Monday, January 31, 2011

QOTD: Alexander Hamilton speaks out

Quote of the Day:
As all good Constitution-reciting Republicans know, filibusters are all about protecting minority rights, encouraging compromise, facilitating careful deliberation, etc., etc. The filibuster may not be in the Constitution’s text, but it is consistent with the essential vision of the Framers.

Alexander Hamilton’s reply (in The Federalist No. 22): What a load of anti-federalist bull!

In practice, Hamilton charged, the “real operation” of the filibuster
is to embarrass the administration, to destroy the energy of the government, and to substitute the pleasure, caprice, or artifices of an insignificant, turbulent, or corrupt junto, to the regular deliberations and decisions of a respectable majority.

Technically, I grant you, Hamilton was not attacking the filibuster per se. (That particular atrocity wouldn’t come into existence for another half-century.) Nor was he talking specifically about the Obama Administration, though he might as well have been.

What he was attacking was the premise that would one day underlie the McConnell-era filibuster—the notion that a legislature should routinely require supermajority approval for any action to be taken. For one thing,
To give a minority a negative upon the majority (which is always the case where more than a majority is requisite to a decision), is, in its tendency, to subject the sense of the greater number to that of the lesser.

That’s bad enough in itself, but it becomes positively dangerous in times of serious trouble:
In those emergencies of a nation, in which the goodness or badness, the weakness or strength of its government, is of the greatest importance, there is commonly a necessity for action. The public business must, in some way or other, go forward. If a pertinacious minority can control the opinion of a majority, respecting the best mode of conducting it, the majority, in order that something may be done, must conform to the views of the minority; and thus the sense of the smaller number will overrule that of the greater, and give a tone to the national proceedings. Hence, tedious delays; continual negotiation and intrigue; contemptible compromises of the public good. And yet, in such a system, it is even happy when such compromises can take place: for upon some occasions things will not admit of accommodation; and then the measures of government must be injuriously suspended, or fatally defeated. It is often, by the impracticability of obtaining the concurrence of the necessary number of votes, kept in a state of inaction. Its situation must always savor of weakness, sometimes border upon anarchy.

Emphasis mine, though I imagine it would be Hamilton’s if he had known how grotesquely his “conservative” heirs have disfigured the meaning of the Constitution he helped formulate and get ratified. - Hendrik Hertzberg

"Monument" by Lloyd Biggle, Jr.

Cover from
Monument, by Lloyd Biggle, Jr., is one of my very favorite works of classic science fiction. It's based on Biggle's short story - or novelette, really - of the same name, first published in 1961.

The original story is good, but this short novel, published in 1974, is superb. It's a quick, easy, pleasant read, with plenty of humor, deceptively light-weight. By that, I mean the story has plenty of substance beneath its entertaining surface.

I've read the book many times - it's just that kind of story - and yesterday, I read it again. This time, I was struck by how modern the book seems. Most older works of science fiction - of any genre, probably - need to be given some slack. Times change, and things that once went without saying seem old-fashioned, if not actually objectionable, now.

Take the minor issue of smoking, for example. Smoking was ubiquitous years ago, and I doubt if many authors gave it much thought. But when some distant ancestor, far in the future, pulls out a cigarette, that seems jarring these days.

Well, in Monument, there are a couple of times where one character smokes, but it's not at all what you might think. It's clearly not tobacco (nor marijuana), and the smoke apparently doesn't even result from combustion. This is something entirely different, a future vice that's not even close to what we consider "smoking."

Now, very little is made of this. Most people probably won't even notice it. Biggle certainly doesn't hit us over the head with his cleverness. It's probably only a couple of lines in the whole book, and not at all important to the grand scheme of things. But it's an example of how he gets even the minor details right.

When Monument begins, Cern Obrien realizes that he's dying, and the thought panics him. He's an old man, and he's led a fulfilling life, especially after he crashed his ship onto a paradise planet. The primitive people living there, descendants of some earlier mishap, welcomed him, and Obrien became the most respected man on the planet. His final years, he's lived at ease, with great honor, surrounded by his many descendants.

But the thought of dying panics him, because he knows these people are doomed. When galactic society discovers them, as will inevitably happen, they'll have no chance at all. Their lovely planet is just too valuable, and they can't even imagine what they'll be up against. Obrien thinks he knows of a way to save them. He's worked it out in detail over many years. But now he's dying, and he's absolutely terrified.

So Obrien, a spaceship mechanic with little formal education himself, tries to teach his plan to some students - young men and women who have never even seen a classroom before, and who traditionally spend this part of their life in leisurely courtship. As you might guess, it's frustrating. And as Obrien becomes weaker and weaker, he begins to despair.

Note that Obrien isn't worried about bloody invasion. It's not that kind of book. Federation society has laws against that sort of thing. In fact, there are plenty of laws specifically designed to protect people like these, and a strong military to enforce them. But when there's this much to gain, there are ways around even the best of laws. His people need a good lawyer far more than they need weapons.

Most of the book shows these young people blindly trying to follow Obrien's plan, which they don't understand at all, after his death, when the planet is finally discovered. OK, this is a neat idea, isn't it? But what makes the book so special? I wonder if I can even begin to explain.

First of all, these people are not just extremely likable characters, they're reasonable. They're plausible. The natives aren't entirely sure about Obrien's plan, at least not at first. They're not idiots, and they know that any man, no matter how well respected, can be wrong. They don't stop thinking for themselves, although they're also smart enough to know when they're completely out of their depth.

And the galactics aren't evil. Even the villain of the story isn't evil. He's greedy, true. And he sees a way to become even wealthier, so he's willing to break the law. But he's convinced himself that he's doing a great thing, something that will even benefit the natives of the planet. After all, some of that wealth will trickle down to them, won't it?

Heh, heh. Yeah, this is a great portrayal of "trickle-down" economic theory long before that became a catch-phrase among conservatives (well, OK, now they use "supply-side"). But seriously, this book could have been written today. It really seems remarkably modern. But, in fact, this kind of thinking is not new, not at all. And Biggle shows us that in a really timeless book.

It's always easy to believe what you want to believe. And if something benefits you, personally - like tax-cuts for the rich, for example - it's very, very easy to believe that it's good for everyone else, too. This is just human nature. And so, although it's easy to hate the villain in this story, he's not evil. He's convinced himself that he's the benefactor here, that he's doing a wonderful thing (despite the illegality of it).

The rest of the characters are just as realistic, and most of them are quite appealing. The wealthy man's niece, who might at first seem to be a stereotypical rich bitch, quickly demonstrates that she can laugh at herself. That shows us there's more to her than you might expect, even though she doesn't exactly make a good first - or second - impression.

The military men, and other government types, are decent people constrained by the law. They're sympathetic to the natives, who are clearly getting a raw deal, but they still have to follow orders. Societies are built on law, and for good reason. But the overall good of that requires that some injustice simply can't be fought, or not directly - and not quickly enough to save this planet full of people.

In all cases, this is very realistic. Monument shows the problems of a large, complex society, but also the benefits. These natives are apparently doomed, but not because they face military invasion or any direct violence at all. There are laws to protect people like them - to protect all people, in fact. But wealthy, powerful men can also find ways around those laws.

