Sunday, September 30, 2012

Economics In A Presidential Election Year

There are folks at a table near mine having a lively discussion about economic policy. Thankfully, I can only hear enough to understand the subject matter. I say "thankfully", because typically there is so much misinformation and outright nonsense in such conversations that it's nearly impossible to keep up with it, never mind refuting it. You typically hear stuff like this: "We have to watch our debts. Why shouldn't the government?" And other similar silliness. It's not that governments shouldn't watch their debts, it's that they need to know that there are times to accumulate them and time to pay them down. In contrast to most households these days, they're also not on fixed incomes. But it's not surprising that you hear (or read) this sort of thing way too often. To understand this, all you have to do is look at our national conversations on this issue and see why. Here's a recent example, courtesy of Reuters:
Romney has tried to make the election a referendum on Obama's economic stewardship, but many voters still pin the blame for the sluggish economy and high unemployment on his predecessor in the White House, Republican George W. Bush.

Five things to watch in the presidential debate

Here's what's true: Yes, lots of people blame George W. Bush, who deserves some of that blame. Unfortunately, as we've learned, it isn't entirely his fault that the financial system's casino ran out of money, either. To understand how all that came about, you need to look at the idiotic trend toward "deregulation" that started under President Jimmy Carter. You can thank that trend for Enron, the Savings and Loan crash, the electricity crises and Enron, not to mention the Dot Com and housing bubbles. By the time Bill Clinton was President, everyone who had any "serious" economic cred was saying that the way to prosperity was to deregulate just about everything, no matter how much we depended on it. He and the Republican-controlled Congress deregulated the banks, and you can thank that genius move for the crash of Lehman, Bear Sterns, and the near-collapse of everything else.

What we should have learned from this is that some regulations are good ones. Instead, what we learned is that George W. Bush is an idiot. The latter is true, but not as important as the former.

To continue:

"Until Governor Romney can show why his policies would be different from Bush's policies, then we think it is highly unlikely that he can win," Keefe, Bruyette & Woods analyst Brian Gardner wrote in a research note.

Five things to watch in the presidential debate

The problem here is that Barack Obama should have to explain the same thing. With the exception of the stimulus, which was way too small, there was nothing he did that a third Bush Administration wouldn't have, including utterly ignoring the criminal behavior of the people who were running the financial system. Bush bailed out General Motors, which in a sane world means that it would eliminate half of the slogan "Saved GM. Killed bin Laden" that so many Obama supporters are so proud of.

The article goes on to say:

The conservative National Review says Romney should acknowledge that problems like the mounting national debt and the Byzantine tax code were in place long before Obama took office, but argue the current president has failed to fix them.

Five things to watch in the presidential debate

Of course, Obama largely did what the Republicans wanted on tax policy. We still have the ruinous Bush tax cuts in place, despite how concerned everyone is about debt. That's why I said that governments aren't on a fixed income. They can raise taxes. This one just chose not to.

So, in an analytical piece by one of the world's leading wire services, we read an analysis of the economics debate that is almost complete nonsense.

Little wonder I don't want to overhear conversations on the economy.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

A Nation Of Mitt Romneys

There's something truly sad about the state of affairs Jon Stewart discusses in this segment:

The other day, emptywheel discussed Mitt Romney's idea about how to prevent fires on airplanes:

But now that she is safe–but looking ahead to six more solid weeks of chartered air travel–I’m surprised by Mitt’s problem solving process. The solution to this scare, Mitt says, is to make it possible to open windows on planes.

“I appreciate the fact that she is on the ground, safe and sound. And I don’t think she knows just how worried some of us were,” Romney said. “When you have a fire in an aircraft, there’s no place to go, exactly, there’s no — and you can’t find any oxygen from outside the aircraft to get in the aircraft, because the windows don’t open. I don’t know why they don’t do that. It’s a real problem. So it’s very dangerous. And she was choking and rubbing her eyes. Fortunately, there was enough oxygen for the pilot and copilot to make a safe landing in Denver. But she’s safe and sound.”

Never mind the obvious reasons you can’t have windows that open on jets, never mind the additional problems introduced if you tried to have open windows in the cockpit, where the fire and smoke–and therefore the greatest risk–broke out.

An Airplane Window on Mitt’s Thinking

Tell you what, let's belabor those obvious reasons for a moment. Mitt Romney, the candidate of one of the major political parties for the highest office in this country, believes that a crackerjack way of preventing fires on aircraft is to build windows into them you can open. I think we should belabor this point a moment, because it appears that you can graduate from an exclusive private school and then go on to graduate from a prestigious private university, and not understand that airplanes fly at altitudes where it's impossible to breathe without assistance, and that they travel at something beyond 150 miles per hour (240 kilometers per hour) so they can stay in the air.

A candidate for President thinks that a good way to deal with a fire problem in a large metal tube that's full of potential debris is to send a hurricane-force wind through it, and starve all the passengers of oxygen, because they won't be able to find their oxygen masks in the smoke and wind before they pass out.

