Monday, February 28, 2011

Safety first


Maybe this will make up for my previous post praising Shepard Smith.

I always feel dirty after saying anything good about Fox "News."

Shepard Smith on Wisconsin union busting



Shepard Smith is the one person on Fox "News" I have any respect for at all. He's the only person on Fox who actually - occasionally, at least - seems to be a journalist.

Yeah, I don't really know if he's always like this. After all, I only see the video clips where he's making sense. It's sort of a "man bites dog" kind of thing. It gets attention when a Fox anchor is perceptive and honest, just because it's so surprising.

So maybe Shepard Smith isn't always admirable, I don't know. Frankly, I doubt if he could keep his job if that were the case. Of course, he's conservative, I'm sure. But I don't really care about that. There are conservatives I respect. It's just that I can't think of another one connected with Fox "News."

In this clip, it's still Fox, of course, so we can't expect too much. But it's funny to see Juan Williams taken aback, when he starts the normal right-wing spiel about this stuff. Williams thinks he's been set up for the normal Fox "News" rant about union support for Democrats, and he's clearly surprised as heck to be mistaken. It really is funny to see him scramble to recover, don't you think?

First, Williams tries to pretend that it's all about the "budget crisis" in Wisconsin. Well, naturally, that's the Republican Party line. Of course, the truth is that the "crisis" was largely manufactured by the governor. There wouldn't even be a budget crisis if he hadn't cut taxes on business as soon as he took office. Even so, the unions already agreed to all of the cuts Walker demanded. Yeah, this isn't about the budget at all.

Williams clearly doesn't expect to be called on that lie - not on Fox, certainly - but he quickly recovers his balance, assuming that Smith wants the fallback narrative, that unions take money out of workers' pockets to give to the Democrats, who reward them with lavish benefits. Again, Smith surprises him by pointing out that the disparity in campaign donations is all in favor of the GOP.

There are a several things that always surprise me about this particular right-wing line. The first is that unions have been declining in membership and in influence for decades. So how can Republicans plausibly blame unions for our current troubles? The average worker's wages, adjusted for inflation, peaked in the 1970s. How can Americans be dumb enough to blame unions, when things have gotten worse and worse as union membership has declined?


Of course, Republicans also blame Democrats for the debt when, as the above graph shows, they're the ones who've been in charge when the debt increased. And they actually controlled Congress for an even greater length of time than the presidency. (Don't get me wrong. All too many Democrats went along with them.) We've been on the wrong path for decades, true, but it's been the right-wing path. Well, I guess we Americans are just too ignorant of our own history.

The second thing that surprises me is all this talk about "lavish" benefits paid to public workers. OK, clearly, Republicans are working very hard to make non-union workers jealous of what they're missing themselves. But why does that work? Why wouldn't they stop to think that, gee, maybe we should have a union, too? And if you're really going to get angry about such things, doesn't it make far more sense to get angry at tax cuts for the wealthy?

I really don't get it. How can this even work for the GOP? Whenever you argue that the wealthy should pay their fair share of taxes, Republicans claim that you're promoting "class warfare." But they're basically pushing civil war within the middle class. Yeah, don't fight the wealthy who've made out like bandits in recent years, while the rest of America has struggled. Fight the guy who's just like you!

Finally, and this really makes no sense, Republicans argue about how unfair it is to use union dues to help Democrats. But they have absolutely no problem with taking corporate money to help Republicans. Hey, if you own mutual funds - say in your IRA or 401-k - you own parts of many corporations, but you have zero control over what they do. When they donate to Republicans, it's a matter of wealthy CEOs donating your money to help themselves.

Now, I'd have absolutely no problem with banning unions from political campaigns, as long as businesses were banned, too. The fact is, there's far more corporate money going to Republicans than union money going to Democrats. And if the latter is wrong, the former is even worse. At least in unions you've got some say over where the money is spent.

Unfortunately, Republicans have a propaganda machine par excellence - and no shame at all. If bigotry and fear-mongering work politically, that's all they care about. Fox "News" is the worst of the worst, so it really is surprising to see Shepard Smith at least occasionally try to set the record straight.

QOTD: The means-testing mirage

Quote of the Day:
Every once in a while people start suggesting that we save money by means-testing Medicare and Social Security — hey, Bill Gates doesn’t need them.

But Atrios is exactly right: there’s no money in it.

Remember that we’ve just been through a ferocious debate over whether $250,000 a year makes you rich, with $400,000 a year working stiffs crying poverty, declaring that they couldn’t possibly afford to pay Clinton-era tax rates; do you imagine that we’ll be able to set a lower bar on denying Medicare benefits?

So maybe, maybe, we’d end up means-testing for the top 2 percent or so of the population.

But while there’s some money to be gotten by taxing the top 2 percent — they have more than 20 percent of the income — they account for roughly their pro-rata share of benefit costs — that is, the richest 2 percent account for around 2 percent of Medicare expenses. (Maybe a bit less because they’re healthier than the average American, maybe a bit more because they live longer.) Social Security is more complicated, but bear in mind that high earners get bigger benefits, but also get taxed on those benefits; so again, we’re talking about savings not very different from their share of the population.

So we’re talking very small savings here. This is more anti-Wille Suttonism, going where the money isn’t. - Paul Krugman

Bye-bye, birdie

Sunday, February 27, 2011

One year old!

This blog is one year old today. I started it, pretty much on the spur of the moment, February 27, 2010.

FYI, here's my first post.

I never intended to specialize in anything in particular, so I never expected to get many readers. (That last part was certainly accurate.) I find so many things interesting that I've never wanted to narrow myself (one of the big problems I had in college, and with a career, too).

So how has the past year gone?

When I started this blog, I worried about having enough topics. Heh, heh. As it turned out, that's the last thing I needed to worry about! I can't even come close to writing about everything that interests me. I write too many posts as it is (although the number will lessen once winter is over), without even denting the supply of potential topics.

However, I started out with a bigger variety of posts, I think. Politics and economics were always here, but they've kind of taken over the blog. I still write book reviews - science fiction, mostly - and occasional posts about computer games or science, but not as often as when I started (or does it just seem like that?). And for the most part, I think I've said all I can say about religion - not that that's ever stopped me before.

Other things have changed, as well. I've added a Quote of the Day in the main part of my blog (it used to be along the side, where no one ever noticed it). It's not exactly a quote, but more of an excerpt where I don't add my own commentary. Well, there's a lot of good stuff on the internet, and I want to share as much of it as I can. (This also helps me find these things again, if I need them.)

I've started posting political cartoons every day, too. Well, I've always liked such things, and I think they break up the long, long mass of text that's my usual writing style. Note that I try very hard to include a link to everything I copy from elsewhere. (Unfortunately, the above graphic is an exception. It seems to be everywhere online, and I just can't find where it came from originally.)

