Author Archive

Earlier this week on the Fat Head blog, I wrote about the attack on Lierre Keith by some vegan nut-jobs who consider her a traitor and a threat.  For those of you who don’t already know, Keith was a dedicated vegan for 20 years but had to rethink her beliefs when her health declined and she realized, after some comical attempts, that she couldn’t grow her own food without killing living creatures.  No longer able to hide behind a simplistic, child-like love for nature, she set out instead to understand it.  The result was The Vegetarian Myth, in which she argues (brilliantly) that agriculture and a plant-based diet will not make us healthy or save the planet.

Nonetheless, her core values remain the same:  she loves animals, she abhors the cruelty of factory farming, and she wants us to feed ourselves in a manner that supports the environment instead of depleting it year after year.  As she writes in her book:  “What separates me from vegetarians isn’t ethics or commitment.  It’s information.”

Ah, but there’s the rub:  it’s the information that has made her a target, not the change in her beliefs. 

When I heard about the attack, my first reaction was to chalk it up to the “vegan rage” Keith writes about in her book.  But after thinking it over, I decided I was confusing a correlation with a cause.  Yes, they’re enraged and they’re vegans, but I don’t think they’re enraged because they’re vegans.  I think it’s more likely they became militant vegans in the first place because they fit the personality type described so eloquently by Eric Hoffer in his book The True Believer.  It was published in 1951, but still rings true today.

First, a little background on the author:  Hoffer was born sometime around 1900 in New York City to Jewish immigrant parents.  His father was cabinet-maker.  When Hoffer was five, his mother fell down a flight of stairs while carrying him.  She never fully recovered and died two years later.  Soon afterwards, Hoffer went blind, perhaps from the emotional trauma.  Amazingly, his sight returned when he was 15.  Afraid he may go blind again someday, Hoffer educated himself by reading as many books as he could. 

After his father died around 1920, Hoffer left for California and worked a series of odd jobs, including a stint as a migrant farm worker, before becoming a longshoreman in San Francisco.  When his books became popular, he was dubbed “The Longshoreman Philosopher.”

Deeply troubled by the horrors of Nazism, Fascism, Stalinism, the Holocaust and World War II, Hoffer thought long and hard about the roots of fanatical movements, then began writing down his insights.  The result was a slim (176 pages) but brilliant book, The True Believer.  If you haven’t read it, I hope you will someday.  But in the meantime, here’s a very short summary:

Fanatical movements attract a particular personality type.  They are typically dissatisfied with their own lives and have low self-esteem.  (Can you say “prone to rage”?)  Fanaticism appeals to them because it provides a sense of identity, the ego-boost of idealism, and the psychological comfort of certainty — thus relieving them of the need to resolve life’s doubts, contradictions, and moral ambiguities for themselves. 

The appeal of a fanatical movement for this personality type lies only partly in the movement’s stated beliefs; the deeper appeal is in the fanaticism itself.  That’s why, as Hoffer noted, fanatical groups often find it easiest to recruit new members from other fanatical groups, even if their beliefs are at odds:  Fanatical communists have become fanatical Christians, fanatical Christians have become fanatical Nazis, fanatical Nazis have become fanatical communists, etc.  (Plenty of fanatical communists became fanatical environmentalists when communism didn’t work out so well.)

Hoffer labeled these people the True Believers.  The need to believe in something — completely, and without question — defines their lives, because fanaticism makes them feel special and important. 

Not surprisingly, then, the biggest threat to their identities is doubt.  All contrary evidence must be stifled or rationalized out of existence.  All logical inconsistencies in their beliefs must be ignored.  Anyone who doesn’t share their beliefs is an enemy, and anyone who raises questions about their beliefs must be silenced. (But enough about Al Gore.)

Now, doesn’t that description sound just a wee bit like a militant vegan?  Ego boost?  Heck yes …  I’m now a morally superior human being because I don’t eat animal products. 

Sense of identity?  Gee, do you think?  I once asked a waitress in a restaurant if the pork chops were any good.  Turning up her nose just a bit, she replied, “I wouldn’t know.  I’m a vegan.”  I’m mildly hard of hearing, so at first I thought she said, “I wouldn’t know.  I’m a virgin.”  After some momentary confusion, mentally rifling through my old catechism lessons looking for a prohibition against virgins eating pork, I figured it out.  Either way, it was more than I cared to know about her.  “I’ve never tried them” would’ve sufficed.

The comfort of certainty, relieved of the need to resolve life’s moral ambiguities?  Most definitely.  It’s easy to just declare that a fly and a pig and human being are all equal.  (I’ll buy that idea when a pig writes a symphony or a good joke.)  It’s a bit tougher to finally admit, as Lierre Keith did, that eating meat enhances your health, then have to deal with the morality of killing to be healthy.  The Dalai Lama eats meat now, so I guess he’s got it figured out.

Years ago, I heard Dennis Prager debating some animal-rights nut.  Prager asked a hypothetical question:  if a boy and a dog are both drowning, who do you save first?  The nut wouldn’t answer.  He weasled out by saying that since he’s a vegan, he’s strong enough to save both of them.  (Then a fly landed on his shoulder, and he fell out of his chair.)

Before anyone gets his or her macramé underwear in a wad, I’m not suggesting all or even a majority of vegans are True Believers.  But the ones who throw blood on women wearing furs or smash a pepper-laced pie into an author’s face definitely fit the profile.  Here are some quotes from Hoffer himself, with my comments on how they apply to the True Believer nut-jobs who attacked Lierre Keith.

A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people’s business.

Bingo.  Mentally-healthy vegans don’t scream “murderer!” at meat-eaters.  They don’t toss pepper-laced pies at meat-eaters.  They just don’t eat meat.  (Heck, I even knew a vegan who was married to a meat-eater.)  But the True Believer vegans — including the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Physicians Committee For Responsible Medicine — can’t resist minding other people’s business.  And when their meddling turns out to be a disaster, as when CSPI harassed restaurants into switching to hydrogenated vegetable oils for frying, it doesn’t faze them a bit.  They don’t even admit they were wrong; they just keep meddling.

Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all unifying agents.

Three men in masks attack a 45-year-old woman from behind.  People in the room cheer.  Other people praise the attack online.  A website posts a video of the attack with the Benny Hill music playing for comic effect.  Is that enough unifying hatred for you? 

In order to be effective a doctrine must not be understood, but has to be believed in. We can be absolutely certain only about things we do not understand.

Keith did a bang-up job of pointing this out in her book.  She recounted a suggestion by some scientifically illiterate vegan that animals in nature should be separated by a big fence — the carnivores on one side, the herbivores on the other.  That way, ya see, there wouldn’t be any killing.  Keith then explained, using actual scientific facts, what the result would be:  all the animals would eventually starve to death.  But this unbelievably stupid suggestion drew nothing but applause from other True-Believer vegans.  They were just certain it would work … even the carnivores don’t really have to eat meat, ya see, because dogs and cats sometimes eat grass!  In other words, these goofs could only believe what they believed because they had zero understanding of nature.

The uncompromising attitude is more indicative of an inner uncertainty than a deep conviction.  The implacable stand is directed more against the doubt within than the assailant without.

That’s why anyone who can plant a seed of doubt is such a threat.  Lierre Keith isn’t just any ol’ author promoting an omnivorous diet; she’s a former dedicated vegan.  She knows all the vegan arguments inside and out, and she now disputes them with facts.  She can shake up the beliefs of people whose very identities depend on those beliefs.

Passionate hatred can give meaning and purpose to an empty life. Thus people haunted by the purposelessness of their lives try to find a new content not only by dedicating themselves to a holy cause but also by nursing a fanatical grievance.

