the sun.

Columbia Journalism Review’s “CJR Daily” takes a similarly skeptical stance, and chides the mass market media for their eagerness to be gulled with yet another scare story:

The New York Times this morning offers a good example of this grab-bag coverage when it says that the Fort Dix case is “the latest in a series of plots, targeting sites in the United States, that authorities said they have foiled. These included one last June in which seven arrests were made in Miami after the authorities described suspects talking about blowing up the Sears Tower in Chicago and the F.B.I.’s Miami headquarters. In June 2003, the authorities said they thwarted a plot to bring down the Brooklyn Bridge, and in 2002, six Yemeni-Americans from Lackawanna, N.Y., near Buffalo, were arrested and linked with Qaeda interests.”

As we all remember, the men who were planning on blowing up Chicago’s Sears Tower and the F.B.I.’s Miami headquarters last year — the hilariously confused “Seas of David” group — were so inept, so deluded, that the “plot” was the stuff of farce. Yes, the group swore fealty to Al Qaeda (or more precisely, to an informant posing as an Al Qaeda representative), which is enough to put them under surveillance and haul them in for questioning, at the very least. And what they wanted to do was serious enough to make them a threat, albeit one that was overblown by both the Justice Department and the press at the time.

Then there was the “Lackawanna Six,” the group of young men in the town next door to Buffalo, NY, who are currently serving prison sentences for having trained at an Al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan prior to 9/11. They, too, were hardly the criminal masterminds that they were initially made out to be. As The Washington Post put it in July 2003, “there was no evidence that the men had spoken of or planned an attack.” The Buffalo News said that same year, “They never built a bomb, never hijacked an airliner and, as far as the U.S. Justice Department can determine, never made any plans to commit terrorism.”

The Bush administration’s Justice Department has a vested interest in portraying every “plot” it busts as the next 9/11, regardless of how embryonic or feeble. It serves as a distraction from the administration’s failures in Iraq and elsewhere, it perpetuates the state of fear that has served this White House well in recent years, and it justifies the massive Homeland Security bureaucracy. Journalists, meanwhile, are at a decided disadvantage when trying to determine the seriousness — or lack thereof — of the threat, because the government holds all the cards. That’s why a healthy dose of skepticism — given this administration’s track record with truth — is crucial to the press’s handling of stories like Fort Dix.

Amen to that, CJR.

My last post attracted a swarm of comments. Most agreed with the post, but there were a couple of loopy anti-Semitic conspiracy buffs who had to be relegated to the spam bin, and a few rumpus-room Churchills who instantly equate skeptics with Neville Chamberlain. These 28-Percenters are immune to fact, argument and memory — despite the Bush administration’s record of ineptitude and corruption, they have been imprinted with the idea that Bush is a stalwart guardian of the West. When reminded that Bush, on the eve of the World Trade Center attack, repeatedly ignored warnings that Al-Qaeda was planning something big in America, they fall back on the reliable “blame Clinton” defense, even reviving long-discredited lies about how Bill Clinton turned down Sudan’s offer to turn over Osama bin Laden. These people are the invincibly ignorant. Will they ever comprehend that while terrorism is a real threat, but you cannot fight it with unreal means? At this late date, is trying to convince them even worth the effort?

You can lead a winger to water but you can’t make him think. Island environments, isolated from competition and natural selection in the larger world, tend to produce the strangest life forms. Intellectual isolation appears to have the same effect. Long after the Bushies and their Republican handmaidens have been evicted from power and the great cleaning-up has begun, the bizarre fauna of Wingerworld will still be building their bunkers on the beach and jumping at shadows in the woods, building their alternate-universe mythology around the greatness of George W. Bush.

Let them stay there. In fact, their perfect intellectual isolation makes them ideal specimens for display to future Americans who might find it hard to believe that this country could have gone so wrong at the start of the 21st century. We can guide those doubters to the archives of National Review Online and the Weekly Standard, or the mutterings of the little wingers on the Internet, and they will understand.

It seems only fitting that a terrorist plot supposedly based in part on information gleaned from pizza deliveries would get cheesier on closer inspection.

So as New Jersey broadcast and print news outlets are in the throes of a massive attack of Jack Bauer Fever over allegations that six bozos had a notion that they’d like to attack Fort Dix, it’s a little disconcerting to realize that the prime mover behind the plot appears to have been the very FBI informer who blew the whistle on the scheme:

The informer, sent to penetrate a loose group of men who liked to talk about jihad and fire guns in the woods, had come to be seen by the suspects as the person who might actually show them how an act of terror could be carried off.