(A guy can hope, can't he? - Pearls Before Swine)

I certainly haven't accumulated many fans. With more posts, I get a lot more hits from Google now (especially when I write about Minecraft), but I have few more regular readers than when I started. OK, that's disappointing, but I really didn't expect much different (a little different, perhaps). If I really wanted to attract more people, I'd find a niche and stick to it.

But I'm just not interested in doing that. This blog is mainly for me. It gives me a place to express myself - to rant and rave, frankly - and if you find it interesting or informative, great. If not, that's OK, too. I'd still like to hear what you like and don't like about it. Everybody can use constructive criticism. But my goal isn't, and has never been, popularity.

Good thing, huh? Heh, heh. Well, I'm not sure I even have a goal, if you want to know the truth. I'd certainly like to attract more readers, but that's not why I'm doing this. Still, as I say, I'd appreciate comments and suggestions.


CRPG Addict, who has a young, but very successful, blog of his own, recommends that I change my title and header, since they don't really convey the focus of my blog. Well, I've known for a long time that my title was poor. "That's interesting" is such a common phrase online that a Google search results in millions of hits (hmm,... oddly enough, my blog seems to be near the top, no matter how I do the search).

But I'm terrible with titles, I really am. I gave almost no thought to "That's interesting," but I still haven't been able to think of a better one since then. I'm just not very creative, at least not in that way (maybe not in any way). Heck, just look at the titles of my individual blog posts.

And yes, the header is really vague, but the fact remains that it's accurate. I really don't intend to specialize here. If America ever gets its head out of its butt, I might well post less about politics. And I still intend to continue posting about other things - whatever catches my interest, whatever I feel like writing about, with absolutely no limitations.

I understand that other people don't have the same interests as I do. My brother gets bored to death with my posts about computer games (and probably most everything else, I suspect), but gamers won't find enough of them to keep coming back. When I write book reviews, I sometimes get flattering comments, too, but this isn't a site devoted to such things - or devoted to anything, in particular.


It's just a mixture, a jumble - odds and ends of almost anything mixed into a heavy dose of politics. Looking at the tags, the "labels" on my posts, I'm a bit surprised to see just how many are about politics. Yes, I've got 100 tagged as "religion" and 68 "economics," but often they're about politics too. And I've only got 59 labeled "science," 40 "computer games," 33 "skepticism," 27 "science fiction" (I don't have a general "books" category).

Of course, many of these are videos (199) or cartoons (181), at least in part. But this gives me a very general idea of what topics I've covered. (When I started, I didn't really think about how I wanted to label posts. Instead, it's just... developed, without much thought. Yeah, I suspect that was another mistake. After all, it's not easy to find something using those labels, not at all. Of course, you can just search for a keyword, but then you get every post that even mentions the word.)

Well, I'll try to find the time to actually think about what I'm doing here. Heh, heh.  I think a great deal about the posts I write, but I tend not to think about the blog in general. Maybe that's been a mistake. But I've been happy with it so far, so it can't be too much of a mistake, I guess. As I stated in my first post, this blog was for me. And really, that's still how I think of it.

QOTD: Paul Ryan's second craziest statement

Quote of the Day:
I know I've been picking on Republican heartthrob Paul Ryan a lot, but his statement yesterday at the Budget Committee really exposes the absurdity of his Brave Man reputation:
Instead of confronting our debt head on, the President has presented us with a budget that spends too much, borrows too much and taxes too much. ...

He has argued for massive tax increases that would stifle economic growth and make our fiscal picture worse -- this budget alone contains $1.6 trillion in higher taxes on American families, businesses and entrepreneurs.

And on our nation’s most pressing fiscal challenges, the President has abdicated his leadership role. First, he punted to a bipartisan commission to develop solutions to the problem.

Then, when his own commission put forward a set of fundamental entitlement and tax reforms, he ignored them.

Okay, first Ryan lambastes President Obama for raising taxes, and in the next sentence accuses him of abdicating his leadership. Now, Ryan advocates the loopy supply-side view that tax hikes will "make our fiscal picture worse," so I suppose there's an internal consistency of sorts to his insanity. Still, in the real world, proposing that rich, powerful people pay a little more to the government is both politically difficult and something that would reduce the deficit. Ryan manages to position himself as an advocate of fiscal boldness and a staunch opponent of raising one thin dime of taxes. Nice trick.

The best part is the last sentence, where Ryan assails Obama for ignoring the proposals put forward by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson. Hey, you know who else opposes Bowles-Simpson? Paul Ryan! He was on the commission and he voted no. How can Ryan claim Obama's lack of interest in a proposal Ryan voted against indicts Obama? Does he not remember having served on this commission? - Jonathan Chait

Union man











Saturday, February 26, 2011

Researchers convince people they have three arms

Scientific American
From Scientific American:
The rubber-hand illusion has been a popular perception experiment for more than a decade. In it, a research subject's real hand is hidden from view while a fake rubber hand is substituted in plain sight. Both hands are simultaneously stroked with a brush until the person's mind has come to perceive the fake hand as part of their body. In some people—especially those prone to a poorly developed body schema—the real hand then starts to get ignored by the brain, marked by a discernable temperature drop. The concept has also helped some amputees alleviate pain in phantom limbs.

But the false-hand illusion has been based on the notion that the brain is maintaining a normal, symmetrical body plan: two arms, two hands. A strange new study throws that model out the window—or at least adds on a new twist. Researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, have shown these healthy adults could easily be tricked into feeling as if they had three arms.

As a game-player, I've been particularly fascinated by that "rubber-hand illusion." What if you could play a computer game and feel like you were really there, feel like your avatar was really your own body?

But given this research, maybe it wouldn't even have to be a human body. Maybe you could play a three-armed alien and still feel like it was real. How cool would that be?

OK, so we have a ways to go before we can make that work. If we can do it at all, I'll probably never experience it myself. But it's still neat. And considering how dispiriting the real world seems to be these days, maybe at least our fantasy worlds will continue to improve.

Hmm,... I'm not entirely sure that's a good thing, but I guess I'll take what I can get.

QOTD: If politics rules out all effective responses...

Quote of the Day:
Alex Tabarrok makes an interesting point: recent experience seems to suggest that Keynesian policies, even if appropriate, turn out not to be politically feasible when you need them. I don’t think we need to take that as an immutable fact of life; but still, what are the alternatives?

Increased wage and price flexibility is NOT the answer: you need fiscal policy when you’re in a liquidity trap, and as some of us have tried to explain many times — apparently without getting through — those are the conditions under which falling wages and prices are likely to make things worse, not better.

Better regulation, so that crises don’t happen as often, would be good. So would stronger automatic stabilizers.

But what really stands out, if you assume that discretionary fiscal policy won’t be there when you need it, is that this makes the case for a higher inflation target. Olivier Blanchard, at the IMF, made just that case a year ago (pdf). If we’d come into this crisis with 4 or 5 percent inflation, not 2, there would have been more scope for conventional monetary policy to act before hitting the zero lower bound.

