Universal Translator

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year’s Everybody!

So barring some unforeseen event, this marks the last post of 2011.  I hope everybody has a great time celebrating and bringing in the New Year.  Despite my oft floated bits of cynicism, pessimism and general black humor, I am - as always - looking forward to finding out what happens next.

I know it may not always be fun, but I'm sure it’s gonna be great anyway.  

Happy New Year's, one and all!

See everybody in 2012!!

Friday, December 30, 2011

Republicans Playing Calvinball

One of the maddening things about being a rational person following today's politics is that sane people just aren't prepared to grapple 24/7 with the weird Calvinball that the modern-day GOP plays.

Just yesterday I suggested that the Democrats could make hay at Romney's expense by hammering him about his refusal to produce his tax records. However, I also suggested that Obama should not personally be the one calling for their production because he shouldn't open himself up to the possibility of getting pwned if Romney suddenly decided to release the records, the way that Donald Trump got pwned when Obama released his long-form birth certificate right before the Washington Correspondents' Dinner.

And today I see that Craig Romney is suggesting that his dad will release his tax records when Obama releases his birth certificate. Huh? Haven't we already covered this?

Apparently not. Apparently for the Crazies now running the GOP asylum the very Structure of the Universe means that it is impossible for Obama ever to have released his birth certificate, even though he now has done so on multiple occassions (including his very public humiliation of Donald Trump with it at that Correspondents' Dinner).

This is what I mean by Calvinball. Today's Republicans really will tell you that the sky is green if they think saying so will get them an extra political point. They really will change the rules two seconds after telling you what the rules are, if they think they can get away with it.

Canada: The Northernmost State

About a month ago I penned a little rant about "independent voters," arguing as I always do that "independent" is just a functional euphemism for "low-information" (i.e., "bog stupid"). The cause of that rant was a poll asking Mississippi voters for whom they would vote today if they had the choice: Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis? Lincoln was the clear winner among both Democrats and Republicans, but self-identified "Independents" were split evenly at 44% each.

I suggested that this was only further evidence that people who self-identify as "independent" are really just so damned ignorant that they don't even know who either Lincoln or Davis were. In an attempt to bolster my claim that there are Americans alive today who don't know who Abraham Lincoln was, I pointed out that "[t]hese are people who think Canada is the northernmost state."

Well . . . lest anybody think I exaggerate the depth of ignorance that exists in the simple American electorate, let's just take a gander at how the Iowa Republican caucuses are wrapping up. Here is Texas Governor Rick Perry explaining to Iowans why we should be eager to get our hands on Canada's tar sands oil:
"Every barrel of oil that comes out of those sands in Canada is a barrel of oil that we don't have to buy from a foreign source," Mr. Perry said in Clarinda, earning a round of enthusiastic applause.

Later, the audience reacted again to Mr. Perry's assertion that buying so much energy from foreign countries is "not good policy, it's not good politics and frankly it's un-American." (emphasis added)
And you thought I was exaggerating last month about how bog stupid Americans can be? What cracks me up about all this is not just that Perry just naturally considers Canada's oil to be part of the United States' domestic production, but that when he made these ridiculous statements his Republican audience burst into "enthusiastic applause." Apparently, the sheer ridiculousness of claiming Canada's oil as our own escaped them all.

Lord, Lord . . . give me the strength tomorrow night to drink enough to expunge all of 2011 from my head, and to steel me to endure the year to come.

UPDATE REDUX: Turning Out America’s Lights

I’ve written here and here about something I feel is emblematic of a deep rot in modern America’s understanding of what it means to be a community:  the turning out of public lights in towns all across the country.  For a people that consider themselves to be the “first” of the First World nations, we have become so absolutely opposed to reinvesting any taxpayer money in the commons that now many communities can no longer afford to maintain streetlights.  In 21st century America, our towns are going dark because we refuse to pay enough in private taxes to keep the public lights shining.

Today The New York Times published another story about this phenomenon.  Although the story mostly focused on Highland Park, Michigan, the article pointed out that “similar [cost-cutting] efforts have played out in dozens of towns and cities” across the country.

Chalk it up as just one more piece of evidence that we have stopped caring about maintaining our nation as a going concern; we no longer seem to think of the United States as something in which to invest, but simply as something to exploit until it is completely hollowed out and then . . . what?  Phase three:  profit?

The turning out of America’s lights in towns and cities, one by one, is only the most stark example of what appears to be a long-term trend that eschews investment of any sort (education? infrastructure? health care?) in the future of the country.  Via Kevin Drum, Mike Mandel provides this chart:

Mandel explains that net business investment is well below historical levels, household and institutional investment is at a 40-year low, and

Government net investment as a share of net national product is at a 40-year low. . . .  This is a true failure of economic policy.  Government is punking out, just at the time when a public investment surge is needed to make up for the private investment drought.  As a country, we should be investing more, not less.  (emphasis in the original)

Everybody keeps telling me that we “should run the government like a business.”  Well, businesses these days don’t think much beyond the next quarter’s profitability and/or stock price, and so now apparently neither do our governments.

No one is going to have to remind us to turn off the lights as the US exits the world stage.  Turns out we’re just gonna refuse to pay the electric bill and let the lights go out all on their own.

