Thursday, September 30, 2010

Yet another heart breaking story involving a bullied gay kid's suicide, cited by Thers at Eschaton:

Sobering reading that.

Spent a good part of school until maybe 14-15 or so y.o. getting bullied. Big, fat, clumsy, unathletic, no social graces. The stuff I cared about wasn't worth anything to anyone else other than as a subject for further ridicule. Good grades made it worse. I wasn't gay, but maybe 90% of the stories resonate entirely with my experience. And, yes, I was told it was part of growing up, that I should toughen up and be a man. Got no support at all, none whatever. A growth spurt and a clever choice of parents made me six feet tall and less nerdy looking, and I went to a magnet school; that took care of it. Sort of. And, like most, if not all, who go through this crap, I remember a lot of it to this day with startling immediacy. I can only imagine how much worse it would have been had I been gay, and not just called a faggot because when i was a kid, that's one of the things you got called. With parents, a peer group, a church congregation, a community that would reject in horror rather than support in recognition.

An odd turn of the wheel had me meet one of the last psychiatrists in New York City who treated homosexuality as a disease, and thought he could talking cure it in the old Freudian paradigm. Psychiatry has its problems, but has moved on.

So yet again, I find myself reminded that gay rights are human rights. When a gay person comes out, he does it not only for himself but for me. Human rights are like that. When bullying becomes unacceptable, it'll help not just gays, but everybody who'd otherwise spend years in silence, and more years wondering why. When preachers of a universal God extend welcome to all, a recognition of a common humanity, as if that's a more meaningful sort of prayer than all the posturing and proscription, it'll help all, and, too, render their beliefs a little more legitimate in the eyes of the rest of us.

And maybe, just maybe, the awesome, horrific mystery of suicide won't rear its ugly head, yet again, in a situation where it loses all too much of its mystery and none of its horror.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Wombat's Short Guide to Right Wing Social Policy Rhetoric

The louder they protest, the more they hide.

The more they tell you what to do, the less likely they are to do it themselves.

The more they accuse you of doing something, the more likely they are to be doing it themselves.


Killing the Israeli Right With Peace

Robert Wright in the Times today suggests that a one-state solution, Palestinian and Jewish in an increasingly secular Israel, might evolve into a more just society with peaceful, persistent Palestinian protests from within against injustices:

A one-state solution, with evolution of Palestinian rights and secularism, was also advocated by Edward Said and Tony Judt.

Israel is already ostracized internationally. Doesn't seem to phase them, or extend to rejection of Palestinian outrages either. A further ostracism if they resist peaceful, non-violent Palestinian demonstrations, with a positive Israeli response, seems a faint hope to me. There are too many amongst the Palestinians, and in the larger Arab world, who benefit from violence, and the intractability of the problem. There are too many Israelis who benefit from a dehumanization of Arabs and a willful ignorance of their positions and their positions' origins. It's hard to see either group, too, allowing ongoing, persistent peaceful protests without resorting to violence.

Israel, with by far the largest economy and most competent military in the region, with the world's strongest military and intelligence power behind it, has the greater freedom of action, and, therefore, the greater, but by no means the only, responsibility for ending the conflict. Israelis shouting 'Ma'alot! Munich! Holocaust!' and Palestinians shouting 'Sabra/Shatila! Stern Irgun! Zionist imperialism! Apartheid! at Israelis are not going to solve the problem, and will continue, for another generation or two, to kill each others' children. I find that unacceptable.

The Noble Sacrifices of Others

Tom Friedman calls them Tea Kettlers today: all hot air and no substantive or rational policy ideas. He differentiates them from the 'real' Tea Party, which is basically the Good Guys who have Tom's ear: he says they are looking for 'real leadership' and will respond to calls for sacrifice in order to restore American greatness:

The important Tea Party movement, which stretches from centrist Republicans to independents right through to centrist Democrats, understands this at a gut level and is looking for a leader with three characteristics. First, a patriot: a leader who is more interested in fighting for his country than his party. Second, a leader who persuades Americans that he or she actually has a plan not just to cut taxes or pump stimulus, but to do something much larger — to make America successful, thriving and respected again. And third, someone with the ability to lead in the face of uncertainty and not simply whine about how tough things are — a leader who believes his job is not to read the polls but to change the polls.

He's not entirely awful, but says, amongst other things, that a leader would inspire folk to sacrifice for the common good. The vast majority, though, especially of the rich and empowered, think it's sufficient and necessary that others, and not themselves, do all the sacrificing, especially those perks and entitlements they don't really deserve anyway. I hear less talk about universal sacrifice than I do about the Schwarzchild solution to the general theory of relativity. Universal sacrifice, involving 'entitlements' of the rich as well as the middle class and the poor, is the genuine political third rail. The systematic destruction of the social contract, overtly beginning with Reagan's legitimization of greed and racism, and more generally since the social changes of the 1960s, in which blacks, women, gays and others asserted their right to participate in the political and economic life of the country as equals, have made it so. Unless the underlying problem is addressed, until the need is as great as it was during World War II and the Depression, and until we have an FD Roosevelt available, it ain't gonna happen. In some places, that's how great the need is already. And Friedman, who goes part of the way, misses this entirely. He's not interested in social contract, either its destruction or its creation. He's interested in leadership. Now, we could use some of that. But yearning for positive leadership without mentioning the forces that'd cut any leader of any stature down is ingenuous. (And I'm not apologizing for Obama here.)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Warmth of the Winter Sky

The night sky starts to get gorgeous in the fall: clearer, dryer air, less heat coming up, Orion starting to come. Winter sky is the best. You freeze, absolutely freeze, and see fifty gazillion stars, the Milky Way, all seven of the sisters.

Did a senior thesis in astrophysics in college. Went in winter to the school's telescope, in the middle of a state park, observing. No heat. Tracked U Geminorum stars, which have the amiable habit of blowing themselves up periodically. Had a professor with a quirky, wildly expansive manner and knowledge base. Sample conversation, as we're driving up there, after maybe five minutes' companionable silence:

'Wombat, in which of Beethoven's symphonies are the tympani tuned in octaves rather than fifths?'
'Er, uh,...'
'THE EIGHTH, Wombat, the eighth! Recall the third movement; that's where it's most obvious! And do you think it coincidence that OCTAVES appear in the EIGHTH?'
'Er, uh,...'
'I think not, Wombat. I THINK NOT!'

Good times...

You're Only As Good As Your Dreams

Bob Herbert calls out Carl Paladino, running for NY governor, on what he thinks are good clean fun e-mails he forwards. He then drops this paragraph:

As for the poor, Mr. Caputo (Paladino's press secretary--PW) said that Mr. Paladino has at times not fully explained his expansive plans for welfare recipients, failing public school students, and men and women who receive unemployment benefits. He said a Governor Paladino would ask parents of struggling students to send them to state-sponsored boarding schools, which would also house children taken from their parents “because of social service or child welfare reasons.”

He said all recipients of long-term unemployment insurance or welfare services (except for the disabled and mothers with small children) would be required to work (or be re-trained) in government programs in order to get their benefits. This would include, he said, those who are already very well educated.

