Friday, December 30, 2011

The Reality Disconnect of the Right

Last night, Eschaton regular poster, Echidne of the Snakes, pointed us to her Rumination on Merit. She got me thinking about the disconnect from reality that many on the right suffer from. Read the whole post, but here's the take-away:
The mythology of "Merit Always Gets Its Rewards" is strengthened by those stories of individuals who started out poor and destitute, then worked very hard and now are billionaires or famous dead presidents or whatever. The problem with this mythology is that it begins from one end (the billionaire or the dead president end) and then works backwards. It doesn't begin from the other end. If it did, we might hear of all the millions of people who had great talent and worked hard and got exactly nowhere.
The central irony of the Rugged Individualism so beloved of the conservative core of America is that the vast majority of its adherents belong to "the millions of people who had great talent and worked hard and got exactly nowhere" Echidne highlights. I'll stipulate, too, that a large number of that conservative core are unfortunate ones who were born into lives of relative lack of opportunity and either were denied educational opportunities or eschewed them. This segment also aspire to Rugged Individualism but remain deeply suspicious of the intellectual elite.

Can you believe I went to eastern sissy schools?
The trouble is many conservative leaders are stealth elitists who are, at best, "passing" as Rugged Individuals. The best example is New England blue-blood, silver-spoon George W. Bush, who was born into wealth and educated his entire life in elite northeastern schools. W. famously passed as a Texan, "clearing brush" on his "ranch" in Crawford, Texas. He then spent his presidency making life easy for establishment elites, in other words, his people, who by any stretch of the imagination are not rugged individualists. More often, as they say, they were born on third base, just like W.

Our Mitt, man of the people, with billionaire Meg Whitman
Another example of an establishment, silver-spooner born into the Meritocracy is Willard Mitt Romney, son of George Romney, former CEO of American Motors and governor of Michigan. George was a successful, much admired, moderate Republican, probably somewhat to the left of Barack Obama.

Barack Obama during his childhood in Hawaii
Many on the current far left think Barack Obama has sold out to the moneyed interests of the Wall Street and Washington establishments, and I'd find it hard to dispute that. But in a head-to-head comparison, Barack Obama is the real deal, born in relative low circumstances and through hard work and good choices has risen to the highest circles of wealth and power. Obama has truly earned his place in America's meritocracy. On the other side of the spectrum, Mitt Romney was born into wealth, educated with his wealthy brethren, went into business with family money to found Bain Capital, which made money the old-fashioned way: he manipulated capital markets and business opportunities. He made -- and continues to make -- millions by putting capital to work, whether it was good for the poor bastards that worked for the companies he acquired or not. These things are unimportant when maximizing capital and enhancing wealth.

Like the (successful) phonies that precede him, Mitt Romney is currently roaming the corn fields, coffee shops, and church socials of Iowa in jeans and a sport shirt with rolled up sleeves, ready to get side-by-side with everyday Americans to build a better future. Right.

Mitt Romney understands the plight of the average American: he and born-again-and-again elitists have made sure as many Americans as possible lead average lives. The moneyed elite can only acquire money by keeping an eye on the bottom line. Right?

What exactly does that mean? It's not a mystery. CEO pay has increased over the years until, according to a 2011 report from CNN, it is now 343 times the pay of the average American, in other words, $11.4 million for CEOs to $33,190 for the average American. CEOs, it's generally agreed, earn those kinds of big bucks because they do such a good job of keeping an eye on the bottom line, right? A key way to do that is to suppress wages. 

So, conservatives are on their way, by all accounts, to selecting as their leader -- as they did in 2000 -- a CEO who knows how to run companies and therefore knows how to run America.

Romney at Bain Capital. Whose money is this? Hint: not yours.
If Mitt Romney runs America like he did Bain Capital, he'll run it by keeping an eye on the bottom line, which means he'll only succeed if he cuts the amount of money that flows to the average American. Right? Yes, right! That's the CEO way! And this is why we want to elect him?

Possibly no. America does not like Mitt Romney, not the conservative core, not the independents who supposedly decide elections, and certainly not the Democratic base. Are we then going to elect Mitt Romney, silver-spooner elitist, over Barack Obama, actual rags-to-riches man who created his own luck? Quite possibly yes.

Why? Because millions and millions of dollars will flow from unlimited sources, unregulated sources, funneled by Karl Rove, Dick Armey, Ari Fleischer, and endless other operatives who channel money from the Koch brothers, Richard Mellon Scaife, and the rest of the moneyed class protecting their prerogatives into the coffers of the moneyed class candidate, Willard Mitt Romney.

Why? Why? How could those farthest from the receiving end of the largess of Wall Street and Washington possibly vote for Mitt Romney? For one simple reason: each and every one of them are convinced they are one lottery ticket away, one lucky break away from getting what's rightfully theirs because they've worked hard all their lives and taken personal responsibility for their lives, unlike all the people on welfare that they have to pay for because the government makes them. They'd be all right if the guvmint would keep its goddam hands off their money!!

You can vote for me now that I'm one of you.

They'll also vote for Romney because the information echo chamber comprised of the Rupert Murdoch-Rush Limbaugh-Tea Party triumvirate will repeat over and over the misinformation that reinforced these false notions that "the others" are the reason why the average American can't get ahead.

Who are the actual "others?" Are they Kenyan Muslim Socialist Keynesian Stimulators? No, not really. They are the CEOs, the Bain Capitals, the Goldman Sachs, the JPMorgan Chases. How can I know this? It's easy.

Follow the money.

Here's William Domhoff of UC Santa Cruz:
In the United States, wealth is highly concentrated in a relatively few hands. As of 2007, the top 1% of households (the upper class) owned 34.6% of all privately held wealth, and the next 19% (the managerial, professional, and small business stratum) had 50.5%, which means that just 20% of the people owned a remarkable 85%, leaving only 15% of the wealth for the bottom 80% (wage and salary workers). In terms of financial wealth (total net worth minus the value of one's home), the top 1% of households had an even greater share: 42.7%. Table 1 and Figure 1 present further details drawn from the careful work of economist Edward N. Wolff at New York University (2010).
There is one kernel of truth in why the conservative core, the Tea-Party, white, rural, primarily uneducated Christian dead-enders (commonly known as George W. Bush's diehard 28%) might, in the end, hold their noses, ignore their suspicions, and vote for Mitt Romney: he will, in fact, keep the goddam guvmint hands off their money. Why? Because Mitt Romney has better plans for it.

He's going to give it to the people of merit, the CEOs, the 1%-ers. That's what he going to do. Why? Because he went to Harvard to learn how to do it. And he's been doing it all his life. Who better?

Thursday, December 29, 2011

When Economic Disputes Turn Political and Why

I'm not certain what to make of disputes between top economists. I mostly get that they tend to be academicians, that is, attached to a university or employed by a government or NGO entity, or the Fed or ECB. Top-level economists weigh in on the micro level -- the way households and firms make decisions about supply and demand and affect prices and output -- or the macro level -- how whole economies, whether regional, national or global, perform and behave. Micro reflects the bits and pieces of economic behavior, while macro reflects the aggregate behavior of markets, nations, and the globe.

I also understand that economics creates or theorizes models, which help us to understand what is likely to happen if we do something. If these models are tested and they work, then they can be more or less trusted to help predict or direct certain behavior. If the models don't make sense, economists judge them to be of little or no value and abandon them.

There are also various theorems and laws that have been proposed over the years, and some make sense while others don't. Unsurprisingly, there are political and policy ramifications depending on which theorems and laws you subscribe to.

The disputes that arise have consequences for the science as well as for the way these economists can influence policy. Some have larger pulpits than others. In general, though, most politicians either don't understand economics or become one-trick ponies that rely on think tanks for their talking points. Many of these talking points are so much rhetoric or outright lies, often referred to as zombie lies because you have to shoot them in the head or drive a stake through their hearts to get them to stop. Even then, you'll hear politicians repeat endlessly expressions like "job-killing tax increases" and "class warfare against the job creators and small businesses like IBM and Bechtel." It's really irritating. Yet sometimes the disputes between professors and Nobel laureates are important, and if not important, then at least stimulating.

Two that have come up recently are the Ricardian Equivalence Theorem and Say's Law, both of which seem to be two faces of the same side of an economic argument. RET says that if a government goes in debt to finance, say, infrastructure projects to stimulate the economy, it won't work because consumers, the savvy lot they are, will not spend the income they earn from the economic activity engendered by the infrastructure projects but instead will save an equivalent amount of their income to be ready to pay the future taxes required to pay off the debt. So, in the end, it's a wash. I don't know about you, but that's hogwash. Ricardo said he was unconvinced by his own hypothesis.

