Saturday, July 31, 2010

Poor Reality Testing is Strength

Not only is the right mostly mistaken, in my opinion, in their policy prescriptions. They're also at increasing move from reality, in such a way as to preclude even the possibility of consensus, bipartisanship and a common ground.

Listen to Beck, Limbaugh and the rest. Google the 'Cloward-Piven Conspiracy', arising from a 40 year old article in that enormously powerful journalistic institution, the Nation. Consider their insistence that there's more money to be made in accepting anthropogenic global warming than shilling for the largest, most profitable corporations and national sovereign funds ever seen in the known galaxy. Birth certificates. A game I can play all day, this.

And if you call them on this stuff, you're told that Beck, Limbaugh et al. are merely entertainers, and not to be taken seriously. Wildly disingenuous, that, and a bald cognitive dissonance. An inevitable consequence is foreclosure of even an approach to a common ground here: you can't take the Beckerati seriously, but he's telling the truth. Another is that, if they only talk to themselves, they won't ever have the slightest reason to reconsider their views, as, perhaps, incomplete descriptions of reality, subject to error, and not, in and of themselves, sufficient reason to dismiss their opponents as not merely mistaken, but illegitimate, as advocates not merely of different policy prescriptions but of tyranny.

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Unbearable Lightness of College

A poster on the doctor's blog suggested that four years of undergraduate school, which he caricatured as hippies reading Kierkegaard and, in generally derisory tones, as a useless indulgence before medical school. I responded that undergraduate education need not be 'useless' (his word). Some need maturation after high school (raises hand), don't settle on medicine until later, maybe even junior year (raises hand), and find liberal education a source of strength, personal growth, intellectual rigor, and relevant to human/art/life and the practice of medicine--art as well as science--rather than ivory tower escape from reality. Again, I raise my hand, as a math/physics/philosophy/premed undergraduate who, too, read widely outside courses, talked with non-science/premed friends about all sorts of things I'd not found by myself, all through college. Including, as it happens, Kierkegaard, whom, in particular, I found useful in life as well as deeply moving, and hardly, seems to me, is the stuff of hippie self-indulgence. (Nor do I think 'hippie self-indulgence' a redundancy.) If you don't mess around, explore and broaden your intellectual base, too, before medical school, you won't have time to do so for years, and will from high school on be in school amongst mostly premed/med students--that can limit and isolate, as well as speed you along. At current tuitions, two years in college not strictly necessary to a career are somewhat of a luxury. But were my kids thinking of medical school, I'm lucky enough to be able to afford it, and I'd strongly encourage them to do so. Too, a lot of kids out of HS haven't chosen medicine out of maturity, or knowledge of other options, but as sort of the next stop on the bus, and, given the vicissitudes and demands of medical practice, I'd want them to consider that choice for a bit longer, and in a wider context than is available to a 17-18 yo high school graduate. If you're sure, sure, sure, maybe it's OK to embark on a six-year program, and, certainly, you can get as much medicine as you need in that time. But not my preference, based on my experiences and those of the docs I've met. As for my course, I don't regret it for a minute. All that non-medical stuff still fascinates me, has enriched my life for 45 years or so, and binds me to a world outside medicine, the world patients and most of my fellow citizens inhabit. I even still seek to expand its scope; it'll be a sad day when I feel I've nothing else to learn. Granted that it isn't strictly necessary for a medical career, that not all make good use of it, and that a six-year doc can still read. But I reject a summary dismissal of liberal education as, mostly, self-indulgent omphaloskepsis which delays and diverts from life and purpose far more than adds to it.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Children of the Corn

It seems ever more obvious to me that those calling most loudly for personal responsibility, and denouncing government as intrusive on it, are those most obviously lacking in it. A redefinition of personal responsibility as applying only to one's own life, as a concept that specifically excludes responsibilities to others, isn't really much of an adult act.

In which context, I hear right wingers tell me that those permissive lefty Dr Spock readers (righties obviously never actually read Spock) have destroyed a culture awash in marketing, advertising and crap aimed at consumption as the ultimate good, in and of itself, from cradle to grave. They scream about the death of God, while attending the Church of Wal-Mart. They denounce 'elitists' and their 'junk science' without the slightest regard for either intellectual rigor or the possible consequences of error. They demand attention to countless non-issues, and denounce any meaningful attempts to define and solve real ones.