But the same people denouncing Keynesianism are also screaming about inflation, and would never countenance a higher inflation target. So what can we do if that, too, is ruled out?

Not much. If politics rules out all effective responses, there will be no effective responses. - Paul Krugman

The supporter

Coral reefs heading for disaster


From the BBC:
Three-quarters of the world's coral reefs are at risk due to overfishing, pollution, climate change and other factors, says a major new assessment.

Reefs at Risk Revisited collates the work of hundreds of scientists and took three years to compile.

The biggest threat is exploitative fishing, the researchers say, though most reefs will be feeling the impact of climate change within 20 years.

Nice, huh? These aren't just pretty, biologically diverse curiosities which most of us will never see for ourselves. We're talking about over-fishing, primarily (and destroying our oceans in other ways, too, of course). We get a great deal of our food from the ocean. What happens when it's gone?

How can we, as a species, be this dumb? How can we be this shortsighted? After all, it's nothing new.
The report revisits some of the territory explored in the original Reefs at Risk project, published in 1998, but in much greater detail.

Over the 13 years intervening, the area at risk of destruction has increased by nearly a third.

The main reason for that change has been a massive increase in damage from exploitative fishing, particularly in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

In 13 years, the area at risk of destruction has increased by nearly a third. Think about that! How foolish can we be? And we haven't even seen the worst effects of global warming yet.

I remember as a child in grade school learning about the passenger pigeon, the whooping crane, the vast herds of bison slaughtered indiscriminately. I remember learning about how we'd driven the whales to near extinction. The implication was that we'd learned something since then.

But we've learned nothing. We're still just as greedy. We're still just as ignorant. We're still just as foolish as ever. We're lemmings going over a cliff - seeing the edge of the cliff getting closer and closer and closer,... and still too dumb to change course! It's maddening!

And frankly, it makes me embarrassed to be a human being.
Against this bleak backdrop, the researchers have been at pains to emphasise that there are things that can be done to reduce the damage.

"There are reasons for hope," said Lauretta Burke, senior associate at WRI and a lead author of the report. ...

"The report is full of solutions - real world examples where people have succeeded to turn things around," said Dr Spalding.

Right. "Reasons for hope." Except that we won't do what needs to be done. Heck, look at how much worse it's gotten since their first report 13 years ago.

I'm not a young man, not anymore, and throughout my entire life, we haven't been willing to do what needs to be done, not in this and not in most situations. After awhile, you kind of lose hope.

I don't give up. Giving up is not an option. It's cowardly, and it guarantees the worst possible result. But hope? No, I've lost that. I think stubbornness is all I have left.

Friday, February 25, 2011

March madness


Ed Stein's commentary:
The showdown in Washington over budget cuts is on, big time. This one isn’t for the faint of heart. The Republican leadership in the House gave in to its radical new members and passed deep cuts to programs essential the nation’s health, and especially to those suffering the most in this economy. The Democrats, ever willing to give in on their supposed principles to appease the permanent anger of the Right, have proposed their own, less severe cuts, along with a sensible set of proposals for growing the economy, which of course require a certain amount of investment, something that has become a dirty word in the bizarre world of conservative politics, which sees cuts to the government as the only possible policy.

On the state level, we’re seeing drastic slashes as governors and legislatures try desperately to deal with the wreckage of the meltdown. The GOP has demonized taxes so much over the last few decades that we now live in a country where the traditional budgeting tools are no longer available to us. Democrats and Republicans used to understand that a careful mix of tax and spending policy always involved raising and lowering budgets and taxes to deal with the vagaries of the economy, and that governments could and should invest in certain parts of the economy to keep it vibrant and to help it grow. We invest in education, medical and scientific research, we help small businesses develop, we point the way to the future by promoting space exploration, innovations in energy and computer technology. All those investments help create new consumer products and spawn new industries. Republicans no longer believe that government can do anything right. If Democrats still believe in its proper role, they are keeping it to themselves. Now, we are reduced to a single tool, the axe.

QOTD: Paul Ryan's craziest made-up number

Quote of the Day:
Paul Ryan has been saying of President Obama's budget, "What we have is $1.6 trillion in new tax increases, $8.7 trillion in new spending. He's going to be adding $13 trillion to the debt over the course of his budget." Glenn Kessler figures out where these numbers come from. It's staggeringly dishonest:
The problematic figure in Ryan's statement is the claim that the president proposed $8.7 trillion in new spending. In response to a question about how this number was obtained, the Committee staff provided a chart that showed that outlays would be frozen every year for the next 10 years at the 2012 level of $3.729 trillion.

Thus, while in 2021 Obama proposes to spend $5.697 trillion, the Committee would still be spending $3.729 trillion, for a difference of almost $2 trillion. Add up the difference for every year, over 10 years, and it amounts to nearly $8.7 trillion, which the committee calls "new spending."

In other words, the Committee assumed the president needs to freeze all spending, without adjustments for inflation or population growth, for 10 years. Moreover, it makes this assumption for all spending, even mandatory programs such as Social Security and Medicare, which need to be changed by law.

Whatever bit of optimism or stretching you find in the administration's budget, nothing comes within an order of magnitude of this kind of dishonesty.

Ryan's reputation as an honest policy wonk is a curious thing. It must owe itself to the total dearth of elected Republicans who can even halfway plausibly bullshit their way through some numbers. - Jonathan Chait

A tiny speck in a vast universe

Jesus and Mo:
Thanks to Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie for writing today’s strip. (Via Jerry Coyne).
The image is Voyager 1′s Pale Blue Dot.

Here's Coyne:
The old joke goes, “What do you call a Jew who doesn’t believe in God?”  The answer is, “A Jew.”  And that’s largely true, but there are some exceptions to Jewish atheism.   One is Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who, in a piece at PuffHo called “The frustrating, difficult, never-ending search for God,” tells us all how to find Him in these difficult times when the Big Man in the Sky seems to be hiding from us. The upshot: all is well, for we can find Him by reading sacred texts, keeping our eyes open, observing rituals, and acting like God (presuming, of course, that we know how God acts).  But the final paragraph is telling:
All of this might be a little overwhelming, I say. But start somewhere. The search for God is frustrating and difficult, and it is never done. But with God, our lives have meaning and purpose; without God, we are reduced to being no more than a tiny speck in a vast universe.

There’s Abrahamic religion in a nutshell.  Because we don’t like the truth—which is that all of us are just specks—we make up a god.

It always strikes me as odd when believers make my case for me. Almost always, when you question their belief, it eventually falls back on just wanting to believe.

Now, I can certainly understand wanting to believe. But what I can't understand is letting that control what you do believe. Doesn't that seem rather, er,... cowardly?

