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Friday, December 18, 2009

Vanden Heuval takes it on the chin by fellow Socialist

This is great. Kristina Vandanhoover gets reamed by Lawrence O'Donnel, a liberal and self-proclaimed fellow Socialist, who nonetheless sought fit to point out the political idiocy of the Left on the Health Debate. Watch it on Morning Joe (it starts at about 13:30 on the clip, but the entire discussion is well worth watching).

(Notice how Vanden Heuval has NO sense of humor? She doesn't get what's happening, and just sort of proselytizes, and filibusters, and it's so fun to watch!)


Enjoy!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

I thought so!

Orbitz recently changed their commercial. Yahoo! answers' best reply says it was because of thin-skinned letter writers. Complaining about what!??? That an extra "ez" after "Hernandez" is racist, or insensitive to Hispanics? What a crock of shit! This is text book PC: short on any substantive insult, long on folks with a chip on their shoulder and a one-dimensional perspective that is as intellectually sharp as a splitting maul, and used with roughly the same purpose. Imagine that ignoramus, imagine the kind of mind it would take, to get fired up about the extra "ez" in the original commercial, and to take arms against this imaginary sea of troubles. Wow! Wow! WOW!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Philosophy of GW

From a recent email I wrote:

I don't think there's a "Godelian" argument that the models are necessarily poor, but as a horse sense rule, when people tell me they can predict the future, I start wondering. That's an old trick.

The difference between local weather systems-- which are chaotic in the sense that they have a sensitive dependence on initial conditions -- and global temp is that, in the former, we have causes, while in the latter, the causal mechanisms are still unclear.

I mean, in a chaotic system we all know that laws like Boyles etc. etc. apply, it's just that the actual complexity of the system means that there isn't any way to set up some differential equations and get the future state from some specification of the initial state. It's hopeless, actually, as scientists like Lorenz showed as early as the 1960s. (This is why, when we get models of likely trajectories for hurricanes making landfall, they essentially draw out a set of paths that are so broad that Grandma could do the same with a crayon).

With mean global temp, we have to have a causal mechanism that we know reliably pushes the temperatures up, given the presence of the cause. This is the "sufficiency" condition that philosophers speak of: many factors may be necessary, but we need to know what subset of them are sufficient to make the entire temperature of the Earth rise. This is not a chaotic system, but more like the modeling of social science systems, or the economy: too hard to tell what subset gives us the sufficiency condition. So, when we see the mean global temp trend down between 1940 - 1960, even while massive amounts of C02 were getting released into the atmosphere, it's puzzling. Fair minded people ask: if C02 is the sufficient condition, why then doesn't it graph directly? In other historical periods, also, when C02 was much higher than now, why was temperature comparably low, and what have you? This is the sort of stuff that Lindzen at MIT asks, and so on.

For my part, the climatologists can work out the details of ice core records and so on, but I think it's fairly obvious that there's more going on than C02 (it could of course be a necessary condition, or it could be sufficient given background factors N, in which case we should be asking a lot more questions about N, like if N = {water vapor,...}, and so on.)

So this is kind of Popperian philosophy of science, where you have to figure out what you're really claiming, and what falsifies it, etc.

Anyway, as I said, others can work out the details (assuming they're honest about what they're measuring), but I'd like to see the sufficiency case made more obvious, so that we can stop having the debate. (Put it another way, if the sufficiency case is that damn obvious, someone should let us in on it, instead of airing guilt-trip videos of children drowning.)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Pleeaaase

Said in the pleading voice of a little girl:

Please stop using kids as pawns to try to guilt-trip adults into doing what you want. Pleeeaaase.

Why politics can suck (was, why I am so great)

We have this Hotty who visits our office; she's the original Neocon. She's married to a military guy, loves her country, listens to country music, and probably has a stars and stripes bikini (wish I had an image to upload).

So Hotty comes into our office one day, the random pop-your-head in suddenly we're talking politics day. I'm a Ron Paul-type libertarian with shades of standard conservatism (think William F. Buckley, not George W. Bush, though I kind of liked Bush, actually), which means that Hotty and me, our Venn diagram of agreement is working out pretty well on this day.

Then, it happens. The first hint of why politics sucks (was: first hint of my greatness). I mention Palin's a know-nothing (a bit overstated, but most people can see my point), and suddenly she's nodding in that I'm-not-really-agreeing-but-don't-know-what-to-say manner. It occurs to me later that this is just one more case of how politics is like rooting for sports teams. It's so devoid of thought. But we LIKE Palin! What's your problem? She you-betcha's those Ivory Tower snobs! Right, sorry. I should have said: she ain't no know-nuthin' (and if she is, "know-nuthin'" is good!).

Consider:

Hotty's core argument about Obama was that "he gives really good speeches, he electrifies crowds, he's good at campaining, but he isn't really President material"; he's not really suited for the rigors of the Presidency. "Where's the beef?" is the objection from Hotty, in other words.

But, isn't this exactly the obvious charge against Palin for President? She's great at giving speeches and campaigning, but she can't tell Katie Couric what she reads, or why the proximity of Alaska to Russia confers foreign policy experience on her. Somehow the God-fearin', military supportin', country music listenin' crowd thinks Palin got screwed out of the White House (by the media, I guess, or by them liberals), while they simultaneously think that the guy who currently inhabits the White House is just some good speech giving, fast talking campaigner, who lacks the gravitas that it takes to be President. Huh?

This is why, when thinking about politics, fair minded people realize that it can suck. When we squeeze it, you see, more logic should come out. But we just get a kind of red or blue ooze. Mmmmmm. Ooooooze.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

List of Scientists who Dissent from Global Warming View

For some reason, my GW believer buddies seem perpetually skeptical that there are substantial numbers of reputable scientists who are dubious about anthropogenic warming. It's clear however there are many scientists who are skeptical of the anthropogenic warming claim (i.e., human-caused Global Warming, which I often abbreviate as "Global Warming" or just "GW" on this blog, separate from "global warming" (no caps), which is the claim that the Earth is warming, without specifying a cause).

I found 700 skeptical scientists in the U.S. Senate EPW report here. Wikipedia has a (much smaller, but still significant) list here.

An excerpt from the Senate report:

"
Highlights of the Updated 2008/2009 Senate Minority Report featuring over 700 international scientists dissenting from man-made climate fears:

“I am a skeptic…Global warming has become a new religion.” - Nobel Prize Winner for Physics, Ivar Giaever.

“Since I am no longer affiliated with any organization nor receiving any funding, I can speak quite frankly….As a scientist I remain skeptical...The main basis of the claim that man’s release of greenhouse gases is the cause of the warming is based almost entirely upon climate models. We all know the frailty of models concerning the air-surface system.” - Atmospheric Scientist Dr. Joanne Simpson, the first woman in the world to receive a PhD in meteorology, and formerly of NASA, who has authored more than 190 studies and has been called “among the most preeminent scientists of the last 100 years.”

Warming fears are the “worst scientific scandal in the history…When people come to know what the truth is, they will feel deceived by science and scientists.” - UN IPCC Japanese Scientist Dr. Kiminori Itoh, an award-winning PhD environmental physical chemist.


“The IPCC has actually become a closed circuit; it doesn’t listen to others. It doesn’t have open minds… I am really amazed that the Nobel Peace Prize has been given on scientifically incorrect conclusions by people who are not geologists.” - Indian geologist Dr. Arun D. Ahluwalia at Punjab University and a board member of the UN-supported International Year of the Planet.
"

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

My Global Warming Rant (or, why there's something rotten in Copenhagen)

This is actually adapted from an email to one of my GW believer friends, but it should be clear enough:


I'm not some right-wing wacko that has knee jerk reactions about Global Warming because of suspicions that it's a device for redistribution from the Left. I'm suspicious of it because the claim is that we can predict the future state of a complex system, and I've spent at least a decade coming to understand how this is a chimera. GW models are actually a species of time sequence prediction, which I've studied (I've studied sequential learning more, of course). I know a little about this general inductive procedure, and it's very vulnerable to the local minima or maxima problem (where are you on the decision surface?). So we really don't know whether the Earth will start cooling in a few years, with the warming period a local maxima.

Add to this, it doesn't add up! The warming of the last century was more pronounced prior to the heavy industrialization of the 1940s on. And then there's the point that C02 is something like .054% of the gasses in the Earth's atmosphere, and of this miniscule amount, only a sliver is human caused (most is from the oceans), and of this sliver, we can only change a sliver of the sliver without ruining our economies. So, fine, I'll put in green bulbs to light my house, but am I really affecting the global climate? Would building windmills or nuclear power plants in place of coal burning plants really lower the mean global temperature? It seems really dubious that any of the proposals would make any difference, even if we've got the core science right, which is in dispute among climatologists, in spite of the "debate's closed now, go home" attitude of the IPCC crowd.

So, the whole thing just seems to scream for a rational discussion, but somehow we never get one. It's the ultimate will-o-the-wisp: question the claim that "GW is anthropogenic", and GW believers throw out facts and figures for a while. The GW skeptic throws out counter facts and figures, say, that while Africa is hottest on record, North America is actually cooling, not to mention Antarctica. The believer then says "look, you idiot, it's not that every place will get warmer, it's that the climate will change." To which the unsuspecting skeptic (idiot) says, but you just used the fact that Africa is hottest on record as evidence for the theory!

This goes on for a while, until eventually the skeptic is frustrated once again, because the believer has now shifted the debate from the original claim (that we can predict the behavior of the Earth's weather), to the costs of not acting. The argument goes something like this: look, we can't prove GW, but we're certain that there's climate change (the most vacuous statement ever, by the way), and we better at least try. Sure, the skeptic agrees, let's try. The debate should now be:

Given the uncertainty with predicting the future states of complex systems, how much economic change makes sense?

