Universal Translator

Friday, September 30, 2011

I Consider this Occupy Wall Street Video a Personal Smear

Maybe America never had a real aristocracy, but it seems many of us badly want to grovel in front of one.


I still think that is fundamentally correct.  I think there is a large percentage of people in any population who are what Professor Bob Altemeyer refers to as “Right-Wing Authoritarians,” which means they demonstrate the following traits:  (i) a high degree of submission to the established authorities in their society; (ii) high levels of aggression in the name of those authorities; and (iii) a high level of conventionalism. 

(Note:  “right-wing” - in this case - merely means supportive of the established authority; a right-wing authoritarian in the old USSR would have been a Communist.  As used by Altemeyer, “right-wing” has nothing to do with the political spectrum, and everything to do with supporting the existing power structure.  Professor Altemeyer’s book The Authoritarians is available to read on-line, and for free, here.  I really cannot recommend it enough.)

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Nationalizing the Banks Looks Better and Better

If Germany would just write them a check, that would solve the problem.  But the German taxpayer is asking, ‘why are we using our hard-earned tax dollars to prop up these profligate countries?’  Seventy percent of the German electorate is against bailouts.  It’s not like the United States where there’s a commonality of purpose and a vision of national unity.

                                                --Desmond Lachman,
                                                in an interview w/Ezra Klein

Oh, that comment made me laugh so hard that I spit out some of my morning tea.  A “commonality of purpose and a vision of national unity?”  In a country where:  (i) a sizeable percentage of the population – including one GOP presidential frontrunner – casually tosses around the notion of states seceding from the union whenever they’re unhappy with the federal government; (ii) the states themselves (in the words of former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm) compete to attract business away from each other in a race to the bottom in terms of workers’ wages, benefits, rights, and working conditions, and, of course, low, low corporate tax rates; and (iii) the only animating force in the Republican party is a visceral hatred for anybody who isn’t them?  That’s the country referred to as being bound by a sense of purpose and national unity?

Oy vey.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Sarah Palin Update!

Updated (again) Below:

As I've menioned elsewhere, my ability to predict political outcomes is not great.

However, a few weeks ago I had some thoughts about how I think Sarah Palin's future is likely to play out, and I figured I'd get them down on the record. Essentially, I argued that Palin is trying to use her intense popularity over a small portion of the GOP electorate to carve out a place for herself as a kingmaker in the Republican party. I also argued that despite my previous conviction she has no choice but to seek the presidency in 2012, she is shrewd enough to realize now that throwing her hat into the ring would result in her utter humiliation and therefore is really not a viable option.

Well, via Jed Lewison over at DKos I am directed to this story from ABC News.

Apparently, Palin gave yet another interview to Fox News's Greta VanSusteran (Susteran's husband works for Sarah Palin and her SarahPAC . . . a fact that VanSusteran, to my knowledge, has never seen fit to share with her viewers). During the interview Palin explained
that she's concerned jumping into the 2012 presidential race will muffle her message.

"Is a title worth it?" she asked, rhetorically, "Does a title shackle a person? Are they someone like me who's maverick? I do go rogue and I call it like I see it and I don't mind stirring it up in order to get people to think and debate aggressively.

"Is a title and a campaign to shackle-y?," she continued . . . . "Does a title take away my freedom to call it like I see it and to affect positive change that we need in this country? That's the biggest contemplation piece in my process."
To those of you trying to play along at home, the "title" about which Sarah Palin is so dubious is "President of the United States." The holder of this "title" is often referred to as "the most powerful person in the world."

But apparently Palin feels that actually holding the Oval Office would be too restrictive for her "mavericky-ness." Palin apparently is claiming that her real ability to "affect positive change" is best served by confining herself to bus tours, chatting with her employee's wife on TeeVee, and generally acting as a barely - if that! - coherent gadfly.

Which is fine by me. This woman is not a serious person, and the sooner she marginalizes and removes herself from our daily discourse the better off our country will be.

Update: A few hours after posting this I caught Jon Stewart on The Daily Show and was amused to see that he had the same take on Palin's statements as I had: the ludicrousness of the idea that if she were to somehow become president then Palin would somehow have less power than she gets to exert now riding around on a bus trip to nowhere.

Chris Christie's Latest Argle-Bargle

Steve Benen flags Chris Christie making the following statements in a speech he gave over the weekend flirting with, denying completely, or keeping the door open (depending on who’s interpreting his statement) for a presidential run:
A lot is being said in this election season about American exceptionalism. Implicit in such statements is that we are different and, yes, better, in the sense that our democracy, our economy and our people have delivered. But for American exceptionalism to truly deliver hope and a sterling example to the rest of the world, it must be demonstrated, not just asserted….
Without the authority that comes from that exceptionalism — earned American exceptionalism — we cannot do good for other countries, we cannot continue to be a beacon of hope for the world to aspire to for their future generations. (emphasis added)
Benen quite reasonably asks if the suggestion that America isn’t automatically an exceptional country isn’t some sort of Republican apostasy.  But what strikes me about these statements is that they seem a perfect example of the type of argle-bargle that politicians are so adept at spewing that rely on the audience to provide any meaning to them at all.
I’ll admit, when I first read Christie’s statement I thought he might be saying something with which I personally have agreed for some time.  The truth is, I think the United States does have a history of doing some exceptional and extraordinary things, but I certainly do not believe – as the Right seems to – that this somehow means everything the country does is thereby alright simply because the country does it.  Using a pack of lies to justify invading another country that posed no threat to us or to others, torturing people, breaking the law and spying on its own citizens – pretty heinous things, not redeemed because the United States government was the one acting so heinously.

But, of course, Christie never specified what it is he meant when he made these fundamentally vapid statements.  He left it up to the audience to decide precisely what it is America should be doing in order to maintain its much-vaunted “exceptionalism.”  And given that he was speaking before a Republican audience, to the extent people were nodding along with him those people were probably thinking along the lines of, “Yeah, that’s right.  We need to eliminate corporate taxes, the estate tax and capital gains tax and let the uber-wealthy keep more money.  We need to cut out unemployment benefits, food stamps, and assistance to the poor.  Then America can take its rightful place as leader of the world again.”  They were, in short, nodding along to a speech very different than the one I completed in my head.