Say's Law, on the other hand, dictates that if you take money from person A and give it to person B, total output is unchanged. Oddly, Say advocated public works to remedy unemployment.

Economists who have a stake in demonstrating that government stimulus doesn't work tend to buy the RET argument or the Say's Law argument. On the other hand, those who believe in government spending as a means to increase aggregate demand, don't buy RET.

I tend to align with the Keynesians, like Paul Krugman, who see government expenditures as stimulative and recommend those expenditures when an economy is in or near recession.

If the government goes into debt to create $1,000 of demand -- maybe it builds a highway system -- a worker gets $1,000 in pay, which he spends, or mostly spends, on food, rent, and clothes. At the end of the enterprise, there is at least $1,000 of economic activity generated by the government spending. If aggregate demand goes up, there is more economic activity that increases tax revenues with which to pay for the debt incurred to pay for the highway system. Let's not forget that the government, besides the wages paid to the highway construction worker, also spends money buying the materials for the project, which then stimulates the market for concrete and gravel, and so on.

I easily see how economic activity begets economic activity that then has a multiplier effect, growing, as they say, the economy. If I earn a dollar, I spend that dollar. As that dollar moves through the economy, it performs in various ways. If I spend it at Safeway, the good that I bought needs to be replaced, causing more production of that product, which leads to a portion of wages dedicated to that function. The replacement product requires shipping through the system and back to the shelf where I acquired it. This multiplier effect can be exaggerated, but it does exist.

Again, those who argue against this maintain that the construction worker will save whatever amount of his $1,000 he rationally anticipates needing in the future to pay for the taxes required to cover the cost of the highway project. This is RET.

Do you behave this way? I never have. I spend money when I have it, though I admit that as I've grown older, I also tended to save more because I wanted money around when I'm no longer earning as much. The closer I got to retirement, the less I spent and the more I saved. I behaved this way -- rationally -- because I could. People whose earnings don't exceed their bills don't save money. It doesn't matter whether they act rationally or not. They do what they have to do and end up not being able to retire. If they get too old to work, they retire in poverty.

Social Security was created to reduce the extent or likelihood of poverty in old age. Medicare was created for exactly the same reason. To reduce either of these two programs is to increase poverty in old age, whether you want to say "we've got to face reality" or not.

There are reckless exceptions to how these economic rules work: alcoholics, gamblers, imbeciles. But they are fringe elements to a system that works the way it works.

Economists whose beliefs dictate that government spending, whether financed from debt or tax increases, cannot increase or alter economic output tend to hold this position because they do not favor government involvement in the economy. Those who see an important role for government tend to favor government involvement and therefore advocate for monetary and fiscal stimulus.

Then there's the whole belief system about markets and how they behave. Those who don't favor government regulation tend to belief that markets are rational and sort out how business is meant to be transacted, requiring little or no government regulation.

Those who believe that markets are often irrational crave government regulation in order to avoid the chaos and destructiveness of market failures. Again, those on the opposite side have a greater fear of governmental failure. They anticipate government harming markets through interference and have determined that government failure is more dangerous than market failure.

This leads to some pretty crazy stuff. If I observe -- as I did -- a housing bubble promoted by easy money and predatory lending practices, I become a true believer in government intervention. I want government regulation of banks to increase, not decrease.

If, on the other hand, I made a bunch of money making loans to people who were buying houses they couldn't afford, then I'm likely to blame Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac and laws favoring minority ownership for the housing crisis because these were actions precipitated by the government and thus make the point that government intervention is what caused the housing bubble. Long after the data is analyzed and the case against the government is thoroughly debunked, the zombie myth of causality lives on because, well, just because government is the problem, not the solution because, well, because.

Anyway, all the back and forth between the Keynesians and neo-Keynesians, and the classicists and the neo-classicists inevitably reflect political differences. I'd like to think, since most of the economists are connected to the academy, that these were actual policy differences. Alas, wherever they set up shop, economists know on which side their bread is buttered and act accordingly. Except for my side -- Paul Krugman, Dean Baker, Joseph Stiglitz, et al. They're all as righteous as the day is long. Well, maybe not righteous, just right.

To drive the point home, let's hear the words of John Maynard Keynes himself:
the market can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent.
Ain't that the truth. That is, if you're a Keynesian. I am.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Mittspeak Through the Looking Glass

I know it's nonsense, ma'am. But that's not a bug, it's a feature, trust me.
I thought I'd never figure out why Mitt Romney says some of the things he does. Even those of us who loathe him know he's smart, maybe even Obama-smart. So the only conclusion we can draw is that he knows that he pushing nonsense, but it's calculated nonsense. That's why what he's says can only be classified as lies.

Oh, every once in a while he tells the truth, you know, he's says he loves his wife, and that's undoubtedly true. Give a guy a break. But let's look at couple of statements and compare them to the truth. Of course, I'm not in search of his true statements. They're out there somewhere I suppose, but with Romney they're generally meaningless. Only his lies have any real flare to them. They're in Mittspeak:
Just a couple of weeks ago in Kansas, President Obama lectured us about Teddy Roosevelt’s philosophy of government.  But he failed to mention the important difference between Teddy Roosevelt and Barack Obama.  Roosevelt believed that government should level the playing field to create equal opportunities.  President Obama believes that government should create equal outcomes.
In an entitlement society, everyone receives the same or similar rewards, regardless of education, effort, and willingness to take risk. That which is earned by some is redistributed to the others. And the only people who truly enjoy any real rewards are those who do the redistributing—the government.
The truth is that everyone may get the same rewards, but virtually everyone will be worse off.
(h/t Jonathan Chait)

I was going to boldface the lie part until I realized the whole thing was a lie. But let's look at the most serious one (besides the fact that Obama never said anything remotely like the above), and that's the last line. "The truth is that everyone gets the same rewards, but virtually everyone will be worse off."

Now, why would he say that? It defies logic. If the government took JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon's millions away and left him, say, $5 million, and spread the rest of it around, we'd all get some, right? Let's say if we did that to all of the 1%-ers and gave their money away -- again let each one keep $5 mil -- to the 99%-ers, we'd all get a tidy little bonus, even if the government took a taste to pay for cutting the checks.

I'm not necessarily advocating this, but logic dictates that it would work that way, that the 99%-ers would get a tasty little bundle in their Christmas stockings. So why does Mitt say virtually EVERYBODY will be worse off? I'll take a stab at it: He wants every poor schlub to feel that they are going to be personally damaged by Barack Obama. The last thing Mitt Romney wants anyone to know is that with income redistribution, A TON OF PEOPLE are going to have a bunch more money.

Also, Obama has never suggested anything even remotely like this, other than a return to the tax rates of the Clinton Era -- already drastically reduced from the Eisenhower years -- and only for those making $250 grand a year.

The above passel of lies, tied in a bow of Mittspeak, could be differently inspired from the way I described. But they are lies nonetheless.

Here's His Mittness in New Hampshire in September:
The level of regulation in America, every [sic] the regulators, the government, come up with new regulations. And they send them out. The rate of regulatory burden has increased four-fold since Obama has become president. Four times the amount of regulation coming out per year as in the past. And so businesses say, ‘gosh, I’m not sure I want to invest in America.’
Both Steven Benen of Washington Monthly and Think Progress point out that Romney corrected the record through a spokesman only to repeat the lie months later.

The fact is that Barack Obama has issued fewer regulations than George W. Bush had at a similar point in his presidency, in fact 4.7% fewer.

We can't, however, blame Mitt Romney for this. He's got no choice. The truth is not red meat to his base -- if he even has one -- so he's got to make stuff up. Where am I wrong here?

I just thought of something: Mitt Romney is favored nationally by 23.5% of Republicans. Even with all his Mittspoken notions, he can't get many of his own to like him. And there's more: Gallup has Barack Obama at 47%-45%, his first posiitive reading in half a year. And in the current composite of polls Obama is beating Romney by 2%. All those lies for nothing. Poor Mittens.

On second thought, maybe you'd better not.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

In Which We Examine Mitt Romney's Principles Concerning the Truth

You don't need me -- Mitt's better at making stuff up. Who knew?