Not very adult. Not very sane, either. And, sometimes, it just beats the shit out of me how they can get away with it, and why we let them.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Are Republicans Pro-Business?

Republicans are oft thought of as pro-business. Not so. Their interests begin and end with the money and power they and their clients can accumulate, and protecting the booty from others. Any benefit to businesses is strictly a secondary concern.

Over and over again, the right applauds actions which militate against a confident, stable middle class, in an economy around 65-70% driven by consumer spending. They object to regulations even desired by businesses. They fight even the most incremental approach to removing the burden of health care from businesses. They value short-term gains over long-term. They don't see anything wrong with IBGYBG ('I'll be gone; you'll be gone') thinking. Actually building something of value? Not the highest of priorities.

Stock markets do at least as well, if not better, with Democrats in power. There's a reason for that.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Structural Cruelty

Those who think unemployment is a personal and social catastrophe are countered by those who talk of structural unemployment: a rate built into the system, and not, in and of itself, requiring action.

Calling it 'structural unemployment' makes it a feature rather than a bug, a small price to pay for capitalist abundance. Full employment, as we all know, is inflationary, causes a rise in wages in excess of corporate profit, implies featherbedding, excess union influence and government make-work, and is altogether a Bad Thing.

So, stock prices don't really shift much with unemployment figures. A corporation's stock often, even, rises if it cuts jobs: a step toward higher profit, regardless of social cost.

The root cause of all this crap, restricting the discussion to economics for a bit, is the balance sheets which exclude negative externalities. Unemployment lowers tax receipts, consumer spending and savings rates. Unemployment insurance payments rise. Fewer have health insurance, so they get catastrophically sick more than get primary care, and the hospital, docs and public eat it. Hospitals cost-shift to cover it, raising costs for even the employed with insurance. Bankruptcies rise, lowering or eliminating the asset value of debt. On and on and on.

Then there's the social cost. One or two more folk resorting to theft or the drug trade. Policing costs more. Incarceration horrifically expensive even solely in dollars and cents. Blighted families, kids getting less parenting and education, themselves more likely to perpetuate social pathology than solve it. Increasing racism and intolerance, as everyone looks for someone to blame, and is told to blame other poor folk rather than the rich and powerful.

Not good, any of that stuff. Accepting unemployment as the cost of doing business, or even celebrating it as the creative destruction of capitalism and a necessary vincentive goading the parasites to work, requires a limitation of view that is breathtakingly narrow and short-sighted even in solely economic terms.

Then there's the fact that real people suffer, and shouldn't if there's an alternative. Maybe. Someday, the thought will become part of the public discourse. Maybe. Meanwhile, the radar sweeping the skies over Schloss Wombat has yet again failed to disclose pigs violating its airspace...

That Which Trickles Down Isn't Always Money

My Eschaton buddy DWD does me the honor this morning of thinking this old post of mine of sufficient value as to have saved it:

Political rhetoric in both the USA and the UK, and almost all of corporate-owned media, consistently serves the interest of those who have money and power, at the expense of the bulk of the citizenry. 'Class warfare' is now only accepted usage when used to describe the alleged unwonted hardships exacted from the rich by, and for the benefit of, the poor, who don't really deserve it. When politicians and media analysts talk of the need for 'tough measures', for 'sacrifice', for 'unpopular but necessary' spending cuts, the poor and middle class, rather than the rich, or, for that matter, the politicians themselves; the poor are expected to bear the vast bulk of the burden with nobility and a sense of civic duty. Those government programs from which the rich benefit are never called 'entitlements'--the word itself implies illegitimacy and moral hazard--but, rather, incentives and stimuli, unlike measures that help those least likely to be able to help themselves Labor contracts arrived at through negotiations between two parties are construed as evidence solely of union malfeasance and unwonted union power at the expense of business and government.