Playing With the Pundits – Why We Keep Making Mistakes

Today Paul Krugman returns to his oft-repeated mantra that recent badly chosen economic policies have vindicated Keynesian economics both in the US and in Europe.  Specifically, Keynes argued that government spending should be cut during economic booms, not during economic slumps – that it should be countercyclical to the economy.  Krugman asserts that the disastrous results of Europe’s new commitment to “economic austerity” (and, to a lesser extent, our failure to enact a sufficiently large economic stimulus package back in 2009), validate this basic Keynesian principle.

I read Krugman’s column as yet another reminder that human evolution did not gift us with a brain designed to be very good at either (i) dealing with very complicated situations, or (ii) events that take place on something other than the human scale.  To be sure, our brains can learn to handle complicated situations and events on macro and micro scales, but learning how to do something is not the same as instinctively knowing how to do something.

Playing With the Pundits – The Worst WaPo Column Ever?

Certain columnists just lend themselves to abuse, especially those wealthy pundits who presume to speak on behalf of “the American people.”  David Brooks wrote an entire book ten years ago (Bobos in Paradise) that attempted to fob off Brooks’s own celebration of the upper class’s conspicuous consumption as self-evidently an American virtue; eight years later he confirmed just how much his finger is on the pulse of the American public by declaiming that Americans thought that Barack Obama “just would not fit in at the Applebee’s salad bar.”  Of course, none of the Applebee’s restaurants even have salad bars something Brooks might have known but for the fact he obviously never condescends to eat in chain restaurants.

Thomas Friedman is another easily mockable pundit.  The multi-millionaire Mustache of Understanding’s penchant for extrapolating global truths about humanity’s future from random comments made by taxi cab drivers in the middle of conversations that almost certainly took place only in Friedman’s fevered imaginings is the impetus for an irregular series of postings (the “Friedman Files”) on this very blog.  And of course there’s Friedman’s infamous Charlie Rose appearance in which he argued that after 9/11 America had no choice but to attack a large Muslim country – any large Muslim country would do, apparently, except Saudi Arabia – so that our military could tell that country’s people:  Suck.  On.  This.

But someone who doesn’t get mocked enough – no matter what silly thing comes out of his pie hole – is The Washington Post’s David Ignatius.  But no matter.  Today’s column, “The Year of the Befuddled Leader,” provides more than enough mock-fodder.

Playing With the Pundits – How a Bad Economy Might Help Obama

Heading into Election Year 2012, I expect we’re going to start seeing even more attempts to extrapolate from past elections in order to predict what will happen next November.  Such is Susan Milligan’s U.S. News and World Report column, “2012 Republicans Risk Repeating John Kerry’s 2004 Mistakes.”

I certainly don’t have any problem with such columns.  I’m fond of political speculation myself, and whenever I think I’ve come up with something worthwhile I make sure to post it here so we can all go back and laugh at it when I am proved to be terribly, terribly wrong.  But there are two things about Milligan’s column – one bad, one good – to which I want to draw attention.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Making Hay at Plutocrat Romney's Expense

A good deal already has been written about Mitt Romney’s categorical refusal to release his tax statements.  The conventional wisdom is that Romney’s refusal arises out of his desire to avoid telling the American public that he makes millions every year – in part because he still collects a paycheck from Bain Capital, a company he left 12 years ago – but thanks to the “carried interest” loophole and the capital gains tax rate, he pays a lower federal income tax than do most working and middle class Americans.

If Romney does indeed turn out to be the Republican nominee, it’ll be interesting to see how much hay the Democrats can make of this.  I would hope that at a time more and more Americans are becoming concerned with the inherent unfairness of our economic system, the answer to that would be “a lot of hay.”  Personally, I think the Democrats should run political ad after political ad after political ad calling on Romney to do what every other presidential candidate has always done, each ad strongly suggesting that Romney doesn’t want to admit that – as a member of the 1% -- he is trying to hide from the American public just how skewed in his favor our current system is.

Of course, Obama himself shouldn’t run these ads.  The last thing Obama needs is to have Romney finally produce his tax returns and have them show something other than that Romney is taking advantage of a tax break.  It’d be like what Obama did to Donald Trump with his long-form birth certificate, except in reverse.

No, the ads should be run either by the Democratic Party or – even better – by an anonymous Super PAC.  So long as Obama himself cannot be tied to the charges, then it won’t make any difference whether the charges can be disproved.  And politically speaking, the damage would already have been done.  Accuse Romney over and over again of being a plutocrat who wants to enshrine the plutocracy, and low-information voters will come to internalize that message.  If it goes on long enough then no amount of information afterward will actually be able to correct that impression.

Clarification:  I don’t think that what I am suggesting here amounts to the same kind of outright falsehoods in which the Romney campaign itself already is engaged.  I certainly would not suggest that Obama lower himself to Romney’s own stygian depths in order to win an election.

And I do think there is a vast difference between asserting something that you believe to be true and that almost certainly is true (even if you don’t have absolutely conclusive evidence to back up that assertion), and flat-out making statement after statement that you know to be false – which is what Romney is doing.  

