A weblog by Will Fitzgerald

Category Archives: Politics and News

Nearly buried in the This American Life retraction

This American Life released a retraction today about it story reporting on working conditions at Apple suppliers in China. Kudos to This American Life for spending an entire show on this.

I’m afraid that This American Life’s focus on its own errors might overshadow the truths about working conditions in China. To their credit, they spend some time trying to get at the facts.

In the final minutes, Ira Glass interviews Charles Duhigg of the New York Times, who has done his own investigation of working conditions at Apple. Duhigg makes the following claims, which I have little reason to doubt:

  • Actual labor costs are not a major component of the cost of creating Apples products; Apple products could be made in the US for roughly the same cost.
  • It is the ability to quickly and flexibly adjust its supplier chain that in the real benefit to sourcing to China (actually, I’m a bit skeptical of Duhigg’s story here — I wonder if he is exaggerating a bit — but I don’t doubt at all that China is very much more flexible than the US).
  • The biggest violations in working conditions are overwork (24 hour back-to-back shifts, 60+ hour work weeks, people pressured into working over time) and unsafe conditions (for example, flamable industrial dust).
  • Apple lacks the will to insist on better working conditions in China.
  • If consumers put pressure on Apple, Apple would insist on better working conditions. (In an interview Duhigg did with Terry Gross, he compared this to the changes that occurred at Nike suppliers).
Duhigg finished with this:

You’re not only the direct beneficiary; you are actually one of the  reasons why it exists. If you made different choices, if you demanded different conditions, if you demanded that other people enjoy the same work protections that you yourself enjoy, then, then those conditions would be different overseas.

This is worth pondering. I think it might be time to stop buying from Apple until things are vastly improved. If Apple, the leading tech producer, corrects its course, I am sure most of the the other hardware companies will follow suit.

Questions — what is Microsoft’s current record with respect to working conditions overseas? Are there hardware companies who are more ethical?

On the meta-media

In the wake of the horrible killings in Norway, I saw several tweets and Facebook posts that were something like “Brown: terrorist. White: extremist. Got it.” or “It speaks volumes that the immediate assumption was that this was the work of Muslim terrorists.” In other words, people began quite quickly to comment on the media reaction to the story, criticizing (implicitly or explicitly) for being anti-Muslim. This seemed odd to me, because by the time I started to see stories about the killings, the stories themselves were tentative about what the motivations of the killer or killers were.

After some discussion with one of the posters of one of these comments, what became clear is that some tabloids and pundits were quick to label the motivations. The Sun (on July 22) called it an “Al-Queda Massacre” and Thomas Jocelyn of The Standard wrote, somewhat more circumspectly, “We don’t know if al Qaeda was directly responsible for today’s events, but in all likelihood the attack was launched by part of the jihadist hydra.”

The legitimate news organizations were bit cautious about assigning motivations; at least, the ones I was able to check. The New York Times, after Anders Behring Breivik was arrested, quoted police officials as saying he was a “right-wing extremist,” although later they pointed out the similarities of the bombing and killings to prior al-Qaeda attacks, including declared threats against Norway. The Associated Press, prior to the arrest, quoted acting national Police Chief Sveinung Sponheim as refusing to speculate as to motivation, but the article also noted the al-Qaeda threats.

Once more was known about Breivik, discussion has focused on what to call him; a “terrorist,” an “extremist,” a “Christian fundamentalist,” a “right-wing terrorist,” etc. And, to some extent, this is a useful discussion to have. But any such discussion should shrink, I think, in importance to the facts on the ground: the grieving families, justice, and prevention of such attacks in the future. Part of our media-saturated culture is to think that stories on the media reaction to the story are as or more important than the story itself. No one should be surprised at The Sun being a tabloid, or even a right-leaning pundit making a too quick (but, seriously, in the current case, not uneducated) guess that Islamist extremists were behind the attack. Why is this worth comment? We should, I think, be slower to speak; we need fewer pundits, and we need even fewer meta-pundits. Ironically, of course, this blog post is meta-meta punditry, but such is the rabbit hole we enter.

Atheists and agnostics know more about religion than the religious people. So what?

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a report on how much Americans know about some religious facts; they have a online quiz version of their survey that’s making the rounds.

NPR reported on this in their story “Survey: Atheists, Agnostics Know More About Religion Than Religious,” and the LA Times did as well in their story “Atheists, agnostics most knowledgeable about religion, survey says.” For some reason, the actual report from the Pew Forum is unavailable as I write, but much of the details can be found at the online quiz.