Yup … I’m pretty sure if you’re satisfied with your own life, you don’t feel the need to toss blood or pepper-laced pies at people who don’t share your beliefs about animal rights — especially considering that 99.9% of all people who’ve ever lived also didn’t share those beliefs.

All active mass movements strive, therefore, to interpose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world. They do this by claiming that the ultimate and absolute truth is already embodied in their doctrine and that there is no truth or certitude outside it. The facts on which the true believer bases his conclusions must not be derived from his experience or observation, but from holy writ.

It was experience and observation that caused Lierre Keith to change her mind.  Her health failed.  Her spine degenerated.  She was depressed and fatigued.  A Chinese-medicine doctor she trusted told her what she already knew:  her vegan diet was killing her.  Now she’s sharing those experiences with other vegans, and that’s why the True Believers want to shut her up — her personal story is compelling and some vegans might just believe her.

Free men are aware of the imperfection inherent in human affairs, and they are willing to fight and die for that which is not perfect. They know that basic human problems can have no final solutions, that our freedom, justice, equality, etc. are far from absolute, and that the good life is compounded of half measures, compromises, lesser evils, and gropings toward the perfect.  The rejection of approximations and the insistence on absolutes are the manifestation of a nihilism that loathes freedom, tolerance, and equity.

Militant vegans dream of a world where everyone is a vegetarian, nobody (and no animal) has to kill to eat, and the planet is saved in the process.  If only life could be that pretty.  Now Keith is telling them that farming kills countless animals, and mono-crop agriculture — all those lovely fields of wheat, corn and soybeans — is destroying the environment.  In other words, you can kill some animals on purpose to eat them, or you can kill even more by farming … but you cannot live in your absolute, perfect world because it’s not possible.  She has accepted the compromise — what she refers to as becoming an adult.  The True Believers are children, and they can’t stand hearing what mommy has to say.

It is the true believer’s ability to shut his eyes and stop his ears to facts which in his own mind deserve never to be seen nor heard which is the source of his unequalled fortitude and constancy. He cannot be frightened by danger, nor disheartened by obstacles, nor baffled by contradictions, because he denies their existence.

Vegans insist they don’t kill to eat.  When someone like Lierre Keith points out that farming kills countless creatures per acre (and remember: a pig, a fly and a human are all equal!), plus countless more who die because the mono-crop farms destroy their environments, the vegans still insist they don’t kill to eat.  Well, not really, you see, because … uh … because … well … it’s not really killing because we didn’t do it on purpose!  By that logic, we need to pardon everyone who caused a fatal accident by driving drunk — they didn’t mean for anyone to die, after all.

The excuse makes no sense.  It’s a contradiction.  But the True Believers aren’t baffled by contradictions.  They’ll simply shut their eyes and close their ears.  And if that doesn’t work, they’ll shove a pepper-laced pie into someone’s face.

When I wrote about the attack on the Fat Head blog, one of my readers left this comment:

I am not at all surprised that this happened in the Bay area, although it could have easily happened on a college campus. This is what happens, though, when the extreme leftists among us (let’s call them what they are) get agitated.  Look at the treatment of conservatives on college campuses: That Ann Coulter (love her or hate her) travels with body guards and has nearly been pied is just one more example. There is an element of our society that is all in favor of free speech until they don’t agree with it; then they try to shut it down.

In the modern era, most True Believers have in fact ended up on the radical left.  Why exactly that’s the case will be the topic of next week’s post.

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Here’s my cell phone number:  615-497-5933.

No, don’t bother dialing. I cancelled my Sprint service last week and don’t plan to renew.  I could transfer the number to another service, but my wife and I have decided to see how long we can go without owning cell phones at all.  It’s sort of an experiment, our little version of “Man vs. Wild.” Can two middle-class softies survive in the rough and tumble environment of the 1990s?  Stay tuned!

We didn’t set out to conduct an experiment; we set out to cut expenses.  I signed up for a high-minutes plan a couple of years ago, when I was renting a small office with no land-line service.  I actually used my minutes back then.  But I work at home now, and my cell phone sits on my desk for days, gathering dust.

My wife’s cell phone can usually be found in the kitchen, sharing a plastic bowl with some broken pencils, keys that don’t actually open anything, and kids’ scissors that don’t actually cut anything.  I’ve tried calling her cell phone maybe a dozen times in the past six months, usually to inquire where she is, and all I’ve ever learned is that she’s not in the kitchen.

So when I paid my Sprint bill last week, I finally wondered why I’m spending upwards of $120 per month for phones we almost never use.  My wife looked into low-minutes plans and pay-as-you-go plans, but with pretty much all of them, we’d probably end up buying minutes that will go unused and eventually expire. I’ve already paid Sprint for thousands of minutes I never used, and I’d prefer to stop spending money for the privilege of receiving a monthly bill asking for more money.

As I prepared to float the idea of just going without, I was somewhat hesitant — as if I were about to suggest we strip naked and take a walk around the block.  But then to my surprise, my wife floated the idea first.  (Going without cell phones, not the naked thing.)

It occurred to me that I’m married to perhaps the last adult woman left in America who isn’t convinced the only thing standing between her and a tragic death on some unnamed road is a cell phone.  When cell phones first became affordable, that was the excuse offered by every female in my extended family for buying one:  “I won’t really use it very much, but if something happens when I’m on the road …”

As someone born in 1958, I never understood the sudden fear of traveling phoneless.  Nobody I knew even owned a cell phone until around 1995, and even before then, road fatalities that could’ve been prevented by a timely call were extremely rare.  But once cell phones hit the market, everyone suddenly experienced a shared childhood memory of hushed conversations between their parents:

“Hey, what’s going on over at the Smith house?”
“Shhh!  Didn’t you hear?  They stalled on Interstate 40 and were eaten by wolverines while waiting to be rescued.”
“Geez … if only there was some way they could’ve called somebody.”

I didn’t buy a cell phone until my second year in Los Angeles.  They were still a bit of a novelty then and not exactly cheap, so the advertisers were in “create the need” mode.  I recall a radio commercial in which a harried businessman is stuck in traffic but saves the day by taking an important client’s call — get this — in his car!

I wasn’t a harried businessman and didn’t want a phone attached to my belt, but soon after I signed with an agent, he sold me on the idea.  His exact pitch was: “Where the @#$% have you been!  I had a @#$%ing audition lined up for you!  I will not represent you if I can’t @#$%ing reach you when I @#$%ing need to reach you!

So I bought a cell phone, and I’ve had mixed feelings about them ever since.  Sure, they’re convenient, but I dislike them for a number of reasons.  Here’s one of the biggest:  people can reach you when you’re not home.  Before cell phones, I’d sometimes leave my apartment specifically to avoid talking to anyone.  Friends, employers, creditors, and family member could always catch up with me later:

“Where were you?!”
“I was out.”
“Uh … oh.”

Nice and simple.  Nobody’s feelings got hurt.  It’s not quite the same days:

“Where were you?!”
“I was out.”
“Well, why didn’t you take your cell phone?!”
“Because I was afraid you might call.”
“Uh … oh.”

I don’t like it when people expect me to be reachable anytime, anywhere.  Even when I consciously intend to be reachable, my subconscious desires take over.  I’ll leave the house and forget my cell phone.  I’ll shut off the phone at a movie theater, then forget to switch it on for a week.  I’ve never owned a Blackberry, and if I have my way, I never will.

