The so-called free market for food

Jeff Jacoby writes in today’s Boston Globe:

[N]ot even Ted Kennedy would have suggested that Washington nationalize US food production or overhaul the clothing industry. It is precisely because food and clothing are seen as commodities, because we do leave their availability to the market, that they can be had in such abundance and diversity.

From the New York Times, Nov. 9, 2005:

Even as the Bush administration tries to persuade member nations of the World Trade Organization that it is serious about trimming agricultural subsidies, federal spending on farm payments is closing in on the record of $22.9 billion set in 2000, when the Asian financial crisis caused American exports to fall and crop prices to sink, pushing the Midwest farm belt into recession.

If export sales stay weak, this year’s subsidies could hit a new record. Just last week the United States Agriculture Department raised its projection of payments to farmers by $1.3 billion, to $22.7 billion. In 2004, the subsidies were only $13.3 billion.

Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” writing in the Times on Sept. 9, 2009:

[F]ood system reform has not figured in the national conversation about health care reform. And so the government is poised to go on encouraging America’s fast-food diet with its farm policies even as it takes on added responsibilities for covering the medical costs of that diet. To put it more bluntly, the government is putting itself in the uncomfortable position of subsidizing both the costs of treating Type 2 diabetes and the consumption of high-fructose corn syrup.

If Jacoby had wanted to argue against government health-care reform, he could have done it quite easily by using the food industry as his prime example. As Pollan and others have shown, we are awash in a sea of cheap, federally subsidized corn that has been transformed into oceans of sweet soda, unhealthy beef (corn is toxic to cattle) and a host of other dubious products that barely deserve to be called food.

Do we want the government to do to health care what it’s done to the food supply? It’s not an argument I would make. But Jacoby could have made it, and he’d have produced a much more valid column if he had.


A must-read Q&A

Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby has a fascinating interview with Egyptian scholar and dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who talks about the prospects for reform in an authoritarian system — and whether Arab governments truly want a permanent settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Jeff Jacoby doesn’t listen to Rush, either

Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby, in the course of thrashing Colin Powell, cites a 16-year-old William Raspberry column in which Raspberry apologized for accusing Rush Limbaugh of bigotry without having listened to him for more than a few minutes in bits and pieces.

Powell, who’s been critical of Limbaugh, must be similarly ignorant, according to Jacoby.

But wait. Has Jacoby seen the “Top 10 Racist Limbaugh Quotes”? [Link now fixed.] Two of them, at least, have been verified by Snopes, the gold standard for such things:

  • “Have you ever noticed how all composite pictures of wanted criminals resemble Jesse Jackson?”
  • “Take that bone out of your nose and call me back.” [Spoken to an African-American woman who’d called.]

Two of the most incendiary quotes on the list — a paean to James Earl Ray, who assassinated the Rev. Martin Luther King, and a comment that the streets were “safer after dark” during slavery — appear to come from a book by Jack Huberman called “101 People Who Are REALLY Screwing America (and Bernard Goldberg is Only #73).”

I do not know the provenance of those quotes, and Wikiquote says they are in dispute because Huberman did not provide dates. So we’ll leave those in the interesting-if-true category.

On the other hand, there is no question that Limbaugh lost his gig as a football analyst after he made racially insensitive remarks about Donovan McNabb, a quarterback who’s black. And he’s had great fun with a parody song called “Barack the Magic Negro,” not least because he gets to claim, over and over, that his critics don’t get it and he’s not really racist.

William Raspberry retired in 2005. But he might want to consider his 1993 apology to Limbaugh. The evidence is clear that Raspberry got it right the first time.

Jacoby joins Brooks in getting CBO study wrong

Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby today repeats David Brooks’ error in using an outdated, incomplete Congressional Budget Office study to argue that President Obama’s stimulus package won’t inject money into the economy quickly enough to do any good.

Jacoby writes that “less than half of the $355 billion the bill allocates to infrastructure and other ‘discretionary’ projects would actually be spent by the end of 2010; of that, a mere $26 billion would be spent in the current fiscal year.”

Unlike Brooks, Jacoby does credit an accurate source — a Washington Post story from last Wednesday, which makes clear the CBO study’s limitations, if not its utter worthlessness. But Jacoby himself doesn’t make it clear, thus leaving the same wrong impression as Brooks.

In today’s New York Times, David Leonhardt lays out how and why too many in the media got it wrong. And he reports that, on Monday evening, the CBO put out an up-to-date report estimating “that about 64 percent of the money, or $526 billion, would be spent by next September.” Here (PDF) is the CBO study to which Leonhardt refers — readily available, as Leonhardt notes, since Monday evening.

I’m not sure when Jacoby’s deadline is, but surely he had time to peruse the new study.