A theme is emerging, at least on the liberal side of the media, that Mitt Romney's key weakness is not that he'll take any position on issues that he feels will currently advance his political chances, regardless of whether or not he actually believes in those positions.

No, Mitt Romney's key weakness is that he's a flat-out liar. Big-time serial liar. Liar, liar, pants-on-fire liar.

From my standpoint, as I've been paying attention to his campaign so far, this is 100% true. That Mitt Romney is a liar.

If you noticed on my blog, I've got my General Principles listed on the left sidebar. Here's no. 10:

If you consider making stuff up a viable tactic, you are disallowed from civil discourse.

Clearly there's a problem with that principle. Campaigning apparently is not considered a part of civil discourse, so, I guess you can lie. Should I rewrite my general principle?

I've thought about it and realized that my general principle above is fine for me. I will follow it as carefully as I can. I consider it unethical and immoral to do otherwise.

Okay, so what we've got to do is rewrite my general principle so that it can be one that Mitt Romney could follow What would Mitt Romney's General Principle no. 10 look like?

No. 10: If you consider making stuff up a viable tactic, you are disallowed from civil discourse, unless you're running for president, in which case any bullshit you come up with is fine.

So there you have it. I've got my principles, and Mitt Romney has his. Just so we're clear.

Okay. Now let's apply this lens to one of Mitt Romney's recent statements. He was talking at a campaign stop in New Hampshire when a 21-year-old asked him a question:
Kallie Durkit: Relatability has been a large issue for you on this campaign trail, and as a college student many people in my generation find it especially hard to relate to you as a candidate. Why should we mobilize for you as a candidate instead of Obama, which we did in 2008?
Mitt Romney: What I can promise you is this –- when you get out of college, if I’m president you’ll have a job. If President Obama is reelected, you will not be able to get a job. That’s the reason I will hopefully get young people who are in college is to say, You know what, I understand what it takes to get jobs in America.
(h/t ThinkProgress)

Now, go ahead, slice and dice that statement any way you want. What are you obliged to decide? Mitt Romney is a stranger to the truth. He wouldn't know how to tell the truth if they gave him truth serum.

It will be a regular feature of this blog to discredit Mitt Romney for as long as he's a candidate for president. It won't be very difficult because he's, you know, a liar. Where is my analysis flawed?

I know it's crap, but you gotta admit, it's red meat to my base!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Truth. What a Concept.

Everyone -- at least liberals -- is talking about Politifact's choice for "Lie of the Year." The lie -- which isn't one -- is that the Democrats continually maintain that the Ryan Budget Plan, already passed by the Republican-led House, "ends Medicare as we know it."

What does the Ryan plan do? It takes a defined benefit healthcare program, currently funded by the U.S. government, and privatizes it. Instead, seniors are given vouchers, according to need, to buy private health insurance. The amount of the voucher is not guaranteed to be sufficient to fund all of the seniors' medical needs. This is a feature, not a bug. The savings to the federal government from this plan depends on spending less -- and guaranteeing less -- on seniors' healthcare. The program will still be called Medicare and only applies to people under 55 at the time of passage, I guess. Current retirees or near-retirees will still get the same old Medicare.

What's the lie? Politifact maintains that the program is still called Medicare, still offers healthcare to seniors, and doesn't affect current seniors. Therefore, Democrats are lying when they say that it ends the current form of Medicare.

This is such an major failure in every way imaginable. The essence of this Politifact claim amounts to this: The 3 oz. Hershey's Milk Chocolate candy bar will be changing from 3 oz. to 2 oz. It will no longer have any chocolate in it. Instead, it will be made of oatmeal. The name, because it's popular and well-known, will remain Hershey's Milk Chocolate.

Of course, the reason it's completely different is that government insured healthcare and private healthcare insurance are two completely different beasts.

Here's a key point rarely emphasized: There are no current private insurance plans for seniors because everyone has Medicare! In fact, if you refuse to sign up for Medicare, you lose your Social Security. The reason for this is to keep all seniors in the same risk pool, protecting other groups from bearing any of the costs of insuring seniors. More importantly, it maintains the economies of scale such a large program can achieve.

I suppose that there are, technically, health plans that would or could cover seniors, but because no seniors buy them -- unless some really, really rich people don't want to use Medicare for some reason and are willing to forgo their Social Security checks -- there exists no risk pool that currently contains seniors other than Medicare. Does anybody actually know what will happen to health insurance rates when seniors, who have the highest risk rating because they need and use more care, are added to the risk pool???

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that one out. Rates will explode, possibly influencing the rates of other younger, healthier insurance purchasers.

Like Paul Krugman, I believe this destroys Politifact's credibility and the usefulness of its project. And that's a shame because anything that brings truth to the political process is very valuable to our society indeed.

And it this same vein, while we're at it, Krugman writes today about Mitt Romney's post-truth campaign.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

I Was Hired to Turn a Gay Bar Redneck

For a minute, I might be turning apolitical, or not.

Back in the seventies -- this was years before AIDS devastated the San Francisco community -- my band, a bluegrass novelty act that broke Yiddish and classical before slamming a cajun fiddle tune full-force or channeling Jerry Jeff all on a constantly changing array of 23 instruments, was hired to play a long stint at the Shadowbox cocktail lounge. The Shadowbox was the former home of the late jazz great George Shearing, who died earlier this year at 91. He'd bought it to have a home base in the City. It was still his club when I encountered it.

I don't know much else about the club, except it was one that was at one time obviously elegant but from which now had fallen the original sheen. It had everything a nightclub needed: a curved bar, a spacious dance floor, a stage once graced by a grand piano -- now missing except for the dents -- and intimate booths all around. The feeling was black drapes, mirrors, shadowy paisley carpet, and a disco ball above the dance floor.

We started one evening without knowing what was up. We didn't necessarily know much more as we churned out our tunes, from Rocky Top to Tennessee Stud to Redneck Mother, but we were taken aback a bit when we saw guys making out in the booths and grabbing each others' butts on the dance floor.

We were hippies from the sixties who skipped disco and went straight to alt-country before there was alt-country. Like a lot of people then, especially in the Bay Area, we weren't very judgmental, but we didn't know much about teh gay. Not one way or another. It was like, I don't know, Belgium to us.

So, I went to get paid at the end of the night, and a lovely scarlet-haired women a bit on the Liza Minnelli side said, "Sorry about the gays. We hired you to chase them out." She said she liked the gays and they liked her. It was a business decision and not necessarily hers. "Oh well, Whaddya gonna do?" she said as she paid us. "You guys are great!"

The gays kept coming but dwindled as the weeks rolled by. In the beginning it was funny to watch the rednecks - such as they were -- come in, see the gays and go, huh?, and walk out. Slowly the rednecks stayed to dance, and the gays looked around and felt more and more out of place.

In its last weeks or so of being a gay bar, the Shadowbox saw gays walk in, look around at the rednecks in cowboy hats and wonder what the hell was going on. They'd stand there considering taking a booth and thought nah, and walked slowly out.

Soon there were no gays.

Our Liza Minnelli was now being dragged onto the dance floor to do the Texas two-step very much like the gays who loved her had done to take a turn with "YMCA" cranking out past the disco mirrored ball. It was apples and oranges, oranges and apples to her, all smiles, and a paycheck.

Me, I was Nick Carraway in a ten-gallon hat, all keen observer of my own ill-begotten Jazz Age. Only it was country and not so gay.

Now, the question is: In this parable (okay, a true story), which group is Daily Kos and which group is firedoglake? You've got thirty seconds, and the judges are the fans of Eschaton. Go! (Quick hint: Find my diaries at DK and FDL and read the comments.)

Alternate ending: Just read the story and.....

Crashing the Gate Versus Milling Around the Gate

I read a number of blogs, though not all of them daily. I like Daily Kos, Eschaton, firedoglake, Talking Points Memo, Paul Krugman, and a bunch of others. I also read a few economics blogs because, well, politics is money and all. I read the big rags because I have to for their news and views.

Mine is a relatively new blog, and I post diaries and comments at other blogs, newspapers, and such, frankly, to build a readership. It may or may not work. But for now it beats brainstorming posts while staring at 0s on the site meter. I am getting readers.

I posted one diary at a popular blog that was a re-post of one of mine here at The American Human, and, boy, did I get flamed. I suppose I should say to myself, "Hey, buck up, you're a big boy." The fact is, as much as I've shaken my head at the invective I see in many comments all over the web, it was distasteful to see a bunch of them on one of my own pieces of work.