Well. Seems to me that an expansion of boarding schools and workhouses for children from 'dysfunctional families' would require a bit of expansion of the state, and the spending of, er, money. Not to mention an, er, expansion of intrusive state power over families and communities. And those government retraining programs and employer-as-last-resort jobs would, too, cost money and involve the state in, er, job creation that would cost, er, money.

Entirely consistent with tea-party conservatism, isn't it?

Now, you're only as good as your dreams, and Paladino has shown how good he is beyond a shadow of a doubt. But he's also crazy. Nuts. Reality-challenged. At utter odds with himself. And nobody in the Republican Party is saying so. He's recommending policies so entirely contradictory that he couldn't conceivably implement them, even were they the right thing to do.

But, again, we're not talking policy here. We're talking Self and Other, one virtuous and productive, the other parasitic, evil and dehumanized. And that's easy to implement. And needs to be called by its name, and fought.

California Dreaming

Found David Brooks this morning in the Times trying to be even handed in assigning blame to California's fall from grace, after applauding the progressives who once led the state:

Between 1911 and the ’60s, California had a series of governors — like Hiram Johnson, Earl Warren, Goodwin Knight and Pat Brown — who were pro-market and pro-business, but also progressive reformers.
They rode a great wave of prosperity, and people flocked to the Golden State, but they used the fruits of that prosperity in a disciplined way to lay the groundwork for even more growth. They built an outstanding school and university system. They started a series of gigantic public works projects that today are seen as engineering miracles. These included monumental water projects, harbors and ports, the sprawling highway system and even mental health facilities.
They disdained partisanship. They continually reorganized government to make it more businesslike and cost effective. “Thus,” the historian Kevin Starr has written, “California progressivism contained within itself both liberal and conservative impulses, as judged by the standards of today.”
...In fits and starts, California’s progressive model has been abandoned. The state’s current economic decline and political stagnation is a result of that abandonment. Now California government has all the dysfunctions that mark national government, but at a more advanced stage.
Both parties helped kill off California’s pro-market progressivism. Some assaults came from the left. First, there was the growing power of the public sector employee unions. These unions began lobbying for richer salaries and pensions. That, of course, is their job. But in the 1970s, governors started caving in. Money that could have gone into development went into prison guard benefits. Infrastructure spending, for example, has dropped from 20 percent of the state budget to 3 percent.
...Another assault on California progressivism came from the right. Conservatives refused to acknowledge the public sector’s role in creating the state’s prosperity. With Proposition 13 and other measures that cut taxes, they cut off revenue and pushed through structural reforms, making it hard for future administrations to raise funds. Many on the right became unwilling to think creatively about using government to promote prosperity.

He writes, too, implying that California exhibits a decline also seen in the rest of the country.

I'd add a few things. The environmental movement has been 'anti-growth' in the context of the Santa Barbara oil spill, water troubles and a few other concrete issues. The prison guards' union grew in part as the prisons themselves grew, in response to the 'war on drugs', mandatory sentencing and other horrors. Then there's Medicaid and all those brown people.

But Brooks is here, as he has tentatively suggested elsewhere, accepting a bipartisanship of the sort Obama (whom Brooks has supported, too) has been dreaming of, one in which government action is accepted by Republicans and fiscal restraint by Democrats, but the work gets done. He's anchoring prosperity in that of the middle class, and noticing it's threatened or gone, and that government inaction is in part to blame.

Now, the states have to balance budgets; the national government doesn't, and, in lean times, shouldn't. He still talks about federal fiscal restraint as key to recovery. Like that. But he's looking for common ground with others at a time when left and right--I'd say center and left on the one hand, crazies on the other--face each other across a blasted heath. I disagree with him often. I'm not in the it's-everybody's-fault camp. I'd like Obama to move towards a political position he'd find less satisfactory. And when he talks of philosophy and sociology, I find myself bemused. But were he representative of the right in this country, I could live with that. And I don't see anybody of prominence in the Republican Party even close to being able to embrace Brooks' column today, once which not only concedes the possibility of effective government, but cites an example, applauds it, finds it necessary, and ascribes catastrophe to its absence.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Gloom and Light

Short term pessimist, long term optimist, me. Keeps me going. I don't think the universe has exhausted its capacity to surprise and delight, and we are part of that. The unexpected isn't always catastrophic. It's more likely to be if we expect it to be. We have little input into an appallingly contingent world, but we do have some. There's even a quantitative demonstration of the fact: Edward Lorenz's work showing weather so exquisitely dependent on initial conditions that a butterfly's flight can affect it is but one example. His work is usually cited as evidence of human futility before an unknowable universe. I'd suggest quite the opposite: small actions can have large, unexpected, distant consequences.

Go ahead, give the guy a nail; maybe he won't need a horse shoe...

I Know It When I See It

Ron Suskind quoted an unnamed source during the Bush administration, famously, as claiming the right to construct their own reality arising out of their power. The Tea Partiers seem to all but themselves increasingly at odds with reality, and the Republican Party increasingly unwilling to challenge them on even their most ludicrous beliefs. Such as Krugman, shaking their heads, say outright that their numbers don't add up, their assumptions at odds with data. Doesn't matter. The 'Pledge To America' is equally at odds with any sort of fiscal reality.

I've wondered in this context about the philosophical distance at which some on the left have positioned themselves from the notion of the correspondence theory of truth, the existence of an objective reality, the alleged hegemony of scientific over humanistic takes on life and the alleged demarcation between the two. the right increasingly demonstrates a potted caricature of postmodernism, raising the possibility that there's a fundamental problem with it. Or, perhaps, a less fundamental one, whose desperately needed clarification would exclude righty abuse of the notion.

The Tea Partiers and, well, sane people, are obviously at odds. Their world views are irreconcilable, and not merely, seems to me, because of intrinsic assumptions equally valid though different, their validity a matter of social construction and nothing else, neither side privileged, but rather because one side is entirely crazy and the other is trying to deal with the real world. I don't see how that can be argued. The Tea Partiers, of course, would disagree with me, and assert precisely the same thing about, well, sane people, and are immune to factual and logical disputation of their positions. I'd like to refute them with more than a Potter Stewart hand-waving 'I know it when I see it'. I'd like to assert, with absolute confidence, that there's a way to objectively distinguish between socially constructed world views based on external correspondence, or lack of it, with reality. Then again, I'd like to do so with respect to science and other human enterprises--an exercise most scientists take as obvious or unnecessary, but which has resisted most rigorous philosophical attempts to do so.

Or, perhaps, I can just say they're all bigoted, intolerant, ignorant and dogmatic, and that lefties aren't. Obviously...

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Pledge On America

The Times editorializes this morning on the Republican pledge to America, in much the same way Krugman has been, reviewing its disingenuous numbers and uselessness as policy.