Radical Republicans Update


Just before the Christmas weekend I threw up a post decrying our political press’s unwillingness to acknowledge that the Crazy Wing of the Republican Party still is committed to destroying the great political and economic consensus under which both parties operated from the end of WWII until about the age of Reagan – the consensus that allowed us to build an affluent middle class society in the first place.  This wing traces its lineage directly back to the John Birch Society and the Barry Goldwater campaign of 1964.

So I was extremely gratified to read E.J. Dionne’s column raising the same essential point:  “For the first time since Barry Goldwater made the effort in 1964, the Republican Party is taking a run at overturning the consensus that has governed U.S. political life since the Progressive era.”  Dionne argues that the Republican presidential candidates’ uniform embrace of the view that government is an oppressive force, with no legitimate role to play in Americans’ lives, makes them the truly radical candidates and Barack Obama the real “conservative” in 2012 in the truest sense of that word.

While it’s heartening to see someone with a national platform trying to draw attention to a situation that should be self-evident, it also must be pointed out that “Conservativism” – as that word has come to be used in modern American politics – always have been deeply radicalized.  Indeed, this is one of the themes underlying Corey Robin’s recent book The Reactionary Mind:  Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, in which Robin argues

Far from being “traditionalists,” or advocates for continuity and only small, incremental changes to existing social structures, Conservatives are – in fact – fairly radical thinkers who can define themselves only in relation to some past or imminent attempt (real or imagined) by others to wrest power, wealth or privilege away from them. . . .


Thus, Robin argues, Conservatism – properly understood – is never about maintaining things the way they now are; it is always about reintroducing the “proper” balance to society, which previously had been upset by some illegitimate reformation.

This is why I find the rise of the radical right within the Republican Party so potentially terrifying.  These people aren’t concerned with “preserving” American society but about fundamentally re-writing the way the federal government’s role in that society.  Specifically, they want to eliminate the government’s ability to rein in abuse by rich and powerful private actors, and they want to eliminate even the minimal safety net the government provides for the least fortunate among us. 

These aren’t small goals, and I truly believe that the people voting for this agenda don’t fully realize what it is they are empowering:  a dystopia in which anyone already rich and powerful can essentially do whatever they please, and everybody else will just have to get use to being abused.

UPDATE:  Turns out the Frank Rich is also thinking along these lines, as he explains in his latest article in NY Magazine, "The Molotov Party."

Monday, December 26, 2011

Changing the Rules

Ezra Klein had a good article the other day over at The Washington Monthly about the bipartisanship-seeking political group “No Labels” that I recommend checking out.

As a general rule, I don’t have much patience for political organizations whose only real purpose seems to be “getting everyone to stop fighting and work together,” because I think such organizations mistake bipartisanship for an actual political goal.  I really only care that my government enacts useful, desirable public policy – I don’t give much of a damn how it goes about doing so.  So if legislators working together in a bipartisan way, holding hands and singing Kumbaya is what’s necessary to get things done, then I’m all for bipartisanship.  But if practicing scorched earth, take no prisoners, hardball politics is the only way to enact good policy, then I’ll bring the metaphorical salt with which we can plow the political field after winning that fight.  Really, I’m just for whatever works. 

(I also have a tendency to sneer at groups who talk about creating a viable third party in this country.  That ain’t never gonna happen, because the people who make the rules for political parties are all of ‘em – every last one – people already devoted to preserving the primacy of either the Democratic or the Republican party.  You wanna see Republicans and Democrats working together to achieve a common goal?  Then take a stab at trying to break up their political duopoly; those guys’ll come together so fast it’ll make your head spin.)

To his credit, Klein begins his column pointing out all the many ways in which the “No Labels” group is so very, very annoying.  But then Klein pivots, and argues that one of the reasons our political process is dysfunctional right now is because the last time the rules by which Congress operates were reformed was way back in 1975.  As Klein points out – and as I argued recently – those rules were written when the parties last shared a broad consensus about government policy.  That consensus has since been shattered by the rise of the Teabagging Right (in all its many previous incarnations) and Congress’s existing rules simply cannot function in our new age of political polarization.

Recognizing this fact, No Labels has proposed a number of rule changes Congress should enact, many of them quite good.

Nominations to executive or judicial positions, for instance, would get an up-or-down vote after 90 days.  If the federal budget was late, members of Congress wouldn’t get paid.  Filibustering senators would actually have to do the Mr. Smith-Goes-to-Washington thing and hold the floor of Congress by talking.  No more filibustering without actually working for it.  Oh, and filibusters could only be mounted against the passage of a bill – currently, the motion to move to debate is frequently filibustered, which means the filibuster is used to choke off debate rather than protect it.

I can support all those.  Right now it is way too easy for a handful of congressmen – or even for a single senator (the ‘anonymous hold,’ anyone?) – to grind the legislative process to a complete halt.  These suggested changes would impose a cost on congressmen and senators who abused the rules with the purpose – not of advancing their own policy prescriptions – but simply of blocking the other side’s.  Paralysis is not policy, and there should be a price to be paid if one is simply going to throw sand in the gears of government.

