Thursday, January 29, 2015

Watching the End of Capitalism? Yes, If We Don't Address the Stupid

Oracle chairman Larry Ellison's 2004 yacht. David Geffen bought half of
it in 2006 and has owned it all since 2010. 11th largest in the world.
Rich people need shit like this to feel good.

When we talk about the end of capitalism (won't be that easy, but can you say "let them eat cake"?), we're wildly speculating. I don't know what oligarchies do to prevent the end of days, but I imagine those with scads of cash can buy armies. It won't be the first time.

The difference would be that America is heavily armed, and if the working stiffs figure out that the rich are keeping all the productivity gains of the past thirty years for themselves, someone might come gunning. So far, the working stiffs think raising taxes on the rich -- back to 1980 levels! -- is somehow an attack on their well-being. Oh well.

A good case in point is Yahoo Finance's article this morning entitled "Five years into recovery, Dow companies squeeze workers as investors thrive." Key chart:

The chart essentially says that corporations give their profits to investors, not workers. It wasn't always so, but with the near-death of unionism and the general idea that a rising tide (should) lift all boats. No, let them eat cake. We want all the boats, at least the gargantuan ones.

What are our policy choices? For the Democrats, it's nibble around the edges to get some relief for the poor, working class, and middle class. That's the gist of Barack Obama's new tax-and-redistribute plan. Not a bad plan, but a relatively feeble start. Here's Vox's take on what it is and its chances of enactment. (Hint: none.)

For the Republicans, whose likely presidential candidates have taken to running around yelling "Save the poor!", their policies remain unformed. They haven't figured out how to make their tax-cuts-for-the-rich mantra sound like "Yeah, but we're also saving the poor!" There's a huge conflict there.

We'll probably begin to hear the GOP spout some form of Paul Ryan's give-the-poor-money-but-make-them-report-in-every-other-day, which of course won't waste time and money on the incredible bureaucracy needed to verify that the poor aren't spending their food stamps on Cadillacs and cell phones. Didn't think it out, did you, Paul?
Ryan’s anti-poverty proposals share many of the assumptions and attitudes of  [Bush's "compassionate conservatism"] agenda from 15 years ago. They start from an assumption that poverty is an unusual and marginal issue in U.S. society. That idea is not articulated, but it is revealed by Ryan’s most attention-grabbing proposal: his “opportunity contract.” Ryan suggests that states experiment with a new approach to means-tested programs. Beneficiaries of those programs would be assigned a social-service provider. That provider—which might be a government agency, a nonprofit private-sector organization, or a for-profit business—would guide the recipient through the welter of government programs available. It would also set goals for the beneficiary, such as attending school or completing a drug-treatment program. The provider would reward good behavior and impose sanctions on bad behavior.
Guess you didn't, Paul. Yes, let's solve the poverty problem by appointing a life coach for each and every poor person. Makes sense to me! Of course, we'll have to end Social Security and Medicare as we know it to do it, but... At least corporate profits would be secure.

We'll see if a Ted Cruz or a Scott Walker or even a John Kasich can produce a better scheme to not appear to be looking cross-eyed at the unfortunate. Since the unfortunate appear to be the 99%, that's a tall order.

Scott Walker, 2016 hopeful. Yeah, destroying public-sector unions
is just the ticket to move money where it's needed.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Culture Wars Turn on Two Things: Race and Religion

I knew this about the Bible, but to read it is creepy...
What is revealed in the graphic to the left is why gender is not a defining aspect of the culture wars: It's subsumed by religion. Why pay women the same as men when women are so unclean?

There is indeed a divide in America, and it's driven largely by matters of race and religion. We could get all tweaky and say there's so much more to it -- I admit that money seems to play a big role -- but often what on the surface is a separate issue ends up coming back down to race or religion.

At least race and religion define enough of the cultural divide that it's a great template.