Meanwhile, good jobs at good wages, especially in light manufacturing and in urban areas are vanishing, downsized or outsourced. Cities, states, whole regions, even whole nation states are abandoned to unemployment and poverty. Wealth is ever more concentrated in fewer hands, and productivity increases while real wages for most people stagnate. Job benefits are disappearing, and job security becoming a sick joke. It isn't surprising that there's a sense of abandonment and anger amongst much of the electorate. Meanwhile, a common trope of right wing politics holds government action itself nearly illegitimate, embodied in Reagan's oft-quoted statement that government help is viewed with fear rather than gratitude.

Politicians, business people, and the wealthy, in calling for toughness and fiscal austerity, display what Saki called the reckless courage of the non-combatant. They oft forget that in an economy like America's, where 60-70% of activity is driven by consumer spending, a confident, secure middle class is far more important, even for business, than another billion in Wall Street bonuses, or great wealth vested in Sam Walton's family.

Pakistan as Monolith: A Grave Error

Reports abound of 'Pakistani' support for the Taliban and other nasty actors in the Afghan war. An error, this, and neither a trivial nor unconsequential one.

Pakistan is a complicated place. The ISI (intelligence), the military, the civilian government, the legal system, the citizenry, oft compete rather than cooperate, and are hardly of one mind or one agenda. Pakistan has madrassas and Islamic fundamentalists. It also has a community of lawyers that put lives on the line in support of civil rights and civil law. Confusing one of these actors with the whole country the whole country is a capital mistake. It legitimizes the actors' role as patriotic defenders against the Great Satan, and robs of support, domestically and internationally, even denies the existence of, those we'd like to see in charge of the country. Not a good thing. A view of Pakistan as a monolith, rather than an uneasy mosaic, is wrong on the facts, contrary to American interests, and a self-fulfilling prophecy.

When he was campaigning, Obama said that were he convinced of the need, he'd send American troops on a mission into Pakistan without informing the Pakistani government, much less obtaining their permission. Americans, by and large, didn't notice. Pakistanis remember. (A friend who's been there often and has many friends there confirms that this is widespread, even amongst those with a charitable view of the West.)American national interests are enormously better served by a stable Pakistan than they would be by success in just about any unilateral action short of preventing a nuclear attack. Such an incursion would strengthen those opposed to American interests in the internal struggles of the country. The consequences would be anywhere from unpleasant to horrendous. The precedent of Nixon's 'secret' bombing of Cambodia comes to mind.

It's hard to think of a more consistently stupid, ignorant, counterproductive set of foreign policy choices we've made than with respect to Iran. We've oft viewed Iran, too, as far more monolithic than it is, as once we viewed the nominally unified Communist bloc. We'd better not make similar mistakes in Pakistan. I wish I were more sanguine about it. I'm not.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Derbs In the Turrets Hear

David Derbes, a friend from Eschaton, found on Language Hat this, written by John Derbyshire, a mathematically well educated, scientifically literate right winger:

'These kinds of encounters are common enough in the literary life. I am always heartened by them. The nations of the world are great lumbering behemoths ridden and directed, more often than not, by gangsters, poseurs, or buffoons. Nestled in their coarse hides, though, are parasites like myself and Aliosha, not much bothered by great matters of state or the antics of vapid "celebrities," but endlessly fascinated by language, history, mathematics, music. We must be baffling to the gangsters and buffoons, as baffling as they are to us. Sometimes the rougher kind of rider will, with a flick of his crop, flatten a few of us.'

As David points out, being bothered by great affairs of state is, for some of us, an essential part of a life lived in the world, to be embraced, rather than a distraction from the life of the mind to be avoided. David himself, who holds a first-tier university PhD in physics and is teaching high school, talks and walks.