I see this all the time, politicians making speeches that are long on exhortation and short on specifics.  If you pay attention you realize that they are effective because the speaker only points the audience toward something vague like, say, “excellence,” and then leaves it to the audience to fill in the blanks.  It’s highly effective, and allows the speaker to be all things to all people without actually committing to being anything to anyone.

My 100th Blog Post

I just realized that this is my 100th blog post.  So I thought I’d write a post about how this is my 100th blog post.

It is.

That is all.

2012: Who the Hell Are We?

Via John Aravosis over at Americablog I found this press pool report from Sunday:

At his first fundraiser in San Jose, President Obama took aim at Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry, without naming the Texas governor by name, and was critical of the recent GOP debates.  He said the 2012 election will be “a contest of values.”

“Some of you here may be folks who actually used to be Republicans but are puzzled by what’s happened to that party . . . .  I mean, has anybody been watching the debates lately?  You’ve got a governor whose state is on fire denying climate change,” he said to applause.  “It’s true.  You’ve got audiences cheering at the prospect of somebody dying because they don’t have health care and booing a service member in Iraq because they’re gay.

“That not reflective of who we are,” Mr. Obama said.  “This is a choice about the fundamental direction of our country.  2008 was an important [elec]tion.  2012 is a more important election.”

Yes, please . . . more of this.

Monday, September 26, 2011


The very first post I threw up here was about how Paul Ryan's "courageous" budget - which eliminates Medicare - was Dead On Arrival both in the Congress and with the American public, but made perfect sense if he was contemplating a presidential run in 2016.

Well . . . now CNN has given Ryan a big sloppy kiss for his continuing "courageousness" in trying to rob the poor and the old to give money to the rich and the corporate. But my favorite piece has to be this bit:
Ryan was pushed again this summer to run for the Republican presidential nomination by assorted GOP luminaries. His answer: No, not yet.
(emphasis added)

Okay . . . I'll be the first to admit that my political predictions don't always pan out -- but, seriously? I called Ryan running for president in 2016 -- very first thing I wrote down.

Of course, I hope he does run and gets crushed . . . but I really do hope he runs.

'Cause then I will look prescient and will get to do a Happy Dance for being so goddamned smart.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Wealth Condensation: Why the Rich Get Richer

Back in the late 19th century an Italian engineer-turned-economist named Vilfredo Pareto was coming up with some interesting notions regarding wealth distribution.  Pareto had noticed that quite a bit of Italy’s wealth seemed to be concentrated in the hands of only a few people.  After some diligent work, he determined that approximately 20% of the population owned about 80% of the land.  It was the beginning of an inquiry into why it is that in every human population – every single one – the majority of that population’s wealth concentrates itself in the hands of a very few people.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Of Clinton and Comic Books

I’ve mentioned before, once or twice, that I am something of a comic book fanboy from way back.  So I was predisposed to click over (when I saw via Alyssa Rosenberg at ThinkProgress)  that Julian Sanchez recently put up an extremely interesting post titled CEOs in Comics:  Villains Earn, Heroes Inherit.

Basically, Sanchez points out that in American comic book mythology most of the billionaire/monarch superheroes – e.g., Bruce Wayne (Batman), Oliver Queen (Green Arrow), King T’Challa (Black Panther), Princess Diana (Wonder Woman) – were born to their wealth and position.  This is in stark contrast to the billionaire/monarch villains – Lex Luthor, Wilson Fisk (Kingpin), Norman Osborn (Green Goblin), Victor Von Doom (Doctor Doom) – who had to work and strive to achieve their success.

Sanchez argues this reflects “that the hero must wield enormous power in order to effectively perform the superheroic function, but cannot seem to seek it too eagerly, even for admirable ends.”  This is why other fabulously rich superheroes such as the Fantastic Four’s Mr. Fantastic (Reed Richards), Stark Industries’ Iron Man (Tony Stark), and Kord Industries’ Blue Beetle (Ted Kord) -- who actually did achieve riches without necessarily being born to them -- are always shown to have achieved that wealth merely as a byproduct of their sheer inventive genius.  They weren’t looking to get rich, it’s just that they were so gosh-darned smart they couldn’t help doing so.

What interests Sanchez is that this dichotomy in America’s superhero mythos seems to run directly counter to what Americans outwardly tell ourselves we really value:  the self-made man, the striver, the achiever.  Sanchez points out that

[w]hile the pattern in comics inverts the meritocratic ideal that seems to rule in most modern American fiction, it fits quite naturally with a pre-capitalist aristocratic ethos, which persisted at least through the early 20th century in the form of Old Money’s contempt for the nouveau riche.  Jane Jacobs, in her book Systems of Survival, contrasted this aristocratic view, which she dubs the “Guardian” moral complex, with “bourgeois” or “mercantile” ethics.  In this worldview, while wealth and the leisure time it affords may be necessary conditions of cultivating certain noble qualities . . . the grubby business of acquiring money is inherently corrupting.  The ideal noble needs to have wealth, while being too refined to be much concerned with becoming wealthy.  (emphasis in the original)

I think there is probably something to this insight – with respect to both how it applies to the American comic book mythos and how it reflects upon American society in general. 

Imagining a Better Republican Debate

I didn't watch it myself, but I followed a couple of sites that were liveblogging.

(1) I understand that Ron Paul was asked whether he truly opposed a fence along the Mexican border because it might prevent Americans from leaving the country and he said that absolutely was the reason he opposed the fence. Ron Paul . . . doubling down on the Crazy! That makes me so happy.

Seriously, do these people think there is only one way into the country? What do they suppose Canada is, the Fifty-First State? What about our coastline, which is 12,380 miles long (if you believe the America-hating CIA) or else 95,471 miles long (if you believe those Poindexters over at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Hhmmm . . . y'know, that does seem like a fairly big discrepancy, but our own federal government came up with both numbers so I'm sure they must both be correct.

