Friday, December 16, 2005

Book review: Martin Seligman et al., The Optimistic Child

The argument of The Optimistic Child: A Proven Program to Safeguard Children Against Depression and Build Lifelong Resilience--one that is both more and less powerful than Selgiman claims, as I will explain--runs something like this:

  • When people encounter adversity, they are affected by it in varying ways according to the way they explain the adversity to themselves. Seligman (and his research team) call these narratives explanatory styles.
  • People with an optimistic explanatory style characterize adversity as changeable and specific, with behavioral solutions. An optimist explains doing poorly on a math test, for instance, as only one instance with specific causes (such as not studying effectively or enough). The optimist's response to the situation is to focus on behavioral changes (such as studying differently or more) that will produce better results. The pessimist, on the other hand, sees adversity as permanent and personal and responds passively. To a pessimist, the same poor math score will prompt a response such as "I can't do math"; the explanation attributes adversity to an aspect of the person's static character and leaves no room for productive responses.
  • As he explains the previous point, Seligman is careful to contrast his approach with the "self-esteem" movement, which he accuses of fostering falsely happy explanations that actually encourage children to develop pessimism as they perceive the insincerity of their parents and teachers.
  • Returning to the linear argument: depression is marked by a pessimistic explanatory style.
  • People can learn to recognize their own explanations, check their pessimistic self-commentary against reality, and develop a reality-based optimism.
  • When children practiced changing their explanatory styles in studies developed by Seligman and his team in Philadelphia-area schools, those children appeared to enjoy long-term increases in optimism and therefore decreased risk of depression.

This seems to me a compelling argument in many ways. Most importantly, the opening chapters of the book give parents concrete, readily applicable advice about how to speak to children who have just experienced disappointment or failure. My guess is that most parents and other people who work with young children will find those early chapters well worth the small amount of time they require to read.

Most of the latter part of the book describes the Philadelphia experiments in detail and offers many practical materials for helping children identify and modify their explanatory styles. Readers other than parents and child-care workers will probably find themselves skimming or skipping much of this material; the meat of the argument is clearly stated early on.

I said above that I find this argument both less and more powerful than it claims to be. It is less powerful because Seligman does not articulate the extent to which the book itself is a piece of optimistic explanation of an adverse phenomenon, adolescent depression, that lends itself only partly to that optimism. Seligman only occasionally acknowledges the biologial components of depression--precisely the permanent, personal factors that would emerge in a pessimistic explanatory style. The data presented in the book is impressive, but Seligman does very little to help parents and teachers cope with the significant incidences of pessimism and depression that persist even in the groups trained by Seligman's team itself. As this book points out (very late), there is some evidence that mild pessimists perceive situations more accurately than optimists, and the book does little to counter suspicions that much pessimism and depression lurks just to the side of its explanatory model. This is not to take anything away from the remarkable achivement of offering any demonstrably effective techniques for countering adolescent depression, only to say that by the authors' own account, that effectiveness is limited more than the book's tone sometimes implies.

Those concerns arise only in the specific context of depression prevention, however. Seligman's argument is more powerful than it claims to be in the generality of its application. This book, quite unintentionally, explains concretely how teachers, managers, and colleagues can be simultaneously demanding and encouraging. I have said of my own best teachers that they managed to convey great faith in their students even, or especially, when holding them strictly to high academic standards. (I have seen a highly respected professor's response to a student paper opening, "I know you can write better than this!" Note that this is an optimistic statement, harshly critical of the piece by way of praising the person.) The same is true of inspiring managers and colleagues, of course; few characteristics are as socially valuable as the ability to speak frankly about ways that work can improve in the context of sincere personal support.