There's a point in Hesse's 'Steppenwolf' when Harry Haller talks about
listening to Mozart on a radio through the static, mentally suppressing the
noise and hearing the music pure and unsullied.. Always struck me, then and
now, as a vain goal--you can't perceive anything without some static, and if
the world doesn't provide it, you will. Not even a worthy goal: you should
damned well hear the static, and live with it, fight it, whatever, but not
deny it's there. Those folk talking about the holographic universe models,
of surfaces of black holes telling you everything you need to know about
what's inside them, may finally destroy Platonism: the surface of the cave
on which we see reality projected is, in fact, not only no less real, but not
even less complete a representation, than the ideal giving rise to the

So, Derbyshire, who, like a couple of other people I know, loves his math, music,
language, all of it, but sees them as a moat rather than a bridge. As
someone who been there done that, and, however uneasily, fitfully and
sometimes ineffectually, built a bridge over the moat--a work in progress, I hasten to add--I know where he's coming from, even empathise with him. But he isn't getting all he can, or even should, out of that which he loves, or, for that matter, out of life. Nor does he give those on the other side of the moat a reason to care about that which he loves, to reconsider their alleged distance from the life of
the mind, rather than confirm them in it. And, too, gangsters and buffoons,
more or less frank or obvious in their perfidy, can be found wherever Homo
(alleged) sapiens draws breath, including amongst mathematicians, writers,
historians, musicians, even, occasionally, in the mirror...

Personal Responsibility: Priceless

If you have a college kid, you know that credit cards are marketed aggressively to them. As many of them will refer their debt back to Mom and Dad, who are more or less compliant, they're a better risk than others. And, at 18, they've reached majority both for freedom of contract and privacy. There's no bar, either, to a kid having multiple credit cards. It isn't uncommon for kids to carry thousands of dollars in balances.

This is as reprehensible as all those ads encouraging kids to ask their parents to let them subsist entirely on trans fats and high-fructose corn syrup. It encourages the assumption of debt, at rates of interest once outlawed as usurious, for the acquisition of mostly transient, worthless crap. It trains kids for a glorious future as a mindless consumer, exalting possession over sanity, short-term over long-term, displacement of responsibility rather than assumption of it. And current law doesn't regulate it at all.

Were I king of the world--not bloody likely--I'd restrict those under 21 and unemployed to a single debit card with a $500 limit daily. They can't live with that, there's always that green stuff. Says right on its face: 'legal for all debt, public and private'. The banks would make less money. That'd be a shame, it really would.

Parenthetically, righties demanding lower taxes often assume credit card debts amounting to 20% or more surcharges on their purchases without a second thought, but raise holy hell if somebody suggests a 1% rise in sales taxes so that, say, a dozen teachers wouldn't have to be laid off. They claim that the former is voluntary, the latter imposed by law and therefore tyrannous. They dismiss the notion that credit card debt, which profits banks, and sales tax payments, benefiting pretty much every citizen of the jurisdiction, are distinguishable on other criteria as well. Their rhetoric demands personal responsibility of all but themselves, as if others have complete freedom of action, while simultaneously rejecting any demand made by others that they themselves exercise it. They overstate the moral hazard in the former case, and deny even its existence in the latter.

A strange, limited notion of freedom, methinks. That oneself is important is a given. But their relationships with others revolve more around the virtuous self and the parasitic other, rather than an opportunity to grow and learn from others, and others' lives, imprisons them rather than frees them. And, too, though they so emphasize the self, they'll turn around and caricature the notion of the importance of self-esteem as more lefty delusion.

A foolish consistency may indeed be the hobgoblin of small minds. But there are others...

Solidarity Never

Atrios this morning asks why unionized journalists hate unions. His question is easily answered. Those in the labor movement in this country who broadened their concerns beyond their members' interests, most parochially, apolitically construed, to concerns about society, capitalism, politics, economic and social justice, were jailed, Red-baited, marginalized, shot, like that. Those who accepted, even embraced, the status quo of money and power, and legitimized it by pretending that their members had no interests broader than their paychecks, were rewarded. The political and media environment in this country has demonized unions, while exalting the far more powerful and rapacious interests the unions might oppose. And a union's stance as not just an agent of social change but as a negotiator over dollars and cents, while far less challenging, also makes it easier to demonize them: if you aren't a member, you're told, in a zero-sum economy (not true--that's yet another discussion), every buck they win is a buck out of your pocket, and does no good at all for anyone else.

Unless you're a client of, say, Scott Boras, you probably don't like him much. And, if you stop and think about it, his efforts, while enriching his clients, also promote and ossify, rather than challenge, the distortions that big money brings to sport. Similarly, a member of, say, a police officers' union applauds its leadership' s demands for more pay, more prestige, more control over working conditions, but rarely, if ever, would think twice about crossing an SEIU or 1199 picket line. And everyone other than police hates police unions. Wonder why.

