Universal Translator

Monday, May 30, 2011

How Roger Ailes's Solipsism Might Doom the GOP

I’ve long been fascinated by the kind of mental blinders we get saddled with, or we saddle ourselves with, as we go through life.  It always has seemed to me that one of the greatest difficulties we humans have with accurately understanding the World around us is that by the time we start actively contemplating that World we already and subconsciously have filtered it into various mental constructs that inform our understanding of it.  And those unconscious constructs are not necessarily accurate.

One of the biggest such unconscious filters is the implicit assumption that most people understand the World and their relationship to it the same way we each do.  We have a strong tendency, whenever we meet somebody new or we abstractly contemplate what “the people” think, to believe that a new person or “the people” think pretty much along the same lines that we ourselves do.

Very probably, at least some of this results from the fact that “[w]e are cursed by the limits of our own perception to see ourselves as the center of the Universe.”  It is simply impossible for us to understand our unique experience of the World other than with ourselves at the center of it because that is how we are forced to perceive it.  This is what is meant by the lament that it is impossible to really place yourself in the position of anyone else.  If you try hard you might be able to imagine what somebody else is experiencing or thinking, but you can’t really know.

Then there is that cliched phrase “the fish will be the last to discover water.”  This is generally true for each of us.  Immersed as we are in the necessarily singular and exclusive point of view we each are saddled with, we assume that of course everybody experiences the World the same way we do, and forget that in fact nobody experiences the World precisely same way each of us do.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Some Unsolicited Campaign Advice for Democrats

As a general rule, Republicans are very good at devising smart, pithy ways to encapsulate or, more frequently, obfuscate their policy goals. Of course, they have the advantage over Democrats in that a lot of their policy goals are so simplistic that they can be reduced to slogans and bumper stickers.

For example, "Drill, Baby, Drill!" is a bad idea for a lot of reasons, but I'm not going to get into them here because that isn't the point of this post and because explaining why this is a bad idea would take too long. And, of course, this is why "Drill, Baby, Drill!" is a bad idea but a great slogan. In three words it sums up the Republican energy policy, it does so energetically and enthusiastically, and anybody who wants to explain why it is a bad idea has to drone on and on about how more drilling wouldn't substantially affect oil prices, wouldn't result in substantially more oil on the market, wouldn't have any effect at all for at least a deade, does result in further taxpayer giveaways to large oil companies, does carry the potential for further devastating ecological damage . . . .

And did you see what just happened there? I said I wouldn't list all the things wrong with the idea, but it is so stupid for so many reasons I went ahead and did that anyway. My response is much, much longer than the three word slogan that provoked it, and an explanation as to why any of these listed objections is true would be longer still. Republicans know that something like 30% of everybody who picks up a newspaper don't read much beyond the headlines, and they realize that you can win public debate if you can distill your message until it is nothing but a headline.

At least "Drill, Baby, Drill!" has the virtue of accurately describing the Republicans' position. Too often during Bush, Jr.'s reign we were saddled things like "The Clear Skies Act," which allowed for increased air pollution, or "The Healthy Forests Act," which gave away huge logging concessions on public land to well-connected private companies. (And don't even get me started on the Republicans' recent effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which they titled "Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act.")

Quite simply, Republicans understand the importance of concise, simple, one-sentence messages. While Democrats fidget and twist to make sure that every nuance and policy permutation is explained accurately, Republicans understand that elections can be won or lost based on nothing more than a catchy phrase.

With that in mind, let me suggest to the Democrats that they abandon attacking Republicans for their support of "the Ryan Plan," or "the Ryan Budget." Don't get me wrong -- they should not stop attacking Republicans for supporting this atrocity. Eliminating Medicare is a political no-go in America, as the recent Dem win in NY-26 (an extremely conservative district that hasn't elected a Democratic Representative in more than 40 years) proved.

But continuing to refer to this abomination as "the Ryan Plan" or "the Ryan Budget" makes it sound like this is the idea of one guy -- Paul Ryan. And the Dems' goal for 2012 has got to be more than holding on to the White Housee and the Senate; they've got to get the House back too. Otherwise we'll be saddled with two more years of what we are experiencing right now: a total and complete inability to move foward significantly on the economy, in a climate where significant economic, job-creating action is a necessity.