And to think I thought, "Wow, a bunch of comments on my diary! Let's go read them!" Great. A newb at 63.

Fine, I'm over it now. But examining my original point, that working within the system -- in this case touting a big-tent Democratic Party that includes the 99%, draws in the 99% -- still seems the way to go.

I like reading firedoglake because I like its bloggers' spirit. From my time in the 1960s (still proud of getting thrown out of university for protesting Nam), I'm at heart a revolutionary, or at least a radical-progressive who despises the system yet finds himself still shopping at Safeway nonetheless.

It's okay to conclude I'm more of a Daily Kos kind of guy. The Democrats can win, and they're better than the Republicans. That's just about it, as far as politics du jour goes.

I know there's a better way, duh. I lived in the Netherlands in the early 70s and thought it was the most civilized place on the planet -- I could say the same thing for most of Scandinavia, too. The Dutch weren't radical, they'd just found a working, socialist model. I liked it. Why I turned down a chance at Dutch citizenship, I don't know. I wanted to come back and live in the "belly of the beast," I told myself. More like the vast wasteland, but...sometimes you live in the land you love, you know, the redwoods and the vineyards and the foggy headlands down to the rocky coast. Whaddya gonna do?

I'm not cynical, but here's two stories, three decades apart. First, I had a college roommate who, one evening breathlessly confessed that he had guns in the locker at the foot of his bed, because, you know, "I don't trust the man. This isn't going to end up pretty, man." He was sort of an SDS guy.

About four years later, he came to a club where my band was playing. He was in a suit and tie. He'd married his Vidal-Sassoon-coiffed girlfriend and had just finished law school. He'd apparently taken his father's advice -- and his money -- and had come in from the cold. He told me that he'd just signed on with a firm in Oakland specializing in corporate law.

So much for not trusting the man, man.

The second story involves a dear friend who said in 2000 that he was more of a libertarian and would vote for Nader instead of Gore. He wanted change, and it wasn't coming from the mainstream parties. Nader's votes in Florida gave us eight years of Bush, most would agree. How'd that work out?

If I were in my twenties, I'm sure I'd have been occupying Oakland or SF or wherever. I'd have had a mouthful to say if some CNN reporter asked me what I hoped to accomplish. But at the end of the day, these days, the Occupy movement may be -- I still have hope, mind you -- but may be, well it won't be our Arab Spring, let's just say that.

To use Marcos Moulitsas' metaphor, trying to reinvigorate the Democratic Party is like crashing the gate, trying to establish a voice, a strong one, within the establishment. Whereas the Occupy movement, so far mind you, has simply been milling around the gate.

That's how it looks to me now. Would I prefer a successful alternative movement with staying power, one that actually works to bring down the established order without pulling the plug on the patient? Of course I would. Will it come out of the Occupy movement, or the bars and the taverns or the protest music coming around? I don't know, I hope so, I really do.

In the meantime, I'm going to support the good Democrats and hope the blue dogs choke on their bones. I'm going to support a revitalization of the moribund union movement because it is all about the money. I'm going to work locally because we actually have something sustainable in the North Bay above SF, with our fields full of organic vegetables, poultry, and cattle. It's an improvement and so much better than the Betty Crocker days when I grew up.

Someone recently wrote on firedoglake that the two mainstream parties are like Coke and Pepsi. I get it. And I've occasionally been offered alternatives to sip, some with a distinct Marxist tang, or some with a bit of a Bertrand Russell finish, or a distinct Noam Chomksy bite. Ralph Naderade tasted good until he threw bombs and gave us W. But I'm sorry, until something cool and real, and sustainable, is developed, I'll drink our local wine.

In the meantime, I'll root for the Occupiers and rail against the 1%, and I'll admit our system is corrupt, fetid, and teetering. But I won't pull it down on top of me. I'm a pensioner, with a meager one at that, and children and grandchildren, and memories of french soup and red wine and passionate conversations about Che with exiled Spanish communists in cafes on the Left Bank in Paris. But that was so 1971, and this is now.

So I'll work from within the corrupt system and support the slightly less corrupt Democrats for now. And I'll vote for my local congressman, Mike Thompson of California's 1st District, whose local office took on the VA for us and finally, finally, after a year of wrangling won widow's benefits for my mother-in-law who suffers from end-stage Alzheimer's. Now that's political action I can believe in.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Dem's Big Tent Still the Way to Go

Out front, my main premise:
  • The Republican Party has been for some time developing into a rump party, as in "a small and inferior remnant or offshoot; a group (as in parliament) carrying on in the name of the original body after the departure or expulsion of a large number of its members." This is demonstrably true. Yes, both parties have lost a good deal of its membership to the independents, but the Republican Party's numbers have been trimmed the most. The independents are looking to belong, and the Democrats can give them something inclusive to belong to.
  • What remains of the Republican Party is a religiously, racially, and ideologically isolated contingent, despite their clinging to power based on a number of factors, not the least of which is its effective use of strategy and messaging. Yet it's quite vulnerable because of its isolation.
  • The Democratic Party, though weakened by its inability to outmaneuver the more politically competent rump Republicans, has a distinct advantage that can help them win over the longer term.
  • The Democrats can come to dominate American politics again -- as it did in the Roosevelt years, Kennedy-Johnson years, and most especially during the 40-plus years it controlled the Congress -- because it can embrace the hopes and needs of the largest numbers of Americans because it, and only it, can welcome so many seemingly disparate contingents.
There you have it. But there are keys to this longer-term strategy that should be no-brainers but strangely aren't, given the Democrats' history:
  • Maintain or even broaden the big-tent concept of inclusion. It's always been a blessing and a curse because shepherding the disparate members of the greater coalition takes work and a constant keeping an eye on the prize, which is difficult in good times and desperately hard in bad ones. Plus, the media has devolved into a group of gotcha-he-said-she-said-race-horse-what-the-hell-are-issues-and-policy stenographers for the whoopy-cushion set. That doesn't mean we can't manage them. The Republicans do well enough, right?
  • Big tent means everyone, at least everyone possible. We can't waste time on the folks inclined toward the Tea Party or the Islamophobes or the Southern white Christian blue-collar workers who think that they have to protect the prerogatives of the 1% just because they're gonna win the lottery some day. But we do need to embrace all that are excluded: GLBT's, Latinos, African-Americans, and, well, you know the drill.
  • This strategy gives us the keys to the 99%, a group that if properly leveraged can be a godsend in rousing the troops. Social and economic inequality link so much of our population together, and the narrative is compelling. Why waste it? Run with it!
  • Build and maintain a strong narrative: Republicans are what they are, and the world should be told about it until their ears fall off. The Republicans are an ever-decreasing minority who are, in effect, bullies. They bully the poor, elderly, and the middle class, and they bully the world with their insistence on do-it-our-way-or-we'll-blow-you-up-USA-fuck-yeah military-based diplomacy. They've lost the connection between working for the welfare of our entire society -- or the greater world, for that matter -- because their allegiance to moneyed interests and outdated religiosity doesn't allow for social programs (that cost the wealthy money, oh noes!), and they cover it up with shouts of socialism, when all socialism means is a government dedicated to the goals of society at large, not just the elite few. Fine, avoid the word socialism and say "we're for all the people." See, that wasn't hard, was it?
  • Make it clear as we press the narrative forward that we mean all the people, even the 1%. Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and dozens of Hollywood millionaires don't mind paying taxes and working for the greater good. If you're actually in the 1%, welcome aboard!
  • Majorize the big-tent Democratic Party and marginalize the rump Republican Party. Don't bully but do remind Americans that we want you because they don't, pure and simple.
I could go on, but the point's made. There has been no greater time for an inclusive party, and there has been no time when the people are looking in greater numbers to climb on board. Give them something to believe in -- and that means believing in them, too, which is the essence of inclusion -- and they will join with a vengeance. Let the people know, we're in this together. And let the people know that the Republicans speak in code, and we've got the decoder.

And we don't get fooled again.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Nightly No-Business Report

There's not a lot of good things to say about business in America, Europe, even China, it seems. So, at least we can point fingers at the freaks and geeks on the wrong side of our multi-polar universe(s).

Samuelson: Keynes is, ah, wrong because, ah, wow, is that the new Porsche??

