Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Nuanced Assessment of Gingrich's Views on Separation of Powers

That Newt Gingrich is at all taken seriously as a human being, much less an intellectual, by anybody, is appalling. The runaway winner of last week's 'You can't make this shit up' award was a column which tried to salvage Gingrich's years in disgrace by comparing them to Churchill's in the political wilderness, suggesting that pre-1938 Churchill had a low reputation indeed, despised and rejected, that he blossomed into a titan only thereafter, and that Gingrich at his nadir, or at present, could be seen similarly. Only the most recent, of course, of Republicans' ever more ridiculous and incredible attempts to make chicken salad out of chicken shit. I feel like shaking them, saying, for the love of anything you care about, listen to yourselves...

With respect to his respect for separation of powers and checks and balances and the rule of law, Montesquieu, Madison, Jefferson, like that, well, it's been a staple of Republican rhetoric for some time that the Supreme Court engages in unwonted judicial activism, results-oriented jurisprudence, rejection of stare decisis, and resort to ideology over sober legal reasoning. For a while now, I've been agreeing with that position. If you haven't read Justice Stevens' magisterial dissent in the Citizens United case, it's well worth a look: you need dental records and DNA to identify what's left of the majority's opinion, and for legal writing is unusually clear and direct


Which makes the timing of his pronouncement on the subject odd, don't it? So, there are a few reasons why he might have made it:
1. The primary-election base has been drinking this as mother's milk for a long time, and he's positioning himself as the non-Romney. He doesn't need fact of logic to do that; he's laying down a social marker rather than actually contributing to the debate. His rather comical signature on the life-purity pledge is exactly similar.
2. He's anticipating the reelection of Obama and a couple of more appointments, and making rhetoric delegitimizing and rejecting the authority of an 'Obama Court' before the fact, with prescience which he hopes will earn him credibility as a thinker and fighter. After all, it's what the right has been doing with respect to the Obama presidency. And, as with the presidency, this isn't 'mere' disagreement, even violent disagreement, while accepting that they hold the offices to which they were duly elected and/or appointed. This is a rejection of their right to hold office, of any authority they exert consequent to that office. Not, one would think, the sort of thing an intelligent, well educated PhD historian would be glib about.
3. He really is that fucking stupid, vain, hypocritical, demagogic, and evil; a low-born whoreson canker'd nematode, a poopyhead of the first water; a fucknozzle and a shitwhistle; a man whose ethics and intelligence, were they elastic, wouldn't suffice to make suspenders for a cockroach, and whose sociopathic, narcissistic egotism is as inconspicuous and easily glossed over as a tarantula walking on a piece of angel food cake. Not that he arouses strong feelings in me.

Wouldn't rule any of these out. And they're hardly mutually exclusive...

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Tanned, Rested and Ready

I've been away for awhile, and apologise for that, but the wealth of material out there requires that i do something other than whine about it all by myself. So, I'll give my readers, all seven of them, the unparalleled opportunity of listening to me whine, and whine back should they be so inclined. The post below on Tom Friedman is new. I'll add more when, as I read the papers, the mood strikes me. That'll be often, i'm afraid...

Dear Mr. Friedman: Suck On This

In response to Tom Friedman's column today:

Dear Mr. Friedman:

No, sir, you did not support the Iraq war because we might transform, or collaborate in transforming, Iraq into a democracy. You said, in your column right here, that after 9/11 we needed to do something to show the Arab world and Al-Qaeda that we were still capable of strong military response, and that Iraq was as good a place as any. It came down to, in one of your columns, nothing more nor less than 'because we could', and, as 'winning progressive' points out above, in one of your TV interviews, a schoolyard bully's 'Suck on this!' You do not get off as easily as you would like.

Your 'And, of course, Iraqis paid dearly as well' is appallingly glib. Hundreds of thousands dead, millions of refugees, destroyed infrastructure, looted antiquities, the movement into the power vacuum of people with no interest whatever in democracy. You don't mention Abu Ghraib, white phosphorus bombs, or the $9 billion in cash that vanished. The improbable empowerment of the Iranian theocrats in a country with which they fought a savage, pointless war.

And you didn't mention in your column the name of a single dissenter, offering that opinion before the war. There were a few. Some inspect nuclear weapons sites for a living. Some write in the very newspaper for which you write. One, even, serves to this day as president of the United States.

Not well played, Mr. Friedman. Not well played at all. It won't wash.


Friday, July 1, 2011

Mogadishu is Off the Grid

Libertarians fantasize that they don't need anybody, and that every social interaction other than on their terms is not merely unnecessary but equivalent to slavery. Were their fantasies actualized, they'd quickly find that common action is necessary against common problems, and that restraint of private actors' power is fully as necessary as restriction on public actors' power.

That has, of course, happened before...

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Utilitarian Cannibals: You Are What You Eat

Watching Michael Sandel's lectures on justice at Harvard, where he discussed utilitarianism via a case in which a group of shipwrecked survivors, adrift in a lifeboat, sacrificed the life of the weakest amongst them, sustaining themselves on his flesh, were rescued and then tried for murder. Had the following points to add to his limited half-hour discussion:

1. The decision not to act is itself an action. No getting around the responsibility to make choices. None.
2. One can rescue Bentham by suggesting that an 'enlightened' view of utility involves dire consequences to the happiness of a nation, and its citizens as individuals, not just now, in this specific case, but going forward indefinitely in time, applied to all cases, of the notion that murder can be acceptable in some circumstances, to the extent that one of the most fundamental laws of that nation is violated. Bentham himself might have voted for conviction out of a utilitarian argument. (He was at pains to define pleasure more broadly than one usually does.) One can, therefore, reject murder consequentially as well as categorically. The two might well not be entirely mutually exclusive.
3. The question then begged is how to evaluate the justice of a law itself: whether Victor Hugo's Inspector Javert, from 'Les Miserables', seeing the necessity of law as a constraint on individual conduct, is justified in hounding Jean Valjean over a stolen loaf of bread, whether Supreme Court decisions such as Dred Scott v Sanford and Miranda v Arizona carry equal requirements that they be followed, whether a citizen of Nazi Germany should follow laws passed by a government clearly supported by a majority of its citizens.
4. Using these arguments, one can reduce the case, as is often done in law school, to a question of the moral basis of the law itself, and the duty of a citizen to conduct him/herself within it. An obvious contrast to Hugo here is Robert Bolt's Sir Thomas More, from 'A Man For All Seasons', who sees law as a bulwark against the Devil, acting through a fallen humanity. Such an argument transcends the actors' duty in the cannibalism case to embrace the duties of all citizens, which obviously introduces political philosophy alongside of, and complementary to, moral philosophy.

The series of lectures is well worth the time, and is online:

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Nursing Homes: They Don't Have To Take You In

The Times this morning reviews that talk about cutting Medicaid will affect more people than those parasitic poor brown folk: many nursing home patients depend on it:

The House plan would turn Medicaid, which provides health coverage for the poor through a combination of federal and state money, into a block grant program for states. The federal government would give lump sums to states, which in turn would be given more flexibility and independence over use of the money, though the plan does not spell out what the federal requirements would be.

Beginning in 2013, these grants would increase annually at the rate of inflation, with adjustments for population growth, a rate far below that of inflation for health care costs. As a result, states, which have said that they cannot afford to keep up with the program’s costs, are likely to scale back coverage. Such a reduction, critics fear, could have a disproportionate effect on Medicaid spending for nursing home care for the elderly or disabled...

According to the Congressional Budget Office, in the 2010 fiscal year, 77 percent of people enrolled in Medicaid were children and families, while 23 percent were elderly or disabled. But 64 percent of Medicaid spending was for older Americans and people with disabilities, while 36 percent went to children and families.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, which analyzes health care issues, 7 of 10 nursing home residents are on Medicaid, in large part because even middle-class patients often run through their savings while in a nursing home and turn to the entitlement program.


This is a huge deal. Typically, a middle class aged person goes into a nursing home, where the meter runs quite quickly. They start on Medicare, and, after they spend down their assets and become poor, they go on Medicaid, which lets them stay in the nursing home, and lets the nursing home stay in business. You cut medicaid, not so much. You turn Medicaid into block grants to states hurting for money, and likely to use it elsewhere, worse yet.

Which means that a lot of old folk would be out of nursing homes. Their kids' houses, bank accounts and lives are poorly, if at all, equipped for it. Visiting nurse agencies, home physical therapy, home visits by doctors? You may say I'm a dreamer...

Currently the aging parent's finances are independent (mostly) of the adult child's. That'll change very, very quickly if the Medicaid cuts go through, unless they're content to leave Granny out on the street. What will also change very, very quickly is the sort of financial guarantees from patients and their families that nursing homes will demand before admitting a new resident.