Which means that the Dems can't be seen to be running against only one guy's idea. If Dems want to hang this piece of shit around the collective neck of the Republican party, then they've got to start referring to it as "the Republican Plan," and "the Republican Budget," and -- most importantly -- as "the Republican Plan to Destroy Medicare."

This isn't even disingenuous. Every single Republican in the House voted in favor of this piece of shit, and every single Republican Senater except five voted in favor of it as well. This is no longer a "proposal" put forth by Ryan to "get the ball rolling" or to "start a conversation" (which increasingly is how Republican apologists in the media are characterizing it, now that its intense unpopularity has become apparent).

This unpopular dog turd is what the Republicans voted for. When Newt GinGrinch described it on Meet the Press as radical social engineering the Republican leaders (no, not Eric Cantor, Mitch McConnell or John Boehner -- I'm talking about Rush Limbaugh and Fox News) required a week's worth of groveling by GinGrinch before he would once more be allowed into the fold, and that only grudgingly. This thing is what Republicans want, and the public hates them for it.

So please, Dems . . . for the love of all that is Holy and for your own election chances, stop calling it "the Ryan [whatever]." This is the Republican Plan to Destroy Medicare; hang 'em with it.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

What It Takes to be Considered "Serious" in Washington

The very first post I threw up on this site was about Paul Ryan’s budget.  I have to admit to a kind of horrified fascination with it.  Even in the beginning, when the Beltway cognoscenti were enthusing over how “mature” and “serious” the thing was, I was absolutely taken aback.

And this was for any number of reasons:  it doesn’t really balance the budget, not for decades; it envisions massive tax cuts for the wealthy and for corporations, but doesn’t explain how this lost revenue will be made up (other than by some vague mouthing that unidentified “loopholes” will be closed); its numbers only come close to adding up if the U.S. achieves some never-before-seen unemployment rate of about 2.8%; it anticipates shrinking the federal budget to a portion of GDP not seen since before we had a standing military.  (And do you really think America is going to go back to not having a military?  Having a military is the one thing at which we are indisputably the world’s best).

But above all, the idea that Medicare should be eliminated entirely, and then replaced with $15,000 a year vouchers with which seniors (you know, the poor, the tired, the really sick) can fail to buy can attempt to buy private insurance (although we are still gonna call this bastard spawn of a GOP wet dream “medicare”) . . .   well that is truly revolting.  Not merely because the plan calls for nothing less than throwing our most vulnerable members to the howling wolf of inevitable human decay, which is bad enough, but because its proponents argue that doing so is nothing less than virtuous pragmatism.

The thinking appears to go something like this: 

            (1) providing a minimum social safety net for the most disadvantaged among us is something that the vast, vast majority of people in this country like (“keep the government out of my Medicare!”); but

            (2) increasingly expensive medical costs means that we are either going to have to roll back some of those tax cuts for the wealthy or else get very serious about limiting medical expenses (for example, by using the collective bargaining power of a single-payer system to demand cuts in the prices health care providers charge); but

            (3) both of these ideas are opposed by a small but very wealthy (and thus, very powerful) part of our population, and therefore all Serious People know that these solutions are “off the table”; which means that

            (4) since we aren’t allowed do anything to lower rising medical expenses, and since we aren’t allowed to collect enough money to pay for rising medical expenses, we can no longer afford to maintain that minimum social safety net that is so very popular with the American people; so therefore

            (5) we must get rid of Medicare because (under these self-imposed rules) we can’t pay for it; but since

            (6) Medicare is a very, very popular system – see No. 1, above – any proposal to eliminate it can be counted on to be very, very unpopular; now, therefore,

            CONCLUSION:   Since Paul Ryan has proposed eliminating Medicare in favor of even more tax cuts for the wealthy, he must be considered “politically courageous” and “very serious.”

Only in the bizarro realm that is American politics can an idea that is both inherently revolting and wildly unpopular be considered courageous and serious.  And yet, there it is.  But, to be sure, common sense and rationality must ultimately prevail, right?  Something this evil and ludicrous can’t continue to be taken seriously forever, can it?  I’ve gotta believe that. 