Forget all the nonsense about how dealing with that kind of pressure differential requires lots of extra weight and materials when you want the option of opening another hole in the plane. That's specialized knowledge and an engineering problem. I think it's sufficient to say that if the airplane makers and the numerous government agencies around the world that regulate them had thought it was a good idea, there would be windows you can open on an airplane. (I mean, besides the ones that are already in cockpits, which is the part of the plane where the fire originated - more specialized knowledge.) What I mention in the previous paragraph are things that any educated person should know, and Romney clearly doesn't.

What's sad about this isn't just that Romney was the best choice of one political party for a position of national leadership. It's that he was already chosen as a leader. He ran Bain Capital, which was responsible for managing (one could say destroying) companies with thousands of employees. This is typical of how we manage things nowadays, as emptywheel goes on to observe:

The charter company Mitt uses most–Air Charter Team–is a broker. It doesn’t operate or staff the planes involved. They contract our to other operators. They ensure the safety of the planes they deal with by contracting with a research company to grade the teams they use.

An Airplane Window on Mitt’s Thinking
[all links from original article]

In other words, the people who control the finances of this transportation company, who decide how much money it needs to do its job, and whether to perform particular parts of the business in house or through contract, don't know a thing about the business they're running. They're a bunch of Mitt Romneys - people who, for all the expert industry knowledge they bring to the table, might as well be drooling idiots. They're the kind of people who, when you can't explain in a sentence or two why you need to do something that's vital in your line of work, get bored and tell you to get out of their office.

This is how we do things in America nowadays. If events in Europe are any guide, it's how things are done there nowadays, too. You'd think that no sane person would choose to do things this way, particularly in an industry where the consequences are that the person you love most in the world could die on the way to visiting you. Yet it's a rare business or political leader these days who doesn't think this is just a jim-dandy way to run an economy. Romney chose that charter company using the same criteria he used to run all those companies he killed while he was running Bain.

What Mitt Romney would do to us as President, particularly as opposed to what Barack Obama will do, pales in comparison to the fact that there are so many other Mitt Romneys wandering around out there. How else do you explain the cast of characters who ran for the Republican nomination this time, or the ones who ran for the Democratic Party's in 2008? They're almost universally a bunch of people who stumble trying to recite the bigoted nonsense and sound like they know it and mean it.

And in most cases, you can figure that they probably do mean it.

Afterword: Taylor Marsh has the perfect quote to describe Bain Capital's mission while Mitt Romney ran it:

Harvest the financial organs of a company, then leave it and the workers who depend on it for their livelihood dead.

Romney Video from 1985: Bain Goal to “Harvest” Companies for Profits

As the title indicates, the article has a video of Romney discussing Bain's mission.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The View From The Mountain

The recent gaffe by Republican presidential nominee Mitch Romney, in which he disparaged nearly half the country as being freeloaders, has certainly prompted a lot of commentary. What it reminded me is that there are a whole lot of people in America who were, to use Ann Richards' line about George W. Bush, "born on third base, and thought he hit a triple". And yes, I'll call this a gaffe, because even though Romney clearly intended the audience he was addressing to get the message he sent, he almost certainly didn't want that message leaking to the general public. Plus, as we've observed, one definition of a gaffe is telling a truth by mistake. To Romney, what he was saying in front of that group of rich supporters, people like him, is the truth.

My own remarks on an earlier speech by New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez at the Republican convention made the point that even people who genuinely worked hard and earned the money they received owe a lot more to the rest of their society than they're willing to let on, and a lot more to effective government than they seem to realize.

There are a couple of other interesting perspectives on the attitude of America's rich toward their society and the rest of us. The first is an editorial by Naomi Klein:

I have been noticing, with sadness, that politicians do not even bother invoking the American Dream anymore. They know that we know that everything is rigged against it now, and that the language no longer persuades even the most naive and idealistic; the best you'll get from a politician is a pledge, playing to nostalgia, to restore its lost promise. But what is striking about Romney's remarks is that they have replaced that commitment with a willingness to blame a vast swath of striving, middle-class Americans for their plight.

We thus see a turning-point in American conservative philosophy. This was the moment when the wealthy elite stopped believing its own PR, the self-affirming myth of that economic success can always be had for those who want it and are willing to work. Mitt Romney has told us that it's now simply class war: a struggle to stop the other half getting what "we" have. Thank you for your candor, Mr Romney.

How the Mitt Romney video killed the American Dream

You don't have to be anywhere near the bottom of the heap to realize that this has become true in America. Even most of our so-called "entrepreneurs" of late have been educated people from middle class backgrounds, and often upper middle class, at that. About the only poor people who make it big are athletes or entertainers, and I don't see many of them, either.

The other perspective, and maybe the most profound one, comes from Jon Stewart and The Daily Show:

His conclusion about the rich folks who buy into the idea that they are the job creaters:

If they have success, they earned it. If they fail, the government ruined it for them. If they get a break, they deserve it. If you get a break, it's a handout and an entitlement.

It's a remarkable insight, all the more so because Stewart has certainly made quite a bit of money for himself.

I've been careful here to avoid characterizing this as merely the attitude of Republicans. It's not. As this speech shows, Barack Obama has a similarly disparaging view of his base. He has made that plain enough times that you almost have to willingly ignore it not to see. It's the attitude of much of our political class, because, let's face it, we aren't the ones who give them the money. In the case of many poor and lower middle class citizens, we don't even give them votes.

