November 20, 2001
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An article in the metro section of today's New York Times runs under the headline "Advocacy Group Says Homeless Are Breaking Shelter Records."
The article reports on a study that claims "the number of people sleeping in municipal shelters and welfare hotels exceeds 29,000 nightly -- the highest number in the city's history."
The Times reports that this "has prompted advocates for the homeless to sound the alarm" and it quotes a spokesman for Mayor-Elect Bloomberg saying Mr. Bloomberg "was aware of the increasing number of homeless people."
There's a huge leap of illogic going on here. These homeless advocates who are sounding the "alarm" at the large numbers of people who are being sheltered are the same ones who sound the alarm whenever there are homeless people on the streets who are not immediately sheltered. Rather than indicating an "increasing number of homeless people," the statistic could quite possibly indicate that the Giuliani administration is making progress in increasing security in the city's homeless shelters and in improving the efficiency of the intake system that puts people in shelters.
In other words, for all the Times article tells us, eight years ago there could have been 40,000 homeless people in New York -- 39,000 sleeping on park benches and in the subway, and 1,000 in the city's municipal shelters and welfare hotels. If today there is no one sleeping on park benches or in the subway, and if today there are 29,000 people in municipal shelters and welfare hotels, some might consider that an improvement. The 29,000 statistic, on its own, is not necessarily enough to justify sounding "the alarm" or speaking of "the increasing number of homeless people."
The metro section article could also benefit from some perspective. A brief item in the national section of today's New York Times reports on homelessness in San Francisco. The San Francisco Chronicle reported Saturday that a city count found 4,169 homeless persons in that city's shelters, hospitals, jails and treatment programs and 3,136 on the street. How does New York's shelter system stack up against that of other cities? The Times doesn't say.
War and Science: An article in the Science Times section reports that "A new sense of urgency about terrorism has prompted the Bush administration to try to repair federal relations with the nation's scientific elite -- ties forged during the cold war." The article goes on to report, "In a sense, the administration is taking small steps toward conditions that prevailed during the cold war, when the government financed much of the nation's basic scientific work."
The ties between the government and the scientific elite were forged not during the Cold War but during World War II, when, for the first time, the government awarded research contracts to universities on a massive scale. It was FDR who in May of 1941 -- before the cold war -- created the Office of Scientific Research and Development, headed by Vannevar Bush. That was the office that awarded massive contracts to MIT for radar research and to Harvard for research on radar countermeasures and that was closely involved in building the nuclear reactor at the University of Chicago. G. Pascal Zachary tells the story in his 1997 book "Endless Frontier," and some of the story is also told in James Hershberg's 1993 biography of James Bryant Conant.
Finally, the Times makes it sound like the government no longer finances much of the nation's basic scientific work. That's not true.
Difficult to Win: An article in the business section of today's Times gives a one-sided account of "disability-related bias cases." The Times article portrays a world in which disabled people are constantly being harassed by evil managers who accuse them of faking their injuries. Not once does the Times contemplate the possibility that there actually are people who fake injuries and that the cost of such behavior to American businesses is enormous. The Times article reports, "lawsuits under the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act have proved extremely difficult to win, according to legal experts." As evidence the Times cites research that says, "Employers prevailed in more than 93 percent of cases reaching the trial court level from 1992 through mid-1998 and 84 percent of the time on appeal." Those statistics don't necessarily show that lawsuits brought under the act are difficult to win. They may show that there are a lot of really weak claims being brought under the act. Or they may show that claims with any merit -- and even many claims without merit -- are likely to be settled before trial to avoid the expense of litigation. Anyway, the Times doesn't have to take the view that employees sometimes fake injuries and that much of ADA litigation is frivolous. But it would be nice if such a point of view were at least included in the article. Some editor could have told the reporter to call Walter Olson of Overlawyered.com.
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