Indeed, over the months that followed, as the targets of the investigation spoke with a sometimes unfocused zeal about waging holy war, the informer, one of two used in the investigation, would tell them that he could get them the sophisticated weapons they wanted. He would accompany them on surveillance missions to military installations, debating the risks, and when the men looked ready to purchase the weapons, it was the informer who seemed to be pushing the idea of buying the deadliest items, startling at least one of the suspects.

Of course we’re in the early stages of this investigation, and we haven’t seen all the information. But I have a hunch that when the smoke-blowing and ominous announcements are over, this case is going to look as overblown as the tale of the Miami terrorists, who turned out to be barely capable of blowing their own noses, much less the Sears Tower.

Meanwhile, the bar for dealing with this “new breed of terrorists” is being set awfully low:

“What we are witnessing here is kind of a brand new form of terrorism,” Jody Weis, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Philadelphia field office, said in announcing the arrests Tuesday. He said threats today come from smaller, more loosely defined cells and individuals who may not be affiliated with al Qaeda but “are inspired by their violent ideology.”

So — the pizza plotters had no real plan, no real weapons (though they did shoot some paintball guns) and no real leader except the the guy sent to bust them. Yessir, that is indeed “a brand new form of terrorism, yep, uh huh. I’m just glad this is going to play out in court, where we’ll have a good shot at opening this case up to the sunlight.

Eric Boehlert assesses the slow-motion train wreck that is Glenn Beck’s show on CNN and finds the network has bargained away a big piece of its journalistic credibility in exchange for . . . well, not much:

The good news was that Beck’s special, “Exposed: Climate of Fear,” was a commercial flop, finishing dead last in total viewers among CNN, Headline News, Fox News, and MSNBC programs that night. The weak showing simply highlighted Beck’s recent, albeit little-discussed, ratings woes. Just months after being hyped as the fastest-growing prime-time program in cable news, Glenn Beck has become arguably the most stagnant prime-time program in cable news.

For CNN, the repercussions of the backslide are immense and go far beyond the advertising dollars and cents involved.

That’s because whereas CNN last year traded away its good name in exchange for debuting Beck’s factually challenged and hateful brand of broadcasting, at least CNN execs were getting a ratings boost out of the Faustian bargain. Today, Beck’s still making a mockery out of CNN’s reputation on a daily basis, as he disparages liberals, gays, Democrats, blacks, immigrants, and Muslims at will. But in return, CNN’s now stuck with a Beck program that’s trapped in neutral and shows signs of sliding into reverse.

Well played, CNN.

If you want more details on other sparkling examples of Beck’s intelligence at work, Slacktivist has an extended takedown of a recent session devoted to the tortured theological views of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, authors of the Left Behind series, in which he offered this genuinely bizarre take on EZPass lanes:

BECK: Joel, the things like EZ Pass. Imagine what Hitler could have done with EZ Pass?

ROSENBERG: The Book of Revelation, the apostle John, envisions a world as God, I think prophecy is an intercept from the mind of God. And the apostle John envisions a one-world economic system and everybody having a mark on their right hand or on their forehead that allows them to buy and sell goods and services.

Well, we now have the technology, both with credit cards and EZ Pass systems. You don`t really have to stop at a toll booth. You just — your car is actually swiping through just like an ATM card swipes through. And there — scientists are actually testing now these types of chips, because if you lose all of your — you lose your wallet, you lose everything now.

BECK: Yes.

ROSENBERG: And why not just embed things?

BECK: I remember in the late 1990s, Madeleine Albright — I believe it was Madeleine Albright — went and saw an RFID chip that you could use for finance where you could go into a store, just grab what you want and walk out, and you’d be checked out automatically.

As Slacktivist points out, Beck isn’t just a stranger in a strange land. He’s a full-time resident:

Follow the fever-stream, EZ-Pass, Hitler, mark of the beast, former U.N. Ambassador. Beck knows this stuff from the inside. He believes it. All of the weird conspiratorial logic we’ve seen at work in the books is at work here. The U.N. as federation of planets. The paranoid suspicion of “peacemakers.” The vigilance against the Antichrist as a wolf-in-sheep’s clothing. It’s all right there. On CNN. From the CNN host.

