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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


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

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.