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Goofiest Thing

(This is going to sound like fiction.  It is completely true.
Even the names haven’t been changed.)

So, last Sunday evening I was driving home.  I had both bulldogs – Homer and Napoleon – in the car with me and was looking forward to a quiet night.  But it was only about 9:30 on a Sunday . . .  a time to read and reflect and maybe pass a glass with some friends (or, at least, acquaintances) before the work-a-day world of Monday morning presented itself.  So instead of going immediately home, I stopped off at Paddy’s Pub for a quick pint.

Paddy’s is a neighborhood bar, and sits pretty much just across the street from my place anyway.  Until recently (the Tourist Season) it is usually a quiet place to have a drink, the clientele and bartenders are amiably low-key, and they have WiFi.  I show up about once a week or so and I have gotten to know the staff and some of the people who actually are Norm Peterson. 

I didn’t even drop the dogs off at my place before heading in, that’s how little time I was going to spend there.

Friday, May 13, 2011

"Status" Turns Race Relations Into a Zero-Sum Game

Angry Black Lady has a post up about a recent study that seems to indicate that for a lot of white people, race relations is a zero-sum game:  as more and more progress is made to achieve race equality in American society, a not insignificant number of whites apparently feel that any gain by black Americans comes at the expense of whites.

As ABL points out, this seems quite insane on its face.  The fact that black people aren’t facing as wide-spread discrimination as they have before doesn’t mean that white people are now being discriminated against, no more than allowing same-sex marriage has any impact on heterosexual marriage.

Except, y’know . . . while I agree with this statement I think it is incomplete.  Specifically, I think ABL’s quick post ignores something very basic about the way humans view themselves and their society.  It ignores the very important but non-material question of relative status.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Passed Along Without Comment

When you look at the sheer volume of wealth controlled by the top 1 percent in this country, it's tempting to see our growing inequality as a quintessentially American achievement -- we started out way behind the pack, but now we're doing inequality on a world-class level.  And it looks as if we'll be building on this achievement for years to come, because what made it possible is self-reinforcing.  Wealth begets power, which begets more wealth.  During the savings-and-loan scandal of the 1980s - a scandal whose dimensions, by today's standards, seem almost quaint - the banker Charles Keating was asked by a congressional committee whether the $1.5 million he had spread among a few key elected officials could actually buy influence.  "I certainly hope so," he replied.  The Supreme Court, in its recent Citizens United case, has enshrined the right of corporations to buy government, by removing limitations on campaign spending.  The personal and the political are today in perfect alignment.  Virtually all U.S. senators, and most of the representatives in the House, are members of the top 1 percent, and know that if they serve the top 1 percent well they will be rewarded by the top 1 percent when they leave office.  By and large, the key executive-branch policymakers on trade and economic policy also come from the top 1 percent.  When pharmaceutical companies receive a trillion-dollar gift -- through legislation prohibiting the government, the largest buyer of drugs, from bargaining over price -- it should not come as a cause of wonder.  It should not make jaws drop that a tax bill cannot emerge from Congress unless big tax cuts are put in place for the wealthy.  Given the power of the top 1 percent, this is the way you would expect the system to work.
--Joseph E. Stiglitz
Of the 1%, By the 1%, For the 1%
Vanity Fair

Why Does America Hate Free Market Capitalism?

Over at Balloon Juice, mistermix reports on how America’s internet service is being left in the dust by . . . wait for it . . . Lithuania.  Lithu – fuckin – ania.  Apparently, service (10/1 Mbps) that costs $40 - $60 here (depending on where you live) used to cost only $14.72 in Lithuania.  I say “used to cost” because Lithuania just doubled its speed with no increase in cost.  Which means that right now we in America are paying 3 or 4 times what Lithuanians pay and getting internet service at half the speed. 

(Click through and read mistermix’s entire post; weep at the fact that American internet service is half-speed compared to Lithuania’s worst service, and that if you were in Lithuania and willing to pay a little more you would have access to internet speeds that you can only dream about here in America.)