This gets the believer into trouble (because the honest answer, alongside other dangers like global economic instability, terrorist acts, geopolitical upheaval, etc., is "not that much"). So the believer performs the final sleight of hand, which is to shift the entire debate away from murky scientific predictions about the future of the planet, into a kind of political shame-you game: "look, idiot skeptic, don't you want cleaner air? Don't you like streams and oceans and national parks?". To which the skeptic (at least my kind of skeptic) can jolly well say "yes"! And this makes the skeptic's whole point--why don't we just ask simple questions about how we can reduce dependence on foreign oil, and reduce industrial pollution, and live better lives? Why hitch the project on this Nostradamus illusion that we know what the global mean temp of planet Earth will be in the next hundred years? Not enough CATASTROPHE! to get the masses moving? (Sorry, folks, but even us idiot skeptics prefer to be treated as rational adults.)

Final point. The IPCC touts its "list" of scientists who accept the anthropogenic claim (there's debate about whether the number is inflated, but leave that aside for now). There's also a list of very distinguished scientists who think that the anthropogenic claim is dubious. Proponents of GW often resort to the argument that the list of believers is longer than the list of skeptics. Are we really at the point where "science" is established by counting the "aye"s and the "nay"s? This is simply unbelievable as a serious scientific proposition. The existence of serious dissent from qualified scientists tells us instantly that the issue is NOT settled, in spite of the Orwellian attempt to shut everyone up who raises doubts or concerns.

Sorry, GW believers, the irony here is that you, not the skeptic, are on the wrong side of history.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Global Warming Dissent Continues

From APS on the need to slow down the climate change discussion, so that we can have an actual scientific debate. Many of these folks are mainstream scientists. Of course, I'd expect that the politicized Global Warming! crowd will find a way to suggest that their mamas are whores. Excuse my language.

Don't Try This at Home

It's part of the new logic in Washington. To stimulate business, create more bureaucracy. What the hell, it's just 200 billion. Not like we have a deficit problem. Oops.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Unpacking Mike's Trick (Thanks, Mike!)

Here's some (it would appear to be) interesting info on "Mike's Nature Trick", in case readers of this blog want some dirt for possible future self-serving uses (for instance, "Loch Ness Tricks", to show clear evidence of the Loch Ness Monster, for those receiving funds to study Loch Ness sightings, and so on). I'm all about making it easier to bilk the unsuspecting masses. As I get more "tricks", I'll pass them along.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

It's Dr. Larson, now

Yes, that's right, I've completed my Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Austion. I feel so...., so,...., so,....

Well, it was a feat, in addition to starting the company. I'll say that. And anyway, I love to write, and to do research.

Erik

Sunday, November 29, 2009

All Mum on Global Warming

None of my Global Warming enthusiast friends are peeping right now. Hmmm. Maybe it's because the theory that co2 is driving climate change is slowly but assuredly unraveling, as all politically backed "scientific" theories do. The Earth warms, and cools, and warms again. Suddenly our lawnmowers and autos and jets are the cause. Wow. What an easy target, for a skeptic, like me.

I wish more enthusiasts would go on the record, on this blog, proclaiming the truth of Global Warming. Later, I'll use the posts to further rub it in. My point, always, is that science should be free of politics, and it's clear in this particular debate that pure science in this sense is an obvious illusion. Time will only make this point stronger.

So, speak up, you Global Warming folks! You're already on record on the blog, but let's hear more.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Where can I get "Mike's Trick"?

Here's the story on the Global Warming email leak. Original story from CBS News. From ZDNET.

Hide the Decline

Thanks alot, Global Warming folks. What I've been saying all along. It's not that I have super knowledge of non-global warming, it's that I'm capable of spotting the intrusion of politics into science. That doesn't take a scientist. Now the one bastion of non-political thinking, science, is further eroded in the eye of the public. The hypothesis that "Co2 is driving climate change", as opposed to other hypotheses (like that sun perturbations are more salient), we assumed would be evaluated on pure scientific merits. That's science. And I'm afraid the Global Warming enthusiasts following the IPCC either don't care about unadulerated science if it runs counter to political aims, or they really do, and they've been duped.

By the way, an interesting factoid: it was Margaret Thatcher, on the Right, who first gave political prominence to the view that it could be man-made causes responsible for variations in climate temp. Why? She was seeking a counter to the power of the coal miners unions, who would instigate strikes that threatened her ministry. This irony I'll let stand without further comment.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Global Warming Swindle

Global Warming is such complete bull shit that your IQ automatically drops (in my estimation) if you really think it's an established scientific fact, like foot fungus. You dimwits. Trying to help the planet by selling your epistemic souls. Watch The Great Global Warming Swindle, a documentary that challenges the Global Warming hypothesis and goes a long way toward de-politicizing what has become a knee jerk political position. Hey, I watched Al Gores An Inconvenient Truth, jerks, so do me a favor and watch the documentary. Then comment.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan

On the back and forth in the media as to whether the Fort Hood suspected shooter was an Islamic terrorist.

Ugh. I don't like labels either. So, think of it this way, and I'll leave you to your own conclusions. Timothy McVeigh, white dude with sympathies with the KKK, a virulent dislike of government authority over individual citizens, and a profound belief in guns rights and the right of revolution, is commonly known and we expect will stay known as a terrorist. Yet, here is a guy, disenfranchised by the military (he failed the physical exams for U.S. Special Forces), unable to secure a meaningful job after his military career (he worked as a security guard), frustrated by his inability to attract a mate (his co-worker Andrea Peters shunned his advances), and turning to a destructive lifestyle (he became an obsessive gambler), who by all accounts seems to fit the mold of an increasingly unattached and ultimately psychochotic lone killer. So, why is he only a Terrorist? Apparently this simple label, for most of us, fits just fine with him. But why? Because he wasn't deranged? Or psychotic?

If one digs into this comparison, it eventually becomes clear that "Muslim terrorist" is treated differently than the anti-government radical white dude. In the the latter case, there's an unmistakeable eagerness to attach belief system to violence. In the former, it's quite the opposite. Wow!

To make my point clearly and once again, imagine the feeling of bizarrness if McVeigh, in some alternate universe, was no longer a terrorist after the Olkahoma City Bombing, but simply a psychotic, sexually frustrated, lonely ex-military guy who just needed the right treatment, if only we could have recognized the symptoms early enough. Imagine if we blamed the military, and the U.S. government (he railed against excessive taxation), and all things governmental. so stifling to sensitive, stressed out McVeigh. This kind of bull shit gloss would never fly for the guy who eviscerated 168 people in that horrific terrorist act, and it repays careful attention why in Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan's case, there is currently such a raging debate as to whether he was just sick, or something more. McVeigh, always, was just that something more. And if one is truly Enlightened, as I am, one would see that McVeigh was treated as a moral actor, an autonomous agent, and Maj. Hasan is on his way to being treated like an effect of so many causes outside of himself. And in this way, weirdly, perhaps we do win the battle of words, in Orwellian fashion perhaps, by making those enemies under the panoply of our political correctness not true humans, but only poor actors in dramas that they themselves did not and could not create. Only big bad Western World could create them, you see. We win by proclaiming our guilt.

Then again, maybe we're just chicken shit. And maybe our chicken shit nature is why McVeigh has his label, and others, theirs.

Obamaya!

Hmm. Just saw the latest poll numbers on Hardball with Yelling Mathews, and it seems the American People want the Republicans back. The change we can believe in?

Obama, that political phenom that had media pundits, bloggers, and just about everyone speculating that the country was in fact (or now) center left, is now in real danger of political losses in the House and Senate, and on that crucial litmus test question of whether Americans feel that the country is on the right track, he's losing.

Why? Why so soon? Because he looks like what-the-left-thought-about-dubbya right now. No, he doesn't sound like your crazy Texas neighbor gettin' his shit kickers on for a hoe down. No, he didn't breeze through Yale drinking cheap beer and keeping in close touch with his well-connected father. He's a legit Harvard guy. An elite. Educated, thoughtful in demeanor and in speech.

Only, he makes rediculous political decisions. As a libertarian, right leaning (mostly libertarian) guy, I'm applying the "Obamaya" label to him now. Why? We're sending troops into Afghanistan, a war that likely can't be won, and we're doing it in a way that maximizes discontent by left and right: more troups (left: bad!), but not as much as the general recommends (right: bad!). Nice.

He pushes through that fucked up stimulus package, 780 billion or whatever, deferring to the speaker of the house to write it, a political move that gaurantees it will be loaded to the brim with political goodies for every constituency in the Union. Ah, heck, we only created temporary gov'ment jobs? Nuts! And now unemployment is 10.2%, when originally forecasted to stay at or below 8% given the magic stimulus sauce. Oh, bull. Even liberal economists, like Jeffrey Sachs, think it's a political cookie jar and missed opportunity, nevermind the consevative-minded economists who've been screaming all along that it'll just add to the national debt (which no one doubts, by the way, that Bush initially created) without doing anything much substantive for working folks. Nice job, Obamaya.

Then there's the Health Care debate, a never ending back and forth on cable news, local news, in newspapers, C-Span, shut up! Health care, the pressing concern. Oh, and by the way, it's all about left-right fighting points: abortion, public option, et cetera et cetera. No one spins it as a cost saver (because it's not), and everyone on the Hill just keeps fighting about their favorite ethical issue, all the while losing millions of Americans who want to feel confident again about the basic direction of the country. Fix health care? Sure, we should fix it. It's broken. Start with trial lawyers. Or start with expanding access to plans across state borders, freeing up competition among private insurers. Or start by policing existing insurers on hot button issues like preexisting conditions, and so on. But this turd is a big ole' pile of make-Obama-less-popular. Wrong time. Wrong discussion. Why can't Obama see this, if he's so damn not-Dubbya? Doesn't sound very Harvard to me (unless by "Harvard" you mean do-things-that-make-an-elected-official-be-not-re-elected).