However, as I say, these men certainly don't think that they're being evil. They might be breaking the law - or, more frequently, just bending it - but they think they've got a good reason. That reason is to gain more wealth, higher status, and greater political power for themselves, but they find it easy to convince themselves that others benefit, too. Well, this is a very modern issue, don't you think?

Don't get me wrong. This book is a delightful romp on the surface. These issues are implied, but Monument certainly doesn't preach at you. In fact, I doubt I thought all this the first time I read the book. It really is great fun. It's just that it has depths, too. You might read the whole book and not notice, being so busy laughing and crying and just enjoying the story, but they're still there.

From the very beginning of Monument, you'll know which side you're on. You'll cheer on the natives, even as you chuckle at them sometimes. You'll bristle at the injustice, even though the bad guys aren't really evil, just human. And basically, you'll feel good, that some people can fight the good fight. (The ending is never really in doubt, though the mechanism is.)

Basically, this book will cheer you up. If the winter weather is getting you down, Monument will definitely help with that. Heck, even the setting - basically, a Polynesian-style paradise of sandy beaches, warm sun, and gentle breezes - will lift your spirits (at least until you have to put the book down again). But the story, too, is a real delight. I highly recommend it.

PS. The original short story is available free online, but if you can find the novel, I really recommend that you read it instead (or at least first). The short story will spoil the ending for you. Furthermore, although the short story is good, the novel is better. It's not a very long novel, but the extra material really improves the story.

The current trade paperback edition is rather expensive, but there are plenty of used copies of Monument out there. I don't know how common it is in libraries. It's not, after all, a new book. But it's certainly worth some effort to find. I promise you that.

The great detective

Sunday, January 30, 2011

QOTD: The potential for personhood

Quote of the Day:
Yes, Mr Barnard began as a zygote. That does not mean the zygote was Mr Barnard. My car began as a stack of metal ingots and barrels of plastics; that does not imply that an ingot of iron is a car. My house began as a set of blueprints and an idea in an architect's mind; nobody is going to pay the architect rent for living in his cranium or on a stack of paper in a cabinet. The zygote was not Justin Barnard, unless Justin Barnard is still a vegetating single-celled blob, in which case I'd like to know how he typed his essay.

Since Barnard claims to be a philosopher, I'll cite another, a guy named Aristotle. This is a quote I use in the classroom when I try to explain to them how epigenesis works, in contrast to preformation. Aristotle did some basic poking around in chicken eggs and in semen, and he noticed something rather obvious—there were no bones in there, nor blood, nor anything meatlike or gristly or brainy. So he made the simple suggestion that they weren't there.
Why not admit straight away that the semen…is such that out of it blood and flesh can be formed, instead of maintaining that semen is both blood and flesh?

Barnard is making the classic preformationist error of assuming that everything had to be there in the beginning: I am made of bones and blood and flesh and brains and guts and consciousness and self-identity, therefore the zygote must have contained bones and blood and flesh and brains and guts and consciousness and self-identity.

It didn't.

Why not admit straight away that the zygote is such that out of it selfhood may arise, rather than maintaining that the zygote is the self?

In that case we have to recognize that the person is not present instantaneously at one discrete moment, but emerges gradually over months to years of time, that there were moments when self was not present and other moments when self clearly was present, and moments in between where there is ambiguity or partial identity or otherwise blurry gray boundaries. This is a conclusion that makes conservative ideologues wince and shy away — I think it's too complicated for their brains, which may in some ways be equivalent to the gormless reflexive metabolic state of the zygote — but it is how science understands the process of development. - PZ Myers

Oh, the poor thing...


I was commenting elsewhere, and thought I'd edit and expand my comments and post them here. I don't think I've ever mentioned abortion before, and I certainly wouldn't want to skip a controversial topic, now, would I?  :)

So many people want everything to be black and white. Shades of gray are too difficult for them, too confusing, too imprecise. Reality is too difficult, so they retreat to fundamentalism. They retreat to dogma. They retreat to black and white.

An egg is not a human being, fertilized or not. It's human, yes, but so is every cell in our bodies. But it's not a person, by any stretch of the imagination except one: religion.

You can believe a fertilized egg is a person if you want, just like you can believe the Earth is only 6,000 years old and that you didn't come from no monkey. But we have freedom of religion in America. We don't make laws based on your particular religious belief. Our laws need to make sense in secular terms.

Does a fertilized egg or even an undifferentiated mass of cells, too small to be seen with the naked eye, have a "soul"? Even the Catholic Church didn't believe that, not until relatively recently. And you can't have a personality, you certainly can't have a thought, without a brain, without even any nervous circuitry at all.

But then, is human life only a "person" after birth? After all, there's very little difference between a child immediately before birth and immediately after - except, of course, that the latter doesn't reside in the mother's body. I don't mean to minimize that difference, certainly not. It is an important distinction, since the mother has the right to make decisions about her own body. But it's really not that black and white, either, is it?

There's a lot of gray area between the "every sperm is sacred" crowd and a living, breathing child. That makes many people uncomfortable, but it's reality. It's simply not possible to make simple, easy rules about this - not if you also want them to be right.

Our abortion laws may not be perfect - what is? - and we will always disagree about the details, I'm sure, but Roe v. Wade came a long way towards acknowledging the fact that reality isn't black and white.

There should be no restrictions on early abortions. A fertilized egg or a minuscule mass of undifferentiated cells is not a person. That's just a fact. It may be your religious belief otherwise, and you are certainly free to follow your own conscience. But this is America. In this country, you can't force your religion on everyone else (no, that doesn't just apply to Sharia law!). And this is clearly a matter of a woman's right to make decisions about her own body.

As the fetus develops, especially as it comes close to term, more restrictions would seem reasonable. But we're also talking about a woman - a woman who is, clearly, a person. She does have rights, whatever you may think about the fetus living inside her. A woman is never just a vehicle for a fetus.

Late-stage abortions should be rare, because fetal development is advancing closer and closer to that "child" or "person" category. Rules must be made for good reason, most appropriately to preserve the health of the mother (because the mother is a person, no matter what). But it's a gray area. It's naturally a gray area. You simply can't come up with the right answer using a black-and-white brain.

We humans don't do well with shades of gray. We want things to be black and white. We want our legal system to be black and white, too: this is right and this is wrong, and there's absolutely no gray area in between. But reality tends to be gray. And if we're smart, we'll acknowledge this.

PS. I originally commented on an article about an anti-abortion speaker who supposedly survived a failed abortion. She was glad to be alive. Well, aren't we all? I'm sure you're glad to be alive, even if your mother got pregnant when she was only 14, even if she was raped.

But that doesn't mean we should encourage all 14-year-old teenagers to get pregnant. That doesn't mean we should make rape legal, or even encourage it. Should we require that all girls have unprotected sex as soon as they reach puberty, for fear of missing out on all the wonderful children that will otherwise never be born?

None of us wants to change the circumstances that led to our own birth, not matter what they were. And mothers generally love their children, even when the circumstances were really, really bad. But the issue is what we do in the future, not what's already occurred in the past. And in reality, the vast majority of potential people will never exist anyway, no matter what we do. Many of us just aren't thinking clearly.