Solidarity never. Can't build a union worth a damn on that. Or, for that matter, a country worth fighting for. The flag the right wraps itself in belongs to all of us; they disagree. Intolerance affects us all: I am freer as a straight man because gay folk come out and live their lives. I am freer because black folk no longer get lynched (mostly). And, yes, I live in a better country, a richer one, a freer one, if workers organize, win concessions from employers, form a more stable, confident and prosperous middle class, and mobilize politically in support of their brothers and sisters.

And I live in a less free country since ML King got shot while fighting for trash collectors in a labor dispute. Since Reagan fired the PATCO strikers. Since the UAW, rather incredibly, has been blamed above all other actors for the US auto industry's decline, the SEIU demonized as the enabler of illegal immigrants and its leader and Obama denounced for deigning to meet, the unions' pension funds, again rather incredibly, viewed as imposed on helpless employers rather than the subject of negotiation and, therefore, morally suspect. And even the wages of non-unionized workers, at-will employees mostly with ever fewer benefits and no job security, held competitive disadvantages in a global marketplace.

So that answers Atrios' question. Glad I could clear that up...

Global warming Denial: the Next Generation

Some on the right are moving from denial of global warming to a position that claims that, even were it to be actually happening, it'd be as much good as harm, and that resource commitment to its mitigation would blight millions of lives by restraining economic growth. Ross Douthat in today's Times, for example:

It’s possible that the best thing to do about a warming earth — for now, at least — is relatively little. This is the view advanced by famous global-warming heretics like Bjorn Lomborg and Freeman Dyson; in recent online debates, it has been championed by Jim Manzi, the American right’s most persuasive critic of climate-change legislation.

Their perspective is grounded, in part, on the assumption that a warmer world will also be a richer world — and that economic development is likely to do more for the wretched of the earth than a growth-slowing regulatory regime...

Not every danger has a regulatory solution, and sometimes it makes sense to wait, get richer, and then try to muddle through.

An interesting, though still reprehensible, turn, that: admission of the possibility of error against increasing evidence, but only the possibility, with the error's importance discounted in a sort of Pascal's Wager on the existence of an omnipotent God of the free market. And, yet again, taken against the vast bulk of informed opinion, not just about climate change itself but about its consequences, and in denial of the myriad reasons other than climate change for moving away from fossil fuel with urgency and serious commitment. But now, framed as if it's really in the little people's interest to continue business as usual, even if the global warmers have been right all along. And, therefore, their position remains justified, insulated from demands for change, even were they wrong on the most basic of questions.

I can construct an apparently rational explanation for the right's behavior on this issue. But I find it unsatisfying in the end. I think there's a clear and present danger out there, to humans and all life on the planet, that, in large measure, our actions pose it, that our actions could mitigate it, that in a slow economy that'd create jobs by the millions while building capital equipment of immense worth and utility, that the current economic, geopolitical, social and environmental costs of fossil fuels alone would be sufficient grounds to move away from them, that supply/demand/price aren't going to cooperate anyway. On and on. There's a problem. It can be addressed. There's even money to be made by the kiloshitload in doing so, fakrissake.

So why is the right so rabid in rejecting alternatives? Is it really possible for someone older than a middle school kid to base a world view on an excluded middle between freedom of action despite negative externalities and Stalinist totalitarianism? Is it even close to rationality, much less maturity, to reject even the possibility that you might be wrong on an issue like this? Is a Hummer, a 6000 sq ft house and a 2 hour commute not only a critically important human right, but even the noblest imaginable human aspiration?

They are going to have a lot to answer for, these people.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Republicans Hate the People

The right views the sole criterion by which one is eligible for the franchise to be their personal virtue rather than the fact of their citizenship. And the right's notion of virtue is, at root, indistinguishable from the extent to which they're likely to vote Republican.