Don't get me wrong here. I'm not accusing all believers of being cowards. After all, it's very, very easy - for all of us - to believe what we really want to believe. But if this is where your justification for belief ends up, because you really can't justify it any other way, aren't you just admitting cowardice?

That old canard about "there are no atheists in foxholes" is the same thing. It's not an argument for religious belief being true, only about the effect of fear. Obviously, it's not literally true. Many atheists have served our nation in wartime. Rather, as a comment about fear, it's true in a figurative sense.

Well, it's human nature to grasp at straws when you're in danger of losing your life. Fear can make us do some crazy things, so I can even understand deathbed conversions. What I can't understand is letting fear control your whole life. That's simply being a coward.

Sorry, but the refusal to face reality is just cowardice. Besides, Yoffie is wrong in another way, too. You don't need to believe in a god in order to give your life meaning and purpose. You can do that yourself. Stand on your own two feet, raise your head high, and decide your "meaning and purpose" for yourself.

To me, that photo of the Earth from 4 billion miles away is really inspiring. You want "meaning and purpose"? Think about that photo - what it means and what we've accomplished in order to take it, all by ourselves, a naked ape not long out of the trees, with no instruction, supernatural or not. You want meaning and purpose? Just think about that.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Dilbarack

QOTD: Agnotology

Quote of the Day:
An interesting exchange between John Quiggin and Jonathan Chait on right-wing agnotology — that is, culturally-induced ignorance or doubt. The specific issue is birtherism, the claim that Barack Obama was born in Kenya or anyway not in America, which polls indicate is a view held by a majority of Republican primary voters.

Quiggin suggests that right-wingers aren’t really birthers in their hearts; it’s just that affirming birtherism is a sort of badge of belonging, a shibboleth in the original biblical sense. Chait counters that much of the modern right lives in a mental universe in which liberal elites hide the truth, and in which they, through their access to Fox News etc., know things the brainwashed masses don’t.

My view is that Quiggin is right as far as right-wing politicians are concerned: for the most part they know that Obama was born here, that he isn’t a socialist,that there are no death panels, and so on, but feel compelled to pretend to be crazy as a career move. But I think Chait has it right on the broader movement.

I mean, I see it all the time on economic statistics: point out that inflation remains fairly low, that the Fed isn’t really printing money, whatever, and you get accusations that the data are being falsified, that you yourself are cherry-picking by using the same measures you’ve always used, whatever. There really is epistemic closure: if the facts don’t support certain prejudices, that’s because They are hiding the truth, which we true believers know.

And don’t get me started on climate change. - Paul Krugman

PS. I don't normally comment on these QOTD posts - after all, that's pretty much the only difference between them and any other post - but note the anonymous comment on my previous post about this. I'd say that tends to support Krugman's opinion, don't you?

More hate groups than ever

Uh, oh! This article is likely to get NPR defunded:
A new study by the Southern Poverty Law Center describes a big rise in hate groups across the country.

By its count, there are now more than 1,000 active extremist groups in the U.S. Experts say the largest increase comes from militias that consider the federal government their enemy. ...

"We have absolutely explosive growth of these groups in 2009," [Mark] Potok says. "And what we have now found is that that growth continued through 2010. We have a higher hate group count than we've ever had."

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit organization that tracks extremist movements, says there are three major reasons for the increase: the bad economy, the wide reach of the Internet and changing racial patterns in the country.

Experts say the most negative energy seems to be coming from people who think the federal government is conspiring to take away their freedom.

Tea Party solution to the problem of reality

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Bust in Show
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogVideo Archive

Note that I had a hard time deciding between two Colbert Report clips today. I thought this one was the most important, but for another good laugh, check out Nailed 'Em.

Revenge of the curds

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Crisis in Dairyland - Scott Walker Prank Call
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

When you elect extremists, this is the kind of thing you get. But why didn't we learn this after eight years of George W. Bush? How dumb can we be?

Only two years later, we go right back to the same people who ran our country into the ground, who were wrong about pretty much everything when they controlled all three branches of our federal government, and who haven't changed their opinions one iota since then.

What has happened to us? Unions have been getting weaker and weaker for decades, with fewer and fewer members. That's coincided with stagnating pay for workers and a vast increase in wealth and income inequality. I understand that people are unhappy - I'm pretty unhappy myself - but given the evidence, how can we be dumb enough to accept unions as a scapegoat?

It's just incredible, don't you think?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The scariest threat to America



Yeah, this one was created in August, but better late than never. :)

QOTD: Is freedom a religious idea?

Quote of the Day:
If you value freedom, you should flee from religion as the antelope flees the lion. Religion is the very antithesis of freedom, insisting on our complete subjugation to the unachievable demands of an invisible but supremely powerful overlord. Think of Islam, whose very name means 'submission'! Think of Christianity, which claims it is disobedience that brought original sin into the world, with all that entails in terms of suffering and injustice and even earthquakes and tsunamis. Imagine! To claim that human obedience is so imperative that the purposes of an omnipotent deity and the very fabric of the planet, if not the whole universe, depend upon it and can be catastrophically disrupted at the first whiff of rebellion - and then to claim that such a religion is the source of human freedom!

The Abrahamic god even enthusiastically endorses the vilest of all negations of freedom: slavery. In Leviticus 25, there is a direct quote from this supposedly perfect deity, specifically permitting the Israelites to take and keep slaves, the only proviso being that they must be from the neighboring tribes and not from their own people. Straight from the horse's mouth, as it were, and hardly a shining example of freedom as a religious ideal.

Religion delights in petty rules and the exercise of power over its followers. What theistic religion does not attempt to curtail believers' freedom with nonsensical decrees about foods that may or may not be eaten, fibers that may or may not be worn, days on which they may or may not work, coverings that must or must not be worn on their heads, books that must or must not be read, images that may or may not be created, words that may or may not be spoken, ideas they may or may not explore, actions they may or may not perform, rituals - whether physical or symbolic - they must perform in order to cleanse themselves of impurities of religion's own invention?

There is no aspect of our lives, no matter how intimate, which religion does not unblushingly insist on its right to control. ...

And yet we are invited to credit religion as the source of true freedom? It is a laughable claim, a disgraceful claim, a claim that makes a mockery of language as well as of truth and of human dignity. As such it is on a par with other religious claims, such as those that define perfect forgiveness as something dependent on the barbaric sacrifice-by-crucifixion of an innocent man, perfect justice as consisting in the innocent being tortured to death so the guilty can be let off scot-free, and perfect love as something that would damn us to hell for all eternity if we refuse to accept such grotesque monstrosities as evidence of a perfect and loving god. - Paula Kirby

American Federation of Scapegoats


Mike Thompson's commentary:
The gap between the richest 1% of Americans and the rest of us is wider today than at any time since just before the start of the Great Depression. Writing for Forbes.com, Eva Pereira noted recently that since 1983, 43% of all financial wealth created in America went to the top 1%, 94% went to the top 20% while the remaining 80% of Americans were left to divvy up just 6% of the wealth created since the early 1980s. As a result, the Website econproph.com pointed out, income inequality in America is even greater than in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, nations that revolted in part because of income inequality.