These people vote. They won't like this at all.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Yogi In Middle School

My daughter, describing a classmate in eighth grade:

'She's one of the popular girls; that's why nobody likes her'

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Choose Wisely

I've been arguing against capital punishment for half a century, with little to show for it. I'll leave it at this: if one has a choice, one should not kill. I don't see it as a leap of logic at all to differentiate ourselves from murderers, and societies condoning murder, by making a choice not to kill when we can make that choice. Nor do I see it as a leap of logic, or flawed logic, to differentiate a society casually and brutally employing show trials, if even those, and executions, from one under the rule of law, restraining a state's power, requiring documentation of a crime and exacting punishment from those found guilty. Quite the contrary: I find the logic inescapable. That Al Qaeda and Bin Laden pose current threats that a defeated Germany did not only adds to my argument: recourse to the rule of law is a mark of courage rather than weakness, of confidence in one's values, and would resound throughout the world as an alternative to non-state actors', or state-sponsored, terror, brutality and murder. I believe such a course to be profoundly in America's national interests, even narrowly construed. Again, half a century's experience with the topic allows the safe prediction that many will disagree. But there it is.

We had a choice at Nuremburg, and tried the Nazis, affording them defense counsel. Israel had a choice with Eichmann, tried him, affording him defense counsel, and executed him. We might, or might not, have had a choice with Bin Laden. His capture was necessary, and if there was no other way to capture him than dead, it was worth doing. If we had a choice, which I don't know and have a hard time opining half a world and a week and a half away, we should have captured him and put him on trial for his crimes. And it is always, always unseemly to celebrate death, even if necessary. I predict disagreement on this point, over a gap that will not be closed by further argument.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Ding Dong, The Witch is Us

How to have dealt with Bin Laden? The question, once asked, reflects far less Bin Laden's status as a moral agent than ours. It is, after all, our actions which we choose in an elective context, and, therefore, must take personal responsibility for.

The notion of war crimes recalls to me the entirely despicable Curtis LeMay's observation that a victorious Japan would have tried him for war crimes. Meanwhile, Robert Jackson remains amongst the most revered of American jurists, and his concurrence in Youngstown, oft cited as one of the finest ever advanced in the Supreme Court, is a fascinating book end to his Nuremburg role.

I remain of the opinion that Nuremburg was necessary, that the Nazi crimes were to some extent sui generis and required unambiguous documentation for the historical record. The comparison with the Soviet treatment of Stalin, or the current Chinese treatment of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, and with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as apartheid ended, is, to my mind, only to the benefit of Nuremburg.

More so, I deeply believe terrorist acts to be unworthy (if that's the right word) of being defined as acts of war rather than crimes. And crimes are to be defined, their commission demonstrated, their perpetrators identified beyond a reasonable doubt and required to pay a price. War is far, far less defined than criminal justice, and invariably involves behavior on both sides which, outside the context of a war, would itself be criminal. A break from the formulation of 'war on terror', without in the least relaxing vigilance with a view towards prevention and punishment of the guilty, would, to my mind, be amongst the most helpful changes in our policy even with respect to our national interests narrowly and amorally construed, much less a renunciation of the perception that fighting terrorism requires terror. To that extent, an imperfect Nuremburg trial, or, with respect to a single actor, a far more appropriate exercise, mirroring the Eichmann trial, seems to me in order.

Bin Laden required capture. I am ambivalent about the violation of Pakistani sovereignty but reluctantly concede that it was necessary and, perhaps, in view of Pakistan's obvious complicity, even desirable. I would have had no problem with Bin Laden's death during his capture were there no other alternative. That isn't clear to me yet. I have great difficulty with exultant celebration, of the sort that one sign in my town rather revealingly summed up as 'Ding dong, Osama's dead.' Munchkins, indeed.

Those Dastardly Teachers and Their Thuggish Unions

Our local paper last week, appalled, exposed our town's teachers' union as guilty of (prepare yourself to be shocked) the excesses of spending money on a couple of newspaper ads and extending a speaking invitation to Ralph Nader. I wrote this letter in response to their story, which they printed unaltered:

Dear Editor:

It is indeed outrageous that the teachers' union, as one party to a contentious negotiation, seeks to put its views before the public via a couple of half-page newspaper ads and a speaking invitation to Ralph Nader. This sort of thuggish political intimidation shouldn't be tolerated. Only Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, most of the Republican Party, and other lonely patriots such as the Waltons of Wal-Mart and the Koch brothers (six of the world's top 30 richest billionaires on Forbes' list), balance unions' relentless zeal and enormous financial resources in pushing their members' agenda.

I'm grateful that politicians are demanding that unions and their members be denied fundamental rights to contract negotiation and collective bargaining. If prior contracts overly favor one of the two sides, the obvious remedy isn't more competence and courage from the other side, but a denial of long-established rights to the previously successful side. Anybody appalled by excessive government power would agree.

What shocking excess will the union resort to next? Merciful heavens. I'm sure that, as always, the vast majority of our town's voters and taxpayers will attend Town Meeting to make their voices heard.

(Full disclosure: my daughter, now majoring in linguistic anthropology, had many excellent teachers in )xxxx( High School, including )yyyyy(, who, in response to planned decreases in staffing, benefits and funding, and increased class sizes, had the nerve to suggest that he and his colleagues were being asked to do more for less. Another brazen attempt to suppress debate by stating facts. Disgraceful.)

Monday, April 18, 2011


A Times article advances the notion that such things as Barry Bonds' steroid use and sharp, cheating tax accounting arise in part out of a sense of fairness/unfairness, and not just simple greed and sociopathy.


It's an old observation that you're stuck playing at the gaming table of the world, that, while you're responsible for playing your hand as best you can, you don't deal, you don't cut the deck, you don't make the rules and you can't leave the game. That the rules might just have been written without your interests in mind, whether by Job's God or a legislator who, having been bought by Commodore Vanderbilt, stays bought, is as old as humanity. The question is whether those rules are themselves so unjust, so unfair, as to be illegitimate and therefore exert no moral authority over human action and can be ignored.

This was a common stance on the New Left of the SDS etc. in the 1960s, which evolved towards a stance advocating revolutionary change--'Steal This Book' comes to mind, as does the abuse of police authority and the epithet 'pig' in response covering all police. This is now common amongst the militia types, and those holding that much current government deviates fatally from any possible Constitutional justification. Meanwhile, such as Thoreau ('Civil Disobedience') and ML King ('Letter from the Birmingham Jail') accepted civil punishment, even while rejecting its underlying moral base.

The proper response, seems to me, is to accept the current government as legitimate, while seeking to change it, and seeking to correct the unreasonable, sometimes unconscionable, legal and economic barriers to necessary change from within current structures rather than in revolt against and destruction of them. The former risks legitimizing that which should not be accepted--the Citizens United decision comes to mind. The latter risks replacing the current unsatisfactories with even less satisfactory change, sometimes with horrific consequences. There are ample historical examples on both sides. I consider the risks of revolutionary change, even allowing for their possibility, far greater than those attendant on awaiting another swing of the pendulum, giving it a gentle push on occasion. The most benign interpretation of Obama's presidency after the Busherdammerung is along these lines. I haven't always agreed with Obama across the board, and doubtless won't. But I too have seen an attempt to delegitimize a deeply flawed system yield nothing other than reaction and rejection.

So there. Hrmphf. Get off my lawn, and turn that noise you call music down...

Maybe Bipartisanship really Is Date Rape

By now, it should be obvious that Paul Ryan's budget--widely praised despite its Draconian cuts on long-standing programs people depend for their live upon, and have for decades--is far more an ideological rant than a serious macroeconomic and fiscal proposal. Since its release, Obama has defended the programs Ryan attacks, demanding that they be saved in essence. The Republican response to Obama, predictably, tries to deny him legitimacy in the debate, as neither willing to face reality as they define it, nor being appropriately civil. Seems that voicing an opinion differing from Republican orthodoxy is shrill. Paul Krugman, who has long been recognized as shrill wherever civilized tongues are spoken, calls them out today:

Sorry to be cynical, but right now “bipartisan” is usually code for assembling some conservative Democrats and ultraconservative Republicans — all of them with close ties to the wealthy, and many who are wealthy themselves — and having them proclaim that low taxes on high incomes and drastic cuts in social insurance are the only possible solution.

This would be a corrupt, undemocratic way to make decisions about the shape of our society even if those involved really were wise men with a deep grasp of the issues. It’s much worse when many of those at the table are the sort of people who solicit and believe the kind of policy analyses that the Heritage Foundation supplies.