(2) And speaking of "securing the border," can't we just once have moderators who will ask some follow-up questions to explore exactly what this fence fetish demonstrates about the Republican Party? I mean, last night's debate was held in Florida -- can you imagine what it would have looked like if the questions and answers had been at all honest and consistent?
"Governor Romney, you've come out very strongly in favor of building a fence along the border with Mexico. But a great deal of illegal immigration runs through Florida. Do you also favor encircling Florida's coastline with a big fence?"

"Why, no, Chris -- that would block our ocean views and beaches and destroy Florida's tourist industry. We can't have that."

"So chasing tourist dollars, in your view, is more important than protecting Americans from illegal immigrants?"

"Now, now, I didn't say that, I just said I wouldn't build a fence. Ahh . . . probably what I'd do is order the construction of gun emplacements every five miles or so, and set up a naval blockade to prevent any illegal immigrants from sneaking ashore. The big guns would only add to Florida's scenic charms, and anybody trying to make it into Florida would get shot out of the water."

(Republican audience breaks into cheers and applause.)

"And you'd be willing to do that even if it meant preventing anybody from leaving Cuba and coming to America to join the rest of their family?"

(Thinking of the all-important conservative Cuban-American vote, and sweating a little). "Well, now, I didn't say that either. Uhhmmm. . . . Probably what I'd do, I'd task some high-tech spy satellites to remain over Florida and the Caribbean 24/7 so we could know which boats held brave Cubans fleeing the oppressive Castro regime, and which boats contained dirty, filthy poor people just trying to take advantage of good ol' Uncle Sam."

"So . . . no Haitians then?"

(Relieved to be back on familiar ground - it never hurts you in the Republican polls to bash black people - Romney replies in his best patrician voice) "Certainly not - no Haitians."

"Thank you, Governor Romney. Turning now to Congresswoman Bachmann, Congresswoman you've also been a staunch advocate of a border fence with Mexico. But you hail from Minnesota, which is a border state itself. Are you also in favor of building a fence along the Canadian border, which is - let's face it - much longer than the one we share with Mexico?"

"No, Chris, I am not. Our problem is with the illegal immigrants sneaking across from Mexico. Canada has an education system that turns out students who leave American students in the dust, health care for all its citizens, better infrastructure, much better and faster internet speeds, a higher median household income, and according to a recent Wall Street Journal study Canadians are the second-happiest, most satisfied people in the world, right behind the Danes -- America doesn't even rank in the top ten. So, no, Chris, I don't think we need to spend all that money to secure the Canadian border -- the fact is Canadians don't want to move to America." (Breaks off to stare vacantly for a moment, listening to what she's just said.) "But that's their loss, Chris, because America is the best country in the world."

(Pavlovian trained Republican audience breaks into chant: "USA! USA! USA!")

"Thank you, Congresswoman that's an . . . impressive explanation of your position. So am I right --"

"And you'd better not try to build a fence between us and Canada, either! It sounds like a lot of Americans might wanna move there! Maybe someday soon."

"Yes, thank you Congressman Paul. Getting back to what I was trying to ask just a moment ago - and this question is for the entire panel -- so is it really just the Mexicans everyone here is concerned with?"

(Panel nods, as one.)

"And the Haitians, too."

(Panel nods, as one, again).

"Yes, and the Haitians too -- thank you, Governor Romney."

(3) I haven't checked the news or any websites this morning, but last night the sense I got from the commenters I was reading is that Perry looked unsure, unfocused and unsteady - that Romney cleaned his clock. But these commenters were all posting on the liberal sites that I most commonly frequent, so I'm a little wary of ascribing too much predictive power to these views.

I remember watching Gore and Bush II during the 2000 presidential debates and after every one I thought Gore was the clear winner. He had an obviously greater command of the facts, had clearly thought through the consequences of his policy decisions, and of the two candidates he was definitely the guy I'd want in charge if something terrible happened -- like, say, I dunno . . . the worst terrorist strike in American history. Bush just put on a goofy smirk and an aw-shucks attitude and looked offended that anybody might not think he was ready to be president.

And after every debate I listened to pundits and looked at polls and it seemed to me these people had watched something else entirely. Bush was 'confident,' 'down-home,' a 'natural leader,' and Gore was 'wonky, stiff, stuffy.'

So I'll be interested to see if Perry suffers the kind of set-back in the GOP polls that his described performance from last night would seem to warrant. Lord knows I'm not the target audience here, nor are any of the people whose comments I was reading last night; if Perry's approval ratings actually go up that'll highlight even more the vast differences that exist between the people facing each other over America's modern political chasm.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Randian Republicans: God IS the Free Market

I saw an article yesterday that may help me to understand something about which I've been puzzled for years:  how it is so-called "Randian Republicans" (like Rand and Ron Paul, Paul Ryan, etc.) can simultaneously embrace Ayn Rand and profess to be faith-based, dyed-in-the-wool Christians.  Ayn Rand certainly made no bones about her disdain for all religion, and explicitly declared that "her followers had to choose between Jesus and her teachings."  The American Values Network is now trying to make this a wedge issue for the GOP.

But a recent study by Baylor University sheds an interesting light on this issue.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Of Lubricants and Epiphytes

Over at Digby’s, in a post titled Killing Credibility, David Atkins writes:

In the absence of any sort of political and economic reporting that actually makes sense, voters are left to trust pre-defined political narratives. . .  [T]he biggest problem with the narratives on both sides is that economics is treated as a religion in which hidden priests serving as economic doctors must be placated by appropriate policies to “gain confidence” and “heal the economy.”  There is a massive air of mystery and clandestine actors at whose mercy sovereign nations tremble.

Reality is far simpler:  the economy is like an engine.  Demand fuels it.  A strong middle class is the best way to ensure that the fuel level stays high.  Credit via lending is a lubricant, sort of like motor oil.  In exchange for providing the lubricant, financiers are allowed to skim off the top and make out like bandits even in times of relative equality.  Lately, however, the financiers have been playing radical games to suck economy-killing amounts out of the tank, while the economy sputters to a stop due to lack of demand.  In this situation, it would seem that government would be best suited to shunt the vampire financiers off to the side, provide a fuel injection of demand and oil up the engine itself on behalf of the people.  The only problem is that the vampire financiers have too tight a control on government policy through corruption, and aren’t about to be pushed aside. (emphasis added)

I’ve long described the relationship of the financial industry to the actual economy using the same metaphor:  the financial industry helps the engine of the economy run smoothly (by allocating surplus capital to where it is needed) but it isn’t the engine itself.  It is more like what Atkins describes – motor oil.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Let's Devalue the Dollar!

