Friday, December 25, 2009

God Jul!

Which is Swedish for Merry Christmas, more-or-less, though it goes into English as "Good Yule." On the Northwest coast of America, the Haida tell stories, no two the same, about how Grandfather Raven stole the sun and placed it in the sky. On the other hand, in the home of Judaism, ravens are thought unclean and inclined to betrayal. In the bad old days of Greece, when Apollo was a war god, wolves and ravens were among his creatures.

So, I have a Yule thought for you-folk. Or perhaps it's a Christmas thought. As the new depression wears on, and people begin to accept that it's going to be years before things get better, we are going to have to decide if our wealthy are going to share some of their wealth for the common good. This coming year, I think, will be the beginning of this decision.


[minor copy error corrected after a few days.]

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Do You Want to Defend It?

Because the "health" "care" "bill" is going to harm quite a lot of people, even if it only harms 1% of the population of the USA. Do you want to be the one who defends it to them?

The Raven's first rule of health care policy: Do no harm.

Think of the Thirty Million

This is a comment I made over at Balloon Juice that seems worthy of reprinting here.


Helping 30 million Americans doesn’t [matter?]
Except that the bill will also harm some number. Say it’s…well, let’s be conservative and say it’s one million. Does that matter?

This is a horrible choice, a hard and ancient ethical problem. No matter what position we take harm will be done, unless the Senate abruptly has an attack of compassion. Nor is there a clear path. For this reason I criticize no-one’s choice in this matter, save only choices made through willful ignorance or active deception.

Let’s look more closely at who will be healed and who harmed. In general, it will be well-off people who will be treated best, and the less well-off treated worse. If some anti-abortion language makes into the final compromise, men will be treated better and women worse; induced abortions are important to protect women’s health.

This is, politically and socially, the stuff of nightmare: the fuel of class and gender warfare. I am reminded of the housing policies that were enacted after the Second World War: which, a generation later, contributed to inter-racial violence, and in the following generation, abandoned city centers.

It seems likely to me that these problems will be made worse in the coming decade, rather than better. The unindexed excise tax on high-quality health insurance will probably reduce the overall quality of care. Anti-abortion activists, having had one success and, probably, a sympathetic Supreme Court, will attempt to expand their control of women’s bodies. The insurance companies will be looking for any way they can to avoid their contractual obligations.

Emma, again:

Is beating the insurance companies the only thing that matters?

Beating the insurance companies matters to me only because they will continue to work to find ways to circumvent the very loose restrictions of the proposed law. They are already acting in bad faith. The victory they have had in the Senate is likely to embolden them; they will not reform. It is not, generally, wise policy to give someone who abuses power more power, and, given the mandate, it will take extra-ordinary circumstances to repeal it.

So these are my concerns. It seems to me that we are already on the road to hell. The question is how to get off it.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Croak of the Day

From Digby, on health care reform politics:
[Obama] and the Dems could have mitigated the rest of it by not planning a strategy based around disappointing the base and cutting deals with industry. It still would have been ugly, but I suspect that if the president and the Democrats had crafted a solid message and he had personally worked harder at keeping public opinion on board they would have had an easier time of it.--***

Obama and the Deal, part II

And now, live from Washington DC, it's Barry Obama's Let's Make a Deal!
I'm sorry, it just slipped out...

Health Care: Bad Politics

Having looked at the policy implications of the Senate plan, let us now look at the political implications. Assuming the plan passes, it is going to create a huge amount of public resentment. Financial companies are already widely hated for their manipulations. The proposed plans will force those manipulations into everyone's lives. I don't see that the outcome of either choice is predictable. Let's break it down. First, suppose the bill passes:
  1. The insurance industry will enjoy a windfall at the expense of the public.
  2. Under the right circumstances, passing the bill could ultimately lead to improvement, largely if the Senate become more liberal, or if economic stresses or corruption lead to the collapse of major insurers.
  3. Under the wrong circumstances (if corporate dominance of the Senate and federal regulatory apparatus continues) it could lead to the destruction of the US middle class. [2009.12.21: Addition, at the suggestion of a correspondent. The health insurance companies have every incentive to raise their rates to soak up the cash that their policyholders would otherwise save. With a mandate, an oligopoly, and poor regulation, there is nothing to stop them from doing so.  In this scenario, a family has to have a very high income in order to save, and money to save is what makes a family middle-class.]
Now, suppose the bill fails:
  1. Under the right circumstances, a better plan could be passed, or introduced in reconciliation.
  2. Under the wrong circumstances, matters could continue as they are, with the US health care system deteriorating to the level of that of an impoverished country.
There is no certain choice. Personally, I would prefer not to participate in this disaster, and my intuition is that not passing this bill is the wisest course of action. Still, while my intuition is good, it is not perfect. I only hold against my political opponents the will to be persuaded by false hope, as with Ezra Klein, who is now seeing things in the Senate bill which are not there. (Cites: 1 2)

The Democrats are going to get the blame for the huge charges the bill imposes. Even though the bill probably will lead to an improvement in the quality of life of many Americans in the short term, the negatives will expand in the public mind, and the public will resent the cost. It will be seen as direct proof of government corruption. People who personally know people ruined by the mandates will speak their minds, and we may be sure that their voices will be heard. What will the public finally do, I wonder?

Well, they're going to be ornery, that's for sure. The US public hates and ignores politics, mostly. But this is politics that will push directly into their lives and cost them money: the public will both resent the demand on their attention and the thing itself. I think the loser here will be the Democratic Party, since this bill is their bad work. But I don't think the Republicans will be winners—the public has by now figured out that Republican politics are even more corporate than those of the Democrats. Since the largest group most directly affected by the mandates is young, there will be plenty of energy among the opposition. I don't think they'll just stay home, so I suppose this means the emergence of a reform movement. This could lead to greater social justice, or the movement could be hijacked by the radical right, or even stranger political factions that have yet to emerge. An even more powerful coalition would emerge if strong anti-abortion language is in the final bill; a large number of older women would join. Young people and older women are the coalition that elected Obama. I think there would be little such a coalition could not do.


[minor changes made on day of publication and one clarification added the day after]

Health Care: Bad Plan

So, we have what a conference committee will give us, reconciling the not-too-good House plan with the toxic Senate plan. So the liberal blogosphere is feuding: support the toxic plan, or try to kill it. Both choices are bad: they both lead to unecessary illness, death, and financial ruin. But the bills currently in Congress are unequivocally good for the insurance companies.

There are some differences:

  1. If some version of the Senate plan passes, it will tend to increase the disparity of wealth in the United States. It will do this by placing a large and regressive tax on the public, which will, especially, affect people making under $50,000/year without employer health insurance. The insurance companies will be granted, essentially, taxing authority. A huge amount of money will be funneled from the public, especially the currently uninsured, to the insurance companies.
  2. The proposals do not seem likely to reduce the extraordinary costs of the US system. Under both House and Senate proposals, systemic savings will probably be collected by the insurance industry.
  3. The Senate legislation guts state insurance regulation. Unless this is removed before the final bill, it will lead to a race to the bottom.
  4. The Senate plan creates a financial incentive for employers to reduce their insurance levels.
I don't see it. In the short term, this may improve the quality of life of some people. It may even save some lives. But these improvements will be made at the expense of the lives and quality of lives of other people. In the long term, it is just kicking the can down the road. As with the bank bailout, it will be all to do again, and there will be less money to do it with.

I think it's poison.

[weasel word removed on day of publication]

Obama and the Deal

After the toxic Senate deal on health care, and the equally toxic Copenhagen non-accord, I've decided that Obama sees politics primarily as deal-making among the powerful. This is the antithesis of democratic leadership.


Friday, December 18, 2009

Typo of the day

It would reinstate the provision of Glass-Steagall requiring the desperation of investment banking from commercial banking. ***
Er, shouldn't that be "separation?"

Then again, maybe not.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

On loyalty to the Democratic Party

Personally, I haven't had the heart to fight for the Democrats since it became clear to me, long before Obama became president, how strong and destructive their conservative faction is. It's not that I'm wanting to "knee-cap" them or any such thing. It's just not there.