That's why the outcome of this election won't matter very much, at least in economic terms. We will continue to see the gulf widen between the rich and the rest of us, because neither major party wants that to change. What is worth watching, though, is what our politicians tell us about themselves, and their view of us as well.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Crap It Comes From Both Sides Now

Caption: The first printing press of the Tombstone Epitaph, Tombstone, Arizona.

Image credit: Cujo359

Another in a long line of examples of why our press can't do a good job of reporting on the things it should be reporting on comes from Politico:

On Wednesday [Politico reporter Ben] White tweeted to his 8,500 followers, “Yesterday the right screamed at me. Today it’s the left. Must be doing it right.”

‘Vapidity’: Guardian‘s Greenwald Sics Rabid Followers on Politico‘s White

Of course, the latin-speaking philosophers among us will recognize this as a sort of perverse, double-edge argumentum ad populum. After all, if these folks don't like you, you must have something going for you, right? Why don't people who are confronted with such a phenomenon ever think that there might be another explanation that's, shall we say, less flattering? From that same article, they quote press critic and SnS blogrollee Glenn Greenwald:

Many people would read White’s message and carry on. Not the Guardian‘s perpetually self-serious Glenn Greenwald. “Here’s the motto for journalistic vapidity,” he wrote, linking to White’s tweet for his near 100K followers to have a look at.


In a sassy email, Greenwald told FBDC we didn’t understand the point he was trying to make. “There is nothing wrong with criticizing both left and right. I do that all the time.” He continued, “The problem is journalists who believe that receiving criticisms from both sides is proof that they are doing something right- as though centrism is the inherently superior position. It isn’t. Sometimes one is criticized by both sides because the centrist view is wrong, or becaude [sic] both sides recognize your error.”

‘Vapidity’: Guardian‘s Greenwald Sics Rabid Followers on Politico‘s White

For that matter, why don't they wonder if maybe they've just screwed up differently on different days?

Just thinking out loud here, but maybe it's time that some folks stopped considering the character of people who are criticizing them, and more time checking whether the criticism is right or not.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Sign A Petition For Your Chance To Go To Hell

Every once in a while, there's a petition worth signing, if only to tell the world you're not happy with how it's being run. Here's another:

We, the undersigned, demand presidential debates that include the real choices before the voters this November. The debates must include every candidate who is on enough ballots to win the White House and who has demonstrated a minimal level of support -- meaning either 1% of the vote in a credible national poll, or qualification for federal matching funds, or both. In 2012, the Green and Libertarian party candidates both meet all of these criteria.

We call on the national news media, the League of Women Voters, and every other civic organization that speaks up for the rights of regular people to organize a 2012 presidential debate that includes all the qualified candidates.

We call on the Commission on Presidential Debates to change its arbitrary rules to include all the qualified contenders. And we urge our fellow Americans to rise up and demand democracy in our presidential elections, beginning today with the presidential debates. These debates belong to the people, not the politicians or Wall Street.

We Demand Real Debates!

It is an effort by Jill Stein, the Presidential candidate of the Green Party, to have her and any other "qualified candidate" at the debate.

Image credit: Parody by Cujo359 (See NOTE)

I can hear the Obama Nation rising up right now, warning that this will lead to a Republican victory, cats and dogs sleeping together, etc.

Since I was a boy, which is quite some time ago, every presidential election has been talked about as crucial to our survival, blah, blah. We’re all going to hell of the wrong guy is elected. Well, guess what. We’re already in hell. We were brought there by the guy I was supposed to vote for last time, because we’re on the way to hell, and ya know, we just can’t afford that any longer. As far as I’m concerned, there’s never been a less crucial election than this. Until there’s a presidential candidate who is actually willing and capable of leading us out of it, nothing of much real importance is going to change, at least not for the better.

That's why hearing from candidates who still have principles is important. It will make the main parties' candidates step up their game, at least rhetorically. It might actually make the debates worth listening to again.

I’d rather listen to people with firmly held principles, even if, as in the case of Gary Johnson, I probably won’t agree with them. At least they'll try to make a reasonable argument, rather than simply pander to the people most easily swayed by a particular flavor of nonsense.

Screw The Deficit - It's Time To Invest

Image credit: OWS/Tumblr

Whether he intended to or not, Princeton economics Professor Paul Krugman provided the perfect postscript to my discussion yesterday about providing more voodoo to the poor:

For future reference. In a depressed economy, with the government able to borrow at very low interest rates, we should be increasing public investment — the true cost of the resources is negligible, so the rate of return is very high, not to mention the desirability of creating jobs.

Here’s what has actually happened, as measured by the sum of state, local, and federal nondefense investment:

Public Investment in the Slump
In the school of Idiot Savant Economics, we have a saying: "Buy low. Sell high." Actually, I think we may have co-opted that one. Still, the point remains that right now, all the things we need to invest in our future, labor, money, equipment, are all as inexpensive as they're going to get. There is plenty of capital out there, as Krugman explains with another graph:

A Vote Of Confidence
Even if you don't remember that stocks are a form of capital, it should be obvious that people who are spending that money on stocks got it somewhere.