So let’s not be civil. Instead, let’s have a frank discussion of our differences. In particular, if Democrats believe that Republicans are talking cruel nonsense, they should say so — and take their case to the voters.


All of which assumes that even Obama is correct in joining the regnant narrative placing the deficit at the very center of the nation's problems.

I'd argue that civity and frank disagreement can, in fact, coexist, and that people other than True Believers all know it. The distinction between, 'I disagree with you, holding, rather that .......... is the case and what should be done. Here are the facts, logic, history, economics and politics I used to reach those conclusions. What do you think?' and 'You fucking idiot' remains an important distinction. The 'Moi? They do it, too' defense, advanced against an accusation of incivility, won't wash. But, as many including yr. obdt. svt. have noted, a vain search for 'bipartisanship' clouding one's own positions in compromise after compromise with an opponent calling bipartisanship 'date rape' (Norquist) is bad politics and bad governance.

Obama going into 2012 will find himself fortunate in the timing of economic recovery, and in the astounding lack of plausible challengers. It'd be nice, too, were a stiff breeze from the left to fill his sails. He might even find himself enjoying it.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Unstable Equilibria

Henry Kissinger this morning, in reviewing a biography of Bismarck, waxes metaphorically this:

Bismarck’s opponents were still wedded to the 18th-century concepts of the international system as a great clockwork with intricately meshed parts: the science of Newton. Bismarck foreshadowed an age whose equilibrium was an ever-changing interaction of forces, themselves in constant flux, like later atomic physics. Its appropriate philosopher was not Descartes but Darwin; not “I think, therefore I am,” but the “survival of the fittest.”


Now, it's just possible that balance of power politics and diplomacy predated Bismarck. It's also odd that Descartes and Darwin are contrasted as opposites. Too, it's been a while since the teleological 'survival of the fittest' credibly summarized evolution.

The most fun, though, can be had with Kissinger's notion of 'equilibrium' and 'constant flux' presaging 'atomic physics'. The nineteenth century saw Ludwig Boltzmann and J. Willard Gibbs, and others, elaborate statistical thermodynamics, in which macroscopic phenomena were linked to microscopic interactions using Netwonian mechanics. Equilibrium is a basic concept in thermodynamics, used to such brilliant effect that economists, envious of physicists' successes and imagining themselves capable of replicating it by reducing human beings to molecules, borrowed the notion for their market models. Perhaps Kissinger's referring to thermodynamics, in which case it isn't 'later'. Or, he's referring to quantum mechanics, which is not only later but entirely inapposite to the point he's making. Either way, he's wrong.

Whatever you think of Kissinger, he's neither stupid nor uneducated. It's fascinating to see such a person pack so much crap about science into such a small space. And, at that, crap touching on scientific theories of wide and deep significance in intellectual history: you can't understand contemporary thought without having a grasp of evolution or thermodynamics. So not only can I have sport with Kissinger, and his editor, on this. I can safely assume that the vast majority of people reading this review won't even stop to scratch their heads.

Maybe Bishop Ussher was right, after all...

Friday, April 1, 2011

Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On

The hedge fund managers take home real money. Last year, 25 of them took home $22 billion in salaries. They trade in toilet paper with ridiculously high nominal values. In New York City alone, assets nominally valued at well over a trillion dollars are traded daily. The Treasury Dept. estimates the nominal value of derivative securities held in American portfolios at over $600 trillion. That's roughly 50 times American GDP.

So, they take commissions in real money off of trades in toilet paper, and, as long as everyone agrees to keep the obscene game of musical chairs going, all is sort of well. But they can't do that unless they restrict their markets to a self-referential acceptance of asset valuation at wild, impossible remove from reality. A recipe for disaster, that. And the hedge fund managers' income, and countless other exactions of real money from toilet paper, are extraordinary diversions of real resources, while those receiving them perpetuate the illusion, keep the game going. When the inevitable catastrophe recurs, it won't be the real-money people that'll get hurt.

But, then, you knew that....

Shakespeare's Prospero, on derivative securities, presciently:

These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Government is Here To Help You

Their policies will not work. A lot of people have heard lots of bloviation about the deficit, and accepted it at face value because it's presented in a manner that confirms their prejudices while denying common humanity to others during tough economic times. Traditional, all this, happens again and again. But implement those policies, and a lot of people are going to notice that, in fact, government supplies a lot of things they need and count upon. People will get hurt. It'll be a lot less abstract. That, too, is traditional, and will result in change, as it has in the past. But many people will be hurt, for years if not decades. And they should meet far more resistance than they are.

The Wisconsin affair, and those such as in Michigan who emulate Walker's program, will mobilize opposition, perhaps revitalize the labor movement, which has historically been a wellspring of the left. If it doesn't, then we'll just have to wait until the consequences become so unendurable that it'll happen. People forget that liberal social policies didn't come out of thin air, or out of a malevolent socialist conspiracy, but in response to actual social needs. It'd be nice were it not to take catastrophe to remind them of the fact.

The Japanese Eathquake/Tsunami

Japan still has a social contract, effective government and a world-class infrastructure. Imagine if it happened here. We'd be hearing about all those nasty poor folk looting, and how they deserved to drown because they didn't prepare for it. Not the government's responsibility. Nebraskans shouldn't have to pay for it.

Sad, isn't it?

Oh, and let's remember that the average life span in Japan is amongst the world's longest. Primary care is freely available in Japan, where docs make some of their money by selling prescription medications as well. Japan's per capita health expenditure was $2293 in 2007. That year, America's was $6096. So Japan has more money to spend on infrastructure, even before America's military spending is taken into account, while maintaining a responsive, inclusive health care system. And you don't hear about their governments being bankrupted by rapidly escalating medical expenses.

Odd, that...

Modesty, Blazing

So here's David Brooks this morning:

Citizenship, after all, is built on an awareness that we are not all that special but are, instead, enmeshed in a common enterprise. Our lives are given meaning by the service we supply to the nation. I wonder if Americans are unwilling to support the sacrifices that will be required to avert fiscal catastrophe in part because they are less conscious of themselves as components of a national project...

It’s possible... that some of the current political problems are influenced by fundamental shifts in culture, involving things as fundamental as how we appraise ourselves. Addressing them would require a more comprehensive shift in values.


Now, you might ask, did Brooks take note at all in his column of the increasingly insane, reality-challenged, narcissistic dismissal of a common humanity with the less fortunate, or merely different, that ever more obviously undergirds right wing politics in this country? And does he observe that possibly, just possibly, that economic thinking alone, exalting profit and a mythical freedom arising out of an equally mythical 'free market', might be insufficient in understanding or bettering the human condition?

Not so fast, class, not so fast...

Monday, March 7, 2011

Godwin's Law: You Are What You Wear

A fascinating piece in the Times this morning linking fashion with fascism, in the context of Dior's firing of John Galliano for drunken anti-Semitic ranting:

The link is clear: like a fascist demagogue of yore, he was declaring that she did not belong to the gilded group who wear the right boots, and from this Mr. Galliano slid effortlessly to a condemnation of her very flesh, and a wish for her death.

Last week the French daily Le Monde declared that by firing Mr. Galliano, Dior had sounded the “death knell for the myth of the omnipotent designer.” That may be premature, given the myth’s deep roots. But the drunken ramblings of one man in a bar may have set off an important discussion about a less pretty undercurrent in a multibillion-dollar industry. Happy Fashion Week.


The reason Godwin's Law resonates as truth is that fascism/Naziism are entirely, totally human, Nazi acts were perpetrated by humans, and that, once you accept that, you find acts compatible with fascism far more widely scattered than is usually assumed. I was astonished, on rereading space operas I loved as a kid, to find them sometimes outright fascist. Consider the two most influential and popular science fiction universes, for instance: the 'Star Trek' United Federation of Planets with 'Star Wars' Jedi Knights, wearing brown shirts, keeping the peace in the galaxy via an unaccountable triumph of the trained will, most effective when used against the 'weak minded'.

And the reason it's crucially necessary to think of fascism in broader contexts is that we're all capable of it, being human, and have to fight it in ourselves. You are what others make you think you are, and what you're willing to accept in yourself. If we, as individuals and as a society, question neither of those, we're in for it.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Economics as Synecdoche

The primacy, urgency and existence of the need for fiscal sanity amongst all human needs can be questioned. The primacy of dollars and cents, in general, over other measures of human life can be questioned. And the compromise of a union's freedom to contract with an equally free employer, in government or private sector, is, superficially, a passing strange position for someone to take who, as a matter of fundamental political philosophy, above all fears government power against private actors. More than revealing, though, when thought about, because those who deny the necessity for government at all deny explicitly the notion that an individual and a large multinational corporation can't bargain as equals, or that an individual needs any protection at all other than the ability to make choices in a market. Unwonted government power against unions. Unchecked corporate power against individuals. These positions precisely contradict each other if taken at face value. On a deeper level, sadly, they do not.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Humans In Name Only (HINOs)

Paul Krugman, on his blog, today wonders about birthers, and other crazed beliefs common on the right, through a discussion between John Quiggin and Jonathan Chait:

An interesting exchange between John Quiggin and Jonathan Chait on right-wing agnotology — that is, culturally-induced ignorance or doubt. The specific issue is birtherism, the claim that Barack Obama was born in Kenya or anyway not in America, which polls indicate is a view held by a majority of Republican primary voters.