And it isn't there, now, for many more progressives. I've been croaking and croaking about this for years. They just couldn't hear it. But now some are beginning to see it for themselves. Any US political party has to have both a leadership and a base--the people willing to go out and canvass, to stuff envelopes, to work registration campaigns, and so on. The conservatives, now the wingnuts, are the Republican base. And the liberals, now the progressives, are the Democratic base. Without the base the party cannot win. This turns out to be so even in these media-saturated days. And with the Senate "health" "care" bill, the Democratic leadership has abandoned its progressive base. Where will they turn?

[Edits on day of publication for clarity & fewer weasel words.]

Citizen Numbers

I'm struck, in reading the support for the disastrous Senate "health" "care" bill, how much it depends on the idea than an improvement on the average level of US health care is acceptable, even though it means that huge numbers of people will be ruined, and some will die. And I think I'm starting to see a pattern: among liberals the academics and the people with secure jobs support it (even Krugman, sigh), and the people like Ian Welsh who've actually been poor, or who know people who've been poor, oppose it. It's easy, when dealing with numbers, to forget that each click on the counter signifies a whole life: hopes and fears and dreams. I want us to remember.

Another Heel of a Loaf: the Senate "Health" "Care" "Plan"

[Added: also, see Ian Welsh's excellent answer to Nate Silver, which was posted at about the time I posted this.]

I am struck that my analysis of three months ago applies with greater force than ever to the likely Senate offering:

  • Big winners:
    • The insurance industry will clean up at taxpayer expense.
    • Big corporations maintain their big hiring advantage over small businesses.
  • Moderate winners:
    • My corporate-employee friends will have an easier time changing jobs.
    • The truly poor will get a bit of help with the insurance they’ll be required to purchase.
  • Half loaves:
    • People who want to quit their corporate jobs & start their own businesses not only lose their corporate insurance, but have to pay the unregulated independent insurance rates.
    • My writer and artist friends will be required to spend scarce money on insurance at unregulated rates. Same thing for the baristas. There may actually be a health advantage to a lower income.
  • Big loser:
    • Social justice.  Taxing the lower middle class and the independent businessperson to the advantage of the insurance industry and big business is unjust.
On the average, I believe, what is in the Senate will be at least a temporary improvement.  But what people like Nate Silver, Ezra Klein, and even Paul Krugman miss is that, in the extreme, some people are going to be required to spend money they don't have, and those people are going to be working poor and middle-class up to household incomes of perhaps $50,000/year. This is going to be a huge political liability for the Democrats: once the mandates hit the shouts are going to be audible from Mars.  It's going to be much harder for that group to save once the mandates come into force; the insurance companies are going to try to set their rates to sop up any extra money these people have.  Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of bankruptcies seem not unlikely.  They're also probably going to blast any employment recovery that gets going in the next few years.

Personally, I suspect we'd be better off waiting until the conservatives suffer more losses. This is so toxic that I don't even want to reluctantly support it. On the other hand, since the conservatives are going to suffer losses anyway, it may be that it will be easier to improve the plan down the road.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

"The Bill is Demonstrably Better"

The Senate health care bill, that is.

Unless, of course, you are one of the bottom half of the middle-class who aren't currently buying insurance, in which case it's a huge expense. As far as anyone can tell, this will buy insurance with huge co-pays and no out-of-pocket expense caps, so you'll only use it when you're desperate and it may leave you high-and-dry--and on Medicaid--after a really bad illness. Meantime, it's harder to meet the rent and put food on the table.

The bill is  better if you're already well-off, seems to be bottom line. Classic US appeal to the people who already have. I am yet again reminded of the disaster of low-income housing in the USA, where people's houses, businesses, and neighborhoods were destroyed, and people were made to pay for the apartments that replaced them. Housing policy-makers have worked out better alternatives, but a generation was uprooted to satisfy--what, exactly?--greed, vanity, and bigotry, I suppose. And I suppose it will be the same with "health" "care." 5-10 million families, maybe, will be bankrupted, and in another generation the law will be fixed.


[minor editorial changes made on day of posting for clarification]

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

What change?

(Sent to

—no public option
—giveaway to the banks
—inadequate stimulus
—war in Afghanistan
—claims of executive privilege

Fuck, man.  *What* change?

Monday, November 30, 2009

Health Care: throw the lower middle class under the bus

(originally posted in comments at FDL)

Why are we prepared to throw the uninsured lower middle-class under the bus? Yes, for people who are already buying insurance there will be savings. But for people who are not, much government-mandated expense, and for poor-quality insurance. Is the Democratic party prepared to lose that group, perhaps forever?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

"Break Their Hearts and Stamp on the Pieces"

Glenn Greenwald on Obama's civil liberties record.

We could also talk about health care and finance.

The First Version of the Principles of the New Progressive Party

[originally posted in comments at Hullabaloo & Brad Delong's Journal]

I think it is time for a new US political party. I don't think the Republicans are going to be anywhere but down in a decade, even if they win the Presidency in 2012, and that leaves a power vacuum.

Herewith I present the first version of the Principles of the New Progressive Party:
1. People don't deserve poverty, even if they don't understand economics.
2. More women in Congress. More women on the Federal bench.
3. Separation of church and state.
4. Health care for everyone.
5. ???

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Palin in 2012!

The Mayans were right!


Saturday, November 21, 2009

On Mass Democracy, part 3

In response to Ian Welsh, who blames the electorate of California out of what seems to me despair:

The California budget disaster is a result of gaming the California electoral system, not the will of a majority of Californians. Prop 13 was passed by 18% of California's population in the off year of 1978. Even of registered voters, it only got 45% of the vote. The tax cutting is not the will of the majority of Californians--never was. Such laws do not usually pass with even a majority of registered voters, and probably would not even pass in Presidential election years, even counting only that percentage of voters who turn out. So don't go blaming the citizens of California. Don't tell me they deserve it, or asked for it. An overwhelming majority never asked for any such thing.

To repeat myself: that many people do not understand or are not interested in politics is not a justification for mistreatment, any more than a patient's limited understanding of medicine is a defense of malpractice.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Croak of the Day: Robert Reich on the Public Option

“But what more can possibly be compromised? Take away the word ‘public?’ Make it available to only twelve people?” ***

Monday, November 9, 2009

What Brung Them, Part III, or, Like, Young

I called the other major group that brought the Presidential candidates, and the Democrats, to power “progressive beginners.” I wrote then, “These are the young (and not so young) Obama supporters who support Obama's ‘change,‘ even though they're not sure what it means. They don't want perpetual war, they want health care, they are environmentalists.” They're also getting stiffed, and when the health care mandate kicks in, and makes it harder to afford college, or be young in an economic depression, they're all going to know it.

New party coming. I give it 10 years.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

What Brung Them, Part II, or, Women vs. the Democratic Party

Way back in September of last year, I commented that women, more than any other populist group, had brought the Presidential candidates. With the passage of the Stupak Amendment in the House, outlawing public support for abortion by the proposed health care, I think it's fair to say that the Obama administration prefers dancing with bishops to dancing with women.

I am surprised at how angry this makes me. Have the Democrats learned nothing from the past 50 years? Apparently not. If they will throw this many people under the bus, who won't be discarded if there is some interest group they are courting? I feel sick. I am old enough to remember the times before Roe v. Wade, and I have friends who grew up in countries where abortion is still illegal. I wonder how we will feel when our daughters die from backstreet abortions. I wonder how the unwanted children will feel.

It's class warfare, of course. The rich and the upper middle class will have access to safe abortion. The poor will not, and the lower-middle class will have to weigh the financial burden of unwanted children against potential bankruptcy of a medical abortion, or risk attempting to induce abortions without medical help.

The as-yet-unnamed third party to the left of the Democrats has just taken a giant step closer to reality.