There are lots of people looking for jobs, and there is plenty of physical plant available. There was never a better time to invest in America.

Plus, since the real problem with the economy is lack of consumer demand due to high unemployment and wage stagnation, this would cure the thing that needs curing.

Instead, though, the two clowns who are most likely to be elected President are obsessing about deficits. Deficits are nonsense right now. Even Keynesians like Paul Krugman say so. The only thing that they are willing to invest in is greater ability to blow up other peoples' countries at a time when we have no enemies worthy of the name.

I can't help thinking that if John Maynard Keynes were around today, and someone asked him if more defense spending counted as paying people to dig holes, he'd say "No. That's actually way more stupid than paying people to dig holes and fill them up again." He'd certainly be right if he did, because these days we use our military when we really shouldn't. That's exactly what you'd expect a country with our priorities to do.

UPDATE: I've changed the title of this article to "Screw The Deficit - It's Time To Invest", instead of "Screw The Deficit - We Need Jobs". Other than that, it's the same, with the exception that I've also added a link about consumer demand.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

What Do The Poor Need? More Voodoo, Of Course

Sojourners, a group of leaders from various and sundry religions, asked President Obama and Mitt Romney, his principle challenger for office this year, what they planned on doing about poverty. Both candidates produced videos, but if you want to absorb all that smarmy nonsense in a tenth the time, you can read the transcripts I'm going to quote from.

On the basic question of the economy, here are the candidates' responses:

We can pay down our debt in a balanced and responsible way, but we cannot balance the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable.

Transcipt Of President Obama's Response (PDF)

and from the other guy:

A strong economy will reduce our budget deficits, and it will reduce poverty as well. But at this point, budget cuts are also going to be necessary and I intend to make them.

Transcipt Of Governor Romney's Response (PDF)

Translation: The voodoo (economics) will continue until the patient improves.

If I were a believer, I’d say praying was in order. Since I’m not, I’ll say it won’t do any less good than what these guys have in mind.

Of course, they spent a bit of time telling us how their faiths helped them reach this conclusion, etc. It's astonishing how homogeneous our presidential candidates are these days.


Sept. 12, 2012: Hmmm. Looks like the Cheezburger Network just did a big makeover, and there's no way to embed their cartoons anymore. Guess this will have to do for this year, too.

A belated Happy Birthday to someone whose household resembles this rather a lot:

Funny Pictures - Awkward Cat and Dog Family Portrait

Image credit: I Can Has Cheezburger

Pictures with several animals, cats particularly, all sitting still and looking in the same direction have always amazed me. It's possible to get dogs to do this, because dogs are nearly always interested in humans and, if they're at all socialized, can usually be made to sit and watch. Cats, on the other hand, do whatever they damn well want to.

Since the person this is for trains animals, it just seemed especially appropriate.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

That's More Like It

September 11 is a day that will go down in history. The Philadelphia Phillies finally made it to .500:

PHILADELPHIA -- It has been a remarkably hard climb back.

But the Phillies are .500 for the first time since June 4 following Tuesday's 9-7 victory over the Miami Marlins at Citizens Bank Park. The Phils, who have won six consecutive games, are 71-71 as they make an improbable push for a National League Wild Card with 20 games to play.

Phils hold off Fish, win sixth straight, return to .500

Yes, as incredible as it seems, both they and the Brewers still have a chance. I don't like the new playoff system, but at least it's keeping folks interested in the season a while longer.

I think this calls for a Phillie Phanatic video, don't you?

Image credit: Major League Baseball

If you're here expecting somber remembrance of past horrors, you came to the wrong place. If that's not enough reason, try here or here.

Quote Of The Day

At FireDogLake, Jon Walker sums the result of the two conventions up pretty well today:

What should be the most concerning to [Mitt Romney's presidential] campaign about Romney’s lack of [post-convention poll] bounce is not that he is currently trailing two months out from the election, but rather what it says about the two campaigns. For three days the American people listened to what was basically a non-stop free infomercial for Romney. The Republicans were uninterrupted as they put forward their best arguments for their candidate, and the electorate simply wasn’t moved by it. On the other hand, when Democrats got their three days to make their best arguments, it clearly resonated with enough voters to make a significant difference.

Romney’s Lack of Convention Bounce Indicates His Message Just Isn’t Connecting

It really was the GOP ticket's moment to shine, and they didn't. A few months ago, I predicted that the GOP nominee would win the election (I believe I put it something like 70-30 in their favor, but I haven't found that link yet), but I hadn't reckoned with how badly they'd manage the campaign. Romney won in Massachusetts, after all.

Whatever else you can say about him, President Obama has run a good campaign thus far. He has governed badly enough to lose, and yet I'd say at this point he is in the driver's seat. Only something cataclysmic is likely to change that.

I Feel So Silly...

Don't you just hate it when there's something really important that you're supposed to remember, but you just can't? I just feel so stupid when that happens, don't you?

Let's see. Is it someone's birthday? No, that's tomorrow. It was something really important, I'm sure. Maybe it doesn't matter so much anymore.