 Dean Baker gets as howling mad at Robert Samuelson as I was with his assertion that Keynes was circling the drain. Au contraire, M. Samuelson, c'est toi, c'est toi:
Okay, Samuelson actually wants to say goodbye to Keynes, but he would have had a better case if he was talking about Darwin and the theory of evolution. After all, when we have seen nothing but confirming evidence for years, why should we still accept the theory?
Samuelson tells readers:
"The eclipse of Keynesian economics proceeds. When Keynes wrote “The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money” in the mid-1930s, governments in most wealthy nations were relatively small and their debts modest. Deficit spending and pump priming were plausible responses to economic slumps. Now, huge governments are often saddled with massive debts. Standard Keynesian remedies for downturns — spend more and tax less — presume the willingness of bond markets to finance the resulting deficits at reasonable interest rates. If markets refuse, Keynesian policies won’t work."
It seems the problem here is that Robert Samuelson has not heard about the euro. The countries he has identified as reaching a situation where they "lose control over their economy" are all on the euro. These are countries that do not issue their own currency. In this sense they are like Ohio and Texas. These states cannot freely run deficits because the Federal Reserve Board has no explicit or implicit commitment to back up their debt. Greece, Italy and Spain are in the same situation, as the European Central Bank (ECB) has repeatedly insisted that it will not back up the government debt they issue.
Samuelson says it is "unclear" why, given our own debt and deficit, interest rates are still just 2 percent and investors are willing to lend us trillions of dollars. Actually it is very clear. The Federal Reserve Board stands behind the debt of the United States government and there are few good investment opportunities in the current economy.
 It's time we realize there are a whole lot of economists and economics pundits who have to be bunched together into the club where they actually rightfully belong: how about calling it the Austrian dead-enders? Or the Hayek zombies?

By the way, Samuelson does something that is the most annoying: he fills his article with sentences in which he admits he's not, well, wrong. No, that can't be it. It's that he's right but just can't explain the low bond rates. Otherwise, everything's ducky!

Update: Paul Krugman discovers a Samuelson flub about his Keynes contention. Or is that fib? Tsk, tsk, Robert.

Spanish Parliament. Here's where they decide to destroy themselves. Ole!

Atrios latches onto yet another story about a euro country with a new conservative government that is fighting a failing economy with spending cuts. It works so well:
Spanish newspaper El Mundo reports that Rajoy is planning to cut spending across the board, and only pension payouts will rise in the coming year. His plans include the reduction of public debt to 60% by 2020 from as much as 69% next year and more than that this year, according to Dow Jones. He also advocates a plan to privatize segments of the public sector.
More importantly, Rajoy has promised to cleanse the Spanish financial system of overwhelming debts and difficulties. He reportedly (via El Mundo) said this effort will include a new "wave" of bank fusions where stronger banks will absorb smaller ones, although he mentioned nothing about reported plans to create a "bad bank" which would absorb toxic bank assets. That second plan has been a topic of speculation for the last month, particularly due to similarities with a policy Ireland pursued in an attempt to cleanse its banking system.
 Yes, let's imitate Ireland, which has a tanking economy post-austerity. Last quarter the Irish GDP only slipped 2.2% year-on-year. But who's counting? (I suspect maybe the Spanish Socialists, who are counting the days before their country cries for them to come back.)

This hurts me more than it hurts you. Really. No, really.

As if John Boehner hasn't caused enough grief. Even Chris Cillizza thinks killing the payroll tax holiday is "risky":
 In so doing [rejecting the Senate version], House Republicans are making a major political gamble on a very popular piece of legislation, essentially risking the failure of the payroll tax extension by pushing the ball — figuratively speaking — back over to the Senate.
(For what it’s worth, the Democratic Senate leadership seems willing to call House GOPers bluff; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) said Monday no further discussions will occur until the House passes the two-month extension agreed to by the Senate.)
Listen closely to Boehner’s rhetoric this morning and it’s clear what Republicans are up to: making the case that a two-month extension is nothing more than passing the buck or, in Boehner’s words, kick the can down the road. (Does anyone actually kick a can down the road anymore? Wethinks not.)
 I wish I had confidence that Reid really means it about calling Boehner's bluff. That would be so cool! By now we should all know that to get it passed, the Dems will cave and approve the Keystone XL pipeline and legalize the summary execution of activist judges (only the liberal ones). Compromise, anyone?

Shanghai. Ready for real estate prime time?

As if we needed China to have a credit bubble. Don't worry, it's popping:
It is hard to obtain good data in China, but something is wrong when the country's Homelink property website can report that new home prices in Beijing fell 35pc in November from the month before. If this is remotely true, the calibrated soft-landing intended by Chinese authorities has gone badly wrong and risks spinning out of control.
The growth of the M2 money supply slumped to 12.7pc in November, the lowest in 10 years. New lending fell 5pc on a month-to-month basis. The central bank has begun to reverse its tightening policy as inflation subsides, cutting the reserve requirement for lenders for the first time since 2008 to ease liquidity strains.
The question is whether the People's Bank can do any better than the US Federal Reserve or Bank of Japan at deflating a credit bubble.
Chinese stocks are flashing warning signs. The Shanghai index has fallen 30pc since May. It is off 60pc from its peak in 2008, almost as much in real terms as Wall Street from 1929 to 1933.
 Great. I wish someone had warned us. Wait, there was that warning (or twelve) from Dr. Doom...Who listens to him?
But Beijing is moving in the opposite direction. The leadership responded to Western market turmoil not by boosting consumption but by increasing state and private spending on fixed investment, which now accounts for nearly half of China's growth. The result has been an explosion in residential and commercial real estate, more state spending on infrastructure and more cheap loans from state-owned banks to state-owned enterprises.

Indeed, a key obstacle to reform is that China remains so heavily invested in its state-managed model of capitalism. Of the 42 Chinese companies listed in the 2010 edition of the Fortune 500, 39 were state-owned enterprises, and three quarters of China's 100 largest publicly traded companies are government controlled. Party officials with a stake in the success of state-owned enterprises have amassed considerable power within the leadership, and they ferociously resist efforts to transfer away their wealth to private enterprises and ordinary citizens.
China has the cash and foreign reserves to postpone a crisis. But growth is slowing, financial stresses are rising, and there is good reason to fear that China's days of can-kicking are numbered as well.
Update: Speaking of Paul Krugman, it slipped my mind what he wrote about China only yesterday. Yikes! You've got good company, Nouriel.

The Doomster. No wonder they call it the dismal science. (Wish he was wrong.)

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Iraq War Is Not Over

Today the last convoy of troops and equipment rolled out of Iraq into Kuwait. So we see a flurry of reports that say the Iraq War is over. It's not.

It's not over for the more than 32,200 American troops that were wounded or for the families of the 4,484 troops killed in action, or for families of the 318 coalition troops killed.

It's not over for the families of the 10,125 dead Iraqi troops and the estimated (approx.) 113,000 dead civilians. These are conservative estimates. A combined Bloomberg/Johns Hopkins/Al Mustansiriya University, Baghdad study put the figure at 654,965 “excess deaths”—fatalities above the pre-invasion death rate, with more than 601,000 of those classified as violent deaths.

It's not over for the 86,000 Iraqi war widows or the estimated 4.5-5 million Iraqi orphans (loss of a father or both parents constitutes orphanhood in Iraq).

It's not over for the 467,565 Iraqi displaced persons.

It's not over for every living Iraqi today.

It's not over because we don't know what the future holds for the Iraqi people. Only time will tell if the Sunni, Shia, and Kurds can live in peace. There are few reasons for high expectations, but there's no harm in hoping for the best. It's not unreasonable, though, to anticipate civil war.

Only time will tell. I remember during the war blogger Atrios pointed out that Tom Friedman of the New York Times would often declare that "the next six months are crucial." He did this so often that Atrios referred to this as a Friedman Unit, or an FU.

I'm sure someone in the media has at some point in the last few days declared that for Iraq the next six months will be crucial for avoiding a civil war. There may never be an end to FUs in Iraq.

There are a ever-receding number of American WWII veterans, as we're reminded each year on Veteran's Day. We can expect almost all of the rest to die off in the next decade. Having talked to quite a number of them, I know that the war never ended for them, as it most certainly hasn't for thousands of Vietnam vets.

Wars are never "over," they just enter a different phase. Hell, the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 still sticks in the craw of many a Serb today.

The only part of the Iraq War I can claim is the shame of having lived through it as an American citizen, knowing that I helped pay for it and knowing that it was as useless as any war can be: it was unnecessary, and we'll be paying for it beyond the memories of those alive today.