Linking and journalistic credibility

One of the great journalistic advances enabled by the Internet is that reporters can now link to the background information that underlies their work. All too often, though, news organizations don’t take advantage of it. They should, because it would enhance their credibility.

Case in point this morning is Boston Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham’s call for an increased gasoline tax. (She’s right on the merits, by the way.) She bolsters her call, in part, with several statistical assertions, including this: “that whole ‘Taxachusetts’ thing is so 1978. Our state currently ranks 35th in the nation for taxes as a proportion of income.”

Columnists can’t attribute every fact, or their 600- to 700-word essays would double in size, and we’d all fall into a stupor from boredom. But they could link. There are no links in the online version of Abraham’s column, though.

The most widely circulated number I’ve seen is the Tax Foundation’s estimate that Massachusetts’ state and local tax burden as a percentage of personal income is 23rd. That’s the difference between Massachusetts being a low-tax state, as Abraham claims, or somewhere in the middle of the pack. And it’s something we’d all have to think about before pushing a gas-tax hike, or in deciding how large that hike should be.

Abraham, a former Boston Phoenix colleague of mine, is a fine reporter, and I know she could back up her assertion that Massachusetts is 35th, at least by someone’s measure. But the Internet enables all of us to show our work. The practice should be more routine than it is.

And kudos to Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby and the editorial-page crew. Jacoby’s column has been fully linked for quite some time. Whether you agree with him or not, linking makes him more a part of the online, multi-level conversation into which journalism is evolving.

Sarah Palin and the Special Olympics

Several news organizations, including the New York Times and NPR, have reported that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin cut the state’s Special Olympics budget by $275,000 earlier this year. That’s accurate, but it’s not the whole story, and I’ve posted an update to reflect that.

According to, and verified by state documents, the Special Olympics sought $550,000 for the coming fiscal year. Palin used her line-item veto to cut that in half, but it still represented an increase of $25,000.

Newsbusters’ Noel Sheppard gets carried away, describing the $550,000 as merely a number that was “proposed.” In fact, it was approved by the state’s Republican-controlled legislature, so Palin really went out of her way to make this cut. The question: Why? Alaska’s KTUU-TV tried to get someone from the Special Olympics to comment, but was unsuccessful.

What services would the extra money have paid for? Was it for new programs? Was it to make up for a loss of funding from other sources? What will be the effect of Palin’s veto?

I’d say someone ought to find out. How about it, Anchorage Daily News?

Picking apart Jeff Jacoby’s indictment

Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby today takes on what he calls the “frenzy of rage and contempt set off by the nomination of Sarah Palin.”

Because Jacoby’s an important voice and deserves to be taken seriously, I’m going to take a little more space than I normally might to pick his column apart. As you will see, there is almost nothing in Jacoby’s piece that holds up to scrutiny.

1. “There has been legitimate criticism, of course. But there has also been a gusher of slander, much of it — like the slur that she isn’t the real mother of her infant son, Trig — despicable.”

Agreed. It doesn’t get much more despicable than that. But why bring it up? As we know, this rumor was nothing but the product of a pseudonymous hate-monger on Daily Kos. Until the McCain campaign itself cited it as a reason for going public with 17-year-old Bristol Palin’s pregnancy, the only mainstream journalist who mentioned it was Andrew Sullivan, blogging for the Atlantic. I unloaded on him for that.

This complaint makes as much sense as blaming the media and mainstream Republicans for anonymous e-mails that claim Barack Obama is a Muslim.

2. “Voters have been told that she slashed funding in Alaska for special-needs children.”

Perhaps that’s because, this summer, she cut the budget for the Special Olympics by $275,000. [True, but see note below.]

3. “That she tried to ban books from Wasilla’s public library.”

Unproven, though Bill Adair, editor of the nonpartisan Web site PolitiFact, now says there may be more to this allegation than first appeared. The investigation continues.

4. “That she was a member of the secessionist Alaskan Independence Party.”

That was a case of media overreach based on some pretty tantalizing information. We know, for instance, that Palin’s husband, Todd Palin, was a member for seven years; that she denies the testimony of several eyewitnesses who say she attended a state convention in the mid-1990s; and that, as governor, she recorded a cheery video message to be played at the party state convention.

Lest we forget, the words of party founder Joe Vogler remain emblazoned on the party’s Web site: “I’m an Alaskan, not an American. I’ve got no use for America or her damned institutions.”

5. “That she links Saddam Hussein to the attacks of 9/11.”

She does, most recently last Thursday.

6. “That she backed Pat Buchanan for president.”

The source of this error was an MSNBC analyst named, uh, Pat Buchanan. In Buchanan’s defense, it’s possible that the “Buchanan for President” button Palin was wearing fooled him.

7. “That she doesn’t want students taught about contraception.”

During her 2006 campaign for governor, Palin answered a questionnaire that dealt with sex education and a number of other issues.