[edited to correct copy errors]

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Henry A. Kissinger "Fighting the Fire I Started Award"

For yesterday, goes to the Alan Greenspan, for saying "If [the big banks are] too big to fail, they’re too big." ***.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Health Care: Three-Eighths Bad

So. Word is that President Obama, Senator Baucus (D-Insurance), and Senator Dodd (D-Ct) will be hammering out the Senate compromise bill. Since the Finance Committee bill (Baucus) is bad and the HELP bill (Dodd) is half-bad, I figure that means the Senate will pass a bill that's three-quarters bad. Add it to the House bill, which is pretty good, and I figure you get a bill that is three-eighths bad. Maybe...maybe that's a decent start.


Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Eviscerating the Consumer Financial Protection Agency, Breaking the Treasury Secretary

[2009.10.11: It seems I was wrong about Geithner, who has long been a creature of the banks, and employee of the mass murderer Henry Kissinger as a young man.]

As part of the response to the financial meltdown of the past year, the Obama administration proposed, among other things, a Consumer Financial Protection Agency. The proposed CFPA would have had sweeping powers to regulate the financial services industry, excepting the insurance industry. Excepting the insurance industry is questionable, but much worse was to come. In the legislative process, the proposal has gradually been eviscerated. Last week, a very important restriction on consumer banking was removed from the bill by Barney Frank, chair of the House Committee on Financial Services: a requirement that the banks offer "plain vanilla" mortgages that could be straightforwardly evaluated and compared. Astonishingly, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, whose own department wrote the provision, commented: "The chairman’s proposals, which I’ve had a chance to read quickly, provide a better balance of choice and protection."

James Kwak of The Baseline Scenario, writes in e-mail, shocked:
The most shocking thing is what Geithner said about the change - he said it made the bill better. Remember, the plain-vanilla requirement is something that came from the draft legislation that he sent to Congress. […] nothing, I repeat nothing, explains his cheering on the elimination of something he asked for. He should have complained about it, if for no other reason than to combat the mounting suspicion that he has no backbone.
I think it likely Geithner's backbone has been broken. In economics and finance, the Obama administration is starting to resemble the Reagan and Bush II administrations in the way it destroys reputations: Geithner will have no credibility by the time he leaves office. Think of the way Lyndon Baines Johnson broke Humphrey.1 Think of what Reagan did to Stockman. This is court politics, the way power has been deployed in aristocracies throughout history. I'm suspecting Summers and Emanuel of doing the dirty work.  Summers in particular strikes me as a better-educated male version of Sarah Palin, and, like Palin, I think he loves to break people, but he would not have broken Geithner without Obama's support.

Stepping back a bit, I think the Johnson administration provides a useful parallel to the Obama administration. Johnson expanded social democratic programs in the USA at the cost of giving the Senate hawks Vietnam, prompting a friend of the Raven to christen Johnson's coalition the "socialist warmongers." It was a devil's bargain leading to millions of deaths,2 and the reactionary side of the coalition betrayed the social democratic side as soon as it could, leading to the Nixon and, especially, Reagan administrations.

In this case, Obama seems to be paying for his social democratic programs with giveaways to the financial services industry, the health care industry, and the warmongers of our time. This, I belive, is his devil's bargain. Health reform is being undermined even before it passes, with the most likely Senate bill hard on the middle class. Since the House bill is already a reasonable compromise, it's likely that the result will be a bill with a mandate that will fall hard on the lower-income half of middle income people.

Johnson, in supporting Vietnam, lost the Presidency. His party lost power to the reactionaries who began to undercut his programs. With his deals with the financiers, and especially the Senate insurance mandate, Obama, it seems to me, may lose the Obama Democrats, who were once the Reagan Democrats: the working men (they are mostly men) who want a square deal. The Democrats may never get them back.

1. Robert Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate. Google Books.
2. Foucault said that every expansion of the power of the state to control everyday life ("biopower") in Europe was marked by both positive and negative aspects. I haven't read that essay in 20 years, have even forgotten the title, but I suspect it would bear review in this context.

[minor edits on the night of & day after publication for clarity & to correct links]

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Krugman: the Croak of the Times

On reactionary opposition to measures against global warming:
So, have you enjoyed the debate over health care reform? Have you been impressed by the civility of the discussion and the intellectual honesty of reform opponents? If so, you’ll love the next big debate: the fight over climate change. ***
I think I am going to award Krugman the Raven's "Croak of the Times" award & stop giving him "Croak of the Day" on the grounds that I may never give it to anyone else if I don't.

[2009.09.29: Added some quote marks.]

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Ethics and the Discipline of Economics

In an long article in the New York Times Magazine, Paul Krugman writes:
As I see it, the economics profession went astray because economists, as a group, mistook beauty, clad in impressive-looking mathematics, for truth. ***
Yet further down in the article, Krugman writes:
Meanwhile, saltwater economists, who had comforted themselves with the belief that the great divide in macroeconomics was narrowing, were shocked to realize that freshwater economists hadn’t been listening at all. Freshwater economists who inveighed against the stimulus didn’t sound like scholars who had weighed Keynesian arguments and found them wanting. Rather, they sounded like people who had no idea what Keynesian economics was about, who were resurrecting pre-1930 fallacies in the belief that they were saying something new and profound.
This is ideological, rather than rational, opposition. Let me take a little digression into cognitive science to explain something about distortions of reasoning. If you put a VR headset on someone and have them walk around then (before VR sickness sets in) they can interact in a computer-synthesized space. Unless, that is, the ground they are on is sloping. In which case they will, quite unconsciously and without visual cues, drift down-slope. And this is how it is that ideology and, yes, money influenced the economic profession. The claims of rationality were, for the freshwater economists, only the rationalizations of status-seeking behavior.

The field of economics, I think, needs ethics to keep it track, so that it is a scholarly discipline rather than one that produces extensively rationalized propaganda. The ethics I believe the field needs to remember, first, is that of scientific validity. Marxists have made claims for scientific validity for their theories. Yet those claims have largely failed and Marxists are roundly criticized for them by non-believers. The views of the uncritical supporters of wealth and power are to be equally subject to skepticism. By which standard it is plain that a great many capitalist economic theories failed, yet were not discarded. Economics, if it is to be science, must no more be a propaganda arm of capitalism than of socialism.

Beyond the ethical standard of scientific validity, I think economists would do well to adopt some ethical standards from other human sciences. Economics began in a time when vast disparities of wealth were the norm and, so far as anyone knew, society had always been agrarian. It was tempting to find ethical validation for this situation. We now know that humans did not start out with an agrarian society and that vast disparities of wealth are not a human universal. It is time to abandon the idea that these disparities are natural.

In the late 19th century, the idea of social Darwinism was popular. It was widely believed that intense interpersonal competition was healthy for humanity, regardless of how hard it was for individual humans. This turned out to be false, and acting on the idea led to horrors in the 20th century. The rest of the social sciences reluctantly repudiated social Darwinism, though it is not entirely forgotten. But economics has yet to reject it; the idea lives on in the high value economists place on market competition. It is time, and past time, for economists to reject social Darwinism.

It is hard for any social science to separate its ideas from the ideas of its times, yet of what use is any science if it only echoes the ideas of its time? It is exactly the value of science that it seeks ideas of value outside of the time and place of their development. One of the best ways to learn to distinguish the unique ideas of a social science discipline from the general ideas of its time is to study the discipline's history. Economics is, in addition, a largely historical science: economic theory depends heavily on the study of historical data. Indeed, the recent failures of the discipline were made possible in part by the abandonment both economic history and the history of economics as essential parts of the discipline. It is time for economists to remember.