Another reason I don’t like cell phones:  people can reach you when you’re home.  When I was growing up, most families had one phone — usually bolted to a wall in the kitchen.  If you were sleeping upstairs, you stood a fighting chance of missing a call.  But with a cell phone, you can accidentally leave it within earshot — your wife’s, if not yours.  A few months ago, my wife shook me awake at some ungodly hour:

“Honey … HONEY!”
“Wha … what?”
“Your cell phone is ringing downstairs!  Can’t you hear that?”
“No.  That’s why I left it downstairs.”
“Are you going to answer it?”
“Why not?”
“Because I don’t want to talk to anybody right now.”
“Well, what if it’s an emergency?”
“Sweetheart, I’m not a surgeon, and I’m not carrying the nuclear launch codes.  In all of human history, there’s never been a single emergency where somebody yelled, ‘Oh my god!  Somebody get a comedian on the phone, now!’

But the biggest reason I dislike cell phones, by far, is this:  other people own them too.  According to my analysis, at least 60 percent of all modern phone conversations are boring, pointless, moronic or embarrassing  — although the talker who should be embarrassed rarely is.  Yes, there were boring, pointless, moronic, embarrassing phone conversations before cell phones, but

  1. There weren’t as many, because calling outside your own city was expensive.
  2. You could only engage in a boring, pointless, moronic, embarrassing phone conversation in a relatively private place … your home, your hotel room, the nearest phone booth, etc. 

Now you can have a boring, pointless, moronic, embarrassing conversation in a restaurant, on a train, at a ball game, on a park bench, in the grocery store, in a movie theater, or on an airplane the very second it touches down.  Millions of people do — usually two feet away from me, and usually while talking to someone who is apparently hearing impaired.  The more common cell phones have become, the more people seem to be talking on the phone simply because they can … or because it’s less mentally taxing than staring off into space.  So while trying to read a book in an airport,  I get to listen to deep conversations such as:

“Hi.  Nothing, what’re you doing?  Cool.  Yeah?  No, I missed that one.  Huh?  Oh, it’s like nine o’ clock here.  Yeah.  Are you going to work soon?  Cool.  What color shoes are you wearing?  Yeah, those are nice.  Huh?  I can’t understand you; are you eating breakfast?  Yeah?  No, I can’t; they’re bad for my hemorrhoids.”

So rather than buy a product a part of me wishes hadn’t been invented in the first place, I’ll try to go without.  We’ll see how long that lasts.

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I received an email today that recounted (supposedly) some correspondence between the State of Pennsylvania and a citizen.  Whenever I see TRUE STORY! in an email like this one, I know it’s probably not.  I then confirm my suspicions by visiting the sites that debunk urban legends, internet legends, etc.

Well, at least according to, the email I received is almost real.  I say almost because apparently the correspondence took place 13 years ago … and in Michigan, not Pennsylvania.  TruthOrFiction also posted what it claims are the original letters, as opposed to the enhanced versions making their way around now.   I’m pasting the letters below, but removing the names in case even TruthOrFiction was hookwinked … hey, it could happen.

Enjoy — and even these letters aren’t genuine, I wish they were.  A libertarian couldn’t ask for a better exchange.

From Michigan to the Citizen:

GRAND RAPIDS MI 49503-2341

December 17, 1997


Mr. Ryan DeVries
(Address, etc.)

Dear Mr. DeVries:

SUBJECT: DEQ File No. 97-59-0023-1 T11N, R10W, Sec. 20, Montcalm County

It has come to the attention of the Department of Environmental Quality that there has been recent unauthorized activity on the above referenced parcel of property. You have been certified as the legal landowner and/or contractor who did the following unauthorized activity: Construction and maintenance of two wood debris dams across the outlet stream of Spring Pond.

A permit must be issued prior to the start of this type of activity. A review of the Department’s files show that no permits have been issued. Therefore, the Department has determined that this activity is in violation of Part 301,. Inland Lakes and Streams, of the Natural Resource and Environmental Protection Act, Act 451 of the Public Acts of 1994, being sections 324.30101 to 324.30113 of the Michigan Compiled Laws annotated.

The Department has been informed that one or both of the dams partially failed during a recent rain event, causing debris dams and flooding at downstream locations. We find that dams of this nature are inherently hazardous and cannot be permitted. The Department therefore orders you to cease and desist all unauthorized activities at this location, and to restore the stream to a free-flow condition by removing all wood and brush forming the dams from the strewn channel. All restoration work shall be completed no later than January 31, 1998.

Please notify this office when the restoration has been completed so that a follow-up site inspection may be scheduled by our staff.

Failure to comply with this request, or any further unauthorized activity on the site, may result in this case being referred for elevated enforcement action.

We anticipate and would appreciate your full cooperation in this matter. Please feel free to contact me at this office if you have any questions.


(Name of some bureaucrat)
District Representative
Land and Water Management Division


The Citizen’s Reply:

(Name of the Same Bureaucrat)
District Representative
Land and Water Management Division
Grand Rapids District Office
State Office Bldg., 6th Floor
350 Ottawa, N.W.
Grand Rapids, MI 49503-2341

Dear Mr. (Bureaucrat):

Re: DEQ File No. 97-59-0023; T11N, R10W, Sec 20; Montcalm County

Your certified letter dated 12/17/97 has been handed to me to respond to. You sent out a great deal of carbon copies to a lot of people, but you neglected to include their addresses. You will, therefore, have to send them a copy of my response.

First of all, Mr. Ryan DeVries is not the legal landowner and/or contractor at [the address] in Pierson, Michigan – I am the legal owner and a couple of beavers are in the (State unauthorized) process of constructing and maintaining two wood “debris” dams across the outlet stream of my Spring Pond. While I did not pay for, nor authorize their dam project, I think they would be highly offended you call their skillful use of natural building materials “debris”. I would like to challenge you to attempt to emulate their dam project any dam time and/or any dam place you choose. I believe I can safely state there is no dam way you could ever match their dam skills, their dam resourcefulness, their dam ingenuity, their dam persistence, their dam determination and/or their dam work ethic.

As to your dam request the beavers first must fill out a dam permit prior to the start of this type of dam activity, my first dam question to you is: are you trying to discriminate against my Spring Pond Beavers or do you require all dam beavers throughout this State to conform to said dam request? If you are not discriminating against these particular beavers, please send me completed copies of all those other applicable beaver dam permits. Perhaps we will see if there really is a dam violation of Part 301, Inland Lakes and Streams, of the Natural Resource and Environmental Protection Act, Act 451 of the Public Acts of 1994, being sections 324.30101 to 324.30113 of the Michigan Compiled Laws annotated. My first concern is – aren’t the dam beavers entitled to dam legal representation? The Spring Pond Beavers are financially destitute and are unable to pay for said dam representation – so the State will have to provide them with a dam lawyer.

The Department’s dam concern that either one or both of the dams failed during a recent rain event causing dam flooding is proof we should leave the dam Spring Pond Beavers alone rather than harassing them and calling them dam names. If you want the dam stream “restored” to a dam free-flow condition – contact the dam beavers – but if you are going to arrest them (they obviously did not pay any dam attention to your dam letter — being unable to read English) – be sure you read them their dam Miranda first.

As for me, I am not going to cause more dam flooding or dam debris jams by interfering with these dam builders. If you want to hurt these dam beavers – be aware I am sending a copy of your dam letter and this response to PETA. If your dam Department seriously finds all dams of this nature inherently hazardous and truly will not permit their existence in this dam State – I seriously hope you are not selectively enforcing this dam policy – or once again both I and the Spring Pond Beavers will scream prejudice!

In my humble opinion, the Spring Pond Beavers have a right to build their dam unauthorized dams as long as the sky is blue, the grass is green and water flows downstream. They have more dam right than I to live and enjoy Spring Pond. So, as far as I and the beavers are concerned, this dam case can be referred for more dam elevated enforcement action now. Why wait until 1/31/98? The Spring Pond Beavers may be under the dam ice then, and there will be no dam way for you or your dam staff to contact/harass them then.