If you really think that every sperm is sacred, what does that say about the billions of potential people washed down the drain every year? And that's inevitable, no matter what we do. Each of us has won an incredible lottery, just to be born at all. And that's not just the lottery at conception, either. Truly enormous numbers of embryos never attach to the uterus at all or spontaneously abort before birth, usually before the woman even knows she was pregnant.

Likewise, we human beings desperately need to use birth control, to limit our population growth before we completely destroy our own planet (or at least our own environment). If we do that, a lot of really great people will never be born. But so what? We simply can't keep pumping out children at a rapid rate, or we'll destroy everyone. And no matter what we do or don't do, the vast majority of potential people - most of them just as great - will still never exist. It's just a fact of life.

There's a great deal of emotion tied up in this - for good reason, since we're hard-wired to love and protect babies - but all too little rational intelligence. To my mind (with no legal training at all), the basic idea behind Roe v. Wade is that it isn't easy. It isn't simple. It isn't black and white. It's competing interests. It's shades of gray. It's doing the best we can, knowing that it will never be perfect.

And for that reason, even rational people will disagree on the details. That's unavoidable.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

QOTD: Their dumb idea

Quote of the Day:
Of all the arguments Republicans have been waging against Obamacare as the House of Representatives prepares to vote for its repeal, none is harder to take than their criticism of the federally subsidized high-risk pools the law created to provide immediate relief to the uninsured. In May, the House Republican Conference complained that these high-risk pools would be unfair to people currently enrolled in existing state-run risk pools because the latter group was paying higher premiums. In July, the House Republican Conference complained that implementation of this unfair federal program was being delayed. By January, the House Republican leadership was grousing (in a report titled Obamacare: A Budget-Busting, Job-Killing Health Care Law) that costs for this unfair-but-wrongly-delayed program were higher than expected even as participation in this unfair-but-wrongly-delayed-but-too-costly program was lower than it should be.

Republican attacks on Obamacare's high-risk pools sound a lot like the old joke about the restaurant where the food is terrible—and such small portions! But the contradictory nature of the GOP's complaints doesn't rankle half so much as their fundamental hypocrisy. High-risk pools are, in fact, a terrible solution to the health-care crisis. But they happen to be the terrible solution Republicans most favor (along with tax breaks) whenever they're forced to state their preferred alternative to last year's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. They were the central idea in the health plan proposed by Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., during the 2008 election. They were the central idea in the House leadership's proposed substitute for the Democratic plan in 2009, and they played a major role in the alternative plan set forth that year by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a medical doctor who became the GOP's lead opponent to Obamacare. They were the central idea in a 2010 repeal bill introduced in May by Rep. Wally Herger, R-Calif., that would have replaced the health reform bill that became law with the 2009 House leadership bill. They're absent from the current leadership repeal bill, introduced Jan. 5 by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., but only because Cantor's bill proposes no substitute at all. ...

The poor performance of Obamacare's high-risk pools aren't an argument against Obamacare. They're an argument in favor of it. High-risk pools are a Band-Aid to stanch a hemorrhage. Democrats don't kid themselves that the Band-Aid will do much to stop the bleeding, which is why they don't embrace it as a long-term solution. Republicans ought to stop pretending it can be one. - Timothy Noah

The world of Glenn Beck

Friday, January 28, 2011

QOTD: The hyperinflation story

Quote of the Day:
The hyperinflation story is, after all, satisfying both intellectually and morally. A weak, spendthrift government can’t limit its spending to match its revenues; it loses the confidence of investors, so it has to print money to make up the difference; and too much money chasing too few goods leads to ever-higher inflation.

Economics teachers love this story; hey, I love it. It’s clear, it’s simple, you can walk through it on the blackboard, and yes, it really does happen. It’s a great set-piece, both for the textbook and for intro macro classes.

But there’s always the temptation to apply the story too widely. Partly this is the drunk-and-the-streetlight effect: you look for dropped keys where the light is brightest, even though that’s not actually where you dropped them. Partly it’s ideology: the hyperinflation story is a comfortable one for people who want to make government always the problem, never the solution.

And the remarkable thing is how many people are determined to Weimarize recent events, even though the actual experience of the past three years has been an object lesson in the fact that sometimes that framework just doesn’t fit. In late 2008 there was, maybe, an excuse for looking at the big rise in the monetary base and thinking that inflation was coming — although not if you had actually looked at Japanese experience. At this point, however, it’s just bizarre to use that obviously failed framework rather than the well-developed theory of the liquidity trap, which has sailed through recent events with flying colors.

But it keeps happening anyway. A few months back, in a dialogue in Korea with Niall Ferguson, I suggested a macroeconomic version of Godwin’s Law: the first person to bring up the Weimar hyperinflation is considered to have lost the debate. He was, um, not happy. And despite all the evidence, a lot of people are obviously determined to keep on partying like it’s 1923. - Paul Krugman


Ed Stein's commentary:
So completely has the gun argument been lost to the extremists that the president didn’t even make a half-hearted plea for any kind of control in his State of the Union message. The only voices we’ve heard have been those clamoring for even more guns in more places. The reasoning seems to be that if everyone carried a sidearm everywhere, people would be more reluctant to open fire–kind of a mutually assured destruction on a personal level. How this argument has prevailed despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary is a mystery. Too many western movies, maybe, in which the bad guys always miss and the good guy somehow picks off dozens of them. We ignore the inconvenient facts, some of which I’ll recount here.

31,000 Americans  died from gun violence last year.  The states with the highest number of firearms have the highest number of firearm deaths (shocking); the states with the fewest have the fewest. More guns do not equal more safety, despite the relentlessly repeated claims to the contrary. The myth of needing guns to defend yourself against the bad guys with guns? You are more than four times more likely to be shot in a confrontation if you are armed than if you are not. How many people actually successfully defend themselves in such a manner? Unknown, largely because the NRA has managed to prevent the government from spending money actually studying gun violence, but it’s unlikely to be very high number, or we’d hear a lot more about it. In Tucson, a man who was at the rally and armed, in the confusion of the moment, almost shot the person who disarmed Loughner, who fired off 31 shots in ten seconds, killing six and wounding 13 before anyone had time to react. Can you imagine the ensuing mayhem if everyone there started firing back in a crowd?

Oh, and the line about enforcing the laws we already have on the books rather than creating new ones? That’s the biggest laugh of all, given that the inconsistent patchwork of more than 10,000 local laws across the country. Washington, D.C. bans guns, but Virginia, a stone’s throw away, will sell you anything you want, no questions asked. A dealer in most states has to do a background check in his store, but not at the gun show on the weekend. A lunatic like Jared Lee Loughner had no trouble buying a gun and a high-capacity clip legally.

I love the fallback logic when all the other arguments fail: there are so many guns out there and it’s so easy for criminals to get them, if we start trying to control them now, only the bad guys will end up having them. In other words, we’ve been so successful at creating a country where violence rules, we have no choice but to live with the mess we’ve created.

And so it goes on. The gun absolutists even fight a New Jersey proposal that guns not be sold to people on the terror watch list, and probably will succeed in killing it. How safe does that make you feel?

Sharron Angle, too?

The other day, I wondered if Michele Bachmann considering a run for President was a sign of the end times. Well, it gets better (or worse, if you really think about it).