Consider this: From what I can find, only 10 percent of Republicans self-describe themselves as atheist, with a further 6 percent of atheists leaning Republican. That leaves 84 percent of atheists either independent or Democratic (mostly Democratic). Why is that?

Why do 65 percent of Mormons self-identify as Republicans? Why do all niche religions -- Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Unitarian, even Jewish -- primarily self-identify as Democrats? The only exception is the Jehovah's Witnesses, which are vastly Republican. Christians lean slightly in favor of Republicans, especially evangelicals, but black Christians (78 percent) and Catholics (48 percent) lean Democratic. Why?

The simple answer is that Republicans tend to be white Christians or vice versa. Secularists or humanists don't find much in the Republican creed to inspire them. For example, secularists tend to lean on science for much of their world view, while white Christians tend to deny science as an a priori view. Why? I like the graphic to the right as an explanation.

Here I'd like to provide some examples of how a 2,000-year-old religion could fuel the cultural divide. Here's Amanda Marcotte pointing out the contradiction in Pope Francis' stand on family size. For once, a pope comes out against breeding "like rabbits" but can't go the extra mile and embrace contraception. (I wrote off Pope John Paul II when I caught him preaching in favor of large families in Mozambique.) Marcotte also demonstrated in another article that it was the Catholic Church that has almost single-handedly prevented a badly needed Planned Parenthood from being built in New Orleans. I'm not surprised.

Race is not a hard deliminator to prove. People of color flock to the Democratic fold for reasons that don't even have to be listed here. When Lindsey Graham famously said, "The demographics race we're losing badly. We're not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term," he wasn't just whistling Dixie. Er, maybe he was.

Lastly, I find that money fits in nicely with the race-and-religion paradigm. For example, parse this for me:
Be personally responsible to others as you would be personally responsible to yourself.
Sounds like a mantra for a Golden Rule for the "I got mine, fuck you" religious set, which by the way is profoundly libertarian in make-up, which group self-identifies as Republican. In regards to race, this personal-responsibility notion has, since Reagan, been aimed squarely at black "welfare queens" in their Cadillacs -- today's Obama phone owners and the horrid poor who've "even got flat-screen TVs and refrigerators!" -- and is, yes, generally a GOP stance.

Money plays out in weird ways. We know that working-class white Christians tend to vote for Republicans and are wedded to the notion that raising taxes on the rich works exactly counter to their own best interests, a position that is as crazy as it is ignorant. But there you go. What poor and working-class whites need are fewer services and less infrastructure and education spending. Vote Republican and you'll get what your crazy, duped self deserves. Only one obvious reason for this weird disconnect: Working-class whites are afraid the extra tax bucks will go to poor people of color.

A final thought: There are, at last count, 571 American billionaires. How many are black? There is one: Oprah Winfrey. Effin' weird, huh?

Raging liberal? She says no, and there's little beyond
her endorsement of Obama to prove it one way or another.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Obamacare -- It Got Cheaper.

Costs of health insurance are dropping. Somebody do something!

Republicans in Congress should be up in arms. Somebody should be up in arms! Did you see what Obamacare just did? It's outrageous! It's costing much less than projected. Harrumph.
CBO and JCT currently estimate that the ACA’s coverage provisions will result in net costs to the federal government of $76 billion in 2015 and $1,350 billion over the2016–2025 period. Compared with the projection from last April, which spanned the 2015–2024 period, the current projection represents a downward revision in the net costs of those provisions of $101 billion over those 10 years, or a reduction of about 7 percent. And compared with the projection made by CBO and JCT in March 2010, just before the ACA was enacted, the current estimate represents a downward revision in the net costs of those provisions of $139 billion—or 20 percent—for the five-year period ending in 2019, the last year of the 10-year budget window used in that original estimate.
That's right, the costs to the federal government of the ACA is coming in at 20 percent less than the original projections for the five-year period through 2019. Boy, government sure can screw things up, especially under the Kenyan-Marxist-fascist Obummer.