In conclusion, I would like to bring to your attention a real environmental quality (health) problem; bears are actually defecating in our woods. I definitely believe you should be persecuting the defecating bears and leave the dam beavers alone. If you are going to investigate the beaver dam, watch your step! (The bears are not careful where they dump!)

Being unable to comply with your dam request, and being unable to contact you on your dam answering machine, I am sending this response to your dam office.


(Name of a Citizen — and my hero if this is all true)

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My daughter, enjoying the recent global warming in Tennessee.  (Her hands arent actually that big.)

My daughter, enjoying the recent global warming in Tennessee. (Her hands aren't actually that big.)



“Climate Research Unit, Phil Jones speaking.”

“Hi, Professor Jones.  Tom Naughton here, calling from Tennessee.”

“Uh … do I know you?”

“No, no, no.  I just need a prediction about the weather, and since you’re quoted in the media all the time, I thought you seemed like the go-to guy.”

“Well … yes, there are several places online where you can read about my work.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know.  Thing is, none of that stuff is what I’m looking for.  I need to know if it’s going to keep snowing around here.”

“Pardon me?”

“Snow.  The white stuff.  When we moved here in August, the neighbors said we’d get maybe one light snow all winter.  Now here it is, the middle of February, and we’ve already had four snowstorms.  My daughter’s school used up all their snow days, and we have a family vacation planned in June, so if they have to extend the school year, we’ll have to–”

“Wait, wait, wait!  I’m sorry, but … are you actually asking me for a weather forecast?”

“I thought that’s what you did.”

“No, Mr. Norton.  I’m a climate researcher.”

“It’s Naughton.  I’m not British, so I usually pronounce my R’s.”

“Good for you, deah boy.  My point is, I don’t predict the weather.”

“Sure you do.  You’re the guy who’s been telling everybody exactly how warm the world’s going to be.”

“That’s in the future, Mr. Norton.  I can’t predict what’s going to happen this year.”

“I see.  You can tell me what the temperature will be in 2040, but not in March.”


“So, like, thirty years out, you’re pretty accurate.”

“Exactly.  Our computer models take into account–”

“Then I’m guessing back in 1980, you predicted we’d be having record-cold winters all over the northern hemisphere right around now?  Damn, I must’ve missed that one.”

“Well … no.  You see, there are natural forces at work that we can’t always predict.”

“So you don’t actually know how warm it’s going to be in 2040.  Or in March.”

“No!  Yes!  I mean, we know the world is going to get warmer overall because of the increasing carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere.”

“But it hasn’t gotten any warmer since 1995.  You said so yourself.”

“I said it’s not statistically significant.”

“Nothing we can accurately measure, then.  So it’s not getting warmer. ”

“Yes it is!  And stop pasting hyperlinks into my dialog!  I @#$%ing hate that!”

“Sorry, just wanted to make sure I wasn’t misquoting you.”

“And the past 15 years are meaningless!  That’s why I said it’s a blipDamnit!  Stop with the hy–”

“–hyperlinks.  Yeah, yeah, okay.  Just to make sure I understand, though:  20 years is a long-term trend, but 15 years is a blip?”


“So the blip cutoff point must be, what … 17 years?”

“It’s whatever I say it is!  How’s that?”

“Okay, fine.  Anyway, about the snow:  is it going to keep snowing, or is the planet actually getting warmer?  I need to know.”

“Look, Mister Smarty Pants, you’re obviously not familiar with the science.  It so happens that all those record snowfalls in your part of the world were caused by global warming.”

“Global warming makes it snow more?”

“Yes!  The warmer temperatures cause more water to be absorbed into the atmosphere, so when the winter comes and the temperature drops, there’s more water to squeeze out in the form of snow.”

“Ahhhhh, okay!  You know, when I was growing up, I always wondered why we got so much more snow in southern Illinois than they did in Minnesota!  No wait, that’s not right …”

“You are misinterpreting what I–”

“Well, what about those pictures of Mount Kilimanjaro in Al Gore’s movie?  You know, the snow disappearing and all that?  What happened there?”

“The snow is melting on Mount Kilimanjaro because of the global warming.  And it isn’t snow, it’s ice.”

“Ice, right.  But I read the ice is actually going away because there’s less precipitation in the area.”

“Yes, that’s true.  Global warming caused the area to dry out, so there’s not as much snow.”

“I better write this down … global warming causes less precipitation so there’s not as much snow in the area.  Got it.  Then global warming isn’t happening around here, because it’s been snowing like crazy.  That’s a relief.”

“I already explained this!  You’re getting more snow because the planet is too warm.”

“It was 12 degrees outside last night. ”

“That doesn’t mean it’s a long-term–”

 “Did I mention I live in Tennessee?”

“Once again, you are simply not familiar with the science, Mr. Norton.  What we’ve actually been saying is that the high concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is causing extreme temperatures.”

“Because carbon dioxide traps heat and produces a greenhouse effect.”


“And then all that trapped heat makes it colder.”


“But even when it’s colder, it’s actually warmer too, and that makes more water evaporate.”


“Okay, let me make sure I’ve got this straight:  global warming causes more snow because it sucks more water into the atmosphere, and it also causes less snow because it dries out the atmosphere.  It hasn’t gotten any warmer for 15 years because of the blip, but before that a lot of water got sucked up into the atmosphere and then it just sort of hung around up there, waiting for the weather to get colder again.  We started having record-cold winters and record-cool summers three years ago, but that wasn’t enough to squeeze out all that stored water in the atmosphere.  We had a record-cold autumn this year, but that also wasn’t enough to squeeze out all the stored water.  The water didn’t get squeezed out until a few weeks ago, when the carbon dioxide finally trapped so much heat, it got really crazy-ass cold, even here in Tennessee, and that’s why we had so much snow.”

“Yes.  That’s pretty much what happened.”

“I see.  So … can we plan on that family vacation, or should we wait until 2040?”


Comments 9 Comments »

I’m in the middle of a software project and don’t have time for a long post, but I have to comment on some of the ads that keeping showing up in my browser when I stop for a surfing break.  Roughly half of them warn us that Homeowners Fail To Refinance!  The little bit of text informs us that only 85,000 homeowners have taken advantage of Obama’s refinancing plan.  And just look … there’s Obama, obviously disturbed as yet another home goes into foreclosure because the silly homeowners didn’t take advantage of his plan.  I’m no fan of Obama, but it’s annoying to see these goofs hijacking his image for an ad.

I’m going step out on a limb here and suggest that if most homeowners aren’t refinancing, they don’t need to.  (Some of them may even have this crazy idea that once they sign a contract with a lender, they shouldn’t take advantage of the government’s willingness to step in force the lender to cancel it.)  But what’s just plain weird are the pictures the advertisers choose.

This guy, for example.  If you see him walking into a bank, your first thought probably isn’t “Now there’s a man who inspires confidence in mortgage lenders.” He looks like he lives in a commune, for pete’s sake.  Somebody please explain to me the logic of putting his face on an for anything having to do with finances.

And what’s the message we’re supposed to get from this picture?  I can only guess:

  • This man is broke because didn’t refinance his home, so now he has to wear the glasses he bought in 1977. 
  • If this man would just refinance his home, he could stop moonlighting as welder.
  • This poor sap spent all his savings trying to prove Harry Caray was his biological father, so now he’s broke and needs to refinance his home.