I have never forgotten meeting my great aunt Betsy Gibb Wallace, who lived in a one-room brick house in the tiny hamlet of Luthermuir, an hour or so north of Edinburgh in Scotland. She had lived there seemingly forever -- I had met her there as a "wee lad" in 1954 and then again in 1972.

In '72 when we showed up unexpectedly, she welcomed me and my girlfriend Suzanne in for tea. Betsy was in her eighties then. While she was brewing the tea, I looked around the room and spied a portrait above her bed. It was a photograph of Charles Wallace, a handsome, young soldier, who married young Betsy, and got her pregnant with Charles Jr. before going off to war in 1914, never to return.

She had slept in that bed alone under that portrait for more than sixty years.

Betsy Gibb Wallace had her son Charlie ("Aye, Chairlie, he bides doon the roodie in a wee hoosie, ya ken," she told me) and that was a blessing.

But for her, World War I was not over. For her, it was never over.

Just as, for countless human beings, the Iraq War is not over and may never be.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Nightly No-Business Report

Barry Ritholtz, as he often does, straightens us out on the Fannie/Freddie SEC litigation:

Yes, we know: The usual liars and assclowns have latched onto the SEC litigation against the F&F execs for their the own biased reasons, as if lying executives somehow vindicates their own lies about the causes of the crisis. The suit is about statements made after housing peaked in both price and sales volume and was already heading south.
Let’s take a look at the SEC suit, and note what is being litigated, and what it might mean for other banking and mortgage execs.
This is a relatively straightforward case of securities fraud. The defendants knowingly misled investors about the volumes of risky mortgages that their companies were purchasing as the housing boom turned to bust. The complaint names former Freddie Mac execs CEO Richard Syron and former Fannie Mae CEO Daniel Mudd as defendants. Four other high-ranking former GSE execs are also named.*
Proving these charges is a simple matter of comparing the actual holdings against what the execs said to investors in public statements.

 Paul Krugman lays it out clear as a bell on the Ron Wyden fiasco:
What Wyden did was to give cover to the fundamental fallacy of right-wing attempts to dismantle Medicare: the claim that market competition is the key to reducing health care costs. We have overwhelming evidence on this — and it just isn’t true. Looking both within the United States and across countries, if you ask which systems are best at cost control, the ranking looks like this:
Government provision as well as financing (socialized medicine) > single payer > market competition
Why doesn’t the market work here? Ken Arrow explained it all half a century ago. Patients by and large don’t have the information to evaluate medical treatments; in any case, they mainly buy insurance rather than medical care directly; and insurers profit not by providing the most cost-effective care, but by trying to insure people who won’t need care.
And it’s not as if market competition hasn’t been given a try; in this country it has been tried over and over, by politicians who won’t take no for an answer.

  Here's news reportage about the eurozone crisis and how it's not being addressed:
A comprehensive solution to the euro zone debt crisis is beyond the region's reach, rating agency Fitch said, warning that six of its economies including Italy and Spain could be hit with credit downgrades in the near future.

The warning late Friday, the second time in two weeks that the bloc has been threatened with multiple ratings markdowns, heightened pressure on leaders to get to grips with the turmoil.
Fitch also said it might also cut AAA-rated France within two years and urged the European Central Bank to take a more active firefighting role.
One ECB policymaker said Saturday that time was running out to come up with solutions to a crisis that could spark a global slump. Another said the bank would not expand the bond buying program it launched to keep a lid on vulnerable states' debt costs. [boldface mine and is a huge eurofail, IMHO]
If the ECB can't face up to the fact that it's got to take the heat off the rising interest rates on Irish, Portugese, Spanish, Greek, and Italian debt, the whole eurozone could go up in smoke, as in bye-bye euro (taking the global economy down with it). The solution I hope for -- as do economists of note -- is for the ECB to issue eurobonds. As Alexander Mercouris says of eurobonds, "It is in fact nothing more nor less than yet another device to get Germany to guarantee the whole of the eurozone’s sovereign debt." Makes sense to me. As Atrios would say, na ga na happen. Hope that sentiment is wrong. Otherwise, we're circling the drain.

To end on an unhappy note, Calculated Risk determines there are 974 problem banks the FDIC may or may not have to move on in 2012:
After a four week hiatus, the FDIC got back to closings. Also, the OCC got back to releasing its enforcement activities on the first Friday after the 15th of the month. As a result, there were several changes to the Unofficial Problem Bank List this week. In all, there were five removals and two additions, which leave the list standing at 974 institutions with assets of $398.3 billion. A year ago, the list held 920 institutions with assets of $411.4 billion.

The removals include one cure, two unassisted mergers, and two failures. The OCC terminated an action against BNC National Bank, Glendale, AZ ($667 million Ticker: BNCC). Viking Bank, Seattle, WA ($387 million) and AmericaUnited Bank and Trust Company USA, Schaumburg, IL found merger partners. The two failures were Western National Bank, Phoenix, AZ ($163 million) and Premier Community Bank of the Emerald Coast, Crestview, FL ($126 million).

Given the calendar, the FDIC is likely [finished] with closings in 2011. If so, the year will end with 92 failures at an initial estimated cost of $7.2 billion for liquidating assets of $35.9 billion, which translates into a resolution cost of about 20% of failed bank assets. Buyers were willing to pay a deposit premium in only 22 of the resolutions and loss share agreements were done in 57 resolutions covering $17.9 billion of failed assets acquired.

The additions include First Federal Savings and Loan Association of McMinnville, McMinnville, OR ($346 million) and SouthernTrust Bank, Goreville, IL ($52 million).

The OCC converted a few Formal Agreements or previously OTS issued Supervisory Agreements to Consent Orders. Next Friday, we anticipate the FDIC will release its enforcement action activity for the month of November.
 Maybe something grand will happen to fix all this stuff. And maybe Ben Bernanke with fill bazookas full of money and shoot them at the proletariat. I'm not holding my breath.

Free Information Is a Human Right

As human rights go, this one would be a no-brainer were it not such a relatively new concept, and were it not that it's not universally adopted for various insidious, evil, and, occasionally, ethical reasons.

For example, Hollywood doesn't want information to be free if that means letting crackers steal and redistribute their "intellectual property." The same goes for the record company moguls that shudder at the idea that music should be free. Then there's the whole host of software companies that believe their products should be paid for, too.

I have no quarrel with any of them, even if they fight their own citizens more than, say, the Chinese or Indians. I suppose that's for practical reasons, though some are political, as well.

No, the kind of information I'm speaking to relates to the general category of communication, which has by now become a subset of information technology, though a rather large one at that. Information technology, including cell phones, SMS (messaging), laptops, tablets, PCs, servers, and the whole area of server farms that host the "cloud," add up to an earth-shaking, transformative, on-going event that will irrevocably change life as we know it.

I was listening to NPR late in the night when a broadcast of the World Affairs Council had a program on innovation in communication, and the show presented three entrepreneurs whose ideas were emblematic of the power of information and of the revolution underway. One, microWorkers, was the brainchild of a young woman whose non-profit offers micro-work to the four billion (her figure) who exist on three dollars or less a day. This micro-work, each unit being worth 10 to 25 cents or so, involves data-processing on one level or another. Each task has to be simple, repeatable, and easy to evaluate, allowing good workers to accrue reputations for reliability. Naturally, this effort was aimed at alleviating poverty.

Another man had helped create Ushahidi -- the Swahili word for witness -- that mapped crises using Google maps and then set up a multiple-channel crowdsourced system using the cloud to accumulate and then distribute real-time information during a crisis. It currently operates in 133 countries.

The third man's contribution -- from Qualcomm -- was the use of cell phones linked by Bluetooth and other interfaces to simple diagnostic devices such as blood-pressure and blood-sugar meters to allow remote diagnostics in rural regions anywhere in the world.

Oximeter connected to cell phone for diagnosing pnuemonia

Each venture spoke to a widespread need for which communication devices could offer solutions in very human areas of conflict resolution, hunger and poverty, and healthcare availability. Who would have thought that cell phones -- now affordable and widely available even in rural, impoverished Africa -- could lead to solutions as disparate as those above?

And this is only the beginning of an explosive period in technology development. Even five years from now we'll be living in a brave new world, this one, I hope, more benevolent than that envisioned in the book of the same name. And it will be, if information is free.

The revolutions of the Arab Spring were greatly enabled by social media, and even the recent protests over election fraud in Russia might have been quashed were it not for the fact that, from this time forward, the whole world is actually watching. Where information is free, the people have a better chance to be.

