Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Encarta Passes Beyond The Veil

Many may not remember this, but there was a time not too long ago when if you wanted to look something up on a computer, you bought a computer-based encyclopedia. That time appears to have come to an end:

On October 31, 2009, MSN® Encarta® Web sites worldwide will be discontinued, with the exception of Encarta Japan, which will be discontinued on December 31, 2009. Additionally, Microsoft will cease to sell Microsoft Student and Encarta Premium software products worldwide by June 2009. We understand that Encarta users may have questions regarding this announcement so we have prepared this list of questions and answers below. Please keep reading if you would like more information about these changes to Encarta.

Microsoft Encarta FAQ

At one time, multimedia encyclopedias seemed like the future of encyclopedias. In some ways, they are, but the advent of Wiki technology has moved the location of that multimedia encyclopedia from your hard disk to the Web. As the Encarta FAQ goes on to explain:

Why are these Encarta Web sites and software products being discontinued?

Encarta has been a popular product around the world for many years. However, the category of traditional encyclopedias and reference material has changed. People today seek and consume information in considerably different ways than in years past. As part of Microsoft’s goal to deliver the most effective and engaging resources for today’s consumer, it has made the decision to exit the Encarta business.

Microsoft Encarta FAQ

That's Microsoft-speak for "We got hammered by Wikipedia".

How does the new technology compare to the old? Christopher Dawson of ZDNet provides some insight:

I’m not saying Encarta was a bad product. On the contrary, it did a fine job of making encyclopedic articles searchable and accessible on a computer. However, I’m thrilled to see it go because of what it represents. Kids will just go to Wikipedia or the first three hits on Google, now, right? While that remains too true, what it really represents is the absolute challenge to educators to teach kids real Web-based research skills.

Good riddance, Encarta!

In some ways, it will definitely be an improvement. There was a level of trust we've always had for bound or otherwise published encyclopedias that we don't get from the Internet. Everything I see is something I try to be skeptical of, at least if it's not in an area of knowledge that I'm pretty certain of. That's probably a good thing, though, since even the old style encyclopedias could be wrong. The Skeptic Society is aware of how things work now, as they demonstrate in a list of things people can do to promote skepticism and science:

96. Contribute responsible edits to Wikipedia.

  • For many in the general public, Wikipedia will be the only source they consult on a given topic.

  • For almost any paranormal topic, the Wikipedia entry is the number one Google hit. Amazingly, skeptical links and citations can be placed on that top page any time, by any skeptic — for free!

  • Help students and the public by making responsible, careful edits to Wikipedia entries about science, skepticism, and the paranormal.

  • Wikipedia has strict policies that you must follow. Before getting started, study Wikipedia’s formatting rules and Manual of Style.

  • The article “Why Skeptics Should Pay Close Attention to Wikipedia” (by Tim Farley) is a great practical introduction to this rich opportunity.


105 Ways To Promote Skeptical Activism: Quick Reference Guide

How to avoid believing nonsense while reading a Wikipedia entry is probably a subject for another article, but one principle to keep in mind is to check for citations, and check those citations to see if they are accurate and, just as importantly, accurately represented in the text of the Wikipedia entry.

In reality, these are things that we should do with any source of information. In many ways, the Internet has made that easier. That it has also added new ways to fool the credulous is, unfortunately, also a fact.


Whatever Happened To ... Part Two

In what seems to be a continuing theme of feckless law enforcement this week, we revisit the case of Starr Simpson. You may remember that she was the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) student who wore a decorative LED display into Logan Airport, and was nearly killed, then arrested, for the trouble:

Star Simpson, a 19-year-old MIT student, was arrested at gunpoint Friday morning at Boston's Logan Airport when officers suspected that a circuit board and battery she had pinned to her sweatshirt was a bomb. Indeed, every news outlet is now referring to the thing as a "fake bomb," and Simpson has been charged with possessing a "hoax device."

Is Star Simpson's "fake bomb" just an art jacket?

When I last checked on her, she had been indicted for that charge, and was awaiting trial. Her case was resolved about nine months ago, and not even remotely how it should have been:

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology student has apologized for the shirt that triggered a bomb scare at Logan Airport last fall, even as the possession of a hoax device charge against her was dismissed.

Star Simpson was arrested after the lighted shirt she was wearing triggered a bomb scare at Logan Airport on Septemner 21, 2007. Prosecutors determined that they could not move forward on that count and dismissed it to the disorderly conduct charge because they could find no evidence of intent on Simpson's part to cause a scare.

Simpson will do 50 hours of pre-trial community service, If she completes the service, charges against her will be dismissed.

Hoax charges dropped against apologetic MIT student

In other words, the court figured out the obvious when it came to the hoax charge. Even so, and despite the obvious fact that this was a mistake, they made her do more than six days of community service.

That this ever came to a court in the first place ought to irritate anyone who pays taxes in that area. It was an utter waste of time that seems to have more to do with cowing people into looking and behaving a certain way so that law enforcement people don't have to worry than it does to with effective law enforcement. This isn't only case of these people overreacting because they were taken outside their comfort zone, either. As I wrote at the time this happened:

Consider this scenario - you're in an airport waiting for your flight. You see something suspicious for a moment. A moment is probably all you'll have, because I can't imagine that anyone who has planned a terrorist plot carefully is going to look suspicious for long. Let's further suppose that whatever you've seen was done by someone who doesn't look like he comes from the Middle East. Do you report it? Don't forget, it could turn out to be nothing at all. Making a false report is a crime, and while it may be obvious that you're not doing so to the people you report it to, it also might not. You could spend the night in jail for your troubles, and be charged with a patently false offense, just as Star Simpson was. If you're smart, you'll keep your mouth shut.

Is Anyone Else Tired Of This?

As I wrote recently, part of the trust a public has for its law enforcement comes from being able to trust their judgment. When they seem to be more interested in what causes them trouble at that moment, rather than taking a long view, they do themselves and the public no favors.

If I were a taxpayer in that neck of the woods, I think I'd be demanding that the people responsible for this decision should be doing community service.


Too Bad We Don't Have Phasers

Today's xkcd comic expresses a sentiment many of us can understand:



You have to love the geometric reasoning.


Monday, March 30, 2009

Another God-Bothering Imbecile

In front of a rapt audience, Rep. Shimkus offers his thoughts on elective cosmology. Image credit: screenshot of YouTube by Cujo359

Once upon a time, Mark Twain told this joke:

Suppose I'm an idiot. Now, suppose I'm a member of Congress. But then, I repeat myself.

These days, he could have substituted "God-bothering imbecile" for "idiot", I suppose. Here's a case in point:

Some people like to think that fundamentalist goofballitude is limited to southern states, which is unfair and untrue. For proof, I present one Illinois Congresscritter named John Shimkus. In a recent hearing, he claimed that man cannot destroy the Earth, only God can do that. Here’s the video[.]

Only God can destroy the Earth? Phew!

Rep. Shimkus believes that there's no use worrying about all that climate change stuff, since his god will protect us. Or at least, his god will protect him and the people he likes, one supposes.

This is what passes for reasoning in some dark corners of the planet, like Congress. It's hard to argue with something so batshit insane, and yet somehow I feel the need. Perhaps I hope to dissuade people who aren't batshit insane, but nevertheless think that there might be something to that argument.

So, here goes:

For the sake of argument, let's suppose that there are such things as gods.

Let's further suppose that there is one god.

Then lets suppose that this god is an entity with a personality - the sort of personality that leads him to prefer one group of humans out of all the others, help them escape from another group of people, and then help them slaughter all of their neighbors so they can have a place all their own.

It seems to me that with billions of galaxies in the universe, all of which have billions of solar systems, that this god just might be pretty busy. What do you suppose a busy, somewhat wrathful god would do for people who are always wasting his time with requests for stuff they could do on their own? [whiny voice] "Please help us get out of Egypt. Please watch over our friends and relatives, because we don't have time. Please don't let our planet burn up, because we don't want to stop emitting greenhouse gases."