This article has taken a path which surprised me. I did not realize, when I began writing, that this was going to be an article on ethics and science. Yet it seems to me that without ethics, scientific research is not possible. Without basic honesty, without the ability to admit error, without the tools of criticism and review, there is no way to arrive at scientific truth. I believe that economics went off-track partly because of highly-rewarded status-seeking behavior on the part of many economists. This was rationalized as a choice of elegant theories yet in reality was the expression of a desire for the favor of the wealthy and powerful. I have discussed four specific ethical failures:
  1. The first, and most significant failure, is in an area of ethics common to all sciences: the failure to honestly test theories against experimental evidence. This is the first and final proof of all scientific work, and if it is undertaken dishonestly, the discipline will accept as true and teach invalid ideas.
  2. The defense and validation of vast disparities of wealth. This reduced non-socialist economics to a propaganda arm of wealth and power, and led to a failure to criticize the abuses of wealth and power.
  3. The concealment of social Darwinism in the ideology of the free market.
  4. The rejection of history, both as a way to test theory and as a method of self-understanding. This led to a collapse of self-criticism, which in turn concealed and defended other failures.
It's customary, at this point, to end with an uplifting exhortation. But haven't we had enough promises of heaven on earth? I won't promise that a reformed economics will resolve all the problems of the world. Yet we face many global challenges in this century and economics plays some role in every one of them. I hope a reformed economics will help us face these challenges.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Croak of the Day

We have an early winner, here:
I am truly sick of health insurance being compared to car insurance. I can choose not to own or drive a car - which absolves me of needing car insurance (in fact currently I don't even have a drivers license). I don't think I can choose not to have a body, at least not while being alive. --"alymid" on LiveJournal

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Heel of a Loaf: the Obama Plan

Obama's done an excellent job of making a case for the Democratic Party consensus. A mandate, some supports for the most needy, some tepid support for a public option, no talk about regulation. Is this the best system? That's still Medicare for all. Is this a just system? As proposed, it seems to require the lower middle class and the small businessperson to pay the biggest share. So, not just. Is it better than what we have now? Probably, at least until the insurance companies figure out a way to squeeze so much money out of it that no-one can pay. Not even half a loaf; the heel of a loaf.
  • Big winners:
    • The insurance industry will clean up at taxpayer expense.
    • Big corporations maintain their big hiring advantage over small businesses.
  • Moderate winners:
    • My corporate-employee friends will have an easier time changing jobs.
    • The truly poor will get a bit of help with the insurance they’ll be required to purchase.
  • Half loaves:
    • People who want to quit their corporate jobs & start their own businesses not only lose their corporate insurance, but have to pay the unregulated independent insurance rates.
    • My writer and artist friends will be required to spend scarce money on insurance at unregulated rates. Same thing for the baristas. There may actually be a health advantage to a lower income.
  • Big loser:
    • Social justice. Taxing the lower middle class and the independent businessperson to the advantage of the insurance industry and big business is unjust.

[Edited for clarity and to remove some swearing.]

Reconciling the Wings of the Democratic Party

That seems to be Obama's main task on health care. I don't think he realized--he was punked by the likes of Baucus. We're all watching. Don't screw it up, man.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Converse and Democracy, Part 2

It's called a fiduciary responsibility. It's what architects, lawyers, and doctors have towards their clients and patients. And it's what I would like to see from our elected officials. It's the responsibility of someone who knows more than a client: the doctor who knows the patient's health better than the patient.

Need I say that most US elected officials fail of this standard? If they were doctors, lawyers, architects, 3/4s of the Senate would be forbidden to practice. Many would be facing charges.

If there is a key problem of mass democracy, it is how to elect officials that take their responsibilities to their constituents and their country seriously, and seek to discharge them honorably.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

For Seattlelites

Mayoral candidate Mike McGinn has a suggestions board.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Croak of the Day Award

To D. Potter, over at Making Light, in response to George W. Bush's daughter Jenna Hager becoming a reporter on Today:
The Satirists & Surrealists Union has collectively thrown up its hands and gone off to slug brick walls. Hurts less.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Croak 100: The Kennedy Option

The great liberal Senator, Edward Kennedy is dead. Kennedy was a tireless supporter of liberal causes. It's not clear why. He was raised rich, and never knew personal need. But he cared about the poor, the weak, and the sick. (As opposed to us corvids, who have a different opinion on the matter.) Kennedy, had he had his choice, would have implemented a single payer national health care system in the USA. As a matter of practical politics, at the end of his life, he advocated the public option. So in honor of Kennedy, following the suggestion of a blogger whose blog I don't quite remember, and in the hope, as always, of changing a few minds: from here on out, I'm going to call the public option the Kennedy Option.

& this is post 100. I'm astonished. I hope a few minds have been changed.

[Title changed from "Post 100" to "Croak 100," because I like it better. Markup corrected to insert paragraphs where I meant to put them.]

Saturday, August 15, 2009

That Obama election feeling

I now have the Obama election feeling. We get to fight for the corporate health care bill because the alternative is so awful. Nothing has been promised to progressives, and, probably, nothing will be delivered. I don't want to support Max Baucus and Charles Grassley. I don't want to help them write a health care deform bill. What about you?

Friday, August 14, 2009

To President Obama: on the Conservative Opposition

Do you know the story of how it is that LBJ broke Humphrey in the Senate? It is told in Caro's biography of Johnson. Johnson arranged a humiliating defeat for Humphrey, and Humphrey never challenged Johnson again, even as Vice-President, during the disaster of Vietnam.

I think your former Senate colleagues are trying to do that to you. There is an important difference, of course: you are President. But you still need the Senate, and the Senate is heavily conservative. Like a working House of Lords, the Senate is an organization of the powerful, mostly men, mostly white. Long-term relationships (you know) are formed there. And, as in any aristocratic body, personalities matter.

It looks to me very much like some of your Senate colleagues, who you thought were friends and mentors, were setting you up, pretending to be reasonable and willing to compromise when in fact they were just getting you to stand still while they sharpened the knives. I think you've been betrayed and, with the opposition to your health care proposals now becoming visible, the knives are out.

These men are very skillful liars who have used your rhetoric of reconciliation. You wanted to believe in their integrity and so you did. But your opponents in the financial system and the health care system don't want reconciliation. They want it all, and even when they get everything they want, they want more.

Your choices as President are made on behalf of all Americans and, sometimes, all the world. You have a huge choice before you: you can maintain your connections with your false allies, or you can turn to the people. You cannot reconcile your wealthy, greedy, violent opponents to anything less than unlimited power: if you stay with them, they will sabotage your dream of reconciliation.

However you can reconcile some of the conflicts within the American people.

In my view it is important to discredit the right-wing crazies. They swing the vast majority of independent voters. While in a year or two most of the craziness will be forgotten, and the independents thinking differently, they are affecting the Congress now. I want you to succeed! I think it best to answer these people with incontrovertible truth, and keep on answering them until they are reduced to shouting in dark corners of the media space.

In the public sphere, also, I wish you would reconcile with ideological progressives. They were shut out of your campaign, for whatever reasons. But now you need them, because they're sane people who will support you, and will support your policies if you offer them policies they can support. They are capable of loyalty, something your conservative allies have shown they are not. You cannot make alliances with the swing voters, because the swing voters are easily swung by conservative propaganda sources and you have conservative enemies. But you can make alliances with ideological progressives, because they stand for something, and if you stand for them, they will stand for you.

In the interest-group sphere, I wish you would look out for the big-money groups who are willing to make alliances with the radical right. What we have now is a situation where your seemingly-loyal conservative opponents like the insurance and pharmaceutical industries are openly allied with radical groups like FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity. These groups in turn have followings of violent radicals, who, like members of lynch mobs, are all too willing to come out when they whistle. The violent radical groups are deserving of some police attention, and so are the radical right groups; people who promote violent tactics have very likely committed crimes themselves. But look back at the seemingly-peaceful opposition, that will not dirty its hands: if the divisiveness is to be stopped, consequences will have to be brought back to them.

I hope you will continue to pursue the dream of reconciliation and change.

On Whole Foods

I think Whole Foods is a fine example of what is wrong with the libertarian theory of market regulation of business. They satisfy their customers (rather fewer of them, now, thanks to the collapse of the middle class) and their investors, at huge costs to their employees, the environment, and ultimately, the world.

To Hel with 'em.

Read about it.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

If We're So Smart, Why Ain't We Rich?

A few days ago I asked a union candidate for the Seattle Port Commission, Max Vekich, what there was on the organized left for non-union people. He suggested Working America, which an AFL-CIO outreach which members don't vote on the leadership. I can join which members don't vote on the leadership. I can join numerous other sort-of leftie which members don't on the leadership. I think I detect a pattern here.