Really, do click over and read the article.  Besides discussing these proposed rule changes, Klein also provides some data that illustrate just how polarized our politics have gotten over the past 30 years and that suggest continuing to merely insist that everybody “work together in a bipartisan way” is unlikely to do much to actually push the country forward.

Scalia and Me

I have had three (kind of) run-ins with Justice Antonin Scalia, none of which he knows about or would remember.

The third of these was decades ago, when I was on the Beltway traveling to see friends.  A large BMW passed me and I noticed that the license plate read “SCALIA.”  That’s gotta be Tony, I thought and I sped up to catch it.  Whoever was driving the thing must’ve seen me coming, because suddenly the Beemer sped up to about 90.  And now it was a race, which only made me even more determined to catch him.  I gunned my car and gave chase.  We kept playing follow-me/catch-up until eventually the Beemer got caught in traffic and I could pull alongside it to peer within.

The driver shot me a look and in my recollection he seemed a bit scared.  Which is how I know it wasn’t Antonin Scalia – even federal district court judges carry emergency “panic buttons” (I would learn that later; I didn’t know that when I was still young enough to start chasing Beemers that might be carrying Supreme Court justices) with which to summon federal marshals, but this guy was panicked by a kid in an old Chevy convertible chasing after him.

Still . . . the driver actually looked at lot like Tony, just a younger version.  He turned and stared at me and I thought it must be his son, but I don’t even know if Scalia has a son.  Maybe the streets of DC are just filled with a lot of short, heavy-set Italians named Scalia.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Happy Holidays, Everybody!

Posting is likely to be light or non-existent until sometime after tomorrow, but I want to wish everybody who celebrates this season all the very best.

Whether you celebrate Christmas religiously,

or more secularly:

or maybe a combination of both:

Or maybe you don't really celebrate Christmas, but you still want the toys:

Whether your holiday this season is Hanukkah:

or Kwanzaa:

Or some combination of all three:

Whether your holiday is Festivus:

or simply the Winter Solstice:

All the very best to you and yours.

Bonus Cheer:  And because tomorrow is Sunday, for those of you who still worship very, very old gods here's a religious cheer I remember seeing scrawled in graffiti on the men's room wall in a panel of Alan Moore's Top Ten:


Bonus Photo:  And I admit this has nothing to do with the holiday season, but it does involve religion (kind of) and - I swear - I want this sign so very, very much:

(h/t Tim F.)

Italy's New Bankster in Chief Makes Sure Banks Get Rich

Via Atrios comes this story about Italy's efforts to rein in tax evasion.  It turns out that Italians are among Europe's most frugal people, saving quite a bit and eschewing the use of credit cards.  Would you believe it?  They actually prefer to use cash for a lot of their transactions.

As the article points out, some of this is cultural and some of it is simply a desire to avoid paying taxes.  A lot of retailers, apparently, offer discounts to people who pay in cash and do not demand a receipt, essentially splitting with the customer the savings realized by not paying taxes on the goods sold.

And so bankster-in-chief Prime Minister Mario Monti -- formerly a Goldman Sachs international adviser who was appointed, not elected, to his new position as part of the European financial industry's ongoing usurpation of democracy -- reduced the maximum allowed cash payment from 2,500 euros to only 1,000 euros.  (He originally wanted to reduce it to no more than 300 euros, but it was decided that Italians would need more time to adjust to the changes.  I suppose, eventually, he'll get it down that low.)

Now, on general principles, I don't have a problem with this.  I'm a big believer in what I've come to think of as the "circulatory system" monetary theory:  a portion of any nation's economy must consistently be siphoned over to the government in the form of taxes, which then can be re-injected into that economy by the provision of needed government services.  Only in this way can we avoid the inevitable wealth condensation that ultimately results in a few very, very rich families and lots of very poor people.

So if Italian tax evasion is as rampant as the article indicates, then moving Italians out of a cash-based economy may in fact be an eminently reasonable thing to do.  After all, the article claims that the Italian government loses about 120 billion euros a year due to this type of tax evasion.  That's a good deal of money.

But here's the rub:  forcing Italians to use plastic for their purchases instead of cash means that the banks who issue that plastic are likely to get very, very rich.  You see, the banks charge fees of up to 2% on credit transactions.  And - quite frankly - that's fairly obscene.  Electronic swiping of an account costs the banks fractions of pennies (if it in fact costs them anything at all) because computers do all the work -- it's fully automated.  So really there shouldn't be a bank charge for this service in the first place.  But making the charge dependent on the size of the transaction?  What possible argument can be made that the more money a customer deducts from their account the more the bank should charge that customer (or, more accurately, the customer's retailer) for the privilege of doing so?  If there is any cost at all to the bank from electronic transactions, that cost doesn't depend on whether the transaction amount is $10 or $100,000 -- it's still only an electronic deduction from an account.