Don't you think that, with perhaps millions of intelligent species to deal with, such a god might not decide that this planet needs a makeover?

Of all the suppositions I made in that argument, the one in the last paragraph is by far the least implausible.

I suppose the bottom line is that you can either assume that a book that was written two thousand years ago by people who didn't even know what carbon dioxide was, much less what its effect on themselves and their world might be, would somehow be right when people who spend all their lives studying something are wrong, or you can figure out that this book is just guidance when you don't have anything better to go by.

(h/t Blue Gal)


Just A Fresh Coat Of Paint

Just a fresh coat of paint, and this one will be back on the market. Image credit: Abandoned Places


Apparently, all our economy needs is a fresh coat of paint. At least, that's what I'm hearing from our President today:

President Obama announced what amounts to a do-or-die ultimatum for the struggling automobile industry on Monday, laying out strict standards that the carmakers must meet to get more government aid and declaring that the industry must survive because it is “like no other, an emblem of the American spirit.”

A failure of leadership “from Washington to Detroit” over the years has led the industry to the brink of collapse, the president said, and in more recent days both General Motors and Chrysler have failed to come up with plans adequate to justify the billions more in government help that they are requesting.

“And so today, I am announcing that my administration will offer G.M. and Chrysler a limited period of time to work with creditors, unions and other stakeholders to fundamentally restructure in a way that would justify an investment of additional tax dollars; a period during which they must produce plans that would give the American people confidence in their long-term prospects for success,” the president said at the White House.

Obama Issues Ultimatum to Carmakers

These two automotive companies, and their employees, have already been through some painful transitions. The unions have renegotiated wages downward, and have agreed to take on more of the load of financing ex-employee's health care. General Motors, in particular, has been considering restructuring plans that close or sell off entire divisions, and close many plants.

I'd just like to tell President Obama this, should any of his staff show up to read this article: "restructuring" means "fire people". In the case of the automotive industry, that means firing lots of people - thousands of them. I think he knows that, but his use of the euphemism, plus this little gem from the press conference:

“The pain being felt in places that rely on our auto industry is not the fault of our workers, who labor tirelessly and desperately want to see their companies succeed,” [the President] said. “And it is not the fault of all the families and communities that supported manufacturing plants throughout the generations.”

Obama Issues Ultimatum to Carmakers

lead me to suspect that he thinks we citizens don't know what that means. Many of those families he referred to will be living on unemployment and food stamps after these restructurings.

Meanwhile, has there been a similar demand for the banking industry to restructure itself? Has there been any seeming thought to the idea that when banks become too big to fail, that maybe they're too big? None that I can see.

So far, the total aid to the auto industry has been about $17 billion. They are seeking an additional $21.6 billion. The New York Times has provided a nice graphic that shows the financial picture pretty succinctly. How much money have we poured into the financial black hole that used to be our banking industry? Try $10 trillion, and counting. Yet, the Obama Administration actively sought to exempt the people who run this industry from receiving the bonuses they were due for running their industry into the ground. They've made noises about how the good old days of little or no regulation are coming to an end, but so far that's only been talk.

Obama's attitude about the automotive industry strikes me as another example of his impulse to put a fresh coat of paint on our economy when what it really needs is to be re-roofed and strengthened. When you add it to his fetish for "fixing" Social Security, it adds up to a guy who doesn't want to take on the real work, because it's messy and difficult. Paul Krugman, referring to the leaked plan of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner to fix the financial industry, summed things up pretty well:

This is more than disappointing. In fact, it fills me with a sense of despair.

After all, we’ve just been through the firestorm over the A.I.G. bonuses, during which administration officials claimed that they knew nothing, couldn’t do anything, and anyway it was someone else’s fault. Meanwhile, the administration has failed to quell the public’s doubts about what banks are doing with taxpayer money.

And now Mr. Obama has apparently settled on a financial plan that, in essence, assumes that banks are fundamentally sound and that bankers know what they’re doing.

Financial Policy Despair

I'm not an expert on our economy, by any means. Nevertheless, there is a clear disconnect between the problems and the solutions proffered by the Obama Administration so far.

And I'm feeling that despair, too.

While it's clear that the auto industry could be doing better, it's also clear that they were able to make a profit until recently. Their troubles are partly thanks to the current fad for smaller cars, which should be more than a fad but probably won't be now that gasoline prices are lower. Their salary and benefits structure, particularly at the top, is little short of insane. But, they are also suffering because of the problem in the financial industry. As I've explained before, manufacturing industries can't go for long without financing. That's particularly true when sales are down, as they are now for both foreign and domestic companies.

I know I'm sounding like a broken record, but then so is the Obama Administration. They keep saying the problem with the economy is everything except what it really is, and I keep pointing out the obvious. Hopefully, one of these days I won't have to do that anymore. Until then, though, I suggest you go down to the nearest paint store and decide what color you want the economy to have. I'm thinking brick red, or maybe burnt toast.


Another Elitist Carnival Sets Sail

The eleventh Carnival Of The Elitist Bastards is over at Z's place, It's The Thought That Counts. As sometimes happens, Yours Truly has a couple of entries. Go on over and check it out.

I'll be hosting the COTEB in April. We're still looking for more bloggers to host the carnival in the months ahead. If you'd like to host a carnival, head on over and find out what months are available.


Friday, March 27, 2009

Today, We're All Driving While Black

(An infrared image of a house in the United Kingdom that was mistakenly raided for suspected marijuana growth. Image credit: London Daily Mail)

This story is fascinating because of what it says about us as a country these days, as the Philadelphia Inquirer summarizes from its wire services:

A Dallas police officer was placed on administrative leave yesterday after he kept former Eagle Ryan Moats in a hospital parking lot and threatened to arrest him while Moats' mother-in-law died inside the building.

Officer Robert Powell also drew his gun during the March 18 incident involving Moats, now with the Houston Texans, in the Dallas suburb of Plano, police said.

The incident was videotaped. When another officer came with word that Moats' mother-in-law, 45-year-old Jonetta Collinsworth, was indeed dying, Powell's response was: "All right. I'm almost done."

By the time the 26-year-old running back had gotten the ticket and a lecture from Powell, about 13 minutes had passed. When he and Collinsworth's father entered the hospital, they learned Collinsworth was dead.

NFL: Dallas officer put on leave after incident with ex-Eagle

The first thing that strikes me is how little about the incident itself seems surprising. We've become so used to having to answer to law enforcement personnel that it seems almost routine. At airports we're expected to endure searches of our persons and our luggage so that we can be allowed on a plane. If you drive around the Southwest, you can expect to have to explain who you are to Border Patrol officers. As a traveler in that region, I've had that experience several times. This is becoming increasingly true up here in the Northwest, as well. Fortunately, I don't look like a Mexican and I don't talk like a Canadian. It's not just paranoids who assume we're being watched these days. It's not just the neurotic who have reason to fear being at airports.

We've also become used to people not using the most basic powers of observation and reason. This incident happened in a hospital parking lot. How many people drive to the hospital for no reason? You don't need to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out that Mr. and Mrs. Moats were probably telling the truth when they said they were visiting a dying relative. They also, according to the Dallas police chief, did not behave inappropriately given the situation:

[Dallas police chief David] Kunkle adds Moats and his wife Tamishia Moats exercised patience and restraint when dealing with the officer, adding that Moats never mentioned he was a professional football player.

Officer Blocked Houston Texan From Reaching Dying Mother-In-Law


Thanks to some ludicrous overreactions to the sorts of things that go on in our society all the time, I'm seldom surprised by irrational behavior on the part of some law enforcement officials.

What appears to have prompted this investigation is also instructive:

Nurses, a security guard and a Plano police officer came to persuade the officer to allow Moats to see his mother-in-law, but he kept Moats outside for nearly 20-minutes.
...
Dallas police are trying to determine why they were unaware of the incident until nearly a week later.

The Plano police officer who confronted the Dallas officer at the scene, later went to his supervisor to inform Dallas police about the incident.