But not to fear, Republicans have responded by targeting the wild excesses of…public employee unions. Having sucked the wealth out of workers in the private sector, Republicans are now targeting workers in the public sector for wanting decent pay, health care coverage and a retirement spent above the poverty line. To this end, Republicans have been busy sowing intra-class warfare by stirring up resentment among the middle class against public employee unions. Apparently, Republicans are hoping that you can always hire one-half of the working class to kill the benefits of the other half, to tweak a quote by railroad baron Jay Gould. Pay no attention to that man in the gated community who shipped your job overseas, destroyed the value of your home, drained the wealth out of the country and tanked the economy, go after your neighbor for having health care coverage.

The war on public sector unions began in Wisconsin and has since spread to Indiana, Ohio and Michigan. As Ezra Klein pointed out in the Washington Post last week, states aren’t in dire financial straits because of public employee unions, states are reeling because of a recession brought on by the excesses of Wall St. But as MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell quipped last night, “Republicans aren’t about to let a crisis go to waste.”

The war on women

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Mother F#@kers
www.thedailyshow.com
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Jon Stewart is ill, so he's not very lively here. But it's still a good clip.

If you're interested, here's the link to the sequel. And you might check out the very brief "Moment of Zen," where Republicans support contraception... but only for horses.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Shibboleths

An interesting post by John Quiggin at Crooked Timber has been getting quite a bit of notice:
A recent report on a poll finding that a majority of Republicans (that is, likely primary voters) are “birthers”, with only 28 per cent confident that Obama was born in the United States has raised, not for the first time, the question “how can they think that?” and “do they really believe that?”.

Such questions are the domain of agnotology, the study of culturally-induced ignorance or doubt. Agnotology is not, primarily, the study of ignorance in the ordinary sense of the term. So, for example, someone who shares the beliefs of their community, unaware that those beliefs might be subject to challenge, might be ignorant as a result of their cultural situation, but they are not subject to culturally-induced ignorance in the agnotological sense.

But this kind of ignorance is not at issue in the case of birtherism. Even in communities where birtherism is universal (or at least where any dissent is kept quiet), it must be obvious that not everyone in the US thinks that the elected president was born outside the US and therefore ineligible for office.

Rather, birtherism is a shibboleth, that is, an affirmation that marks the speaker as a member of their community or tribe. (The original shibboleth was a password chosen by the Gileadites because their Ephraimite enemies could not say “Sh”.) Asserting a belief that would be too absurd to countenance for anyone outside a given tribal/ideological group makes for a good political shibboleth.

That's interesting, don't you think? Here's Jonathan Chait with a slightly different perspective:
But I do think the concept of agnotology applies here. Quiggin's argument hinges on the fact that conservatives understand that some people do not believe President Obama was born outside the United States (or is a Muslim, or...) But what those conservatives believe is that they enjoy access to truth that is denied Americans who are brainwashed by the mainstream media. The believe that Fox News is not just a network that counteracts the biased liberal media, or even a network that reports the stories that the liberal media ignore, but the vehicle for Truth:


Incredible, isn't it? Whether or not this is a shibboleth, what's important is what it means for America. Here's Quiggin again:
Does all this hurt or help the Republicans? In short-run electoral terms, I think it helps. A base of loyal supporters who, for one or other of the reasons mentioned above, are immune to factual evidence has to help win elections. There are, however, two big costs
  • First, people have noticed that Republicans have a problem with reality. That perception, which undermines the rationale for all sorts of thinking about policy, will take a while to sink in, but it will also be hard to erase once it is generally accepted. In the long run, this has to turn off a fair number of Republican-leaning independents and any remaining Republicans with a capacity for embarrassment.
  • Double-think is very difficult, and people will start to act on the basis of their beliefs. If those beliefs are ludicrously false, trouble is likely to follow.

Hmm,... the second point is obvious, but what is that "trouble" likely to be? Yes, acting on the basis of ludicrous beliefs will likely cause problems. Duh!  Heh, heh. I guess I'd prefer some specifics.

But I'd really like to believe the first point. In fact, I've long been expecting a backlash against such lunacy. So far, however, I've seen little sign of it.

It's hard for me to understand why anyone is still a Republican these days. Yes, Republicans have a problem with reality. But that's been obvious for years. Has it hurt them? True, Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell might have cost them a couple of Senate seats in November, but it was still a huge Republican victory.

And the fact that I want to believe in an eventual backlash makes me all the more skeptical of it. I hope so, but... I'm not going to believe anything just because I want to believe it. This is where Chait's point seems particularly important. With Fox "News" and other far-right media sources pushing these shibboleths so determinedly, we just seem to get more and more people believing them all the time. Will there ever be a backlash? If so, when?

I'd also like to note one of the comments, by Chris Adams, on Quiggin's post:
One major problem related to your second conclusion is that the GOP has unusually trended heavily toward being the party of the elderly and rich for awhile and there are fair odds that many of their current voters will be dead before the consequences are obvious. Breaking the idea of concern for the future is in some ways worse than the actual problem.

Note that the average age of Fox "News" viewers is 65. Is this why we're seeing Republicans consistently favor short-term benefits like tax cuts, despite the disastrous long-term consequences? Is this why they seem to have completely abandoned the idea of investing for the future? Do the elderly not care about the future anymore, if they won't live to see it themselves?

And, of course, Republicans are not just older, on average, they're also overwhelmingly white. The GOP "southern strategy" of deliberately appealing to white racists has made certain of that. And these past few years, we've started seeing real hysterics from a Republican Party which finds itself on the wrong side of America's demographic changes.

So I wonder. Is another reason for Republicans abandoning that concern for the future simply because they see future Americans as browner (and perhaps less Christian)? It's a terrible thought, isn't it?

(I've heard that a lot of them expect to see Jesus return in their lifetime, which sounds pretty crazy in itself. And maybe that expectation of Armageddon also explains why they're not concerned about the future. But I wonder if that's not just an excuse for racist feelings they don't want to admit, maybe not even to themselves.)

Well, either way, Republicans are older and whiter than average. They do seem to be on the wrong side of demographic changes in this country. Yes, there will be plenty of elderly in the future, and elderly people tend to be more conservative (relatively-speaking) and more easily scared. But I also suspect that people might be reluctant to change political parties at the end of their lives - especially when the other party has a reputation for losing touch with reality.

But that's really long-term. I don't think we can wait that long before we start investing in America again, before we start addressing our many long-term problems, before we start using evidence-based, instead of faith-based, thinking.