I therefore come to this odd evaluation of The Optimistic Child: it is a good book about childhood depression, though not as good as it might be. It is a much better book, especially in its opening chapters, about how to talk to people, from students to friends. I recommend that section highly.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Book review: Freakonomics

In a recent post on EconLog, Bryan Caplan wrote, "while there are many reasons why economics is the most successful social science, willingness to say what people don't want to hear is near the top." Such a willingness is certainly the chief merit of Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, by Steven D. Levitt (the eponymous economist--ha!) and Stephen J. Dubner, an admiring journalist. Levitt's work addresses inflammatory issues such as abortion and urban gang culture; his conclusions are refreshing because he disdains ideological influence. His convincing argument that legal abortions have reduced crime rates, for example, will unsettle readers of all political affiliations; the hypothetical lives of aborted fetuses do not fit well into the pro-choice emphasis on pregrant women's control of their bodies, and legal abortion's power to reduce crime more than conventional measures (aside from increasing the number of police) radically upsets some conservative ideas of being "tough on crime." The abortion chapter of Freakonomics fairly begs to be misrepresented for ugly political purposes, as indeed it has been. The political risk of approaching these issues apolitically is cause for admiring the courage of the authors.

It is difficult, however, to avoid the sense that the most sympathetic reader will struggle to admire the authors as much as they appear to admire themselves. "An explanatory note" at the beginning of the book explains Dubner's view that "many economists" speak "English as if it were a fourth or fifth language" and Levitt's sense that the "thinking" of "many journalists" is not "very . . . robust, as an economist might say" (x, ellipsis in original). Happily for us, the note explains, we are reading the work of exceptions to these rules: "Levitt decided that Dubner wasn't a complete idiot. And Dubner found that Levitt wasn't a human slide rule" (x).

The authors' patting of their own backs will put off some readers, but it should not take away from the insights of the book. I mention it because this is not merely a matter of tone: in fact, authorial self-congratulation is the thesis of the book. One of the great marketing triumphs of Freakonomics is the ability of the authors to persuade many readers that the lack of an overarching argument is a feature, not a bug--the explanatory note ends with a philosopher asking about Levitt, "Why does he need to have a unifying theme? Maybe he's going to be one of these people who's so talented he doesn't need one" (2). Or as Malcolm Gladwell puts it on the back cover, "Steven Levitt has the most interesting mind in America." The same idea is reflected in the title: "freakonomics" is a nonsense word, a term used in the book and even more on the authors' blog to stand roughly for stuff that Levitt has argued or that Levitt and Dubner find interesting. Returning to the book's lack of a unifying theme in an epilogue, Levitt and Dubner do make a claim for a "common thread" of "thinking sensibly about how people behave in the real world," and they suggest that readers "might become more skeptical of conventional wisdom" for having read the book (205).

It is hard to argue with such broad claims, but it is worth pointing out that other books have similarly challenged conventional wisdom in ways that more actively assisted readers with their own investigations. Leaving aside the philosophical heavyweights in the skeptical line--Plato's Socrates and Hume, among many others--consider a few recent examples. When Bill James published his Baseball Abstract, he made claims like Levitt and Dubner's for the value of a general skepticism of conventional wisdom. Though James's works are not unified by theme, they do not take on all of everyday life, and focus on baseball allowed a new kind of analysis to flourish after James's example--and James's unconventional wisdom has taken hold, even as many later analysts have revised the specifics of James's claims. Or when Thomas Gilovich published How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life, he not only transformed his readers' understanding of many everyday phenomena, but he also explained the specific mechanisms that caused conventional wisdom to go astray. And Gladwell himself, in The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, offered not only a theory of counterintuitive "social epidemics" but also a mechanism of transmission through people called connectors, mavens, and salesmen that offered a widely applicable framework through which to understand other issues.

There is no equivalent framework in Freakonomics. The authors call this a lack of a unifying theme, but lack of thematic unity is a literary defect. The limitations of Freakonomics lie rather in the absence of larger scientific ideas: Levitt's argument about the relationship between legal abortion and crime rates is an argument only about that issue. The arguments of Freakonomics apply so narrowly that, while I do recommend reading the book for its key points--especially chapters three through five, on the economics of drug dealing, abortion and crime rates, and advice given to new parents, respectively--I cannot recommend reading it before the best works of the other authors I have mentioned, from Plato to Gladwell.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