If you want to understand who really controls the levers of power, think of how this new law (it took effect December 4th) was imposed on the Italian people without a vote or a referendum or even a poll asking if they were in favor of it, and then consider this passage from the article:

The government is negotiating with the banks to get them to cut fees on credit cards and lower costs for bank accounts to encourage the move away from cash, Grilli said Dec. 5.
Banks are willing to consider zero-cost current accounts for low-income retirees and discuss credit-card costs “in light of the government’s new measures,” Giuseppe Mussari, head of Rome-based ABI, said Dec. 11. However, lenders won’t “give away” services that carry a cost for them, he said.  (emphasis added)

First -- as already noted -- these services don't cost the banks a goddamned thing.  Second, notice that Italy's new Bankster in Chief feels the need to negotiate with the banks about reducing fees.  Seriously?  The Italian government is mandating that the Italian people must now use banks in order to purchase goods and services, but the government isn't doing anything to prevent a bank windfall except to ask pretty please if the banks will maybe cut back on some of their obscene profit gouging?

Yeah.  Mario Monti is a "technocrat."  He doesn't have an ideological agenda.  Tell ya what -- pull the other one, it's got bells on it.

Shameless Speculation Update!

Sigh.  Another beautiful theory slain by an ugly fact.  (Thomas Huxley, via Bloom County’s Oliver Wendell Jones)

As confirmed by this AP Story, it turns out that Newt Gingrich also failed to provide the necessary signatures to appear on Virginia’s Super Tuesday ballot.  (So did Rick Perry but nobody cares about Rick Perry.)  Newt failed despite a last-minute rally in Arlington at which his campaign volunteers asked everyone attending to sign petitions to get him on the ballot.

I still believe that Newt will win the nomination, assuming he has the organization to do so – but that may well be a pretty shaky assumption.  I suppose this is what one gets when one launches a book tour and profile-enhancement operation disguised as a presidential campaign, and then takes off for two weeks to cruise the Greek Isles.

Still . . . how deliciously satisfying it would be to see Newt – he of the big head and outsized ego – fail to obtain the nomination that would so clearly cement for him his own image as a visionary and GOP elder, not because he couldn’t actually win the nomination but because not even he took his chances of success seriously when he launched his bid.

Which brings to mind another comic strip quote, this time from Dilbert:

               Dilbert:            Is it wrong we can only find joy in other people’s pain?

               Wally:             There’s another source?

Friday, December 23, 2011

Shameless GOP Primary Speculation – Part II

I just saw this story regarding Virginia’s primary on Super Tuesday, March 6th.  It turns out that neither Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, nor Jon Huntsman submitted the necessary paper work in time to qualify for Virginia’s primary – they will not appear on the Virginia ballot.

I find this interesting because it seems to me that failing to file the requisite paperwork to appear on any of the Super Tuesday states is tantamount to admitting that your campaign for the presidency is not something you take particularly seriously.  Whether it’s the sheer inability to collect the necessary signatures or the simple unwillingness to expend the resources necessary to do so, failing to appear on a Super Tuesday state’s ballot pretty much announces to the world you do not think you have a serious shot at snagging your party’s nomination.

Assuming that’s the case, I am beginning to wonder what thought these three non-candidates have given to whom they will endorse for the Republican nomination once they officially bow out of the running.  So . . . I’m gonna indulge myself by making some more entirely unsubstantiated, wildly speculative, political horserace predictions.

A Very Calvin and Hobbes Christmas

Heading out into the Christmas Eve/Christmas Day Weekend, I thought I'd pass along this YouTube Video, in the event you've not seen it already.

Ah, Bill Watterson . . . we still miss Calvin and Hobbes.

The Media Should Recognize America’s Polarization

As a guy who pays a lot of attention to political news, one of the things that bugs the hell out of me is our political media’s insistence on bipartisan solutions for the sheer sake of bipartisanship.  Yesterday’s post about Jay Carney’s effort to deal with a media Villager who somehow believed it was President Obama’s responsibility to rescue John Boehner from Boehner’s own inability to control his party’s Crazies provides a good example of just how skewed this reflexive way of thinking on the part of the Villagers can get.

The political media’s (literally) unthinking demand that the two political parties “cooperate to reach bipartisan solutions” in every instance is at the root of all the more egregious examples of journalistic malpractice.  As the recent kerfuffle over extending the payroll tax cut should have made clear to even the most casual observer, that problem did not result from “both parties” acting intransigently. 

To the contrary, the bill the House was being asked to accept was in fact exactly the kind of “bipartisan solution” that the political press is always demanding our political leaders come up with.  The only reason it was not automatically passed by the House is because one party, the Republican Party, has essentially been captured by its own Crazies.

But the Village media simply cannot bring themselves to admit that only one political party – or even just the Crazy wing of one political party – could possibly be at fault.  And so before the GOP finally backed down in the face of an overwhelming opposition, the media narrative was already shifting to assign blame to both parties equallyAs Charlie Pierce wrote:

The narrative is already shifting from “Republican Vandals Blow Up Democracy!” to “Feckless Congress Can’t Tie Its Shoes!”  The inevitable desire of the corporate press not to get yelled at by the crazy people . . . will result in this whole mishigas being interpreted as a bipartisan failure.  Which it obviously is not.  The tell is the number of stories we’re reading now about the “impasse” in Washington.  This is not an “impasse,” this is a deliberate act of political sabotage on the part of one of our two political parties.  It is a hostage-taking.  Call it an “impasse” and you’ve abandoned truth for neutrality.

