Monday, December 31, 2012

The Perps Get Away With It Again

JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Ally Financial and Bank of America have, per the Times, agreed to a $10 billion settlement with respect to, er, 'irregularities':

Banking regulators are close to a $10 billion settlement with 14 banks that would end the government’s efforts to hold lenders responsible for foreclosure abuses like faulty paperwork and excessive fees that may have led to evictions, according to people with knowledge of the discussions.

Under the settlement, a significant amount of the money, $3.75 billion, would go to people who have already lost their homes, making it potentially more generous to former homeowners than a broad-reaching pact in February between state attorneys general and five large banks. That set aside $1.5 billion in cash relief for Americans.

 Ten billion dollars is chump change to these people and their corporations, an entirely acceptable cost of doing business.  They're laughing at our naivete, and toasting each other's robust financial good health, as we speak. And nobody's doing jail time, nobody's admitting to criminal activity. Nothing, but nothing, will change in any substantive, institutional sense. They've largely gotten away with it. Again.  When new calculations arise, they'll go for the new scam, make trillions, concede a billion or two and move on, leaving the rest of us under water. Nothing is more predictable.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Ross Douthat Suggests Balance

His column today, titled 'How to Read', actually describes what to read, including sources from the side of the debate other than one's own.  He doesn't describe how to read--skeptically, willing to question facts and suspicious of naked ideology, demanding a piece which can continue a conversation.

But he neither admits, in the slightest, how entirely unreasonable, hateful and crazed much rightie commentary is, and how few rightie voices rise in protest.  I've been following politics for 50 years from the left and center-left. It's now gospel (sic) on the right that Obama is a crypto-Muslim Kenyan socialist bent on destroying the country, that national health insurance is a step towards Soviet tyranny, that our liberties depend on the availability of 100-round magazines to any citizen, that Europe is an unspeakably horrible example of the failiure of socialism, that talking diplomacy with other than allies is pusillanimous surrender, that government help is an oxymoron, that anthropogenic global warming is a statist conspiracy and that environmentalism is an anticapitalist pseudoscientific religion. Any Republican disagreeing with any of this will be challenged in a primary he/she can't win. Any right wing commenter who suggests that, for instance, Rush Limbaugh was a bit much when he told a black woman to take the bone out of her nose, or Jonah Goldberg when he blamed fascism on liberals, or Ann Coulter when she celebrated Joe McCarthy, is cast out. And Ayn Rand is taken seriously.

I get all that reading rightie sources, and a lot more as bad or worse. And I haven't even touched on the gold standard and fiat currency, or potted female physiology, homophobia, on and on. None of this is stuff I can take seriously, except as pathological.  There's Fred Hoyle and Georges LeMaitre arguing about cosmology; then there's Immanuel Velikovsky.  And there's a difference between 'Here's my view, based on the following facts and logic.  What do you think?' and 'You're a fucking idiot.'  Douthat pretends to a symmetry that simply isn't there.

cite to his article:

Saturday, December 29, 2012

O Science! I cannot hold thee close enough...

I found the below in a review of Oliver Sacks' 'Hallucinations' in the Times this morning:

The idea of a “romantic science” can be traced to Goethe. The German philosopher, poet and scientist opposed a mechanistic, analytical science of static categories for a fluid and organic one. A. R. Luria, the 20th-century Soviet neurologist, who was a mentor to and friend of Sacks, evoked the tension between “romantic” and “classical” science in his intellectual autobiography, “The Making of Mind.” “Romantic scholars,” he wrote, “do not follow the path of reductionism.” Instead they strive “to preserve the wealth of living reality.” Classical scholars work piecemeal toward the formulation of abstract laws, and in the process they sometimes “murder to dissect.” Romantics may err in the other direction when their “artistic preferences and intuition” take over. Luria sought a middle ground — a science that preserves the part without losing the synthetic whole. This is not an easy balance to achieve, but for Sacks, unlike many clinicians in his field, it remains an ideal.