Look, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that the United States isn’t going to even make an effort to keep up with Korea or Japan – I mean, they’re supposed to be the high-tech havens of the world.  And I’ve even resigned myself to the fact that the United States isn’t going to even make an effort to keep up with Western Europe.  But when our tech infrastructure is being left in the dust by Lithu – fuckin – ania, a former Soviet bloc country . . . Jesus! we aren’t even trying anymore.

What really ticks me off about this is that there is absolutely no reason for us to lag so far behind the rest of the developed world.  But by our policy decisions we have chosen to do so – it didn’t just evolve this way in the United States, we picked this outcome because, basically, we don’t understand what “free market capitalism” means.

Friday, May 6, 2011

About Last Night's Republican Presidential Debate

Just a quick note, because this is something that has bugged me for some time, because there is just enough of the hint of truth in it to turn it into a Zombie Conservative Lie such that it never dies, and because I haven't seen anybody else mention it yet. In fact, I have yet to see anybody remark on this statement at all, even though it is easily the most radical thing to have been said last night.

During the debate, Gary Johnson announced that he was in favor of ending - completely - all corporate income taxes. He justified this by arguing that corporate income is money that is "taxed twice." We all own the corporations, he said, so when a corporation makes money that money is taxed, and then when it is distributed to "us" it is taxed again and that isn't right. (Let's just skip over the fact that most Americans do not, in fact, own corporations, or even any stock in a corporation other than what might be held by our mutual funds.)


Thursday, May 5, 2011

About Releasing Bin Laden's Death Photos

So President Obama has announced that no photos of Osama bin Laden’s body will be released.  As loathe as I usually am to speculate about the political calculations behind decisions like this, I wonder if perhaps in this instance Obama really is playing 11th-Dimensional chess.

When I first learned that bin Laden’s body had been buried at sea, I thought this was a really, really bad mistake.  (You can see my initial take on the news of bin Laden’s death here.)  I predicted that the same impulses that drive the unhinged Birthers would give rise to a new conspiracy group – the Deathers, they are now called – who would claim that bin Laden really hadn’t been killed, that he had been captured and was being held or that Obama had cut a deal with him and that this was all a huge conspiracy to help get Obama re-elected.

And, indeed, despite the fact that (i) the election is still a year and a half away (which makes that conspiracy seem a little, um, poorly timed) and (ii) a conspiracy of this magnitude would be almost impossible to pull off, something of a “Deather Movement” does seem to be getting started.  For example, Andrew Breitbart’s site has posts suggesting darkly that something fishy seems to be going on without a body to view.  Fox Business News has some bloviator suggesting two days ago that without a body there will always be some “lingering questions” and “how will we know he’s dead.”

(As Jon Stewart said, mocking this douchebag:  “When are we going to stop pretending, as a country, that there is a level of empirical proof that will satisfy the conspiracy seekers amongst us?  These things are never about evidence.  We could have a videotape of the terror leader himself holding up Sunday’s New York Post and his birth certificate in his ‘I am bin Laden, Seriously’ t-shirt, saying on camera ‘I think this dude’s about the fuck me up big time,’ [and it] wouldn’t matter.”) 

Brian Kilmeade over at Fox and Friends wondered what the rush was to get the body buried at sea (saying that he agrees with Senator Graham “what’s the rush?” – so I guess Lindsay Graham is out there raising questions about this too, although I’ve not seen that myself).

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Saving Endangered Species Isn't an Issue of Morality

"I don't recall a lot of people crying when we wiped out smallpox."

circa 1993

The second hour of the Diane Riehm show today was devoted to a discussion of the Endangered Species Act, how species get listed as "endangered," the effect of doing so and whether it is appropriate to take economic factors into account when deciding whether to place a species on the list or not. I only came into the program about half-way through, but I caught a caller who was upset that the Congressman (I didn't catch which Congressman) was arguing that we absolutely should take into account potential job losses and economic diminishment when making the "moral decision" over whether to attempt to save a species from extinction.

The call very forcibly reminded me of a similar conversation I had with a few friends years and years ago, back when I was still in school. We were having lunch and one of my friends asserted that humans have absolutely no moral right to cause the extinction of any species, and that if a species goes extinct either through our actions or our inactions then we are morally culpable.