This is your political journalism at work, ladies and gentlemen.  These yahoos will take no sides, they will cast no blame, even when one side is clearly in the wrong – because calling out clear wrongdoing would somehow automatically mean they were no longer “impartial.”  They have sworn allegiance to maintaining perceived parity between political contestants, and no longer believe their job has anything whatsoever to do with that quaint notion “Truth.”

This kind of reflexive journalistic malpractice is not just deplorable, it does actual harm to our ability to govern ourselves wisely.

Dog Training

So I keep both dogs in crates when I leave the house these days.  Napoleon is so old that – especially with his recent prostate trouble – I can no longer trust his control over his bladder when unsupervised (although he does retain control when he’s in his crate).  And Homer is so young that I cannot trust him not to casually destroy something if left alone for too long.

They’ve both taken to their crates quite well, Homer especially.  The doors always remain open when not in use and Homer frequently slumps up and sleeps inside his crate when he wants a little down time.  When I need to leave and so start herding Napoleon over to the area where the crates are kept Homer scurries into his own all by himself and patiently waits for me to close the door and give him his doggy biscuit.

And for some reason he really likes the water bottle that hangs on the side of his crate.  It is an oversized version of the same kind of water bottle people provide their pet hamsters, a large cylinder of water connected to a curved metal tube that contains a ball inside it.  The ball naturally rolls down the inside of the tube until it blocks the opening, which prevents the water from simply spilling out of the cylinder.  But when Homer licks the end of the tube the ball gets pushed back up and Homer can get the water that comes out.  For some unknowable reason, Homer seems to prefer drinking from the water bottle than from out of the large water bowl that I keep next to the dog food right beside the crates.

Anyway, a few days ago I was working away on the computer and I heard Homer licking furiously at his water bottle.  (With each lick the small metal ball makes a click-click sound that is fairly loud.)  I ignored this and kept working until about 10 minutes or so had passed and Homer was still going strong.  Finally curious, I got up and went to investigate.  As I suspected, there was no water left in his bottle and Homer was licking a dry spout.  Click-click, click-click.  Homer looked up at me and I swear there was a puzzled, confused look in his eyes.

“Look, buddy,” I told him, “let me point out a few things to you.  One, you’ve got a huge bowl of water just five feet away that you could drink out of – you don’t need to get your water from a bottle.  Two, the bottle isn’t magic.  It isn’t going to suddenly fill up with water just because you keep licking it.”

Of course, Homer is a bulldog and didn’t really understand a word of what I said.  So I sighed, detached his bottle from the side of the crate, filled it up and replaced it.  Homer drank from it for a few seconds, and then trotted out and looked for a toy to play with.  I went back to the computer.

But after I sat down I replayed that one-sided conversation in my head and I realized that – from Homer’s point of view – I was very probably wrong about the bottle not being magic.  All Homer had to do was keep licking that goddamned thing long enough, and eventually it would refill with water because I would get up and refill it for him.

He is training me well.

Reading Marx – Part IX

(Routine Introduction:  For reasons explained here, I’m in the process of slogging through Marx’s Capital.  The plan is to read it in conjunction with watching David Harvey’s free on-line lectures about the book.  I’ll be posting notes and initial impressions as I read.  This will be an extremely long-term project.)

Today:  Vol. I, Book I, Part I, Chapter II.  “Exchange”

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Stephen Colbert Heightening the Contradictions

Satirist Stephen Colbert is doing his level best to point out how unaccountable, completely nontransparent money powerfully shapes our actual political process.  While the Occupy movement may be raising the issue of money in politics generally, Colbert is taking concrete steps to prove how absurd – how absolutely corporatist – modern American elections have become.  The full details are in this this column authored by Colbert himself, but the details are fairly straightforward.

As anybody who has watched his show knows, after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision Colbert decided to take advantage of the Court’s striking down of 60 plus years of campaign finance law by forming the “Colbert Super PAC” – a political action committee that can raise unlimited sums from undisclosed donors to spend on political speech in unlimited quantities.  Since then, Colbert has been looking for ways to spend the money he’s collected so as to underscore just how absurd our political system has gotten.  And with the Republican primary in South Carolina coming up (Colbert is a South Carolina native) on January 21st, Colbert may just have found it.

It turns out that the South Carolina GOP and local government officials had been in a dispute as to who should pay for the upcoming primary.  The GOP promised to pay a substantial portion of the primary, but wanted the local governments to pick up a good deal of the tab too; in turn, the governments wanted the GOP – as the private party whose primary this is – to pick up the entire tab.  Colbert to the rescue! 

Colbert called the South Carolina GOP and offered them the full $400,000 they needed to pay for their part of the primary in exchange for (i) naming rights over the primary, and (ii) the inclusion on the ballot of a non-binding referendum asking South Carolinians to decide if “corporations are people” or if “only people are people.”  The GOP agreed to both conditions.  The primary would therefore officially be known as “The Colbert Super PAC South Carolina Republican Primary,” which language would appear on all press releases, signage and notices, including the debates.

As Colbert put it, it was his intention to “finally raise democracy to the same level as the Tostitos™ Fiesta Bowl and Kardashian™ weddings.”