Seems to me there's something important going on in this.  One looks in vain, I think, for morality in nature, which simply is.  Then there's looking at nature, which science is about.  The word 'holistic' is used romantically as if it's remotely possible to imagine that science/medicine should be excluded when embracing the totality of existence, as if one can't study trees without destroying the forest.   And the romantic era's embrace of science, superbly documented in Richard Holmes' 'The Age of Wonder', is oft forgot in an uncritical celebration of Enlightenment 'virtues' at the expense of romanticism.  Emotion and rationality are oft contrasted as if they're not only unambiguously separable, but inevitably inimical to each other.  I think that's a mistake.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Away On Vacation (LA)

Six days in LA with the 15 and 16 yo Wombettes, and Dr Mrs W:  celebrities, movie studios, Getty and Disney museums, aquariums, like that. 

I'm alone in being more interested in the mental geography of LA I've absorbed from countless books and movies:  wealth, corruption, mean streets where I might run into Harry Bosch or Philip Marlowe.  Looking around, 'til I see a woman whose blouse isn't too loose, whose skirt isn't too long, and whose legs go all the way to heaven.  Or a piece of angel food cake with a tarantula walking on it.  A dog barked, alone, in the alley...

Sunday, December 23, 2012

GHW Bush's Resignation from the NRA

Mark Thoma's economics blog led me to this letter, via which GHW Bush resigned in outrage from the National Rifle Association, of which he was a life long member:

Dear Mr. Washington,
I was outraged when, even in the wake of the Oklahoma City tragedy, Mr. Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of N.R.A., defended his attack on federal agents as "jack-booted thugs." To attack Secret Service agents or A.T.F. people or any government law enforcement people as "wearing Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms" wanting to "attack law abiding citizens" is a vicious slander on good people.
Al Whicher, who served on my [ United States Secret Service ] detail when I was Vice President and President, was killed in Oklahoma City. He was no Nazi. He was a kind man, a loving parent, a man dedicated to serving his country -- and serve it well he did.
In 1993, I attended the wake for A.T.F. agent Steve Willis, another dedicated officer who did his duty. I can assure you that this honorable man, killed by weird cultists, was no Nazi.
John Magaw, who used to head the U.S.S.S. and now heads A.T.F., is one of the most principled, decent men I have ever known. He would be the last to condone the kind of illegal behavior your ugly letter charges. The same is true for the F.B.I.'s able Director Louis Freeh. I appointed Mr. Freeh to the Federal Bench. His integrity and honor are beyond question.
Both John Magaw and Judge Freeh were in office when I was President. They both now serve in the current administration. They both have badges. Neither of them would ever give the government's "go ahead to harass, intimidate, even murder law abiding citizens." (Your words)
I am a gun owner and an avid hunter. Over the years I have agreed with most of N.R.A.'s objectives, particularly your educational and training efforts, and your fundamental stance in favor of owning guns.
However, your broadside against Federal agents deeply offends my own sense of decency and honor; and it offends my concept of service to country. It indirectly slanders a wide array of government law enforcement officials, who are out there, day and night, laying their lives on the line for all of us.
You have not repudiated Mr. LaPierre's unwarranted attack. Therefore, I resign as a Life Member of N.R.A., said resignation to be effective upon your receipt of this letter. Please remove my name from your membership list. Sincerely, [ signed ] George Bush

He'd never have survived the primaries today.  They'd have read his lips, and realized that, though a conservative, he was also capable of doing what he had to do.

Merry and Happy

Now that the Solstice has passed, we're into the second limb of the Scarecrow's obdservation to Dorothy:  'It's going to get darker before it gets lighter.'

Here's Dar Williams' wonderful song about Christians and pagans celebrating together:  merry and happy to one and all

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Hayek to House Republicans: Play Nice And Grow Up

Reading about House Republican intransigence regarding the so-called fiscal cliff, I was reminded of an essay written by Friedrich Hayek, whose 'Road To Serfdom', in which he claimed that government regulation of the economy inevitably leads to totalitarianism, is an intellectual touchstone of the right.  He's more complicated than that; for instance, he thought national health insurance was acceptable government function.  He titled the essay, 'Why I Am Not A Conservative':

Let me return, however, to the main point, which is the characteristic complacency of the conservative toward the action of established authority and his prime concern that this authority be not weakened rather than that its power be kept within bounds. This is difficult to reconcile with the preservation of liberty...