Officer Blocked Houston Texan From Reaching Dying Mother-In-Law


My guess is that if that Plano police officer hadn't made the complaint, one professional to another, then this incident might never have been investigated. Of course, had Moats not been a professional football player, it's unlikely this incident would have appeared in Google News and thus come to my attention. Had Moats been a black man who wasn't a celebrity, it seems possible that, if he had filed a complaint, they would have dismissed it as another "driving while black" complaint.

The only thing I find surprising, and somewhat pleasantly so, is that both the Plano officer and at least some parts of the Dallas police thought this worth investigating. Police officers certainly have their professional pride and ethical standards, but they sometimes are subordinated to an "us versus them" mentality. There have been enough examples of overuse of force that have gone unpunished that it seems extraordinary that they'd take this seriously enough to consider dismissing this officer. I wouldn't bet on that outcome, but that it's numbered in the possibilities is a good thing. A hothead with a gun is dangerous, whether in or out of a police uniform. As the Dallas police chief notes:

Kunkle says the essence of being a police officer is common sense and discretion, and the officer's behavior was inappropriate.

Officer Blocked Houston Texan From Reaching Dying Mother-In-Law


Police work is stressful and potentially dangerous. As part of their work, police officers often have to ask questions and do things to us citizens that we find annoying or even painful. People who can't do that work without losing their composure and behaving emotionally or irrationally shouldn't be doing it. Any police department that can't or won't investigate complaints against its officers is a potential danger to the people it's supposed to be protecting. In a time when both the presence of law enforcement and their power to monitor us are on the increase, it's especially so.

I wonder how many Americans see things that way.

UPDATE: Added the graphic, and amended the concluding paragraph. Originally, anyone reading it would have gotten the idea that irrational police officers were a good thing.

UPDATE 2 (Mar. 31): If you think that a police department wouldn't ignore a "driving while black" complaint, you might want to read this article and reconsider your opinion. Read the comments, too, particularly the one by a man who is afraid to leave his apartment at night, for having been harassed so many times by his local police department.

I'm not saying that no police department would take such complaints seriously, but it's clear that some don't, and they're a problem both for their communities and themselves.


Saturday, March 21, 2009

A Bit Of Fresh Air

Besides its changes to science policy, there's one other thing I can now say unequivocally is better under the Obama Administration than the previous one:

The air inside the Los Angeles Patients and Caregivers Group was pungent with the aroma of premium hydroponic marijuana, but the proprietor, Don Duncan, said on Thursday that he was breathing a bit easier.

A day before, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. had said that the federal authorities would no longer take action against medical marijuana dispensaries if they were in compliance with state and local laws.

While 13 states, including California, have laws allowing medical use of marijuana, they had not been recognized by the federal government.

Dispensers of Marijuana Find Relief in Policy Shift

The Bush Administration's position was that medical marijuana was illegal despite local laws to the contrary. This led to a lot of wasted time in court, and, as the article indicates, made dispensing marijuana according to local laws a hazardous enterprise.

While the best solution would be federal legislation that legalizes marijuana use, this at least will allow the Department of Justice to spend more time doing something useful in court.


Friday, March 20, 2009

Advice You Just Can't Get Anywhere Else

As part of the ongoing effort to bring you the news that's relevant to you, I often check the search terms that people use to arrive here. Traffic can arrive from many different paths, and I was pleased to find that SnS is number five and number six for the search string "how to not slobber when making out". Here's photographic proof:



Wait a second, what's this? "How do I tell my boyfriend he slobbers like a St. Bernard?" I'm not sure I see the problem here, but my advice? Avoid similes.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Buying Trouble A Few Billion At A Time



If you want to see an example of the combination of fecklessness and tin-eared incompetence with which the Obama Administration is handling the AIG bailout scandal, this is as good as it gets. In a New York Times article on Sunday, after having declared that they'd done everything they could do to stop AIG from paying outrageous bonuses to the division that broke the company, an anonymous Administration official went on to say:

[T]he Treasury Department did its own legal analysis and concluded that those contracts could not be broken. The official noted that even a provision recently pushed through Congress by Senator Christopher J. Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, had an exemption for such bonus agreements already in place.

A.I.G. Planning Huge Bonuses After $170 Billion Bailout

Since this is an unidentified Administration official talking to the New York Times, I know this is going to shock you, but this turned out not to be true. Jane Hamsher connects the dots:

But the bill that passed the Senate actually made the compensation limits retroactive, according to the Wall Street Journal:

The most stringent pay restriction bars any company receiving funds from paying top earners bonuses equal to more than one-third of their total annual compensation. That could severely crimp pay packages at big banks, where top officials commonly get relatively modest salaries but often huge bonuses.

As word spread Friday about the new and retroactive limit -- inserted by Democratic Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut -- so did consternation on Wall Street and in the Obama administration, which opposed it.

Who pushed back against Dodd, and told him to neuter the provision? The WSJ says Geithner and Summers:

The administration is concerned the rules will prompt a wave of banks to return the government's money and forgo future assistance, undermining the aid program's effectiveness. Both Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers, who heads the National Economic Council, had called Sen. Dodd and asked him to reconsider, these people said.


Treasury Attempts to “Blame Dodd” for AIG Bonuses

Jane's article is well worth a read, by the way. I just quoted the punch line.

I got really tired of this mendacity via anonymous government officials who turned out to be lying through their teeth on behalf of the Administration in the first couple of years of the last Administration. Why are Obama and his people of the opinion that we're just fine with them doing it? The last thing they need right now is for people not to trust them. At least, that's the last thing they need if they want to do anything good for the country.

What's worse, they pissed off a senior member of their own party, not to mention a Senator who chairs the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, an important committee under the circumstances. Do they really want to try to stick him with the blame for something they should have known better than to do? Does the phrase don't buy trouble mean nothing to the Obama Administration?

This isn't rocket science. Don't lie anonymously. It only pays if you're trying to pull something over on us. We know that now. What they appear to be trying to pull over on us this time is to let those outrageous bonuses go through. They also appear to be trying to distract us from other important issues, like where the rest of the money, the part that isn't going into the pockets of current and former AIG employees, is going.

Don't pointlessly piss off people you might need later. That never pays under any circumstances. Here's a quote from The Economist that explains why:

Mr Obama may have to go back either for a second stimulus package, as is constantly being rumoured, though the whispers are firmly denied by the White House, or for a third round of the TARP. If so, he could face not just angry Republicans, who are opposed to bail-outs, but Democratic ones infuriated by the thought of Wall Streeters being paid bonuses while ordinary Americans are losing their jobs and homes. Christopher Dodd, a senior Democratic senator and the chairman of the Senate's Banking Committee, for example, has already spoken to the administration of an "unprecedented level of outrage".

Sound And Fury Over AIG

[bold emphasis mine]

Personally, I'd go with the truth. As I wrote once upon a time, people trust you more and it's a lot easier to remember.

If that doesn't work, just shut the hell up and listen.

(By the way, I love The Economist's photo. I wish I could have used it.)

UPDATE (March 19): Thanks to a tip from commenter Pro, I found out that a Bloomberg article from January revealed that AIG was handing out huge bonuses:

Jan. 28 (Bloomberg) -- American International Group Inc., the insurer saved from collapse last year by government money, may have committed more than $1 billion to employees to keep them from leaving the company.

About 400 workers at New York-based AIG’s financial products unit may get $450 million in two installments, said two people familiar with the situation who declined to be identified because the plan is confidential. That is in addition to about $619 million in retention pay going to 4,200 executives and employees at subsidiaries including life insurance.

AIG Said to Offer $1 Billion in Retention to Workers (Update1)

I missed this, but then I'm not shoveling billions of dollars into this company, either. It seems extremely unlikely that Geithner only found out about this last week. If he did, he has only himself to blame.


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

What History Can Teach Us

[One of the Harolds discovers a flaw in his defense policy. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons]


Admittedly, I don't know much about British history. There were a lot of kings named John, Harold, and William, and more than a few named Henry. One of the Harolds met one of the Williams in a place called Hastings, and that's why we have all those French words in our vocabulary. There was that Cromwell guy, and at least a few Welsh. It's all very confusing, and one might even say repetitive. How many civil wars where there? Three? Five?

