Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Live-blogging the last Republican presidential debate before Super Tuesday

This is the last debate for almost a month, and it's the first debate since Santorum started taking the lead in national polls. So the pressure is on.

I'll be live-blogging here. Keep reloading for more updates.

For more live-blogging, check out TalkingPointsMemo or National Review.

You can watch the debate live online at CNN's homepage.

As always, any quotes in this post are written down on the fly, without a transcript or a pause/rewind button. They may not be verbatim, but I'll try to keep them reasonably accurate.

8:07 - The candidates are all sitting down, unlike all the other debates on the major cable news networks.

8:08 - Mitt Romney cuts short his own introduction: "As George Costanza would say, when they're applauding, stop." [UPDATE: Jason (the commenter) points out that Romney was referring to this episode of Seinfeld:

At the coffee shop, George laments to Jerry about losing respect at a project meeting led by Mr. Kruger after following a good suggestion with a bad joke. . . . At the next Kruger meeting, George takes Jerry's suggestion and actually leaves the room after a well-received joke.]
8:18 - Ron Paul is asked why he has released an ad calling Rick Santorum "a fake." His answer: "Because he's a fake." Santorum, who's sitting right next to Paul, holds out his arms and says: "I'm real!"

8:22 - Romney is asked why said he was a "severely conservative governor." He massages his unfortunate word choice: "severe — strict." Then he segues into fiscal conservatism.

8:29 - Rick Santorum spends a long time defending earmarks, which seems like a questionable strategy in the Republican primaries. Romney responds dismissively: "I didn't follow all that."

8:33 - The discussion of earmarks is very chaotic, with lots of crosstalk and booing of Romney and Santorum. There doesn't seem to be any dramatic difference of opinion among any of the candidates. None of them seem to be taking the John McCain approach of opposing the whole process of earmarks on principle.

8:42 - Paul takes issue with people who say the bailout of General Motors worked: "That's like saying someone who robbed a bank was successful! You still broke the law to do it."

8:46 - All the candidates are asked whether they "believe in birth control." The audience boos loudly. In a bizarre non sequitur, Gingrich says that no one in the media in 2008 asked Barack Obama why he supported "infanticide."

8:50 - Santorum is asked what he meant by talking about "the dangers of contraception" on the campaign trail. He claims that "the New York Times was talking about the same thing" recently in a review of Charles Murray's book on the white underclass. He doesn't explain what that has to do with contraception. He adds: "Just because I'm talking about it doesn't mean that I want a government program to fix it." That's disingenuous. Right after explaining why he thinks contraception is "not okay," Santorum added that "these are important public policy issues." What else did he mean by those words if not that he would like to see some kind of public policy change to deal with the problem of contraception?

9:02 - Romney tries out a desperate new argument against Santorum: he supported Senator Arlen Specter, who's from Santorum's state of Pennsylvania and cast a deciding vote in favor of Obamacare. So instead of criticizing Romney for providing a model for Obamacare, Santorum should "look in the mirror."

9:21 - All the candidates are asked to define themselves in just one word. Paul: "Consistent." Santorum: "Courage." Romney: "Resolute." Gingrich: "Cheerful."

9:52 - The candidates are asked what the biggest misconception about each of them is. Paul: "That I can't win." He mentions a poll where he does the best in a match-up against President Obama. Gingrich: They don't understand how much work it took for him to achieve welfare reform and a balanced budget (under President Clinton). Romney: That his record or positions on specific issues are more important than his overall leadership qualities. Santorum dodges the question, but says he's shown that he "can do a lot with a little": he doesn't have much money but he's still winning.

That's all for tonight, and that might be all until the general election.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Is organic food really better than conventional food and genetically modified organisms?

This Scientific American piece debunks several myths about organic farming, and concludes that the organic vs. conventional debate has been drastically oversimplified by both sides. An excerpt:

Yes, organic farming practices use less synthetic pesticides which have been found to be ecologically damaging. But factory organic farms use their own barrage of chemicals that are still ecologically damaging, and refuse to endorse technologies that might reduce or eliminate the use of these all together. Take, for example, organic farming’s adamant stance against genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

GMOs have the potential to up crop yields, increase nutritious value, and generally improve farming practices while reducing synthetic chemical use – which is exactly what organic farming seeks to do. As we speak, there are sweet potatoes are being engineered to be resistant to a virus that currently decimates the African harvest every year, which could feed millions in some of the poorest nations in the world. Scientists have created carrots high in calcium to fight osteoperosis, and tomatoes high in antioxidants. Almost as important as what we can put into a plant is what we can take out; potatoes are being modified so that they do not produce high concentrations of toxic glycoalkaloids, and nuts are being engineered to lack the proteins which cause allergic reactions in most people. Perhaps even more amazingly, bananas are being engineered to produce vaccines against hepatitis B, allowing vaccination to occur where its otherwise too expensive or difficult to be administered. The benefits these plants could provide to human beings all over the planet are astronomical.