Quiggin suggests that right-wingers aren’t really birthers in their hearts; it’s just that affirming birtherism is a sort of badge of belonging, a shibboleth in the original biblical sense. Chait counters that much of the modern right lives in a mental universe in which liberal elites hide the truth, and in which they, through their access to Fox News etc., know things the brainwashed masses don’t.


Such beliefs as the birthers', the Laffer curve, global warming denial, creationism, the 'Cloward-Piven conspiracy', the Aztlan and Caliphate/Sharia threats--there are an astounding number of examples from which to choose--are immune from challenge by recourse to facts and logic precisely because they are social markers, identifying members of an elect group, rather than any attempt to understand and characterize reality. And that flows from a political philosophy which, at its most fundamental level, reflects a division between a virtuous, besieged, deserving Self and a parasitic, evil, dehumanized Other. Questioning of any of these beliefs demonstrates that you are of the Other, and therefore must be rejected, as, perhaps, a Human In Name Only (HINO)--an elitist, liberal, out-of-touch, America hating, Constitution-shredding foe of all that's noble in the human spirit, and, therefore not to be even admitted to the debate. Some of the politicians are fellow true believers. Some, of course, will treat us to the disgusting spectacle of kissing Glenn Beck's, er, ring to be accepted as sufficiently pure to compete in the primaries. But there it is, and to the extent that they're holding the world hostage, they're dangerous. And I also agree that the health insurance reform bill,though flawed, has more merit that the left grants it, and should be supported more vigorously both for its own merits and in the larger context.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Wisconsin: Walker Calls Himself A Governor


Walker's going to hurt a lot of people. Every last one of the rightie crazies will hurt a lot of people

They all not only forget, but deny, the absolute truth that progressive government interventions, however mild and inadequate to the actual needs, however much left to do even after implementation,did not arise from a vacuum in which they were unnecessary. They were not superfluous. They were not motivated solely by a desire for government power. They were not pushed by those motivated solely by a desire for government power. They were not pushed by those looking for the triumph of jackbooted socialism. They evolved from the reality that that there were needs and problems in people's lives, big ones, urgent ones, that weren't being met by the private sector. They emerged from fundamental changes in economic, social and political life, as ever huger private entities accumulated vast amounts of power which they heretofore had not. Ant that power was exercised solely for their profit and to their advantage, and, at that, frankly celebrated as not only economically but morally, ethically and socially the right thing to do. And, further, the only right thing to do. Any other position on the causes of the appalling results, and potential remedies for them, is dismissed as not only wrong but evil, and excluded from the debate they would like to have.

The needs of the people were seen and acted upon before; they will be again. The questions are how long it'll take, and how many will be hurt. The ever clearer answer, I'm afraid, is way the hell too long, and way the hell too many.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Rightie Horror at Social Security

The right offers four objections to Social Security, each nonsense:

1. It's fiscally irresponsible and will bankrupt the country if not fixed. False.
2. Recipients are greedy geezers who'll bear the brunt of any fix without trouble, as they luxuriate in Florida or Arizona at our expense, while their families/children avoid responsibility for supporting them. False.
3. It's an investment program, ,rather than a transfer program, and, at that, a Ponzi scheme, fraudulent at its core and invariably bested by private, self-directed investment in equities. False.
4. It's the first step on a slippery slope to Soviet communism. False.

Other than that, they're right all the way...

The Wombat Theory of Federal Spending: Paul Krugman Supports

Krugman today:

Republican leaders like to claim that the midterms gave them a mandate for sharp cuts in government spending. Some of us believe that the elections were less about spending than they were about persistent high unemployment, but whatever. The key point to understand is that while many voters say that they want lower spending, press the issue a bit further and it turns out that they only want to cut spending on other people.

That’s the lesson from a new survey by the Pew Research Center, in which Americans were asked whether they favored higher or lower spending in a variety of areas. It turns out that they want more, not less, spending on most things, including education and Medicare. They’re evenly divided about spending on aid to the unemployed and — surprise — defense.


Always willing to be supported by an eminent thinker, I remind my readers of the Wombat Theory of pork:

pork: waste, fraud and abuse resulting from government spending in somebody else's district. Cut it. They don't deserve it. Parasites, robbed of free will and initiative, sucking on government teat.
effective governance: any federal funds spent in my district. Only our just due for our taxes, and necessary for building a bridge to the 21st century.

See how easy it is? Glad I could clear that up...

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Good Things: Always From The Right

An easy prediction I made was that positive outcomes in Egypt would be cast as out of rightie virtue, and negatives as another failure of the Marxist Kenyan Americ-hating Constitution shredding metrosexual poopyhead we have for president. That didn't take long:

Who is the hero of the Egyptian revolution? Wael Ghonim? Mohamed ElBaradei? Twitter? The ubiquitous Egyptian man (and woman) in the street?

All good nominees, but there’s one more who’s getting increasing support: George W. Bush. Scoff if you will, but the debate is heating up.

It started with the former State Department official Elliott Abrams at The Washington Post on Jan. 29:

In November 2003, President George W. Bush laid out this question: “Are the peoples of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty? Are millions of men and women and children condemned by history or culture to live in despotism? Are they alone never to know freedom and never even to have a choice in the matter?”

The massive and violent demonstrations underway in Egypt, the smaller ones in Jordan and Yemen, and the recent revolt in Tunisia that inspired those events, have affirmed that the answer is no and are exploding, once and for all, the myth of Arab exceptionalism … All these developments seem to come as a surprise to the Obama administration, which dismissed Bush’s “freedom agenda” as overly ideological and meant essentially to defend the invasion of Iraq. But as Bush’s support for the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon and for a democratic Palestinian state showed, he was defending self-government, not the use of force.


The author seeks credibility for his views in vain, methinks, by quoting as a lead off source the egregious Elliot Abrams, a convicted liar to Congress. Note the absence of any mention of, er, that man in the list of those who helped on the revolution, his great Cairo speech, his restraint in the past weeks. Note, too, the absence of any criticism of Bush's Iraq war, out of a dubious casus belli, costing hundreds of thousands of lives and millions of refugees while strangthening the (non-Arab) hand of Iran. And Bush's uncritical support of Israel, his applause for Israel's violence in Gaza and Lebanon. And...

Never mind...

An Interesting Exercise

Anthony Shadid in the Times, a consistently excellent reporter, on Egypt:

The months and years ahead will determine whether the fervor and community of Tahrir Square can translate into a new notion of citizenship, a truce between the state and Islamists and the curbing of the entrenched power of militaries, the police and suffocating bureaucracies that have failed to deliver young people a better life in an Arab world that is becoming ever younger. “It’s not the end,” said Nadia Magdy, a protester in the square. “It’s the beginning.”


Here's what strikes me about this paragraph:
1. It's true.
2. Join me in the exercise of substituting 'Obama's election' for 'Tahrir Square', 'fundie Christians' for 'Islamists', 'the United States' for 'an Arab world' and (any left winger in the country) for 'Nadia Magdy'. Provoke a little thought, does it?

Obama and Our Discontents

Many on the left (the eschaton commenters, for instance) despair of Obama, and seem to spend as much, if not more, time denouncing him than they do Republicans. In response:

At the risk of seeming too charitable:

1. The Cairo speech wasn't only a great speech. It was a significant break from the past. He restated one of Bush's few decent positions, that not all Muslims were terrorists and that he'd fight terror without fighting all Islam. He acknowledged prior American wrongdoing in the context of Iran; every last person in the audience knew about Mossadegh and understood what he was saying. He indeed, though far too slowly, without not entirely finishing the withdrawal, ended most of our military action in Iraq. He publicly opposed Netanyahu on settlements. These aren't trivial things. Not, to be sure, enough in a vacuum otherwise devoid of positive action. Perhaps not nearly enough. But real, nonetheless.
2. I'm going to get really charitable here: the attempt at bipartisanship, in the face of Republican obstruction and the capture of the party by its most extreme elements, will increase Democratic credibility amongst the centrist and mildly right voters the Democrats need to win.
3. Again, being charitable, but, I think more concretely: the health care bill, for all its flaws, improves on anything we've had, both substantively and as an assertion, at long last, that health care for all Americans is a properly asserted federal responsibility, asit is for every other industrialized nation in the world. That, too, is a substantive break with the past, when every such bill got dismissed out of hand or died in the duck pit.
4. Sotomayor and Kagan are substantive improvements over Scalia, Alito, Thomas and Roberts. One of the only hopes for change long term is a court majority that won't emit the egregious jurisprudential and political offal of which the Citizens United decision is perhaps the most exemplary.
5. The repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell' and the confirmation of the new START treaty are also substantive achievements. And better, that's how they were seen by majorities in the country, who responded with approval rather than rejection.
6. Biden is a better human being than Cheney. And Obama remains better, far better, than any conceivable Republican candidate at this point. Anger at, disappointment with, or rejection of Obama's policies--which I understand, acept and share--doesn't alter this point. I accept that many of you disagree with me on that. But there it is.