The Republicans’ central claim is that they will be able to reduce the budget deficit, while cutting taxes deeply and making marginal cuts in spending. That pledge is impossible to keep...
The Republicans’ pledge also fails to mention that President Obama has already called for extending the tax cuts for 98 percent of taxpayers (couples making up to $250,000 and individuals making up to $200,000).
So what the pledge is really advocating is a permanent extension of tax cuts for the top 2 percent. In all, the pledge’s tax proposal would add $3.7 trillion to the nation’s debt over the next 10 years, nearly $700 billion more than the administration’s proposal.
The drive for permanent high-end tax cuts is profligate; there is no other word for it...

If you haven't read the Republican Party platform documents, you should: they're quite remarkable in their economic, social and political obeisance to the far right:

The complete Republican sell-out to the Tea Partiers has no parallel, now or at any time in American history, in Democratic concessions to the left.

The Tea Partiers are angry because the world and their dreams differ. They're angry because those who are not like them consider themselves fully as human as they do. They're angry because they assert what they consider objective, unassailable truths, and are disagreed with by others when they do. And their consistency in these matters of affect gives rise to a wild inconsistency, and an impossibility, of actual effective, just governance, making it inevitable that any actual attempt to govern will result in either total failure, which, to them, is always Somebody Else's Fault or a betrayal of principle.

And, while they doth protest much, perhaps too much, I think they'd be a lot less angry about all this if a centrist Democrat who was maybe 60 years old, graying at the temples and, er, less melanotically prominent were occupying the White House, if Barney Frank had a wife and two kids, if Nancy Pelosi were afflicted with a Y chromosome. And if the country as a whole weren't moving the way it is socially, as well as politically and economically. I don't think you can overemphasize the fact that the thrust in their political argument has much less to do with politics, especially rational, applicable politics, than anybody pretends, and that they will never be satisfied were that realm alone addressed even to their utter appeasement. They couldn't care less if the numbers don't add up. They care that Self is in danger from Other. An argument about the former addresses the latter not in the least. Which means that collaboration with them in governance is not only unwise policy, but a priori entirely impossible, doomed before the attempt is even made.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Triumph of the Force

Thers on Eschaton today posts some hilarious and beautifully executed old-graphic propaganda posters for the empire and rebel alliance forces in the 'Star Wars' universe. The symmetry between Empire and Rebel Alliance posters is striking:

I grew up reading every science fiction story I could get my hands on, from the 1950s on up. Very few movies purporting to be science fiction reflected the books' sensibilities: 'Metropolis', the Flash Gordon and 'King of the Rocket Men' serials, 'Forbidden Planet' and not much else come to mind. 'Star Wars' (now ep. 4) wonderfully recreated and embodied many classic SF tropes. I could have pulled maybe five books from my collection which had tramp freighters escaping into hyperdrive. Like Lucas' best film, 'American Graffiti', 'Star Wars' owed much to reference to widely understood external context. The more the films became self-referential, the worse they got; the material simply wasn't up to Lucas pretensions.

The more I think about Lucas' world, the more troubling it is. Both sides depend on an elite, in power because of mastery of the Force, vaguely on a border between supernatural and metachlorion/biological, amounting to inborn ability and an assertion of will over both humans ('These aren't the droids you're looking for'; 'I find your lack of faith disturbing') and the inanimate universe arising out of training and suspension of disbelief. There's no constraint at all on Jedi Knight any more than on Dark Siders, other than internal ones, and a trip to evil an appallingly short and seductive one. The lives of the Forceless and the non-royals have no relevance whatever to the films, and their lack of input into the pre-empire regime, empire, revolution and post-empire event never remarked upon. Clones, machines and troops not much more than machines predominate.

Vincent Canby in the Times, at the time the original film (now ep.4, which, I might add, I saw perhaps 12 times in theatres) was released, noted that the medal ceremony at the end of ep. 4 was a direct quote from Leni Riefenstahl's notorious 'Triumph of the Will' about the Berlin Olympics. There isn't much in Lucas' universe that's incompatible with fascism, or, being charitable, even Ayn Randish virtuous selfishness. True, even more obviously, of such classic science fiction as the space operas of EE Smith, which are revered in the SF community as having created the genre. Anyone who really cares about science fiction, and a pop culture increasingly taken with it, should read Norman Spinrad's vastly underappreciated, underread and troubling 'Iron Dream', which purports to be a pulp science fiction novel, entirely compatible with genre conventions, written in an alternative universe by a failed painter, emigrating to the USA after World War I, named Adolf Hitler. The ease with which Nazi ideology fits in is extraordinary. Harry Harrison's 'Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers' is a biting parody of Smith and his ilk, and worth a look too.

'Star Trek's Federation galaxy does far better, though still underreporting on Federation civilian life to the advantage of the quasimilitary Star Fleet command and undervaluing diplomats compared with ship's captains, though the Fleet has many roles other than military. And much, much better acted and written: q'plah!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Starving The Beast

Paul Krugman in the Times this morning thinks the Republicans are making the country ungovernable, and their policy prescriptions at frank odds with reality:

...the only way to balance the budget by 2020, while simultaneously (a) making the Bush tax cuts permanent and (b) protecting all the programs Republicans say they won’t cut, is to completely abolish the rest of the federal government: “No more national parks, no more Small Business Administration loans, no more export subsidies, no more N.I.H. No more Medicaid (one-third of its budget pays for long-term care for our parents and others with disabilities). No more child health or child nutrition programs. No more highway construction. No more homeland security. Oh, and no more Congress.”

The “pledge,” then, is nonsense.

Hard to argue. They've been talking about starving the beast and drowning it in a bathtub for decades. They've been talking of government help as something to be feared, of government regulation as tyranny. Anybody who's been listening has been saying, also for decades, that you don't give a hammer to someone who doesn't even believe in tools. Anybody who's been watching has seen example after example of problems arising from Republican failure to govern.

And it'd be a damned shame were historians in 100 years to attribute the long-sought destruction of American government to the ease with which a black man in the White House could be delegitimized, and the insufficient response to their hatred and bigotry from those who knew better.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Logic in the Asylum

Michiko Kakutani reviews Woodward's 'Obama's War' in the Times this morning. Obama, as described, sounds better than i've heard him described in a while, on left or right, facing difficulties throughout, being realistic about them while being buffeted by the demands of various people and constituencies within and without the military:

Mr. Woodward describes Mr. Obama as engaged in a methodical decision process that is nearly the polar opposite of the gut calls and out-of-channels policy making of the Bush administration, which Mr. Woodward mapped in four earlier books. Mr. Obama is seen repeatedly questioning his aides and the military about the actual United States mission in Afghanistan and underlying assumptions about the war...

An administration review of the Afghanistan war is scheduled for this December. “I’m not signing on to a failure,” President Obama is quoted saying near the end of this book. “If what I proposed is not working, I’m not going to be like these other presidents and stick to it based upon my ego or my politics — my political security.”

He also, predictably, consulted Colin Powell, who, equally predictably, advocated centrist positions that conserved authority and political capital as much as asserted them.