Even so, there are lessons we Americans can learn from British history, if we're willing. One of them was provided courtesy of one of the Johns in 1215:

By 1215, some of the most important barons in England had had enough, and they entered London in force on 10 June 1215, with the city showing its sympathy with their cause by opening its gates to them. They, and many of the moderates not in overt rebellion, forced King John to agree to the "Articles of the Barons", to which his Great Seal was attached in the meadow at Runnymede on 15 June 1215. In return, the barons renewed their oaths of fealty to King John on 19 June 1215. A formal document to record the agreement was created by the royal chancery on 15 July: this was the original Magna Carta. An unknown number of copies of it were sent out to officials, such as royal sheriffs and bishops.

Wikipedia: Magna Carta

In those days, of course, lords and other important folks had their own armies. The king had to get their cooperation to wage war, and effectively needed it in other matters, too. Fortunately for most kings, the lords were ambitious and self-interested enough that they wouldn't cooperate with each other. King John's misadventures in France, among other things, united the lords against him. Once the Magna Carta was signed, the lords demonstrated their quarrelsome nature by starting the First Barons' War, which ultimately ended with one of the Henries becoming king.

The important point is that King John didn't do this out of the goodness of his heart. Had the barons not banded together, he would have continued his policies until they'd either failed utterly, or he'd been removed from power. He didn't do it out of some feeling that he should include others in the decision making process, nor was it due to a sudden realization that certain elements of his policy were mistaken. He did it because crowds of gruff looking gentlemen carrying battle axes and swords focused his attention on the opinions of others.

What does all this have to do with today? It's simple, really, because this is an age-old lesson. People who seek power, whether they're kings or presidents, don't want to be told what they're supposed to do. They acquire that power so they can do what they want. If you want them to do something differently, you have to focus their attention.

Just in the last couple of weeks, we've received some rather stark warnings that the Obama Administration isn't interested in our opinions. One was explained by Glenn Greenwald last Sunday:

After many years of anger and complaint and outrage directed at the Bush administration for its civil liberties assaults and executive power abuses, the last thing most people want to do is conclude that the Obama administration is continuing the core of that extremism. That was why the flurry of executive orders in the first week produced such praise: those who are devoted to civil liberties were, from the start, eager to believe that things would be different, and most want to do everything but conclude that the only improvements that will be made by Obama will be cosmetic ones.

But it's becoming increasingly difficult for honest commentators to do anything else but conclude that. After all, these are the exact policies which, when embraced by Bush, produced such intense protest over the last eight years. Nobody is complaining because the Obama administration is acting too slowly in renouncing these policies. The opposite is true: they are rushing to actively embrace them.

Obama's "enemy combatant" policy: following a familiar pattern

Yes, I've used that quote before. This article should make clear why I was making the point I made in that article. It's clear to more observers than just me that this is what's going on. The implications are ominous. There seems to be no one in the government who is willing to stand up against the President's declaration that he has the unlimited right to imprison anyone who he determines is associated with terrorism.

On the economics front, things are no better. In addition to having done nothing to prevent huge bonuses from being granted to the AIG executives who ruined the company, the administration has made every effort to hide the recipients of bailout funds. What's worse, as Jane Hamsher documented, they have attempted to blame this on Senator Chris Dodd, even though it was they who had insisted Dodd's amendment be modified to allow these bonuses.

The Obama Administration pattern is the same in both cases - say they're doing (or trying to do) what we need them to do, and then do the opposite.

Sadly, the days of private armies are over, but there are still things that can be done to reduce the power of an errant politician. As I have suggested, one way of doing this to Obama is to tie his actions to him visually. It's also possible to do that in other media. The basic idea is to make certain that everyone knows when his words don't match his actions, and do it in the strongest possible terms.

Another thing that can be done is to increase the power of Congress. The best way to do this is to elect progressives who are motivated to make Congress the equal partner it was meant to be in place of people who don't fit that description. Where that isn't possible, I recommend supporting any candidate who declares that he is willing to impeach a President who doesn't follow the law or respect Congress's budgetary authority, provided there's reason to believe him.

What should be clear is that without a motivation to change, Barack Obama will continue on the course he's set. Until we're able and willing to deny him political power, he's not going to be concerned with our opinions.

While you're figuring out how to make that happen, I'll be over here sharpening my axe.


In Case You Hadn't Heard

Over at FireDogLake, there's an online petition to Congress demanding that before any more money is obligated to help the banks, that we know where that money goes. Jane Hamsher provides a summary of why that's important today:

Geithner seems to share that assumption, namely that there is nothing wrong with this system that piles of money won't fix. That if you keep shoveling cash into it, some day things will get better. He has not addressed the crisis of public trust, the critical lack of faith that everyone -- both inside and out of the financial industry -- is gripped with right now. He wants to pay the very bankers who created this mess in order to buy up "toxic assets," which the public views as just another way for him to funnel billions to his Wall Street pals. As if the systemic problems that led to this crisis will just go away and the same thing won't happen all over again.

Great Idea, Let’s Let AIG Thieves Blackmail Everyone

After the last eight years of nonstop corruption and graft, trust doesn't come easily. Nor should it.

So, please sign the petition before 10AM Eastern time tomorrow, before it's delivered to Barney Frank and the House Financial Services Committee.


Happy St. Patrick's Day


Image credit: Dooley's Hotel

Courtesy of Elaine's Irish Blessings:

May you always have walls for the winds,
a roof for the rain, tea beside the fire,
laughter to cheer you, those you love near you,
and all your heart might desire.

And try to go easy on the green beer. (h/t Bustednuckles)


Monday, March 16, 2009

Are You Bored Now?

Image credit: Screenshot of The Daily Show by Cujo359

One of the things that struck me about Jon Stewart's evisceration of Jim Cramer last week is that in a truly educated society, Cramer would have just been a loudmouthed nobody to begin with, at least based on his work for CNBC. As Stewart demonstrated, he was consistently and sometimes spectacularly wrong about companies that he featured on his show. His Twenty-Five Rules of investing, while generally sound advice, are mostly the sort of commonsense stuff that no one with a college education should need to buy a book to understand. Yet his Mad Money books sold like hotcakes. All Stewart had to do was look at Cramer's past pronouncements on specific stocks, and show the videos in which Cramer basically pooh-poohed any indications of trouble when, in fact, the things were days away from tanking.

Prior to this interview, my only impressions of Cramer came from seeing him on cable TV as I was trying to tune into something that wasn't CNBC. I wondered why anyone would pay attention to him. He struck me as an arrogant man who tended to make his point by belittling or shouting down anyone who disagreed with him. Such people seldom turn out to be thoughtful.

It's no irony that Stewart strikes me as one of those people who, when they were kids, never asked "why do I have to learn this stuff? It's boring!" Of course, it's possible that he did, and he was lucky enough to have known someone like my father at the time.

Yes, I once asked that question. In fairness, I was ten years old at the time. I barely knew what it was I was learning, let alone why. Like most kids, I didn't like learning mathematics. One night, my father collected some of his old engineering and science textbooks together, and showed them to me. As I looked at page after page of incomprehensible equations and tables, he tried to explain, as near as I can remember, that mathematics was one of the tools we need to understand the universe. To truly understand the world, you need to understand math.

You also need math skills to communicate that understanding to others, and you'll need language skills. You need to be able to construct coherent sentences and paragraphs, and string them into coherent lines of reasoning or a sensible story. That's why it's important to learn English, or whatever language you speak.

We seem to be a nation full of people who asked that question, and never got a good answer. A close relative of mine was telling me a story about the place she worked recently. Her company was having some sort of trivia contest. One of the questions was "Who delivered the Gettysburg address?" The company she works for is less than 150 miles from Gettysburg. Believe it or not, surrounded by college-educated people, she was the only one who knew.