However, the S.C. Supreme Court then ruled that the South Carolina counties – not the GOP – were responsible for funding the full cost of the primary.  It also ruled that all non-binding referenda be stricken from the ballots.

So then the South Carolina GOP re-launched negotiations with Colbert.  They agreed to provide Colbert the same naming rights if – instead of paying for the primaries – he just gave his $400,000 to them.  Colbert countered by asking that they petition the Court to get his referendum back on the ballot, but they refused.  He then offered them $200,000 for the naming rights (as he was only getting half of what originally had been agreed upon), but they refused that offer as well.

Colbert then reached out to the state Democrats, who agreed to file a request to reinstate the petition; in a snit, the South Carolina GOP went to the press and announced that they had decided to decline Colbert’s offer to fund the primary (not that, after the S.C. Supreme Court decision, they needed to fund the primary any longer themselves) to “preserve the sanctity of the primary election.”  (As Colbert points out, we now know that this “sanctity” has a street value of somewhere between $200K and $400K).

But now it turns out that – the S.C. Supreme Court having determined that the GOP is under no legal obligation to pay for their own primary election – the South Carolina GOP has announced it will only be paying the legal minimum percentage of candidate filing fees . . . which means South Carolina’s counties are now on the hook for about $500,000.

So Colbert is back!  This time he reaching out to the S.C. counties directly, offering to cover their costs for holding the primaries in exchange for (i) their supporting the Democrats’ petition regarding his non-binding referenda and (ii) the previously agreed upon naming rights.

* * *

Personally, I think it’d be great to tune in on January 21st to watch the “Colbert Super PAC South Carolina Republican Primary.” 

As has been pointed out many times before – both here and elsewhere – we’ve seen a real push recently to eliminate as many actual voters from our elections as possible.  The new voter ID laws in numerous states, the shortening of the early-voting period in Florida, Scott Walker’s decision in Wisconsin to shut down government offices where the new voter IDs could be obtained, the affirmative decision not to tell people the IDs were free, and – of course – the absolute refusal to even entertain the idea that elections should be held over more than one day, or on the weekend . . . all of these are designed to make it as difficult for people to vote as possible.

Couple that with our corporations’ new and unlimited ability flood elections with entirely anonymous campaign money and it seems fairly clear that the ultimate goal of the nation’s plutocracy is to obtain the best elections money can buy; they’d be fine if election results were determined by nothing more than who had the most money to spend on a candidate.

So Colbert is trying to “heighten the contradictions” (as they used to say in the 60s) by actually sponsoring an entire primary election.  Good for him.  I hope the South Carolina counties are so strapped for cash they actually take him up on his offer.  Maybe, if the republican primary is raised to the level of next week’s Little Caesar™ Bowl, people will start paying attention to the fact we are quickly destroying the very democrat structures that make it possible for us to have a say in our country’s affairs.

New Rule: Screw "Continuity"

I was listening to the December 5th Majority Report podcast earlier today, and Sam Seder had Ari Berman on as a guest.  Berman had recently returned from the UK, and he reported that Prime Minister Cameron and the other UK leaders had recently given a series of speeches in which they basically said they were doubling down on the “austerity plan” that has been so contractionary and has actually made economic matters worse in the UK and throughout Europe.

Of course, Paul Krugman has been railing about the austerity kick that so many have been on lately, both in Europe and here in the United States, and repeatedly has wondered why political leaders remain so cocksure that eventually, someday, maybe even someday soon . . . everything will start working out as planned and things will actually start getting better.  They keep doubling down on this program, Krugman complains, despite the fact it flies in the face of all accepted macroeconomic theory and despite the fact it keeps repeatedly not working.

And then I remembered this piece by Matthew Yglesias, about Confessions of the “Old Wizard”: the Autobiography of Hjalmar Horace Greeley Schacht.  Schacht was Currency Commissioner and President of the Reichsbank during the Weimar Republic, went on to also become the Minister of Economics under Hitler before being forced out of the government, and then took part in the German resistance to Hitler.  He was acquitted at Nuremberg.

Schacht successfully ended the Weimar Republic's period of hyperinflation by simply refusing to print more money.  But the real point of Yglesias’s column is that only Schacht or somebody else brought in to replace the former President of the Reichsbank, Rudolf Havenstein, could have made the decision to stop printing marks and thus end hyperinflation.  The reason for that is because Havenstein already had committed himself to printing marks in order to meet Germany’s WWI reparation payments, and were he to stop printing marks after the resulting hyperinflation had wrecked the economy then that would have been an implicit admission that his previous policy had been monstrously wrongheaded.

What Yglesias is getting at is that institutions that have grossly mismanaged public policy have a difficult time changing course because the people responsible for managing those institutions do not wish to admit they have made egregious mistakes.  For example,

[i]f the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee were to take strong action at its next meeting and put the United States on a path to rapid catch-up growth, all that would do is serve to vindicate the position of the Fed's critics that it's been screwing up for years now. Rather than looking like geniuses for solving the problem, they would look like idiots for having let it fester so long. By contrast, if you were to appoint an entirely new team then their reputational incentives would point in the direction of fixing the problem as soon as possible.