What else? Beers with some yahoo cop in Cambridge and a professor friend? Cool. Fly off to Copenhagen or where the hell it was to lobby for Olympics in Chicago? Cool. Screw the Global Warming issue, spewing tons of jet exhaust into the upper atmosphere to transport a handful of important folks half way across the globe in search of that ultimate nobel goal of sports in your old neighborhood. Woo hoo! Hey, I like sports as much as the next guy. But I wouldn't jump on that flight and then grab the mike back home to guilt everyone else about the necessity of cap and trade and making you polluters pay. You may as well be Al Gore with this level of blind hypocricy.

So, people aren't buying it.

Why not? A really crappy theory: American-style Democracy is to blame. Uneducated populace, that sort of thing. If only the red state folks would drop their guns and religion and spend four years on a college campus not getting laid unless they parroted politically correct points made by their wish-it-was-the-sixties-again professors. Yes, there's an objective criterion! Dumb asses. You make lemmings look like General Patton (but isn't the lemming thing apocryphal?).

But surely, getting back to whatever the hell I was talking about, the troublesome AP polling data should not be read to suggest that Obama is failing at his job, surely not (this is sarcasm). Obama's job is: what? Inter alia (cool Latin phrase used only by the educated, so if you're not down with it you're almost definitionally an ignoramus, and probably a racist), Obama's job is to bring back confidence in the country, and bring that change that we all can believe in. Surely the fact that the majority of Americans now think we're heading in the wrong direction doesn't impugn Obama, does it? Hal? Hal?

He's from Harvard, after all. Not Yale. He ain't no Dubbya! No, he's not. He's Obamaya! Only, unlike Dubbya, who's gritty gut sense kept his base and enough independents on board through an improbable re-election, Obamya's bleedin' off independents by the month. Maybe he'll turn it around, we'll see (if not, we can always blame Dubbya!). But lately, it seems he shoulda been a Yale man (or is this spurious? doesn't matter, still not change, change we can the sloganizer came and took my sentence away...). Believe in! Huh.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

America, the Beautiful

So I've established that the notion of policing other folks on their use of force extends beyond Iran. I want to broach a new subject.

The subject is Health Care. Launching into this: I'm so disenfranchised with Republican opposition, in the specific sense that they seem to have generated nothing more by way of objection than that the plan will be "socialist". But this misses the point. It's scare tactics. The Obama slash Congress plan is a distinctively American plan. Unlike other true socialist countries, our health care reform agenda has been discussed through and through as a gain to the economy. As an improvement of health care efficiency. As, in other words, a net improvement, to a predominantly Capitalist society. Better coverage. Less insurance company abuse. A plan to pay for it by cleaning up wastefulness. This is selling socialism with capitalist arguments. It's selling more America to Americans.

Which makes the whole recent "push" for health care reform so quintessentially, well, American. We'll extend coverage and better the health care system. No one, really, really, will have to pay for it. Sure, we may nudge up taxes here or there, and tweak this or that program. But hell, no one will really suffer, not really, and we'll have a better system to hold up as trump card against scrutiny. This is America, after all! We're not some sorry European-style government that has to recede into punitive taxes and a real bleeding of entreprenurial spirit among its populace, taking care of the sick in a pathetic charade of dependency masquerading as morality. Hell, no. We'll make health care better, and make the country better, and by God we'll make America better!

Final thought, if health care is so bad because Insurance Companies control it (and I hate them, too, like everyone else), why not force health insurance to compete? John Stossell it, my man. Go the other way. Who ever produced any statistics to the effect that REAL competition among providers wouldn't fix our current health care woes? Who is so naive to think that we have REAL competition now?

But, anyway, my point (again) is that even while proposing to socialize medicine (as Republicans charge), we're doing it in a way that shows yet again our superioirity to real socialist countries, a point that seems lost on the "Hannity" crowd. We're still America. We make, even in Obama land, decidedly Capitalist arguments for our reforms. Better Health Care, paid for. Efficient. American. Works better. Runs better. America. America the Beautiful. We're still aiming to put a man on Mars, by God. Better have a competitive health care system. Not some grey depression of real socialism.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

On Force

So following up on my prior post, I've refined my view to the following non-refined firehose-on-all position:

Let everyone have weapons! The whole problem is in the policing. Who is the U.S., the "First World" to say what-have-you to any other nation state? I want every nation on the planet the opportunity to have nuclear weapons. Iran? Nuclear warheads that can reach the mainland. The guy following you on the sidewalk, as you guide your kids and grumpy wife towards the ice cream shop (just four more blocks, honey!)? A loaded .44. He after all hasn't DONE anything yet. He's a person, not some statistic to be manipulated by The Man. Who made some government RULER of his free choices? Who made the U.S. Government RULER of some other nation-state's free choices? Iran, nukes. All the world, nukes. No more bully cops, please. Deadly force everywhere; not that we wish it for its own sake, but only that we have no reason to deny it, while our government itself wields it around.

So I think this position ought to be consistent, in the sense that all of my knee-jerk Liberal friends (but they have the truth!), and my knee-jerk Conservative friends (but they have the truth!) ought to see the value in a hands off policy when it comes to non-felons and non-warring other nation-states, like Joe Bob, or Iran. It's not what they might do, or even what they say they might do, Dick Cheney. It's the question of what gives the current jerks-with-deadly-force the right to take away from them, or to prevent them from acquiring, for fear of what they might do. Who are we to police everyone inside and out, on grounds of what might happen tomorrow? Suppose I buy an AR-15. I might shoot up the mall. Suppose Iran buys weaponized nukes. They might shoot up the Middle East. Neither has happened. So screw off!

We all desire freedom, as W. once said. He must have secretly admired Iran. Get the NRA to help them with messaging, W. They'll assert their rights to nuclear yet. As Timothy McVeigh recited, creepily, moments before his execution by the State: ... I am the captain of my ship...". And so he was. And so we are.

Joe Bob, Iran, and Dunderheads

You know this raging debate in the States over Iran, I've been thinking on it. Conversations more than a few with friends liberal, conservative.

And liberal goes like this: how dare you sir? To suggest that whatever power the First World might have be yielded coercively to attempt to curtail or prevent the development of nuclear weaponry by another nation-state? Iran, for instance, seems docile when compared to no less than the United States: we invaded two Muslim countries in recent history, after all. What has Iran done? You hypocrites!

Yes, feel the injustice. Hear the shrillness. But here's were we have a nice if unintended result, a rare gem of a result: it seems that the dunderheaded liberals and the dunderheaded conservatives can find common dunder: he who chooses weapons is choosing good! Yes, I know this seems at first blush counter-intuitive, but hear me out. First World Liberals want Iran to decide for itself whether it needs nuclear weapons. Let them have them; we either know that they'll not use them in Nazi-like fashion (we're quite good at predicting future conflicts you see, you see not), or we know that if they do decide to use them we're sitting morally pretty by insisting that we stuck up for the sovereignty of other nations. Either way (sans the WWIII stuff), we're good. Real choices! Weapons choices! This is the stuff of autonomy, and autonomy is good!

But here's where things get weird. This let-em-have-weapons-who-are-we-to-say-no idea is pretty comfy with Joe Bob, too, the guy down the street who spits out rage about the U.S. Government, who he views as trying to prevent his own acquisition of deadly force (and how do THEY know how he might someday use his weapons?). But what is Joe Bob saying? What is Iran saying? Here we have a nice, rare meeting of the minds between dunderheaded Liberals and Joe Bob Conservatives, both viciously grumping about the reach of state power into their own or someone else's affairs. Deadly force? Nuclear force? Back off! It's my damn right, and my damn pergogative to have whatever the hell I want, and who are you (Orwellian First World, Orwellian State), to say what or how I might use my deadly force? You over-reaching, power-abusing, beaurocrats! You self-appointed cops of the world!

And so now with the benefit of such wisdom, I see finally that all politics really does come together, and a river runs through it (this last comment means nothing, much like so much poetry, but I like poetry. And guns. And hell, maybe even personal nuclear weapons, though I don't want to pay for them, or store them. But this is for some other blog). It turns out that this stick-up-for-the-little-guy-to-have-insane-amounts-of-deadly-force idea finds a nice cozy home in liberalism and it seems with the NRA: "Who the hell are THEY? To tell me what I can or can't have? Or how I'm going to use it?" Right on, Joe Bob. Right on, Liberals. Don't tell me, you fucking sleezy existing power structure. You're half the enemy yourself...

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

John Williams in D.C.

John Williams burst on the scene like a superhero, shoulder pressing several members of Code Pink in one hand, slamming a double Jack and Coke in the other. At this moment, he could do no wrong. He was Tiger Woods playing golf, Kobe Bryant shooting hoop, Peyton Manning throwing the football. But it couldn't last. As Williams strided toward the West Face of the Capitol building, a member of Code Pink reached down and managed to untie his shoe, generating a cascade of events that resulted in his ignominous fall, scattering the remainder of his beverage onto the shocked crowd and depositing Code Pink in front of the Capitol no worse for the wear. Williams never got the deals at the Capitol. He'd be damned if he would stand for this again. But already through the crowd congealing around him the Pinksters were gone, and the Capitol police were beginning to look his way. He turned his back to the crowd and strutted away. Later that afternoon, he was found staring at a moon rock in the aeronautics museum. Sulking. Pensive. He never got the deals in D.C.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

MAD for Iran

We can say: "Don't let 'um have nukes" is the West's current strategy with regard to Iran. But what about: "Give 'um all nukes"? Is there a mutual assured destruction model for the Middle East? Suppose Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yeman, Oman, Kuwait, et cetera all had nukes (say, by redirecting the West's money and time away from detection and protection towards some distribution of nuclear capabilities for all Middle East countries). Now, for example, Iraq can't just go "tribal" on Kuwait, storming in with conventional forces like in the Gulf War. It faces nuclear retaliation. And so on for other conflicts with other countries. The Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) model has kept the rest of the world out of catastrophe since the beginnings of the Cold War. Why not in the Middle East? Do we really think the leaders of these countries would be quick to fire nuclear weapons at each other, thus extinguishing vast populations of people, poisioning there own lands for generations to come, and in general bringing any possibility of progress or reconciliation to a screeching halt? Or, would some group of Muslim-countries point their newly minted nuclear missles at the hated Jew-country? Would Israel adopt the policy of pre-emptive strike? Would MAD fail?