Somebody call the cops! There oughta be a law! Oh, wait, there is one, and it's called the ACA. And it's working better than expected.

Note. No one is saying that healthcare costs are shrinking, so don't pretend someone is saying that. But healthcare costs as projected in the estimates of the costs of Obamacare are in fact coming in nicely below projections. And that means Obamacare is working to control healthcare costs better than we thought. And that's a good thing, so be happy.

And single-payer junkies: Yes, single-payer would have been better, in that alternative universe where it was possible in 2009 America. We -- cough -- don't live in that one.

Watching the Culture Wars Changing

The Republican House met its Waterloo of sorts last week when a group of Republican women objected to making rape victims report their victimhood to the police in order to qualify for a rape-driven abortion. The men who wrote this bill weren't thinking about a gender backlash. The band of sisters certainly were.

A first: An abortion bill failed because Republicans want the women's vote. Who would have thought?

E. J. Dionne gets it right in this column. It doesn't mean that Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, and the rest of the clown-car reactionaries won't fight the last war over and over until Nov. 2016.

Should be entertaining, watching Republicans twitching between a war on women and a war on Hispanics. Not the post-2012 rewrite the party was hoping for.

Update. Conservative columnist Michael Gerson chimes in with a thoughtful column:
Any strategy that pits the white working class against immigrants should also attract heightened moral scrutiny. It is one thing for a political analyst to recommend a get-out-the-whites strategy. But when this thought is consciously entertained by a politician, something disturbing has happened. We have too much tragic history with political lines drawn along ethnic and racial faults.
The issue of immigration has a way of clarifying some of the deepest beliefs of a political movement. Does it regard outsiders as potential threats or potential allies? Does it empathize or dehumanize? The public character of a political figure is often judged by voters — especially immigrant voters — intuitively, by signals and symbols. When arriving at a party, you generally know immediately if you are welcome or not.
No effective reconstitution of the Republican Party’s appeal can begin with pessimism about the drawing power of Republican ideals. A party that has lost the ambition to convince is a party in decline.
A strange place for a political party to find itself: how to alienate the fewest constituencies. The GOP wisely cut the number of primary debates almost in half. Why? To alienate the fewest constituencies, of course. Problem? A number of GOP candidates will still be alienating various constituencies.

The hope, expressed by Gerson, is that the GOP will figure this out rather than be "a party in decline." We'll see.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Why Does Conservative Policy Look So Disconnected from the Facts?

Family leaving a food bank in Hertford, North Carolina. Like the majority
of the poor, this family is white. (Rarely acknowledged fact.)

Because it has to be. If conservatives looked to facts to support their "personal responsibility" memes, they'd come off as heartless bastards who don't understand what poverty does to people. According to a report in U.S. News, poverty has bad effects on brain development:
Children who are exposed to poverty at a young age often have trouble academically later in life. But according to new research out of the Washington University School of Medicine, poverty also appears to be associated with smaller brain volumes in areas involved in emotion processing and memory.
Other reports, this time from Bloomberg News, back up the widely studied phenomenon of the stress of poverty:
Children raised in poverty or in orphanages experience chronic stress early in life that can have long-lasting effects on the brain, setting them up for future mental and physical ailments as adults, two studies found.
The stress of poverty may affect regions in a child’s brain that control emotion, according to research published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. A second study found that children who had lived in an orphanage were more anxious than those who hadn’t.
In childhood, the brain is still immature and developing rapidly so it is more sensitive to high-stress situations than an adult brain, said Pilyoung Kim, lead study author of the childhood poverty study. The findings from both papers suggest that early intervention programs to address chronic stress may benefit these children, the authors said.
Of course, you never hear of conservatives who wish to get as much aid as possible to the children who suffer this degradation that can cripple them for life. Also, where are the conservatives who understand that the effects of the stress of poverty are generational, with a continuous line from grandparents to parents to children and grandchildren? Instead, we get this:

Turn poor children into janitors. How? Eliminate child labor laws. Good one, Newt.