Here is one of the questions: “Will you support funding for abstinence-until-marriage education instead of for explicit sex-education programs, school-based clinics, and the distribution of contraceptives in schools?”

And here is Palin’s answer: “Yes, the explicit sex-ed programs will not find my support.”

Does not abstinence-only education by definition exclude teaching kids about contraception? That’s not a rhetorical question — I don’t know. But I think it does. (Or not. See “Update,” below.)

8. “That she called the war in Iraq ‘a task from God.'”

I think Jacoby is right in calling this a stretch, though reasonable people — including a Pentacostal scholar — believe otherwise. But she did ask people to pray that a natural-gas pipeline would be built in Alaska. Is it somehow better to refer to a pipeline as a gift from God than it is to call the war in Iraq a task from God?

9. “For months they [the media] refused to mention the infidelity of John Edwards, yet they leaped with relish onto Bristol Palin’s pregnancy.”

What the media refused to do was pass along — or at least investigate and verify — stories in the National Enquirer about Edwards’ infidelity. Now the media are ignoring stories in the Enquirer that Palin had an affair with an ex-business partner of her husband’s, and that her two oldest kids have a thing for OxyContin and weed. Sounds pretty even-handed to me.

10. “Yet the more she has been attacked, the more her support has solidified. In the latest Fox News poll, Palin’s favorable/unfavorable ratio is a strong 54-27.”

Polls prove nothing. But for what it’s worth, her favorability/unfavorability ratings are down 10 points in the past few days, according to Newsweek.

Jacoby also passes along some pretty nasty comments from the likes of Randi Rhodes and the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. I’m not sure what that proves. We’ve also heard Obama referred to as “uppity,” and recently a waffle mix featuring Obama as Uncle Jemimah was spotted at some sort of “values” conference.

The point is that Jacoby has gathered together essentially the entire indictment of the so-called liberal media with respect to Palin. And every bit of it is either wrong or distorted.

More: Sean Roche has similar thoughts at Blue Mass Group.

Update: Media Nation reader J.S. passes along this link, which shows that Palin does indeed believe contraception should be part of sex education. So yes, Jacoby is right about that. Not sure what Palin believed she was responding to when she also said she supported abstinence-only programs.

Thursday update: The NPR story on which I relied was imprecise. Palin did indeed slash the Special Olympics budget request by $275,000, but the program will still receive slightly more money than it did the year before. Thanks to Media Nation reader P.S.

McCain’s conservative record

Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby, as conservative as they come, states the obvious: “McCain was never an agenda-driven movement conservative, but he ‘entered public life as a foot soldier in the Reagan Revolution,’ as he puts it, and on the whole his record has been that of a robust and committed conservative.” It’s interesting that the talk-show wing of the Republican Party can’t seem to acknowledge that.

Last Republicans standing

It is with some amazement that I find myself thinking of Mitt Romney as one of the last two Republicans standing — and as the person who might at this point be the favorite to win the nomination. Yes, just last night I said that John McCain probably had a clearer path than anyone else. But I’ve been rethinking that.

First, let me deal with the also-rans, all of whom are pretty much done at this point.

  • Mike Huckabee. It ended last night for the good reverend. If he can’t ride the Confederate flag and his bizarre equation of homosexuality and bestiality to victory in South Carolina, he certainly can’t do it anywhere else.
  • Fred Thompson. Dead man walking or dead man withdrawing — it’s up to him.
  • Rudy Giuliani. Wasn’t he supposed to be running for president? Of the United States, not just Florida?
  • Ron Paul. He’ll keep getting whatever he’s getting.

So we’ve basically got a two-man race between McCain and Romney, which was pretty hard to imagine after Romney lost New Hampshire. I didn’t hear any squawking last October when Ryan Lizza wrote in the New Yorker that Romney’s only chance was to win Iowa and New Hampshire, then hope for momentum. He lost both, of course, and has won only one competitive state — Michigan. Yet he’s very much alive.

Consider that McCain has won two hard-fought primaries, New Hampshire and South Carolina, but has yet to win a plurality of Republicans anywhere. As Adam Nagourney observes in the New York Times today, many of the upcoming primaries are for Republicans only.

Consider, too, that conservatives have been split among Romney, Huckabee and Thompson. Not anymore.

Add to this Romney’s personal fortune and his willingness to say absolutely anything to get elected, and he may very well have the edge.

Finally, check out Jeff Jacoby’s column in today’s Globe. Jacoby, a conservative who’s been mocking Romney since 1994, is appalled at Romney’s attempt to don the cloak of Ronald Reagan.

Photo (cc) by Joe Crimmings. Some rights reserved.

Genocide? Yes.

Not to turn Media Nation into the Jeff Jacoby report, but his analysis of the controversy over the Armenian genocide and the Anti-Defamation League in today’s Globe is exceptionally well-researched and -reasoned. Read it.