As their headlines indicate, both NPR and the LA Times find it remarkable that non-religious people know more answers to these questions about religious figures and demographics than religious people do. However, I find this completely unremarkable. Even a cursory reading of the details indicate that doing well on this test strongly correlates with educational level: the more education you have, the better you’ll do on this quiz. But this is also true of non-belief: the more education you have, the less likely you are to hold religious beliefs. “White Evangelical Protestants” actually do better than average (what most educated people think of when they think about religious Americans, I think). The religious groups with the least education–Black Protestant (read: Black) and Latino Catholic (read: Latino) do the worst. The religious group with the most education, Jews, do the best (I don’t know if Pew broke out non-theistic Jews from “Jews”).

One of the questions asked (in the online version) is who the religious figure is most associated with the Great Awakening. This was an incredibly important series of events and movements in US history and affected the shape of Protestant and other Christian practice and belief until the current day. But very few Protestants that I know consider this figure anything more than a historical figure; he’s a matter of history, not religious belief or practice. If you’ve gone to a lot of school, you’re more likely to have run across his name (of the 15 online questions, this is the least well known). Do you know the answer? It’s not unlikely you learned it in a (college level) history or American religion class.

Another one of the questions asks on what day the Jewish Sabbath begins.  Most people get this wrong (except Jews, who live–or have the memory of living–in the duality of the Jewish and Western calendars). But this feels like a bit of a trick question, requiring a secular or Western Christian understanding of the week. I think “Saturday” is a perfectly reasonable correct answer to this question. I got it “correct,” but this seems to indicate more about my test-taking skills (watch out for trick questions!) than my nuanced understanding of my co-religionists.

In the online quiz, the only especially interesting question is the appalling misunderstanding about whether a teacher can read from the Bible “as literature.” On average, only 25% know this is just fine (and, in general, who gets this right correlates positively with education, but no group gets this right more than 50% of the time).

Education correlates negatively with religious beliefs: this is not a new finding. In fact, it’s found right in the Bible (sort of), when Paul writes to an early church in Corinth:

Consider your own call … not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth (1 Corinthians 1:26).

It’s disappointing that NPR and the LA Times wrote such smug articles.

Republican Pledge To America (the stock phrase version)

This is the Republican Pledge to America, removing everything but the multiword stock phrases recognized by an (internal Microsoft) phrase detector. It makes a kind of poetry.