I'm yet again, as I am so often with Obama, torn between demanding that he move leftward in discourse and action, and wondering if he's doing the best he can in the realm of the politically possible while dealing with the steaming pile of shit Bush and Cheney left him, and the borderline types in the Pentagon. Every day brings new evidence of Republican capitulation to the insane far right, and their embrace of total obstruction as sole political tactic. I remain convinced that he should fight more, and more in public, trying to move the goalposts defining legitimate discourse leftward. Nobody else can do it. And his more cerebral, less confrontational default manner demonstrably doesn't work politically against an opposition that demands frank condemnation rather than vain attempts at accommodation. But, too, I wonder if he, or anyone, can succeed in implementing a more progressive agenda in a country increasingly embracing not just conservatism but madness.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Double Negatives Are Not Always A Positive

Stanley Fish, who seems often to provoke my bloviation, does so again today by praising NIMBY opposition to windmills, while simultaneously opposing 'fracking' in extracting natural gas:

He offers no evidence that he recognises that fossil fuel use poses any problems whatever. Nor does he suggest any alternatives. Nor does he consider that the 'fracking' he opposes (rightly, in my view) is in service of fossil fuel use which wind energy, which he, too, opposes,in his backyard and others', might lessen the need for. He'd be more credible had he done so.

If we continue to use power by the terawatt, we'll be required to make choices which will have consequences good and bad. Such choices are the very essence of politics, for better or worse. If they can't, or won't, be made, and paralysis results,that, too, will have consequences, serious ones, which it would be well for Prof. Fish to address.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Traitors To Their Class

Paul Krugman today talks about how angry, how under unjust assault, how victimized the rich feel, during hard economic times affecting them and their prerogatives hardly at all:

I've noted that Angry Rich business for some time. I've met some of 'em. They complain. Taxes. Parasitic brown people sucking on the public teat. Sneaking into the country, dropping their babies in ERs so they can claim citizenship. Welfare queens. Fat smokers with cell phones on food stamps. And the rich, too, have cash flow problems. They can't save as much as they thought they could. Maybe a six figure hit in their 401ks. early retirement less of an option. Life is altogether more difficult than it should be.

And these people have 5000 sq ft homes in tony suburbs. Kitchens the size of airplane hangars. The Cape house. The 6-series BMW and Lexus SUV. Three kids in private schools, lest their opportunities be compromised by an underperforming public Tony Suburb HS under the thumb of a teachers' union. Maybe one or two in college, and, at that, certainly not a state school. Landscapers, classy restaurant meals, golf, hairdressers, spas, shoes, suits, Botox, boats, planes. And they feel entitled to all that, because they work their butts off, and, since they only talk and listen to their peers, don't have much of a feel for their economic lessers, working their butts off too, but with far less security and return on their labor. And, if they have cash flow problems, they never reconsider whether or not they really need All That Stuff. They feel as great a sense of entitlement to it, all of it, as that which they project onto dirt-poor single parents, greedy geezers and those having so little regard for themselves and society that they get sick and need medical care.

So they're angry. They talk about 'class warfare', comically restricting the notion to that waged by the poor against the rich, at a time when the upper tenth of 1% take home 14% of the income in this country. And, since they talk mostly to each other, and listen to nobody else, they get increasingly removed from reality. An unstable situation, this, neither sustainable as is nor as it is playing out. The ways such situations have evolved historically have not all been pretty, and don't offer reassuring precedents. It's ugly and getting uglier, crazy and getting crazier.

Obama, I think, is trying to save the system mostly as is, rather than challenge it. We on the left see him as centrist, perhaps slightly center-left, his actions not nearly sufficient in substance or in energy of presentation. The right, we think implausibly, even comically, sees him as interventionist without precedent, wildly to the left, a socialist, an out of touch elitist, a despoiler of the American way of life, a Constitution-shredder, entirely illegitimate: a crypto-Kenyan, Muslim, vacation-abusing, Panther-coddling, dictator-appeasing uppity nigger, not One Of Us. We've seen this sort of thing before, with that traitor to his class, FD Roosevelt, who might well have saved capitalism from itself during history's worst economic calamity, by running a government that the people thought cared about them, was working and fighting for them. If Obama can't similarly legitimize government, and times get worse and people feel increasingly abandoned, seems to me we're headed for big trouble. And not just prolonged economic stagnation.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Health Policy 101

The raison d'etre of insurance, from the policy holder's viewpoint, is the spread of unacceptable risk across a pool better able to manage it. The raison d'etre of a private insurer is to maximize profits and market share.

So, it's in the policy holder's interest to broaden the risk pool as much as possible. I'd suggest, in the context of health insurance, that the whole country would be about right. Meanwhile, it's in the companies' interest to deny or delay benefits, community rate, restrict the risk pool to those not, er, all that risky, and to plow as much money into profit, administration and salary as possible, and as little into return to policy holders as possible.

Those interests would seem, er, not entirely coincident...

The Torturer's Horse's Innocent Behind

Dwight Garner in the Times this morning reviews Kwame Anthony Appiah's book, 'The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen', and quotes him:

“Whatever happened when these immoral practices ceased, it wasn’t, so it seemed to me, that people were bowled over by new moral arguments. Dueling was always murderous and irrational; foot binding was always painfully crippling; slavery was always an assault on the humanity of the slave.”

Appiah, Garner says, argues for change not out of new data, or internal reconsideration, but out of a personal, and national, search for what John Adams calls 'the esteem and admiration of others', mindful of what Jefferson called 'the decent opinions of mankind.' I recall here Jacobo Timerman's 'Prisoner Without A Name, Cell Without A Number', his searing indictment of torture, in particular that practiced in Argentina under military rule. Timerman demanded not only that we look at the victim of the torturer, and the views outsiders have of torture, but of the effect torture has on the torturer, on the society that sanctions torture. Perhaps, when we lose our way, we can recover it by seeing ourselves more clearly in the mirror of others' eyes. Appiah argues that internal considerations are insufficient. Timerman argues that the practice of evil itself perpetuates evil by changing the actor internally.

It's all too common these days to hear those angrily opposing the 'Ground Zero mosque', or Islamic terrorism, citing the Saudi ban on Christian churches in that land, or the excesses of Sharia law dogmatically and cruelly applied, as somehow justifying intolerance on our part. They oft hold such a stance not only reasonable but the only possible realistic response to the reality of Islam, denying even the possibility of moderate Islam, demanding that we respond to a lower bar by lowering ourselves to it rather than challenging it, offering an alternative, showing both ourselves and the world that an alternative can work. Islam, in Appiah's model (I haven't read the book, so I'm probably simplistic here), and Islamic countries, will more and more characterize themselves as peaceful, moderate and reject ever more firmly violence done in the name of their religion, given the decent opinions of the mankind of which they, too, are a part. When we lower ourselves to the level that we perceive to be characteristic of the worst of Islam--for all too many, even of all of Islam--Appiah would say that we are hindering precisely the change we most wish for, both in terms of human rights and our naked self-interest. And, too, Timerman would say that when we torture, when we embrace intolerance, we above all change ourselves.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom never, ever to blindly accept the unalterable as others have defined it, and to fight like hell for the right, and the serenity that comes from doing the right thing, rather than passively accepting false bounds to my acts.


May I have an 'Amen' from the crowd?