Now Sharron Angle, the failed Senate candidate who proposed that we little people just barter chickens for medical care, is visiting Iowa and refusing to rule out a presidential bid, herself:
Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle of Nevada descended upon the movie premiere of a conservative Christian movie in Johnston tonight, and she wouldn’t say that she was running for president.

But she wouldn’t say that she wasn’t.

“I’ll just say I have lots of options for the future, and I’m investigating all my options,” Angle said before a couple hundred people sat down to watch the premiere of “The Genesis Code,” a $5 million film that aims to present a controversial view on religious freedom and on the balancing act between faith and science.

Indecision Forever puts it well:
I'm not getting my hopes up. I realize that the odds of her actually deciding to run are slim, but man! Can you even imagine?

Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Jim DeMint, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum… and Sharron Angle! All up there on the dais together, trying to pretend that they have coherent points to make about job growth while struggling to figure out a way to sneak in a coded message to their base about Obama being a Muslim.

How can we make this happen? How?! If we have to, we'll pool our money and get a clown van!

This would indeed be fun,... assuming, of course, that none of these clowns would actually win the election. (Gawd, that's a scary thought, isn't it?)

The only thing better would be for Haley "Boss Hogg" Barbour and Christine "I Am Not a Witch" O'Donnell to join them. Oh, well, we can dream, can't we?

Bill O'Reilly's defense

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Bill O'Reilly Defends His Nazi Analogies
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire Blog</a>The Daily Show on Facebook

O'Reilly doesn't get it. Why he declared the Huffington Post to the Nazis is immaterial to Jon Stewart's point, that Megyn Kelly was flat-out lying about the fact - this isn't even a close call - that Fox "News" does include that kind of rhetoric, and all the time, too.

But Stewart doesn't let it go at that, of course. He actually looks into O'Reilly's claim, only to find that the Fox "News" star is blaming the Huntington Post for an anonymous comment on a blog! Heh, heh. Can you get any more ridiculous than that?

O'Reilly just told his viewers that "this appeared on the Huffington Post." He implies that this was something they published, perhaps something one of their columnists wrote. It was an anonymous comment on a blog! Heck, it could have been O'Reilly himself, setting up his evening program, for all we know.

And O'Reilly claims, from this, that "my comparison to the vile Nazi propaganda machine is dead on." Er, what? This is exactly the opposite, in fact. It's a blog that lets anyone comment, without censorship - kind of like this blog. You don't even have to use your real name.

You can say these things, anonymously, and the Huffington Post won't censor you. You can even praise the Reagans, if you want - or Bill O'Reilly himself, for that matter - without fear of censorship. It's a wide-open forum for debate. And that is like the Nazi propaganda machine? Really?

I don't like the Huffington Post - they're so enamored with pseudo-scientific woo that I don't even want to link to them - but this claim is just insane. And it's not only insane, it's dishonest. Look at the facts. O'Reilly himself is behaving far more like the Nazi propaganda machine than the Huffington Post.

O'Reilly says, "You can make the call on that." Well, his viewers tend to be elderly, and I wonder how many of them even know what a blog is. But that hardly matters, because he was careful not to give them that information anyway. He deliberately mislead his audience into thinking this was something written by the Huffington Post.

Yeah, someone at Fox "News" deliberately misleading his viewers. Wow, there's a shocker, huh?

Utah's state gun

In the competition for looniest state in the Union (see, for example, here and here), apparently Utah also wants to be a contender.

From Gail Collins in The New York Times:
This week in Washington, Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey introduced three very modest gun regulation bills, including one making it more difficult to sell guns to people on the terror watch list.

Meanwhile, in Salt Lake City, the State Legislature is considering a bill to honor the Browning M1911 pistol by making it the official state firearm.

Guess which idea has the better chance of passage? Can I see a show of hands? Oh, you cynics, you! ...

Capitol observers say the Browning bill has an excellent chance of becoming law. Meanwhile, Lautenberg will be lucky to get a hearing. The terror of the National Rifle Association is so pervasive that President Obama did not want to poison the mood of his State of the Union address by suggesting that when somebody on the terror watch list tries to buy a gun, maybe we should do an extra check.

According to Collins, another Utah state senator suggests combining their "Browning Day" celebrations with Martin Luther King Day, for that extra bit of crazy that this situation really needed.

Yes, given the level of crazy in America these days, an official state gun wouldn't be enough by itself, not even immediately after the murders in Arizona.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

QOTD: Cartoon explanations

Quote of the Day:
Look at religion's explanations. How was the universe created? A big man in the sky just poofed it into existence. Where did humans come from? Same big man created two people — just like a mommy and daddy — and everyone arose from them. What about our history? One chosen people, a remarkable population bottleneck (humanity was reduced to 8 people, all from the same tribe, four of whom were closely related!), all languages traceable to one Middle Eastern source and dispersal.

These are cartoon explanations. They're the kind of thing a five-year-old might come up with…and not a very bright five-year-old at that. All of them are clearly drawn from simplistic assumptions about how the world works. They're pathetic.

Inventing a cosmic superbeing who has infinite conjuring powers isn't an explanation, it's an excuse. It explains nothing, and creates a new complication, this deity, that demands further explanation. And any god that a religion invents is complex: if it's capable of personal interest in humanity, if it can carry out specific, directed actions, if it's intelligent, it has to be complex; and if it is simply a diffuse force of nature, a property of the cosmos, then all the anthropomorphisms and goals and desires of their imaginary deity are false. Attempts to rationalize away complexity by claiming "god is love" or other such vacuities are nothing but cop-outs that reflect my thesis: religion is about reducing explanations to childish simplicity.

Other stories, like the derivation of the human race from a pair at one point and a family of 8 later are simply efforts to reduce biology to all that they know, family and patriarchy and tribe. They aren't just silly, they're plainly wrong: we know in general how species arise from populations, not individuals, and the myth doesn't fit the facts. If there had been such a narrow constriction in the human population at any point, it would show up in our genomes; the whole story has been falsified.

Even those followers of religion who are not creationists have their collection of phony simplifications that apply not just to the real world, but to their own religion. How often have you found yourself discussing some absurdity of doctrine with a believer, only to have them retreat to their universal fuzzy bunker of that meaningless word, "faith"? "Faith" is their get-out-of-jail-free card, their refuge, their always-handy tool for short-circuiting reason. Every intellectual difficulty is met with surrender — and they act as if everyone should be proud of them for lapsing into faith. - PZ Myers

Our Sputnik moment

Is this our "Sputnik moment"? Well, it should be, no doubt, but we've had a lot of those moments, haven't we? Heck, the first Arab oil embargo in the 1970s was certainly a Sputnik moment - maybe even the most important one - but we failed that. Our greed, our focus on the short-term, our complete lack of vision led us to Ronald Reagan and "don't worry, be happy."

We failed to research and invest in alternative energy, so today we're sending billions of dollars to the worst nations in the world and destroying our environment planet-wide. Our focus on tax cuts has led to crumbling infrastructure and a declining system of education, along with - ironically enough - massive debt, both personal and governmental.

And unlike the original "Sputnik moment," we've got an opposition party which refuses to do anything that might be seen as a success for the President. With the GOP these days, it's all politics all of the time.

I really don't mean to slander them. I'm sure they've convinced themselves that nothing is more important for the good of America than their own political ambition. But, well, I'm sure they find it even easier to fool themselves than to fool their supporters.