On Grade Inflation

Two unrelated events have called my attention to grade inflation recently. One was a post on Grinnell Plans from a current student who had seen a chart demonstrating the upward drift of Grinnell's grades over the last decade. Essentially, the overall mean GPA has risen from roughly a B grade to roughly a B+ grade--a large change for such a short time, and as I understand it, a fairly typical change over the same stretch in many colleges and universities. The second was a detailed post by Steven Willett on NASSR-L, an email list populated by a couple of thousand people interested in Romanticism, mostly graduate students and professors in the field. Willett is a contrarian and a traditionalist who frequently attacks the state of his profession on the list; in this post, he resisted arguments minimizing the existence and consequences of grade inflation by citing a range of studies on the issue. One of those studies caught my attention because it resisted the moralizing I find tiresome on both sides of inflation debates and offered some insight into the mechanisms of grade inflation. This is Willett's quotation of the summary of that study, by Donald G. Freeman, published in 1999 in the Journal of Economic Education:

"My hypothesis is that, given equal money prices per credit hour
across disciplines, departments manage their enrollments by 'pricing'
their courses with grading standards commensurate with the market
benefits of their courses, as measured by expected incomes.

"I analyzed grade divergence using a cross-section of 59 fields of
study from a recently published survey of college graduates by the
National Center for Education Statistics, A Descriptive Summary of
1992–93 Bachelor’s Degree Recipients: 1 year later (NCES 1996). The
survey tracks 1992–93 college graduates to determine outcomes from
postsecondary education, including returns to investment in
education. Using this sample, I found evidence consistent with the
economic explanation of grade divergence: Graduates from high-grading
fields of study have lower earnings than graduates from low-grading
fields of study. This is true even when controlling for factors such
as student ability and experience" (344-45).

Fascinating! Other bits from Willett's post (drawing on other sources) flesh out some of the details underlying this hypothesis: music and education departments tend to give particularly high grades, for instance, and the latest wave of grade inflation has affected the humanities more than the hard sciences, but English and biology in particular more than mathematics. It seems to me that the place of education among particularly high-grading disciplines deserves a good deal of consideration--and has perhaps received such consideration that I simply haven't read. I'll extend that disclaimer to what follows; my speculations may be supported or contradicted by research I don't know. This isn't one of the books I'm writing.

So here's a starting point. Grade inflation is real, across the board in higher education. Giving higher grades produces higher evaluations for teachers, when other factors are controlled (other studies show). Grade inflation varies by discipline. Grade inflation comes in spurts, one of which occurred roughly around 1970 and one in the last ten years.

I find Freeman's hypothesis--that departments whose majors generally earn little money compensate by awarding high grades--fascinating and largely supported by my intuitions. However, I am prompted to look for further explanations for three reasons. First, a bad reason: Freeman's hypothesis does not match how I've seen professors talk about their grading. I call this a bad reason because of the obvious potential for self-deception or deceptive self-marketing here. The second is that there are some exceptions to the rule that I know off the top of my head: when I was at Penn, the ultra-prestigious Wharton School (business) had a reputation for giving high undergraduate grades, and indeed, a web search confirms that its introductory course has a mandated median grade of B+ in each section, which is especially high for an introductory course, where grades are generally lower than in advanced courses. Similar cases abound in related areas, such as the most prestigious law schools, where students with the highes expected earnings get very high grades. The third reason is that the logic of expected earnings does not apply to institutions; the most prestitgious colleges and universities, whose graduates have the highest expected salaries, have experienced grade inflation along with everyone else. For all these reasons, I suspect Freeman is largely correct but that other factors are also in play.

(Side note: I feel no professional self-interest in this issue. My grades are a little lower than average for Grinnell, as I suspect my department's are, and student comments about my grading reflect that. I am neither an apologist for today's grading levels nor an indulger of nostalgia for yesterday's lower ones. I do want to understand how and why my profession employs grades.)

I offer three hypotheses about those other factors:

1. The growing emphasis on revision allows students in some courses to receive higher grades given the same talent, application, and academic standards. I claim no original insight here, but I mention this factor because so many discussions of grade inflation assume that higher grades must imply better student work or lower academic standards. Allowing students to earn higher grades through revision, however, allows teachers to award higher grades while still feeling that students have received honest feedback on their work. Since many pedagogical studies support the learning outcomes of revision-based writing, this can produce a kind of guiltless grade inflation. I'll come back to this point.