free people govern themselves unalienable rights woman can religious liberty man or woman consent of the governed endowed by their creator
first principles through hard declaration of independence destructive of these ends enshrined in the constitution
do not consent of the governed
their values striking down long standing
makes decisions out of touch
rising joblessness
like free our citizens speaking out founding principles common problems
urgent action people cannot
document we our founding keeping faith principles we
original intent tenth amendment united states powers not delegated
promote greater wider opportunity
traditional marriage our american faith based organizations
its actions
fellow citizens join us true faith and allegiance
has declined economic growth families and communities
town halls public squares spoken out phone calls
though these
have imposed backroom deals has supplanted behind closed doors
not enough behavior so have drafted their concerns
clearly different different approach
accountable government fiscal responsibility american values
puts forth powers that be the powers that be
wider opportunity economic recovery
economic uncertainty we offer taking steps
small businesses tax deduction 20 percent red tape tape factory washington dc small business health care
we cannot we offer stop out out of control
common sense our troops roll back government spending balance the budget
sustained effort has occurred occurred over hiring freeze federal employees programs we spending habits fulfilling our irresponsible behavior fannie mae troubled asset relief program
pushing off off our challenges we budget process entitlement programs
remember that president obama health care address our our growing thoroughly discredited we offer common sense lowering costs small businesses coverage they been thoroughly discredited we now know medical liability reform across state lines doctor patient relationship
proposing them ensure there not harder we offer missile defense guantanamo bay local jails act decisively working closely eliminate unnecessary spending above all else state and local
pride and dignity
heavy handed jobless claims our national we need heavy handed approach
economic uncertainty
decision making personal choices free people free market local governments bob mcdonnell one size fits all state and local governments
up against trillion dollar spending bill has made rallying cry has been nine percent far cry people were
dismal results president obama spending billions billions more raise taxes roughly half small business raising taxes economists agree obama is proposing
president john john f. f. kennedy balance the budget
policies such such as marriage penalty household income according to see its deloitte tax llp child tax credit cut in half alternative minimum tax
economic policies have pushed tax increases small businesses businesses must must have months so employers must under their every few months
tax increases spending sprees wake up abandon its turn things around
trillion dollar unemployment rate has climbed january 2009
we cannot working again
all tax tax increases currently scheduled their retirement small businesses middle class families
small businesses tax deduction small business 20 percent
red tape tape factory washington dc de facto the game small businesses cannot properly may harm
small business health care small businesses internal revenue any purchases 1099 reporting has determined the agency ill equipped handle all internal revenue service equipped to handle
spending spree out of control
raise taxes make it easy
fiscal discipline
up against spending habits they promised president obama
discretionary spending each year defense department homeland security has increased result we years our day just fight terrorism department of defense secure our border department of homeland security
summed up ronald reagan president ronald reagan
interest rates
walked away out of control
debt we urgent action spending habits bring down build long challenges we face pay down the debt
act immediately no reason us further wasteful and unnecessary wastes taxpayer money there is no reason
common sense our troops roll back spending spree balancing the budget paying down the debt
discretionary spending common sense last year even more were used growth we cutting discretionary spending
increased its its own small businesses significantly reducing
spending cuts house republicans runaway spending nine weeks save taxpayers
rightly outraged tens of billions once and for all troubled asset relief program
fannie mae freddie mac mortgage companies too many many high afford them
federal hiring hiring freeze small businesses federal employees public sector no longer
once created federal programs go away away even even if problem they never go away addressed this problem root out government waste
budget process focus on challenges we entitlement programs social security these programs reviewing them medicare and medicaid
every hour spent per per minute twice as much
budget projections man woman and child
does all assistance programs local governments non profit funding programs federal domestic assistance non profit organizations
crowding out one level most recent government spending ten years years than several percentage points
one thing health care president obama higher taxes small businesses doctor patient health care reform
up against health care through congress congress have
have announced laying off dropping their health care coast to coast laying off employees health care coverage
chief actuary medicaid services health care congressional budget office nonpartisan congressional budget office
social security law does his plan important thing social security and medicare
health care raise taxes middle class has conceded
chief actuary medicaid services services has has confirmed their current
million americans drop their their current forced to acknowledge
overwhelmingly opposed president obama health care taxpayer funds
health care
health care
health care care we take action will immediately take action
liability insurance rates have have distorted protect themselves often referred common sense lower costs medical liability reform medical liability insurance
health insurance into those those plans health care state in across state lines health insurance plans health care coverage
savings accounts health insurance health care these savings purchase over making it easier over the counter high deductible health plans
relationship we health care common sense doctor patient relationship
ensure access health care just because lower premiums number of uninsured
insurance coverage hyde amendment other instances health care health care providers
regulations have
employees may taxes levied health care billions of dollars
health care tax increases goods and services
health care committee have joint economic committee
often ignored backroom deals congress have than under nancy pelosi speaker nancy pelosi
all so once and for all
up against does whatever her tenure speaker pelosi the letter house rules while ignoring within her her own democratic leaders wrong direction using various despite having democratic majority since 1993 considered under house of representatives letter and spirit
health care speaker pelosi louise slaughter publicly discussed house democrats chairwoman louise slaughter
key provisions
americans believe released earlier this year
just plain house republicans real time highest priorities what goes on house of representatives first of its kind
before coming coming up legislation should interested parties no more hiding
adhere to too long too often has allowed massive deficit require each constitutional authority by what authority lack of respect
behavior so let any make it easier democrat or republican
legislative issues time we instead we one at a time
up significantly wasting time considered under so far
only two
relied heavily bring any
all that served us ensure our government has never apologize support our troops around the world
new york fort hood times square these attacks new york city ready and willing new york city subway
does not president dwight d. eisenhower
border security not just national security just war
provide our our troops more troop held up pork barrel
america we president obama his administration guantanamo bay fight against terrorist plots guantanamo bay detainees
foreign terrorists american citizens they have u.s. military such as military intelligence law enforcement
missile defense ballistic missiles intercontinental ballistic missiles
iranian regime harm our its own has declared nuclear capability sanctions against iran
take action enforcing our border patrol immigration laws illegal immigration drug cartels means we we need law enforcement all federal secure our borders mexican drug cartels enforce our immigration laws all hands on deck
christmas day homeland security visa applications after having department of homeland security
our founders the servant people not checks and balances
elected representatives bills passed dollars spent
quite different people went went there they sought their strong has over helped create margaret thatcher sense of purpose
our principles more accountable working again stop out health care we will stand out of control
time we against any
transparency and accountability
health care
union bosses
built through our constitution people we 111th congress bring these these reforms ask all good will our beliefs men and women
speak out

“Watch the money”

Seth Godin argues in his post Watch the money that one can tell a good life insurance salesperson by how much insurance they bought a lot of their own insurance; and you can tell a good non-profit person by how much they give to charity. Both of these statements seem right on the face of things, but are, I believe, false.