Yet organic proponents refuse to even give GMOs a chance, even to the point of hypocrisy. For example, organic farmers apply Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin (a small insecticidal protein from soil bacteria) unabashedly across their crops every year, as they have for decades. It’s one of the most widely used organic pesticides by organic farmers. Yet when genetic engineering is used to place the gene encoding the Bt toxin into a plant’s genome, the resulting GM plants are vilified by the very people willing to liberally spray the exact same toxin that the gene encodes for over the exact same species of plant. Ecologically, the GMO is a far better solution, as it reduces the amount of toxin being used and thus leeching into the surrounding landscape and waterways. Other GMOs have similar goals, like making food plants flood-tolerant so occasional flooding can replace herbicide use as a means of killing weeds. If the goal is protect the environment, why not incorporate the newest technologies which help us do so?

But the real reason organic farming isn’t more green than conventional is that while it might be better for local environments on the small scale, organic farms produce far less food per unit land than conventional ones. Organic farms produce around 80% that what the same size conventional farm produces (some studies place organic yields below 50% those of conventional farms!).

Right now, roughly 800 million people suffer from hunger and malnutrition, and about 16 million of those will die from it. If we were to switch to entirely organic farming, the number of people suffering would jump by 1.3 billion, assuming we use the same amount of land that we’re using now. Unfortunately, what’s far more likely is that switches to organic farming will result in the creation of new farms via the destruction of currently untouched habitats, thus plowing over the little wild habitat left for many threatened and endangered species.

Already, we have cleared more than 35% of the Earth’s ice-free land surface for agriculture, an area 60 times larger than the combined area of all the world’s cities and suburbs. Since the last ice age, nothing has been more disruptive to the planet’s ecosystem and its inhabitants than agriculture. What will happen to what’s left of our planet’s wildlife habitats if we need to mow down another 20% or more of the world’s ice-free land to accommodate for organic methods?

The unfortunate truth is that until organic farming can rival the production output of conventional farming, its ecological cost due to the need for space is devastating. As bad as any of the pesticides and fertilizers polluting the world’s waterways from conventional agriculture are, it’s a far better ecological situation than destroying those key habitats altogether. That’s not to say that there’s no hope for organic farming; better technology could overcome the production gap, allowing organic methods to produce on par with conventional agriculture. . . .

Organic farming does have many potential upsides, and may indeed be the better way to go in the long run, but it really depends on technology and what we discover and learn in the future. Until organic farming can produce crops on par in terms of volume with conventional methods, it cannot be considered a viable option for the majority of the world. Nutritionally speaking, organic food is more like a brand name or luxury item. It’s great if you can afford the higher price and want to have it, but . . . [y]ou would improve your nutritional intake far more by eating a larger volume of fruits and vegetables than by eating organic ones instead of conventionally produced ones. . . .

As far as I’m concerned, the biggest myth when it comes to organic farming is that you have to choose sides. Guess what? You don’t. You can appreciate the upsides of rotating crops and how GMOs might improve output and nutrition. You, the wise and intelligent consumer, don’t have to buy into either side’s propaganda and polarize to one end or another.
(The article seems to be very thoroughly supported, with 18 citations. Of course, I've omitted them from this block quote.)

Monday, February 20, 2012

If the U.S. Constitution is losing influence abroad, is that a problem?

In response to a New York Times article making that point, as well as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's comments that she wouldn't advise other countries to model their constitutions on ours, Ramesh Ponnuru argues that this isn't necessarily a cause for concern.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Why do people say, "Life is too short?"