China is spending billions on research into 21st Century technologies and 21st Century infrastructure. But to Republicans, that's just "big government." According to them, our government's only concern should be the military - and corporate welfare, and your love life, and your religion, and... everything else they believe is important.

Scientific research? No. The problem with science is that it tells us things we don't want to hear. Global warming. Evolution. The Big Bang. We don't want to believe them. We want to believe that America was designed by God himself, and that we're the greatest nation on Earth and always will be, at least until we're raptured up into Heaven to live forever and ever. (And so we end up with only one-fifth of our high school seniors knowledgeable about science.)

21st Century infrastructure? No. The problem with that is that it will compete with existing industries - 20th Century industries - that are big campaign donors (and also big buyers of advertising, including on Fox "News"). Buggy whip manufacturers, figuratively-speaking, have all too much influence in America.

Of course, private investment is critically important, too. But private investment is generally short-term in orientation. The goal is to make a profit, and relatively soon. Long-term research, especially into areas that don't seem to have an immediate economic payoff, is also critical. Remember, it was the government that gave us the internet, initially.

And investment in education is something the government pretty well has to do, especially if you want all of our children to have a chance to learn. Despite right-wing rhetoric, there are some things the government really does need to do. That includes public education at least as much as it does public libraries, police and fire departments, and roads.

And as we've just seen in this economic collapse - on the Republican watch and as a direct result of Republican policies - private industry can screw up royally if not watched and regulated. True, too much regulation is bad. But too little regulation is at least as bad. Surely we've seen the clear evidence of that these days!

Unfortunately, when you're a faith-based, rather than evidence-based, thinker, none of that matters. Those people go on believing what they just know is true, no matter what the evidence shows.

That's part of the problem, but only part. It's equally unfortunate that we're starting in a huge hole, after nearly bankrupting our nation during the Bush years. Not everything the right-wing did in those years was deliberately intended to destroy our nation, of course (though accidental damage is still damage).

But many Republicans actually wanted to dig us into this hole, so we would be just too broke to do anything and be forced to cut the size of government (until it was small enough to "drown it in the bathtub.")

They succeeded. After their mismanagement - two wars without increasing taxes to pay for them, tax cuts for the wealthy, the interest payments on the accelerating debt, and finally this economic collapse, brought on by the deregulation of financial instruments and their other bubble-creating policies - we're so deep in debt that it's hard to do anything at all.

After all this, it is indeed hard to find any money to invest. But can we afford not to invest in our children? Can we afford not to invest in our nation? It's one thing to borrow money for a fancy vacation or a big-screen TV. It's another to borrow money for a college education. The latter is an investment, which we should expect to pay off despite the increased debt. Even if you're already in debt, a college education usually makes sense.

But another part of the problem is our media. Yes, we've got Fox "News" which is, quite simply, the propaganda arm of the Republican Party. They don't inform as much as they mislead. (And we've got The Wall Street Journal doing that for readers, too, especially now that Rupert Murdoch owns it.)

And yes, they're a terrible example for others, especially since they're making money hand over fist. But even mainstream media who try to report the news in a fair and balanced fashion end up focusing on gimmicks like who's sitting with whom at the State of the Union address. Really? That's what's important?

But maybe that's just what we want to hear. Maybe that's all we're smart enough to understand. Maybe the fundamental problem in America is us. Unfortunately, that's a big problem - the biggest, no doubt. In a democracy, we the people make the decisions (even when our decision is to completely ignore politics). Can America endure, and hopefully thrive, under our direction?

Whatever happens, it is our responsibility. And if we fail, it will be our fault. It's a collective responsibility - you may be doing everything you can, yourself - but we're in this together. E pluribus unum, whether we like it or not.

Wyoming losing its mind, too?

It used to be a close contest among a select few candidates for the craziest state in the Union, but now it seems like everyone wants to be a contender.

From TPM:
Last year, Oklahoma voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment that would prohibit judges from consulting sharia law in their decisions. A federal judge promptly blocked the ban, saying the case goes "to the very foundation of our country."

But that's not going to stop one Wyoming lawmaker from trying for a repeat.

State Rep. Gerald Gay (R) is proposing a similar ballot measure that would prevent judges from using sharia, or Islamic, law in their decisions. ...

According to one 2000 estimate by Penn State's Association of Religion Data Archives, there are fewer than 300 Muslims in Wyoming.

Um, this is why we have the strict separation of church and state in this country. Of course, today's Republicans don't like that, because they want to force their own beliefs on everyone else. So much for respecting the U.S. Constitution, huh?

Nevertheless, can it get any clearer why the separation of church and state is such a good idea? Most Muslim nations are a perfect example of what we don't want to see in America, but it's not just because it's Islam. We don't want that kind of thing from any religion (or from atheism, for that matter). The separation of church and state is a good thing for everyone, Christian, Muslim, and atheist alike.

After more than 200 years, why are we still having this debate? It's just astonishing, don't you think?

Of course, this isn't about Islam or even sharia law. This is just a political stunt. This is about keeping ignorant Americans as fearful and as bigoted as possible, so they'll continue to vote Republican. But it's still absolutely astonishing that it works.

Well, we'll see if it works in Wyoming, I guess. But I wouldn't bet against it. I'm becoming more and more embarrassed at my countrymen.

The State of the Union rebuttal rebuttal

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This is actually the third segment of Jon Stewart's State of the Union show, but it's the funniest. It is, of course, a satire of Michele Bachmann's separate State of the Union rebuttal on Tuesday.

Weirdly, Bachmann didn't look directly at the camera when she spoke. She appeared to be speaking to her imaginary friend (and considering it's Bachmann, that's probably accurate). At any rate, that's what Olivia Munn's performance in this clip is all about.

Here's the link to the whole show, if you're interested in seeing the rest of it.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Why aren't these people in prison?

On Monday, the Office of Special Counsel finally released its report on violations of the Hatch Act during the Bush Administration. From TPM:
With the rest of the political world gearing up for the 2012 elections, the Office of Special Counsel on Monday released a long overdue report that said that George W. Bush administration's Office of Public Affairs in 2006 was essentially an extension of the Republican National Committee in the White House.

The report found that the Bush administration regularly broke the Hatch Act, which prohibits the use of federal tax dollars for political activities. The Office of Political Affairs in Bush's White House, overseen by Karl Rove, dispatched cabinet officials to campaign for Republican candidates on the federal dime and forced federal political appointees to attend political meetings during work time, the report concluded.

Their efforts to propel the Republicans to electoral success wasn't very successful -- 2006 was the first year that Democrats took control of the House and Senate in decades. But the violations the investigation found (including 75 illegal political briefings by GOP appointees at top federal agencies from 2001 to 2007) demonstrated a "systematic misuse of federal resources," according to the OSC.

The consequences for those violations? Nada. OSC has no teeth and is only capable of terminating employees -- a sanction that became null-and-void when all the Bush administration left office. A spokesman said that the office had not made a formal referral to the Justice Department to ask it to pursue any possible charges.

Why aren't these people facing prison terms - or any punishment at all?