Oh well, guess I'll just have to muddle through somehow until it comes to me.

Image credit: Jeffmock/Wikimedia

Meanwhile, I'm hoping some of my readers can help me, particularly the ones who know a lot about high rise buildings. What ever happened to these towers? They used to be so noticeable, and now, no one talks about them.

Isn't that progress for you, though? Something seems so big and solid, like it will be there forever, and then, poof, it's gone.

Oh, and don't you just love what they did with the Pentagon? It was about time they spruced that place up. Wonder what brought on that sudden impulse to redecorate?



Afterword/UPDATE: For anyone who is wondering what I mean by all that, I'd suggest reading that second link. Please read it more carefully than the anonymous commenter who felt the need to share his opinion on it before telling me what's wrong with my attitude.

They're Not All (Fill In The Blank)

Many years ago, when I was working for a large government department, I had a coworker who used to like to tell a story about what happened when he retired from the Army. "I went to law school, and I became a lawyer", he'd say, "and then I found out that all the assholes in the world weren't in the Army."

Which, I think, was his way of explaining that you can't really draw many conclusions about what people are like based on where they work or what they do. I've found that this particular thought isn't limited to either places or means of employment.

As I've mentioned a time or two here, for instance, there's no guarantee that when a person calls himself a progressive (or a liberal, for that matter), that he's a nice person. Part of the reason for an outburst I had the other day (look for the word "douche"), is that there are progressives who are perfectly happy to sit around ridiculing people who are trying to make the world a better place, and aren't doing it the way the critics in question think it ought to be done. I figure that if I have something constructive to say to people who are trying to figure out how to make the world a better place, I'll say it, and if not, I'll just keep quiet as long as they're not doing any harm and not annoying me. Unfortunately, there are quite a few people who think they are progressive who, nevertheless, can't help but let us all know how stupid and useless it all is, even though they haven't done anything as useful as that in half a lifetime.

Plus, I've known quite a few conservatives, and more than a few libertarians, too. Some of them are terrific people - kind, thoughtful, and eager to help those they feel are in need. There are times when I want to grab those folks by the lapels and and ask them why in the world they believe the stupid things they do about politics and economics while whacking them with the biggest clue stick I can carry, but beyond that I think the world of them. I'd much prefer them to the aforementioned "progressives".

Which leads us to another one of those realms where some of us are just naturally supposed to be better than others, and yet aren't really. I have hesitated several times to discuss this issue, because there's so much background, but I think it comes down to this: Among atheists, there are some people who are just extremely thoughtless. Most of them seem to be men. They don't seem to want to understand that there are plenty of people in this world who don't have the advantages they do, and don't think that there's any reason they should tread carefully when they're dealing with people they've just met, or with whom they disagree about things.

If you want a more detailed explanation of what I'm talking about, I'd suggest starting here, and following the links. The bottom line comes from PalMD yesterday:

A number of writers have pointed out that the feel unsafe and unwelcome among atheists. They have encountered sexism, racism, homophobia, and other emotionally common but intellectually irrational behaviors. In reaction, prominent atheists and skeptics have avoided popular gatherings and given their reasons publicly—and been vilified for it.

The common argument goes, “hey, it’a about Big Tent Atheism, leave all your other agenda outside.” That’s easy to say if you’re culturally normative (white, male, hetero–everything but religious). Many of us can’t just leave everything else outside. Whether we are female, gay, ethnic minorities or simply human beings, we can’t ignore human dignity.

It reminds me of the gay-haters who think that allowing gay marriage will open the flood gates to man-on-goat love. There is no slippery slope when including human dignity in “the movement”. If being able to not believe is an essential right, so is human equality. They cannot be separated.

The Responsibility Of Atheists

The only reason I bring this up now is that this discussion is still obviously going on. After all this time, there are lots of people who don't get what the problem is. They might get it if they shut up and listened for a while, but a whole lot of people have tried to explain it, and it still hasn't sunk in.

So, more out of frustration than any form of hoping that I can break through, I'll say this: If you're an atheist, humanist, or "skeptic", and you don't see what the problem is here, you need to learn to see things from someone else's perspective. Someday, maybe I'll explain why I find the phrase "white male privilege" to be arrant foolishness, and another sign that progressives don't ever want to accomplish anything, but for now I'll just say this: I'm white, heterosexual, and male. I'm larger than average, and I'm more educated and a lot smarter than average. I don't have any debilitating health issues. The more of those things you can say about yourself, the less crap you have to put up with, at least if you live in most parts of the Western world. If you, too, share most or all of those attributes, you need to shut up and listen to the people who don't. For them, the world is a less friendly and often a less safe place.

And if you can't see why a woman would be uncomfortable about being invited for "coffee" by someone she was stuck in an elevator with at 2 AM, then try to imagine that you were stuck in an elevator with someone twice your size who made that proposition to you, and didn't seem to want to take no for an answer.

Every time I read about this discussion among non-believers, I'm reminded of some of the reasons I avoid getting involved with anything having to do with atheism. Many years ago, I used to participate in Usenet groups on atheism. It wasn't long before that particular subject lost its shiny. My impression then wasn't all that different from my old coworker's about his previous careers.