I took issue with this statement, despite the fact that I consider myself an environmentalist and am generally in favor of not seeing any species driven off the planet. What made my friend's opinion risible to me was not the result she sought to achieve by her argument, but the way she got there:

"I don't think I can agree with that," I told her, "of course we have the moral right to eliminate some other species, given the appropriate circumstances."

"Like what?" she asked.

"Well, like if that species is a threat to us, especially if that species is an existential threat to us. In fact, you can disregard morality completely to get to this point. Nature itself is all about species competing for resources, and if there are not sufficient resources for two species to cohabitate then the better adapted species survives and other dies off. If you are concerned about 'preserving the environment' then I think you have to recognize that extinction is just as much a part of the ever-evolving 'environment' as is every living species at any given time."

"Oh, that is just bullshit. Look, we're the dominant species on the planet right now and we can basically do whatever we want without threat that some spotted owl or something is going to wipe us out. You're just making an argument to justify letting us do what we want to anyway . . . pillage and loot the world around us and turn it into a cinder."

"No, I'm not, I'm just pointing out that 'saving species' isn't necessarily an issue to be resolved through a moral lens. I don't recall a lot of people crying when we wiped out smallpox." (Years later I would see a similar point being made in a funnier way by P.J. O'Rourke, but I'm telling you I came up with the joke first.)

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Real Reason Obama Waited Until Last Week to Release his Long-Form Birth Certificate

For all the last part of last week we were treated to political pundits and professional entrail-readers speculating about why Obama 'waited' until last week to release his long-form birth certificate. There was much rumination about whether it was because Trump was surging in the Republican polls, or whether it was designed to cut the legs off of Jerome Corsi's imminent book Where's the Birth Certificate? What kind of 11th-Dimension political chess was Obama playing by timing the release when he did?

Well, have you seen Obama's speech at this weekend's White House Correspondents Dinner? It was hilarious, particularly the first two videos that accompanied it. The first, before he began speaking, was a music video featuring a (really quite horrible) rock song titled "I am a Real American" and featuring (several times) a throbbing picture of the long-form birth certificate center screen.

The second came after Obama announced he was going to prove he had been born in Hawaii by showing everybody his "birth video." Suddenly the room was pierced by a loud cry and African-sounding music, and the screen started showing the beginning of Disney's The Lion King, with the baby lion being anointed by the baboon and all the other African animals bowing in obeisance toward him.

When that clip finished Obama asked, "Where's the Fox table? Look, I want to make sure you guys know that that was a joke. That was not really my birth video, it was a children's cartoon. If you don't believe me, Disney has the long-form."

So I don't think Obama waited until last week to release the long-form birth certificate for any 11th-Dimension political reason. I think he timed it just so his performance at the WHCD would be really, really funny. This wasn't about politics, this was about comedy. And given how pissy Donald Trump got about it, it worked out really, really well.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

First Thoughts on Bin Laden's Death


I just logged in a few minutes ago to look something up on Wikipedia, and was shocked to see the news that U.S. forces shot and killed Osama bin Laden earlier today. So, of course, I went to a few news sites and watched President Obama's speech.

Of course, it is way too soon to know much about what happened and hopefully more details will be coming shortly. But like everyone else who pays attention to and writes about news events, I figured I'd jot down -- in no particular order -- my initial impressions and thoughts after watching Obama's speech.

(1) Isn't it nice to have a competent administration again? Isn't it nice to feel that the United States government actually can accomplish something? Since we let bin Laden get away at Tora Bora, and then decided to devote most of our military might to invading and occupying Iraq, I have had a real sense that the United States government just didn't seem capable of focusing on a goal and achieving that goal; still, you would think capturing or killing the mastermind of the largest terrorist attack on U.S. soil would be an important enough goal that we could get past our national ADD for at least a little while. The fact the government was able to finally accomplish this goal now, following hard on the heels of the federal government's speedy and effective response to the tornados that just ravaged Alabama and a lot of the Southeast (in stark contrast to the government's ineffectiveness after Katrina), just makes me feel warm inside, like proof that if we just make sure to give the levers of power to intelligent, competent people then that power actually can be used competently and intelligently.

Ayn Rand Was Very Silly, But Conservatives Are Just Evil

"There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life:
The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish
fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable
heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood,
unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs."