When Barack Obama took office, he decided he was going to bring the country together by forgetting about all the illegal activities of Republicans during the previous eight years. No investigations of the "weapons of mass destruction" claims that got us to invade an innocent country. (Remember, the Bush Administration claimed they had "proof" of what turned out to be a complete fairy tale.) No charges for torturing prisoners of war. No punishment for politicizing the U.S. Department of Justice or other violations of the Hatch Act, even though that's federal law.

Yeah, the Democrats decided to let all that get a free pass. Well, how's that working out for them now? Republican criminals had been sweating blood, seriously worried about prison time, until they were all let off scot-free. And now they're on top of the world again. Honestly, how inept can the Democrats be?

More importantly, when crimes like this go unpunished - and even un-investigated, for the most part - they're very likely to happen again. Will Republican political operatives worry about violating the Hatch Act the next time they're in the White House? Of course not. Why should they? Will they refrain from torturing prisoners? Again, why should they?

These are crimes. But as a nation, we'd rather just sweep it all under the rug. Well, I can certainly understand why Republicans want to do that. But tell me, do you think they'd do the same if it were Democrats committing illegal acts? Heh, heh. Forget about getting tough on crime, they're not that inept politically.

QOTD: God cannot take a joke

Quote of the Day:
What caused real grief at NBC, the network that broadcasts the Globes, and among those of the organisers who leaked that Gervais had "crossed a line" was the presenter's final quip as he exited.

"Thanks for everyone in the room for being good sports, to NBC and the Hollywood foreign press, thank you for watching at home," he said. "And thank you, God, for making me an atheist."

The US has 210 television market areas, or regions. By the Monday morning NBC bosses had had their ears bent by managers from dozens, ranging from the liberal Bangor, in Maine, to the deeply conservative Corpus Christi, in Texas. The problem was Gervais's final flourish, and they questioned why NBC had not "bleeped" it out as it would swearing. ...

Gervais is not the first British comic to run into this invisible wall. Last year Eddie Izzard hosted the Independent Spirit awards for non-studio filmmakers in Los Angeles. He experienced unusual moments of silence and audience disconnection. The next morning, bloggers crowed that his "attacks on organised religion" cost him the audience.

Old hands were not surprised. "Religion in America is far more taboo than sex, drugs or Eddie's cross-dressing," said one sympathetic critic. ...

NBC is now seeking to put the 2011 Globes behind it, although its "standards and practices" lawyers are likely to crush any religious jokes scripted in advance next year. Not that that would stop a runaway Gervais.

Early reports suggest that in 2012 the microphone may be handed to Joel McHale, a half-Italian comedian who mocks teary reality-show contestants and bumbling news announcers on a weekly cable TV show called The Soup. Picking on the hapless is rewarding fun, the smirking comic has found.

More critically, in seven years on The Soup, the host, a Catholic, has never challenged a powerful deity of any stripe.

God, apparently, cannot take a joke in America. - John Harlow

In politics, stupidity is not a handicap

Do you think my title is harsh? Well, check out this video clip from CNN:

These days, apparently the twilight of America, the official Republican response to the State of the Union address isn't dumb enough for many Americans. They've got to have a second response - from a loony like Michele Bachmann. It's hard to believe, isn't it?

And apparently, she's talking about running for President. If that's not a sign of the end times, I don't know what is.

I've embedded another video clip below the fold. I'm not a big fan of Chris Matthews, but sometimes he gets it right. Check it out, if you want to see a Tea Party leader get slammed (justifiably).

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

QOTD: Nobody believes in supply and demand

Quote of the Day:
The issue of commodity prices is a curious one; I’m getting a lot of correspondence along the lines of, “Well, which is it? Is it too much money printing, or is it greed?” But why does it have to be either of these? Why can’t it just be supply and demand?

What we’re seeing, after all, is a rise in the relative price of raw materials compared with other goods and services. This is what normally happens during a cyclical recovery, and there’s no obvious reason to see it as a sign of ominous inflation (unless you’re determined to see such signs).

What about speculation and market manipulation? Such things happen; long-time readers may remember that back in 2000-2001 I was pretty much all alone in arguing that the California electricity crisis was being caused by manipulation, not true shortages, an interpretation later confirmed by actual tapes of traders telling power plants to shut down. But I was and remain skeptical about the speculation story in 2007-2008, because of the lack of evidence of inventory accumulation; and this time around, the fact that prices are still well below that previous peak suggests that there can’t be all that much funny business involved.

Basically, this looks like rapid demand growth in emerging markets (though not here) colliding with limited supply. And it’s curious to see people on the right as well as the left seeing something dark and evil in supply and demand at work. - Paul Krugman


There are a lot of cartoons about tonight's gimmick at the State of the Union address. I wasn't going to post any of them,... but I changed my mind when I saw this one. Funny and perceptive, don't you think?

Frankly, I don't care about the lack of civility in politics. You should be passionate about this stuff. Apathy is a far bigger problem in America than passion. And the fact is, we have big disagreements in this country.

But what does that mean? It doesn't mean that some of us aren't "real" Americans. It doesn't mean that we can't compromise when necessary. (But it also doesn't mean that we shouldn't stand up and fiercely defend our own positions.) It doesn't mean we should abandon the marketplace of ideas.

You can think, and even say, that your opponents are idiots. Why not? But when you lie about them, that's wrong. When you suggest violently overthrowing our democracy - "by ballot or by bullet," "Second Amendment remedies," etc. - just because you don't get your own way, that's wrong. When you call a 13-year-old girl "butt-ugly" on nationwide radio, just because you don't like her father's politics, as Rush Limbaugh did in the 1990s, that's wrong.

Come on, this isn't rocket science! It's not a choice between holding hands and bloody civil war. There's a lot in between those two extremes, don't you think? Passion in politics is a good thing - always assuming that it doesn't close your ears and your mind to contrary arguments. Incivility is not a problem, unless you're encouraging others to shoot your opponents. (And is that really just a problem of etiquette? I don't think so.)

Am I impolite? Hell, yes, of course I'm impolite! Am I passionate? Yes. Am I angry? Yes. But so what? Maybe that's not the best tactic when trying to persuade others, but that's my decision, isn't it? (Actually, it's probably more of a personal characteristic, but that's beside the point.) Incivility is not our nation's biggest problem - not even close. I'm not sure it's even a problem at all, except in the sense that shooting people is uncivil.

So why are we seeing this sudden push for civility? Frankly, I think it's because a lot of people want to claim that "both sides" are at fault. It isn't true. Sure, both sides sometimes call their opponents Nazis. But only one side takes assault rifles to political rallies. Only one side uses violent rhetoric to imply they'll kill if they don't get their way. Only one side claims that those on the other aren't "real" Americans, that they're deliberately trying to destroy America.

And, I think, it's also because a lot of people want to claim that their political apathy - their laziness - is justified. Yeah, you're not one of those nasty, impolite people, are you? Instead, you sit on your couch watching "reality" TV instead of paying attention to politics, instead of debating the future of our country, instead of even voting.

Of course, both political parties are exactly alike, huh? (That's why they're so angry at each other, no doubt.) And all politicians are crooks, anyway. (Apparently, you're dishonest, so you think that everyone else must be the same?)

We desperately need clear-thinking in this country, and we need people who are passionate about that, even if they aren't polite. Hey, I could be wrong. But at least I'm trying. Can you say the same?

Well, I've probably violated all sorts of etiquette codes in this post, haven't I? Terrible, terrible me!