Why do you need to learn about history, you might ask? It's just a bunch of facts and dates and stuff. I give you George Santayana:

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

And, I might add, among the condemned will be those who never learned about it in the first place.

President Lincoln gave the address weeks after the Battle of Gettysburg. That battle, the largest ever fought in North America, changed the course of the Civil War. Had the Union lost it, we might have become two countries, one that tolerated slavery and one that didn't. Our history since then, with perhaps a quarter of our population and resources gone, would have been very different. We would no doubt have been rivals, assuming that we never got back together. The Monroe Doctrine might have ceased to matter. Our current politics would have been almost unrecognizable, with the remaining United States being a progressive society that would have put Europe and Canada to shame, instead of the other way round. Or, we could have been involved in ruinous wars for the next half century.

Slavery, and the racism it caused, continues to haunt our politics today. It is one of the reasons we have a Senate that is not representative of our populations, and it is one of the reasons that the filibuster, a device that often makes our current Senate ineffectual, has continued as an institution for so long.

Anyone wanting to understand our current political situation needs to understand the results and implications of the Civil War. More than any event after the Revolution, it shaped the country that we are now.

Writers could learn lessons from that speech, too. They could learn that, as one of Shakespeare's characters put it, brevity is the soul of wit. That address, so short in comparison to the other speeches given at the dedication of the cemetery that day, was easily the most memorable. It was memorable mostly because it was able to encapsulate the feeling and hopes of that moment in fewer than three hundred words.

Of course, all one needed to remember to answer that trivia question was that Gettysburg was a major battle of the Civil War, the President gave an address at the cemetery a few weeks later, and that Abraham Lincoln was the President at that time. And yet, it was a poser. Clearly, there are a great many people in this country who don't understand one of the most important events in our country's history.

When I wrote this article about the causes of the banking crisis, I used mathematics that I learned in high school. Admittedly, the experience of buying a house gave me an insight into the situation, as did some understanding of economics. Nearly every college graduate should have had the economics knowledge, though, and I think that most people who haven't attended college could figure out the basics. They should, at least. Yet this too, seems beyond most peoples' comprehension in America. I've heard and read so much obvious bullshit being thrown around on this issue that I'd have thought we were discussing quantum mechanics or brain surgery. There's a considerable amount of special knowledge required to understand a national economy, assuming that anyone actually does. Nevertheless, the facts clearly do not support the idea that this crisis was caused by "sub-prime" mortgages forced on banks by the government. All you have to do is look at the numbers. Losses from other forms of real estate loans, including so-called "prime" loans, dwarf those from the sub-prime portion, and there are more losses that have little or nothing to do with real estate.

Wonder why you need to learn civics? What's all that stuff about the branches of govenrment, and who cares what habeas corpus means, anyway? Why should you know what's in the Bill of Rights?

We've been in a slow slide toward dictatorship for the last ten years or so. The Congress, which is supposed to be an independent part of the government that makes the laws and decides on a budget, has simply ceded that authority to the President. The President, in turn, has decided that he doesn't have to be bound by any of those laws and budget things if he doesn't want to. And I'm not just talking about the last President, either. We're a few years away, at most a couple of decades away, from having no freedoms worth mentioning, and it's doubtful that most people will have noticed even then.

All those rights that TV cops are always complaining about aren't there to protect criminals. They're there to protect you from your government. Without those rights, and the rule of law, the government has nearly unlimited resources with which to destroy you or any other person it deems to be a problem. Without representative government, which in our government is Congress, the government will do whatever it feels like, whether or not it's good for the country.

That's why civics is important. If you don't know how your government is supposed to work and why, it will work however it damn well wants to, and it will run right over anyone who gets in its way.

Jim Cramer is certainly a part of the problem, as are the others like him. He justly deserved being humiliated on national TV. His employer, CNBC, must shoulder some of the blame. But in the end, we as citizens bear responsibility as well. When we have had the choice between quality news sources and news shows that are entertaining, we've chosen the latter far too often. When faced with complicated choices, we focus on irrelevance, on trivia, and on nonsense.

People who understand science and statistics wouldn't be afraid of immunization.

People who understand engineering, construction, and controlled demolitions wouldn't believe that someone demolished the WTC when it was full of people, and surrounded by people. People who have the least understanding of logic wouldn't have believed that the Clintons had Vince Foster killed, for that matter.

People who knew as much about biology, chemistry, and physics as I did when I graduated from high school wouldn't believe in creationism.

People who had some idea that people in the rest of the world have their own concerns and problems wouldn't believe that they award Nobel Prizes on the basis of what will piss off our President.

We waste so much time and energy on nonsense that shouldn't even be a consideration that it's no wonder that we don't even pay attention to the stuff that's killing us. If we ever do get around to those issues, people inevitably focus on trying to figure out who sounds the most confident, or who is better dressed, because they have no fucking idea what anyone's talking about. Either that, or the politicians concentrate on speaking in sentence fragments about feelings and "morality", lest anyone be confused.

We can't exist as a nation if the people who vote are as uninformed as this. So I have some advice for all you folks who are wondering how it came to be that guys like Jim Cramer got away with what they did for so long - get a clue. Cramer got away with it, as has the news business in general, because you, collectively at least, were too damn ignorant to figure him out, and because you wanted to be entertained more than you wanted to be informed. The modern world isn't a place for ignoramuses.

And you kids, when you wonder why you have to learn all that seemingly meaningless and difficult stuff, learn it. It's important. You'll find out why later. Plus, you'll be less ignorant and foolish than your parents and grandparents. That alone should make it worth the effort.


Sunday, March 15, 2009

Bringing Them Together
















Glenn Greenwald summarizes the thing I feared would happen:

After many years of anger and complaint and outrage directed at the Bush administration for its civil liberties assaults and executive power abuses, the last thing most people want to do is conclude that the Obama administration is continuing the core of that extremism. That was why the flurry of executive orders in the first week produced such praise: those who are devoted to civil liberties were, from the start, eager to believe that things would be different, and most want to do everything but conclude that the only improvements that will be made by Obama will be cosmetic ones.

But it's becoming increasingly difficult for honest commentators to do anything else but conclude that. After all, these are the exact policies which, when embraced by Bush, produced such intense protest over the last eight years. Nobody is complaining because the Obama administration is acting too slowly in renouncing these policies. The opposite is true: they are rushing to actively embrace them.

Obama's "enemy combatant" policy: following a familiar pattern

I literally do not know what to do. I explained since early in this Presidential campaign that I thought Obama would be about the last Presidential candidate to roll back the excesses of the Bush years among the Democrats who ran. Even Hillary Clinton gave me more reason to trust her on this issue. Yet here we are.

So, what I'm going to do is this. Every time I write an article about some extraordinary power the Obama Administration has decided is warranted for itself, I'm going to combine images of Obama with something that symbolizes that excess. Today, it's this. This picture symbolizes as well as any the unaccountable nature of the Bush Administration's rendition and torture policies. Both have been embraced, in slightly reworded form, by the Obama Administration.

If he's going to ignore the Constitution that is supposedly a scholarly interest of his, then he will wear the shame that comes with that action. At least, he will wear it around here.

UPDATE: I neglected to mention emptywheel's article at FireDogLake from Friday. In it, she also makes a compelling case that Obama has been trying to appear as though he is opposing the Bush Administration's excesses, while he is actually embracing many of them.

This is the reason I am using these visuals. I want him to be associated with these excesses on the most basic level possible. The visual confluence of these images is the strongest way I can think of to get the message across.

I hope fellow bloggers aren't shy about stealingembracing this idea.

UDPATE 2: Over at FireDogLake, I made this comment on an Oxdown diary that's relevant to all this. In fact, I'd say that anyone who doesn't realize this at this point is going to be no use trying to change the Obama Administration's course on human rights and government power:

Unfortunately, the pattern that’s developing suggests that Obama really doesn’t want to deal with [the Bush Administration's] crimes, because he wants to claim at least some of the extraordinary powers that W claimed for himself. President Obama’s choice to surround himself with people like John Brennan and Greg Craig speaks volumes. These are people who have apologized for, and in Craig’s case supported through his actions, the overreaches of the Bush Administration. It’s extremely difficult to believe that Obama was not aware of their background before he hired them. He is certainly aware of their background now.