Where is there a US leftist organization where members can choose policy and goals and pick the leaders and managers? One that is not, like the old socialist parties, fighting the war not even of the 20th century, but of the 19th. I'd join a modern leftist party, engaged in modern leftist issues, in a trice. I think a lot of people would. And such an organization might even be able to make a real difference in policy.

Health Care & the Revolution

Obama is the sharpest pol to come down the pike in a generation. He's been a Senator, so he knows what the Senate is like. He's from Chicago, so he knows from dirty politics and he was a youthful radical, so he knows what radical politics and activism are like. Yet he gets caught up short.

I suspect Obama, and probably other Democrats, have been double-crossed by the "moderate" conservative leadership. Turns out they're not moderate after all, they just get other people to do their dirty work. The administration trusted big insurance, big pharma, and big medicine to abide by their deals, and not unleash the crazies. & here we are, crazies on parade. It is just like the big financial firms, who have undercut the administration's economic team.

With this near-revolt, the Obama administration and the New Progressives move into a new phase. I wonder what it is going to be like.

BTW, no, I don't think Obama has sold out. A deliberate sellout would not involve a proto-revolution.

[edited a few hours after posting--I like this version better.]

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Thoughts on Democracy, Part 1

Intuitions that democratic polities are not, in fact, very well informed, and do not mostly vote on anything like policy thinking are, of course, nothing new. But Converse measured them. He not only showed that many votes were not on sensible things (some, in fact, are apparently made at random), he quantified the differences.
It seems to me there are three common responses to this knowledge: elitism, despair, or denial. The great statesman and scholar George F. Kennan, architect of the Marshall Plan, ended with despair, rejected by radical right of his day. The Straussians and Trotskyites who became the core of the neo-cons are elitists. Many political commentators and activists depend on self-validating denial. On the left, there has long been talk of raising class consciousness. But it never seems to work.
Politicians, mostly, don't care, so long as they are elected.
The ideological minority can win no elections by itself. But it can swing elections, and it can persuade.
I'm going to croak out some principles here:
  1. People, even the most apolitical, do not mostly wish the consequences of bad government [added 2010.10.25: in their own lives and the lives of their friends and families].
  2. That many people do not understand or are not interested in politics is not a justification for mistreatment, any more than a patient's limited understanding of medicine is a defense of malpractice.
  3. The system of representative government is intended to allow people to select representatives who represent their interests. Unfortunately, in the United States the majority of these representatives falsely claim to do so. When they are not outright corrupt, they largely represent factions of their constituencies.
  4. Activism can succeed, even in this political environment. How and why are questions that do not seem to have been adequately answered. (Or perhaps I am unaware of the answers.)

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves

I think I know the bottom line: someone is going to die. Too much crazy has been unleashed, too much negativity. Mobs at town halls. Death threats. And they're going to keep stirring the pot, until some dramatic act of violence happens, until the House caves, or until the House is back in session.

"For, without a cement of blood (it must be human, it must be innocent) no secular wall will safely stand."--WH Auden, Horae Canonicae, "Vespers."

[edited because I really like this title & to correct the Auden quote]

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Smart corvids

It turns out that some crows understand the displacement of water. Croak!

Monday, August 3, 2009

Political Spectrum

Another comment that the NYT didn't run.

I think that, among the politically-aware minority of the population, we would find that the spectrum of the left extends further than it does in Congress. I think only a few radical-right commentators are ideological. Most use ideology as a weapon, but actually have group-loyalty or group-hate as motivations. The actual ideologues are probably the obvious ones: the late William F. Buckley, Grover Norquist, and so on. The most visible US radical-left figure I can think of is Noam Chomsky. He is a left anarchist and a moderate pacifist, widely reviled, and largely unknown outside the minority of the politically aware. Any national network that gave him a platform would come under enormous pressure to take it away again. Yet we are talking about someone whose program would be non-violent. We might also consider ecological radicals like Jerry Mander. Another pacifist and widely hated figure, and another advocate of non-violence. For a violent leftist you'd have to look for a Stalinist (are there any left?), Maoist, Trotskyite, or the like. And here, I am ashamed to say, I know no names.

Returning to the political spectrum, probably the farthest left the Senate goes is Barbara Boxer or Bernie Sanders and they're pretty moderate by comparison to Chomsky. Not sure about the House--there might be one or two authentic radical lefties in the 535. Be interesting to see if anyone actually has done the work & already knows!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Scaling Malkin: in response to Krugman

As often happens, the NYT didn't run my remark. So I'm going to expand on it and run it here. The significant political science paper I keep citing is Philip E Converse, “The nature of belief systems in mass publics,” reprinted in Critical Review: A Journal of Politics and Society 18, no. 1 (2006): 1 - 74, and I recommend it to everyone with a serious interest in politics.

Paul Krugman asks:

What I’d like to have is a Guttman scale of positions on political matters, such that almost everyone who gave the “liberal” answer to question 7 also gave liberal answers to questions 1-6, while almost everyone who gave the conservative answer to question 7 also gave conservative answers to questions 8-13. And we’d want population shares associated with each point on the scale. So we could then take known positions of public figures and place them on the scale: say, we might find that only 19 percent of Americans are to the right of Michelle Malkin, while 23 percent are to the left of Michael Moore.
The problem is, it's been known since Converse's paper that no such scale can be constructed for the general public. It can only be constructed in parts of the citizenry who are politically aware, and Converse found that that was a minority, 11.5% of subjects, 15.5% of voters. The largest plurality of people, 42% of subjects, 45% of voters, in Converse's five-ranked classification system took positions based on understandings of group allegiances. So, for instance, Converse found a "socialist" who supported privatization of utilities! For the rest, people would answer poll questions, but their answers didn't correlate, so you'd get, for instance, people who (post-Converse example) support Medicare but are opposed to government-financed health care. The classic and horrible example, of course, is what we are seeing writ large in California, where people have voted for government programs and against the taxes that fund them. Many votes and positions are apparently made and taken at random, and change when the voters are consulted some time later.

There's more to be said about this: the intellectual response, the implications for democratic governance, and so on. I continue to be astonished that these nearly 50-year old results have drawn almost no attention outside of political science.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Vast Majority of Southern Whites Doubt Obama's Citizenship

So what proportion of Southern whites doubt that Obama is an American citizen? While Ali did not release the racial breakdowns for the the South, and cautioned that the margin of error in the smaller sample of 720 people would be larger than the national margin of error (2 percent), the proportion of white Southern voters with doubts about their president’s citizenship may be higher than 70 percent. More than 30 percent of the people polled in the South were non-white, and very few of them told pollsters that they had questions about Obama’s citizenship. In order for white voters to drive the South’s “don’t know” number to 30 percent and it’s “born outside the United States” number to 23 percent, as many as three-quarters of Southern whites told pollsters that they didn’t know where Obama was born. ***
Which means...? A long-term filibuster of anything useful from the Administration? In these times that would mean economic and health-care inaction. A Klan revival? Another impeachment?

I suppose seccession is not out of the question: a South including Texas would be a respectable oil-producing state. I wonder if it would join OPEC.

[later thought]
I suppose this is the last stand of the reactionaries. It's natural that it would come in the South. But how do progressives, or even moderates, respond?

[still later...]
Moderates, if we are to judge by recent history, simply will not respond at all, and let the resurgent South roll over them. Which leaves the progressives.

[Spelling error corrected on 2009.08.04]

Friday, July 31, 2009

Croak from the past

The case was defended on the squarest, most idealistic, and most foolish level imaginable, and on the other side the dirt was so filthy that the defense refused to believe it existed, or, as in my case and probably in others, actually believed it. — Kenneth Rexroth, An Autobiographical Novel, p. 199. The events described apparently took place, if at all, in 1924.
Doesn't this sound like the liberal or progressive response to the disaster of the reactionary right? People didn't engage the dirt, didn't fight it, and didn't understand why they lost the elections. Any all the while, the media were taken over, the financial system destroyed, and, ultimately, the USA fought a pointless war.