Paul Ryan is now chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. He has a solution to poverty: Don't expand the safety net, expand opportunity!

Got it. More than 50 percent of public-school children are at or below the low-income level that qualifies them for free or reduced lunches at school. So, after our children undergo the stress of poverty that wrecks their brains, let them be janitors. If they then get through school, offer them more opportunity!

Then they'll be makers, not takers. Up by their own bootstraps.

Conservatives remain disconnected from the facts of life in low-income America, with masses suffering the scourge of poverty. To acknowledge the facts is to lose a policy meme that has worked for years. Makers and takers!

Note. Going back to Gingrich and Paul from 2012 is a go-to move of mine that might make it look as if I've got no current examples. So, I wand to counter my own defect. Here's Rand Paul in late 2014:
I have no intention to scold, but escaping the poverty and crime trap will require more than just criminal justice reform. Escaping the poverty trap will require all of us to relearn that not only are we our brother’s keeper, we are our own keeper. While a hand-up can be part of the plan, if the plan doesn’t include the self-discovery of education, work, and the self-esteem that comes with work, the cycle of poverty will continue.
It's up to you, poors. Trouble is research says, well, you know from above what the research says.

Here's Ted Cruz at the 2012 Republican convention:
Government is not the answer. You are not doing anyone a favor by creating dependency, destroying individual responsibility. 55 years ago, when my dad was a penniless teenage immigrant, thank God some well-meaning bureaucrat didn't put his arm around him and say let me take care of you. Let me give you a government check and make you dependent on government. And by the way, don't bother learning English. That would have been the most destructive thing anyone could have done.
Instead, my parents worked together to start a small business, to provide for their family and to chart their own future. That's the American dream.
To restore America, to get Americans back to work, we must rein in the leviathan. We must stop spending money we don't have and turn around our crushing debt. Each of you comprises the fabric of our nation. Together, we must revive our many-century love story with liberty and restore that shining City on a Hill that is America.
Cruz' example concerns immigrants, but his case is the same. The government can't fix you and shouldn't even try. On the surface, I wouldn't refute that. Able-bodied individuals should have the stuff to chart their own future. Heaven knows I'm a self-made man (except for all the help I got from schools, not-broke parents, libraries, and the general affluence and confidence I was surrounded by in the private university I was able to attend). Yes, I "made" myself, but I was given all the tools and never experienced a hungry day in my life.

But I'm observant enough and conversant enough with the science to know that leaving out the effects, the ravages of poverty, out of the the set of things we know that should inform public policy is, yes, willful ignorance, bad science. So why do conservatives do it?

Our America can't be all it can be without dealing with our problems. To say "You're on your own" isn't effective policy, and it derives from a lack of compassion, a lack of empathy. Those words drive conservatives insane, but good public policy needs words like that, which are reality-based so much more than the plot lines of Ayn Rand novels.

To pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, first you need boots. Let's at least pass out free boots, and, if necessary, food and a safe place to live. Then, if they don't pull themselves up, at least we can say we tried. Our America will be the better for it.

Two final examples, both from this Huffington Post report on John Boehner and Paul Ryan and their recent comments that essentially decry government assistance.  First, Boehner:
Boehner then lamented "this idea that has been born, maybe out of the economy over the last couple years, that you know, I really don't have to work. I don't really want to do this. I think I'd rather just sit around. This is a very sick idea for our country."
America has one of the weakest safety nets in the developed world. So where are these people who "just sit around?" Now Ryan:
During a talk-radio interview, the Wisconsin Republican spoke of a "tailspin of culture in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value of work."

Ryan later said his remarks were "inarticulate."
Inarticulate. Do you think??

