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.