All of that said, here's Bob Herbert from the Times today, talking mostly about economic and political concessions to the rich:

The Egyptians want to establish a viable democracy, and that’s a long, hard road. Americans are in the mind-bogglingly self-destructive process of letting a real democracy slip away.

I had lunch with the historian Howard Zinn just a few weeks before he died in January 2010. He was chagrined about the state of affairs in the U.S. but not at all daunted. “If there is going to be change,” he said, “real change, it will have to work its way from the bottom up, from the people themselves.”

I thought of that as I watched the coverage of the ecstatic celebrations in the streets of Cairo.


I agree with Herbert, too.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Christian Thing To Do

My daughter shares with me this picture of Christians in the square protecting Muslims at prayer in Egypt:


The divergence from the intolerance, fear and bigotry so oft expressed in this country is enormous. All the more remarkable for it happening in a Muslim majority country where Coptic Christians have been under threat. And, too, an example of decency, tolerance and courage amongst the religious, at a time when strident atheists deny even the possibility.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Ron Paul: Wolves Agreeing on the Dinner Menu

It surprised some people more than it should have that Ron Paul's first witness was an outright racist celebrator of 'states' rights'. It's yet another display, for those who still need it, of the utter emptiness of libertarianism as political or moral doctrine, as philosophy, and as a basis for policy making.

Paul's take on human liberty amounts to nothing more nor less than that the liberty of the strong to act is a meaningless and empty illusion unless it trumps that of the weak to live without somebody beating the living shit out of them. Citing the fact that government power needs restraint, he refuses to accept that other actors, too, have power requiring restraint, which is one of the raisons d'etre of government in the first place. He basically demands that cigar smokers should feel free to light up in a room full of asthmatics.

The parallel to free speech comes to mind: a First Amendment absolutist refuses to let government censor, say, the right of Nazis to parade through a Jewish neighborhood, lest that same power be asserted to suppress any dissenting voice at all. It's entirely potted to view a citizen's relationship with government similarly; government is nothing if not a creature of its citizens, or, at least, that's what them there Founders' Original Intent was. And without some sort of restraint, or a human nature radically different from that seen throughout history and today, you're left with the strong contending with the weak. Not all that desirable, that, not even, in the long run, for the strong. You'd think the word would have got around...

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Health Savings Accounts: For Me, And Not For Thee

Health savings accounts are theoretically flawed, even if globally applied and available to all in the way that their advocates envision. They proceed out of individual savings and affect or help not at all those who can't save. More generally, they abstract money from the system which is thereby less able to provide care for the poor and unemployed.

The positive social good of insurance is a broadened risk pool's capacity to absorb catastrophic risk. This requires a risk pool composed of those less likely, as well as more likely, to need help. The profit imperative, on the other hand, demands a risk pool restricted to those less likely to file claims, and as much parsimony and delay as possible in meeting claims. Those are in conflict, and, in my view, fatally so for those looking to private insurers for solutions to health care problems. Those advocating health savings accounts play into the companies' goal of restricting risk pools, rather than a public interest in broadening them. They might be good for low-risk individuals who can save their otherwise higher insurance premiums. Not so more generally.

Another example of placing individual priorities above those of the larger polity--selfishness, some might call it--in service of the false and morally questionable notion that We're virtuous and deserving, and Their misfortunes, being Their Fault, have nothing to do with us, and We shouldn't help Them. Demonstrably false, even pragmatically, much less as a belief system which might underlie a better world, or better policy.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Who Lost Egypt?

Roger Cohen, in today's Times, is OK on Egypt as far as he goes, calling on Israel to transcend rejection and fear. But he doesn't once mention the fact that much foreign policy, especially that based on fear rather than engagement, arises as much from domestic political imperatives--both in Israel and the United States--as it does from a sober assessment, even a wrongheaded one, of foreign issues based on national interests.

True during the Cold War. True of the national security state and its assumptions which both parties have embraced here since the end of World War II. And, perhaps most nakedly, true of American politics after 9.11 and Israeli politics since the Rabin assassination.

Which sets up the question, should current events play out poorly, of 'who lost Egypt', paralleling a prior era's 'Who lost China?' When Mao prevailed, his victory was blamed on the small group of American diplomats who actually knew something about China, as if they were capable of influencing events in a country of 600 million people half a world away. If Egypt turns for the worse, of course, it'll be Obama's fault. If, on the other hand, things go well, it'll be part of the Reagan legacy. But in either case, it'll be played out with an eye as much on domestic politics as on actual events.


Kristol vs Beck: Two Go In, One Comes Out

Thers on the eschaton board refers to a post on the differences between Glenn Beck and William Kristol by Steve Benen:

Over the weekend, The Weekly Standard's William Kristol, a Fox News contributor, had seen enough. "[H]ysteria is not a sign of health," Kristol wrote in a new column. "When Glenn Beck rants about the caliphate taking over the Middle East from Morocco to the Philippines, and lists (invents?) the connections between caliphate-promoters and the American left, he brings to mind no one so much as Robert Welch and the John Birch Society. He's marginalizing himself, just as his predecessors did back in the early 1960s."


---Benen also cites such comments in the National Review.

Beck's crazier in affect and presentation than is Kristol, and frequently goes off into paranoid territory. And if you aren't a Beckist, you're unlikely to be converted or even find him sympathetic with further exposure. So Kristol's trying to legitimize himself and his cobelievers in mainstream politics, contrasting themselves with Beck. I do agree with Thers that Kristol and the other neoconservatives are, too, reality-challenged, and that their views are immune to the challenge that repeated, catastrophic failure when put into practice should bring.

So, in that sense, the dissent on the right isn't enough, and will never be enough. But when such as Kristol denounce the Pope of the Tea Party in such terms, it has political implications as (gack) the 2012 primary season approaches, and they start to realize the gap between what it'll take to get the Republican nomination and what it'll take to win the general election.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Reagan and Reality

It's also worth noting that nothing Reagan did in terms of actual action, in fact, shakes the faithful in their adulation. That's because that adulation isn't based on what he actually did, or the results of his actual policies. It's based on his constant reassurances that it's OK to be narrow-minded, bigoted, greedy, dismissive of others' humanity. He offered them a congenial, smiling, imperturbable mirror in which to see themselves. The utter irrelevance of facts, logic and reality here has accelerated into the Busherdammerung, the Tea Partiers' potted constitutional and fiscal ravings and Glenn Beck's paranoid madness, increasingly at remove from anything approximating a grasp of the real world, in fact denying the necessity for it. Their opinions, as I've said, are social markers meant to connote membership in their group. Their correspondence with reality is not only irrelevant, but those who question it, even rightly, are automatically branded elitist liberal constitution-shredding America hating socialist threats to every freedom that made our country great.

There's always been some of that--Richard Hofstadter back in 1960 made the point. But its current incarnation began with Reagan. Another reason they love him.

Ronald Reagan

Well, he was born 100 years ago. So:

Ronald Reagan--it's morning again for bigotry and greed. States' rights in Philadelphia MS, a wreath on an SS officer's grave at Bitburg. His disgraceful actions, or lack of them, in the early years of HIV/AIDS might have killed millions of people. Iran-Contra.

And, tying it all together, a delegitimization of government, or any other common enterprise we might embark upon to help each other rather than ourselves. One of his most famous lines was that nothing struck so much fear into a citizen as hearing someone say, 'I'm from the government; I'm here to help you.' He, and his heirs, have striven ever since to make that a self-fulfilling prophecy. The potted macroeconomics of supply-slders has weakened every level of government in this country, leaving one problem after another unaddressed, while leading to concentrations of wealth in the top 1% that we haven't seen in this country since the 1920s.