--John Rogers
Kung Fu Monkey

Johann Hari has a new column up over at the UK's The Independent that simply is a must-read. He excoriates today's Republican party for its crass insistence on promoting only the interests of the country's uberwealthy at the direct expense of the less fortunate 99% of Americans. For example, of the Ryan Budget plan he points out that "it halves taxes on the richest 1% and ends all taxes on corporate income, dividends and inheritance. It pays for it by slashing spending on food stamps, health care for the poor and elderly, and basic services. . . . Ryan says 'the reason I got involved in public service' was because he read the writings of Ayn Rand, who described the poor as 'parasites' who must 'perish', and are best summarized by the title of one of her books: The Virtue of Selfishness."

However, the vast majority of Hari's column devotes itself to Donald Trump and what it says about the modern Republican party that he is now the party's frontrunner in Presidential nominee polls. Describing Trump as "the Republican Id, finally entirely unleashed from all restraint and all reality," Hari offers up a few choice quotes from the Donald about how America should deal with the rest of the world. On Libya: "I would go in and I would take the oil . . . I would take the oil and stop this baby stuff." On Iraq: "We stay there and we take the oil. . . In the old days, when you have a war and you win, that nation's yours."

* * *

In the liberal blogosphere, which I frequent, there has been for a number of years now a good deal of focus on the new, ersatz Republican followers of Ayn Rand's writings. Alan Greenspan himself, the maestro of our current financial debacle, was one of Rand's most devoted followers -- he actually sat at her feet as a college student and was editor of one of her Objectivist publications. As a result, to this day he so objects to any government regulation of any business or financial activity that he once told Brooksley Born that he was not even in favor of prosecuting financial firms that committed fraud because that would only interfere in the market's ability to punish such firms itself. (He, Larry Summers and Bob Rubin were also instrumental in crushing Born's attempt to impose derivative regulations while she was with the CFTC; of course, given that unregulated derivatives trading is a large part - if not the largest part - of how the financial industry got into the mess it did, that decision seems in retrospect very, very stupid).

In Congress, of course, we have Rep. Paul Ryan and his plan to wage war against almost everyone in America for the benefit of his small number of rich paymasters, and we have newly elected Senator Rand Paul who makes no bones about the fact that he is an Ayn Rand devotee (although it is not true that he was named after Rand; my understanding is that his name is short for 'Randal').

And this constant reference to Ayn Rand's writings by our new Republican Overlords -- who, despite controlling only one chamber of Congress, somehow manage to decide what issues must be taken up by the government (abortion and the deficit, but not jobs or the economy) and how those issues must be framed -- and by bloviating Conservative pundits and TeeVee talking heads, has had an affect on the people who listen to such folk.

For example, about two years ago, shortly after Obama had been sworn into office and the first glimpses of Tea Party Madness were beginning to emerge among the nation's more conservative elderly, I was checking out a few books at my local library. A sizable percentage of the immediate population where I live consists of retirees. Whilst checking out my books I got into a brief conversation with the librarian, who told me that she had just started reading Atlas Shrugged as part of a local book club. She told me she thought it was important that as many people as possible read Ayn Rand's opus because the book is "so relevant, given what's happening in the world today."

Now, a couple of things about this statement struck me immediately. First, I could think of nothing that was "happening in the world" right then that would make Rand's so-called philosophy more relevant than before -- that is, unless you count the fact we now have a black man sitting in the White House. Second, the library doesn't sponsor book clubs; this apparently was something she had gotten into with some unspecified number of friends, and they all had suddenly decided they needed to read Ayn Rand. Third, I couldn't just let this statement go unchallenged, because the last thing we need is people interested in reading Ayn Rand for the lessons they think they can learn from her.

So I explained to the librarian, as gently as I could, that I had read Atlas Shrugged and nearly all of Rand's writings years and years ago, back when I was in High School, and that - like a lot of people who stumble across Rand - I had enjoyed them immensely. However, after I grew up some and gained a greater appreciation of how people work in the real world, I came to see Rand's writings as fairly juvenile. I told her (as nicely as I could) that I thought they were not writings anyone should ever make the mistake of taking seriously.