QOTD: The pathology of repeal

Quote of the Day:
Yesterday I somewhat cynically suggested that Republicans were not interested in actually altering the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act. Today, Mitch McConnell says he's not interested in altering anything about the law:
Republicans aren't likely to bury the hatchet with President Obama over the healthcare reform act, their Senate leader said Friday.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), fresh off an unsuccessful vote on Wednesday to repeal healthcare reform, said not to expect Republicans to strike any agreements with the president.

"I think it’s clear that this is an area upon which we are not likely to reach any agreements with the president," McConnell said on conservative pundit Laura Ingraham's radio show.

If this was a dispute about policy, of course, Republicans would be willing to pursue alterations. Democrats didn't like the Bush tax cuts, but if Bush had been willing to tighten up some tax loopholes, maybe lose the estate tax cuts, then they'd have been happy to entertain some alterations. While they may not have liked the law, they could surely imagine ways to improve it that could meet with bipartisan approval, especially given President Obama's professed willingness to negotiate changes. They could do so while still pursuing their preferred model of health care reform.

But the Affordable Care Act has become to the right a symbolic totem that has little to do with actual policies. Its very existence is an enduring emotional wound. Greg Sargent writes:
Consider this article by the Post's Amy Goldstein, which quotes a range of Tea Partyers talking about the repeal of "Obamacare" in fervent and even messianic tones. They are prepared to invest years in realizing this goal. It's clear that for an untold number of base GOP voters, major questions about political and national identity are now bound up in repeal. An entire industry has been created around this new Holy Grail. There is now a big stake for a whole range of actors, some less reputable than others, in keeping millions of Americans emotionally invested in the idea that total repeal is not only achievable, but absolutely necessary to preserving their liberty and the future of the republic.

The GOP is operating not on the basis of some analysis of public policy but from a sheer pathology. - Jonathan Chait

Will the last sane person in America turn out the lights?


America seems to be going crazy. And it's not just in places where you pretty much expect it (Texas, for example).

Of course, yes, it is in Texas:



But also in Florida:



Arizona:



New Jersey:



Michigan:



And many, many others - including, of course, Nebraska (though I'm comforted by the fact that at least we don't seem to be leading the nation in insanity):

Monday, February 21, 2011

QOTD: In defense of elites

Quote of the Day:
Diseases and ailments that were fatal just a few generations ago can now be easily treated, we can peer into the body without the cut of a knife using Magnetic Resonance Imaging, there are few points on the globe that can not be reached by wireless communication, and the computing power of a laptop exceeds that of room-size calculating machines that represented the state of the art in 1950. All brought to us through the efforts of elites.

And this is where the current distrust of scientists becomes a major concern. For there are real problems that need to be addressed, but we can't handle them without the advice of experts, which are often not respected by both the general public and the scientific community.

The findings and conclusions of scientists and engineers who have devoted years and years to the mastery of their fields of inquiry should be accorded the respect they deserve, and not dismissed for ideological reasons. Few people second-guess the political motivations of their dentist when informed that they have a cavity - why would they do the same with atmospheric scientists when they discuss a hole in the ozone layer? Strong science, elaborated by experts, is the foundation for sound policy.

What happens when experts disagree? More good news — this happens much less than one might think, at least concerning questions of fact (interpretations are another matter). Of course, it is important to realize that not every scientist is an expert in every branch of science (I am concerned here with scientific communication, and not interdisciplinary research). If my cardiologist tells me that I need open heart surgery, I may seek a second opinion before having a difficult and expensive operation — but I won't consult a dermatologist.

It pains me to say this, but — physics professors are not experts in all fields of science. While we may be able to address, for example, the quantum mechanical mechanisms by which carbon dioxide ignores visible light but absorbs and re-emits infra-red radiation, and can discuss the application of the scientific method, we are not climatologists, and should respect the conclusions of those who have devoted the same time and effort to their field as we have to ours. As the science fiction author Robert Heinlein wrote: "Expertise in one field does not carry over into other fields. But experts often think so. The narrower their field of knowledge the more likely they are to think so." - James Kakalios

What excuse will we have?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Social Security


So, is Social Security in trouble now? That seems to be the accepted thinking these days, doesn't it? We keep hearing about the critical necessity for massive "entitlement reform," with our longer lifespans and aging population pointing clearly to disaster ahead.

But then, I remember seeing those same kinds of scare tactics from Republicans for decades. My Dad was always certain there'd be no Social Security left when he retired. The Democrats were going to spend it all (on black people, I imagine), just as they were going to outlaw hunting and take away his guns (among other loony ideas). Yeah, Rush Limbaugh sure had it right.

But not really. As it turned out, my Dad had a very enjoyable retirement. And more than a decade after his death, my Mom still lives on Social Security (and still enjoys her retirement). Unfortunately, the Republican Party has only gotten better and better at scaring gullible people. Well, why abandon a winning tactic, just because it's, you know, unethical?

At any rate, what's the truth about Social Security? As we all know, Social Security only covered widows and orphans at first. Like Medicare, it started as a very small government program. And since then, life expectancy in America has risen dramatically. In these days of massive budget deficits, we just can't afford Social Security, especially now that the baby boomers are starting to reach retirement age.

Hmm,... that all sounds plausible, doesn't it? And at least Republicans are no longer talking about privatizing Social Security. (Partly, that's because the word "privatize" was shown to poll badly, so they've turned to using other language to describe the same thing. And partly, it's because the recent stock market crash is still a bit too clearly remembered by all Americans. Give it a couple of years, though...)

OK, what's the truth? Well, here's Paul Krugman on the "widows and orphans" bit (check out the links he provides if you want to dig deeper - the evidence seems to be pretty clear):
Paul Rosenberg catches the president rewriting history — and, revealingly, doing so in a way that makes the case for timid, incremental action, while waving away the actual history of bold strokes.

Specifically, Obama said this:
This is why FDR, when he started Social Security, it only affected widows and orphans. You did not qualify. And yet now it is something that really helps a lot of people. When Medicare was started, it was a small program. It grew.

Under the criteria that you just set out, each of those were betrayals of some abstract ideal.

This is all wrong: both programs were huge from the start. From the beginning, Social Security applied to all private-sector workers, except those in agriculture, domestic service, or casual employment — and yes, those exceptions happened to exclude the majority of African-Americans. Still, it was by no means a small program that grew big. Medicare covered everyone 65 and older right from the beginning, although initially it only provided hospital insurance.

OK, but how about our rising life expectancy? No one can deny that, surely. I know, I know, don't call you Shirley. For the rest of it, let's go to Paul Krugman again. He is, after all, a Nobel Prize-winning economist.
So: one thing you’re going to hear is something along the lines of, “In 1950 life expectancy was only 68 years, so hardly anyone was collecting Social Security; now it’s 78 years — the problem is obvious”.

Does anyone know what’s wrong with this? You over there in the corner?