Apparently believing the picture wasn’t disturbing enough already, the advertisers later decided to Photoshop in some truly strange-looking teeth.  Now the poor guy looks positively ape-like. The only way I can reproduce this expression is to pretend I’m Tim Allen doing his “Argh! Argh! Argh!” routine.

I’ve been seeing this one a lot lately too.  The text informs us that this Nashville mom found a way to earn $37 per hour working at online from home.  I don’t know what she’s doing online, but judging by her expression, it involves taking video Skype calls.

Okay, enough surfing.  Back to work.  I’d like to buy a house in Tennessee this year, and I don’t plan to need any help from Obama.

Comments 8 Comments »

Colts or Saints …Colts or Saints …?  I really can’t make up my mind this year.  Two outstanding quarterbacks, two class organizations, nobody on either team I actively dislike …

Colts or Saints … hmmm.

I don’t have to pick a team before the Super Bowl.  I’m not placing a bet with a bookie or anything like that.  I wouldn’t even know where to find one.  I’ve belonged to a regular-season football pool for about 20 years, but that’s with a small group of friends.  Usually we’re months late sending out the checks to the winner … you can get away with that when you’re reasonably sure no one’s going to pay you a visit with a tire iron.

In a typical year, including 2009, I come in second-to-last.  If the guy who’s nearly always last ever quits the pool, I’ll have to recruit someone from Sweden to replace him; otherwise I risk being the yearly recipient of the booby prize:  a VHS copy of “The Super Bowl Shuffle,” the only real mistake committed by the 1985 Bears.

I’d choose Sweden only because I once attended a wedding party where the groom was from Sweden and, since the party was in someone’s house on a Sunday, most of the men spent part of the day watching football. A couple of the Swedes admitted they were confused and asked us to explain the rules.  We gave it a shot, but soon realized football is actually an impossibly stupid game, at least if you try to explain it to a foreigner.

Stupid or not, I like football and enjoy it more when I’m emotionally involved in the outcome.  According to certain feminist researchers, this means my wife is in danger of receiving a beating if my team loses.  That story hit the press many years ago, and it prompted one of my football-pool buddies to respond to a game-changing interception with, “Damnit!  If my wife was here, I’d pop her right in the mouth!”  We then felt compelled to explain to the turning heads around the bar that he was making fun of an article in the newspaper.

Anyway, my wife’s in no danger, even when the Titans start a season 0-6.  The only football-frustration injuries I’ve ever caused were to myself, and most of those happened while Rex Grossman was the Bears’ quarterback.  Eventually I realized if I kept slapping myself in the head every time he became the leading passer for the opposing team, I was going to end up with a flat skull.

But back to the issue at hand … Colts or Saints … Colts or Saints …? 

New Orleans is the sentimental favorite, of course, providing inspiration to the long-suffering victims of Hurricane Katrina and all that.  Plus they’re the underdogs, and sports fans love to cheer for an underdog.  I did too, until I realized cheering for the underdogs in an NFL game just because they’re underdogs is actually kind of stupid.

I came to that conclusion while watching the Patriots-Ravens game in the playoffs.  I realized I was rooting against the Patriots simply because they’ve been so dominant for so many years.  Yes, I was cheering against success.  When that occurred to me, I managed to avoid slapping myself in the head, but I did stop and ask, What am I, some kind of football socialist?  It’s not faaaaaaiiirrr that some teams are so good?  Gotta spread the wealth around and all that?

The NFL already levels the playing field through drafting rules and salary caps.  There’s no football equivalent of the Yankees, buying their way into the World Series every other year.  That’s why the Packers, from little ol’ Green Bay, can end having a better season than the New York Giants.  Teams like the Patriots are dominant because they draft well, trade well, and coach well. (Tom Brady was the 199th  player drafted in 2000. Any other team in the league could’ve had him.)  Cheering for an underdog in the NFL a bit like supporting a mechanic who does sub-par work:  poor guy probably needs the business, you know.

So I don’t really care about the underdog status, which leads me to back to … Colts or Saints …?  Colts or Saints …?

I should probably hold a grudge against Indy for beating the Bears in the Super Bowl a few years back, but I can’t.  I like Indianapolis. In my standup days, I used to perform there for two weeks at a time, every spring and every fall.  I stayed in a condo downtown, so basically I lived in Indianapolis for a month each year.  It’s a great little city.  I even had a girlfriend there for awhile.  Between her and the consistently great audiences, I have nothing but fond memories of the place.

So, Colts or Saints … ?

It would help if one of the teams had a spoiled brat on the roster I could root against.  In the Jets-Chargers game I was rooting full-throttle for the Jets.  I don’t have any warm fuzzy feelings for New York or the Jets, but I always root against San Diego.  When I lived in Los Angeles, it annoyed me that San Diego had an NFL team and we didn’t.  (It also annoyed me that San Diego is a picturesque city with a real downtown while L.A. pretty much sucks.)  But now I root against San Diego because Phillip Rivers reminds of every jock I couldn’t stand in high school:  talented, immature, and arrogant.  I was delighted his team not only lost, but lost because he threw an interception within sniffing distance of his own end zone. 

But what’s not to like about Drew Brees or Peyton Manning?  They’re both the polar opposite of Phillip Rivers:  mature and humble, despite all their talents.  Brees raises money to help restore New Orleans.  The community loves him.  But they also love Manning, who grew up there.  After Hurricane Katrina, Peyton and Eli Manning chartered a plane and flew relief supplies to the area —  they paid for everything and even got down and did the dirty work, loading and unloading the plane along with everyone else.

Colts or Saints … ?  Nope, I really can’t decide.  I may just have to flip a coin.  Heads, Colts.  Tails, Saints.

No, wait … Heads, Saints …

Comments 5 Comments »

It’s been usually cold here in Tennessee.  It’s been unusually cold in much of the country (see the video below), and in Europe as well.  Naturally, the global-warming fanatics can’t bring themselves to admit that we’re seeing a cooling trend.  Riiiight … three years in a row of record-breaking cold is just an anomaly, and never mind that Al Gore’s beloved computer models didn’t predict any of this.  Frankly, I’m pretty sure nothing could convince them to give up their quasi-religion.  Temperatures could drop for the next 20 years, and they’d still be insisting the planet has a fever and calling for more cap-and-tax schemes — especially Gore, since he’s set himself up to make millions from carbon credits.

After a decade in Los Angeles, I’m enjoying experiencing a winter that feels like winter.  We’re even supposed to get up to three inches of snow tonight.  My daughters are so excited, they had a difficult time going to sleep. Alana, my four-year-old, has already announced that she plans to build a snowman, have a snowball fight, build a snow fort and go ice skating, all in one day. 

I think it would be more amusing just to drive around (carefully, of course) and see how the other drivers handle the snow.  It probably wouldn’t be as much fun as in previous decades; too many people have moved here from other parts of the country, including the snow states.  When my friend Bob moved here 25 years, he called me the first time it snowed — a wee little bit — to tell me he saw people abandon their cars and walk home.  They couldn’t handle the pressure.

Some people can’t even handle the pressure of riding in the snow.  About 15 years ago, I drove across North Dakota and Minnesota on a comedy tour, sharing my car with a young comedian from Seattle.  Snow was a foreign substance to him.  We had to drive through snow several times, usually on two-lane roads that hadn’t been plowed, and every time the wheels lost traction for a nanosecond or so, he gasped and grabbed the dashboard with both hands. 

When it was no longer amusing, I finally said, “Lonnie, I’ve been driving in this stuff for 20 years.  I’m not going to spin out.  And look out the window, for chrissakes … there’s nothing for us to hit.”  Then, since he seemed far too young for a heart attack, I jerked the wheel and fishtailed a bit on purpose, just for fun.