[pointless croaking complaint deleted — it's amazing what being less sick does for one's critical sense]

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Croak of the day

To Digby. Take it away!
[...] the excesses of the Bush administration, the war, the torture, the wiretapping, were the result of compromises between the sociopathic Cheney faction and the merely dull and incompetent remainder of the administration, including the president. ***

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Neo-Hooverism in California, part 2

What is an appropriate progressive response? There seem a number of possibilities:
  1. Support and attempt to reform the state Democratic Party. The problem here is that the Democrats are as much part of the problem as part of the solution, and will have little credibility. Anger at the Democratic Party may in fact be higher than anger at the Republicans: the Democrats betrayed their rank-and-file.
  2. "Direct action." The problem here is that it is going to be very difficult to bring any pressure to bear on the factions that have made the problem. Any effective action is going to have to involve sit-ins at major businesses, sit-down strikes, and the like. A violent response seems likely, and it will be blamed on the protestors. Protesters are going to have to be tough, disciplined, and desperate.
  3. A constitutional convention, to remove the worst features of the California state constitution. This solution is popular with progressives, but it seems to this old bird to be risky. There is no strong progressive leadership with media access--nothing like the megaphone which Schwarzennegger's fame and his backer's wealth provide. It is entirely possible that a constitutional convention would be hijacked by the same factions which have made the current situation. Acceptance of a new constitution of good quality in the current media environment seems hopeless.
  4. Found a reform party. It's...possible. Conditions have rarely been better, and a third party could easily win a local election in San Francisco, where elections are conducted by instant runoff vote. This appears to be spreading in local electoral practice. The major parties will fight state-level voting reform tooth and nail. Still, with strong leadership, I think a new party could emerge in California. But it is likely to be several years before it makes a substantial difference in state politics.

[2009.08.04 edited for clarity]

Monday, July 20, 2009

1931 in California or, Hooverism Triumphant

Robert Cruickshank over at Calitics has the story:
And so the budget drama hurtles toward its inevitable conclusion, perhaps as soon as tomorrow. Democrats have caved and given Arnold Schwarzenegger what he wanted - a cuts-only budget that does massive and lasting damage to the state of California, to the people who live here, and to our collective future. It's taken 31 years, but Howard Jarvis is finally going to get the wholesale destruction of public services he always wanted.
David Dayen chimes in:
We'll see a big sigh of relief from lawmakers over the next few days that will be wholly unwarranted. [...] One of the major consequences of this cuts-only budget will be, paradoxically, higher costs for individuals and the state.
When grandmothers start to die, when the roads fail, when fires go unfought, the public will at last know out what the California state government once did for them. And the state will be unable to fund any response a major natural disaster, like an earthquake or a huge storm.

So it's 1931 in California. What will the public do? One thing that they probably won't do is turn out to vote Democratic. The Democrats in the state legislature scarcely put up a fight. There's nothing in their leadership to inspire confidence, trust, or energy--why would the voters come out for them?

Look back to 1932. Marches, riots, radical parties. That's California's future for several years to come. Followed, I suppose, by reform. But the state's credit will be wrecked, and the government's ability to hire--especially the public schools ability to hire--will be impaired. It's going to be at least a decade before the state will be anything like normal, and meantime, it seems likely any recovery will be late.


Sunday, July 19, 2009

Looking at JP Morgan Chase

Numerian, over at the Agonist, has a post up that looks pretty good to me. (Maybe more actual writing & thinking later this week.)

Monday, July 13, 2009

Croak of the day

As often, to The Shrill One, but a much more sobering statement than usual:
And let’s be clear: both the president and the party’s Congressional leadership understand the economic and environmental issues perfectly well. So if we can’t get action to head off disaster now, what would it take?***
A damn good question, and I wish I knew the answer.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Corruption and Decadence Croak

It's not the people of the United States who have become corrupt & decadent. It's the rulers & leaders. In the accounts of the conservatives it's always the fault of the people. But it's all nonsense. It was not "the people" who started two useless, expensive wars. It was not "the people" who dropped the regulations that protected the US financial system. All the authoritarian conservatives ought to hang their heads in shame, and resign their offices. Not that that is the least likely. Corruption seldom knows itself, and corruption seldom acts on shame.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Shorter Facebook Terms of Service

"We're your good buddy & we want to know everything about you. We want to go through all your e-mail and all your files, so we can know everything about you. Since we're your good buddy, it's OK. Just give us your passwords and everything will be fine." Krawk!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Last Step: On the Murder of Dr. George Tiller

Perhaps he had also always known, somewhere in the deepest recesses of his mind, that he would indeed eventually take that last step into Satanism, but if so, he had very successfully suppressed it.*

In the stunned shock that followed the murder of Dr. George Tiller, I found myself reflecting on Christian morals. Jesus, it is said, died for our sins, and since that was first said his followers have taken willing self-sacrifice as one of their models of virtue. To go from the willingness to give up one's own life, if that is what is needed, to the willingness to kill, is a complete inversion of a core tenet of Christian belief. It is as if, somehow, the murderer (apparently a violent psychotic) had decided that god's love and god's law were not powerful enough, and so turned to Satan. He is not alone, of course: he took seriously the claims of the various radical sects that Dr. Tiller was a mass murderer and so he believed that he was doing god's will. But the Christian teaching has always been self-sacrifice, not violence against others. It was that which, finally, won Christianity its moral authority.

I've said in other places that I think Christianity--and many other religions--has fallen out of touch with our world. Apparently its more radical followers think so, too, and so they are turning to what they call evil. There is even one church, in repudiation of another Christian tenet, that is advocating weapons ownership. If they give up their ancient sources of moral authority, what is left to them?

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Let's Found a New Party...

...and replace some conservative Senators.

Well, why not? The Republicans are a rump party--they're not willing to move to the left, and the right's discredited itself. They're so far out of power, they're never coming back. So lets move in on the left side of their turf!

Moving the Overton Window

Progressives talk about the "Overton window"--the intuitive political spectrum that emerges as a result of public discourse. Obama is expanding the Overton window in the progressive direction, even if he does nothing else. Even if Obama is not changing anything--yet--he's putting progressive ideas back into public discourse, and this may be more important and effective, in the long term, than specific dramatic acts, which are likely to rebound on him, especially in the Senate. I croak the virtue of rhetoric!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Further croaks on Sotomayor

NYT account of her. And Scotusblog. Nothing about her religion. It think it would be best to stop referring to her as "Latina." She calls herself "Nyorican"--Puerto Rican parents, grew up in NYC--and Puerto Rican culture is very different from Mexican. About the most striking characteristic from her accounts of herself, as well as Scotusblog's review of her cases, is her genuine sympathy for the working poor. Unlike Clarence Thomas, who comes from a working poor background but aligns his judicial philosophy with wealth, she has chosen to align herself herself with poverty.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Sotomayor: preliminary croaks

It is Sotomayer, an apparent centrist, though one with experience of both sexism and anti-Latino bigotry. My impression of her is that she is rather a Latina version of Sandra Day O'Connor--a tough woman from a hard background, who places a great deal of emphasis on personal effort. Her youthful education was in the New York Catholic school system, her undergraduate degree was from Princeton, and her law degree is from Yale. She apparently (like many Latinos) has been raised by a very conservative Catholic family. She does not appear to be a pious hypocrite in the mold of Scalia, but I am concerned about the influence of her upbringing and early education on her stands on abortion and gay rights, as well as her view of state authority.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

¡Viva La Revolucíon!

[In reply to Xeni Jardin at Boing Boing. I have been slammed for not understanding the situation, but from my viewpoint, Ms. Jardin and most of the activists she supports are terribly naïve about Latin American politics and history. Latin America is a graveyard of popular democratic movements.]

The movement, Xeni, the movement. This is a political movement. That's what I'm asking if you trust. Will it lead to justice, or will it instead provide an excuse for the military and the police to step in and "restore order?" Or even, is it being nurtured to provide an excuse for that?

It is easy to cry, "¡Viva La Revolucíon!" And in all of Latin America, not only Guatemala, there is 500 years of injustice to revolt against, so there is always a reason for La Revolucíon. But to win... In Mexico, the liberator Juarez was followed by the corrupt dictatorial Diaz. Zapata and Villa won their battles, and were assassinated. It is not different in Guatemala--aren't you making that point?