I just came across a couple of different ideas in rapid succession that left me wondering if perhaps the easiest way to do something about the sputtering U.S. economy might not be to simply print more dollars. I'm no expert on the matter, so if anyone reading this has any insight on the subject or can point out things I'm mistaken about, I'd consider it a kindness.

First up is the upbeat article Doom! Our Economic Nightmare is Just Beginning, by John Judis. Judis draws parallels between the current global malaise and the Great Depression and observes:
[I]n contrast to the ususal post-World War II recession, our current downturn, like the Great Depression, is global in character. . . . During the typical recession, a country suffering a downturn might hope to revive itself by cutting its spending. That might temporarily increase unemployment, but it would also depress wages and prices, simultaneously cutting the demand for imports and making a country's exports more competitive against those of its rivals. But, when the recession is global, you get what John Maynard Keynes called the "paradox of thrift" writ large: As all nations cut their spending and attempt to devalue their currencies (which makes their exports cheaper), global demand shrinks still more, and the recession deepens.
The thing is, though, it is my understanding that today not "all nations" can devalue their currencies; this is because the EU nations have all joined in the Euro and no longer have national currencies to devalue.

Now, I do note that Judis's description of a typical response to a recession is to both devalue the currency and to cut spending; but what if we only did one? Is it possible to so devalue the dollar - through action by the Fed alone - that we can jump start the U.S.'s export economy by taking advantage of the individual EU nations' inability to control their own monetary supply? Would doing so even be legal, or would it subject the U.S. to sanctions for currency manipulation?

But setting those questions aside for the moment, here are some of the potential benefits I see:

First, increasing the money supply so as to devalue the dollar is doable - there would be no need, as there would be, say, with another economic stimulus bill, to try to get anything through the current do-nothing Congress.

Second, pumping sheer dollars into the system would devalue the dollar, causing domestic inflation to rise. If people - or, more importantly, corporations now sitting on about $2 trillion in cash - think that prices are only going to keep going up, that increases the pressure on those currently hoarding cash to spend money now rather than wait until later, thereby increasing national demand.

Third, if the dollar is devalued against the Euro, which lacks the ability to be devalued by any individual EU nation, then America's exports become more attractive to those nations and further increases demand for American goods and services.

Fourth, a jolt of inflation would reduce the real effect of the "overhang of consumer and business debt" described by Judis that also reduces effective demand. In other words, we could reduce the drag our current debt level has on the economy by repaying that debt with devalued dollars . . . freeing up more real money to spent on other goods and services, which also increases demand.

Fifth and finally, allowing for an inflation rate of - say - 4% would drive up nominal interest rates, which would provide a working margin in which the Fed could then subsequently work to increase or decrease real interest rates; as it is now, interest rates are too close to zero to allow the Fed much room to maneuver. See Karl Smith, Matthew Yglesias, and Keven Drum all writing in favor of this last point.

So, anybody? Is this a possible way out?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Low Capital Gains Tax Rates Hurt The Economy


So the big news over the weekend was the leaking of President Obama’s proposed “Buffett Rule.”  Details are sketchy at this point, but he seems to be proposing that anyone with an annual income of $1 million or more face a minimum income tax rate at least comparable to that paid by middle-class Americans.  The name is derived from a NYT op-ed that gazillionaire investor Warren Buffett recently authored in which he decried the fact that – because investment income is subject to only the 15% capital gains tax rate – he and his fellow “mega-rich friends,” who derive most of their income from investments, often pay a lower tax rate than does his cleaning lady.  

Well, hell – it’s about damned time someone suggested this, and not only because it is obscene that hedge fund managers like John Paulson (who would be in jail on fraud charges if he worked in any field other than the American financial industry) can make more than a thousand million ($1B) dollars a year and pay a lower tax rate than a firefighter or a school teacher.  But also because taxing investment income at a lower rate than earned income hurts the economy by sucking money out of economically productive enterprises.  

And we really shouldn’t be doing that.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Let's Go Back to Hooverville!

Unemployment and poverty in the United States is setting the stage for riots, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg warned on a weekly radio show.
Speaking on WOR [yesterday], the Independent mayor made the unusually negative warning, but avoided direct criticism of Democratic President Barack Obama for a 9.1 percent national unemployment rate, saying Obama had inherited it “over long periods of time,” the New York Daily News reported.

Referring to riots earlier this year in Cairo and Madrid by tens of thousands of people unable to find jobs, Bloomberg said "You don't want those kinds of riots here."
                                                    --UPI (emphasis added)

Oh, I beg to differ . . . .

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Did Karl Rove Find an Acorn?

Even a blind hog finds an acorn now and then.
--traditional saying

Remember Karl Rove’s “inevitability strategy”?

It’s well-known that Karl Rove believes that swing voters like to vote for the winner.  Therefore, one of the central political strategies for Bush has been to create an “aura of inevitability” that, theoretically, will bring people to his side.  If everyone believes you’re a political juggernaut, the theory goes, then you will become a political juggernaut. (emphasis added)

Rove believes so completely in this strategy that when Bush II was running against Al Gore in 2000 “[t]o demonstrate his confidence, Mr. Bush traveled at the end of the campaign to California and New Jersey, states firmly in Democratic hands.”  The strategic thinking seemed to be that having Bush campaign in states everyone knew he couldn’t win signaled to undecided voters how confident Bush was that he’d take the swing states he actually needed.  To Rove, this “signaling” was more important than any substantive campaigning in the last few days might be.

Now, I’ve never been a big believer in the “Karl Rove is a political genius” school of thought.  Karl Rove’s success has always seemed to me to stem mostly from his sheer unwillingness to abide by any sense of morality or decency if doing so might blunt his candidate’s chance to win an election.  His readiness to simply forsake all previously accepted limitations on what constitutes appropriate campaign conduct amounts to nothing more than a breaking of the (unwritten) rules that - prior to Rove’s appearance - had always been understood to govern the contest.  Put another way, Rove wins elections by cheating.  This doesn’t make him a genius, it makes him an asshole.