We don’t merely need to persuade Obama to do what he knows is right. We need to persuade him that it is right. Failing that, we need to figure out how to persuade him to do it anyway. To say the least, this is a disheartening realization, but it’s true nonetheless.

Obama Outrage: Holder to Pursue Every Legal Avenue to Prosecute Cheney and Bush for Crimes of Torture: Comment #9

Obama isn't doing this because he's backed into a corner. He's certainly not doing it as part of some master plan to discredit such power grabs. He's clearly doing this because he needs to or wants to, and maybe both.


Quote Of The Day

Some of you may recall that I'm not a fan of Rahm Emmanuel. There are days when he earns his pay, though, and yesterday was one of them. Justifying President Obama's decision to mention the problems his administration has inherited from the previous one, he said this, according to the Washington Post:

"The truth is that 98 percent of [Obama's] speeches are about the future, and 2 percent are about inheritance," Emanuel said. "Whereas I think for Republicans it's 2 percent about the future, and 98 percent hope that the people have amnesia."

Obama's New Tack: Blaming Bush

That quote encapsulates the Republican strategy as well as any I've seen. Sadly for Republicans, I don't think people have gotten amnesia quite yet.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

It's That Day Again

When I have to increment the number I respond to this question with:

Age?


funny dog pictures
Image credit:I Has A Hotdog .


Have a good day. I'm going to celebrate by not watching all the infuriating and depressing crap that's in the news lately.


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Discovery Launch Scrubbed

Image credit: NASA

eWeek summarizes the problem:

A leaking gaseous hydrogen vent line forces NASA to scratch planned March 11 launch. Depending on what repairs are needed, NASA said it was keeping the option open for a March 12 night launch to deliver the International Space Station's fourth and final set of solar array wings, completing the station's truss, or backbone.

NASA Scrubs Space Shuttle Discovery Launch

There was concern about a failure of this part on the last shuttle mission, rather than a detected failure on this one, according to a NASA handout on the problem:

During space shuttle Endeavour’s STS-126 mission in November 2008, flight controllers identified that [Gaseous Hydrogen (GH2)] was flowing from one of the shuttle’s engines at a higher than normal rate. To compensate, the other two gaseous hydrogen flow control valves reduced the amount of their flow and there were no issues during launch. After landing, the main propulsion system was inspected and engineers discovered the GH2 flow control valve poppet on the suspect line was cracked and a small piece was missing.

The poppet on the valve acts like a pop-up on a sprinkler to let the GH2 flow. The damaged valve was removed from Endeavour and shipped to the vender (Vacco) for disassembly. It was then sent to the Boeing Co. in Huntington Beach, Calif., where engineers determined that the crack was caused by fatigue.

The concerns are whether a failed poppet or poppets could cause:

1) a rupture in the gaseous hydrogen line, resulting in loss of pressure to the external tank's hydrogen tank. This could result in a main engine shutdown.

2) an over pressurization of the hydrogen tank, forcing open a vent line that could expel hydrogen into an oxygen-filled area.

STS 119 Flow Valve Fact Sheet (PDF)

They're waiting for some tests to be completed on this valve before going ahead with the new mission.

As most of us remember, hydrogen gas in the vicinity of oxygen can be very bad. Discretion is definitely the better part of valor here, I'd say.

As the quote indicates, this mission is another International Space Station construction mission. The mission is to change ISS from the way it looks in the photo above to this:
Image credit: NASA. Click for larger image.

The blurry bits are already on the ISS. The part that's most visible is the new solar array and the S6 truss that it's connected to.

NASA describes this new addition:

The International Space Station’s power generating capacity is set to get a boost early next year with the installation of the starboard 6, or S6, truss segment and solar arrays. The S6 is the final piece of the station's football-field-long backbone.
...
Each set of solar arrays has a wingspan of 240 feet. Like the other three already installed on the station, the S6 solar array wing has two arrays with 32,800 solar cells. The solar panels convert sunlight to DC power, which is routed to the batteries and either sent on to power the station’s equipment or stored for use when the panels have no sunlight to generate power. Rotation joints steer the solar panels so that they can track the sun as the station moves in its orbit around Earth.

Photovoltaic radiator panels are attached at a right angle to the arrays to permit circulation of cooling fluid that reduces battery and electrical system temperatures.

More Power To Them

This power increase will support increasing the size of the crew that can stay on the ISS from three to six. Once the remainder of the Kibo is added in May, six person crews should be possible. According to NASA's schedule, there will be seven more flights to add more parts to the ISS, five by the shuttle.

Unless it was done on the Mir station, I don't think we've ever had that many people on one spacecraft for an extended period. The ISS has now been in space for ten years (PDF), and so it has now definitely surpassed that old record of Mir's.

The effort and expenditure necessary to gain even this small foothold in space show how far we have to go before we can consider working or living there.


I Forgot To Mention

Ask Google Images for an elite clock, and you will see this, among others. Image credit: Chosen Elite Store


There are a couple of things I forgot to mention last Sunday.

First of all, you remembered to set your clocks ahead one hour, right? Good.

Second, it's time for another Carnival of The Elitist Bastards. This one is over at Dana's place. Enjoy.


Hypocritical Wanker Of The Day Award: John Boehner

It took almost a year, but someone finally managed to knock Rahm Emmanuel off his perch. Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) is quoted as having said this last Sunday:

House Minority Leader John Boehner said that struggling American families "don't see government tightening its belt," and argued for a spending freeze because government, he said, should "lead by example."

Boehner: Government Needs To Tighten Its Belt

What happened to the party of "go shopping"? They were happy enough to expand government spending when they were in power. The libertarian Reason Online wrote this about Bush's spending back in October, 2005:

"After 11 years of Republican majority we've pared [the budget] down pretty good," Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) crowed a few weeks back during ongoing budget deliberations. But nothing could be farther from the truth, at least since the GOP gained the White House in 2001. During his five years at the helm of the nation's budget, the president has expanded a wide array of "compassionate" welfare-state, defense, and nondefense programs. When it comes to spending, Bush is no Reagan. Alas, he is also no Clinton and not even Nixon. The recent president he most resembles is in fact fellow Texan and legendary spendthrift Lyndon Baines Johnson—except that Bush is in many ways even more profligate with the public till.

Bush the Budget Buster

Am I to believe they suddenly got religion now? If there was ever a time for extra government spending, it's now. As Paul Krugman explains, the GOP is so far out of its mind it's having an out-of-body experience:

What’s insane about Boehner’s remark? He’s talking about the current economic crisis as if it were a harvest failure — as if we faced a shortage of goods, so that the more you consume the less is left for me. In reality — even most conservatives understand this, when they think about it — we’re in a world desperately short of demand. If you consume more, that’s GOOD for me, because it helps create jobs and raise incomes. It’s in my personal disinterest to have you tighten your belt — and that’s just as true if you’re “the government” as if you’re my neighbor.

Can America be saved?

Krugman's question is a good one. Can America be saved? I really doubt it at times. When the people who run one of the major parties alternate between spewing nonsense like this, and openly hoping the Obama Administration, however hamfistedly it might be trying, fails to fix the economic crisis we are in, you really have to wonder. What's worse, the changes the GOP insisted on so it wouldn't filibuster the bill made it far less effective than it might have been otherwise.

Boehners' efforts have managed to acheive something I thought would be impossible: make the Democrats in Congress look good in comparison.

If these are the kind of leaders we come up with, you have to wonder if we're worth saving. One thing's for sure, John Boehner's constituents should be ashamed of him. If they're not, then they sure aren't worth saving.


Monday, March 9, 2009

It's Still Winter Around Here

Image credit: Cujo359 (click to enlarge)

Apologies to dial-up users, but this is a nice photo.