2. Elite colleges and universities can use grade inflation to shift employers and graduate schools from statistical evaluations of transcripts to a self-serving prestige market. If every college and university enforced a strict 2.0 median grade, evaluators would compare transcripts by using implicit prestige adjustments--perhaps a 2.5 GPA from a highly selective institution would be roughly equivalent to a 3.1 at a less selective institution. I've seen the application of this kind of unofficial adjustment many times. If practically everyone graduates from Harvard with honors, however (as is the case), then Harvard has created a situation where most of its students cannot be outperformed in transcript reviews. Shifting all grades close to 4.0 forces evaluators to discount grades themselves, thus increasing the importance of the instutional reputation. Harvard has a great deal to gain from grade inflation, and less selective institutions can only play along--if UMass intentionally lowers grades as Harvard inflates them, UMass only hurts its graduates even more relative to Harvard's. Colleges and universities that have the highest stake in maintaining the importance of institutional prestige also have a strong incentive to keep overall grades high. And the least selective institutions are facing pressure to keep marginal students enrolled (to maintain government support based on enrollment levels).

3. The recent inflation of grades coincides with a significant weakening of tenure. Most college courses are now taught by people who are not tenured or tenure-track. Teachers who are untenured but on the tenure track (including me, for whatever that's worth) may feel some pressure to use high grades to raise the level of student evaluations, but that pressure is limited by the relatively large sample of evaluations and many other factors that go into tenure reviews. I would find a reputation for low standards much more dangerous to my tenure prospects than slightly lower average teaching evaluations. I know circumstances vary, but I think the key here is graduate and adjunct teachers whose piecework employment depends heavily on the student evaluations of any given semester. Such teachers often see their professional lives in the hands of administrators unconstrained by full review processes, administrators who need to care a great deal about student and parent satisfaction and not as much about teachers' other contributions to their institutions and professions. If grade levels are a small but significant factor in student evaluations of teaching, piecework teachers are extremely vulnerable to giving higher grades out or real or perceived self-preservation.

Taking all these factors into consideration, I offer my own hypothesis about the grade inflation of the last decade. We are seeing the confluence of multiple, independent incentives that all point in the direction of higher grades: a dramatic increase in reliance on teachers with tenuous employment, defensible mechanisms of raising grades without changing underlying standards, and institutional incentives for every kind of institution to keep overall grades high.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Writing on Research Leave

For scholars who want or need to publish their research findings, no question produces more opinions, self-doubts, and superstitions than this: given the demands of full-time teaching and personal or family life, how do you get the writing done? I imagine the same kind of question applies to anyone who tries to get long-term projects done when those projects compete for time with smaller, deadline-driven tasks.

Most commentary on this question runs along the lines of Tara Gray’s findings in Publish & Flourish: write daily for 15 to 30 minutes and share your progress with someone, says Gray. Her research (and other similar research) backs up the idea that writing a little at a time consistently will produce more than writing in isolated big blocks of time. In a non-academic context, Jeff Covey’s idea of the Progressive Dash relies on many of the same principles. Start the day with a minute or two of attention to all your priorities, says Covey, and then allocate more and more time to them as the day goes along. Both Gray and Covey depend on the notion that simply keeping some kind of momentum is more than half the battle of completing projects. My experience certainly confirms those conclusions, though I have not always been able to live out my convictions and write during heavy teaching semesters.

Right now, however, I want to answer a different question that grows out of the luxury of having a year to write without teaching: given the demonstrated effectiveness of doing a little research work every day, how can we apply the same ideas to making the most of a dedicated stretch of research time?