Thank you, and give generously as the collection plate comes by...

Hall of Fun House Mirrors

I wonder if the military, and those who use it, aid and abet it, venerate it over civilian/diplomatic spheres, are prone to fall into self-reference, where the military is in and of itself virtuous and its mission, as defined by civilians, increasingly secondary. And a characteristic of institutional self-reference is further and further remove from those outside, an ever greater concentration on its own priorities rather than those of the society supporting it, with fell consequences almost inevitable.

You could argue similarly with cops, ever more isolated from their populations and protective of each other's prerogatives; religious fundies ever more dismissive of a common humanity with pagans; docs facing malpractice lawyers and bureaucratic nightmares; on and on. You might even argue that the whole, entire kit and caboodle of Western society is moving in such a direction, because it's inevitable if economics, especially 'free markets' where profit-making is exalted over all else, and financial markets ever more removed from actual assets in the real world, displaces any other way of thinking about our lives together. 'Rugged individualists' living a libertarian fantasy, or daydreaming of one, trapped in a hall of funh house mirrors, trapping, too, everyone...

An American Prisoner Released in Iran

My Eschaton buddy plantsman cites the Washington Post:

Iranian authorities have released one of three Americans held for more than a year in Iran, their lawyer confirmed on Tuesday...

Shourd's release was initially expected at a government organized ceremony on Saturday. But it was postponed after judicial authorities objected, saying her case had not been finalized yet.

On Sunday, a bail of $ 500,000 was set as a condition for her release. On Monday, Shroud's family in the United States said they could not pay that much and were trying to lower the amount. It is unclear if any money was paid.

As always, such actions have to be evaluated as signals, addressed to the domestic population and to the world. So, Ahmadinejad is clearly at odds with the theocracy, and he and the country's people not eager to entirely reject engagement with the west.

One could rely on Bush to do something stupid, ignorant and oblivious in response to such a thing, as in most other contexts. Let's see what Obama does. Maybe the Obama who gave the Cairo speech will show up.

Football Fans Give The Gladiators the Thumbs Down

The Times reports an ever better confirmed horror of our civilization:

A brain autopsy of a University of Pennsylvania football player who killed himself in April has revealed the same trauma-induced disease found in more than 20 deceased National Football League players, raising questions of how young football players may be at risk for the disease.

Owen Thomas hanged himself in his off-campus apartment after what friends and family have described as a sudden and uncharacteristic emotional collapse.

Owen Thomas, a popular 6-foot-2, 240-pound junior lineman for Penn with no previous history of depression, hanged himself in his off-campus apartment after what friends and family have described as a sudden and uncharacteristic emotional collapse. Doctors at Boston University subsequently received permission from the family to examine Thomas’s brain tissue and discovered early stages of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a disease linked to depression and impulse control primarily among N.F.L. players, two of whom also committed suicide in the last 10 years.

This wasn't a small, unskilled, vulnerable guy.

This is the tip of the iceberg. Football players are smarter, bigger, faster, stronger, ever more prone to injury, in a sport where winning is, famously, the only thing, the reigning values are paramilitary rather than what we're pleased to call sportsmanship. Stories like this one are now surfacing with regularity. And I don't think it's just denial that most fans don't give a shit. They watch football, in part, to see the tough hits, just as NASCAR fans wait eagerly for the spectacular crashes that are evidence for the passion of the sport. They despise athletes who don't play hurt.

If the NFL, and college, even high school teams, don't do something soon, it's only a matter of time before it occurs to somebody that they had knowledge of the risks, a duty to prevent them, a breach of that duty through negligence causing injury, economic loss, pain and suffering and loss of consortium, and that a suit in tort might succeed. The case will soon be better than it is in many suits for medical malpractice. And everyone will say that greedy lawyers are destroying the country. And the threat will, as has happened in the past, over and over again, produce change, desperately needed change, that wouldn't otherwise have happened.

Count on it.

Mars Needs Women, and Earth Needs Adults

Roger Cohen on what passes for the mideast peace process, and the blase cynicism with which even mostly secular Tel Aviv greets it:

(George) Mitchell, after 18 months of toil, believes Netanyahu will go the extra mile. I was shown minutes of a meeting this year with Palestinian officials in which Mitchell said: “Benjamin Netanyahu will be thinking about his legacy. My experience in Northern Ireland makes me strong in my belief. Ian Paisley blocked an agreement for decades. He hated Catholics and called the pope the Antichrist in Parliament. At the age of 82 he started thinking about his legacy, made a turn and was a key figure in reaching an agreement in Northern Ireland.”

To which Saeb Erekat, a leading Palestinian negotiator shot back, “Let’s hope that Netanyahu reaches that conclusion before he reaches 82!”

It’s hard to resist Erekat’s cynicism. Peace is tough when politics are dead.

'Politics' has become a dirty word, synonymous with system gaming, power and patronage, purblind obstructionism. That itself is a sad indictment of our times. Myriad problems present themselves, in America, Israel and the world, and will not be solved absent the conduct of politics in its best sense, by adults working together. Middle school bully contests won't do it.

Obama has tried--for too long, I think--to be an adult approaching his opposition as adults, rather than as petulant middle-school bullies. He's a bit, if only a bit, better abroad: offering engagement to Muslim non-terrorists, something other than bombs to Iran, meaningful negotiations to Medvedev, settlement limit-setting to Israel. He needs, at home, to do something similar, out loud, frequently and often: differentiate between moderate Republicans, all three of them, and the crazies, in service of recruiting the former and putting the latter at more of a political disadvantage than they currently enjoy. Nobody else can do it. Perhaps he can't, either. But if the issue isn't that he can't, but that he won't, for shame.

And what he's been doing hasn't been working. What does he have to lose?

Big Trouble

David Brooks, who, as my indulgent readers know, isn't a favorite, notes that he admires Paul Ryan and Arthur Brooks (American Enterprise Institute), but then goes on to state that their dogmatic, hysterical insistence that every government intervention in the economy is another step on Hayek's road to serfdom is ahistorical, incompatible with good policy and an intellectual and political catastrophe:

There's lots to disagree with in his column, of course. But if the right's too much even for Brooks, there's something happening here. Paranoia strikes deep. Into your life it will creep. It starts when you're always afraid.

They aren't just mistaken in policy. They're nuts. Crazy. Removed from reality. Insane. Unreachable with fact, logic in service of fact rather than opposed to it, and experience. And they think they're absolutely, utterly right, and everyone else isn't just mistaken, but forcing dictatorship on our country via malevolence, useful idiocy or both.

In the end, they won't succeed even in their stated purpose. The only question is how many they will hurt, how much damage they'll do, how long before they're found out. So far, the answers are most of the country and many throughout the world, a poisoning of discourse and too goddamned long.

We're in big, big trouble. But, then, you knew that...