Wouldn't a better way to express the point be, "Life is too long"? For instance, if you knew you were going to suddenly die after going to one fantastic cocktail party tonight, it might be worth it to adopt a pose or say things you don't actually agree with just for the sake of getting along with the other guests at the party. It's only because life lasts for decades and decades that it's intolerable to go through the whole thing without being yourself.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Monday, February 6, 2012

Why it's good that there are so many unpaid interships

"Why Mess With a Win-Win Situation?"

In that New York Times piece, David Lat comments on a lawsuit brought against the Hearst Corporation by one of its former interns:

[The] lawsuit faults unpaid internships in general for a whole host of evils, including declining opportunities for paid employment. But unpaid internships are more a symptom than a cause of economic weakness. They are so popular right now because many employers, large and small, simply don’t have the ability to create new, full-time, paid positions.

The lawsuit against Hearst claims that unpaid internships exacerbate class divisions, because some people can afford to work free and others cannot. But the same could be said of almost any opportunity that allows students from wealthier backgrounds to enhance their human capital more effectively than students from less privileged backgrounds. The lawsuit asserts that unpaid internships indirectly contribute to higher unemployment. But minimum wage laws themselves, the laws that unpaid internships sometimes violate, arguably have the same effect.
PREVIOUSLY: "The many problems with unpaid internships." That post actually seems pretty unconvincing now, in light of David Lat's arguments.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Music Friday: "Summertime"

It's apparently the most covered song ever. This New York Times blog post gives us 18 very different versions. My favorite is Norah Jones:

My favorites after that would be Miles Davis and Billie Holiday (the original). The worst might be Janis Joplin.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Romney's poor choice of words

Mitt Romney has gotten in trouble for saying: "I’m not concerned about the very poor." That sounds bad, and it was a gaffe for him to phrase it like that.

Here's the fuller statement, from a CNN interview the day after his win in Florida:

I’m in this race because I care about Americans. I’m not concerned about the very poor — we have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it. I’m not concerned about the very rich, they’re doing just fine. I’m concerned about the very heart of America, the 90, 95 percent of Americans right now who are struggling.
Romney later clarified, speaking to a group of reporters:
You’ve got to take the whole sentence, all right, as opposed to saying, and then change it just a little bit, because then it sounds very different. I’ve said throughout the campaign my focus, my concern, my energy is gonna be devoted to helping middle income people, all right? We have a safety net for the poor in, and if there are holes in it, I will work to repair that. And if there are people that are falling through the cracks I want to fix that. Wealthy people are doing fine. But my focus in the campaign is on middle income people. Of course I’m concerned about all Americans — poor, wealthy, middle class, but the focus of my effort will be on middle income families who I think have been most hurt by the Obama economy.

Romney is right: his comment clearly wasn't intended to mean that he's uncaring toward the poor. What he was saying is that he does care about the poor (he said he cares about "Americans," which includes the poor), but he's relatively satisfied with the amount of assistance the poor already get from existing government programs.

Not only has Romney been saying this throughout the campaign, but Barack Obama in 2008 talked constantly about how his focus was on "the middle class." He even criticized John McCain for not using the phrase "middle class" in a debate. Obama would talk about the middle class without even mentioning the poor. He just assumed that the middle class should be the focus. I don't remember anyone in the media questioning Obama's focus back in 2008. But when Romney makes essentially the same point, while also being explicit about his reasoning in focusing on the middle class rather than the poor, he's depicted as heartless.

IN THE COMMENTS: Rcocean says:
Look, these guys aren't super-human. They're recorded on film/audio talking about all kinds of stuff, 2 or 3 hours a day. Could you talk for 2 hours a day on all kinds of topics, without somebody being able to make look bad? I couldn't.
As I've said before:
There's a vicious circle going on here. The media is ready to pounce on the slightest arguable misstep by candidates or people associated with them. This causes the candidates to be more and more cautious in everything they say and do, which causes them to be more and more phony. This, in turn, causes the media and the public to feel starved for any evidence that the candidates are real, fallible human beings, which causes them to pounce on the candidates' missteps, etc.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Why Newt Gingrich can't win the nomination

And why the media doesn't want you to realize it.

Cafes of the '50s and '60s

A quaintly wry mini-documentary on cafes in London's Soho (via Metafilter, where the commenters are translating the narrator's references to British currency):

"Where university students and other assorted eggheads meet to put the world right — or, more often, left!"

The blindingly obvious lesson from Gingrich's devastating loss in Florida

Rich Lowry writes:

Florida shows why when running for president, you usually need to have a presidential campaign to be successful.