Not all the assholes in the world are theists.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Some Sunday Martian Humor

Emily Lakdawalla provides some Mars oriented humor to go along with our Martian geology theme:

Image credit: NASA / JPL / MSSS / LOLspeak by Emily Lakdawalla

It comes from an article (available at the image credit link) on the Curiosity Rover's first attempt to photograph one of its cameras with the other.

The Press' Priorities, And Ours

Caption: The first Stanhope press for the German newspaper Iserlohner Kreisanzeiger und Zeitung

Image credit: Bubo/Wikimedia

Dan Hind makes an interesting point about the priorities of the press, and the relationship of those priorities to those of the public in an a column at Al Jazeera:

There is no evidence that the public would only want stories about Rihanna if they were given some say in shaping the editorial agenda of news organisations. There is no evidence that people would spend most of any research funds they controlled on psychic pets and cancer-curing vegetables. I am sure that neither of these people would dream of making a similar, unfounded generalisations about any group of adults in society. Imagine for a moment the uproar if they did. But they are happy to assert that the public as a whole is so witless that it cannot decide how to spend its own money.

Fear of the people: A critique of scientific orthodoxy

There are a few points I can think of making here:

First, I have no idea who Rihanna is. My guess is she's a celebrity of some sort, probably in show business. Yes, she's a singer, or so MTV and a fairly large swath of the English-speaking public seem to believe. She's trending on Twitter, or was. I've never trended on Twitter, so I guess you could say that's another thing I don't have personal experience of.

Still, there's something I do have experience of, and that's the public's priorities. I don't blame Ben Goldacre, a science journalist Hind criticizes in that column, for writing that much of what the public would do with research funds, if given the chance, would be trivial or nonsensical. Still, as Hind points out, there's plenty of trivial research that's funded by supposedly serious organizations. That's the nature of the beast. Someone was fascinated with why hair, amber, and gold leaf stuck together sometimes, and a couple of centuries later I can write to the world on a preternaturally complex device in a coffee shop miles from any big communications centers.

So, my guess is that it might benefit us to put a small amount of research funding into the hands of amateurs, because every once in a great while, they'd come up with something few others would. Most of it would be pure nonsense, though. If that's elitism, sue me.

The other point is this one - why do we talk about things like Rihanna, or the Phillies, or any other bits of trivial nonsense that seem to lead the "most popular news" lists most days? I can tell you one thing: it's something to talk about with people you have nothing else in common. Back when I worked among conservatives, that was something you could usually talk about with no more than mildly spirited disagreement. In fact, it's sometimes a good insight into peoples' thinking on other issues. Conservatives tend to be much more likely to give up on a sports star when it looks like his skills are waning, for instance.

Which brings us to a reason that all that trivia is so popular - many of us are at least somewhat interested, even if only in self-defense. It's hard to say that about politics, economics, most science, or just about anything else, particularly if it requires a lot of time and some smarts to understand. And, as Hind says, that's not a reason to think that it's really a priority with us. It's just something we can talk about without killing each other.

This is a reason I discount the idea that the press' priorities are their readers' priorities. They're not. The press, mostly, is motivated by profit. We readers are motivated by wanting to know about the things we want to know about. Sometimes those motivations coincide, but I think it's safe to say that they don't at least as often.

UPDATE: I corrected the spelling of Dan Hind's name. In the initial version of this article, I'd spelled it right three times, and wrong once.

Quote Of The Day

In an interview with John Cusack at World News Daily, constitutional scholar Jonathon Turley said this about voting for President Obama this election:

[T]he question, I think, that people have got to ask themselves when they get into that booth is not what Obama has become, but what have we become? That is, what's left of our values if we vote for a person that we believe has shielded war crimes or violated due process or implemented authoritarian powers. It's not enough to say, "Yeah, he did all those things, but I really like what he did with the National Park System."

Obama's Constitution

In the end, that's what this election is about for me. I've written before, countless times, that the problem with voting for Obama, and the Democrats who support him, is that voting for them means that we will continue to go the direction we are going. The direction we are going is toward becoming an authoritarian country with a Third World economy.

Tiresome little douches like this guy can keep talking about how voting for a third party is pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking, but this is actually the reason that they're tiresome little douches. The only thing that is clearly wishful thinking is to think that continuing to vote for corrupt or ineffective leaders like the ones the Democrats offer is going to result in anything but what we've been getting, which is screwed. I may not get what I want voting third party, but I know the one sure way of not getting what I want is to not vote for it.

When you vote for a politician, he has done his job as well for you as he needs to. He has no reason to do any more for you than he already has. Maybe progressives will learn this lesson one day, but I'm not going to hold my breath.

(h/t Libby Liberal at Corrente.)

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Hey Barney, Please Shut Up

As Joyce Arnold noted today:

Image credit: Barney Frank's office It’s Barney Frank, so it’s unlikely anyone is going to be shocked when he says something a bit “out there.” And since he’s retiring, and this was his last Democratic National Convention as a member of Congress, maybe he felt even more free than usual. Whatever he was, or wasn’t, thinking, his remarks regarding the Log Cabin Republicans [(LCR)] have certainly gotten attention. He made the comments while addressing the LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender] Caucus, and, according to Chris Geidner at BuzzFeed, Frank had made similar remarks earlier, on Michelangelo Signorile’s radio show.