Boehlert notes that Beck’s description of himself as “a rodeo clown” is unexpectedly apt: rodeo clowns are there to distract the bull and keep it from reaching its target. The acrid stew of discredited notions and industry spin that filled Beck’s show on global warming certainly would have done that to anyone hoping to get straight information on climate change. The good news is that the show’s ratings went straight down the toilet.

CNN is panning for fool’s gold if it thinks it can pump its ratings by going after the wingnut market. Fox News has that segment locked up, and here’s why: wingnuts don’t really want news. The term “news” implies something new — it carries the promise of fresh information. New information, delivered with attention to detail and concern for covering all angles of a story, will challenge prejudices and received wisdom. Wingnuts don’t want their prejudices challenged, they want them confirmed.

Fox News is preaching to a small, loyal choir. Going after wingnut gold is a chump’s game. Your gains, if any, will be strictly short term and slight. Your losses will be heavy, and long term.

The idea of using asset monetization — i.e., leasing public fixtures like the New Jersey Turnpike to private investors in exchange for upfront cash — to plug New Jersey’s budget hole seems to have lost a lot of steam, but bad ideas and bad pennies have a way of coming back. So this Business Week survey of the national fad for privatizing public assets is important reading.

State and municipal authorities across the country have embraced monetization, beguiled by the peopsect of quick money laid out for them by investment banks such as Goldman Sachs. The technique is rapidly developing into a separate asset class with its own investor base.

The biggest immediate worry about asset privatization is that the new owners — probably consortia of overseas investors, such as the Macquarie Group-Cintra partnerships that bought long-term leases to the Chicago Skyway and the Indiana Toll Road — will immediately begin aggressive toll hikes to increase their returns.

Asset privatization is still developing a track record in the U.S., but let’s say the experience has not been uniformly encouraging:

The certainty of future toll hikes doesn’t jibe with the uncertainty of service quality. Assets sold now could change hands many times over the next 50 years, with each new buyer feeling increasing pressure to make the deal work financially. It’s hardly a stretch to imagine service suffering in such a scenario; already, the record in the U.S. has been spotty. In 2003 the city of Atlanta ended a lease of its water system after receiving complaints about everything from billing disputes to water-main breaks. The city wrestled with the owner, United Water Inc., over basics like the percentage of water meters it should monitor. Both parties acknowledge that the contract lacked specifics. In the end, “we didn’t believe we were getting performance,” says Robert Hunter, commissioner for Atlanta’s Dept. of Watershed Management. “I don’t believe the city will ever look at privatizing essential services again.” United Water says the contract wasn’t financially feasible because Atlanta’s water system was in worse shape than the city had represented.

I have two words for United Water: due diligence. If the company did it properly, the weaknesses of the water system were already known. If due diligence got short shrift, the company has only itself to blame. The problem is that, either way, the process of discovery came at the expense of the ratepayers.

State lotteries, another popular target for monetization, may seem like a sure-fire bet, but privatization carries a hidden social cost. Privatization means ending the constraints on advertising that are meant to discourage people from getting in over their heads. Considering that New Jersey already does plenty of expensive favors for the Atlantic City casinos (where college savings accounts and mortgage payments go to die) I really don’t think we need any more avenues for exploiting pathological behavior.

When I hear about how privatization will open the way for such “innovations” as peak pricing, which imposes higher tolls on drivers during rush-hour peaks, I can’t help remembering the “diamond lane” fiasco of the 1990s, in which California and New Jersey tried to remold driving habits by creating designated lanes for multi- passenger cars.

This abusive experiment in market-driven social engineering, which was supposed to encourage carpooling, instead generated more traffic congestion and fueled road rage incident as resentful drivers, stuck in miles-long traffic jams, refused to make way for lucky duckies in the “diamond lane” trying to reach their exits. With worksites scattered across scores of miles of highway, carpooling was a pipe dream.

Similarly, “peak pricing” is based on the notion that higher rush hour tolls will reduce demand during peak hours. But there’s a reason for rush hour: that’s the time when the greatest number of people have to get to their jobs. Letting a private investor jack up tolls between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. won’t change the times that employers expect their people to be at their desks. It will simply create an under-the-table tax on productivity, with the proceeds going to a private company instead of the coffers of a public authority.