When I say that the conservative lacks principles, I do not mean to suggest that he lacks moral conviction. The typical conservative is indeed usually a man of very strong moral convictions. What I mean is that he has no political principles which enable him to work with people whose moral values differ from his own for a political order in which both can obey their convictions. It is the recognition of such principles that permits the coexistence of different sets of values that makes it possible to build a peaceful society with a minimum of force. The acceptance of such principles means that we agree to tolerate much that we dislike. There are many values of the conservative which appeal to me more than those of the socialists; yet for a liberal the importance he personally attaches to specific goals is no sufficient justification for forcing others to serve them. I have little doubt that some of my conservative friends will be shocked by what they will regard as "concessions" to modern views that I have made in Part III of this book. But, though I may dislike some of the measures concerned as much as they do and might vote against them, I know of no general principles to which I could appeal to persuade those of a different view that those measures are not permissible in the general kind of society which we both desire.  To live and work successfully with others requires more than faithfulness to one's concrete aims. It requires an intellectual commitment to a type of order in which, even on issues which to one are fundamental, others are allowed to pursue different ends.

It is for this reason that to the liberal neither moral nor religious ideals are proper objects of coercion, while both conservatives and socialists recognize no such limits.  (read the whole thing)

Hayek knew intimately that ideology can't be imposed on a society without force, and that was unacceptable.  He saw that as a danger regardless of the specifics of ideology.  He recognised that in any society opinions will differ, and that the work of the nation must go on regardless:  working together, muddling through (see post below) rather than marching arm in arm with ideological compatriots toward the Radiant Future, or perishing gloriously before a deluded, evil opposition.

The House Republicans don't know that.  They're proud of their readiness to bring the temple down.  And they project onto Obama, who, I think, is too willing to compromise, their utter intransigence.  Hayek would have taken them aside and told them to fight for their beliefs, but to play nice anyway.  He'd have had a point...

Friday, December 21, 2012

In Praise of Muddlers

Charlie Pierce, in a terrific post today, suggests muddling is the right way to get through the holidays:

...To be a muddler is to recognize that the movement forward, however tentative the movement or however small the steps, is more valuable than a brief look at temporary tinsel. To be a muddler is to understand what optimism really is. To be a muddler is to be an American. There was muddling at Valley Forge. There was never a better muddler born than Abraham Lincoln. We do not celebrate our liberties because someone framed the Constitution one day, hanging a shining star, as it were, on the wall of the National Archives. We celebrate all the decades of muddling that we as a people — that We, The People — have done to make those words a living reality. When Martin Luther King, Jr. explained to the country, "Why We Can't Wait," he was announcing that the muddling had to accelerate. He wasn't asking for the results. He was demanding the effort. He was making a moral claim to the muddling.

So, on we go, muddlers all, toward what may or may not be a better day, trying not to be distracted by the shining stars hung on all the highest boughs by the people who fear where all our stubborn muddling as a people may lead, because they see and fear where all our stubborn muddling has led in the past. They want us to stop and stare at the artificial gleam of their private stars high up on the boughs they have designed forever to be out of our reach. They are still wrong... (scroll to 'Out on the Weekend')

Old pulp science fiction space ships usually had names like 'Polaris' or 'Far Star' or some other inspirational moniker.  Poul Anderson's Nicholas Van Rijn, a merchant trader in a galactic federation, named his spaceship 'Muddlin' Through'.  Loved it...

The muddlers do the actual work that needs to be done, that the purists usually disdain.  The muddlers live in the real world, and try to make it a better place.  They remember that living, breathing human beings are involved, and that people are more important than ideas.  God bless them, every one, mostly... 