Queer Talk: Barney Frank Being Barney Frank

I was a lot more fond of Barney Frank and his mouth before he rolled over and begged for the banks, rather than trying to pass legislation that could have prevented another financial catastrophe like the one we saw in 2008. Instead, we got the Dodd-Frank Bill, an absurdly weak piece of legislation that the financial industry almost immediately figured out how to get around, and the Obama Administration has no intention of enforcing anyway.

Now, I just can’t help but remember that it was the LCR who brought suit against the Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT) policy. How much longer would it have been before DADT was repealed if there hadn’t been a Republican gay rights group fighting a Democratic presidential administration in court? My guess is, given the general lack of interest on the part of that administration about gay rights, is “until hell froze over”. The Obama Administration was perfectly OK with letting good people be drummed out of the military because they were gay. That’s actually an example of partisan politics working – the party that was supposed to be working on behalf of a constituency fell down on the job, and another, seeing an advantage perhaps, ended up pushing them in the right direction.

Most of us have more than one issue we’re concerned with, We all pick from among options that are less than ideal. I wish people who want to say things like Barney Frank did about the LCR would step back and consider that once in a while, but such people aren't inclined to be thoughtful, in my experience. I can’t blame gays for being Republicans any more than I can blame progressives for being Democrats.

As for Barney Frank, he had a chance to say something about what was needed to make the things under his watch, the nation's financial industries, right. Instead, he took the money and ran. I wish he'd just shut the hell up and retire.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Earth Vs. Mars: Do Our Volcanos Measure Up?

(Part of Accretionary Wedge #49)

There's one thing you can say about the planet Mars, it does everything big. There's a valley there that would stretch across most of the United States. Then there's Olympus Mons, which is the biggest volcano known to exist in the Solar System:

Olympus Mons is a shield volcano 624 km (374 mi) in diameter (approximately the same size as the state of Arizona), 25 km (16 mi) high, and is rimmed by a 6 km (4 mi) high scarp. A caldera 80 km (50 mi) wide is located at the summit of Olympus Mons. To compare, the largest volcano on Earth is Mauna Loa. Mauna Loa is a shield volcano 10 km (6.3 mi) high and 120 km (75 mi) across. The volume of Olympus Mons is about 100 times larger than that of Mauna Loa. In fact, the entire chain of Hawaiian islands (from Kauai to Hawaii) would fit inside Olympus Mons!

Olympus Mons (NASA)

After seeing this photo at the Astronomy Picture Of The Day (APOD), I naturally wondered how some of Earth's other volcanoes stacked up against it. As the NASA site says, the caldera is about 50 miles in diameter. How would Mt. St. Helens look in relation to it? The answer appears to be "fairly unimpressive":

Thursday, September 6, 2012

A Nation Of Idiot Savant Accountants

Image credit: Cujo359

There are days when I wonder if anyone with a national audience can tell the truth about the economy, and the effect it has on politics. Robert Reich wrote this yesterday, concerning that subject:

The biggest political news this week won’t be the Democratic convention. It will be Friday’s unemployment report.

If the trend is good — if the rate of unemployment drops and the number of payroll jobs is as good if not better than it was in July — President Obama’s claim we’re on the right track gains crucial credibility. But if these numbers are moving in the wrong direction, Romney’s claim the nation needs a new start may appear more credible.

The Most Important Political News This Week

He goes on in that article to say, in effect, he's not sure how true it is that this is what will affect voting, but it clearly will affect the political class in DC. We've had this conversation before, of course, but this just strikes me as a sign of just how far removed our political class is from what is going on out here in the Land Beyond The Beltway. The plain truth is that when it comes to voters' opinions at least, all economics is local. What is going in our own personal economies is what's going to matter. All the unemployment numbers are is one more indication of how things might be going in those most local of economies.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Labor Day

Somehow, I haven't felt much like celebrating Labor Day these last few years. Consider the history of Labor Day, as told by PBS, back when they still did journalism:

In an attempt to appease the nation's workers, Labor Day is born

The movement for a national Labor Day had been growing for some time. In September 1892, union workers in New York City took an unpaid day off and marched around Union Square in support of the holiday. But now, protests against President Cleveland's harsh methods [during the Pullman Strike] made the appeasement of the nation's workers a top political priority. In the immediate wake of the strike, legislation was rushed unanimously through both houses of Congress, and the bill arrived on President Cleveland's desk just six days after his troops had broken the Pullman strike.

1894 was an election year. President Cleveland seized the chance at conciliation, and Labor Day was born. He was not reelected.

The Origins of Labor Day

It was begun by a Democratic President hoping that a basically empty gesture would make up for his unwavering support of the rich against workers. That support for the rich, incidentally, included bloody actions by the U.S. Army and the Marshals Service to break the strike. In Cleveland's case, it didn't work out so well.