Thursday, October 1, 2009

He Got Cougared, Volume One

I'm not sure why it's "Volume One", because I don't intend on doing anything more than ferreting out instances of a young lad getting the Cougar Treatment in popular cinema, and plastering it on my blog in a shameless ploy to plaster instances of young lads getting Cougared on my blog. As it were.

So, then, Michael Berg (David Kross, later Ralph Fienes) gets royally Cougared by Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) in The Reader, the 2008 movie based on the book by Bernhard Schlink. This movie is well-worth watching (it's got Kate Winslet in it, for instance). It spite of yourself you'll get sucked into it (there's a loose pun here), with the inimitable Winslet and [insert some really spot on commentary here]. So there you have it. Volume One of what's sure to be huge hit: He Got Cougared! God Bless him.

Now really fire it up:
Though it ruined his life, the memories oh the embers in this field of emotional ashes as Berg struggles with the older sexuality of Schmitz [insert really steamy stuff here] must give us pause. For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come (sequed into Shakespeare, for that artistic touch), when Schmitz, played by Kate Winslet (ignore the redundancy). And this all trails off. [Something about Andy Warhol]. But, really, Kate Winslet. The Reader. Cougar growls.

Bright Lights, Big Crappy

Hollywood has long attacked good literature by burning it with kerosine, salamander patches on the director's arm. A little of the 451. But they don't. Of course. They do it rather by making movies. I unfortunately stumbled into "Bright Lights, Big City", the 1988 film based on Jay McInerney's 1984 novel of the same name. Oh god, where do I even start? How about with that perpetual pip-squeak of an actor, Michael J. Fox (separate his acting from his more recent medical problems), who rocketed to stardom in the 1980s playing gee-whiz characters in such cinematic tours de force as The Secret of My Success and Doc Hollywood. In Bright Lights (an old movie of course, but it flew into my living room tonight on the wings of DirectTV channels and stupid boredom) he's playing the Hollywood version of McInerey's protagonist, a coke-snorting, ambitious but lost 20 something wading through the yuppy drug scene of 1980s New York, running from shattered romance and into, well, bright lights, and the Big City. The novel was edgy. The film? The film castrated it with poor casting, a John Hughes-like feel, and a movie product better suited for inclusion in episodes of The Wiggles than serious cinema. Whatever. As Motley Crue once noted, it's the same old, same old song and daance. Grab the novel, instead. Bag the movie.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Children

There is this inescapable fact of the children. Whatever lives we dream for ourselves and whatever talents and aims we might pursue, it's a precept we share, each generation from the last, that our own children ought to have access to these fruits in kind. And the stark reality of parenthood is that in a child's formative years it is only or at least mainly through parents' effort and committment that they are prepared to face for themselves adulthood, and to some day light whatever fires of discovery and success they might imagine on their own. We take this awful burden upon ourselves from the moment of their conception.

And so a man convinced of his own talents and driven to fulfill them may well find himself giving short shrift to his very offspring. He makes a Faustian bargain that he tries to deny, but of course can't. It's aways possible that his own talents might better have been used, for some general good, if he spent his precious time more with his sons and daughters than with himself. And so for those of us who see in the future only the completion of our own projects, we can't escape knowledge of all those minutes, hours, days, and months withheld from our children. Their voices and desires and tears haunt us. And in these quiet moments of honesty we know that we can't just "have it all". We will choose.

A person who stifles his personal dreams for his family may end up with nothing much at all. A person who turns away his family may end up the same. Many people, aware to various degrees of this conundrum, spread everything around into a dull uniformity, a kind of feel-good hedging of the future. I had a good job. I was a decent husband. Blah. Blah. Mediocrity. Some are honest enought to see a choice; God laughs at these people even while I think he loves them, for the choice is impossible to make without gouching deep and inexorably into our souls. We do not know what grows from the seeds that we sow. We will never, once parents, choose our future path with the freedom and innocence we once knew.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Iran Flunks Again

Why does Iran want a nuclear capability? Is it at all plausible that it's not for weaponry? No. It's safe to conclude that their nuclear ambitions are militaristic (what fantastic self-deception would convince a thinking person otherwise?). So, then, why does Iran want nuclear weapons? To defend against what threat? Israel? Israel is armed to the teeth, including a nuclear arsenal capable of disintegrating Iran in a cloud of U-235, and hasn't used them to invade or to advance against Iran in spite of constant, hostile threats from the latter. It's pure fiction -- a kind of delusional, racist, Middle Age cogitation emitted by the Iranian clerics and kept endlessly circulating among its people -- that Israel poses some grave offensive threat. What's less fictional are unending remarks by that smiling buffoon Ahmadinejad that the solution to the Middle East crisis is to "destroy Israel".

The West is understandably paternalistic toward Iran and other shit-bag places where rational thought, a respect for historical accuracy, and the pursuit of lofty ideals like knowledge and science are in scarce supply, and subjugated to radicalized religious rhetoric. What's the alternative for the West? Ignore mountains of clear evidence to the contrary and insist on including them in the self-interested but ultimately rational dialogue that developed nations enjoy? That's a Peter Pan foreign policy. It's easiest, safest, and entirely justified in the interest of global and regional stability to just pester the hell out of their regime with paternalistic demands, sanctions, remonstrations, threats, and even if necessary military actions. As long as it keeps their religious-fueled racist craziness toward Israel and the West from taking form in physical weaponry -- making it possible to transform words into actions -- it's a paternalism we ought to embrace. So: those damn Iranian leaders, they act like children, cussing and threatening their neighbors, and never doing their science homework, or getting their history lessons straight. This fanatical ignoramus of a regime must be punished! Punished! Punished!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Texas. Suburbia.

I have this neighbor that throws weekend football parties in a weird mixture of bacchanalian and high brow. His home is large and new, with expensive looking furniture and large glass windows in the back that open up to a beautiful view of Texas Hill Country. He grills fajitas on the porch with a vigor that I've seen only in true Texans. The oak ice chest next to the grill is frequently opened to reveal local and domestic beers for plucking out, cracking open on the handy bottle opener affixed to the exterior of the chest. There's this admirable functionality to partying in Texas Suburbia.

Inside, the wide screen is cranked to a pitch that makes talking difficult. It's a faux pax, I think, but people are in the nice house, with the fajitas grilling, and so 30 somethings and 40 somethings are reduced to staring at T.V., or retreating back to the kitchen to stand eye to eye. His wife I've been informed is "bitchy". No sign until there is one; she introduces the beautiful living room furniture by warning all that spills will be punished. The kind of quip that enforces the supremacy of her material things over our socializing, while she trots around with a thinly disguised patina of glibness. So, then, "bitchy". She has this attribute, that's all.

She drinks a Cabernet in a large glass. There are beers in hands elsewhere. Husband (his name is either "James", "Jim", or "Jimmy", take your pick he says) later pulls out a fine few bottles of tequila, joyously filling shot glasses with people smiling nervously around him. We're all feeling a little scandalous because it's barely past noon, but in nice houses somehow it's hard to feel like a loser, even slamming tequila for no obvious reason on a Sunday.

Later--within the hour, I guess--Jimmy's face is red, and he rocks from one leg to another while scooping ice cream out for kids. I feel like this must be just pure work for Jimmy now; he's drunk and the ice cream looks very frozen, and kids who are noisily running around upstairs and then downstairs and then upstairs and then demanding ice cream aren't fajitas or football or tequila. The obligatory dog is a puppy-- a gangly Golden Retriever --and is running this algorithm in its puppy head that brings each guest on the couch a slobbery cloth ball for retrieving. Each guest then prys the slobbery ball away and throws it somewhere safe in the house. Puppy runs and gets, returns to guest. Eventually puppy goes to next guest on couch and in this fashion manages to entertain himself for upwards of five hours, a feat that I'm confident not every guest quite manages.

In like a lion at noon, it's all over at 5:00 p.m., and we're all saying our good byes and rounding up children with Jimmy standing red faced at the door calling after us that he hopes we aren't leaving hungry. I think his wife is sleeping now. A strange, quasi-depression is knocking at my consciousness and I'm looking at the other faces as we saunter back home to see if it's intruding on them too. But I don't think it is, or at least this kind of impromptu investigation won't ever reveal it. The faces of suburbia are plastered with an impenetrable veneer of smiles and success and contentedness that admits nothing probing or philosophical or contrary. It's admirable, really, this capacity for perpetual vacuity. Notable, at least.

But anyway Jimmy's party is, like all such parties, quickly forgotten. New horizons in Texas Suburbia await. Kids go off to school the next morning and jobs are attended to; husbands march off to work, and wives (many of them) stay home, mixing in the child-free hours intervals of mindless Web surfing with determined spurts of house cleaning or the administration of various financial or other affairs. Weekends explode with laughter and tequila and serious talks of football teams and furniture and the water requirements of different grasses for lawns. Gossip breezes in and out and never ventures past what so-and-so three houses down is up to, or whether Nancy got too drunk or Mario blurted that he's only with Sandra because of the kids, or that the Stearns' dog keeps getting out and barking at Josh as he's leaving for work.

*****

Finding oneself deep in Texas Suburbia is like venturing past a cultural event horizon, where no information of broader interest can be transmitted. All is local, immediate, and desperately uninteresting to any poor sap who wanders in without first a proper period of acclimation. Conversational priorities are codified in game-like, deterministic, if unspoken rules, like rock-paper-scissors: Concrete beats abstract. Local beats remote. Ergo, the concept of "education" is a non-starter. But discussion of various events at a particular grade or middle school might carry folks past midnight. The principal at Winkley Elementary ignites discussion, a city-wide matter (like the mayor's election) earns a friendly chat, a state-wide issue (like the state budget, or state senate affairs) a smattering of cautious remarks. Once outside the borders of Texas, though, all is necessarily perfunctory, if discussed at all. Offer up an issue of, say, international interest, like the destabilization of the Middle East, and you'll get awkward, reserved, cooky-cutter responses that, if captured on paper, would not seem out of place inscribed with a crayon.