But yesterday, whilst searching for something else entirely, I came across information that indicates ol’ Rover might actually be on to something with his “inevitability strategy.”  It turns out that, when it comes to elections anyway, it might actually be possible for a political campaign to “create [its] own reality."

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Friedman Files: Case File No. 1

Thomas Friedman is widely lampooned for his tendency to take an errant comment spposedly made by a taxi driver in some far-flung foreign city Friedman happens to be visiting, and extrapolating from that comment some supposedly deep understanding of the current state of the world.

I may be starting a semi-regular series of posts modeled on The Moustache of Understanding's own modus operandi. Hence, "the Friedman Files." The only difference between the two of us is that I can vouch with certainty that the conversations related herein did, in fact, occur and - unlike The Moustache - I understand that the plural of "anecdote" is not "data." In other words, while I may use some specific incident to make a larger point, I'm just some random blogger - not a Pulitzer prize winning columnist owning prime real estate over at The New York Times - and so unlike Friedman I have no problem acknowledging right up front that anything contained in these Files is just me spewing conjecture off the top of my head.

With these caveats in mind, on to File No. 1: The Case of the Low Information Bartendress.

Monday, September 12, 2011

GOP Admits to Putting Party Over Country

I’ve claimed many time before that - as a general rule – the Democractic party is actually interested in governing the country, in that by and large its members want to enact policies that can actually help the American people. 

I’ve also claimed that – as a general rule – the Republican party isn’t really interested in governing so much as it is interested in acquring political power for power's sake.  If these two interests conflict, the Republicans are much more likely to do whatever they think will help them electorally even if that course of action hurts America itself.  Certainly Mike Lofgren’s recent article bears out this general characterization.

And then today, via Steve Benen (again) over at The Washington Monthly, we have this:

And despite public declarations about finding common ground with Obama, some Republicans are privately grumbling that their leaders are being too accommodating with the president.
“Obama is on the ropes; why do we appear ready to hand him a win?” said one senior House Republican aide who requested anonymity to discuss the matter freely.
For all of the debate over what motivates Republicans on Capitol Hill, could this quote be any clearer? GOP goals have nothing to do with boosting the economy or creating jobs, and everything to do with undermining the president during a crisis.
The correct answer to this aide’s question — Americans get back to work is more important than partisan politics — never seems to enter the picture.
Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), chairman of the NRCC, added that no one should assume congressional Republicans will support policies, just because “we’ve been for them” in the recent past.
No, of course not. (emphasis added).
It is difficult to convince a political opponent to do the right thing when your opponent’s entire worldview is filtered not through the lens of appropriate social or economic policy, and instead through the lens of sheer political calculation.  When the only question asked by Republicans is ‘How can we best hurt Obama?’ the President’s ability to suggest anything that might help jump start the economy pretty much goes out the window.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

My 9/11 Anniversary Post

Well we just passed the 10-year anniversary of the September 11th attacks and it looks like nothing else got blown up, so that's good. I spent the day avoiding any coverage of the remembrances. I remember that day all too well, thank you very much, and what I mostly remember is that it was a goddamned tragedy. There is a fine line between commemorating an event and celebrating it, and I didn't watch the TeeVee because I didn't want to see anything that crossed that line.

But I think they pull your license if you are an American blogger and you don't mention 9/11 on its 10-year anniversary, so I thought I'd write about something tangentially related that bugs the hell out of me: am I the only person who thinks that our pre-9/11 history is being rewritten to make that goddamned day even more important than it already is?

A Football Analogy

Over at ThinkProgress, Scott Keyes has an article up entitled "Top Seven Progressive Policies that Strengthen the National Football League." Among the policies singled out by Keyes are:
(i) TV and radio revenue sharing contracts that allow small market teams like the Packers and the Vikings to remain competitive with big market teams like the Cowboys and the Giants;

(ii) The team salary cap, which prevents deep pocket teams from simply purchasing all the best players in the league; and

(iii) The progressive draft system, under which the team with the worst record has first pick in the next year's draft, the team with the second worst record gets the next pick, etc.
What struck me when I read this short article is that these rules were put in place 50 years ago after legendary NFL Commissioner Pete Rozell persuaded the team owners themselves to adopt them.

The League's ultimate goal in enacting these rules, of course, was to maintain football's popularity with the fans, and the strategy hit upon for doing so was to make sure all the teams could remain competitive over the long run. The rules agreed to by the team owners -- including the richest and most powerful owners at the time -- were simply the specific way this strategy was deployed. In the absence of these rules, a small number of teams could quickly dominate the league to the detriment of all the other players. This would either (i) make football season incredibly boring or, more likely, (ii) kill off the other teams and thus doom the NFL itself.

These NFL rules provide a useful analogy for understanding the way in which our government's constitutional mandate to promote "the General Welfare" can only be fulfilled by placing some restrictions on the free market system with which we are so enthralled. There is a difference between the overall system and the individual actors in that system, and sometimes in order to promote the general system one has to restrict the profiteering of the individual actors.

From a certain perspective, one could say that the team salary cap, the draft system, and the revenue sharing contracts in the NFL all "punish" richer, more successful teams by providing assistance to the poorer, less successful teams. But another, more accurate way of looking at the situation is to focus on the rules' effect on the league and not their effect on the separate teams. Viewed through this lens, the necessity for these rules is apparent: they are what maintain a healthy, vibrant system under which everybody prospers.

The same thing applies to the intersection of the government and our economy. The government's charge to promote "the General Welfare" means that its focus has to be on the economic system -- not the economic actors. To that end, we enacted redistributive taxes like the estate tax and the progressive income tax in an effort to prevent wealth from becoming concentrated in the hands of a few rich families. We enacted myriad government regulations to prevent companies selling us goods and services from ripping us off or poisoning us. We enacted collective bargaining rights so the negotiating imbalance between a large employer and an individual worker could be redressed. And on and on and on.