It isn't hard to come up with righty views from the fifties and sixties about Jim Crow and black disenfranchisement that, in retrospect, make your hair stand on end. Nothing new about this. They are afraid of the people of the country. Not, as they claim, because, in the unconstrained democracy that supervene over the majestic deliberations of elected representatives, the government would degenerate into two wolves and a sheep voting on the dinner menu. But because universal enfranchisement directly threatens Republican political viability.

The franchise is a fundamental right of citizenship in this country. If you can't demonstrate compelling state interest, you can't even begin to approach it. So you require photo IDs. You ask for papers. You demonize those trying to enfranchise the poor. You'd ask for a literacy test if you could. You defend rural states' excessive power, counterfactually, I might add, on the basis of their higher rate of property ownership over the more populous states, their relative lack of parasitic poor folk, and a virtue absent in a city. And so on.

You don't trust the people. You demonize all but those who vote for you, and bend every rule to exclude those who might oppose you. You claim that a republic is entirely different from a democracy, rather than accept the two as informing each other. And then you paint yourselves as populists.

This, friends, is patently absurd. People should say it's absurd, repeatedly, out loud.

ACORN the Zombie Evil

The reason ACORN won't die as a righty bete noire has nothing whatever to do with fact. It has everything to do with the raison d'etre of the organization: the expansion of the franchise, and the further involvement of the poor and lower classes in government. That these citizens pay taxes, and are subject to the laws of the Republic, is irrelevant.

Every move--I repeat, every move--on the right regarding elections, the franchise and voting rights has always been to limit it. They have no interest whatever in the right of millions of their fellow citizens to vote, despite their claim that the middle class and lower middle class vote Republican because they see through the left's alleged elitist wrongheadedness.

The common righty insistence that we live in a republic rather than a democracy, as if the two are entirely separable in theory or practice, as if the former depends for its legitimacy not a whit on the latter, often boils down to a frank distrust of the people to run the government, and, certainly, a view that, if voting for their own interests, they'll vote Democrat, and that they, unlike the rich, will never place their own interests above those of the country. They say this frankly, out loud, repeatedly and without apology. They claim that the Constitution and the Founders' original intent enshrine this as a fundamental basis of the country, now sanctified and never to be changed or challenged, from which any deviation constitutes an immoral step towards state tyranny. Seems to me that Democrats could present this in a public forum in a way that makes it clear, hangs it around their necks like an albatross, in a context that also attacks it and offers an alternative.

So why aren't they doing it?

(grumbles, spits, rereads Lawrence Tribe and Akhil Reed Ahmar on the Constitution, and Justice Stevens' opinion in the Citizens United case, and throws a copy of 'Atlas Shrugged' on the pyre)

Racism and Breitbart

The debunking of Breitbart and Fox, by now, is both pretty definitely true and consistent with prior incidents. There's a striking refusal to accept personal responsibility for the mistake, much less in a manner questioning the assumptions underlying the mistake. Obama's response, however imperfect, accepts responsibility. Conservatives will apologize for the former, and attack the latter. They'll ignore even the question of whether, in the end, Obama did the right thing. They'll use rhetoric suggesting overall weakness and failure of leadership which, in the end, boils down not even to ideology but to Obama's dick not being big enough for the job. I'm so goddamned sick of that, even when, at times, I catch myself doing it. Been troubled by my bad habit ever since feminists pointed it out to me in high school. Even 45 years later, it takes conscious effort. The Republican counterexample, being more extreme and embraced even when explicit, has made me more sensitive on the subject.

Krugman today points out the increasingly open embrace of GW Bush amongst Republicans, with only the most casual relationship to reality:

He's been placing GW Bush squarely within the Republican Party's ideology and policy going back to McCarthy and further, against righty suggestions that his failures arose from a failure of sufficient fealty to conservatism rather than its apotheosis. Now, he's working with an emerging denial of those very failures.

The right now asserts that blacks and affirmative action are the only place racism exists, that the only conflict between classes is the parasitic poor's attacks on the innocent rich. Black is white, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength. Good policy can't emerge from this immoral crock of shit. And, ever more obviously, not much room for compromise with it.
Greetings to all
Im going to post here as well as on Atrios's site.

Comments, questions, arguments all welcome. I'll check in a couple of times a day and respond as best I can.

Thanks in advance for your patience, tolerance and interest