Whites lead all groups of those in poverty (page 13 of the report):
Whites: 25, 659, 922
Blacks: 9, 472,583
Hispanics: 11,197,648
Asians: 1, 899,448
Measured by poverty rate, black and Hispanic numbers run higher than whites. But the point is almost 26 million whites aren't a result of a "tailspin of culture in or inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value of work."

Many of us, myself included, not only acknowledge that racism is a fixture of the Republican Party (with remarks like Ryan's amounting to a vivid smoking gun) but also acknowledge that implicit institutional racism is carried within and practiced by almost all of white America, again myself included. Given that, answer me this:
What is the Republican policy preference for getting whites out of poverty? Making them janitors at twelve?
I was a paperboy. Does Boehner get that this another vanishing bootstrap?

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Austerity Smoking-Gun Chart

Kevin Drum finds Tyler Cowen (for me a libertarian economist nit-picker, turns out he's not a jerk, just a zealous free-marketer?) presenting the smoking gun of all smoking guns -- actually two charts to be viewed together -- and what a clear story they tell.

This is total fed, state, and local expenditures, the top being total in 2014 dollars and the bottom a per capita version. Austerity was real until 2014, when the improving economy drove even government spending up, with new spending mostly on the state and local levels.

To which I'd add a very telling chart:

The gap between real GDP and potential GDP is what you might call the misery gap, which is filled by all the unemployed, those whose middle-class lives were destroyed through foreclosure and loss of their retirement savings, the under-employed youth coming out of high school and even college during our long, painfully slow recovery. You know, the people that the usual increased government spending during downturns is supposed to save or at least protect until the economy is back on its feet. We didn't do that this time.

Now the usual suspects are claiming, see, austerity worked. Er, no, geniuses. And by geniuses I mean the GOP and their cabal of bought-and-paid-for economists at the Wall St. Journal -- like Stephen Moore -- or the conservative think tanks -- like John Cochrane, John Taylor, Art Laffer, and, uh, Stephen Moore.

You look for the links. I can't read them anymore.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

NYT's David Brooks: Meaning Is For Losers!

Did David Brooks teach his Yale students -- his course is called Humility --
that meaning is overrated? Of course, he may just be being humble.

Brooks' recent column, "The Problem with Meaning," prompts one to warn him not to quit his day job, but writing for the NYTimes is his day job, so we're boxed in there.

So I'll just give you shorter David Brooks:
Meaning is just secular code for spirituality, but it's weak tea, so knock it off. Have some real gonads and get yourself a religious moral code instead doing mushrooms and thinking you've found a substitute for the nuns wacking your knuckles with a brass ruler. You know you'll eventually have to bite the bullet and forget this meaning shit. Your moral compass will thank you, you spineless heathen. Meaning! Ha.
Of course, his prose is a little squishier. Read Brooks here. Notice that he takes a perfectly nice notion -- a search for meaning -- and rips it apart while planting plenty of buzz words for his conservative readership to chew on before actually revealing his agenda, which in his recent philosophical haze comes down to "stop daydreaming and get a job, liberal hippie."

I blithely refer to his conservative readership but hasten to add that the comments to his column are filled to the brim with people who think he's huffing paint again.

Wait, I have to clue you to this line:
Real moral systems are based on a balance of intellectual rigor and aroused moral sentiments.
Did he just say he has a morality boner? Hard to tell. Is that an elite trait?

News Outlets Grapple With Press Freedom and Utterly Fail

The ultimate example of the press's -- not Charlie Hedbo's -- cowardice.
Associated Press's truncated photo eliminating the "offensive material."

I published several of Charlie Hebdo's controversial cartoons, assuming growing numbers of media outlets and newspapers would do so worldwide. Except for Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, and Talking Points Memo, boy was I wrong. (My sample is limited.)

But the Washington Post's coverage of the cowardice is broad in the two links below. Among other facts it helps establish is that it supports the cowardice, except for WaPo cartoonist Ann Telnaes. She stands as a beacon. In fairness, they are contemplating publishing one controversial cover. I hope they do.