Consider how you'd feel if you heard 'Im from BP, or Monsanto, or Goldman Sachs, or Worldcomm, or Blackwater, or Humana, or AIG, or Columbia-HCA, and I'm here to help you.'

No thanks. Keep him.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Mr Fantasy...

Eschaton has up a description of an Irvine CA home up for sale for a mere $18 million.


Then there's my fantasy dwelling. Neither big nor tiny. A walk-up second floor apartment in a fantasy town with a good library, a good bookstore owned and staffed by people who love books, good schools, a pub that makes its own beer and hosts local musicians playing jazz or chamber music without amplification, a non-fussy restaurant where the chef cares about the food without beating you over the head with his/her cleverness, stores owned by real people with idiosyncratic offerings, a good bakery and farmers' market, the whole town surrounded by woods, fields and farmlands, and with a train that in an hour or so takes you into a major city. Not that i'm asking a lot here.

Or maybe living on a boat moored in a harbor, most of whose activity is small-scale commercial so I can go over two docks and buy fresh fish.

Do I ask too much? i don't think so. Or I shouldn't be asking too much. But I'm struck by the fact that my fantasy involves the place I'm living in, the society in which I find myself, and its priorities, than it does my material circumstances once I have heat, comfort, electricity, Internet and three square meals a day. And, at that, with little or nothing separating me from all that: no fences, huge yards, moats with right-wing alligators armed with AK-47s...

State/City Bankruptcy: Not Just For Breakfast Anymore

A fair amount of state and municipal finance requires ongoing rollover of bonds, which requires that bonds be sold. Interest rates on those bonds are, to say the least, important considerations in government financial operations. You start talking about government bankruptcies, you make it much harder to market the bonds that they need to sell in order to roll over the old ones, and, even if you succeeded in getting the suckers to buy 'em, the interest rates would be close to unaffordable short and long term. That would jeopardize governments far more than bankruptcy would. Not only would investors in current bonds take a huge hit. Reorganization after bankruptcy would be difficult, to impossible. Unless, (er, I hate to even bring it up) newly issued securities were backed up or insured by the federal government.

The odd bond, too, resides in the odd investment portfolio of the odd rich person and institutional investor. Were those bonds worth pennies, if that, to the dollar after a bankruptcy, there'd be a bit of unhappiness consequent to it. Too, assets nominally valued in the hundreds of billions of dollars turning to crap would remove a little value from the economy. Only a churl would point out that deflation, recession/depression and a reversal of even the current anemic recovery might supervene. In which case, a sane macroeconomic approach would be to expand the money supply with, say (prepare yourself for a shock), deficit spending and money creation. Not the most politically viable stance, these days.

Worth noting, by the way, that federal laws sheltering municipal bond interest from taxation is, in fact, a subsidy, fiscally identical to a direct payment to those holding them. Ah, the endless cornucopia of the free market, at least, for those with the intelligence, initiative and coupon-clipping scissors enough to lift themselves up by their own bootstraps.

There's only so much fun you can have in one day, but they really, really might want to rethink this one...

Beck on Frances Fox Piven

For a while now, Glenn Beck has been tracing a paranoid history of an extraordinarily effective left wing's covert plan to subvert American freedom, linking implausible co-conspirators to the progressive movement at the 19-20th century turn, and Woodrow Wilson, right through Obama. One of his frequent targets is what he calls the 'Cloward-Piven conspiracy', whose origin is this article from the Nation in 1966.


The authors suggest here that if everyone eligible for local and state aid actually applied for it, the systems would be overwhelmed, and that politics might then shift to make a federal role in such things more acceptable. You should read it, to understand just how crazy Beck is. If you Google 'Cloward-Piven conspiracy' you get 150,000 hits, mostly rightie nonsense echoing Beck.

For a while, Prof. Piven was more bemused than anything else at the idea that a lefty sociology professor could be imagined by anybody to be that sinister and powerful, that an article in the Nation, a small lefty weekly in Murdoch's world, could usher in totalitarian socialism. After Tucson, harder to remain puzzled without being alarmed, especially as Beck's rhetoric has become even more strident:

Beginning in September of 2010, Glenn Beck started branding Piven, a distinguished professor of Political Science and Sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, as an “enemy of the Constitution.” Piven, well known for advocating for the organizational rights of the poor and encouraging voter registration, has since received threatening phone calls and letters, and has become the subject of many death threats left open to the public on Glenn Beck’s website, The Blaze"...

The Center for Constitutional rights details a backlash through some of the many violent quotes on Beck’s website. Examples include, “Maybe they should burst through the front door of this arrogant elitist and slit the hateful cow’s throat,” “We should blow up Piven’s office and home,” and “I am all for violence and change Frances: Where do your loved ones live?”

http://www.ccrjustice.org/newsroom/press-releases/ccr-appeals-fox-news-president-help-silencing-glenn-beck-misinformation-camp (thanks to Thers on eschatonblog.com for the cite)

---Beck really, really isn't at this point, nor has he ever been, merely an entertainer, or a commentator coming from a legitimate, though extreme, position on the political spectrum. He's outright, completely, crazy. And nothing he says, no matter how crazy, seems to give his enablers and supporters pause. This isn't Goldwater saying, 'Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.' This is a guy who needs more Stelazine than he's taking. And he made $35 million last year, and, after attacking George Soros using nakedly anti-Semitic language and source material, was unequivocally supported by Rupert Murdoch.

It'd be precious were an occasional person to the left of Attila the Hun note the fact that Beck isn't just wrong, but crazy, and that Murdoch's defense of his craziness might, just might, not be in service of elevating the American political conversation.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Demands of History

The NY Times magazine tomorrow has an article about the idiosyncratic relationship between Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel. It points out that, while they clearly dislike each other, they have to work together for the sake of a sustainable, coherent European Union:


I grew up with old lefties, who viewed history as arising independent of, and superseding, any given individual--economics, if you're a Marxist; or Hegelian dialectic, Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier theory of American history, or Gibbon's portrayal of Roman decline as irreversible by even a supremely gifted emperor. The alternative, derisively labeled the 'Cleopatra's Nose' theory--that were her nose three inches long and covered with zits, history would have changed dramatically--depended on idiosyncrasy, individuals arising unpredictably in crucial places. Alexander, Paul of Tarsus, Mohammed (for the non-believer in Islam's Allah), Napoleon, other examples hard to dismiss come to mind.

Karl Popper called the notion of historical theorizing along grand lines excluding individuals 'historicism', and rejected it in 'The Poverty of Historicism'. Isaiah Berlin, too, was deeply suspicious. Large historical theories subordinating the individual, they said, leads to an acceptance, even justification, of totalitarian states and totalitarian actors, of egg-breaking to serve better omelets. They're wrong morally for that reason, they said, as well as wrong on their own terms, there being abundant counterexamples. Too, theories like those can't be tested all that well before or after the fact, leaving competing theories subjects of contention as, say, Newton's mechanics weren't until new observations demonstrated their limits. Nevertheless, Hitler, say, clearly arose in a context of German defeat, hyperinflation and so on, but was, in fact, Hitler and nobody else, and it's hard to imagine a different individual, even leading a Nazi Party in control of Germany, having a similar effect. So, Sarkozy, whose supermodel wife's pictures, some of them in the nude, are up on the Internet, and Merkel, the 'matronly' PhD chemist, grating on each other in a relationship obviously arising out of their personalities, required by larger forces, whatever they are, to work mindful of the constraints and requirements that the historical moment requires of them.

Meanwhile, mathematics has demonstrated that very large systems indeed can be exquisitely dependent on initial conditions. Ray Bradbury's 'A Sound of Thunder', in which a time traveler's butterfly killing step in the Jurassic produces huge alterations 100 millions of years later, and Edward Lorentz's butterfly effect in weather modeling, come to mind. It's hard not to imagine the possibility that world history, too, may produce far less inevitability, far less a priori and a posteriori coherence, than it's natural to suppose. Leaving not only Sarkozy and Merkel with more personal responsibility than might be supposed, but, perhaps, even lesser individuals--you and me, perhaps, even...

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Boehner's Absence

There are two ways to explain the Great Pumpkin's absence from the memorial service at which Obama spoke yesterday.

First, he chose to attend a fund-raiser. Nothing, but nothing, seems more important than raising money from clients. Darrel Issa last week asked businessmen to tell him which burdensome federal regulations should be repealed. They might as well put up a 'For Sale' sign.