Not that winters have always been fun for me.  Perhaps it was karma getting back at me for scaring Lonnie when, two winters later, my normally-reliable Toyota Camry started to die on me one night as I was heading to a gig in Green Bay, with the temperate on its way to -45 degrees.  Yes, you read that correctly … 45 degrees below zero.  I’d like to say the weather surprised me, but it didn’t — I had checked the forecast before driving up from Chicago.  In fact, I called the club owner and urged him to cancel.  He said, “Don’t worry about it.  People up here are used to cold weather.  They’ll still come out.”  Stupidly ignoring my better judgment, I made the trip.

About 10 miles from the hotel, my interior lights started to dim.  I began pleading with the car, calling it pet names, promising it all the oil and gas it could drink if it would just get me to the hotel.  The lights continued growing dimmer, both inside and outside.  I could barely see where I was driving.  It occurred to me that people die in these circumstances.  This was before cell phones, and there wouldn’t be much chance of flagging down a passing motorist — only idiots and comedians drive in -45 degree weather.

The car began to shudder and shake and finally quit on me four blocks from the hotel.  I zipped my parka all the way up to my nose to form a peephole, grabbed my suitcase, and began running.  By the time I reached the hotel doors, my shivers had degenerated into near-convulsions.  I had to blink several times per second to keep my contacts from freezing.

I called the club owner and told him I needed a ride.  He sent an employee to pick me up.  When the show began, there were nine people in the club, playing pool in the bar.  None of them had a ticket for the show, but the club owner said they could stick around and watch for free.  Four of them wisely declined, saying they wanted to leave before their engine blocks froze.  So I performed for five people.

On the local TV news that night, a reporter showed that he could toss a glass of water into the air and it would land as chunks of ice.  The hotel had the heat all the way up, so it was several degrees above freezing in my room.  I slept in my clothes, with both a sweater and a sweatshirt.  I still woke up shivering.

The next day I called to have my car towed to a local garage.  The mechanic told me it would be at least Tuesday before he could even look at it — there were dozens of dead cars ahead of mine.  Lovely.  The club would only cover the hotel for the two nights I was performing, so I would be paying for two or three nights from my own pocket.  Meanwhile, it warmed up a few degrees, so we had nearly a dozen people attend the Saturday-night show.

My car wasn’t brought back to life until Wednesday.  The damage was about $350, wiping out most of my paycheck from the club.  The extra hotel bill wiped out the rest.  I spent three days shivering in my room, watching TV and reading books.  At mealtimes, I ran back and forth to a diner a few blocks away.  The food was mediocre.  I didn’t care.

A couple of weeks after I returned to Chicago, I received a notice from my bank — the club’s check had bounced.  I tried to call the club, but the number wasn’t in service.  They were out of business.  Between the car repair, the hotel bill, gas, and the days away from my hourly-wage job, I figured it cost me about $1,000 to perform two shows for fewer than 20 people.

Now that’s cold.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Comments 8 Comments »


“Yes, Grace.”

“Mr. Hardwinkle, phone call for you.”

“Grace, not now.  I’m trying to figure out how many of these loans could default in the next–”

“Sir, it’s the president.”

“Of what?”

“Of the United States, Mr. Hardwinkle.”

“Oh, my … okay, put him on.”

“Hardwinkle?  It’s the president.”

“Yes, sir.  How are you, sir?”

“I’m worried, that’s how I am.  I just read in the newspaper that the banks in your state are still looking at a huge number of loans that could go bad.”

“Well, Mr. President, that’s why–”

“Here I am, trying to quit smoking before someone in the press decides to stop worshipping me and snaps a picture of me holding a Marlboro, and then I read this stuff.  It’s not helping.”

“I know.  I was just working on–”

“You people in the banking industry need to stop all this free-market recklessness.  I’ve said that many times.”

“Yes, sir, I heard the speeches, but–”

“During the housing boom, you guys passed around loans like they were party favors, and then too many people couldn’t pay them back and created a big economic mess.  Now I’ve got to clean it up.  I need you to grab a mop with me, Hardwinkle.  I’ve said that many times.”

“Yes, sir.  A lot of loans went bad.  But, uh … you do realize we were threatened with prosecution by the Justice Department if we didn’t lower our lending standards.”

“Dang that George Bush and his cowboy economics!”

“Actually, Mr. President, it was during the Clinton–”

“Enough ancient history.  It’s time to look toward the future.  I’ve said that many times.”

“The future.  Yes, Mr. President.”

“No more reckless lending, you hear me?”

“We’re working on it, sir.  We’re really tightening up the standards.  Everybody is.”

“That’s the other thing I need to talk to you about.  You guys need to start lending more money.”


“The American people bailed you out with their tax dollars, and now you greedy bankers aren’t giving them the loans they need.  It’s shameful.”

“But … bad loans … uh … economic crash … the mop, and all that.”

“Yes, the mop.  I’ve said that many times in the past.”

“I KNOW!  I mean, sorry … uh … you see, Mr. President, we got into the mess because we made a lot of bad loans.  And like I said, we were encouraged and even ordered to do that by the Clinton– uh, by people in Washington.  So now we’re trying to just lend money to people we think can pay it back.”

“Look, Hardwinkle, we’ve got 10 percent unemployment out there.  I tried spending a trillion dollars to prop up a lot of failing businesses and arts organizations, but let’s face it:  it didn’t work.  So now I need small businesses to expand and hire more people.  But they can’t do that if you won’t lend them the capital.”

“Yes, Mr. President, I understand how it works.  But you see, to lend more money, we’d have to lower our lending standards again.”

“Okay, do it.  But no more reckless loans.  I’ve said that many times.”

“Mr. President, you’ve never actually worked in the banking industry, so I realize you may not be, uh, conversant in how these things work, but–”

“I know all about banks.  When I was an ACORN lawyer, I sued them.”

“Yes, I know.  You forced us to make loans to people with marginal credit.”

“I believe the term you’re looking for is ‘encouraging more affordable housing.’  Careful there, Hardwinkle.  You took the bailout money, so we can decide how much you get paid now.”

“Okay, sorry.  Anyway, we’re perfectly happy to lend money to anyone who we believe can pay it back.  Lending money is how we make a profit, after all.”

“So lend more of it.  Bigger profits.”

“Sir, what I’m trying to say is, we lend money to people with the best credit ratings first.  To lend more money, we have to start approving loans to people with not-so-good credit.  And to lend even more money–”

“Yes, yes, I understand.  Look, between you and me, I’d like to just spend another few trillion and make everyone who’s unemployed a government employee.  Talk about your loyal voters.  But we’ve got elections coming up in less than a year, and I’m afraid the rest of the voters don’t like that idea.  So I need small businesses to step up.  And that means you have to step up.  I’ve said that many times.”

“But … Mr. President, if the loans go bad–”

“For Pete’s sake, man, get with the program!  If that happens, we’ll bail you out again.”

“You mean after you blame our recklessness for creating a need for more bailouts?”

“Hey, that’s just politics.  I’ve said that many– no, actually, I haven’t said that.  But you know what I mean.”

“Yes, sir.  You want us to lend a lot more money, but stop making any more bad loans, correct?”


“Yes, sir, Mr. President.”

“Now you’re talking.  Bye now.”


“Grace?  Can you bring in glass of water and some Tylenol, please?”

Two articles caught my attention yesterday.  Banks still have a lot of potentially bad loans on the books, and Obama wants banks to lend more.  Only in Washington …

Comments 4 Comments »

“Step up on the scale, Mr. Naughton.”

“Sure, Doctor. I’m looking forward to seeing this myself.”