Early in my year of leave, I’m trying to learn from my experiences as they come to maximize my writing during the rest of my leave. The past two weeks really set me thinking. In the first, I got some work done, but my baby got sick in the middle of the week, and a few other complications (logistical and psychological) clearly set me back, and I didn’t do as much as I wanted to. In the second, I had perhaps the most productive week I’ve ever had in the U.S., working through and taking the notes I needed on about 5,000 pages of commentary. (As any researcher will understand, that doesn’t mean I read 5,000 pages carefully. I went through a stack of material, found what I needed, and paid close attention to those sections.) The work happened as I was taking care of my baby son—while he was sleeping, sometimes while he was playing happily in front of me, and while he was at day care for three or four hours a day.

I’ve worked that well in London before, spending long days at the British Library. Other researchers tell me of similar experiences, where going to a new place for a research trip allows them to overcome their usual limits. So why did the home routine suddenly become as effective as a remote archive for me last week?

My guess, oddly, is that the baby—crucially, during a relatively happy and healthful week—substituted for the plane trip to London. Archival trips work so well, I propose, because they give a scholar a sense of time being both abundant and scarce: abundant in that days are set aside entirely for research, scarce in that the scholar knows that the demands of daily life will wake from their sleep in a few days or weeks. The same combination of abundance and scarcity could explain the effectiveness of the day-by-day approaches I cited above: writing 15-30 minutes a day takes the pressure off any given writing session, since writing days become abundant when one writes every day, but the brevity of each session enforces scarcity—at the end of such a short session, a writer almost always wants to say more.

A research leave provides a sense of abundant, unbroken time for writing. That’s a luxury but a frequently overwhelming one because of the tendency to write to exhaustion. It’s easy to write until you’re sick of writing—and therefore to feel sick of writing most of the time you’re not doing it. The baby takes care of that problem by providing major and largely unpredictable interruptions to my day. When I stop writing, I stop because I have to, and I generally want to do more. I keep thinking about the work, sometimes scribbling an idea with one hand while holding the baby in the other. Even though I can end up spending 6-10 hours on my work, the baby ensures that time feels scarce anyway.

I don’t recommend baby care as a productivity enhancer, but I do think some of what happened in that exceptionally smooth week might carry over into a more general approach. Keeping a sense of other priorities, writing in short sessions, having expected but somewhat unpredictable interruptions, and generally avoiding the feeling of quitting from exhaustion might contribute to maintaining the productivity of short writing blocks in the more open-ended context of research leave. I’ll be thinking about this more as the year progresses.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Baseball MVP talk: quality, value, and chance

For a starting point, I'll take this column by Sean McAdam supporting David Ortiz over Alex Rodriguez for MVP in the American League.

Now, this is an unusually stupid column. A writer who says that "it's impossible to imagine that anyone could be more valuable to his team than David Ortiz is to the Boston Red Sox" is simply not taking language seriously. Sadly, however, the column does seem to reflect the level of thinking among most writers who explain their votes--and the writers elect the MVP.

First, I'm going to articulate what I think would be the traditional "stathead" position on McAdam's column, a position I support almost entirely, and then I'll explain a complication I've come to consider in the statheaded approach.

The most fundamental problem with McAdam's argument is that he's using statistics as an advocate rather than as an analyst. He cites a hodgepodge of stats, ranging from those that do a good job of measuring individual hitting production (slugging percentage) to traditional triple-crown stats that have long been shown to be lacking because they depend on teammates' performance (RBI) and exclude important information such as a hitter's walks and doubles. McAdam's standard is simply to cite the evidence that makes Ortiz look good. One name for that approach is intellectual dishonesty. Another is sports opinion journalism.

The problem is not that some sports opinion writers say thoughtless things or twist evidence to make their cases. They are paid to generate readership (or viewership), and partisan columns can serve that purpose well. But the need for a writer to present an original angle in a debate is directly at odds with the writer's function as a voter in the awards race. To analytical purists, the awards would ideally reflect the application of the best analytical practices we know of; thoughtful people can disagree about the details of the standards, but they must agree that an even-handed account of available evidence is the only reasonable starting point. But sports opinion writers can't do that, for reasons I'll return to.