These two WaPo articles, here and here, illustrate well the abandonment of free speech at the first volley. It's contemptible. What utter cowardice, what utter failure. Worse, what a squandered opportunity. If all publish, none might perish. They can't kill us all.

Read the comments to the articles. They show that everyone is clamoring for courage, but few are delivering. And the people are disgusted.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Associated Press and CNN Line Up with the Cowards: No Free Press Here Because Freedom Is Awesome!

Knew this wouldn't take long. What AP had in its commercial photo system like this: so much safer when treated like this:

There, don't you feel more like the Home of the Brave now?

Oh, but they're not alone. CNN is spending time on how to deal with the cartoons, but, according to Talking Points Memo, have advised that:
"Although we are not at this time showing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the Prophet considered offensive by many Muslims, platforms are encouraged to verbally describe the cartoons in detail. This is key to understanding the nature of the attack on the magazine and the tension between free expression and respect for religion," CNN senior editorial director Richard Griffiths said in the memo.
Oh yeah, talking about a cartoon without showing it is awesome free! We need two Fourth of July's now, one for talking about fireworks and another for actually shooting real fireworks. Both are just awesome! What's the difference?

TPM has published some cartoons in full, in fact the ones I show in this post. On the "Land of the Free except we'll blur stuff out" side of the equation, we have the New York Daily News and The Telegraph, although technically the Telegraph is on the pip-pip-cheerio-mustn't-ruffle-their-feathers side of the Pond.

With comrades in arms such as these, solidarity in the face of intimidation seems problematic, n'est-ce pas?

Sorry, folks, as Paul Simon has said:
These are the days of miracle and wonder
This is the long distance call
The way the camera follows us in slo-mo
The way we look to us all
Yeah, the way we look to us all. Uh, not very good, not just now...

After Paris Jihadist Attack, I'm Speechless. Just The Way They Want Us.

But it can't end here. If we let it, they have truly won.

Posted on the Charlie Hebdo website, right after the attack.

I'm no warmonger, and I urge no more war here. But bravery without war is called for. They came for our values. Yes, I know. Bush/Cheney had already trashed them. If you're not sure, read this trash from Marc Thiessen.

There went our honor, squandered in the deserts, in the black sites, in Gitmo.

Next goes our freedom of speech. Not just ours, the civilized world. Worse is that the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris has driven a wedge between native Frenchmen and quite nearly all its immigrant population, heavily Muslim as it is. But why stop there? The Romani? The Greeks? The Bulgarians? They should all go home! will be the cry.

The Rightists like Marine Le Pen will have their answer in coming elections not just in France but across Europe.

If freedom of speech is a core value, and if we are not cowards, then every newspaper, magazine and website in the free world -- that phrase has meaning again -- needs to reclaim it. Charlie Hebdo's original sin was a graphic depicting Muhammad, followed by many others. Publishing these, en masse, should be the singular response across the freedom loving world.

Here's my contribution, a highly controversial Danish cartoon that sent the cartoonist into hiding:

Of course, I've discovered I've already got cover, with Huffington Post well out in front. Let's all do our bit. And part of that bit is to move away from those, like the Bush/Cheney apologists, that see trading our honor for slim, if not vaporous, tactical advantage is a misbegotten tactic. Stand tall for our values, without war, without torture.

I've long since established my anti-religious feelings, thinking that religion is not only archaic and superstitious but also responsible for a great deal of the misery and death around the world. But, hey, keep your religion, I honestly don't care, but don't go around imposing it on others.

RIP, mes amis de Charlie Hebdo.  Maintenant nous sommes tous Charlie Hebdo.

The Jihadists don't know yet the line they crossed. But they've already lost. It's just a matter of time now. Or so, in our brave world, I would hope.

Update. WaPo cartoonist shows strength and class. Je suis Charlie!