First, I think Mr Godin is (perhaps) confusing moral good and monetary achievement. If insurance salespeople are morally good, they will not encourage others, or themselves, to buy more insurance than they need. So, a young salesman with no wife or children or other financial dependents shouldn’t buy much insurance–or any insurance at all. Or a saleswoman whose husband gets a great deal on insurance via work might not need to buy any for themselves. As far as “monetary achievement” goes, I don’t have a strong opinion–I suspect, though, that life insurance is one of those things one can sell without believing in it, and one can succeed financially if not morally.

People who work in non-profits, on the other hand, will have their own reasons for not giving as much to non-profits as those who give in for-profit organizations. First, they are typically paying a very high opportunity cost to work in a non-profit; it’s easy to imagine that one could make two or three or even more times the annual salary in a for-profit position than a non-profit; in these cases, one immediately gives 50% or more to charity by working on the cheap. Second, of course, is that you have to think about whether your talking about actual amounts or percentages. Also, one should remember that giving a percentage of a large amount of money is less risky than giving away the same percentage of a smaller amount of money; so the poorer non-profit worker giving 10% is also giving up more security than a richer for-profit worker (Bill Gates can give away 99% of his wealth, and still be very wealthy indeed; there’s very, very little risk for him of bottoming out).

So, yes, the life insurance salesperson should  buy life insurance, and the non-profit worker should give to charity, but their doing so is more complicated than Mr Godin suggests.

Ted Kennedy and the Civics Lesson

In 1970, when I was in eighth grade, I took a Current Events class. During the previous summer, Ted Kennedy drove his car into the Chappaquiddick, leaving his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, in the car; she was found dead the next day.

The case came up in Civics class. I defended Kennedy. My case, if I recall correctly, was that he was a Very Important Man–the brother of Jack Kennedy, our dear assassinated president, and of Robert Kennedy–hadn’t his family suffered enough?

My Current Events teacher asked me if I really thought important people were above the law, and didn’t have to follow the same laws as the rest of us. I’m sure I mumbled something, but her point was made.

The irony, of course, is that Kennedy wasn’t treated just the same as the rest of us; he almost assuredly escaped the punishment a poorer and less well-known person would receive. And the further irony is that Kennedy has always been a fighter for the rights of those who are left out.

Kennedy epitomizes the American dilemma: wanting to keep its privileges, and yet to share them; fighting for an idealized equality, but taking the personal advantage. Still, I appreciate honest and disinterested judges.

The corrosive nature of political contributions

From the Washington Post, “Big donors drive Obama’s money edge“:

Lost in the attention given to Obama’s Internet surge is that only a quarter of the $600 million he has raised has come from donors who made contributions of $200 or less, according to a review of his FEC reports. That is actually slightly less, as a percentage, than President Bush raised in small donations during his 2004 race, although Obama has pulled from a far larger number of donors.

Mark my words: this will cause problems for President Obama.

How many ways to win the election with nothing to spare?

Over at FiveThirtyEight, the following ‘homework assignment’ was given:

How many unique ways are there to acquire at least 270 electoral votes without any excess?

I figured it would be a ‘large’ number, but I was surprised at the actual total: 51,199,463,116,367 (or, fifty-one trillion and change). about 2.3% of all possible combinations (This exact number is based on the simplifying assumption of treating Maine and Nevada as giving up their electoral votes in the same way as all the other states). The answer was given by Isabel Lugo, a mathematician.

If you blindly checked all the possibilities at a rate of 1000 per second, it would take over 17,000 centuries. That’s older than John McCain.

Reviewing my Prediction—I was wrong.

I was wrong. And I’ve very glad.

Maxine Ethington


Sheby County, Ky

SHELBYVILLE, KY. Local law enforcement along with Shelby County Emergency Management are asking if anyone has any information leading to the whereabouts of Maxine Ethington. Maxine is an elderly citizen of Shelby County suffering from Alzheimer’s. She was last seen on May 25, 2008 at approximately 8:00p.m. She drives a 2000 Grey or Silver Buick Sentry, license # KY 186BLY. The vehicle may have an old plate attached with #’s KY 495-JYT. There is possible damage to the left side of her vehicle with only three hub caps.

If you have seen this woman or have any clues as to her whereabouts please contact the Shelby County Dispatch at 502-633-2323 or the Shelbyville Police Department at 502-633-2326.