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Love Shall be the Whole of the Law

My friend Hecate, poetry lover, practicing witch and world class energy regulation lawyer, posted this on Eschaton this morning:

Charge of the Goddess:

Whenever you have need of anything, once a month, and better it be when the moon is full, you shall assemble in some secret place and adore the spirit of Me Who is Queen of all the Wise.
You shall be free from slavery, and as a sign that you be free you shall be naked in your rites.
Sing, feast, dance, make music and love, all in My Presence, for Mine is the ecstasy of the spirit and Mine also is joy on earth.
For My law is love is unto all beings. Mine is the secret that opens the door of youth, and Mine is the cup of wine of life that is the cauldron of Cerridwen, that is the holy grail of immortality.
I give the knowledge of the spirit eternal, and beyond death I give peace and freedom and reunion with those that have gone before.
Nor do I demand aught of sacrifice, for behold, I am the Mother of all things and My love is poured out upon the earth.

--I wonder about love as a law. Makes sense, in the context gods, goddesses and the like are heard all too often by us poor limited souls, I guess: we can't hear everything a larger entity worth a serious person's consideration would say. But law, down here, anyway, is oft compulsion imposed from without, perhaps, sadly, more commonly than an agreed to part of a just society. The rest of the lovely piece suggests something more than what we flawed, limited folk mean by law, redeeming the concept, and, I think, offers us a chance to be part of something larger than we are. I've heard 1 Corinthians 13 discussed that way, too, as well as restricted to dogmatism, limiting love, which, if it's worth anything at all, should never be restricted to even humanity as a whole, much less any given subset of humanity, certainly not to oneself.

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But such indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

What if the stars were to burn
With a love for me that I could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Then let the more loving one be me.

WH Auden

Willie Sutton Isn't Enough

Krugman, responding to the David Brooks column I bloviate about below, noted a few days ago that people went into financing and consulting rather than manufacturing because, like Willie Sutton, they saw that's where the money is. Docs go into dermatology and plastics rather than primary care and, even, general surgery, because that's where they can earn big bucks with short hours and far less administrative headache, and pay back their average $150,000 educational debt faster. Companies like GE and GM make as much or more money from finance and consumer loans as from manufacturing. Meanwhile, the right ceaselessly pounds the drum of individual responsibility (always for others, though, never for themselves) and the efficacy and moral privilege of 'free market' solutions to our woes. Dangerous, stupid, greedy, self-serving crap, that, and anyone who isn't greatly privileged sees it in a minute.

I'm going to buy Obama a little dog, named Fala. Maybe that'll help.

If you never read FD Roosevelt's 'Fala' speech, click on the link to see how a master did it. Obama could do that. He damned well should.

The Mirror of our Schools

Tom Friedman (not a favorite) quotes Robert Samuelson (mostly loathsome) today re education reform and why it isn't working all that well:

“The larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation,” wrote Samuelson. “Students, after all, have to do the work. If they aren’t motivated, even capable teachers may fail. Motivation comes from many sources: curiosity and ambition; parental expectations; the desire to get into a ‘good’ college; inspiring or intimidating teachers; peer pressure. The unstated assumption of much school ‘reform’ is that if students aren’t motivated, it’s mainly the fault of schools and teachers.” Wrong, he said. “Motivation is weak because more students (of all races and economic classes, let it be added) don’t like school, don’t work hard and don’t do well. In a 2008 survey of public high school teachers, 21 percent judged student absenteeism a serious problem; 29 percent cited ‘student apathy.’ ”

Now, one can quarrel with Friedman's assertion that we're spending a great deal of money on education. But my buddies DWD and Uncle Blodge, and most decent teachers of my acquaintance, tell me that student behavior and interest in other than a small group of academically driven kids has declined measurably and dramatically in their professional lifetimes, that parents' roles have moved from exhorting their kids to criticizing teachers and their unions, that long-term poverty, unemployment, racism, incarceration, right wing abandonment of common humanity and demands for personal responsibility excluding their own, the obscenely ineffective war on drugs, the predominance of athletics and celebrity, and a ubiquitous trash-talking lowest-common-denominator marketing-driven pop culture have more than a little to do with schools' ineffectiveness.

There's an obvious middle ground between the Asian stereotype--waking up to play a Rachmaninoff piano sonata and solve three partial differential equations before breakfast--and what too many kids, parents and citizens in this country think education is. That's where we should be. The former stereotype has little to offer us and is, in any case, close to unattainable here. The latter would require major shifts in the culture. They won't arise out of short-term profit-seeking devoid of any thought that society might need to be more than economic. And this isn't even good for business in the end. If Friedman and his clients see this as a problem, maybe they might talk it up in terms other than ain't- it-awful. Maybe the word would get around that schools mirror a society, and if we don't like the reflection we see in the mirror, it isn't the mirror's fault.

Saturday, September 11, 2010


Remember 9/11/2001. Also, remember the aftermath. And note, as seems always to be the case when the powerful are attacked by the less powerful, that the response to the attack far exceeded in horror the attack itself, was deeply counterproductive to American interests, abroad, even narrowly construed, and destructive to democracy, discourse and the rule of law domestically.

And consider, were a similar attack to occur today, that it'd be more than likely that it'd elicit a response possibly even more obscene than that following 9/11/2002. It breaks my heart to say it, but i think it's true.

The Wombat Codicil on War Powers

Facebookk won't let me post this: too long. So here's the Wombat Codicil, to be added to the Constitution, on war powers:

1. War is, under this law, presumed to be, of itself, the result of incompetence of the President, the Vice President, the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense.
2. The officers mentioned in S.1 are impeached and removed from office 60 days after American troops are placed in harm's way, or the sovereign territory of another nation is attacked by American military operations.
3. A joint session of Congress, by a 2/3 majority vote, can, within the 60 day period of S.2, retain any or all of the officers of S.1 in office.
4. The joint session of S.3 will be attended by every Congressman and Senator then holding office. Those not attending will, as a matter of law, be impeached and removed from offices.
5. Every operation of the joint session of S.3 will be televised and available on the Internet without restriction, and votes recorded and available for public inspection.
6. The President, and the joint session of S.3, will each prepare a report detailing the causes of the action, the action's purposes, and the criteria by which the action will be concluded.
7. The reports of S.6 will be submitted to the United Nations General Assembly, which will respectfully be asked for its formal opinion on them.
How's that?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Brooks Waxes Sociological, Or, Perhaps, Wanes

I summarize Brooks' column today so that you need not subject yourself to reading it. His points:

1. It's a shame that all those smart people went into finance and consulting, instead of making things. That the money was so much better doing what they did, and all the incentives were to do that, and why, seem to have not made it into his column.
2. Harvard students mostly go into finance and consulting, rather than manufacturing. That Harvard Business School, amongst others, teaches downsizing, outsourcing, rightsizing, cheese-finding, financing everything on debt, holding minimal cash reserves, maintaining an insecure, poorly paid, non-unionized labor force and like that seem not to have made it into his column.
3. There's trouble in River City: social breakdown, crime, broken families, failing schools. That light manufacturing jobs have vanished like dry ice in Death Valley, unemployment approaches 20-40% in poor communities, that incarceration or parole cover astounding percentages of males in the communities, that school budgets get reduced and teachers entirely discredited as the sole reasons why students from such places fail, seem not to have made it into his column.
4. Economic historians point to non-economic causes for American social decline. That there are, er, social historians, political thinkers and others (I'll shill for Tony Judt's 'Ill Fares the Land' again) who have for years contested the near-exclusive predominance of economic thinking over all other ways to examine our lives, and that policies based largely on economics, and, at that, short-term exaltation of greed over any other consideration, have reigned for years, been imposed from the right, and seem, er, less than successful even economically, seem not to have made it into his column.
5. The British lost the bulldog determination that was the stuff of empire, and thereby declined. That they, too, sacrificed horribly in two world wars and a depression, and then lost said empire as the colonies insisted on liberating themselves while British resources weren't up to preserving the empire, seem not to have made it into his column.