Yet, nowhere can one find such vast repositories of information on matters local and trivial. Discussion about potholes (there was a particularly deep and nasty one just down our street, caused by one of the custom home builders' heavy equipment, no doubt), might last the entire second half of a football game, if one includes related stories. Gossip about a neighbor (one of our neighbors scolded another neighbor's kid, for instance) might begin and end a get-together (if not by admission of those participating, by observation of any bored fool present who was not). This self-serving vapidness of upper middle class suburbia is everywhere, I imagine. In Texas, it's Texas-sized.

But counteracting the existential nightmare of finding oneself trapped in such a web is the baser but entirely pleasant and mostly satisfactory realization that tequila, fajitas, cold beer and high definition football prop up the damaged spirit and coax one from week to week with only vague comprehension that life itself is passing by. Like a fish plucked from deep oceans of knowledge and deposited on the dry rotten planks of a junk, one will flop and flounder for a spell, but retreating not to nihilism but to a smiling numbness offers hope that the months and years will pass without great incident, and the possibility of eventual release can give quiet solace. Some may worry that such resignation will prove permanent, but for thinking types this outcome I'm convinced is not likely. Few people, knowing the treasure and majesty of the broader world, would embrace lengthy compromise of this sort in plain view of opportunities to the contrary. So then, fear not. Wait for such an opportunity. And in the meantime, VoilĂ ! To Jimmy! The time passes by.

On the Assymetry of "is" and "are"

Rappers, different stripes of yokels, and drivers of 30 MPG smart cars frequently replace "are" with "is" in dialogue, resulting in constructions like "they is" (e.g., "Rodney and Mikey? They is out back, Mama.") or "we is too" and so on. Good stuff. But rarely do we see the reverse: "He isn't back yet" is not often converted into "He aren't back yet". "She is" doesn't end up "She are". So there's a kind of assymetry to the improper use of these words, and I think it has not been explained fully or even fairly recognized. What makes "is" an attractive substitution for "are", but not vice versa?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

When Symptoms First Appeared

I have time for blogs of this sort:

"when symptoms first appeared"??? Won't "when symptoms appeared" suffice? It's weird how we do this with language.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

On Rationality

Consider:

(1) We're in the midst of one of the greatest economic downturns since the Great Depression. We've been warned. Scared. And so we passed the massive STIMULUS. The jump start that nit wits like "One Trick" Paul I-Wish-I-Was-Czar Krugman threw his hat in for (and then a towel when it was only hundreds of billions. Just like FDR and the New Deal, just not enough SPENDING for Krugman.) So, it's the economy stupid. In dire need of our best efforts. NOW.

(2) We must also pass universal health care NOW, while struggling to get out of the_greatest_economic_downturn_since_the_great_depression.

Little, silly question: why (2) now? Does anyone really believe that expanding health care to 50 million Americans is an aid to economic stimulus? Or that it will magically be paid for without taxation on business (8%), or individuals (?)? That it has no economic costs?

So, from (1), we need to save our economic asses. From (2), we must now embark on the bold initiative towards the Just Society. But, again, suppose someone bothers to stop for a moment, and ponder whether it's really rational to assert (1) and (2) together, what then? What will become of this dangerous, questioning soul? An "obstructionist", no doubt. And perhaps, "against us", and even (my favorite) "against progress".

The White House, after failing in Hillary-like fashion, will no doubt blame it on the Neanderthal Republicans. But it's the bluest of canines in Democrat land, fearing themselves soon shuffled out of Congress, ignominously, leaving a wake of bold talk and mountains of debt, that are finding in spite of temporary pressure the deeper voice of American sensibility so needed today. Not even Obama can square the circle of reconciling (1) and (2). A few Democrats (and Republicans) on the Hill know it. Bravo.

Friday, July 3, 2009

The Morning

Neil Williams' eyes squinted in the light diffuse through the window of his studio apartment and at once he felt that sinking feeling of sobriety after so long as King. Reasons. Problems. Worries. And a headache.

He could never eat, after a night like last.

Without eating came withdrawal, and with withdrawal, more beer. This hopeless cycle Neil had come to accept, but the price he paid for being King was obvious enough. He was no fool.

She was fast asleep and he instantly hated her. Playing her part in his failures and still here. The ones that stayed, they were the worst. Fucking bitch. There was beer in the fridge and that was the only thought that brought with it less than full depression.

After a six pack of beer he could face her, well enough to get her out of his place without incident, anyway. She'd want to go get coffee or something like that, but she was a fool, and it would be hours before he could see her again as King.

He could never eat, after a night like last, and so he'd drink the beer, poured in a cup, sitting on his patio and wait until part of the King would show. Then, he could eat. And maybe she'd have left, or at least he could talk to her.

Somehow the apartment complex had deposited the trash dumpster directly across the way from his patio. Late at night, raccoons would sniff into it, and he would watch them on his patio. Surly bastards. Walk across the street with your shirt off and a slosh of whiskey and stare them down.

Three messages on his phone. Don't look until that first beer. No, don't look until several. The world was full of perky imbeciles organizing and arranging their lives as if they might be King through nervous energy and schedules. But you can't be King that way. King is King.

She rises and starts talking but by now he's into his third beer and her image and the sounds she emits have become bearable.

"What's up?" she says. Geez. It will be a while before he's King again.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Greenwald

Glenn Greenwald. So cynical I get these days. He fires out blog after blog deterministically anti-Bush administration but couched so much in the language of general "accountability" and "fairness" and so many other moralisms that give the appearance of journalistic objectivity. Drop the show. I'll eat my hat (many hats I have, I'll pick the one that has a chance of going down with minimal dyspepsia) if Greenwald in his crystal ethical palace ever turns the gripe-thrower (like a flame thrower, but it throws partisan gripes) at a non-Conservative office holder. In Limbaugh-like fashion this legal officianado has made his career writing books and blogging about the links between Bush adminstration and Hitler. But of course, we're to believe that this is all about "accountability" and "respect for law" and so on. He's the whistle blower. Only, the whistle blows so selectively, and when the last enemy recedes into history he'll need immediately to grab onto another. Deterministically, a Republican.

On another, related note, I'm convinced that people who read too much news--especially online--become dumber, and less educated. Much like we thought T.V. would do. Go read a book.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

On Mercy and Judgement

In The New Testament, John 8:7, Jesus defends a sinful woman against an angry crowd:

"If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her."

In Schindler's List, the movie, Oskar Schindler challenges Amon Goeth's killing of Jewish prisoners:

Oskar Schindler: Power is when we have every justification to kill, and we don't.
Amon Goeth: You think that's power?
Oskar Schindler: That's what the Emperor said. A man steals something, he's brought in before the Emperor, he throws himself down on the ground. He begs for his life, he knows he's going to die. And the Emperor... pardons him. This worthless man, he lets him go.
Amon Goeth: I think you are drunk.
Oskar Schindler: That's power, Amon. That is power.


What is this? Forgiveness, or power? In Matthew 21:12 Jesus walks into the temple, yells, overturns tables, and drives out the banking crowd, later healing the less fortunate in the vacant temple. What are we to make of this? Why didn't he treat the money lenders as he did the sinful woman? Why did he judge the bankers and not the prostitute?

These diametric opposites -- forgiveness and judgement -- are it seems perpetually resistant to systematizing with ethical theories. They continue to sit, unanalyzed, unresolved, through millenia of human history.

The history of human ethics is a commentary on the proper application of mercy and judgement. So far we've come, and so long we continue to stand motionless and without understanding.

Like, Whatever CBO

The Congressional Budget Office in March released revised estimates for the cost to tax payers of the 700 Billion Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP), to 356 Billion from 189 Billion. This quiet piece of news from CBO doesn't even seem troubling to me anymore, desensitized as I am to seeing billions or trillions appended to estimates of new government programs these days.

There's a kind of perverse liberation one can get when a situation is so bad that there's no point worrying about it anymore. Oh, so it's really 356 Billion? Okay, thanks for letting me know. If it goes up again, no need to say anything. I'll assume it's really bad, and you can spare me the details, okay? Cool.

I can't really get my mind around these bills anyway; if I run up a hundred dollar tab at the Macaroni Grill, I can see that's a lot for a couple hours of dinner and wine. But 356 Billion? What does this mean? And what can any of us do about it anyway?

No Nuclear Speaks Volumes

If the threat of Global Warming is so dire, and so immediate, why not adopt nuclear power, like France? Compared to wind or solar, it's much more economic (I've heard wind is X10 the cost of coal, and nuclear X1.5), and pretty much everyone not stuck in 1970s Sierra Club environmentalism agrees that it's safe today. So, in the face of such grave environmental challenges, why not do like France, and adopt cheap, clean, nuclear? Or, are we not serious yet? Still pie-in-the-sky-I-wish-the-world-was-different-everyone-turn-your-lights-off-for-an-hour, unserious posers.

Nuclear means we're serious about reducing emissions. It's not carbon, and it actually works. Nuclear is the solution if the problem is so damn imminent. If no nuclear, no seriousness from the Left about claims of impending doom.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Holder, Part Deux

No time for an in depth blog tonight, but what's up with AG Eric Holder's pursuit of getting congressional representation for Washington D.C? Never mind the career lawyers he first consulted who said, "no way, it's unconstitutional". Holder went past them and into political territory to make the case that the always-Democratic District of Columbia might some day pick up seats in Congress. Nice, Mr. Holder. When legal opinion fails you, go for partisan politics.