There are some hopeful signs here. One of the most hopeful is the non-violent activism. My heart goes out to the people of Guatemala. But for a movement to succeed in Latin America, it needs courage, strategy, political theory, broad-based support, and ethical leaders. So far (admittedly there is little reporting) I just hear "¡Viva La Revolucíon!" It isn't enough to get out into the streets--you've got to go somewhere better once you're there.

[2009.08.04 Edited for clarity and force]

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Recent economic history

The big fish eat up the little fish, then the big fish get sick and die (except for the oil companies and agribusiness, bah!). Then we corvids get what's left. Krawk!

Friday, May 8, 2009

Self-esteem and economics

I wonder... Psychologists these days, they say that optimistic overconfidence is healthy. Or at least they used to. There's another view that says that sometimes over-caution can be a way of resolving anxiety. I say--is either necessary? I'll bet there's a lot of people who've been wiped out in the markets right now who wish they'd been a bit more cautious--who would have been protected by caution even if they didn't wish they had been. When a great social disaster like the new depression strikes I look for reasons. And part of our reasons was the promotion of optimistic over-confidence. When sensible caution might have protected us, part of the counter-argument was that caution was unhealthy. And, now--? I bet we'll have the glories of over-caution for a generation. Perhaps longer. Learned helplessness can persist in human societies. One of the ways to understand endogenous economic cycles is as oscillation between over-caution and over-confidence. I croak the moderate way!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Not 1932 yet

Paul Krugman:
Does anyone remember the case of H. Rodgin Cohen, a prominent New York lawyer whom The Times has described as a “Wall Street éminence grise”? He briefly made the news in March when he reportedly withdrew his name after being considered a top pick for deputy Treasury secretary.

Well, earlier this week, Mr. Cohen told an audience that the future of Wall Street won’t be very different from its recent past, declaring, “I am far from convinced there was something inherently wrong with the system.” Hey, that little thing about causing the worst global slump since the Great Depression? Never mind.

Those are frightening words. They suggest that while the Federal Reserve and the Obama administration continue to insist that they’re committed to tighter financial regulation and greater oversight, Wall Street insiders are taking the mildness of bank policy so far as a sign that they’ll soon be able to go back to playing the same games as before.

So as I said, while bankers may find the results of the stress test “reassuring,” the rest of us should be very, very afraid.

Bottom line: we're still not desperate enough to get the policy-makers to act. Has there ever been a time in US history when the Senate was not corrupt and obstructionist?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Now, the Senate

Senator Arlen Specter has switched parties, and will be running as a Democrat in the next primary election. This doesn't make him a liberal, and the Senate Democratic delegation becomes more conservative with Specter's addition, but it does mean that it will be much easier to pass Democratic-sponsored legislation. It seems that vice-president Joe Biden negotiated the switch. In related news, Senate Republicans have dropped their opposition to Kathryn Sebelius, Obama's nominee for Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, and she has been confirmed.

Not me!

[Typo corrected on day of publication] From Veracruz, we have frantic denials. From the Mexican newspaper El Universal. Translation courtesy of the Raven's girlfriend.
Xalapa, Veracruz--From December 2008 to March of this year, 500 people from the town of La Glora in the sub-county (municipio) of Perote, have presented respiratory illnesses. Among these cases were two deaths from pneumonia, said the subdirector of Prevention and Control of Disease of the Secretary of Health and Welfare, Alejandro Escobar Mesa, confirming the rash of respiratory illnesses in the stated locality.

Nonetheless, the governor [of Veracruz] Fidel Herrera Beltrán denied that the mountainous municipio of Perote was the birthplace of the lastest outbreak of porcine influenza and he reminded people that this illness is found in Asia.

In a message from the state Capital, he clarified that the origin of the porcine influenza is in Asia, so it cannot be related to the factory farming of pigs in Perote.

"[The virus] is found in Asia, in China. From there it came, via travelers to North America. Certainly from there it went to the D.F. and the State of Mexico. There is no connection with the factory farms in the valley of Pertote", he stated, and denied that the porcine influenza has any relation to Granjas Carroll, which operates in Perote.

Equally, the pig farming business, stated that none of its workers, nor any of its more than half a million pigs have shown any signs of influenza. [Pigs can be healthy carriers--The Translators.]

The company, which operates in the Mexican states of Puebla and Veracruz, clarified that they have no records of outbreaks of porcine influenza in any of its 907 workers, not in their over 60,000 pork bellies, nor in their over half a million pigs.

The official report states that the virus is found in people not linked with pig farming, that is to say, they have never had contact with the pigs. "From which we may conclude that the contagion is human to human."

The SAGARPA [Mexican Dept. of Agriculture] inspector for this region, Octavio Legarreta, stated that at the end of the week he had the valley of Perote inspected with special attention to La Gloria; no pigs with porcine influenza were found.

Nonetheless Escobar Mesa, the Mexican Secretary of Health, confirmed a rash of "respiratory illnesses" in this region. Of the 500 reported, two were influenza, one porcine influenza, which is the first case in this municipio, reported last Sunday.

"Only two cases of influenza, one type A and one type B," he clarified.

(original article)

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

I keep trying to make up conspiracy theories...

...but the real world keeps topping them. Krawk!

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Wrong People Are in Charge

In response to Krugman's Shabby Celtic Tigers, applicable to his main column today, Erin Go Broke, and, as usual, not passed by the NYT's moderation team. Considering how much appalling garbage gets past their moderators you'd think this would make the cut, but no.
The thing you're not saying, prof, is that the wrong people are in charge. (Bet this doesn't get past NYT moderation, bah!) The bankers and economists who made this mess are still making the policy, and some--most?--of the bankers are corrupt and still looting.

So the questions are: "Who are the right people and how do we put them in charge?"

Monday, April 6, 2009

Testosterone Poisoning, part III

I recently had occasion to cite the study (Coates and Herbert) linking testosterone levels with aggressive trading behavior. This raises a really interesting possibility: could you hominids link economic behavior--ultimately, economic cycles--with measurable physiological changes? If so, that would be a stunning result. And if not, I bet you'd learn a lot of interesting things studying the question.


Saturday, April 4, 2009

Croak of the day

"Or maybe Summers advocates pumping money into EPIC FAIL enterprises because men are just bad at math. Look, I know this is going to sound politically incorrect to some people [...]"--"Thoreau" at

Alternate croak: Summers, Obama, and Testosterone Poisoning

Me in comments on one of Avedon's posts. Take this as another version of Summers/Palin, with a slightly different perspective:
I find myself wondering what the difference between Lawrence Summers and Sarah Palin is. And I think it's mainly that Summers is a well-connected white boy. But the stunning egotism is the same. Probably part of why Summers denigrates women is that they see through him: somewhere, inside, there's a greedy little boy. There's a whole article on testosterone poisoning in the financial system to be written, I think. Geithner, Summers: these people ought not be in charge of anything that matters.

And surely Obama knows what they are. Got a bit of a character problem, there, man. I think Summers, at least, is headed for the door. The huge conflict of interest that the WSJ has revealed is likely to ultimately cost him his job. But is he going to be replaced with anyone more honest and competent?

Ian Welsh Croaks at Class in the USA

America has become the most class ridden society in the Western world, far worse than Britian. Congressional seats are passed on to family members and friends like corrupt boroughs in 18th century England. The rich are bailed out and ordinary people left to sink. Responsibility is enforced on the least in society while the privileged are allowed to skate. Sell a gram of pot, go to jail; but kill hundreds of thousands in an illegal war and it's no big deal.--Ian Welsh at firedoglake

Larry Summers and Sarah Palin: Separated at Birth?

Now we have the news that Larry Summers, chief White House economic advisor, "received about $5.2 million over the past year in compensation from hedge fund D.E. Shaw, and also received hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees from major financial institutions." (WSJ) The man has a huge conflict of interest, which apparently he believed just did not matter. So. Put that together with the huge lack of empathy which cost Summers the Presidency of Harvard (Summers argued, echoing talking Barbie, that women were inherently less good at math). Then we have Harvard fund analyst Irene Mack, who Summers had fired for finding the fund management incompetent and raising the issue.

