Hard News by Russell Brown

Various Kinds of Yikes

When I heard on the news that the Labour Party may be in the cart to the tune of $400,000 for overspending on campaign limits, my first thought was: WTF did they spend it on? National's campaign advertising was not only cleverer and more effective, it also seemed much more pervasive.

It turns out that the question is whether the pledge cards and pamphlets slated to the leaders' fund, which every party gets, in fact constituted election activity that should have counted towards campaign limits. Labour didn't try to hide the spending, and submitted along with its return an auditor's reporting questioning the treatment of the spending, but given the ballyhoo about National supposedly trying to buy its way to victory, this is potentially very, very embarrassing. It seems more substantial than the National Party's avowedly accidental $112,000 overspend on TV advertising, which was referred to the police in December.

National, whose complaint sparked the investigation of the way the spending was treated, will be delighted if the flap shoves its tedious leadership intrigues out of the headlines.

Elsewhere, Garrison Keillor has a terse but lovely assessment of George W. Bush on Salon at the moment. Among other things, he notes the explosion of government under the party of small government:

Of greater interest than the president's remarks to Congress was the report of the Office of Personnel Management showing that the federal government continues to grow under Republican rule. The executive branch now employs 1.85 million at an average salary of $63,125. In our nation's capital, the average is a handsome $80,425. Of course, the hiring of screeners at airports raised the total, but screeners' average salary is around $27,000 a year, which pulls down the average, which means there must be many happy folks in the higher ranges, assistant pooh-bahs and panjandrums and dukes of earl who are adept at taking a small acorn and weaving a seven-hour day around it, for which they enjoy job security, 13 paid holidays and 21 vacation days, and retirement at up to 80 percent of salary.

Not a bad gig, considering. There are mature gifted musicians scuffling for less than screeners earn, and farm families scraping along despite prayer and hard labor, and genius comedians scrapping for spare change. So a young Republican lady or gent could be tickled pink to land a job as assistant secretary for compliance assurance and get an 18-by-24 office with a window looking out on the Washington Monument and spend the day in meetings after which you will write memos of ingenious persiflage and obfuscation, like a cat smoothing the litter box.

Republicans believe in smaller government and deregulation, but it takes more and more of their friends and loved ones to not regulate us, and who can blame them? Washington is the perfect place for the slacker child who flubbed his way through college and flopped in business and whom friends and family kept having to prop up -- find him a government job.

Who might these fortunate sons and daughters be? Let's look at one …

You may recall my recent mention of attempts to prevent NASA's senior client scientist, James Hansen from publishing or speaking about research in ways that might cast doubt on White House policy on climate change. In the thick of all this was NASA public affairs officer George Deutsch, a 24 year-old Republican activist (he worked on the 2005 presidential campaign).

Deutsch popped up again recently, on account of his bizarre attempt to turn NASA into some sort of religious organisation. The New York Times has the story of that and quite a bit more:

In October 2005, Mr. Deutsch sent an e-mail message to Flint Wild, a NASA contractor working on a set of Web presentations about Einstein for middle-school students. The message said the word "theory" needed to be added after every mention of the Big Bang.

The Big Bang is "not proven fact; it is opinion," Mr. Deutsch wrote, adding, "It is not NASA's place, nor should it be to make a declaration such as this about the existence of the universe that discounts intelligent design by a creator."

It continued: "This is more than a science issue, it is a religious issue. And I would hate to think that young people would only be getting one-half of this debate from NASA. That would mean we had failed to properly educate the very people who rely on us for factual information the most."

The Big Bang is of course, a scientific theory - but it happens to be widely regarded as the one best supported by all the available evidence. It is assuredly not an "opinion". "Intelligent design by a creator," is not a theory supported by evidence, it is a belief. I demand equal time for the Flying Spaghetti Monster, etc, etc. But wait: it gets worse - or even better, depending on your perspective. An enterprising blogger did a little digging and discovered that Deutsch was not only a creepy little partisan, but a fraud. He had lied about his qualifications on his CV. No one checked.

Deutsch has resigned, but the controversy is certainly not going away. The Washington Post has published an unusually strongly-worded editorial that lists similar concerns at a string of other agencies and concludes:

In every administration there will be spokesmen and public affairs officers who try to spin the news to make the president look good. But this administration is trying to spin scientific data and muzzle scientists toward that end. NASA's Mr. Hansen was right when he told the Times that Mr. Deutsch was only a bit player. "The problem is much broader and much deeper and it goes across agencies," he said. We agree.

Bad Astronomy Blog, meanwhile, is some way beyond angry about this. And a comment associated with another post on the same blog really boils it all down:

There are so many things wrong with this whole affair that the fact that Deutsch lied on his resume is just a minor gaffe by comparison: that a public affairs official could censor scientists; that a major appointment to a scientific agency went to a political appointee with no scientific background; that ideology was allowed to trump science; that the free flow of scientific information was being muzzled. I mean, I’m glad he’s gone, but if he had bothered to finish his degree he’d still be pushing his agenda. It’s analogous to prosecuting Al Capone for income tax invasion; we know he’s done a lot worse, it’s just that this is the only thing we can take him down for.

In a week where we've been arguing about the free speech of a bunch of bad cartoons, I can't help but think that this is a much more important issue, and a more direct threat to modernity. Jihadism won't win more than a handful hearts and minds in Western countries - but when people in one of those countries are willing to corrupt and stifle the flow of information from one of the most important scientific organisations in the world … Houston, we have a problem.

But from the bloody great ScienceBlogs site, a look at something unexpected: the list of signatories of leading evangelical Christians on a letter urging action on climate change. Wow. And, cool.

Meanwhile, Tom Delay, the most corrupt US congressman in a generation, forced to step down from his role as deputy House majority leader, has a new gig. Now where is the last place you'd put a man whose while political life has involved pork and the trading of favours? Yep: the House Appropriations Committee. Those Appropriations guys can - and really do - use their budgetary power as a political tool. And where has Delay been dispatched while he is under a cloud? The Appropriations Committee, where he did some of his finest work. Honestly, you couldn't write some of this shit.

There are still tickets for the Great Auckland Central Hero Debate on Monday evening, in which I will be arguing in the affirmative the moot that "the straight line is godless and immoral". Should be fun. You can buy tickets online and collect them at the door.

If you missed the Fairburn post in the clamour of late - and I think quite a few people did - please do go and read 'My Imaginary Journey' and especially listen to the audio. It was quite a breakthrough getting the clip, and it would be nice to be able to show some demand.

And finally, I don't know whether the Blues or the Hurricanes will triumph at a sold-out Eden Park tonight, but damn am I looking to finding out.

I've been thinking that it might be fun to make one of my Virtual Super 14 mates' lists a Public Address one. So if you're signed up and want to play, drop me a line and I'll add you to my list (if there are a lot to add, it might take a day or two, but that doesn't matter). Then you can feel free to add me to your list via the "who's tracking you?" button. I figure it's safe enough to add John Campbell without asking.