Ahh, Eric, I was so on your side when you dumped the bullshit Stevens indictment. Now, you're just angling for a partisan win. Every lawyer outside the beltway worth his salt knows that D.C. is not a state. Why don't you?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Holder, The Justice Department, and Justice

I've been thinking about the Ted Stevens' conviction dismissal more tonight, and I gotta give a shout out to AG Holder and the Justice Department. The Department of Justice under Holder seems to have made a clear statement that law will not be subjugated to politics at the DOJ. How else do we interpret his actions today?

It was, personally, Eric Holder-- Obama's pick for Attorney General, someone who the Right regards as deeply suspicious, a Lefty with an agenda--that called an end to the Stevens indictment fiasco. Why? Politics? Popularity? Hardly. This is embarrasing to Democrats, who now must concede (if silently) both that Republicans likely would have held Alaska in the elections and that the gotcha attitude about the indictment of Stevens seems, in retrospect, like hasty, partisan Shodenfreud.

Back to Eric Holder. In the wake of the Gonzales years (Bush's AG offered up "I don't recall" so many times in congressional hearings about the firing of U.S. attorneys that he became a kind of national joke, an intellectually undermanned Bush figure head besmirching yet another once respected American institution with transparent bumbling evasiveness), it's refreshing to see the spirit of non-partisan respect for the rule of law in the office of the AG. That's the way it's supposed to be. Kudos for Holder for sending a message that "justice" and "politics" are to be kept separate.

Republicans and Conservatives intent on poking and prodding Obama's picks for high office have a little back peddling to do now too, it would seem. National Review Online wrote an op-ed about Holder in November 2008 that included the following let-em-rip assessment of our latest AG:

"He is convinced justice in America needs to be “established” rather than enforced; he’s excited about hate crimes and enthusiastic about the constitutionally dubious Violence Against Women Act; he’s a supporter of affirmative action and a practitioner of the statistical voodoo that makes it possible to burden police departments with accusations of racial profiling and the states with charges of racially skewed death-penalty enforcement; he’s more likely to be animated by a touchy-feely Reno-esque agenda than traditional enforcement against crimes; he’s in favor of ending the detentions of enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay and favors income redistribution to address the supposed root causes of crime."

If Holder is so partisan, so left wing, so agenda driven, how now do we explain his dismissal of the Stevens corruption indictment? Sounds like Holder's doing his duty to the American people to me. Sounds like there's an interest in justice at the DOJ. Sounds like American government isn't just petty politics--isn't always petty politics--after all.

Oh well (he just lost the election, and his reputation )

Former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens' conviction on multiple felony charges was thrown out today by new AG Eric Holder, on grounds that the prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence and introduced evidence known to be false. Oh, is that all?

If this doesn't give rise to a citizen-wide cringe, I'm not sure what would. Federal prosecutors knowingly ruining a sitting Senator's career, indicting him on multiple felony charges, and affecting the outcome of a Senatorial election result (Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich (D), won by one point after the corruption case exploded); this is the stuff of movies.

AG Holder ought to investigate what happened here, and heads should roll. This isn't interpretation of actions that might be seen as some as criminal; the facts that surfaced in Stevens' prosecution indicate clear criminal conduct by those prosecuting the case: witholding the evidence, introducing known false evidence. Call it a witch hunt, without hyperbole.

I haven't confirmed this yet, but Chris Mathews -- not exactly a mouthpiece for Republican Senators--claimed tonight that some of the exculaptory evidence was Stevens' clear instructions to "make sure I am charged fully for all of this"...

Prosecutorial witchhunts that could put someone away for the rest of their lives are a threat to all of us. If an innocent person can't be exonerated because the legal system itself has been hijacked by unscrupulous lawyers, we're all in danger.

Huffington has it here.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Hi, I'm Dr. Fox

Nicholas Kristof of the NYT writes an amusing piece on the predictions of experts. He's interested in the so-called "Dr. Fox effect", based originally on a series of psychology experiments where a phony expert gave well-received but meaningless presentations. In more general form the Fox Effect refers to the tendency of otherwise savvy consumers of information to over-value the predictive capabilities of people who have educational credentials.

Classic example? Of course we all know: the economists! Other sooth sayers include scientists and social scientists (sociologists, political scientists) who model the past behavior of complex systems and present their conclusions as having predictive -- not just descriptive -- authority. Who will be a world power a decade from now? Dr. Fox will tell you. Will we have a shortage of food in 25 years? Will the world witness a population explosion? A resurgent Russia? Chinese economic dominance? A nuclear war? (I would add: will Florida be under water from Global Warming in two decades?!) Dr. Fox will tell you. He's got the magical ability to take descriptions of the past, precisely cast in mathematical language, and transform them into predictions of the future.

Philip Tetlock, a Cal Berkely professor -- the "expert on experts" as Kristof calls him -- wrote a book on the Fox Effect, "Expert Political Judgement", in 2005. In it he tracked two decades of predictions, 82,000 in all, from 284 experts. The predictions were tagged by those in the experts' field of study and "on subjects that they knew little about." I'll let Kristof tell you the result:

"...The predictions of experts were, on average, only a tiny bit better than random guesses — the equivalent of a chimpanzee throwing darts at a board."

That's striking enough. I'll add some comments of my own:

(1) People reason: "If not the expert, then who?", which ignores the fact that judgement and common sense are often more valuable than credentials when it comes to complicated inferences about the future. Indeed, Tetlock notes that the one key indicator of poor predictive performance was fame; those experts who were widely recognized as such, consistently did worse.

(2) Complex systems -- like the economy -- are scary as hell, because no one (literally no one) understands how things will turn out. And, unfortunately, most of the world we care about is complex in this sense. There aren't any "Diffy Qs", as physics students say, to tell us some outcome at time t + n for any n with much of a value at all. But the experts make us feel better. They talk in sophisticated language, they explain what happened in the past (note that with regard to past events, they really are experts), and they tell us what it means for the future. We want to know what's coming around the bend, and some people seem capable of telling us.

We just don't notice that they keep getting it wrong. They don't know what will happen tomorrow, anymore than you.

Read and be bummed out by our lack of predictive capabilities here.

The New Capitalists

European leaders are balking at Keynesian stimulus, to the degree that Obama has backed off his original plan to push this at the upcoming G20 sumit.

Did I miss something? In this country, the Neanderthal Republicans are sceptical of Keynesian stimulus, and Democrats -- especially liberal Democrats -- apparently think it's settled that it works and that nothing else in times of recession will. Forget inflation, stagflation, or any other bugaboo. If you're a liberal Democrat, this Keynesian spending stuff works.

So, what's wrong with Europe? Why aren't they buying fiscal stimulus? Really not buying it. Czech Prime Minister Topolanek called more spending right now "the road to hell". French President Sarkozy and German Chancellor Merkel have explicitly rejected Obama's call for more global spending. Their position is clear enough:

"...the problem is not about spending more, but putting in place a system of regulation so that the economic and financial catastrophe that the world is seeing does not reproduce itself."

What are these European leaders, closet Capitalists? Sheesh. I wonder what Paul if-only-we-could-spend-even-more Krugman thinks of the Continent now. Neanderthals.

Read it here.

Monday, March 23, 2009

We were blind, and now we see

Chris Mooney responds to George Will's Feb. 15th climate change op-ed piece in The Washington Post.

This debate goes on and on like a lover's quarrell, and I've long since given up on trying to "fell swoop" it with any argument or appeal to this or that empirical desiderata. Read Will. Read Mooney. Be confused. Be confirmed.

I'll add only that Mooney takes a predictable swipe at Will when he challenges the relevance of Will's observation that there was a global cooling scare-- a view espoused by enough scientists to get it aired in mainstream media -- in the 1970s. Will's point is that, every decade or two, some new bugaboo about the environment pops up, and after seeing enough of them, we ought to be a little sceptical of the latest "end of days" scenario. Mooney's point is that science is much more accurate and mature today than it was in the 1970s, and so who cares about what those cave men were screeching about three decades ago? We've got it right now. This is the trump card, I suppose, for anyone prone to what C.S. Lewis once called "chronological snobbery": the view that whatever we think now must by this fact alone be superior to what we thought yesterday.

But most of us who take Lewis' point will still admit to endorsing Lewis' snobbery when it comes to science, in particular. After all, we don't bleed people anymore to get rid of disease. We're pretty sure there aren't witches, or an elan vital, or ether, or phlogiston. As we continue to look at the world, we find what really does exist. Microscopic organisms (germs), not miasma ("bad air"). Oxidation, not phlogiston. Darwinian Evolution, not Lamarckism. Scientific progress is, in short, a manifest phenomenon. We see it marching forward from generation to generation.

But here's the disconnect. With sweeping questions about the future of the global climate, we're going way beyond pasteurizing milk, or vaccinating for polio. We're into much more speculative science. Speculative science wants desperately to be, well, established science, in the sense that it earns a place in the text books and is largely beyond question, complaint, or challenge. Climate theories, almost by definition given the complexity of the climate and the difficulty predicting its future behavior, are speculative much more than politicians or scientists themselves want to admit. The debate is closed, 'cause the global warming theorists said so. Oh really.

Put it this way: in the 1970s, global cooling scientists patiently explained to sceptics that the old climate theories of the 1950s were based on an undeveloped and much more primitive science. In the 70s, however, the theories were now correct. Fast forward to today. Decades from now, future scientists will no doubt proclaim that in the dark days of the early 21st century, we hardly had the techniques to get our arms around the problem at all. Someone in the back row of these future climate conferences, maybe some gung-ho freshman studying epistemology at the local U, may well wonder if more distant generations, reaching different conclusions yet again, will turn up their noses at the conclusions reached in his own time. If he was brave enough to ask the room of experts, he'd likely be rewarded with something like the following: "Perhaps, but we must act, young lad. We must act!" Indeed. And so too would the 1970s cooling crowd and by the same logic make the same assertion.