That’s right: a life expectancy of 68 years doesn’t mean that a lot of people toddle along then suddenly keel over over after threescore and eight birthdays. Mostly it meant much higher child mortality than we have now, which has no relevance one way or the other to Social Security.

Much more to the point is the number of years people could expect to live after reaching 65: 14 years in 1950, 18.5 years now. Not so impressive a change, is it? And the retirement age is already 66 for my cohort, and scheduled to rise to 67 on current law.

Oh, and by the way, rising life expectancy was built into Social Security planning from the beginning. The big surprise has, if anything, been stagnating life expectancy among less affluent Americans.

Got that? Yes, life expectancy has increased greatly, but much of that is due to the huge drop in child mortality. The life or death of infants doesn't affect Social Security actuarial tables one way or another, though it has a big effect on average life expectancy.

Yes, we live longer, on average, once we get to retirement age, but that change isn't nearly so dramatic. And rising life expectancy was expected. It was factored into the program from the beginning. Finally, we already made changes to Social Security (in 1983, when Ronald Reagan was president), which scheduled an increase in the retirement age and also an increase in the income cap. (Yes, back then, Republicans were still willing to cut costs and increase revenues.)

So, considering all that, what does this mean for budget projections? Here's a nice little chart I got from Mother Jones (taken from a CBO document here):


That might be hard to read in this narrow column, but it shows projected federal spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid out to 2082, as a percent of GDP (which is really the only rational way to look at it).

The white area at the bottom of the graph is "other federal non-interest spending." That's the discretionary spending which Republicans are trying to slash in order to balance the federal budget (supposedly). Note that it's forecast to remain around 10% of GDP pretty much forever. (And that is actually a decrease from earlier years. So that's clearly not the problem.)

Social Security costs are expected to rise slightly, but not by much, and then to level off. Currently, we spend about 4.8% of GDP, and it's scheduled to rise to about 6% by 2030.  Do you see a ticking time bomb in that? I certainly don't.

As Krugman points out, defense spending rose from 3% of GDP in 2001 to 4.2% last year (not even including extra non-defense security spending). That didn't seem to be reason for hysteria, did it? Heck, Republicans didn't even consider giving up their tax cuts for the rich. That kind of increase was obviously considered to be no big deal.

But look at Medicare and Medicaid in the above graph. That's where the long-term problem lies (and partly, at least, it's because of the unfunded drug benefit Republicans passed under Bush). It's health care that's scheduled to keep increasing so dramatically in cost (not just government programs, but all health care). And that's why the health care reform bill, though only a start, made a significant difference to deficit projections (assuming Republicans don't succeed in their attempts to destroy it).

But we hear "entitlement reform" because the right wing still hates Social Security, as they have from the beginning. They want to believe - or at least to convince the rest of us - that it's as big a problem as Medicare. In reality, Social Security is not a big problem. It should be easy to fix (maybe not easy politically, though). Just removing the income cap, where high earners stop paying the tax, would make a huge difference, and it's easily justified, too.

Higher-earning Americans not only can afford the extra tax, but they tend to live longer - and therefore stay on Social Security longer - than those less well off. Remember how we were talking about life expectancy earlier? Well, those are averages. And if you look further into the figures, those averages mask big differences among income levels.

Here's another chart (by the CBO) and comment from Paul Krugman:


Finally, disparities in life expectancy have been rising sharply, with much smaller gains for disadvantaged socioeconomic groups and/or those with less education than the average. Yet these are precisely the people who depend most on Social Security. ...

It turns out that the good people at EPI got there well ahead of me. They point us to this study by the Social Security Administration, which shows (Table 4) that men in the bottom half of the earnings distribution saw their life expectancy at age 65 rise only 1.1 years from 1982 to 2006. Over the same period, by the way, the retirement age — under current law — rose 8 months.

If you're rich, you may see nothing wrong with raising the retirement age to 70. Well, if you work at all, you're probably not doing physical labor, nothing that gets harder as you get older. So why not?

But people who are less well off don't live as long, on average, as the wealthy. And they tend to work at jobs that get progressively harder as our bodies age. And finally, if ethical concerns matter to you at all, they need Social Security far more than wealthy people do.

Here's another comment from Paul Krugman, followed by a chart from Matthew Yglesias:
When medical expenses are big, they’re big; even the very affluent are grateful when Medicare pays the bills for their mother-in-laws bypass or dialysis. The importance of Medicare, in short, is obvious to all but the very rich.

Social Security, by contrast, is something that matters enormously to the bottom half of the income distribution, but no so much to people in the 250K-plus club. A 30 percent cut in benefits would represent disaster for tens of millions of Americans, but a barely noticeable inconvenience for VSPs and everyone they know. A rise in the retirement age would be a vast hardship for people who do manual labor, but if anything a gift to VSPs, who don’t want to step aside in any case. And so on down the line.

So going after Social Security is a way to seem tough and serious — but entirely at the expense of people you don’t know.


Does this mean I favor a means test for Social Security? I don't think so. Yes, the wealthy live longer and they don't need Social Security nearly as much. But means tests would add a layer of complexity - and a layer of bureaucracy - that we really don't need. Right now, Social Security is pretty simple. Let's not mess with that unless we have to.

And my whole point is that we don't have to. All this talk about "entitlement" problems is just Republicans trying to muddy the water. There's no crisis in Social Security. At most, we need just a minor fix. Ending the earnings cap, where high-earners stop paying into the plan, would probably fix most of it all by itself (and we can easily justify that, given that they tend to live longer than the rest of us).

Other than that, maybe we'd need some very minor adjustments, but nothing more than that. We certainly don't need drastic changes in the retirement age or big cuts in benefits. When it comes to long-term budget health, Social Security is not a problem. Medicare - health care in general, actually - is the real problem.

To end, maybe I'll quote someone else besides Krugman for a change. Heh, heh. How about Jonathan Bernstein?
The long term budget deficit is about one thing: medical costs. It’s not about “entitlements.” Social Security isn’t a long run problem of any serious consequence, nor are various small programs that count as entitlements in the budget process. Long-term projections of the federal budget are very clear. It’s all about health care.

Medical costs. Medical costs are going up much faster than inflation. Therefore, Medicare and Medicaid, and any other government programs affected by medical costs, will, long term, get far more expensive than any realistic level of taxation can handle.

So when budget hawks talk about “entitlements,” as Andrew Sullivan did today, they’re using language that in my view obscures, rather than illuminates, the situation.

Now, I’d go a bit further, as others have done. I agree with those who have argued that health care isn’t really, properly speaking, a federal budget problem. It’s a serious problem for the American economy. Thinking of it as a budget deficit problem misses the point; shut down Medicare completely and you solve the budget deficit part of it, but you still have an important dysfunctional situation with regard to health care.

Either way, I agree with Jonathan Chait: the way to measure a politician on federal budget deficits is really just to measure whether he or she has made medical costs a priority. ...