Prof. Umbridge, Packing Heat

Wayne LaPierre, the National Rifle Association's self-caricature, today came out with his solution to the problem of school firearms violence.  One thing he called for was the presence of armed guards in the schools.  He thinks there's too much violence in the media.  Like that.  Nothing whatever the slightest bit unpredictable or helpful.  He also spoke of handling the mentally ill better, a cause for which Republicans have been notably unwilling to appropriate funds for, siting the adequacy of private sector responses to the problem and the dangers of Stalinist tyranny destroying America as we know it.

Now, I went to school, and recall my teachers.  They ranged from the saintly to the ridiculous, on both superficial and deep levels, as yours did too.  One of my favorites was later found to have liked middle school boys rather better than he should have.  Another, whose bitter right wing diatribes introduced his every class, became a friend, and gave me a life long love of poetry at a time when I wasn't reading anything other than pulp science fiction.

The vision of each and every one of these carrying a firearm to school does not suggest to me a solution to any problem at all...

The Future Is A Foreign Country

Carlo Rotella, in this morning's Boston Globe, notes that a flying car is being tested.  He recalls a time when visions of the future extrapolated airplanes, telephones, cars, electric power, radio and ocean liners into a Radiant Future full of technological mastery and freedom, and then notes the turn towards a mostly darker anticipation of descent into apocalypse, slow or fast:

By 1982, in Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner,” an enormously influential science-fiction portrait of the near future, the flying car had turned definitively noir. Cops lifted off in them from decaying, ungovernable streets, nosing through the perpetual twilight of neon-lit pollution.

 These days we seem to have even less use for sunny visions of the future, instead favoring zombie plagues, enslavement by machines, endless young-adult dystopias, and apocalypses of every stripe. (Today being the big day for Mayan doom, I trust you’re watching the heavens for the approach of Nibiru.) Then, in the real world, there’s climate change, peak oil, and more esoteric forms of resource depletion (we’re running out of magnesium?!), the 1 percent vs. the 99 percent, and the imperial tristesse that infuses the idea of America’s declining power in the world.

He then admits to being happy that expectations have changed:  his vision of flying cars isn't freedom to travel, but millions of Boston drivers up there doing on the skies what they do on the roads.

But an apocalyptic future is no more probable than a Utopian one.  Utopia means 'nowhere' for a reason.  And extrapolation, which is to some extent all we've got to define the future, is the very Devil's work:  there will always be completely unexpected game changers.  We don't have flying cars these days, but neither do we have computers that grew in size from basement-filling 7094s to whole cities or planets.  And they haven't taken over, and artificial intelligence remains not only a distant goal but one whose very definition, even the possibility of its achievement, remain the subject of dispute.

Problem is, there's an element of self-fulfilling prophecy to all this.  An apocalypse is nothing if not a breakdown of civil order and relations.  In the fifties and sixties, one thought of nuclear war, and, perhaps, built a fallout shelter.  Now, people imagine zombies.  But those zombies all too often turn into Ayn Rand's moochers and looters, and, all too often, people buy guns.  They buy ammunition.  They practice with them sometimes, and every shot fired reminds them that they're preparing to defend themselves against the Other, who becomes dehumanbized.  Trying to understand the Other is not only useless, but a sign of weakness.  Coming together to solve problems is not just a betrayal of values, but bringing a guitar to a gun fight.  Talking to someone with whom you disagree--negotiation, it was once called--is, as in the Bush-Cheney administration, viewed as concession to an enemy, rather than something adults do.

Me, I'll take a flying car over all that...

Thursday, December 20, 2012

You Cannot Conquer Time

Talking about Tolkien's One Ring on the docs' blog Sermo, and got to thinking:  its destruction ended Sauron and Mordor, broke the power of evil.

But the evil of Saruman and Grima in the Shire persisted after the Ring's destruction, and people started setting off for the Grey Havens. That wasn't a voyage of striving, seeking, finding and not yielding; it was an elegiac fade, not at all an exuberant victory.