EU to US: Stop "Stimulating" and Fix the Banks!

I didn't know whether to laugh or cry when I read this. Jean-Claude Trichet, president of the EU Central Bank, remonstrating the Obama administration for all the chatter about economic stimulus-- much in the form of growing the welfare state-- at the expense of the 800 lb. Gorilla in the room: frozen markets. According to the article, European leaders like Trichet are distancing themselves from the Obama administration's economic stimulus strategy by claiming that "their more-generous social-welfare states provide a buffer that offsets the need for bigger fiscal boosts." In other words, do the welfare thing later. Fix the markets now!

And "Mr. Trichet also warned that if governments went too deeply into the red, the move could backfire by pushing up long-term interest rates and puncturing public and business confidence."

Wow. Sounds like the EU's got the pragmatism here. Good for us that Tim (do I still have a job?) Geithner released his proposal to unfreeze lending by buying up to 1 trillion in toxic mortgage-based assets today, using partnerships with private investors. Wall Street responded with a 500 point jump in the Dow, as I'm sure everyone is now well aware.

Maybe Obama can have Trichet over to the White House sometime to get some pointers on how the markets really work, and what really fixes them.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Tax them, not me

The WSJ editorial page will get you hatin' on liberals, if anything can. (Maybe to be more precise: hatin' on those on the Left who are sanctimonious about tax cuts.)

Here's the deal. Obama has to get money into the government to pay for "reform", which is to say, to finance an expansion of entitlements like health care, et cetera. How does he do this? One, he lets the Bush tax cuts expire in 2011, which puts them back to Clinton-era rates (top rate goes to 39.6% from 35%, 33% rate increases to 36%). Two, he caps the tax benefits for private donations at 28% for itemized tax filers in the top two income brackets, from 35% and 33%. In practical terms this just means that donating to non-profits, universities, and charities just got more "expensive", in the sense that the tax break for donations is less.

So what's the problem? No problem, unless you're running a non-profit, university, or charity. Suddenly you have less money. And what do you know? The Left is up in arms. The Ivy League, United Jewish Appeal, The Independent Sector--hardly Big Business on the Right-- are all preparing petitions. Don't raise our taxes! Don't raise our taxes!

This response from the Left, of course, gives the game away. No one likes taxes to be raised on them, and when it counts, everyone squeals. It's a bipartisan squeal. Maybe liberals and conservatives can agree on this, and we can pull a little of the hypocricy on the Left out of the debate. The same folks whose lips slaver at the thought of knee capping Big Business are suddenly self-righteous about their own bottom line. But the money's gotta come from somewhere, right? Buck up.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

George Will Strikes

I rarely read Will like this. I take it he's feeling journalistically mistreated. I agree with him -- I hope not out of cynicism but epistemic humility -- that in a couple of decades, we'll be on to some new claim about the Earth writ large and what all industrialized nations must do immediately to avert disaster. It's worth a read if you follow George Will, though I haven't followed up on his references (i.e., to the NYT article).

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Not Just Madness

A scene in the eminently watchable Michael Clayton shows a bedroom wall adorned with a message from lawyer-gone-mental-patient Arthur Edens (played by Tom Wilkinson): "Make Believe It's Not Just Madness".

What is it supposed to mean? I won't get into the movie, but will offer the following interpretations:

(1) It's not only madness, it's also something else, unspecified. It could be madness and indigestion. Or madness and foot rot. Pretend it's so.
(2) It's not only madness, it's a mix of madness with other explanatory factors, like jealosy, or shame, or guilt. Pretend it's this larger web of humanizing factors. Not just madness.
(3) It's madness, but it's not just. He had no right to go mad. So, make believe it's madness point blank, without just cause.

Is it ((not just) madness) or (not (just madness))?

That's (not) Hypocrisy!

David Shuster on MSNBC's 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue regularly has a segment on hypocrisy, typically devoted to highlighting anything unflattering about Republicans. (Hey, who ever said cable news was real journalism?). Today he points out that Republicans like Eric Cantor originally attacked the stimulus bill for not adequately addressing the housing downturn; now after the latest (how many more billion?) housing legislation, he's declared that we can't afford it, and opposes it. "That's hypocrisy!" Shuster exclaims, the satisfying tagline to the ever-entertaining Hypocrisy Watch on 1600.

If anyone cares, it's not hypocrisy, by any definition I'm familiar with. It's perhaps opportunism, and certainly it's prima facie inconsistent, but if it's hypocrisy, Cantor needs not just to change his mind, but to profess something publically while doing something at odds with his words privately. Espousing, at different times, two public views that taken together seem inconsistent is not hypocrisy. But then, real hypocrisy is revealed typically only in scandals, and for programs that air five days a week, who's got the time to wait for those?

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Touch

She was lonely, and felt fragile, and wished he would move closer. But it wasn't the physical proximity but the evidence that his attention was on her, and so when he put his hand on her shoulder, she felt better, and turned away. He layed in silence for some time while she drifted to sleep. Later he left the house for cigarettes at the corner, and stood and smoked and watched the stars late into that dark night. The stars shone brightly.

Finding Logic in Politics, Part I

(1) Running up the deficit is bad (tenet of responsible government, as both Democrats and Republicans insist)
(2) Republicans ran up the deficit (fact)
(3) Democrats say: Republicans shouldn't lecture Democrats about running up the deficit (refer to (2))
(4) Democrats are now running up the deficit (fact)
(5) Republicans say: Democrats shouldn't be running up the deficit (refer to (1))

So it goes that both sides score political points that sound good on cable news, but given the bi-partisan acknowledgement that running a large (nay, massive) tab for future tax payers is bad, the parties are as usual tangled in their own webs. If the stimulus bill doesn't work (and by the way, with something as complicated as the modern global economy, no one knows what will work), the Democrats just voted themselves out of office two years in advance. Republicans, perhaps not from an appreciation of the unpredictability of complex systems per se, have sounded off in usual form about "pork", but in factual support of their opposition our deficit grows larger now on the Democrats' watch, and add to this, no one currently breathing air today has any clue if the latest bill will end the recession sooner, or prolong it by creating inflationary problems, or do nothing. No one knows. How could they? You'd have to be Laplace's Demon. And so it's a bold, swift move indeed.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Hopefully, I'll Poke You in the Eye

Since I'm on the linguistic kick, consider:

"Hopefully, we'll get this done, Mary", said John, nervously eyeing the clock.

The word "hopefully" is an adverb, ladies and gents, which means it modifies a verb. So, in the sentence above, John told Mary that he'd get it done while being full of hope. He'd do it, with hope. But that's not common parlance. Common parlance is to interpret John as saying that he hopes that he'll get it done in the first place. Which is different. "I hope that we'll get this done Mary" does not equal "I'll get this done with hope, Mary". (And why the hell would Mary care if he did it with hope? My guess is that she just wants it done.)

"Hopefully, he trudged the long way home, trying hard to quell that sinking feeling that no one would be there to greet him." Correct. "Hopefully, he knocked on Martha's door, flowers in hand." Okay. The poor sap is full of hope. Up to you Martha.

Other adverbs, the little devils that modify our verbs: "We'll get it mopped up quickly, ma'am, and sorry for the mess", which means that you'll do the mopping action and in fact quickly (and that you're apologizing to the madam for the mess).

I hope that this is clear.

It Begs the Question

The other day I heard an expert on MSNBC talking about Afghanistan (or was it Iraq?), and at some point he offered that such and such begs the question of whether we should do such and such (as you can tell, I can't remember the details of the discussion).

As a philosopher, this use of begs the question is annoying. Begging the question as even an undergraduate student in argument or logic will know, means assuming what you are attempting to prove. The classic example is the ditty about knowing the Bible is the word of God because it says so. In the modern context, we can beg the question about troop levels in Afghanistan by first assuming that they should be higher and then concluding so. Or what have you.

What our expert meant to say was that such and such raises the question. Suggesting or raising questions is what circumstances and observations do. Begging questions is much less common, and must by necessity involve some circular reasoning. So, to the pundits and smart people out there and just to everyone, stop begging the question when you're just raising one.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Snookered

We're getting snookered. This is bad. Who remembers the "Troubled Assets Relief Program" (TARP), 700 billion in spending approved just months ago? Well, that's not interesting anymore. Silence on TARP. Now another 800 billion from the latest American Recovery and Reinvestment Bill. This will work!

TARP was supposed to right the ship. That's how it was sold, to the sceptical public (remember?). And yet, no discussion anymore, nothing. And now a new bill presumably because we have a new administration (TARP was Bush, and therefore failed), and it's another 800 billion. What about TARP? Sold to us in the same way: huge spending necessary to avert disaster. Months later we can't even remember what happened to the money, or why it was approved.

In the meantime our debt grows to proportions never seen before, and our elected officials play these games with the public. Why not, the public has a short memory...

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Great Gamble (or, the dangers of spending)

I thought Obama did a good job tonight, in particular in explaining how projects (e.g., green energy projects) serve dual purposes as job creators, along with providing longer term benefit later. This is of course the argument for the 1950s era infrastructure spending: repairing a bridge creates jobs today, and creates repaired bridges tomorrow.

An AP fact check on "pork" was a little deflating. But what the heck, Obama is a politician. And I thought he was pretty persuasive, and stopped the momentum of the Republicans, who I've argued previously have settled in to a minority role as the fact checkers themselves.

And, reality check, no Republican support in the House and little in the Senate is to be expected. They got voted out of office for being big spenders. Tells us something about the American electorate; like, if the stimulus bill is perceived to fail, say hello again to the GOP. Spending is politically dangerous. 800 billion dollars is potential political suicide. The deficit is massive thanks to the Republicans and soon to be more massive thanks to the Democrats. The Democrats had better hope they understand how to stimulate the modern economy, at least get it in the ball park, or Obama's a one term president. I hate to be Machiavellian, but it really is dangerous to write such a fat check against the American tax payers unless you've got good reason to expect success. I don't agree with the do-nothing strategy (I've said in prior posts, let's try to optimize job creation by sector), but in pure political terms this may in fact be the beginning of the new Republicans. Massive spending on top of a trillion dollar deficit is tricky business, especially when you're navigating the murky waters of the future global economy.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Obama, Pragmatist?