Labor leader Eugene V. Debs was imprisoned by Cleveland's administration for advocating on behalf of the Pullman workers. He emerged from prison a socialist.

Here we are now at the beginning of the Twenty-First Century, and it looks like we are seeing history replay, just with a new twist. This is a march by March On Wall Street South, in Charlotte, North Carolina yesterday:

Braving extreme heat, more than 2,500 people from throughout the South and across the U.S. filled the streets of Charlotte on Sun., Sept. 2 for the March on Wall Street South. The demonstration confronted the banks and corporations headquartered in Charlotte that are wreaking havoc on communities throughout the country, and raised a people’s agenda for jobs and justice as the Democratic National Convention convenes here.


Along the march, demonstrators stopped in front of the Bank of America’s world headquarters and Duke Energy’s headquarters. At each stop, people who have been directly impacted by the practices of these banks and corporations –whose homes are being foreclosed on, who have massive amounts of student loan debt, and whose communities are being devastated by coal mining and energy rate hikes — spoke out and exposed these profit gauging institutions.

2,500 march on Wall Street South: We need jobs, housing, justice, not war!

After ignoring the recall race in Wisconsin, and doing nothing on labor's behalf when the Democrats had a huge majority in Congress, President Obama and the Democrats are holding their convention in one of the more notorious "right to work" states in the union, in a convention center they refuse to acknowledge publicly is named after Bank of America.

What's the reaction of labor leaders to all of this? Maybe it's best summed up by AFSCME President Lee Saunders, as quoted by BuzzFeed:

Saunders doesn’t hide his disappointment with the selection of North Carolina as the convention state.

“Charlotte wouldn’t have been our choice as a city,” Saunders told reporters after his Ohio delegation breakfast speech. “It’s in a right to work state, it’s tough to organize down here for private and public sector unions. “

“But we’re beyond that now,” Saunders said. “I mean, it’s over. Charlotte was selected and we’ve got to keep our eyes on the prize and that’s to win in November, and we can’t get caught up in B.S. to be quite honest with you.”

Saunders struck a hopeful note. “We’re going to continue to move forward, we’re going to continue to organize. We’re going to be just fine.”

Labor Brings Its Frustrations To Charlotte

Can you imagine a sharper contrast between this guy and Eugene Debs? Debs went to jail for his cause. Saunders won't even risk punishing Democrats for the obvious snub of holding this convention in North Carolina, and all the past nonsupport on a whole range of issues. Richard Trumka's bright idea of only supporting Democrats who had earned labor's support was still born. Only a few weeks later, he endorsed Obama and pledged to support him. Why? I think it's because that's just too great a risk - if he didn't support Obama, anything that happened regarding government's treatment of labor would be Trumka's fault.

These guys won't even risk their jobs for their cause.

When you get right down to it, what I wrote after the failed Wisconsin recall election is just as true today:

Labor unions have been led by people for quite some time now who are happy to just collect their paychecks and go home. This is a big part of the problem they have, because it's become abundantly clear to anyone who is paying attention that Democrats in general, particularly at the national level, or unsympathetic at best, and hostile at worst, to labor's interests. Yet labor unions have refused to stop acting as though the Democrats are their best buddies in the whole world.

What's worse, when people who run things aren't committed to the interests of their rank and file, it makes it hard to persuade that rank and file to do things that they would otherwise not see as being in their best interests in order to make their collective power greater.

All Over But The Shouting: Wisconsin Recall Edition

This is the reason labor isn't getting what it wants - its leaders won't fight for it, and its rank and file won't demand that they do. Until that changes, we'll be seeing a lot more mournful Labor Days.

Enjoy your Labor Day if you can possibly do it. You deserve it, and things aren't likely to get better any time soon.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Quote Of The Day

Dean Baker concludes his thoughts on the value of the safety net in a depressed economy:

The reality is that the collapse of the housing bubble created an enormous demand gap in the economy. In the short term, this gap can only be filled by the government, whether we like it or not. Until we do get the economy back on its feet, and start creating the millions of jobs that are needed, the poverty numbers will continue to be horrible. That is why the main route for fixing poverty requires fixing the economy.

Poverty: The New Growth Industry in America

Bad times can be made less bad by a safety net, but that safety net in itself requires that resources be allocated to it. They have to exist in our economy for that to happen. When peoples' incomes can barely manage to maintain their own lives, there's not going to be much left for those who can't find work, or who can't find work that will pay enough.

Maybe one of the ironies of our economy is that the people who advocate tearing down what's left of our safety net are usually the same ones who advocate against the minimum wage. Damn few of the people who advocate these things have ever had to live on either.

Nothing Baker wrote in that column should be news to readers of this blog, or of Krugman, Stiglitz, et. al. The economy needs demand, and demand requires that there be people who can afford to buy goods and services. Right now, those people are in short supply, because far too many of us are unemployed, underemployed, or working at jobs that pay less than the ones we used to have. The trends in our economy do not bode well for that changing any time soon. That means that as the need for our safety net increases, our ability to maintain it will gradually diminish as well.

It's one more reason why the solutions our two major political parties are offering are nonsensical, at least if by "are offering", in the Democrats' case, you mean what they've actually done when they've had the power.