One of the things Obama’s critics like to carp about is that for a guy running on a bad economy bequeathed to us by the Republican party, a guy who campaigned on hope and change . . . Obama kept basically the same economic team in place after he took over for the sake of “continuity.”  (Tim Geithner?  Ben Bernanke?)  After all, how can we change our game plan if we keep the same strategists?

But as Yglesias points out, the situation may be far worse than mere sclerotic institutionalism.  For example, why does Bernanke keep signaling that the Fed is unwilling to allow inflation to grow, even though doing so will boost the economy and help get more people back to work?  Well, it could be that he really believes his policies eventually will be vindicated, and it could be that he just doesn’t care about the United States’ high, high unemployment rate and really thinks that keeping a tight rein on our non-existent inflation is more important.

But it could also simply be that Bernanke is incapable of changing policy even if he wanted to, because the cost to him personally – to admit that his past actions were mistaken – would be too severe.

New Rule:  When things have gotten screwed up, it is alway, always better to fire the people who did the screwing up and to bring in a new team than it is to keep those same screw-ups around to provide a comforting sense of “continuity.”   

Oh, Fergawdsake!

Via Steve BenenI was pointed to this exchange between White House Press Secretary Jay Carney and an unidentified reporter yesterday:

QUESTION:   Yesterday, the President said he needed the Speaker to do something [on extending the payroll tax cut].  The Speaker said, “I need the President to do something.”  My assumption would be the Speaker expected something more than a phone call.  He was looking for something from the President as far as negotiations; you say there’s nothing to negotiate.  The Speaker is in a corner, he’s boxed in a corner.  Is the President going to do nothing to help the Speaker get out of that corner?

CARNEY:      The President is doing everything he can to help the American people.  The Speaker is very capable of helping himself by calling a vote on the Senate compromise, a compromise that received the support of 80 percent of the Republican senators and even a greater percentage of Democratic senators.  There is a bipartisan compromise available to him as a lifesaver, if you will.

QUESTION:   But politically he’s in a box.  Is there anything the President can do?

CARNEY:      Well, I mean, honestly, the important thing here is not who’s up and who’s down politically because, as I talked about yesterday, we are beginning to see some positive signs in the economy.  We are a long way from full economic recovery, but the last thing we need to do is fail to pass a payroll tax cut extension which would have a negative impact on the kind of economic growth that we have been seeing and need to continue to see.  It’s just wrong at every level to prevent this from passing.

Good Lord . . . where to begin with this inanity?

First, the extension of the payroll tax cut was worked out between the White House and the leadership of both chambers of Congress.  That includes Speaker Boehner, who thought it was a good idea to pass the compromise reached last weekThe only reason the Speaker is “boxed in” politically is because he is so weak he can’t control the Republican Wingnut Crazies in the House of which he ostensibly is in charge.

Second, the payroll tax cut extension could still be passed if the GOP leadership would simply call the matter to a vote.  Just yesterday Steny Hoyer attempted to debate the tax cut extension already worked out between Boehner, McConnell, Reid and the White House, and in response the GOP leadership walked out of the chamber and ordered the C-Span cameras turned off so that America would not see them abdicating their legislative responsibilities.  Why?  Because the Crazies know that if the thing comes up for a vote, the Democrats and the GOP Orderlies have enough votes to pass it.

Third, the only reason Boehner is now “boxed in” is because he can’t control his party’s Crazies, but the GOP is absolutely getting clobbered in the world of public opinion for failing to extend a middle class tax cut after fighting tooth and nail to prevent the imposition of a surtax on any annual income over $1 million made by the wealthiest among us.

So – for those of you counting along at home – the American people want the payroll tax cut extended, the Villagers want this, the White House wants this, the Senate wants this, the Republican leadership wants this, and a majority of the House of Representatives wants this.  The only people who don’t want this are the House GOP Crazies, and Boehner is too much of a spineless wimp to stand up to them.  That’s why Boehner is now “boxed in.”

And some goober in the White House press pool thinks this means President Obama should compromise some more?  That Obama should compromise with the most extreme, fringe members of a party that has made it abundantly clear that they hate his guts, despise him personally, and will do everything in their power to defeat, deflect and thwart him from enacting his legislative agenda?  And that Obama should do so simply to help out the GOP’s gutless, worthless, spineless “leader”?

I’m sorry, but am I the only person who remembers that only three months ago, when President Obama was presenting a major jobs bill intended to put unemployed Americans back to work the reaction from a senior GOP House aide was:  “Obama is on the ropes; why do we appear ready to hand him a win?”  Get that?  If the question is trying to do something that will help the economy and the American people – but also thereby help Obama – the House GOP’s answer is not a chance in hell.

But if the question is how can weakling John Boehner possibly be rescued from the grip of the mighty House Republican Crazies who apparently keep his balls in a jar on their mantle and slap him around whenever they want, the ones who like to huddle in a conference room in the Capitol basement for more than two hours talking “about their favorite scenes from Braveheart” in order to psych themselves up for voting down the tax cut extension in the first place, then what the press wants to know is why won’t Obama make even more concessions to the Crazies in order to save the clueless, ball-less John Boehner?

I swear to God, I weep for a country where the political press could even ask a question like that of this White House.