“Let’s see … slide this over a bit … hmm, pretty bad. Your weight is up again.”

“Uh … Doctor, you mind getting your foot off the scale?”

“Oh, okay.”

“So … you want to weigh me again now?”

“Sorry, I’ve already recorded the results. You can step down now.”


“Just as I predicted. Man-made body enlarging. I told you to stop consuming so much animal fat.”

“There’s nothing wrong with eating–”

“If this keeps up, you’ll weigh 650 pounds by the year 2030. It’s a looming disaster.”

“Doctor, excuse me, but there’s no way I’m gaining weight. Look at me. I had to buy a smaller belt last month.”

“That’s a temporary anomaly. I’m more interested in the long-term trend.”

“I’ve been shrinking for two years now. I’ve also been eating more animal fat. So it can’t be making me fatter. Your theory doesn’t hold up.”

“Do you weigh more than you did 40 years ago?”

“Yes, I was a skinny runt 40 years ago.”

“And did your fat consumption go up during the past 40 years?”

“I was 11 years old 40 years ago! Of course I eat more now.”

“Aha! So you agree there’s a long-term trend in your body enlargement.”

“Those are natural forces at work. I’m pretty sure that’s been happening forever.”

“But the rate of the enlargement has accelerated. Look at your weight chart. See there? All nice and even for two decades, then it shoots up here at the end. It looks like a hockey stick.”

“That chart is bull@#$%!”

“It can’t be. I showed it to a bunch of doctors who are friends of mine and they agreed: it looks like a hockey stick. We even wrote a paper about it.”

“Look, Doctor, I went through a period in my thirties when I was fatter than I am today, and I wasn’t eating animal fat because I was a vegetarian. Now I’m experiencing a thinning trend, even though I eat a lot of fat. So obviously, fat isn’t the problem, and that chart is bull.”

“I see. So you’re a denialist.”


“I suppose you don’t believe the Holocaust happened either?”

“No! I mean, yes, I believe it happened. There’s evidence it happened. But there’s no evidence that I’m gaining weight!”

“Who’s paying you to say this? The dairy industry? The cattle ranchers?”

“Nobody’s paying me! Just use your senses! I’m smaller!”

“This is the worst case of denial I’ve ever seen. I’m afraid we’re going to have to institute a fat-and-trade system. Every time you consume fat, you’ll need to pay me a stiff fine. Or you can buy a fat credit from another tubbo who’s willing to go without butter for a week. It’s the only way to stop you from getting larger.”


“Yes, you are. It says so right here in my computer data.”

“Let me see that.”

“No. I will not have you second-guessing my data. I don’t have to show you anything.”

“Yes, you do, Doctor. And if you don’t, I’ll call my lawyer and have him file the papers.”

“Damn! I was hoping you didn’t know about that law. Now I have to destroy the data.”


“Nothing. I didn’t say anything.”

“Give me that book!”

“Hey! Give that back!”

“Back off, Doctor, or I’ll smack you. Let’s see … Hey, what’s with all the emails and notes?”

“Nothing. Just doctor’s notes.”

“Nothing, my @##. Look at this: ‘James – I figured out how to apply Mike’s trick of mixing belt-ring data with actual weight measurements to hide Mr. Naughton’s mid-thirties fattening period.’  What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“It doesn’t mean anything! ‘Trick’ is a common term in medical research. Give me that back!”

“And here’s a coding comment from the guy who designed your computer program. What does he mean, he’s having a hard time writing code that produces the results you want?”

“You know … just programmer lingo. That’s how they talk.”

“And this one: ‘James – Perhaps we should encourage our colleagues to boycott medical journals that publish articles by doctors who have seen people lose weight on high-fat diets. By the way, please delete this after reading.’ And you printed it out? What are you, an idiot?”

“Oh, I see. Already reduced to resorting to attacks on my character, huh?”

“And what’s up with this one:  ‘James. The fact is that we cannot account for Mr. Naughton’s failure to gain weight in recent years, and it’s a travesty that we can’t.’

“Well, uh …you see, the theory is still correct, because uh … I mean it’s not like we have anything to hide!”

“Let me get this straight … you wouldn’t give me your data, you threatened to destroy your data so I wouldn’t see it, your programmer was upset because he was having a hard time producing the data you wanted, you applied ‘tricks’ to your data, and in spite of all that, your colleague thinks it’s a travesty that you can’t explain why I’m not actually gaining weight. I’d say you were hiding something, Doctor.”

“But the theory is still correct! I’m sure of it!  To hell with your annoying weight loss.”

“No, to hell with you, to hell with your theory, and to hell with your fat-and-trade fines. I’m leaving.”

“Don’t go outside while you’re angry, Mr. Naughton! You’ll get heat exhaustion!”

“It’s snowing, you moron.”

Some articles on the climate research scandal:

From Heritage Foundation

From Forbes

From the UK Telegraph

Comments 29 Comments »

Some years ago, when I was complaining about a biased article I read in the newspaper, my wife asked what exactly I meant by “biased.”  If the reporter is simply citing facts, where does the bias come in?

So I got out of couple of markers and asked her to highlight the paragraphs that either quoted conservatives or re-stated the conservative point of view in yellow.  She did.  Then I had her take a blue marker and highlight the sections that quoted or re-stated the liberal point of view.  When she was done, she got the picture:  there were twice as many column inches devoted to the liberal point of view.  It happens all the time.

That’s just part of how bias creeps into the news.  I don’t think it’s done consciously — that is, I don’t believe reporters and editors sit down and plan out how to bias a story — but there are consistent patterns.  Here are a few of them, with samples from yet another biased article I read in our newspaper earlier this week.  That article was about congress threatening to strip the Federal Reserve of its authority to regulate banks — something the reporter clearly doesn’t favor.

1) Sneak your point of view into the headline and callouts.

Callouts, if you’re not familiar with the term, are miniature headlines or large-font quotes interspersed throughout an article to give it more “white space.”  The headline for this story in our newspaper was EXPERTS WARN:  DON’T STRIP FED OF POWERS.  The two callouts were CONSENSUS IS LACKING and A CONVENIENT TARGET.

Hmmm, think there’s any attempt to steer the reader’s opinions there?  The headline could’ve just as easily read: CONGRESS CITES FED’S FAILURES or FED ACTED WITHOUT AUTHORITY.  Both would be true.

2) Make sure the beginning and end of the story quote or re-state your point of view.

Ask any journalism teacher which are the two most important paragraphs in a story.  The answer is, the first and last.  Those are the most likely to be remembered.  Here is the first paragraph as it appeared in our paper:

Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd’s sweeping new financial overhaul legislation, which proposes to strip the Federal Reserve of its authority to regulate banks, threatens the central bank’s time-honored independence and its premier international standing, experts warn.

Here’s the last paragraph in our paper:

“The major original purpose of central banks was to be lenders of last resort. You have to know to whom you are lending, how good is their collateral, how solid the institution is as a whole,” Gramley said, arguing that the Fed must retain its regulatory authority over banks. “It just seems to me that having the expertise that the Fed has . . . is absolutely indispensable.”

Okay, dear readers, there’s the real story:  Experts warn that stripping the Fed’s powers in a bad idea, and the Fed’s expertise is indispensable.  Bias aside, those opinions are laughable.  The Fed was a major cause of the mortgage meltdown.  More on that later.  The point is, the hearings the reporter attended included many speakers citing the Fed’s failures.  Their opinions could’ve made up the first and last paragraphs.  But that’s not the takeaway message the reporter wanted to convey.

3) Write as though all the experts agree with your preferred opinion.