Second, Obama was performing a ceremonial function as president of the United States. Entirely non-partisan, uncontroversial, but, nevertheless, clearly acting as if he were, in fact, the president, speaking to and for the country. Can't have that. Recall, for instance, the outrage which greeted his entirely benign address to schoolchildren. His opponents demanded the right to exclude their children from the horrific threat to freedom that a president acting ceremonially poses to the Republic. Never, ever can they concede that Obama is, in fact, the president, by virtue of anything other than crime, corruption, deceit and treason.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Palin's 'Blood Libel'

It's hard to think of a more stupid, despicable, ignorant remark she could have made. Comparing criticism of her violent rhetoric to the suffering of European and Russian Jewry is unacceptable, and should be unacceptable to anyone regardless of ideology.

Charitably, she's merely ignorant of its historical meaning, and, once apprised of it, will apologise. Less charitably, she knew exactly what she was saying, which is not merely ignorant but reprehensible. In the context of Beck's nakedly anti-Semitic extended attack on George Soros, after which Murdoch defended him, worse yet.

In either case, she has forfeited any right to any sort of public platform at all, much less a potential candidacy for the presidency. It would be precious were one or two Republicans to take her to task for this ugliness.

Fear Is The Key

Robert Wright, in this morning's NY Times, writes with coherence and sanity on the political tug of war over the Tucson shootings:

To be sure, at this political moment there is — by my left-wing lights, at least — more crazy fear-mongering and demonization on the right than on the left. But that asymmetry is transient.

What’s not transient, unfortunately, is the technological trend that drives much of this. It isn’t just that people can now build a cocoon of cable channels and Web sites that insulates them from inconvenient facts. It’s also that this cocoon insulates them from other Americans — including the groups of Americans who, inside the cocoon, are being depicted as evil aliens. It’s easy to buy into the demonization of people you never communicate with, and whose views you never see depicted by anyone other than their adversaries.


--He, I think properly, says elsewhere that there's more of a problem on the Beckoid right than on the Olbermannish left these days, as I've said in previous posts. But he also touches on something less specific to these times, less confined to one side of the ideological spectrum over time, that I also rant about regularly: the separation of virtuous Self from demonized, dehumanized Other, made worse by the echo chambers of the Internet. My postings on the mostly righty docs' blog are more temperate than those I post here, though in terms of arguments consistent, because i want to make room for them rather than have them entirely dismissed, and the possibility that a lefty might be a reasonable human being as well. Were I in a really public media venue, I'd only rarely speak as such as Olbermann, with whom I often agree, speaks, for the same reason. We all need to vent, and I'm passionate about what i write here. I loathe Beck, Limbaugh, Palin et al. for the reasons I've stated. But i, too, see a need to empathise, assert a common humanity, and if at all possible reach out rather than demonize, even to those well to my right.

I recall a time when the left indulged in violent, eliminationist rhetoric, calling for revolution, 'off(ing) the pigs), damning those who disagreed with them as racist, imperialist mass murderers in a system corrupt beyond repair that needed to be destroyed. A few of us went from such rhetoric to building bombs and committing armed robbery, killing sometimes innocent people in the process. All this was deeply wrong, as well as politically wildly counterproductive. I've talked in other posts about such things, and recognize the context, the violence of the right and the government at the time and so on: make no mistake that i held/hold only the left responsible. But we, too, were capable of such things. Today, we aren't nearly as vociferously speaking of our foes' evil as once we were. But we must, in discussing the current environment, find a way to reach out to others than ourselves, or nothing will change. Nothing may change anyway; i don't expect Beck et al. to respond in the slightest. But let us be on the side of change for the better, rather than ossification or even worsening of the entirely unsatisfactory current situation.

I do not for a moment suggest that we fall into the trap set for the left in the 1950s, where we accepted the rules set by the right: either renounce a larger political vision for broad social change in this country, accept the national security state and military-industrial complex, or be branded a Communist, a fellow-traveler, a 'comsymp' and so on. Such a trap is again being set, in that one must accept destructive righty macroeconomic nonsense to be credible all too often. We should resist that.

But consider, for instance, the Arab-Israeli situation. At this point, I feel that Israel, by far the greater economic and military power, is exacting from more from the Palestinians than conversely, has far greater freedom to change things. But Palestinians shouting 'Gunships in Gaza! Walls and checkpoints! Sabra/Shatila! Zionist apartheid!' and so on, and Israelis shouting 'Munich! Ma'alot! Sbarro! Suicide bombers! Katyushas!' at each other will continue to kill each others' children. If they don't find a way to transcend the weighing of grievances, nothing will change. There are those on both sides who profit mightily from the current situation, just as here there are those whose prominence, riches and power derive from their embrace of dehumanization of their enemies and delegitimazation of views other than their own. Such people must be resisted, but in a context recognizing that such behavior hasn't historically been limited to the right, that they and their followers, too, are human, and that change must come out of that recognition. It will not come as a 'victory', but, if at all, it will come out of attempts in a middle ground to solve problems together, through messy compromise rather than purity of ideology.

Monday, January 10, 2011

'Moi? You do it, too!!' Isn't What Jesus Would Have Said

Let's exclude for a minute the gross disparity between left and right with respect to elinimationist rhetoric, which Dave Neiwart's been tracking for years on Orcinus. Let's exclude, too, the fact that there's been no leftie political violence to speak of for decades, and the wild extent to which righties embrace the Second Amendment and have been buying guns and ammo. Let's, for the sake of argument, accept the idea that both sides have been immoderate in their rhetoric, reacting against each other's excesses in a vicious circle. Consider how few of those good Christian souls can't react to the murders by mourning the dead, caring for the living, and looking to themselves, reaching out, trying to understand, see that there's a problem out there and be part of solving it, out of empathy and love and a larger vision than us v them, trying to help.

But that isn't what they do. They don't just accept bitter partisanship; they revel in it. It defines them. A day without dehumanizing others is like a day without sunshine. Coming together? That smacks of reknitting a social contract, of weakness and appeasement and moral relativism. And it would threaten their movement to its core.

A few of us on the docs' blog have tried to cast the matter in the terms I outlined in the first paragraph, trying to keep a dialogue going. A gratifying number of righties there, who have seemed decent guys/gals anyway and with whom I get along pretty well despite our different politics, have joined and extended the idea, even to the extent of saying, essentially, what Keith Olbermann said: that there's been too much crap out there, that we shouldn't add to it ourselves or accept it from others, that we can be better than that. Amongst them was perhaps the most politically active and most widely respected guy in the group. Many of the docs there, even the righties and Randers and libertarian types, have actually moved, on this issue, more in a positive direction than I've seen elsewhere. One of them, to my astonishment and admiration, even authored a post citing moderate Muslims acting generously and courageously against extremists, reconsidering a former position he'd held equating Islam with terror, abuse of women and medieval Shar'ia. Then there were others (like the guy who playfully associated Michelle Obama with the Tontons Macoutes) whose pathetic bloviations could be reduced entirely to 'Moi? They do it too!', in a manner that'd be entirely unacceptable in a second grader.

The docs there have done better as a group than I've seen the right do in general. I've been upset by this one, and have taken to responding to the trolls with 'Mourn the dead, hope for the living and shut the fuck up.' The very least you can do. Put down the shit for a minute, stop flinging it, and wonder about how we can stop killing nine-year-old girls in this country. And, if you can't do that, I'll personally rip that fucking 'What would Jesus do?' bumper sticker off your car.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Re: Congresswoman Giffords and the Others

I spent this morning on the doctors' blog, where a thread was started mocking Michelle Obama on broccoli. Fine; they hate Obama. One poster moved on to denounce the 'cult of Obama', and likened her to Elena Ceausescu. I objected. The reply was that Obama deserved it.

The thread went on to an unfavorable comparison of Michelle's physiognomy to that of Carla Bruni, whose nude picture one poster cited; appalling sexist posts rained down. I held my tongue; if they didn't get why Ceausescu was unacceptable, I didn't think it worth it. I apologise for that.

Next, one clever fellow humorously suggested that Michelle Obama would enforce a 'broccoli mandate' using Tontons Macoutes. I posted that this was despicable, racist and entirely unacceptable, opinions about Obama be damned. Maybe 10 or 20 posts later, nobody finds this crap even mildly objectionable. How much further the fuck need one go to meet disapproval from anybody but me?

I have no doubt that some of these highly paid, highly educated professionals will have little if any problem with Giffords' wounds, and will accuse liberals of a typical hysterical overreaction to the act of a single, isolated madman.

And, too, the Tea Partiers/Republicans say something along the lines of, well, he shouldn't have shot her, but we understand why a defender of the Constitution and the fucking Second Amendment would be outraged by her liberal subversion of all this country holds dear. Just as they said, well, they shouldn't have killed Dr Slepian as he was eating breakfast at home with his family, or Dr Tiller as he was leaving church, but abortion is murder. Just like they said McVeigh shouldn't have leveled the Murrah building, but the government is too big. Just like they said they shouldn't have shot those ATF agents, but those jackbooted thugs want to tell us how to live and take our guns. Just like they said he shouldn't have flown that plane into an IRS building, but taxation is theft.