But the most ridiculous “diamond lane” scheme was abandoned by New Jersey in response to political pressure, helped along considerably by the late great Star-Ledger columnist John McLaughlin, who waged a one-man crusade against the program. Under a privatization regime, such political responsiveness would be a thing of the past.

At the end of the day, the argument for privatization undercuts itself because there is nothing to prevent the state from realizing the same cost benefits available to private investors.

Timothy J. Carson, vice chairman of the Pennsylvania state turnpike commission, recognizes this:

Carson isn’t dissuaded by arguments that investors are better qualified to run turnpikes profitably. “There’s no magic here,” he says. “These [deals] are largely driven by one factor: the permitted toll increases.” Carson says the state doesn’t need to hand over the turnpike to private owners. Historically, he says, the state wanted the turnpike to collect only enough money to break even. But it could just as easily adopt its own toll-hike schedule. The state could also charge tolls on more roads. In other words, the public could remain in control simply by changing the turnpike’s mission. That would ensure that the benefits of the toll hikes were spread throughout the populace, says Carson.

Privatization is like a pickpocket who gives you back your money as a low-interest loan. There are no benefits to be realized that the state could not realize on its own, at lower cost, while retaining control over assets vital to the public good. Privatization simply puts those benefits into the coffers of investment firms.

That line about pickpockets, incidentally, is borrowed from Sam Harris, who used it in a debate about the nature of religious faith. It seemed doubly appropriate because not only is it a good line, but it also reflects the near-religious faith privatization advocates hold in the magic of the marketplace.

Trouble is, there are no wizards outside of Harry Potter novels. There are, however, plenty of suckers in state and municipal governments ready to buy some of this snake oil, and it behooves us to keep an eye on them.

Dead Air

April 11, 2007

I didn’t want to write anything about Don Imus’s bowels-to-mouth problem because I’m sick of the Pavlovian playground games set up by talk radio shock jocks: they say something outrageous, people protest, fans defend shock jock as equal-opportunity offender, ratings register the increased attention.

Yes, I broke my rule recently by writing about the anti-Latino hatenanny staged by Carton and Rossi on New Jersey WhineOhWhinePointJive, but mainly because I think it reflected a larger derangement within the Republican Party and the movement laughingly referred to as conservatism.

But the Imus situation doesn’t reflect anything more significant than the need of a hateful old white guy to fill a few minutes of air time with cheap yucks, and his decision to do so by smearing crap on the Rutgers University women’s basketball team. After watching this press conference by the players and their coach, I decided to toss in my two cents because entirely too many Big Time Media types have been going to bat for Imus, and because what he said was so pointlessly nasty and wounding.

I don’t care if Don Imus thinks he’s still a decent guy. I go with what the basketball players want. If they say they want him off the air, fine by me. If they can live with an apology, then I can live with it, too. If they say they want him impaled and mounted on the Pulaski Skyway, I say let’s sharpen up a stick. They worked hard, played harder and came within reach of the big brass ring, and instead of getting to bask in their accomplishment they’ve had to listen to guff from a prune-faced radio clown in a silly hat, and then listen to the guff from his fans.

There are people who tell me Imus is often very interesting and insightful, and that under the creepy I-Man persona there beats the heart of one of talk radio’s last real intellectuals. All I can say is, there must be a secret e-mail network that alerts people so they can listen to these moments of lucidity and wit. Whenever I’ve listened to the guy, he always comes across like an incontinent old dog farting up the living room. Maybe he does leave stains on both the left and the right sides of the carpet — so what? Old Yeller had a good long run, too, but even he finally had to be put to sleep when he couldn’t be trusted to behave right in public.

I can’t believe some of the half-smart arguments I’ve been hearing: the women shouldn’t be offended because rappers talk about black womenthat way all the time; the women shouldn’t be offended because they really are tough looking; the women should just laugh it off and be happy for the publicity.

Will everybody please get a grip? Those women weren’t politicians out trolling for votes or criminals wide open for scorn. They were athletes who played a damned good season of basketball. But to Don Imus they wre nothing more than caricatures to be used for coon-show jokes.

I would love to wake up one morning and discover that all talk radio shock jocks had suffered a mass crisis of conscience, quit their jobs and gone off to find honest employment at worthwhile jobs — leaving behind nothing but dead air, which would certainly be an improvement over what they’re filling it with now.