The GOP doesn't let reality push them around

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"This is a return to the Republican values that I love. They don't let reality push them around. They just pretend the world is what they say it is."

That's the Republicans in a nutshell, don't you think? Reality means nothing to them. Global warming, evolution, history - forget all that. It's belief that makes the world. If you don't believe it, it doesn't exist.

It's pure faith-based thinking. Yes, they'll attempt to persuade others using evidence, if they can. But if the facts don't back them up, they just make up their own facts. Republicans don't let reality push them around.

(Ironically, Democrats let everything push them around,... but that's another story.)

Fox's 24-hour Nazi party

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Look at Megyn Kelly. Yeah, she's easy to look at. But she can lie with absolute conviction. Watch her. Isn't she's one of the most convincing liars you've ever seen?

That's kind of creepy, don't you think? Absolute perfection on the outside, with the blackened, shriveled soul of Mr. Burns on the inside? Frankly, it creeps me out.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Democrats fold?

According to this article in The Washington Post, there's "no chance" Senate filibuster rules will be changed significantly:
To the dismay of a younger crop of Democrats and some outside liberal activists, there is no chance that rules surrounding the filibuster will be challenged, senior aides on both sides of the aisle say, because party leaders want to protect the right of the Senate's minority party to sometimes force a supermajority of 60 votes to approve legislation.

Last month, every returning Democratic Senator signed a letter urging filibuster reform. Republicans objected, so of course the Democrats folded like a cheap suit. Did you expect anything different?

I'm not upset that a minority party might "sometimes" force a supermajority vote, on an issue where they feel strongly. But that's not what's happening. Thanks to the GOP, a supermajority vote is now routine - which does not follow the U.S. Constitution. Every issue of any significance at all now requires a supermajority vote in order to move forward. And Republicans don't have to make any more effort than for one of them to just say so.

Supposedly, Democratic leaders are worried that they might soon find themselves in the minority. But what do you think the Republicans will do, if they find themselves with a Senate majority but not a super-majority? Do you really think Republicans won't make this change themselves, as soon as it's advantageous for them?

Oh, well. Between insane Republicans and spineless Democrats, it's a wonder this country survives at all.

Glenn Beck sparks death threats again

Glenn Beck has apparently been ranting about a 78-year-old sociology professor for something she wrote in 1966. We all know how much power elderly sociology professors have, don't we? Well, he seems to have convinced his lunatic fans - and maybe even himself - that she's a threat to America.

Crazy, huh? But she's actually receiving death threats now.

This is from the article at TPM:
So, inevitably, the crazies started targeting Piven, whose work poses an enormous threat to American undergraduates trying to stay awake in intro sociology, and that's about it. Seems they think they can somehow prevent her from writing an article in a political journal in 1966 that maybe thirteen people outside of Glenn Beck fans have thought about since then? But it's a testament both to Glenn Beck's skill at making shit up, and his fans' ability to be crazy, that some Americans actually care enough about a sociology professor to threaten her.

Ricky Gervais: Why get offended?

Ricky Gervais: "When someone thanks God, I don't get offended." And that interviewer laughs.

What's so funny? Gervais is exactly right. When believers disagree with me, I don't get offended by that. So why do they get offended when I disagree with them?

Christians - in America, at least - are used to getting a free pass. They're used to the automatic respect they get as the overwhelming majority in this country (just as Muslims are used to it in Iran or Saudi Arabia). And so they tend to get furious when someone disagrees.

Sorry, but if you're free to disagree with me - and I have absolutely no problem with that - then I'm free to disagree with you. Just as I have no objection whatsoever to you thanking God, or saying "God bless," or putting "Jesus Saves" on your car's bumper, or any other peaceful expression of Christian belief, so should you have no objection to me expressing myself, either.

I don't agree with you. Get over it! You don't agree with me, either. So what? That's your right. And I'm not so insecure in my own thinking that I see your disagreement as a threat.

QOTD: The super-rich

Quote of the Day:
Before the recession, it was relatively easy to ignore this concentration of wealth among an elite few. The wondrous inventions of the modern economy—Google, Amazon, the iPhone—broadly improved the lives of middle-class consumers, even as they made a tiny subset of entrepreneurs hugely wealthy. And the less-wondrous inventions—particularly the explosion of subprime credit—helped mask the rise of income inequality for many of those whose earnings were stagnant.

But the financial crisis and its long, dismal aftermath have changed all that. A multibillion-dollar bailout and Wall Street’s swift, subsequent reinstatement of gargantuan bonuses have inspired a narrative of parasitic bankers and other elites rigging the game for their own benefit. And this, in turn, has led to wider—and not unreasonable—fears that we are living in not merely a plutonomy, but a plutocracy, in which the rich display outsize political influence, narrowly self-interested motives, and a casual indifference to anyone outside their own rarefied economic bubble. ...

Holly Peterson and I spoke several times about how the super-affluence of recent years has changed the meaning of wealth. “There’s so much money on the Upper East Side right now,” she said. “If you look at the original movie Wall Street, it was a phenomenon where there were men in their 30s and 40s making $2 and $3 million a year, and that was disgusting. But then you had the Internet age, and then globalization, and you had people in their 30s, through hedge funds and Goldman Sachs partner jobs, who were making $20, $30, $40 million a year. And there were a lot of them doing it. I think people making $5 million to $10 million definitely don’t think they are making enough money.”

As an example, she described a conversation with a couple at a Manhattan dinner party: “They started saying, ‘If you’re going to buy all this stuff, life starts getting really expensive. If you’re going to do the NetJet thing’”—this is a service offering “fractional aircraft ownership” for those who do not wish to buy outright—“‘and if you’re going to have four houses, and you’re going to run the four houses, it’s like you start spending some money.’”

The clincher, Peterson says, came from the wife: “She turns to me and she goes, ‘You know, the thing about 20’”—by this, she meant $20 million a year—“‘is 20 is only 10 after taxes.’ And everyone at the table is nodding.” - Chrystia Freeland

What, me worry?

Paul Krugman

Paul Krugman, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2008, doesn't just write fascinating columns for The New York Times. He also has a superb blog, The Conscience of a Liberal. If you're at all interested in economics - or politics - I highly recommend it.

Krugman writes clearly, yet succinctly (something I should learn), making complex issues simple to understand. He often uses superb graphs to illustrate his points. And that brings up another thing I should emulate: he backs up his opinions with concrete evidence. Finally, it's all so very interesting. If you want to learn something in an entertaining fashion, Krugman's blog is definitely for you.

Here's an example of a recent post:

Some commenters seem to believe that there has been a massive depreciation of the dollar since Ben Bernanke began QE2, or more broadly since he began rapidly increasing the monetary base. But nooooo! [/end Belushi] The dollar briefly surged during the oh-God-we’re-all-gonna-die period of the financial crisis, then fell more or less back to where it was at the start of the recession. And all of these movements were small compared with the long dollar slide during the Bush years — a slide, by the way, which was never part of my critique of that era.

Interesting, don't you think? I've been hearing people scream about the decline of the dollar under Barack Obama, and I just assumed that was accurate. It didn't bother me, since a declining dollar will help exports and is probably what we need right now. But I did assume that there was something to it. I guess I should have known better, huh?