Conservatives and - especially - Libertarians point to all these instances in which the government has acted to prevent the already rich and successful from simply dominating the economy to the detriment of everybody else and complain that the rich and successful are being "punished." But that isn't it at all. These policies were adopted for the same reason the NFL adopted its own rules: because in order to maintain a healthy system, some minimal amount of parity between all parties needs to be maintained. Complaints by Conservatives and Libertarians about these rules miss the fact that these rules are the price that is paid for not having the system collapse. And not having the system collapse, ultimately, benefits us all.

Even the people complaining about the rules.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Consciousness, Communion, and Blog Posting

This post is only a small part of something much larger I originally posted over at Daily Kos.  The complete post was sparked by something I had seen at DK the day before, and is a fairly longish diary that describes my own political awakening, the importance I place on being politically aware, and concludes with some thoughts about 
our need -- not our desire, but our need -- to communicate with each other, to share with each other our ideas, and to try to persuade each other to see things from our point of view.  [I started] thinking that maybe this need is inherent in the very nature of our existence as conscious beings. 
Because the original, longish post itself is fairly specific to my experience as a member of the Daily Kos community, it didn't seem necessary to cross-post the entire thing here.  (Although by all means . . . if you have any interest in my personal journey to political involvement, please feel free to click the link above.)  However, the actual nut of the post - some thoughts about consciousness and communication -- I really did like and so I thought I'd throw that section of the post up on this site.

You can read it below the fold.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Oh, the Stupid Things I Hear! No. 2

So I caught the last ten minutes of the Diane Rehm show this morning while driving into the office.  It was the standard end-of-the-week news roundup with a few pundits, one of whom was David Ignatius from The Washington Post.

On its ten-year anniversary, Diane was asking her guests whether there was any connection between the 9/11 attacks and the country’s current financial crisis.  (I love the Diane Rehm show,  but here is a simple answer to a stupid question:  No.)  David Ignatius took it upon himself to answer, and he said something like this (I am paraphrasing from memory):

I think what September 11th showed us is that our systems are not self-correcting.  We had this sense that our political and economic systems could take care of themselves.  That is what they are supposed to do; a disturbance comes along and they self-correct back into a stable state, back to equilibrium.  It took us a long time to get past September 11th and now our financial system doesn’t seem to be doing what it is supposed to be doing, we’re not seeing that self-correction taking place.

Oh, fer gawd’s sake!  Where to begin?

Passed Along Without Comment

Waiting for Obama to make his way down the center aisle, [Vice President Biden and House Speaker Boehner] stood before the House and had a talk -- not about jobs, but about golf.

"Seven birdies, five bogies," Boehner reported to Biden.

"You're kidding me!" the Vice President said.

"I missed a 4-foot straight-on birdie on the last hole," Boehner said of another round.

"Whoa!" the Vice President said.

"So, the next day," Boehner went on, "I shoot an 86! Ha, ha, ha!"

"That's incredible," the Vice President said.

Boehner went on about other memorable golf moments before an aide let the men know that their microphones were live.

--Dana Milbank

I'm Dumb, Like Everybody Else

Looking over the specific proposals contained in President Obama's Jobs Plan last night, I noticed he proposes spending $25 billion to renovate and repair the nation's schools. "That's a really good idea," I thought immediately. And then I stopped myself to wonder why I thought that, and why that was my immediate reaction.

After all, I don't really know if it is a good idea or not; I don't know how many people will be put back to work if this is done, or how much of a stimulative effect it will have on the economy, or whether that $25 billion could be put to better use elsewhere. Nevertheless, after reading about the proposal I immediately formed a very positive and strong belief that this was a good idea.

And then I recalled that only a few weeks ago I had been talking with a friend of mine and he had told me about a guest he had seen on The Rachel Maddow Show who had proposed doing the same thing. The guest had argued in favor of this proposition because (i) our schools need it, (ii) it can be done immediately, (iii) unlike a lot of other construction projects, this type of work is fairly labor intensive and thus employs a lot of people, and (iv) at a bare minimum it at least gets funds pumping through the economy again.

Now, all of that may be true and it certainly sounds right, but the fact remains that I really don't know enough about the situation to definitely say I know what I'm talking about. But even though I recognize that fact, that recognition still doesn't dampen my enthusiasm for the project.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Rick Perry's Debate Debut: Handicapping the Candidates

I watched the debate via Internet, but I assume the sound quality was the same for those watching on the TeeVee – boy!  did that suck!  The amount of reverb present whenever anyone was talking gave me a headache and sometimes made it next to impossible to figure out what was being said.  I don’t know if that was a problem with the audio equipment or somehow resulted from the fact the debate appeared to have been held in an airplane hangar, but it was extremely annoying.  Almost as annoying as the hagiographic video they ran of St. Ronald Reagan and his missus.

As for the GOP base audience, I took notes of the things to which they seemed to react/applaud.  These included:

--Newt Gingrich’s charge that the “liberal media,” acting as the debate’s moderators, were “carrying water for Obama”;
--Michele Bachmann’s claim that the Affordable Care Act constitutes “socialized medicine”;
--Jon Huntsman’s charge that Obama should “get out from behind a teleprompter;”
--Santorum’s announced goal of cutting way back on food stamps and housing assistance; and
--Rick Perry’s assertion that Social Security was “a monstrous lie” that “won’t be there” for our children. 
But by far, what drew the loudest and longest applause was Brian Williams attempt to ask Rick Perry about the record number of people he has executed as Governor of Texas.  The really chilling thing about this applause is that it started before Williams could even finish setting up the question.  He got as far as saying “Governor Perry, you’ve presided over the executions of the largest number of people of any modern governor –” when the audience broke into sustained and spontaneous applause.  They were applauding Perry for killing a lot of people.  If you wanted evidence of the bloodthirsty nature of the GOP base . . . There it is.

Individual assessments of each candidate's performance are below the fold.

Ron Paul: Crazier'n a Bag of Snakes

Well, I tuned into last night’s Republican nomination debate.  If there were any doubt before that the media think it’s their responsibility to pick winners and losers for the American people, this spectacle should have put such doubts to rest.  So far as the moderators were concerned, last night very much was Rick Perry’s Big Debut: Going Toe to Toe with Mitt.  Every candidate other than Rick Perry and Mitt Romney – the two frontrunners who Conventional Wisdom says will have to fight it out in a steel cage death match for the nomination – got amazingly short shrift. 