Without cell-phone video, would the UC Davis pepper-spray incident have had such resonance? Pick your own example. They're now everywhere to be found.

Where information is successfully closed off, as in Syria and Iran, it's harder for movements to gain traction. However successfully the Green Revolution was quashed, the world will never forget how the masks were pulled from the faces of the Ayatollah and his minions: the Islamic Republic is ruled by bloodthirsty murderers. Such a public outing accrued to Bashar al-Assad, even with his more successful closing of the communications networks in Syria. Even the Arab League and close allies like Turkey and Russia have had to repudiate him. Hopefully, his days are numbered.

The U.S. is guilty on a number of levels in making information unfree. The national-security label is over-used, and Congress has for years, under the guise of protecting decency or, more recently, "intellectual property," tried to restrict information flow. Usually there's a Republican hand leading this, but there are plenty of Democratic enablers, to be sure.

Whatever your opinion of Julian Assange and Wikileaks is, the enterprise is a worthy one. Hopefully, a better business model will emerge and a better entrepreneur will step forward to expose government wrongdoing wherever it occurs.

China is a whole topic unto itself. I wish for every breakthrough in dismantling its Great Firewall. Hopefully, communication technology will rise to the occasion in this very important struggle.

Tiananmen Square 1989. What would have happened were it today?

Free information is revolutionary and transformative. Nowhere, for practically any reason, should its flow be curtailed. It is, undeniably, a human right, one that affords little comfort to despots, be they third-world despots or white-collar criminals like Jon Corzine. We can now know -- and in the future, by what factor multiplied? -- what's going on everywhere in near real-time.

I'm not such a rosy optimist that I think we're on the brink of world peace. We're just as likely on the brink of extinction (think global warming). But as each day passes, another innovation can bring opportunities for good health, decreasing poverty, better education, increasing transparency, freer people, broader knowledge on issues and crises, and so on.

Free information is good for us, notwithstanding the occasional lost dollar from piracy and counterfeiting. But the alternative, where information is strictly controlled, either on national security grounds or to protect the 1%'s almighty dollar, is bad for us. Fight control of information at all costs.

Free information is a human right.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Nightly No-Business Report

Wake up, wake up, c'mon, puppy!
The State of the Nation, econ-wise:

From MSNBC -- 1 in 2 Americans are now poor or low income:

WASHINGTON - Squeezed by rising living costs, a record number of Americans — nearly 1 in 2 — have fallen into poverty or are scraping by on earnings that classify them as low income.
The latest census data depict a middle class that's shrinking as unemployment stays high and the government's safety net frays. The new numbers follow years of stagnating wages for the middle class that have hurt millions of workers and families.
"Safety net programs such as food stamps and tax credits kept poverty from rising even higher in 2010, but for many low-income families with work-related and medical expenses, they are considered too 'rich' to qualify," said Sheldon Danziger, a University of Michigan public policy professor who specializes in poverty.
"The reality is that prospects for the poor and the near poor are dismal," he said. "If Congress and the states make further cuts, we can expect the number of poor and low-income families to rise for the next several years."
Is it really Amazon v. Apple? Via Barry Ritholtz:
If you invested $1,000 dollars into both companies in 1997, your Amazon investment would be worth $30,000 more than your Apple investment today.
As Barry sez, ginormous chart here (click to enlarge).

Okay, never bought stock in either, or Google. I guess I just don't like high-flyers! BTW, Apple stock was so far down in 1997 without Jobs that it was a long way back. Don't know what a difference that makes...

Martin Wolf explains how the UK is destroying itself:
I wrote a column on November 24 2011 entitled “Why cutting fiscal deficits is an assault on profits”. My point was summarised as follows: “If the government wishes to cut its deficits, other sectors must save less. The questions are ‘which ones’ and ‘how’. What the government has not admitted is that the only actors able to save less now are corporations. The government’s – not surprisingly, unstated – policy is to demolish corporate profits.”
 I like to read Martin Wolf. Not because he makes me feel good, mind you, but I like to hear something resembling the truth of the matter. His view rings true. Follow it here (free registration required).

Via Paul Krugman (quoting Kevin O'Rourke):
“So, we hear Ireland is recovering”, a French friend said to me last night.
(Mind you, they said something similar in the summer of 2010. Our government has an incentive to sell the Irish good news story, and “Europe” has an incentive to buy it.)
So, here are the latest employment data, reporting the largest seasonally adjusted quarterly fall in employment in two years, and which surely deserve a thread of their own. [boldface mine]
 The key to this story is that Ireland was another of the countries that had austerity forced on them by the EU Overlords. The Irish, in their humble acceptance of the fate as forever-cursed, have given in, thus protecting the banksters. How's that working out? Employment there is tanking, as it is everywhere in Austerityland. And why is it important to us? Hint: Europe is our 2nd largest trading partner.

Finally, just for fun, this is how Jon Corzine rulz:
 A House committee is expected to disclose on Thursday that MF Global, under Jon S. Corzine, stripped critical powers from its top executive in charge of controlling risk, according to a person briefed on the matter.
The move left the firm short-handed as it was grappling with the implications of its $6.3 billion position on European sovereign debt, a trade large enough to wipe out the firm if it soured.
 Happy economy, citizens! Join the Occupy Wall Street and be one of the 99%! Join the Tea Party and be, ah, what? (one of the 99%.) Don't tell the conservatives, they'll go ballistic!

Throw the Bums Out

An American citizen in its native habitat, the real world.

In my post, The Long Goodbye, I spoke with a growing sense of despair, one that's understandable given the self-inflicted cataclysm our Dear Leaders are steering us towards. But then I read this in the WaPo:
The American electorate is primed to throw out record numbers of incumbents in the 2012 election, according to new polling from the Pew Research Center.
Everywhere you look in the numbers, which were released this morning, you see political land mines for incumbents.
Sixty seven percent say they want to see most Members of Congress voted out in 2012, the highest that number has ever been in Pew polling. And, while people are more favorably inclined to see their own Member re-elected, (50 percent yes/33 percent no) those numbers still match historic lows.
Among political independents, the numbers are even more grim. Just 15 percent of independents want to see most members re-elected in 2012; only 37 percent want to see their own incumbent win a new term next year while 43 percent would like to see their own Member lose.
Most of the time I've spent paying attention to politics, the numbers in these polls were always rendered irrelevant by the "except their own representative, which they highly support." This is might really be different. So how do we make it so?
  • Stop giving money except to newcomers you've vetted and feel truly enthusiastic about. Elizabeth Warren, Darcy Burner, or Tammy Duckworth come to mind. The rest, even an incumbent you like, the hell with them.
  • Call, email, or snail-mail your representatives on every level, even state, city, and county, and remind them constantly of your views on the issues and that the jig is up. You'll vote against them and campaign relentlessly to usher them out of office. And NO MONEY unless you see them working for the welfare of all the people. A whiff of bankster love, and it's over.
  • Pick some way of being active in politics. Go to town meetings and help whip up support for your issues. And your activism should be local and issue-specific, but if you're pissed at Ron Wyden for blowing up the Democratic Party advantage on Medicare -- while endangering seniors who've paid all their lives for health security in their so-called Golden Years -- then be unrelenting in your contacts with his office. Find ways to make them hear (representatives in Congress make it difficult to get email from non-constituents). Make their ears ring!
  • If you don't like them, vote them out. The idea that protecting the Democrats because they're marginally better may be self-defeating. What if both sides of the aisle believed that the exit door was one false move away? Republicans and Democrats alike would start to think, "Can't we all get along?"
  • Boycott corrupt businesses. Leave the big banks for local ones and credit unions. Let's not leave them on Move Your Money Day. Let's leave them for good. And don't shop Walmart or any other big player that fights unions. Unions may be the way to bring back the middle class. That's a no-brainer. Oh, and if an airline screws its unions, avoid flying on that carrier. Contact your favorite airline and tell it that destroying unions through Chapter 11 bankruptcy is a surefire way to lose your business for good.
  • Support bloggers who rally citizens to the cause.
  • Big must: Fight all attempts to curtail the freedoms we have on the Internet. Don't fall for the hooey that they're only trying to protect their copyrights. They want to control all content. That's their game. Stopping piracy is just a bonus.
  • Be a protester, be Person of the Year, every year. If you don't like something, go disobey civilly.
You get the message. To be truly non-partisan while remaining effective might just mean that we've got to throw our own bums out, regardless of party affiliation. It'll scare some sense into them!