A careful reader would, at this point, see the subtle signs of a trend emerging...

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Nobody Flies Over The Cuckoo's Nest

Gail Collins comments today that 5% of the country is crazy, and has always been. Been addressed before; Hofstadter's 'The Paranoid Style in American Politics', written in the wake of another Scoundrel Time, comes to mind:

The problem is not so much the crazies, who are always with us. The problem is that not nearly enough people actually call these crazy people crazy. Such as Paul Wellstone and Dennis Kucinich are marginalized and dismissed, but Beck and the Tea Partiers are taken seriously. And even those who do reject the crazies oft make excuses for them, try to explain them, in precisely the manner they loudly denounce in projecting onto lefties similar behavior, when lefties try to understand and explain (but never justify) evil as originating from human beings. Timothy McVeigh might have killed a hundred or so people, but government is too big and intrusive. Killing ATF agents is wrong, but they're jackbooted thugs who want to take away our guns. Shooting a doc as he eats breakfast with his family is wrong, but abortion is murder. Flying a plane into an IRS building is wrong, but taxation is tyranny. Burning the Quran is wrong, but Islam is evil and moderate Islam a dangerous illusion. Like that. Utterly, completely indefensible and inexcusable, that. And fact is,a Republican running for office denouncing such people in no uncertain terms wouldn't have a chance in hell. And nobody calls them on it.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

I Have A Dream

Maybe Norquist was right, and bipartisanship really is date rape. Perhaps, better, with respect to the Democrats, it's like a first-year woman in college lookng for someone to read Emily Dickinson with at a jock frat kegger on the night after the Big Game...

Now, with respect to the politically possible, indulge me in a fantasy:

(before a Democratic leadership meeting, with Obama, Reid and Pelosi in attendance)
(introduction by a Democrat like Grayson or Franken)
Ladies and gentlemen, the progressive element of the party has searched high and low for someone who could help us think outside the box, find our cheese and work as a team to fulfill our potential. We're proud to have Prof. Wombat, of Wombat Consulting, a subsidiary of Consolidated Marsupial, with us today. Give him a nice round of applause: Prof. Wombat!
(tepid applause as Power Point gears up; an ingratiating bad joke or two, thanks for being here, let's all work together, like that, and then:)

The current situation:

1. Republicans and the right relentlessly, stridently and without any shame at all constantly pound the country with crazy, arrant nonsense and lies.
2. Democrats, in response, say, in a lower voice, 'Ain't it awful?' mostly to each other.
3. The media repeat the Republican crap as if it's true, and can't be challenged on fact.
4. The media focus most of their energy, though, not on actual fact, but on the manly Republicans from Mars, showing excitement, energy and manliness, recruiting the Real America to their cause, and the weak, metrosexual, hand-wringing, mojo-challenged, well, non-manly Democrats from Venus.
5. The politically possible is defined as whatever the Republicans condescend to concede the legitimacy of, and nothing more.

It need not be so, for the following reasons:

1. The Republicans, er, lost the last election, definitively, because George Bush and Dick Cheney left a steaming pile of offal ofunprecedented size and odor on the White House table as they left.
2. The Republicans made a disaster, throughout the Busherregnum and on leaving, of every economic, domestic, foreign and social policy they touched. Every one.
3. Poll after poll shows that when individual Democratic policy points are separated out from Republican talking points, there is at least parity, and often a majority, in support, even in the current unfavorable environment.
4. Republican policy recommendations mirror the disastrous Bush policies that got us into this mess in the first place.

So, there is not only something that can be done, but something that should be done, with a greater chance of success than is generally acknowledged even by you guys:

1. Support yourselves, and attack your opposition, with equal or greater energy to that the Republicans show in attacking you.
2. Talk up the unprecedented Republican use of filibuster in opposition, the multiple forced compromises, as limiting Democratic effectiveness in a baldly partisan, historically unprecedented act of nihilism, and that Democrats would be more, rather than less, effective were they to do what they were elected to do. Recast the disappointments not as failures arising from flawed Democratic policies, but from Republican intransigence.
3. Challenge every last lie. Every one. Without exception. Call them lies.
4. Challenge every last paranoid raving--birthers, Cloward-Piven conspirators, the Council of Foreign Relations, the Illuminati and the Masons, all of them, as craziness having no relationship to reality.
5. Challoenge the notion that class warfare is only directed against the rich.
6. Recall the prosperity we've seen under more burdensome tax schedules than Obama wants to implement, much less those demanded by republicans.
7. Speak constantly and clearly about the good government does, and that demanded of government by the people, in terms which clearly delineate Republican malfeasance from an actually achievable alternative.
8. Embrace the concerns of the middle class nand small business by demonstrating Republican bias towards the rich and the huge corporations.
9. Be prepared, every time, to call media figures on their biases and challenge them with facts, logic, humor and derision when derision is called for.

Such a strategy will enlarge the previously recognized bounds of the politically possible, improve Democrats' political position,and may, even, help solve the world's problems. Any questions?

(nervous hand-wringing, followed by: 'But what if they call us poopyheads?')

Laugh at 'em. Say that Hitler and Tojo called Roosevelt a poopyhead. Say the Southern racists called Johnson a poopyhead. Say that opponents of Medicare called the program the first step towards destruction of the American way of life, and that its supporters were all poopyheads. Say that Republicans think old folk on Medicare and Social Security and Medicare are parasites, that those who advocate talking diplomacy as well as war are appeasers, that those advocating helping the unemployed with extending their insurance benefits hate America, and that, if Republicans call us poopyheads, well, we've been called worse. Laugh at 'em again. And say, if they want to help, fine; if all they do is rave, call names and lie, well, we can deal with that.

Yes? Anyone else?

We thank you for your generous reception, and hope we've helped.
Now go get 'em.

(audience files out, eats watercress sandwiches for lunch and returns to work)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

When You Have To Go There, They Have To Take You In

The Times notes the ridiculous extent to which ERs are overused for routine medicine:

In a snapshot of systemic waste, researchers have calculated that more than half of the 354 million doctor visits made each year for acute medical care, like for fevers, stomachaches and coughs, are not with a patient’s primary physician, and that more than a quarter take place in hospital emergency rooms.