Moreover, even when one of the other, lesser candidates did get a question it seemed to me that two times out of three it was a question about Rick Perry.  At one point pretty much all the candidates got involved in a 5 minute discussion regarding Perry’s decision to have little girls inoculated against the Human Papillomavirus, which causes cervical cancer.  This was an issue, apparently, because many true blue Conservatives feel that only the threat of cervical cancer prevents their little girls from one day having Teh Sex -- and as all true blue Conservatives will tell you, women having Teh Sex is worse than women getting The Cancer.

But as crazy as that sideshow was, inch-for-inch and pound-for-pound the greatest entertainment bang for your buck last night was to be found in the demented little Keebler Elf that is Ron Paul.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Hoffa Got "Ahmadinejadized"


The insane amount of tsuris and pearl-clutching that has arisen out of Teamsters’ President James Hoffa’s Labor Day speech and whether an apology is in order, or whether President Obama should distance himself from those comments is . . . well, insane.  This is an entirely manufactured scandal, the outrage exhibited by Teabaggers and the Fox News chasing media having been conjured out of thin air. 

Unfortunately, this is also nothing new.  Manufacturing outrage by misquoting a political speaker in order to make it appear that speaker was advocating violence is an old way to demonize one’s enemies.  When that occurs in connection with domestic politics, as here, it is just a sad commentary on the state of our discourse and how easily the Republican Wurlitzer can mislead a large swathe of the American public in order to gin up the GOP base against their political enemies.

But when it occurs in the context of talking about – say – Iran, it becomes something much more dangerous, because it provides grist for the warmongers among us who are still so very, very anxious to march on Tehran.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Rehabilitating "Entitlements"

Last week Mike Lofgren, a former professional Capitol Hill staffer and self-confessed "GOP Operative Who Left the Cult," published an article at Truth Out explaining how badly the GOP has gone off the rails, and how willing it is to intentionally damage the country if Republicans think doing so will help their electoral chances. It is one hell of an article, and it confirms pretty much even the craziest-sounding suspicions Liberals have had about the Grand Old Party for some time. Indeed, Lofgren's article lays out the GOP playbook, and that playbook reads like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion for Republicans. (And yes, I know the Protocols were an anti-semitic hoax. I'm just trying to make a point.) If you haven't had the opportunity to read it yet, I urge you to do so here.

Not that Lofgren has much love for the Democrats either. The contempt he has for the party's institutional weakness and the Dems' capacity for getting rolled by Republicans is palpable. As an example of the Dems' weakness, Lofgren calls out Democrats' seeming inability to comprehend how important framing and language is to capturing the low information voters that our media insists on labeling "independents":
Democrats ceded the field. Above all, they do not understand language. Their initiatives are posed in impenetrable policy-speak: the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act? The what? -- can anyone even remember it? No wonder the pejorative "Obamacare" won out. Contrast that with the Republicans' Patriot Act. You're a patriot, aren't you? Does anyone at the GED level have a clue what a Stimulus Bill is supposed to be? Why didn't the White House call it a Jobs Bill and keep pounding on that theme?

You know that Social Security and Medicare are in jeopardy when even Democrats refer to them as entitlements. "Entitlements" has a negative sound in colloquial English: somebody who is "entitled" selfishly claims something he doesn't really deserve. Why not call them "earned benefits," which is what they are because we all contribute payroll taxes to fund them? That would never occur to the Democrats.
I, of course, am a big believer in the power of language to shape and even control or define debate. And I agree with Lofgren about the Dems needing to come up with pithier names for their legislative goals. When dealing with low information voters, a phrase is all that might stick in their minds; how many members of Congress - thinking ahead to the campaign ads their opponent would run during the next election - do you imagine found it difficult to even contemplate voting against something called "The Patriot Act"? More than a few, I'd wager.

But I'm going to disagree with Lofgren on the use of the term "entitlements." Sure, we could simply switch up the language and start calling them something new (although "earned benefits" sounds clunky to me), but that would take years to catch on - if it ever did - and in the meantime the Republicans would make hay by accusing the Democrats of "playing word games." I think a better way to address the problem is to simply rehabilitate the term "entitlement," and I don't think that would be too difficult to do.

Just as there is proper discrimination (say, between good and bad, or between right and wrong) and improper discrimination (say, based on skin color, or religion, or sexual orientation, or gender), there are also deserved entitlements and undeserved entitlements. All that needs be done is to remind the American public that benefits like Social Security and Medicare are deserved entitlements.

It's an easy thing to explain, we just have to do so over and over and over again until it gets beaten into the American psyche like an annoying pop song you can't get out of your head. Ideally, what I'd like to see is a concerted effort whereby every single Democratic politician and left-leaning pundit who appears on TeeVee just seizes on the word the second it escapes the host's or any other guest's lips and says:
No, we're not gonna cut entitlements, and d'you know why? Because the American people are entitled to 'em. Each and every paycheck any American has ever picked up, money was taken out to pay for things like Social Security and Medicare. And y'know what? When you've already paid for something you're entitled to it.
This is an easy to understand, commonsense message that nobody would have any trouble remembering, comprehending, or repeating. Best of all, for any low information voter who hears that message, it sure sounds like the guy saying it is looking out for that voter's interests.

I dunno. Maybe I'm just being naive, but it seems to me that if that message were repeated ad nauseum, every day, day after day after day, the Republicans and their Villager enablers would find it a lot more difficult to appear in public and blithely talk about the pressing need to cut "entitlements."

Pres. Obama: Being a Grown-Up is Not Enough

We’ve all seen them, been annoyed by them.  Those revolting children in the store or restaurant or anywhere you happen to be, throwing a temper tantrum and screaming at the top of their lungs because they want something and they can’t have it.  But as much as we’ve loathed those children in the darkest places of our hearts, we’re all of us essentially kind people and few of us have ever wished ill on the children themselves.  I mean . . . they’re children for God’s sake.  They don’t really know what they’re doing because they’ve obviously never been taught how to behave properly.