Leave me alone, I'm occupied!

Talk about Media Narratives

Spot on.

h/t John F.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Long Goodbye

I'll miss the United States I grew up in. As I child, I saw and felt a number of things that didn't sit well with me, but I had what is no doubt an irrational trust that these things would be righted. I was suitably freaked out by the Cold War and the arms race that accompanied it, but I trusted that mutually assured destruction was an adequate deterrent. I did fear an accidental explosion, but, again, I believed in the notion of fail safe, even after seeing the movie of the same name. I believed that I was surrounded by adults who would keep me from harm.

I had no such optimism about civil rights, having witnessed the Jim Crow South as a young child. That experience did, however, prepare me to appreciate what was accomplished by John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The face of the fifties, the Nelsons
I actually believed in George Burns and Gracie Allen, and Ozzie and Hariett, and all that crazy 50s hokum. As much as I liked that face of America, I liked rock 'n' roll, Bob Dylan, the counterculture, and protesting the Vietnam War even more. Now that was an identity I was comfortable with, and I thought it was just as American as Eddie Haskell and the Cleavers, even more so because we had discovered some real values of love, kindness, sharing, and a desire for real freedom for all Americans.

Okay, I might have been wrong about the 70s, but...
As the 60s and 70s progressed, I could sense that the promise of freedom for all in America was becoming true both legally and culturally. I felt freer and quite optimistic. Even the Watergate scandal was, I felt, a vindication of the rule of law, not simply a glimpse at the soft underbelly of corruption in politics. We had rooted out the evil it stood for.

Camp David Accords
I was an unabashed fan of Jimmy Carter and am to this day. He was ahead of his time on alternative energy, should be credited with beginning to modernize the armed forces, forged the only meaningful peace treaty ever signed between Arabs and Jews, and could have done more if he hadn't been dealt a lethal blow by the Iranian hostage crisis. His stand on human rights as a central value of the U.S. looks so moral compared to George W. Bush.  He was a dignified, humble, and honest man, rare in a president. Maybe he didn't manage Congress well and backed down too easily (et toi, Obama?). He has, as a former president, had a positive impact on both our country and the world, and he has largely rescued his legacy in his long retirement.

Things declined rapidly under Ronald Reagan. Many people don't remember how Reagan took on the labor unions and gave them some punishing blows, striking at the heart of the middle class. His tax policies were the beginning of a new resurgence in income inequality that continues to this day. The Iran-Contra scandal -- and its long and flaccid unwinding -- showed that corruption and hypocrisy can be tolerated by those ideologically inclined to do so. Reagan's policies initiated what could be called the Great Stagnation, the beginning of the end of the middle class, with most new wealth going to the top and never trickling down.

Bush the elder's contribution to this continuum was not nothing, but he continued the Reagan years and belief systems. Oh, he won a war and presided over a recession that was his undoing, if only because his blue blood made him genetically disposed to looking insensitive to the plight of everyday Americans, which he was, like his son who would later follow him.

The Clinton years were a respite to the ongoing American decline. Poverty rates declined dramatically, and by and large the Clinton scandals were made up. The Lewinsky affair was a national embarrassment on several levels, not the least of which was the idea that oral sex was a legitimate reason to toss a president. The return of budget surpluses amid a true economic boom was a plus. The repeal of Glass-Steagall was not, and we'll be regretting that stumble for some time. Also, enshrining the heads of Goldman Sachs as the watchdogs of the Treasury drew an arc to cataclysm we'll be reeling from for years.

If I screw this up, can I still keep the flight suit?
George W. Bush was too epic a failure to describe as an "arc." It was more like the descent into a deep crater. All of the events are chronicled: tax cuts one and two; not one war but two, neither of them funded; Medicare Part D that set drug costs at unsustainable levels that add continually to the national debt; the flawed and callous execution of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that haunt us to this day; a complete abdication of our responsibilities as humans, Americans, and citizens of the world with our lawlessness at Guantanamo, coupled with our adoption of torture and indefinite detention; the dramatic increase in poverty rates coupled with stagnant wages for the middle class, along with more and more income inequality as the rich got the bulk -- as in the Reagan years -- of any new wealth. There's more, much more. I leave it to you to enumerate further.

I know, hope is not a plan.
We come to Barack Obama. He wouldn't be such a disappointment if he hadn't promised so much, either in what he explicitly said or in the way he said it. There was so much promise, but he didn't deliver.

Of course he was hobbled from the beginning by economic circumstance. He was mercilessly pounded by an intractable opposition in spite of solid majorities in Congress. He produced a reasonably balanced health care reform law; he managed TARP well enough, if only in letting it unwind the way it was arranged when it was handed off to him by Bush; he showed grit by bailing out the auto industry, saving jobs; his stimulus package did save jobs and averted a depression, one we may experience anyway. Obama, too, can point to foreign policy victories in the war against terrorists -- though his use of drones is disturbing -- and his wise handling of the Arab Spring.

Let's offer Obama tax cuts in exchange for ripping his heart out.
But talk about unwindings, we've been experiencing a long one beginning with Obama's failure to stand up to Republicans -- and recalcitrant Democrats -- on the Bush tax cuts during the 2010 lame-duck session. Since then, it's been one remarkable cave-in after another, on a whole range of issues, from the debt-ceiling debacle to the most recent apparent lack of guts on the payroll-tax-holiday extension. Along the way, human and civil rights have been seriously imperiled, first with such tacit acceptance of Bush-era illegalities, and later with the failure to try detainees in public courts where they belong and the failure to close Guantanamo. Now, we're on the brink of watching Barack Obama allow a law to pass, without a veto, that could lead to American citizens being detained indefinitely without habeas corpus or public hearing. Shameless is not strong enough a word. It's the final nail, and yet it feels as if there are more nails to hammer and more disastrous shoes to drop. One, it seems, may involve the beginning of the end of Medicare, just as an aging America needs it the most.

It's cheaper to give bankers money than to prosecute them.
When they write the book on Barack Obama, a dismal coda will be the way the Fed, while managing to sustain growth with smoke and mirrors, kept shooting bazookas-full of money to the banksters and the bastards that caused all the financial mayhem in the first place. I accept that an honest opinion can be held that the world financial structure had to be saved, but I would have preferred -- and I mean this sincerely -- that those bazookas of cash were pointed at the people whose homes were being foreclosed upon and whose livelihoods were being destroyed one job at a time. Let the wealth trickle up for change. We know it doesn't trickle down.

It's been dismal watching the inept way our law enforcement mechanisms have failed to prosecute white-collar, financial crime while our local police forces look more and more like paramilitary units as they sweep through the Occupy movement's encampments in Homeland Security riot gear in the middle of the night. However you view OWS and its tactics, this blatant disregard for the well-being of practitioners of non-violent civil disobedience throws a bad light on our current American culture.

Adding to -- some might say spearheading -- our decline are the Republicans so bent on destroying Barack Obama that they have forged a true contempt for the American people and our plight in the middle of the unraveling of our national economic model. When we'll come back is anyone's guess, but it won't be with the help of the Republican Party, which believes in growth through destruction of cherished American institutions.

Right about now, in an essay like this, comes the usual declaration that I hope Barack Obama gets re-elected, along with a return to Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. And I admit, I don't have it in me to say I'll never vote for this abysmal failure because it's true, that I fear even more a Republican sweep of all three branches of government, especially in the wake of Citizens United and the never-ending free money it delivers in a political era still dominated, yes, by the likes of Karl Rove, Dick Armey, Ari Fleischer, Rupert Murdoch, and the Koch brothers. I shudder -- as if for real zombies, vampires, chainsaws, and Blair witches -- to think of that America.

Cutting spending creates jobs. (hehe)

In the end, I guess this could be what America's long goodbye looks like: zombie ideas instead of real zombies, and the eventual abdication of electoral power by a hoodwinked and bamboozled population of people who believe in "taking responsibility for their own actions" and living a life "based on faith in God and Country" and "it's our money and we should decide how to spend it," even though taxes will no doubt go up or be maintained on the subservient 99% while they all but vanish on the 1% who have underwritten the bamboozlement.

 It's depressing, this long goodbye, but that doesn't mean it's not underway. This journey from naive child to worried senior citizen has taken a lifetime. I wish I had another one with which to fight back.

Maybe they'll let me come back as George Carlin...