In a system full of waste, this is ridiculously low-hanging fruit. Anyone with any experience in ERs knows that a great deal of their work could, and should, be done elsewhere. ER docs don't know patients, don't have their records, don't work in continuity of care before or after the visit. More tests get ordered; less complete care given. Nothing gets prevented. The meter runs much, much faster than anyone not in the system realizes; the average visit costs around $1000-1500. And it isn't as if anyone actually likes waiting an hour or two in an ER to see a doc for a head cold, or because a gazillion others are before you in line with their head colds.

But the ER is, by law, sort of like Robert Frost's home: when you have to go there, they have to take you in. Always open. In some places, if you have Medicaid you can get an ambulance ride there for free, even if grotesquely unnecessary and expensive, rather than pay for a cab.

The obvious alternative is access to a primary care physician, in whose practice you're already enrolled, and whose job it is to be the first to respond to acute needs as part of general care, rather than in isolation from it. Won't happen if every last incentive deters docs from entering primary care or staying in it.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Labor Day

When the union's inspiration through the workers' blood shall run
There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun:
For what on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one?
But the union makes us strong.

Solidarity forever.

Not Enough Is Not Enough

President Obama has proposed a $50 billion infrastructure program.

$50 billion isn't very much, on the scale of stimulus that folk such as Paul Krugman think necessary to stimulate the economy, and is minuscule with respect to the need for repair and maintenance of our current decaying infrastructure, much less creation of new infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates the need in the trillions of dollars.

What we have here, seems to me, is yet another compromise of what's actually needed in the name of the politically possible, against an opposition party that would claim Obama to be the product of an unnatural union between a seq urchin and a platypus if it could. No doubt, were the proposal to be, say, as big as that which bailed out the banks, or funded/funds the wars, it wouldn't have a chance. Today.

The counterargument from the left is that the presidency remains, and should be, a bully pulpit, that the president should fight for more, should not accept the current limitations on his ability to do the right thing, and should cast the opposition, if successful in blocking him, as responsible for the consequences. Further, if said $50 billion is, in fact, not enough, either to stimulate the economy or address infrastructure needs--if, as the soundbite would go, it's another failure--then it'd be easy for the Republicans to call it not a failure of insufficiency, but of yet another government overreach, squandering of tax revenue, increasing the deficit at the expense of the grandchildren and so on, and the media would lap it up.

So, is the $50 billion better than nothing? Is better than nothing enough?

Debt Vigilantes Are Depressing

Found this on Krugman's blog: great ammo vs the Forces of Darkness:

He goes to the Depression and on to the Fabulous Fifties, and graphs the national debt, which turns up dramatically. But then, on the same scale, he graphs the debt/GDP ratio, and finds it falling. He draws the conclusion that a higher national debt, in fact, grows the GDP rather than shrinks it, contrary to the currently reigning dogma.

Friday, September 3, 2010

If Only Rugged Individualists Would Keep to Themselves

If you asked me what single thing I'd want every damned person in the world to learn about, it'd be the economic notion of the negative externality: that economic decisions have consequences to people other than those who make the decisions, and those consequences aren't necessarily thought of, or, even if recognised, given the slightest import in the decision.

One of the things about the right that drives me crazy is their refusal to even consider that economic decision making which doesn't account for negative externalities--often even denying their very existence, and, at that, often mendaciously--can produce every bit as much loss of freedom, economic cost, limitation of human potential and progress as any act of even a far less than ideal government. And that, in consequence, action to hold decision makers accountable for the consequences of their actions, provide incentives to prevent them and disincentives for creating them, moving them onto a balance sheet that the Magic of the Marketplace will transform into an instrument for social good thereby--or define some of them as crimes against individuals and society--is not only an appropriate function of government, but a necessary one. Some might even argue it the central one.

Those on the right, too, oft see a lack of personal responsibility as the source of all social ills. When they don't hear, or refuse to listen to, the cries of those external to decisions for mindfulness of consequences, they reject the very personal responsibility for themselves that they so stridently demand of others. And, in doing so, they embrace the notion that society's problems are someone else's fault and, therefore, require no sacrifice or even contribution from the virtuous. Convenient, self-serving, counterproductive, morally bankrupt. And wildly dissonant with their stated beliefs.

Davos Man at Munich

One of the things that galls me every time it comes up--and it does come up, often--is the right's frequent recourse to the metaphor of Chamberlain at Munich. They invariably use it to imply that nothing other than unyielding opposition and recourse to force will work when we deal with opponents on the world stage, as if the USA is as militarily weak, and with as little intelligence capacity, today as the UK was in 1938, and as if all our adversaries are Hitlers. The left should challenge their exclusive use of Munich as a metaphor. It could be used not solely to damn negotiation as appeasement and justify the use of force, but also as a cautionary tale about the consequences of delay in dealing with a problem before the fact of emergency, rather than after the emergency forces action. Delay costs lives and treasure, makes mitigation more problematical even of eventual achievement, much less in good time. The midwest's industrial catastrophe, for instance, could be cast as an economic Munich: a problem was recognized; solutions were delayed or withheld; negative consequences greater, harder to mitigate, eventually more costly, even, than timely action would have been. Another example is the delay in acting to move away from fossil fuels with urgency, or even with deliberate speed: potentially, an environmental Munich.

Paranoia Strikes Deep

Intelligent people oft have this weird notion that facts, logic and thoughtful, carefully researched and reasoned analysis will carry the day over intolerance, ideology, selfishness, ignorance and blind prejudice. And they sometimes go far as to assume that to be the default position, because most people are reasonable, their sources of information complete enough and grounded in reality enough, so as to render the superiority of the former over the latter obvious.

So, we've had multiple examples of Obama in a group of Republicans discussing issues with which he was far more acquainted, far more equipped with fact and logic. We had Al Gore and John Kerry debating George W Bush. We had Sarah Palin on the platform with Joe Biden, at least, though hard to call her performance a debate since she didn't respond to questions. In every case, few, if any, minds were changed by obviously superior grasp of fact and logic. In every case, criticism based on performance values trumped even the slightest analysis of actual content.

In which context, we have the notion of bipartisanship, which Norquist famously labeled 'date rape'. A nice thought. 'Come, let us reason together' is a more pleasing approach than, 'Shut up asshole'. And if you have a better grasp of reality, a more logical approach to it, then, you might think, once you explain it to those who disagree with you, they'll come along.

Except that for Obama's opposition, the American media, and too many of its citizens, none of this applies. None of their stands have much to do with fact, logic, reality or much else other than the realities of their own power, perceived threats to it, and increasingly self-referential, ever more reality-challenged discourse excluding external reality in favor of intolerance, prejudice and ignorance. Glenn Beck isn't just a conservative. He's crazy. His conspiracy theories and dark fantasies are easily disproven, offer nothing with respect to actual policy making in response to the country's problems. And he's at the center of current right wing opposition to Obama and the Democrats,ever more strident and rigid despite countless conciliatory gestures and compromises.

Nothing new about anti-intellectualism or paranoia in American politics, of course. Hofstadter famously addressed them both during another of America's Scoundrel times. All the more reason for the historically informed, intelligent Obama to recognise the limits of a rational response to these people, and a need to appeal to those whose worlds don't revolve around fact, logic and a building of consensus around them.