The dollar has indeed been declining, but it's still higher than it was in 2008, before Obama took office. And you never hear these right-wing critics complain about the long slide of the dollar on their watch. During the eight years of the George W. Bush administration, the dollar did pretty much nothing but decline.

Krugman also asks some great questions. For example, Chinese President Hu Jintao's comments on the U.S. dollar got a lot of press when he was visiting America. But Krugman asks, why should we care? What advantage do we derive from the special role our currency holds internationally?
All this is very reminiscent of the Japanese around 20 years ago. Back then I would go to conferences in which officials would talk about the importance of fostering the international role of the yen; I would comment that the yen’s international role or lack thereof wasn’t really very important; and the moderator would thank me for emphasizing the importance of the international role of the yen. I never found out whether it was bad translation, or whether this was a polite way of telling me that I had said something unacceptable.

So, let’s ask the question again: what advantages does America derive from the dollar’s international role?

There are two things I like about that. The first is just that he asks the question at all. Again, I've always just assumed that it was important. But assumptions aren't always valid. These are things we should think about, so I'm grateful to Krugman for bringing them up.

And I also like his comparing this with Japan. Remember the 1980s, when Japan was the unstoppable economic juggernaut against which we just couldn't compete? That seems pretty foolish now, doesn't it? (In fact, if you're too young to remember it, you might be astonished by the whole idea.)

So why are we doing the same thing with China? Nothing is inevitable. We can compete with China, if we have the intelligence, the courage, the determination to do so. We don't have to just give up! (Don't get me started.)

Anyway, that's just a brief excerpt. If you're curious about what Krugman has to say, check it out. Meanwhile, let me give you one more example. When you think about unemployment in European countries, how do you think it compares to America? The right-wing tends to use Europe as a bad economic example. Do you buy that?

Well, you might be interested in this post. Here's an excerpt:

In the 90s, with US employment surging while France (and much of Europe) was having trouble creating jobs, there was a lot of talk about the European employment problem. By the eve of the current crisis, however, the European job picture had changed a lot for the better, while even a business-cycle recovery didn’t seem to do much for US jobs.

Many Americans, even those who imagine themselves well-informed, don’t realize that there has been a big change here; my sense is that the US elite picture of Europe is stuck in a sort of time warp, in which it’s always 1997, and we have the Internet and they don’t. But things have moved on a lot since then.

Note that this is before the current economic collapse (I think France's unemployment rate is slightly worse than ours right now). And it's not that Europe is perfect, or even "better" than America. It's more that you don't want to hang on to outmoded perceptions. Other nations don't stand still, any more than we do. They learn and they adapt.

This is a similar lesson to that of Japan. Nothing stands still. America used to have the most competitive, innovative, dynamic economy in the world. But that, by itself, implies nothing about the future. We can be great - we can be greater in the future than we were in the past - but it's going to take hard work. It's going to take determination. It's going to take intelligent, clear-headed policies. And it's going to take courage.

It's certainly not inevitable. But it's not impossible, either.

Oh, well. I realize you can't read everything on the internet. And, of course, you don't want to pass up my blog, do you? Heh, heh. But if you've got the time, you might check out Paul Krugman's blog, and his columns in The New York Times, too. They're worth it.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Lying or crazy?

More and more, I'm seeing examples of even Republicans not believing the crazy things they're saying. For example, here's Jonathan Chait:
A huge proportion of our political discourse is consumed by bullshit -- statements that have absolutely no bearing to the actual beliefs of the person uttering them. The other day I noticed this quote by GOP Rep. John Kline in National Review, on the subject of the House GOP's plans to mount an exhaustive attack on the Affordable Care Act:
The Republicans dismissed criticism that the GOP is focusing too much time and energy on health care, as opposed to job creation. “Just because we’re going to be looking at the impact of this health-care law doesn’t mean that committees won’t be actively engaged in other aspects of our responsibilities,” Kline said. “We don’t have limit ourselves to one subject at a time.”
I actually happen to agree with this -- of course it's possible for Congress to deal with more than one issue at a time. But Kline just threw overboard a talking point that Republicans have employed ad nauseum for two years.

Chait goes on to give plenty of examples of that talking point - including from John Kline himself. In fact, it's becoming increasingly hard to tell if Republicans are crazy or just lying.

Here's another example, from TPM. The same people who supported individual mandates for health care are now declaring that they're unconstitutional. Well, that's the party line now, and Republicans are nothing if not obedient.
Considering just how cacophonous the health care debate has become, it might surprise you to learn that the mystery reformer quoted above is Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), the Republicans' health care point man in the Senate who, during the same interview, with great authority, claimed "I believe that there is a bipartisan consensus to have individual mandates."

Two months later he threw in his lot with Sarah Palin (R-AK) and the Death Panelers. Now he claims -- along with about half the attorneys general in the country -- that the individual mandate is unconstitutional and, like the rest of the GOP, uses it as the foundation for a far-reaching political assault on the health care law.

Today, the public debate over the health care law is held on decidedly Republican-friendly terms: Did the Democrats violate the constitution? Did they encroach upon your liberty? Did they take over the health care system and place themselves between you and your doctor?

Obscured by these pseudo-populist theatrics, though, is a reality that's a lot friendlier to Democrats than they realize. Grassley's violent lurch to the right wasn't idiosyncratic. It was the consequence of a deliberate Republican political strategy that made supporting "Obamacare" impossible, even for the remaining few moderates in the GOP. What was once a popular, if not consensus, policy framework on the right -- authored by personal-responsibility conservatives and popularized by John Chafee, Bob Dole, and Mitt Romney -- rapidly became kryptonite for Republican politicians. As a result, for the first time in more than a half century, there is one political party in the country that has zero high-profile advocates for a forgotten goal: that somehow, some way, every citizen deserves proper health care.

Republicans have clearly decided that nothing matters except their own political ambition. To them, the question is not whether something makes sense, or even whether they believe it themselves, but whether it will work politically. And they've clearly decided that crazy works politically.

And it's not just politicians, it's right-wing pundits, too. This is also from Chait:
Health care analysts have pointed this out over and over. Yet conservatives like Krauthammer keep repeating these debunked claims. Either Krauthammer lives so deep within the right's misinformation feedback loop that he has never heard any refutation of his false claims, or else he simply doesn't care what's true.

That's about the health care reform bill, but I've seen the same thing over and over again - with global warming, with evolution, with all sorts of issues. Even when a right-wing pundit knows he's lying, he'll continue to use the argument if he thinks it will help persuade his audience. (Often, they tailor their talking points to their specific audience, avoiding the most obvious lies when it's not all right-wing true believers they're addressing.)

I see the influence of Fox "News" in this. Fox has shown that, ethics be damned, crazy works. And no matter how bold or blatant the lie, it will just boil down to "he said/she said" in the mainstream press, which means that people will just pick the side that most appeals to them. There's no downside to lying, none at all, because all other media will give equal time to "both sides," whether one side is a complete lie or not.

So how do you tell if a right-wing Republican is crazy or just lying? They all sound crazy, pretty much. And do we dare assume that they're not? Of course, lying isn't much better. But most people assume that all politicians lie, as far as I can tell. (I do think they're wrong about that.)

So are these people getting a free pass? Are moderates just assuming that they can't be as crazy as they sound?

And what if they're wrong?