I'm talking more out of my hat than out of deep analysis here, but perhaps the Ring is Time Bound, and its destruction Time's Release, as the Ring as evil, which it surely is. I see the seduction of the Ring as that of the power to bind Time to one's own ends, the preservation and consequent ossification of one's life, the infinite extension of an illusion of power rendered unchallengeable thereby. And, in the event, the Ring's destruction required an act of the entity most completely enslaved by it--made immortal by it--taking a piece of the living in his mouth as he fell to doom. Time's Release, as well as Time's Binding, may be one of those things one should be cautious to wish for...

Occam's Bushmaster

There's lots of talk about action heroes as dangerous fantasies these days, especially those you can pretend are yourself as you mow down the zombie hordes on the Alienware.  But action heroes make sense in the world constructed around them, which they inhabit.  Absolute good, absolute evil, unambiguous, easily distinguished in the blink of an eye and a flash of a muzzle, where physical violence has a simple, crystal clear origin and physical violence the righteous and inevitable solution.

The action heroes' worlds are every bit as fantastic as the protagonist him/herself.  I'd suggest the worlds of the action hero are more dangerous culturally than the heroes themselves:  they predispose us to view reality that way.  That's not just a mistake, but a catastrophe.  Over and over and over again.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Welcome, Keep Calm and Carry On, And Thank You

A friend from the doctors' blog Sermo, whose denizens are mostly (but not all) rightie and libertarian sorts, and many of whom I count as friends regardless, ran across this blog and asked me if I was keeping it a secret.  I haven't, and I welcome all who want to come here.  If you read back, and find things you disagree with, feel free to let fly; I'll respond.  But I've an odd reservation, as  I replied to him thus (crossposted from the Sermo 'private' messaging board:

My screen name comes from my eldest daughter, who loves wombats after seeing 'em on an Animal Planet show when she was little.  She'd ask me a question, and I'd usually respond, 'That's complicated', and go down to the basement library and come up with five books.  So, she called me 'Prof. Complicated'.  I merged the two out of my love for her, and to remind myself not to take myself too seriously.  Works well, doesn't it?  (dives into blast shelter)
Thanks so much--I've let the blog lapse and thanks for reminding me of it; I'll start posting on it again.  I hadn't spread the news far and wide about it because the stuff i wrote for it i did mostly in a vacuum, which means I didn't get feedback from those with whom I disagree, but want to maintain a conversation with anyway.  There are a couple of people on Sermo like that...  So, some of the political posts aren't all that temperate and reasoned on the blog, more like venting my spleen than debating with intelligent people using facts and logic.
I don't hide my views under a rock here 'zackly.  But neither do I let fly with all cannons firing with respect to how I feel about that stuff.  It's pretty obvious, I'd guess, that I feel deeply about it--wouldn't keep it up otherwise.  And I've said most of what I've said anywhere else here, too.  But neither do I want to offend, or make it impossible to keep the conversation up.  My goals here are to make room for the notion that one can be human and sane and be left of center anyway, to the extent that mutual respect in disagreement is possible, that one can disagree without dismissing someone else's common humanity, the possibility that despite our disagreements we could work together to find enough common ground to move the case along.  That's harder sometimes than just letting the rhetorical flag fly marching into battle.  Less fun sometimes.  Requires restraint and forethought on my part.  And also, harder because I don't want to compromise my views in doing so:  that would be hypocrisy in service of the illusion of community, and would vitiate the whole exercise.  I'm the first to admit that I don't always get it right, but I try.
I love sharing all the non-political stuff, always, and love talking with people who don't think the way I do because I learn something from them, every time.  So anyone who comes to the blog is always welcome, not a secret, Kumbaya and like that.  I just don't want people to come there expecting reasoned dialogue and finding what they might see as partisan diatribe, getting turned off and ending the conversation.  If they have comments in disagreement, I'll answer them the way I do here, semicolons and all, and I'd hope that'd be OK. Hope all that makes sense.
Long answer to your short question--I do that a lot--with deep respect, and gratitude.

I'll be back here often enough to keep you coming back, assuming the content's at all worth it to you.  Go ahead.  Teach me something.  Make my world bigger.  I get stupid if I only talk to myself...