Getting back to my main point...in my view, those who are upset about the long-term federal budget deficit should talk about it in terms of what it is, health care costs. Just as the phrase “weapons of mass destruction” encourages sloppy thinking (because nuclear weapons are not really similar at all to chemical and biological weapons in lots of important ways), talking about “entitlements” confuses the budget situation. I could see “Medicare and Medicaid” or, perhaps, “government health programs,” but not entitlements.

PS. The average retired worker gets about $14,000 a year from Social Security. That's the average, so people who really rely on this money to survive tend to get much less. Do we really want to slash this pitiful amount, or make a worker wait until he's in his 70s to retire, just to give millions in tax cuts to the very wealthiest Americans?

Really, how can Republicans get more than 2% of the vote? I just don't get it.

Reality has a well-known liberal bias



I linked to a transcript of this in my previous post, but then I just had to find the video clip. It's Stephen Colbert at the 2006 White House Correspondents' Dinner where he makes the famous statement that "reality has a well-known liberal bias."

That's quite true. But the rest of it is hilarious. Really, just from the transcript, I was laughing out loud.

A liberal on defense spending


Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist - and science fiction fan, I might add - who writes for The New York Times, is an unabashed liberal. But unlike conservative pundits, he lives in the real world and he's willing to look at the data, rather than just believe whatever he wants to believe.

So here's what he says on defense spending (the above graph, from the federal Office of Management and Budget, was taken from his post, too):
One thing I’m hearing and reading from liberal sources is the argument that we can find big savings by ending the war in Afghanistan, and more generally by cutting bloated defense spending. So, a few words on that issue.

Yes, there’s a lot of wasteful defense spending — in fact, it’s almost surely the most waste-ridden part of the federal budget, because politicians are afraid to say no to anything for fear of being called unpatriotic. And even aside from the question of the Bush wars, it has long been clear that we’re still spending a lot to head off threats that haven’t existed since the fall of the Soviet Union. Read Fred Kaplan for a sense of just how bad it is.

Then there are those wars. I was against Iraq from the beginning — and I was pretty lonely out there on the pages of major newspapers. Afghanistan made sense in 2002, but I have no idea what we’re doing there now.

But if we’re talking about fiscal issues, you have to bear the arithmetic in mind. We’re not living in the 1950s, when defense was half the federal budget. Even a drastic cut in military spending wouldn’t release enough money to offset more than a small fraction of the projected rise in health care costs.

Now 20% of the federal budget is still a large part of it. And in raw numbers, it's certainly an enormous pile of money. If you didn't click on that link to the Fred Kaplan article, I recommend that you do so now. The 2011 Pentagon budget is incredible, far bigger - even after adjusting for inflation - than any military budget since World War II:
Still, $708.2 billion, the sum requested just for fiscal year 2011, is an extraordinary chunk of change. The Center for a New American Security (hardly a dovish think tank) calculates that, adjusting for inflation, this sum is 13 percent higher than the defense budget at the peak of the Korean War, 33 percent higher than at the peak of the Vietnam War, 23 percent higher than at the peak of the Cold War, and 64 percent higher than the Cold War's average.

And there's a lot of waste in it. Our only enemies are a rag-tag bunch of religious terrorists, but the Pentagon budget seems to be more about protecting defense contractors. I thought the part about evenly dividing budget goodies between the Army, Navy, and Air Force to be particularly enlightening:
There has been one constant in the defense budget ever since the mid-1960s: the money has been divided almost exactly evenly—never varying by more than a couple of percentage points—among the Army, Navy, and Air Force. For all of Gates' apparent rationality, the same is true in this budget: 32 percent goes to the Army, 35 percent goes to the Navy, 33 percent goes to the Air Force. (For more on this, click here.) It is extremely unlikely that our national-security needs just so happen to demand a response that gives each of our three services a nearly equal share of the military budget.

In other words, the Defense Department is a monstrous bureaucracy, and its budget is a political document—a set of weights and balances to keep the natural tensions from erupting out of control. (In the 1950s, when budgets were very tight, and before this tacit pie-splitting deal was worked out, the service chiefs saw one another as, quite literally, enemies. For an example, click here.)

And as Kaplan notes, the actual costs are likely to be even higher - much higher, although this budget isn't quite as badly in the realm of pure fantasy as the Bush military budgets were. We could save a lot of money through cuts in defense spending, without impacting our national security much, if at all. (Of course, the political difficulty of that would be immense, but that's a separate issue.)

Nevertheless, as Krugman points out, this isn't the 1950s, when defense spending was half the budget. These days, it's a significant part of the budget - and it's far, far more than any other nation in the world spends, not even in the same ballpark - but cutting the defense budget won't solve our budget woes, not all by itself. And this is from a man whose blog is called The Conscience of a Liberal.


In a follow-up post, Krugman includes the above graph, also from the OMB, that shows defense spending as a percent of gross domestic product. In that respect, too, it's considerably lower today than in the 1950s and 1960s. (Remember, it's not lower in dollars - not even in inflation-adjusted dollars - just as a percent of the federal budget and percent of GDP.)

Krugman tries to further explain his point:
I’m baffled by commenters who read my earlier note as an endorsement of current levels of defense spending. As I said, the defense budget is full of waste, we’ve been fighting wars that we shouldn’t, and we’re defending against threats that no longer exist. That defense buildup after 9/11 was outrageous: we were attacked by a handful of terrorists wielding box-cutters (or something like that — I’m aware that’s not certain), and we responded by (a) buying a lot of heavy tanks (b) invading a country that had nothing to do with the attack.

... Despite all that, it remains true that defense spending isn’t at the heart of the budget issue. The current Obama budget calls for defense spending of 3.4% of GDP by 2016; you can make the case that the number should be closer to 2%. But that’s not enough to avoid hard choices about health care and revenue.

If you can’t see how it’s possible both to believe that we waste a lot of money on the military, and to believe that ending that waste would make only a modest contribution to our fiscal problem, I can’t help you.

His point, if I can paraphrase it, is that cutting military spending will certainly help, but it wouldn't be a magic fix (not that I think anything is a magic fix). Certainly, cutting defense spending makes far more sense than chopping away at the relatively minor costs of protecting our air and water or actually helping people in other ways, but it's not going to be anywhere near enough by itself.

In order to really solve our budget woes, we're going to have to get a handle on health care costs (not "entitlements") and we're going to have to raise taxes. None of this will be popular, but we can't be serious about deficit reduction without it.

Note that liberals are far more realistic than conservatives when it comes to deficit reduction (when it comes to everything, pretty much). Certainly, cutting defense spending makes a lot more sense than anything Republicans are proposing. But Krugman is saying - and he makes a very persuasive argument - that we're dreaming if we think that will do it by itself.

And personally, I'd really like to stay grounded in reality. Of course, that's easier for us liberals, because reality has a well-known liberal bias. :)