Baseball offers analysts more objective evidence about individual performance than other sports do. In football, the performance of running backs depends on that of everyone else on the team--the rest of the offense has to create running opportunities, the coaches need to call running plays, and the defense needs to maintain control of the game to avoid a desperate pass-based comeback attempt. Baseball's pitchers and hitters, however, are almost entirely on their own, and the team-based elements of their performance are fairly easy to recognize and disregard in the data generated by baseball's uniquely long seasons. Therefore, statheads say that we can and should factor out statistics that depend on team performance (pitchers' W-L records, hitters' RBIs and runs scored) and test measures of individual performance based on their demonstrable effectiveness. For hitters, the quick statheaded way to account for nearly all of offensive production is to add on-base percentage plus slugging percentage to create a stat called OPS, for "on-base plus slugging." As it happens, this year's MVP race is a no-brainer by that standard: Rodriguez led Ortiz easily in on-base percentage (so McAdam didn't mention that stat), and he also overtook Ortiz in slugging at the very end of the season, finally leading Ortiz in OPS, 1.036 to .999. If Ortiz were a valuable defensive player, his contributions could still justify an MVP award, but, of course, defense is also in Rodriguez's favor, as he played a solid third base every day while Ortiz did not take the field. Because defense hurts his argument, McAdam writes, "Defense has never been much of a factor in MVP voting. If it were, Ozzie Smith, Mark Belanger and Bill Mazeroski would have been serious contenders. They weren't." But this is patent silliness: it's simple and accurate to say that hitting is more important than fielding, but fielding still counts for something--especially when one player plays a skill position, allowing his team to pack more offense into its lineup, and the other clogs the DH hole, robbing his team of offensive flexibility. For all these reasons, Rodriguez clearly had the better individual season, and the fact that I like the Red Sox and Ortiz better than the Yankees and Rodriguez won't change that. A good stathead applies the same standards every year and knows why those standards are better than others. By those standards, the MVP is A-Rod's, hands down. And the infuriating problem with the situation is that his case will be damaged because it's too easy to make: Rodriguez was widely considered the best player in the AL before the season started, and he played better than anybody else. Nobody's going to attract readers with that storyline. And that's why I believe that sports journalists should be stripped of their voting power; the conflict of interest is too great to overcome when voters explain their logic in print for money.

Now here's a twist, where I'm going to diverge a little from statheaded methods. I've addressed the distinction between individual and team-dependent stats, but there's a third category: situational stats, which, for hitters, generally measure performance in "clutch" situations, variously defined: in the pennant race, at the ends of close games, with runners on, and so forth. Some such stats are easily dismissed: in a one-run game, a home run in the first inning is not less valuable than a home run in the ninth, even if the latter is more memorable. The more interesting question is how we should evaluate a single that drives in two runs versus a single with two outs and nobody on.

The statheaded approach, grounded in a lot of careful analysis, has been to contend that the two singles should count the same. At the major league level, hitters do not seem to have special "clutch" abilities; good and bad clutch performance in a given season seems to result mostly or entirely from chance variations rather than special psychological characteristics. If two hitters have similar seasons and one happens to drive in more runs (because of timely hitting rather than more opportunities), statheads say that the difference essentially doesn't count because the hitter could not control it. You shouldn't get credit for luck.

And that was my position, without reservations, for a long time. But about four years ago, in research summarized here, Voros McCracken introduced what he calls DIPS, based on a compelling thesis that pitchers can control a few factors consistently (strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed), but the number of fair balls that drop for hits against them is largely random. The details are beside the point here; the short version is that McCracken introduced the idea that we can separate a pitcher's performance from his results: if two pitchers each allow four runs per nine innings (and all else is equal), McCracken's method might tell us that one of them was lucky and one unlucky--they had the same results, but one pitched better.

This insight is extremely valuable to people investing in baseball players for the future--you want the guy who really pitched better on your team next year, not the guy who got lucky. The consequences of this approach raise a troubling issue for individual awards based on the past, however: these two pitchers were, demonstrably, equally valuable to their teams, but we can reasonably say that one of them pitched better. And the logic underlying everything I said above is that being better and being more valuable are the same. By traditional stathead logic, in which we credit players only for achievements stripeed of demonstrably random effects, we could give Cy Young awards based on normalized hypothetical results for pitchers rather than what opposing hitters actually did against them.