Gail Collins offers in the NYT today an apology for Obamaites, attempting I assume to both placate and wisen them up. I'm hardly worried about Obama's presidency this early on, but it is interesting how public support has slipped both for him (from 80s to 60s, though this is typical), and for the stimulus bill which, if not passed, he's declared could lead to economic catastrophy. Wow. What happened?

Here's the problem. Obama won office with promises of change in Washington. Within weeks, Democrats like Nancy Pelosi crafted a spending bill that even the down-and-out Republicans found big holes to poke and big political points to gain. It's not that the Republicans were that brilliant, mind you. The House bill was just that bad. In other words, weeks after Bush exits and change enters, it's more politics as usual. The initial House stimulus bill was so embarrassing that Obama contacted Pelosi, requesting removal of funding for contraceptives and resodding of the White House Mall. Good for him.

Even so, large swaths of proposed spending are still earmarked for goverment and health care sectors, which are suffering about a third of the unemployment that is wreaking steady havoc on manufacturing and construction. It's hard not to recognize the tension with, on the one hand, rhetoric about immediate action to stave off economic catastrophy, and on the other, spending nearly a trillion tax payer dollars in a manner that, so far, has been difficult to defend as straightforward stimulus. If we are headed for catastrophe, why is it still politics as usual?

We're used to hearing by now that political pragmatism is the antidote to partisan bickering and gridlock. It's what the smart politicians do, we're told. Indeed the pragmatist label has adorned Obama's politics since if not his presidential campaign at least his tone while President-Elect, and mostly it still sticks. But the latest poll numbers suggest that "pragmatism" cashed out only as compromise on spending packages that are increasingly viewed with sceptism is politically hazardous. It's also, substantively speaking, inaccurate. Obama will be a pragmatist not because he accepts compromises that assuage political parties but because he adheres to the notion that partisan interests should be subjugated to practical ones in times of crisis. Pushing through flawed legislation by courting votes isn't enough. The truly pragmatic standard is in fact much higher.

Obama must explain how the current 800 billion dollar package will in fact create jobs and help the economy. We need plain language about how the deficit increase will get offset by job creation. (Liberal media mouthpieces like Rachell Maddow have proclaimed recently how it's so obvious that spending just is stimulus. She means that stimulus just is spending. On the latter, not the former, we all agree. Tax cuts are of course spending too. No worries, Rachell.) So, we need our new President to work us through the logic of the bill, or explain what the Hill needs to do to fix it, or scrap it. That's pragmatism. The stimulus package is a tool that we must understand will solve the current problem.

"Ideas are tools" was a slogan of the 19th century American pragmatists. Whatever works, is what ought then to be regarded as True. Generations of thinkers have poked holes in this idea on theoretical grounds, but for our current conundrum, ideas-as-tools is much better than ideas-as-abstractions. This is particularly true with the economy (and especially the complex, global economy), because it's increasingly hard to peer into the future to see how ideology will work in complicated contexts. This is why the Keynesian versus supply side debate seems so stale these days; who knows any more what will work? Pragmatists will start with what we know -- say, the data in the Congressional Budget Office reports -- and work bottom up towards some practical solution, however it looks through the lens of ideology.

But regardless of how we view the larger philosophical issues here, it's clear that political pragmatism understood as simply passing more spending legislation, skewed this way and that to make politicians happy, is hardly confidence inspiring. This is just politics as usual. For 800 billion tax payer dollars, we deserve more.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Supply Side Logic

A private email from a friend of mine... which I'm making public now:

"Kensyian stimulus--spending for spendings sake--doesn't
work--because it takes money from the most productive job-creating sectors
of the economy and redistributes it to the least productive sectors (low
income workers and government). Plus, it destroys incentives for business
formation, work, savings and investment. Government can borrow, tax and
print money. All three of these actions create drag on the private job
creating sections of the economy, either by increasing the cost of capital,
decreasing incentives to work, save and invest, or by devaluing the currency
(inflation).

The practical non-ideological approach to economic recovery involves cutting
marginal tax rates, sound money and deregulation. Ask Coolidge, Kennedy,
Reagan and the much maligned Bush circa 2002. You want a depression or
mighty stagflation raise taxes and/or spending. Ask Hoover, Roosevelt,
Carter and Bush 2008 and his Dem congress (Frank, Dodd etc.)

Nothing they are doing now will work. Look for Carter era stagflation (low
growth and high inflation within a couple years). Maybe worse."

Capping Salaries is Capitalism

Conservatives may be squawking lately about Pres. Obama imposing executive salary caps at 500K a year when their firms have accepted bailout tax payer money, but it's a great incentive for the private sector to avoid the turn left towards socialism. It's not Adam Smith, but it's surely a pointer towards the market economy, not away from it.

Why? It's logical, that's why. If your firm has a business model that does not require bailouts, then by all means, pay your executives what the market will allow. Fat cats are the by-product of wide open, entrepreneurial, anyone-can-be-anything societies. Bill Gates. It makes sense. On the other hand, if you need government to operate, you should expect now to be governed. We can hardly accept businesses wanting subsidies for failure and free market principles for salaries. That's not capitalism.

And so, I applaud the salary caps. It's a nod towards capitalism.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

On Print Media

The New York Times ran an obviously self-referential op-ed Wednesday on the demise of newspapers from a steadily increasing Web readership. I read the NYT and the Wall Street Journal newspapers, and the thought of a world absent physical newspapers borders on fear. A world without newspapers?

It's understandable that news consumers have turned to digital content; it's mostly freely available, easy to access, and ubiquitous now that broadband is a commonplace in American homes and offices. I don't blame the new generation for turning to the Web for their news fix these days. It makes sense. And newspapers, like so many other products pulled from the shelves of consumer markets, are perhaps just the latest victims in the ongoing history of failed business models. Their readers are the hapless dinosaurs watching the darkening sky, faintly aware that it signals an end and some new beginning.

If the newspapers fail -- and many of them are suffering and on the verge -- we'll have lost something that can't be replaced by so many Web pages. For those who know the joy of fetching the morning newspaper, holding in hand the new day, thumbing through the world of events and information and commentary, look up. See the sky darkening as unsustainable business models die their slow but ineluctable deaths. And know also that the paper you hold retains a value that changing consumer markets does not explain, or describe.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Democrat's Dilemma

Republicans and Democrats share a history of legislative shenanigans, to be sure. And though Republicans are suddenly sounding reasonable when discussing the pork in the latest stimulus bill on its way to the Senate (after passing in the House 244 - 188, with all Republicans voting against), the traditional Republican mantra of tax relief for the upper and upper middle class would certainly be a bad proposal in today's recession.

But, again, Republican talking points today seem much more reasonable. Contra Bob Herbert, who writes in the NYT today that we should all just stop listening to the minority party (nice spirit of bi-partisanship, Mr. Herbert), I think the minority party, in its opposition, is helping improve the pork-ridden bill and hence is serving the public's interest.

They're doing this in two ways. One, they're caterwauling about the obvious pork in the bill. Indeed some of the more egregious examples of pork have already been removed, like hundreds of millions for contraceptives under the guise of a family planning expansion promoted by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. (Give initial credit for removal of this lu lu to George Stephanopoulos, who raised this issue in an interview with Pelosi on ABCs "This Week". Also it was President Obama who, officially, requested it be dropped. Bravo.) Resodding the White House lawn also got nixed.

Two, they're asking the hard questions about where the stimulus actually resides in the stimulus bill, questions that I think point to real problems that the majority Democrats seem curiously sanguine about, given the severity of the economic crisis.

For instance, the Congressional Budget Office released a troubling analysis of the proposed bill, calculating that only about 20% of the 816 billion will be spent in fiscal 2009. So much for shovel ready. And there's the troubling fact that, of this, only about 30 billion is tagged for infrastructure spending.

So, where is the money going? Well, to entitlement programs and special interest groups, of course:

  • 2 billion for child care subsidies
  • 50 million to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA)
  • 400 million for global warming research
  • 2.4 billion for carbon capture projects
  • 650 million for digital TV conversion coupons
  • 87 billion for Medicaid
  • 1 billion for nutrition programs
  • 66 billion for education spending

And on and on.

To be sure, some of this spending is laudable, and provides funding for worthy goals (like funding the arts, or modernizing the Smithsonian). But if it's really job creation that we're trying to accomplish, it's hard to understand the distribution of funds. For example, the unemployment rate for government workers is a mere 2.3% today, and in the education and health sectors it's only 3.8%. Yet fully 39% of the 550 billion allocated for spending -- the rest is tax relief -- targets these sectors. This is particularly puzzling when we consider the unemployment rates in the sectors hit hardest by the recession: 8.3% in manufacturing, and 15.2% in construction. As Alan Reynolds of the CATO Institute points out today in the WSJ, "If the intent of the plan is to alleviate unemployment, why spend over half of the money on sectors where unemployment is lowest?" Hmm.

So, here's the Democrat's Dilemma. They don't need the lowly Republicans to pass President Obama's stimulus plan; it'll likely sail through the Senate without major modification just as it did the House. And then it'll be law. But, if it's judged a failure in the coming years, they'll be solely responsible for it. Republicans, for their part, can look reasonable by simply pointing at the facts of the bill. They may get blamed for throwing out the spirit of bi-partisanship, but they have the pork in the bill and the puzzling distribution of funds to keep talking about. No one will care about their stubbornness today, if in a few years the stimulus is viewed as a Democratic christmas tree, full of entitlements and goodies for Americans, but a very flawed piece of legislation given its ostensible purpose.

And so it goes. As Speaker Pelosi put it, "We won, we write the bill". Indeed.