No, in those circumstances I think most of us save our private ill-wishing for the parents of the brat causing such a ruckus, who are demonstrably incapable of controlling their little Hellspawn and who are almost certainly responsible for the kid’s willingness to behave so atrociously in the first place.

President Obama might want to consider this as he continues his quest to be seen as “the only grown-up in the room.”  ‘Cause it seems to be backfiring on him.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Gaming Out the Sarah Palin Death Spiral: Not a Bang, But a Whimper

(I know, I know . . . I shouldn't be thinking at all about the blight on our national politics that is Sarah Palin, but like a sore tooth one's tongue keeps poking I just can't stop myself.)

It's become pretty clear that Sarah Palin is a status obsessed celebrity wannabee. Almost from the moment she was picked by our country's angriest old uncle to be his backup plan, Sarah Palin has never failed to prove that her formal career as a politician is over and that she doesn't regret that for a moment. After John McCain gave her the opportunity to try her schtick out on the national stage and she discovered that she could make people like National Review's Rich Lowry see starbursts, Palin lost no time chucking the governorship of her "much beloved" Alaska so that she could hang out with the cool kidz on the national circuit.

But not because she wants to be a politician on the national stage; she just wants to be on the national stage, full stop.

Our Evolving Language of War

I caught part of the Diane Rehm Show this morning on my way to pick up some breakfast biscuits.  I think it was a repeat; George McGovern was her guest, and she was asking him about the Open Letter to President Obama that he published in Harper’s last month. 

One small topic that got tossed out for discussion was McGovern’s assertion that we never should have renamed the “War Department” the “Department of Defense.”  I perked up a little when he said that, because I’ve argued the same thing in the past.  According to McGovern, by 1947 the United States had had a “War Department” that had served it well for more than a century, but then some clever public relations person suggested that the name be changed to generate greater public support.  After all, nobody likes the idea of “War” but everybody is in favor of “Defense.”  It made me reflect a little on how language influences our actual thinking.  

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Sociopathy of Banksters and Slaveowners

About six years ago Digby penned a piece entitled The Resentment Tribe. She was following up on a prior post in which she had asked the question: "Why are [Conservatives] so angry?" Digby proposed that what we see from the increasingly batty right-wing is something we have seen demonstrated throughout our history -- namely, a worldview that not only cannot brook dissent, but that so resents any expression of disagreement by others that it demands their complete and utter extirpation. Digby argued that this worldview "ha[d] its genesis in the original sin of slavery and . . . . the best way to understand this is to go right to the heart of the beast and quote . . . Abraham Lincoln at the Cooper Union in New York in 1860."

In that speech, Lincoln spoke to "the Southern people's" threat to break up the union unless their legal right to practice slavery was "at once admitted to as a conclusive and final rule of political action[.]" (emphasis added). Pointing out that the South's right to own slaves already had been legally adjudicated in its favor by the Supreme Court, Lincoln demanded:
[W]hat will satisfy them? Simply this: We must not only let them alone, but we must, somehow, convince them that we do let them alone. This, we know by experience, is no easy task. We have been trying to convince them from the very beginning of our organization, but with no success. In all our platforms and speeches we have constantly protested our purpose to let them alone; but this has had no tendency to convince them. Alike unavailing to convince them, is the fact that they have never detected a man of us in any attempt to disturb them.

These natural, and apparently adequate means all failing, what will convince them? This, and this only: cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right. And this must be done thoroughly -- done in acts as well as in words. Silence will not be tolerated -- we must pledge ourselves avowedly with them. Senator Douglas' new sedition law must be enacted and enforced, suppressing all declarations that slavery is wrong, whether made in politics, in presses, in pulpits, or in private. We must arrest and return their fugitive slaves with greedy pleasure. We must pull down our Free State constitutions. The whole atmosphere must be disinfected from all taint of opposition to slavery, before they will cease to believe that all their troubles proceed from us. (emphasis added).
In short, it was insufficient that the Southern States be left alone to continue the barbaric institution of slavery; what they demanded from their neighbors to the North was not mere tolerance of this institution, but active approval. Because they were unable to convince their Free State cousins that they should be lauded for buying, selling, and mercilessly exploiting other human beings for personal profit, they felt they had no choice but to go to war.

That excerpt from Lincoln's speech has stayed with me ever since I read it for the first time over at Digby's. I think of it every time I'm confronted by people with whom I disagree and who seem to take it as a personal insult that I might disagree with them. And I think about it when I see political actors -- like the banksters on Wall Street -- who would seem to have more than even the most self-regarding, greedy bastard imaginable might ever want, but who also seem to be perpetually whining that people aren't being nice enough to them.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Groom's Father's Argument

Earlier today I was listening to the August 27th Best of the Left podcast, which was devoted to the issue of drug legalization as a viable public policy. I always find this topic fascinating, because it's actually comprised of many different but related issues. What illicit drugs, if any, should be legalized? What effect will legalization have on drug consumption? On drug violence? How much money could be saved if we stopped prosecuting The Drug War? Would we see significant revenue if we taxed these drugs? Is a certain amount of drug use in society acceptable and - if so - shouldn't the quality of these newly legalized drugs be regulated? How? What would happen if we decriminalized these drugs but placed people caught with drugs in treatment centers? etc., etc., etc.

But as intriguing as I find this entire topic, I never can get myself too invested in it because for all intents and purposes the issue is moot. I cannot for the life of me see how at any time in the foreseeable future the United States would ever be willing to change the scorched earth policy we've followed for the past few decades in our stupid, stupid War on Drugs.

There are a lot of reasons for this. We've got the social conservatives, of course, for whom any use of drugs now considered illegal is evil. Even for those Americans who don't think drugs are necessarily and always evil, we've got generations who have been brainwashed by decades of After School Specials and the Hallmark and Lifetime Channels' made-for-teevee movies that tell us that even an occasional joint can inevitably lead one's children into a lifelong smack habit that has them turning tricks in alleys to get their next fix. Hell, we've even got an economic lobby interested in keeping drug use illegal, thanks to our wonderfully short-sighted decision to privatize our prisons such that companies get rich the more people they can convince us should be locked up.

But - by far - the single greatest reason America can't possibly call a ceasefire in its War on Drugs is what I call "The Groom's Father's Argument."