Not all that long ago, I was telling a friend who just recently moved to this area that winter tends to end by late February up here in the Pacific Northwest. Not this year. This isn't a photo from December, it's from today.

One of these days, winter will end. Possibly by Spring.


The Cliff Is In Sight

This is a chart, produced early February, of job losses in the current recession and in previous ones. (Click to enlarge) Image credit: Speaker of the House

Two different financial experts, with different backgrounds and experience, smacked the Obama Administration around today regarding their handling of the economy. The first was Warren Buffett, who was interviewed on CNBC today:

The economy, ever since we talked in September, we talked about it being an economic Pearl Harbor and how--what was happening in the financial world would move over to the real world very quickly. It's fallen off a cliff, and not only has the economy slowed down a lot, people have really changed their behavior like nothing I've ever seen. Luxury goods and that sort of thing have just sort of stopped, and that's why Walmart is doing well and you know, and I won't name the ones that are doing poorly. But there's been a reset in people's minds, and we see that in something like Geico where year after year after year we say you can save some money insuring with Geico, and year after year there's been a certain number of people who have said, `You know, I've got this pal, Rotary Joe, and I've been insuring with him and for 100 bucks, why should I shift?' Every week we're just seeing it build and build. More and more people are calling. Our price differentials haven't widened, our advertising isn't that much different, but the American public really has changed their buying habits. On the reverse side, our jewelry stores just get killed in a period like this. And high end gets hurt the most, next down gets hurt the second most, and the lowest people get hurt the least.

Buffett Breakfast on CNBC (Transcript for March 9, 2009)

This is one small part of the conversation, of course, but it's an important one. The sense of urgency, and some of the reasons for it, are what are interesting in this context.

The other financial expert, who gave an even more ominous warning, is Paul Krugman writing today in the New York Times:

President Obama’s plan to stimulate the economy was “massive,” “giant,” “enormous.” So the American people were told, especially by TV news, during the run-up to the stimulus vote. Watching the news, you might have thought that the only question was whether the plan was too big, too ambitious.

Yet many economists, myself included, actually argued that the plan was too small and too cautious. The latest data confirm those worries — and suggest that the Obama administration’s economic policies are already falling behind the curve.

To see how bad the numbers are, consider this: The administration’s budget proposals, released less than two weeks ago, assumed an average unemployment rate of 8.1 percent for the whole of this year. In reality, unemployment hit that level in February — and it’s rising fast.

Behind the Curve

[emphasis mine]

Even two weeks out from the signing of the stimulus bill, it's already looking pitifully inadequate. Let me just return to something I wrote about Saturday:

The best news I can tease out of this data is that at least the rate of job loss is no longer accelerating. It's been about 600k for each of the last three months. That's not very good news when we're shedding more than half a million jobs at a time. Of course, as I've pointed out before, we also need to add more than 100k jobs per month just to keep up with population growth. If this rate of job loss continues, we will have fallen almost an additional ten million jobs behind by the end of this year. [W]e were already in rather bad shape.

Two Giants In Trouble

Trying to project out unemployment as I did is obviously specious. A national economy seldom stays linear or predictable for long. The reason I did it, though, was to give some sense of the kind of trouble we're in for if things continue as they are, which is to say, largely uncorrected. The chart that begins this article, which was produced by Nancy Pelosi's office, should make that danger abundantly clear, particularly since you can now continue that green line further downward. So, keep that ten million jobs deficit in mind as you read on.

Krugman continues:

Employment has already fallen more in this recession than in the 1981-82 slump, considered the worst since the Great Depression. As a result, Mr. Obama’s promise that his plan will create or save 3.5 million jobs by the end of 2010 looks underwhelming, to say the least. It’s a credible promise — his economists used solidly mainstream estimates of the impacts of tax and spending policies. But 3.5 million jobs almost two years from now isn’t enough in the face of an economy that has already lost 4.4 million jobs, and is losing 600,000 more each month.

Behind the Curve

We're way behind already. The best thing the stimulus bill could have done was continue state and local programs that were being cut back or stopped because the states and municipalities are running out of money. That money would have gone immediately to programs already in place, and thus would have had immediate effect. This is the sort of thing you'd expect an emergency stimulus bill to do. Yet that was part of the stimulus package that was "compromised". The collective idiocy of this Congress is nothing short of mind boggling.

Still, they don't look so bad compared to what the Obama White House has been trying to do to deal with the banking crisis. Even though many economists have recommended that the failed banks be nationalized, the President continues to pooh-pooh the idea as the notion of a few random fruitcakes:

“Part of the reason we don’t spend a lot of time looking at blogs,” he said, “is because if you haven’t looked at it very carefully, then you may be under the impression that somehow there’s a clean answer one way or another — well, you just nationalize all the banks, or you just leave them alone and they’ll be fine.”

Obama Ponders Outreach to Elements of Taliban

A strawman false dichotomy. As a fan of rhetorical fallacy, I have to love the efficiency of that statement.

Here's Krugman's conclusion:

The broader public, by contrast, favors strong action. According to a recent Newsweek poll, a majority of voters supports the stimulus, and, more surprisingly, a plurality believes that additional spending will be necessary. But will that support still be there, say, six months from now?

Also, an overwhelming majority believes that the government is spending too much to help large financial institutions. This suggests that the administration’s money-for-nothing financial policy will eventually deplete its political capital.

So here’s the picture that scares me: It’s September 2009, the unemployment rate has passed 9 percent, and despite the early round of stimulus spending it’s still headed up. Mr. Obama finally concedes that a bigger stimulus is needed.

But he can’t get his new plan through Congress because approval for his economic policies has plummeted, partly because his policies are seen to have failed, partly because job-creation policies are conflated in the public mind with deeply unpopular bank bailouts. And as a result, the recession rages on, unchecked.

O.K., that’s a warning, not a prediction. But economic policy is falling behind the curve, and there’s a real, growing danger that it will never catch up.

Behind the Curve

This is the danger. The work to prevent this needs to start now. Anyone who thinks that Obama's ratings will remain high despite his not having accomplished things that will help average folks out, and help retain their jobs, is an idiot. I'll grant you there are quite a few of those wandering the halls of Congress, but they, and any like-minded idiots in the White House, had better start getting with the program.

UPDATE: Over at FireDogLake, commenter selise pointed out this article:

The struggling companies whose freewheeling business practices have contributed to the country's economic woes are getting a lucrative return on at least one of their investments. Beneficiaries of the $700 billion bailout package in the finance and automotive industries have spent a total of $114.2 million on lobbying in the past year and contributions toward the 2008 election, the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics has found. The companies' political activities have, in part, yielded them $295.2 billion from the federal government's Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), an extraordinary return of 258,449 percent.
...
President Obama collected at least $4.3 million from employees at these companies for his presidential campaign.

TARP Recipients Paid Out $114 Million for Politicking Last Year

While there may be other motivations, this money alone is a good explanation for why none of the folks who actually could do it seem interested in nationalizing failed banks.


Saturday, March 7, 2009

Two Giants In Trouble

This is a General Electric Dash 9 locomotive that is being operated by the Burlington Northern Sante Fe Railroad. Railroad locomotives are one of the many different products that GE produces. Until recently, General Motors produced all the other locomotives manufactured in North America.

Image credit: Morven/Wikimedia Commons


Before I get onto the main topic of this article, here's some related news from this week, as summarized by FireDogLake diarist eCAHNomics :

The February employment data continued the labor market disaster. The headline unemployment rate jumped to 8.1%, from 7.6% the month before and the highest rate since December 1983, over 25 years ago. Payrolls plunged 651,000, and the prior two months were revised downward. Job losses during 2008 were 3.0 million, the largest for any year in the post-WWII period. But by shifting the period by just two months, to February 2009 versus February 2008, employment plummeted 4.4 million.

Employment Update - February 2009 Data

eCAHNomics has been writing excellent summaries of employment data the last few months. I recommend that you check out her diaries on the first Friday of each month.