They have much to answer for, and they won't do it, and far too few people in this country will call them to account for what they've said and done. They were all on the grassy knoll today. Bastards.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Betcha His Appendage is Less Noodly Than Yours

I found this in the Times yesterday, a small pleasure to make you laugh a bit: Dwight Garner demolishing a self-help book in a hilarious review:

He can use without irony, as he does in “The 4-Hour Body,” lines like: “I was enjoying French food and a bottle of Bordeaux with a 25-year-old female yoga instructor new to San Francisco, fresh from the Midwest.” This poor woman lets slip that she’s unable to have an orgasm. Mr. Ferriss, as any humanitarian would, makes it a point to fix this problem for her. “I was able to facilitate orgasms,” he writes, “in every woman who acted as a test subject.”

Everything about Mr. Ferriss’s book declares: This is not your auntie’s self-help book. No muffled “I’m OK — You’re OK” tone here. The vibe is: I’m Superbad, bro, and I have dimples. You’re a mole person who, if you become an angel investor in my books, might someday touch the hem of my Speedo.


--I smiled at the review, rather than allow myself to be appalled that this guy is getting rich on this crap and that he isn't laughed at wherever he goes. And i'd venture a guess that the author is likely to find Limbaugh and Beck more sympatico than, say, Andrew Bacevich or Rachel Maddow. Could be wrong, though...

Thursday, January 6, 2011

I Should Have Seen This Coming

The NY Times reports today on an eminent and well-respected psychologist's paper, about to be released in a peer-reviewed journal, supporting a finding of extrasensory perception:

The paper describes nine unusual lab experiments performed over the past decade by its author, Daryl J. Bem, an emeritus professor at Cornell, testing the ability of college students to accurately sense random events, like whether a computer program will flash a photograph on the left or right side of its screen. The studies include more than 1,000 subjects.

Some scientists say the report deserves to be published, in the name of open inquiry; others insist that its acceptance only accentuates fundamental flaws in the evaluation and peer review of research in the social sciences.

“It’s craziness, pure craziness. I can’t believe a major journal is allowing this work in,” Ray Hyman, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University Oregon and longtime critic of ESP research, said. “I think it’s just an embarrassment for the entire field.”

The editor of the journal, Charles Judd, a psychologist at the University of Colorado, said the paper went through the journal’s regular review process. “Four reviewers made comments on the manuscript,” he said, “and these are very trusted people.”


The article notes the respect Bem commands. They even cite Ray Hyman, a critic, who wonders whether he didn't mean it as a joke. Hyman's a mainstay of the Skeptical Inquirer, whose raison d'etre is debunking paranormal claims. I'd say the mass of evidence mostly favors the debunkers, but it's also obvious that they, too, have an agenda, and themselves can't entirely avoid biases of social construction.

Out of my field enough, this, so all I can bring to the table is skepticism, tempered with the odd, lingering hope and belief that sooner or later, someplace, there'll be something brand new, from an utterly unexpected source, that'll shake us out of our complacency as much as Riemann, Lobachevsky, Becquerel, Planck, Einstein and Godel shook 'em up back then.

Now, I'll admit that part of my bias is that the phenomena hypothesized, if actually present, should manifest themselves in far less ambiguous terms. Were telepathy or precognition possible, one might leap to the perhaps erroneous conclusion that they should be manifest in the sort of abilities routinely displayed in pop fiction, rather than culled from subtle statistics. Meanwhile, we daily get offers from wall Street types selling prognostications we should act upon which, were they as accurate as is implied, would offer the prognosticator opportunities far greater than those of magazine marketing, and, at that, best kept secret.

So, one is, too, offered the bemused thought that if the Gifted Ones exist out there, They don't want us to know about Them. Maybe Hyman is one of 'em. That'd explain it all. The next step, clearly, is to study in meticulous detail the funding of the Skeptical Inquirer. But, then, you saw that coming, didn't you?

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Poetry Corner: 'A Satire Against Mankind'

Were I (who to my cost already am
One of those strange, prodigious creatures, man)
A spirit free to choose, for my own share,
What case of flesh and blood I pleased to wear,
I'd be a dog, a monkey or a bear,
Or anything but that vain animal
Who is so proud of being rational.

The senses are too gross, and he'll contrive
A sixth, to contradict the other five,
And before certain instinct, will prefer
Reason, which fifty times for one does err;
Reason, an ignis fatuus in the mind,
Which, leaving light of nature, sense, behind,
Pathless and dangerous wandering ways it takes
Through error's fenny bogs and thorny brakes;
Whilst the misguided follower climbs with pain
Mountains of whimseys, heaped in his own brain;
Stumbling from thought to thought, falls headlong down
Into doubt's boundless sea, where, like to drown,
Books bear him up a while, and make him try
To swim with bladders of philosophy;
In hopes still to o'ertake th' escaping light,
The vapor dances in his dazzling sight
Till, spent, it leaves him to eternal night.
Then old age and experience, hand in hand,
Lead him to death, and make him understand,
After a search so painful and so long,
That all his life he has been in the wrong.
Huddled in dirt the reasoning engine lies,
Who was proud, so witty, and so wise.

John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester

Financial Musical Chairs

This morning's NY Times offers William Cohan on Goldman Sachs and Facebook:

Last August, Facebook was valued at $27 billion and now it’s $50 billion — for a company with a reported $2 billion in revenue and negligible profits. If General Electric, with 2010 revenue of around $150 billion, traded at a similar multiple of revenue, it would be worth $3.75 trillion instead of $200 billion. Facebook is now considered to be worth more than Time Warner, DuPont and Goldman’s rival Morgan Stanley.


--He goes on to explain in detail the coming next round of high-finance musical chairs, in which Facebook is worth that much as long as the music's playing, Goldman plays IBGYBG and finds a seat when the music stops, and billions of dollars of asset value vanish into thin air, leaving not a rack behind. Read the whole thing; it's well worth it.

Yet again, we're offered an illustration of the difference between speculation and investment. One sets up an unstable situation destined to crash and burn; one builds lasting wealth and adds value to the economy. To the extent that resources and ingenuity find quicker and larger returns in the former than the latter, the, er, unbillionaire class will always be worse off. That's because the rich guys get their marks to trade trillions worth of dubiously valued assets at their nominal value, but, each trade, take real money off the top. That abstracts money out of the productive economy into their pockets, as surely as even the most punitive tax would.

One of my small, but real, glimmers of hope for the future is if the marks realize that they're being gamed, and wise up. Meanwhile, radar continues to sweep the skies over Schloss Wombat; no pigs yet detected...

Monday, January 3, 2011

Love Me, I'm A Liberal

In the context of discussing Obama's not unmixed record, my friend Karin on the eschaton blog recalled Phil Ochs' great 1966 or so song 'Love Me, I'm a Liberal'. I remember every word of it. Nor did I vote for Humphrey in the 1968 election after the disgrace in Chicago.

The key lines of Ochs' song close it:

But now, I am older and wiser
And so, I am turning you in...

That gets complicated, like, wicked quick. A lot of old lefties casually embraced the Soviet Union, apologized for Stalin; later, others would embrace Mao, of the Great Leap Forward and the cultural Revolution. A good part of the 1950s was about forcing the left into a pusillanimous liberalism endorsing the military-industrial national security paradigm of the Cold War. The equation of a broader left version of societal change with outright treason was all too casually accepted. Getting older and wiser sometimes meant reconsideration of such things, at a time when the left was swept away with the romance of the defeat of colonialism by national liberation movements, viewed with utter lack of skepticism both in themselves and as models for domestic politics. Just as one could easily oppose the war in Vietnam without mistaking Gen. Giap for a Jeffersonian Democrat, one could, too, have supported the Johnson who passed Medicare, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act--all substantial gains to the country, on a scale equaled only by FD Roosevelt--without mistaking the Gulf of Tonkin incident as described for reality. One could have, perhaps even should have, gotten older and wiser, and still never have turned anyone in. Ochs, whom I love dearly, equated those two, just as serious old lefties casually viewed reformers, who subverted class hatred and delayed the Revolution by legitimizing the current system, as worse in some ways than outright fascists. He was wrong to do so.

Equating Humphrey-style liberalism with complicity with McCarthy, Vietnam and domestic racism can't be justified in retrospect. And I would vote for Humphrey in a heartbeat today, were he running against Nixon, who, to my astonishment, can no longer be considered the most despicable, stupid, incompetent, ruthless, evil human being ever to be president of this country.