Look at the opening paragraph again.  The attempt to strip the Fed’s powers “threatens the central bank’s time-honored independence and its premier international standing, experts warn.”  The accurate statement would be some experts warn.  Many other experts clearly believe the Fed is too powerful.  The article mentioned — fairly deep in — that Ron Paul wants the Fed’s power stripped.  Ron Paul wrote an entire book on the Fed.  In other words, he’s an expert.  And time-honored is a bit of a loaded description, isn’t it?  Why, we mustn’t mess with such a time-honored tradition!

I see this kind of nonsense all the time in articles about global warming.  Reporters simply write something like, “Scientists say climate change is real and the effects will be dire.”  Once again, the accurate statement is that some scientists make those claims.  Many others dispute them.  A document disputing the man-made global warming theory has been signed by 31,000 scientists, including 9,000 with PhDs in climate-related disciplines.  You’d never know that by reading the news.

4) Toss in a few opinions as if they’re facts.  (Maybe nobody will notice.)

If I bang my head on the kitchen table while reading the newspaper, it’s usually because of this particular method of biasing a story.  Here’s an example from the Fed story:

The Fed’s a convenient political target because many ordinary Americans are thirsty for revenge for the damage that Wall Street wrought on Main Street.

Notice the reporter’s opinion simply stated as a fact … The meltdown was Wall Street’s fault, not the Fed’s.  I’m not denying Wall Street played a role — they bought and sold all those mortgage-backed securities that tanked — but the meltdown couldn’t have happened without the Fed.  Here’s why:

Let’s assume we’ve got banking system where no one is playing with the money supply.  For me to borrow money, someone else has to save money.  You make a deposit; I take out a loan.  The bank lends me your money.  If everyone wants to borrow and few people are saving, two things will happen:  1) Interest rates will go up because the demand for a limited resource is rising, and 2) the banks will be picky about who they approve for loans, since they can only make a limited number of them.

If interest rates go up, the borrowing frenzy ceases.  If the bank is being picky, people with lousy credit won’t receive mortgages.  Either one automatically puts the brakes on the kind of mortgage mania that led to the meltdown.

Now… enter the geniuses at the Fed.  They decided the economy needed to keep rolling.  So they did what only the time-honored, independent Fed can do:  they created more money out of thin air to keep the money supply growing and the interest rates down. 

How do they create more money?  Simple … they print Federal Reserve checks and deposit them in banks.  The banks only have to keep 10% of their deposits on reserve, so by the time a billion-dollar deposit from the Fed works its way through the banking system, it can create nine billion dollars in new loans.  No new wealth was created — wealth is good and services, not pieces of paper — but more money was created … again, out of thin air. 

This magic money is what enabled the banks to keep writing mortgages, long after the pool of qualified buyers had been exhausted.  Those mortgages became securities.  Those securities tanked.  Take away the Fed’s monkeying with the money supply, and it wouldn’t have mattered how greedy bankers and Wall Street executives were.  The money to feed the greed wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) have existed.  When people can borrow wealth that doesn’t actually exist, a crash is inevitable.

But enough about that … back to how to bias a story.

5) Toss in a few statements that simply aren’t true.

The story on the Fed contains this little gem:

Critics counter, however, that the Fed pumped trillions of dollars into the economy to combat the recent financial crisis with virtually no direct authority to do so, and no effective oversight from publicly accountable branches of government. They argue that the Fed should be subjected to democratic checks and balances, just as other powerful arms of government are.

The Fed is not an arm of the government.  It’s a consortium of private banks that sets rules for other banks.  The government’s only real role is in appointing the chairman and one of the regional governors.  If the reporter doesn’t know that, he’s on the wrong beat.  If he does know that, he’s playing a bit loose with the facts.

The legislation that created the Fed was concocted during a secret meeting of private bankers that took place in 1910.  Before the Fed was created, any bank could issue certificates of deposit against their gold reserves.  People traded those certificates as paper money.  The bankers who created the Fed realized if they could obtain a monopoly on issuing currency, they could control the banking system and make themselves extremely rich by charging interest on magic money.  The senate approved the creation of the Fed on a voice vote in December of 1913, after most members had gone home for the holidays.  It is not, and never has been, a branch of the government … but the federal government loves the Fed because it can legally create money out of nothing — which the government can then spend. 

6) When quoting people, make sure the side you don’t like argues and contends. But make sure your side explains, warns and cautions.

In journalism school, I was taught that the only neutral words for quotes are said and says.  Everything else imparts a meaning.  In the story my wife highlighted some years ago, the conservatives — who were clearly identified as belonging to a conservative think-tank — were always quoted as arguing or contending.  Meanwhile, their opponents at a liberal think-tank — who were simply identified as researchers, without the liberal label — were quoted as explaining.  Once I pointed it out, she couldn’t believe her eyes. 

But again, it happens all the time.  Take a look at these quotes from the story on the Fed (pardon the repeats … some sentences are multi-biased):

Critics counter, however, that the Fed pumped trillions of dollars into the economy to combat the recent financial crisis with virtually no direct authority to do so, and no effective oversight from publicly accountable branches of government. They argue that the Fed should be subjected to democratic checks and balances, just as other powerful arms of government are.

“I am with Dodd on this one,” said Alice Rivlin , a former vice chairman of the Fed from 1996 to 1999. “The Fed has not distinguished itself as a regulator.”

On the other side, Rivlin’s former colleague Laurence Meyer , a Fed governor from 1996 to 2002, called the Dodd legislation “political posturing” by a “hate the Fed crowd.” He warned that taking the most experienced regulators off the supervisory beat “increases the risk of crisis going forward.”

At 82, Lyle Gramley brings the long view to the debate. He was a Fed governor from 1980 to 1985, a turbulent period of deep recession, and understands why the Fed is so unpopular today … Taking bank supervision away from the Fed, however, could come back to haunt lawmakers, he cautioned.

Economic historian John Murray , a professor at Ohio’s University of Toledo , sees an old-fashioned political power grab at play with the Dodd legislation.

“I think Congress doesn’t want to let a crisis go to waste,” Murray said, warning that any legislation that weakens central bank independence invites politicization of monetary policy. “I think in the long run, that’s probably not a very good idea.”

Wow … lots of warning and cautioning from the experts who don’t want the Fed to lose any power — although the reporter managed to let one expert who supports the Fed argue one point.

By the way, if Professor Murray thinks monetary policy isn’t already politicized, he’s going senile.  Where does he think all that bailout and “stimulus” money is coming from?  That’s right … it’s being created out of thin air by the Fed.  That’s why conservatives and libertarians want to reel in the Fed and reduce its power.

There are other ways to bias a story, of course.  You can select only the facts you like, or interview only the experts who support your case.  Bernard Goldberg finally got peeved enough to write his book Bias when his then-employer, CBS News, chose to interview just three economists who were on record against the flat tax (which was supported by many other economists, including a Nobel Prize winner), then end their story with, “All the economists we spoke to think the flat tax is a terrible idea.” 

CBS also failed to mention, in a story that blamed California’s budget crisis on Proposition 13, that state revenues had actually increased by 25% in the previous four years while spending had increased 40% … not worth bringing up, apparently.  I blurted out some choice words when that report aired.

Do yourself a favor and try this at home.  Open your paper and check the headlines and callouts, especially in political stories.  See which side of the story is told in the first and last paragraphs.  Notice who’s arguing and contending, and who’s explaining and cautioning.  Look for opinions passed off as facts.

Out of curiosity, I added up the words in the quotes and statements for or against stripping the Fed of its powers in the article I just examined.  For stripping the Fed:  238 words.  Against stripping the Fed:  340 words.

Hey, it least it wasn’t two to one.

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