The best news I can tease out of this data is that at least the rate of job loss is no longer accelerating. It's been about 600k for each of the last three months. That's not very good news when we're shedding more than half a million jobs at a time. Of course, as I've pointed out before, we also need to add more than 100k jobs per month just to keep up with population growth. If this rate of job loss continues, we will have fallen almost an additional ten million jobs behind by the end of this year. As eCAHNomics points out, we were already in rather bad shape:

The most comprehensive rate for labor underutilization is called U-6 (see original diary for the definition). It leaped to 14.8% in February from 13.9% in January and 9.0% a year earlier. That compares to a headline unemployment rate of 8.1% from 4.8% the year before. The February U-6 set another new high. (The Bureau of Labor Statistics started reporting this measure in January 1994, when it was 11.8%, whereas most of the other data go back to 1948. See Table 2.) If the regular unemployment rate reaches double-digits, as is widely forecast, U-6 will be close to 20%.

Employment Update - February 2009 Data

[link from original]

Thankfully, most economists predict that things will get better toward the end of this year. If that is in fact the case, we will still have to create a lot of new jobs in the next few years to reach employment levels that we last saw in the Clinton Administration. Something like five or six times the number of jobs that were created in the entire Bush Administration is about what it will take.

Onto the subject at hand. Two of the giants of American industry appear to be in lots of trouble. In a report released Thursday, independent accountants stated their conclusion that General Motors may not be a viable entity:

General Motors Corp.’s auditors have raised “substantial doubt” about the troubled automaker’s ability to continue operations, and the company said it may have to seek bankruptcy protection if it can’t execute a huge restructuring plan.

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“The corporation’s recurring losses from operations, stockholders’ deficit, and inability to generate sufficient cash flow to meet its obligations and sustain its operations raise substantial doubt about its ability to continue as a going concern,” auditors for the accounting firm Deloitte & Touche LLP wrote in the report.

Concerns Raised That GM Will Not Survive

"Inability to generate sufficient cash flow" should be taken as meaning that GM's credit is none to good at the moment. Any manufacturing business will have cyclical cash flow issues. While times are tough, or when new products are being readied for market, a business will probably not have enough cash to operate. During those periods, loans are required to handle those expenses. As we've learned, loans aren't widely available right now. Nothing about this report will help that situation.

GM is mostly about automobiles. Its major subsidiaries include other automobile producers like Pontiac and Hummer, the auto parts producer AC Delco, and GMAC, the auto loan company. Perhaps its most diverse holding of any size was the Electro-Motive Divsion, now Electro-Motive Diesel, (EMD), which builds railroad locomotives. It was sold off in 2005. According to its 2008 SEC form 10-K (pg. 19), GM employs approximately 91,000 people within the U.S., 25,000 in the rest of North America, and just under 130,000 more around the world.

As part of the recovery plan it submitted to the government, GM is planning on selling off several of its divisions, including Hummer, Saab, and Saturn. It is also considering selling off its AC Delco division.

Two weeks ago, Business Week published a scathing review of the GM recovery plan:

GM is basing its speedy payback plan on the assumption that Americans will ramp up their car-buying rate to 18.3 million annually by 2014. That's 500,000 more than they bought in 2000 when sales hit an all-time high. Back then, the economy was strong and automakers handed out cheap loans to just about anyone with a driver's license. Such conditions are unlikely to arise again soon. This year automakers will be lucky to sell 11 million vehicles in the U.S., and Chrysler, in its own plan, figures overall sales will not exceed 13 million in 2014. If that's the case, according to GM's own calculations, it won't have paid off taxpayers in five years. Rather, it will have to borrow more and owe taxpayers $30 billion.

GM's Dicey Recovery Plan

It's axiomatic that GM will need more help than it has received so far. In contrast to the giveaways banks are receiving, though, the help that GM and Chrysler are receiving from the government is in low interest loans.

Some divisions are seeing increased business already, thanks partly to lower oil prices. The Baltimore plant, which makes truck transmissions, avoided layoffs recently thanks to increased sales. That plant was converted to be "landfill free" in 2007. GM stated in their 2008 SEC form 10-K (pg. 14) that they intend to convert half their facilities to be landfill free by 2010.

Eventually, the money will be repaid to taxpayers, assuming the corporations survive. I feel no such assurance in the case of the trillions of dollars we've poured into the financial industry of late. Think about that next time someone complains about "handouts" to auto workers. Thirty billion dollars seems like a pittance in comparison.

The other giant that is in trouble, it would seem, is General Electric. Joe Nocera summarizes:

[T]he truth is, nobody knows for sure whether G.E. is in trouble — not even the bears who are shouting it from the rafters. G.E.’s numbers are the proverbial enigma wrapped inside a riddle. If it wants to end the storm swirling around it, the company is going to have to offer the kind of detailed disclosure of the portfolio of assets carried on the books of G.E. Capital. As it happens, that is precisely what the company says it will do the week of March 16.

Is General Electric Next?

GE is an even larger company than GM. As most folks know, it produces light bulbs. This was the foundation of its business. In the last century, GE has become the epitome of a diversified corporation. It has divisions that produce medical equipment, jet engines, TV programs and movies and, yes, railroad locomotives.

According to its 2007 SEC form 10-K, GE employs 155,000 people in the United States, and 172,000 elsewhere around the world.

As Nocera notes, it's too soon to say just how much trouble GE is actually in, but it definitely faces some of the same problems GM has. It too, has cyclical expenses, at least within its various divisions. It cannot function without at least occasional financing. According to a press release on Thursday, though, it has no unmet capital needs:

GE CFO Keith Sherin said today that the Company has taken the right steps to ensure that it is safe and secure in this environment and that he sees no need to raise additional capital. Mr. Sherin said GE’s financial services business expects to be profitable in the first quarter of 2009 and for the full year, and the Company will provide a detailed review of the financial services business the week of March 16 in a dedicated GE Capital meeting.

“We have taken a number of actions to make the Company stronger and safer. These actions have given us an incredibly strong liquidity position, including $45 billion in cash," Sherin said. “We have no triggers that we can see that would have any call on our cash in the short-term; and we have $60 billion of additional capacity available under the Temporary Loan Guarantee Program (TLGP). We've done 70% of the long-term debt we need for this year, and we're going to complete the remainder of 2009's funding needs in the near future. We have the capacity under TLGP to complete 2010's funding needs as well.

GE CFO Keith Sherin says Company is Safe and Secure and Sees No Need for New Capital

Assuming that's true, then the problems that Nocera's informants are referring to must lie elsewhere. Given the eclectic nature of GE's products, unless it's something to do with GE's own financial division it's hard to imagine what those problems might be.

These are two of America's leading manufacturing companies. They employ hundreds of thousands of Americans, Canadians, and Mexicans in high-paying jobs. In addition, they purchase parts and manufacturing tools and facilities from hundreds of thousands of other North Americans. If they are allowed to go under, we can expect our economy to get worse for a long time before it gets better.

UPDATE (March 8): Over at the FireDogLake edition of this article, commenter ubetchaiam pointed to this as a possible explanation for GE's troubles:

March 6 (Bloomberg) -- General Electric Co. Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Immelt is paying the price for his investments in commercial real estate and U.K. property debt.

Profit at GE Real Estate dropped by $1.1 billion last year, according to the annual report from the parent company’s GE Capital finance arm. Fairfield, Connecticut-based General Electric’s real estate earnings are likely to fall further as occupancies and rents drop in a U.S. recession that’s now in its second year, said James S. Corl, who oversees distressed real estate investments at Siguler Guff & Co. in New York.

“They spent a huge amount of money in real estate,” Corl said. “They paid a full price for what ends up being a lot of mediocre real estate.”

General Electric Pays Price for Real Estate, Debt Investments

While this certainly is a cause for its stock price to decline, I don't see why this would be a major crisis for GE. It may end up being a crisis for certain portions of GE's management, particularly those who made or supported the decision to go so heavily into commercial real estate and debt instruments. In retrospect, neither was a good idea. Commercial real estate accounted for much of the losses identified earlier this year that RGE Monitor identified.