I'm not ready to do that, so to be consistent, I must entertain this question: if David Ortiz was blessed by fate in ways that enabled his performance to benefit his team because of chance, should he get a little credit for that? By McCracken's logic, I'm giving that kind of credit every time I compare pitchers by ERA.

Honestly, I still don't want to give Ortiz bonus points for pleasing Fate, and I certainly don't think such credit should overcome a clear-cut MVP choice like that of Rodriguez over Ortiz. But I do think our new insights into evaluating performances separately from the results they produce raise serious theoretical questions about statistical analysis of sports performance.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Facing Down Katrina, Bush Declares War on Wet

Facing Down Katrina, Bush Declares War on Wet

September 1, 2005

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Faced with increasingly dire conditions in the area devastated by Hurricane Katrina and mounting pressure to act decisively, President Bush Wednesday offered a sweeping initiative: a new American War on Wet.

"We have been hit again," said the President, on a podium flanked by Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condaleeza Rice, and A.G. Lafley, CEO of Proctor & Gamble, which manufactures Bounty brand paper towels. "Now it is time to respond. Not just in New Orleans and its environs, but everywhere this threat can bring us harm. Today begins America's War on Wet!"

The President did not comment on the large-scale strategic details of WOW!, the acronym given in official White House press releases. He did, however, give on example of a way citizens can begin to participate symbolically. "Starting tomorrow, I hope every household in America will display their solidarity with this initiative by placing a single bowl of water in a visible place. If we all do that, then wherever you go in this great country, you will see the resolve of water cracking as it dries up, hour by hour, day by day. We will stand for no result but victory."

Pressed on the unconventionality of declaring war on an adjective, senior White House staff defended the decision. "Before President Bush took office, some thought America could only declare war on nations, or at least groups of people," said one such source, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the security issues involved. "We have by turns demonstrated that we can wage war against a tactic--terrorism--or even the feeling of terror itself. Far from overreaching, fighting an adjective is an obvious next step."

Multiple sources close to leading Democrats said that the party's leaders privately express reservations about WOW!, citing the difficulty of maintaining human life without regular water intake, but no Democrat has yet been willing to oppose the President publicly, and many have spoken out to support him. "This is not a time for politics," said 2008 Presidential hopeful and Delaware Senator Joseph Biden, holding a large bowl of water. "We may have questions about the specific strategies of the President's plan as details emerge, but for now, we stand with the Commander-in-Chief and share his resolve."

Right-wing media personalities and religious leaders immediately sought to isolate Democrats from WOW!. Syndicated talk-show host Rush Limbaugh commented, "Everyone knows that with a Democrat in the White House, we might have maintained funding for FEMA's disaster response capabilities, the levees around New Orleans, and the readiness of the National Guard. But only President Bush could have come up with WOW!, and you can see the Democrats seething about that." Later in the day, Reverend Jerry Falwell, head of Falwell Ministries, added a demographic point. "Look at any electoral map," he said. "Where do liberals live? On the coasts. In river cities. In short, wet places. What do you find in the nation's deserts? Bibles and dry, dry sand. The Democrats talk a good game now, but it's just a matter of time before their real loyalties become clear." None of the 32 million registered Democrats who live near oceans, lakes, and rivers was available to comment on Falwell's allegations.

The President and his top staff will depart Friday for a series of speaking engagements, informally dubbed the "Like WOW!" tour, designed to foster public support for the newly formed initiative.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

What is Underlying Logic?

At Underlying Logic, I will post commentary on culture, politics, sports, books, or anything else that catches my attention in the right way. The content of the blog is not defined by subject area. Rather, I aim to resist the rapid-fire reactive tendency of many blogs (including others of my own) by posting only when I have at least a paragraph or two to write about the larger issues raised by an event or text. For example, I'll write about the choices of the American League's Most Valuable Player for 2005, but the point of the post will not be to make a case for one candidate over the other. Instead, it will examine the ways in which other writers and analyst make their cases--not the debate of the moment but its underlying logic.