A while back, I linked Teresa Nielsen Hayden's article on Sarah Palin as a narcissist. And I got to thinking, well, what are the differences between Palin and Summers? There seem to be three: Summers is a guy, Summers is actually smart rather than just over-confident, and Summers is the trusted son of of privilege. But why would you put someone so arrogantly wrong-headed in charge of, well, anything? The answer seems to be that rich, well-connected people liked the way his theories supported their privilege. And now he is one of the most powerful economists in the world.

[Added] I suppose Summers dislikes women because they see through him. You hominids are sick with testosterone poisoning.


Thursday, April 2, 2009

Testosterone and Trading Software

I quickly learned how fishy this world could be. A client I knew who specialized in auto loans invited me up to his desk to show me how to structure subprime debt. Eager to please, I promised I could enhance my software to model his deals in less than a month. But when I glanced at the takeout in the deal, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Normally, in a prime-mortgage deal, an investment bank makes only a tiny margin. But this deal had two whole percentage points of juice! Looking at the underlying loans, I was shocked.

"Who’s paying 16 percent for a car loan?" I asked. The current loan rate was then around 8 percent.

"Oh, people who have defaulted on loans in the past. That’s why they’re called subprime," he informed me. I had known this guy off and on for years. He was an intelligent, articulate, pleasant fellow. He and his wife came to my house for dinner. He had the comfortable manner of someone who had been to good schools—he was not one of the "dudes" trying to jam bonds into a Palm Beach widow’s account. (Those guys were also my clients.)

"But if they defaulted on loans at 8, how can they ever pay back a loan at 16 percent?" I asked.

"It doesn’t matter," he confided. "As long as they pay for a while. With all that excess spread, we can make a ton. If they pay for three years, they will cure their credit and re-fi at a lower rate."

From Michael Osinki, who wrote some of the software that helped create the ugly financial instruments that have sunk the economy. He even makes my point that an "intelligent, articulate, pleasant fellow" can nonetheless have the ethics of a louse.

Criminal justice reform: croaking in support

The junior Senator from Virginia, Jimmy Webb, has introduced The National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009:
America's criminal justice system has deteriorated to the point that it is a national disgrace. Its irregularities and inequities cut against the notion that we are a society founded on fundamental fairness. Our failure to address this problem has caused the nation's prisons to burst their seams with massive overcrowding, even as our neighborhoods have become more dangerous. We are wasting billions of dollars and diminishing millions of lives.
This took guts. It's a very risky thing for a Senator to do, especially a Senator from a Southern State. May it succeed.

Nationalize, re-regulate, stimulate...

... is my answer when someone complains that Paul Krugman hasn't advocated any positive steps. Has too.


We've been hearing so much about the dangers of socialism lately, that I figured it might be good to hear from an actual socialist. So here we have Bill Moyers interviewing Mike Davis, professor of history at the University of California at Irvine. Via Digby.

Slacktivist. "Imagine a newspaper with no 'Business' section. Where the Business section is now, there is, instead, a 'Work' section."

Stirling Newberry, The Three Faces of the Left.

And eminent leftist economist James K. Galbraith, on how the (first?) great depression ended, and what the state could do, now, if there was the political will.

[added] Extra bonus world financial regulation advocacy (cue the black helicopters). Economist Joseph Stiglitz on global financial reform.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Croaking at a banker

[Brad Delong deleted a version of this comment from the end of this thread, giving a defender of the abuses of the banking system the last word. 2009.09.28: minor copy error corrected.]

"If you only love those who love you, what is your reward? Even the tax-gatherers do as much."

You are judging people by their behavior with their friends and colleagues, and that tells little about their conduct with outsiders. You object that physicists are no more or less ethical than investment bankers. But physicists are not looting the global financial system. Why would I share your insider's judgment? I am not an insider; as tnh memorably said, "You're not a member, never will be." So why would I--why would any outsider--buy into bankers views of themselves?

I've no doubt that the bankers you know are mostly pleasant people to hang out with, if you are also a banker, if you are "one of them." But they are still participants in the looting of the global financial system. And memory is selective and malleable. Because you like these people, because you are one of the tribe, you remember less of their flaws than you would of a stranger, or an enemy. Outsiders see simply a tribe of looters, and you a member. If you want to change the world's view of your tribe, reform your tribe.

And, you know, you're a johnny-come-lately. Your erudition is not respected by the old timers, and they'll jettison you in a second if they think you might be a liability. You are not an insider, not really, not where it counts.


Friday, March 27, 2009

Croak of the day

And the croak of the day goes to some nameless letter-writer, as introduced by The Shrill One:
A reader writes in to complain about today’s column, in which I compared the supposedly productive activities of financial wizards to the sleight-of-hand of stage magicians.

As a magician, he resents being compared to investment bankers.

Although, I have a second choice:
What do you do if your previous organization — and the ideology behind it — has become inextricably bound in the public’s imagination to one of the worst foreign policy blunders in American history? Obviously, shut it down, and start a new organization with a new name.--Matt Russ

Saturday, March 21, 2009


Digby reminds us again of the astonishing egotism of the bankers who've gotten us into this mess, when Bear Sterns CEO, James Cayne shows himself an ill-tempered fool and loses his temper at the Secretary of the Treasury, saying, "You’re not an elected officer. You’re a clerk."

A bring-down for people who believe capitalists are Randian superheroes, isn't it? To be fair, Rand's heroes at least were genuinely productive and when they stopped their work, the world stopped. Not the case with most financiers. If these people had just gone on the dole, we'd all be much better off. I rather suspect there are people who really make the world work. But they're not usually the upfront, big names, and they aren't usually rich. If the people who make the world work got the money, Dennis Ritchie (operating systems), the Sutherland brothers (graphics), Grace Murray Hopper (programming languages), and so on would be the rich ones, and Bill Gates would be a successful salesman. Oh, the names I've metioned (and the many other computer scientists and people in other disciplines) have mostly done well. But, really, I know who's worth the money and it ain't Gates. So here's a tip, for the people who believe in people who make the world go around: they exist, but they aren't who you think they are, and money isn't a sign.

Saturday, March 14, 2009


On a widely-read libertarian blog, one author, a physicist, first ran a rant complaining that his students were getting overwhelmed by the mere size of numbers, and then ran an article wherein he complained about the growth of the national debt. Upon reading that, the Raven asked why he was concerned, if the national income outstripped it? No answer. Apparently all that mathematical education goes out the window where politics is concerned. Hominids. Just not rational. When libertarians make their arguments over how awful the debt is just don't believe them. They aren't reasoning, they're rationalizing. Krawk!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

A Lack of Imagination

Over in Balloon Juice, John Cole commenting on Newt Gingrich's new twelve-point plan, say that the radical-right Republicans are out of ideas. But they never had any--haven't in a long time. If you were in charge of the world’s only hyperpower, wouldn’t you do something other than start a pointless war? They have no imagination, only fear. And after enough deaths, and enough misery, people get tired of fear.


The past week has seen various sillinesses involving Rush Limbaugh, with the Republican Party chairman having apologized to him. The Republicans have nothing left. I'll say that again. The Republicans have nothing left. They've blown their political credibility completely. They've lost a war. The economy is in a shambles. So, what to do? Become even more extreme!

There's a new spending cap on the ballot in California. If it wins, it will limit budgets to a permanent too-low level until repealed. If this passes, California will not be able to pay its teachers, police, and firemen. (Oh, wait--it can borrow money to pay its teachers, thanks to an earmark.) Or maintain its roads and water system. It will be like a country under an embargo. Riots seem possible.

But then, riots may be what is needed to persuade the Senate conservatives to vote for the needed economic measures. It seems plain that these people's sense of entitlement will protect them from any real response to their constituents. So far the various treasuries and central banks are not doing enough. Of the US Treasury Paul Krugman writes:

And the insistence on offering the same plan over and over again, with only cosmetic changes, is itself deeply disturbing. Does Treasury not realize that all these proposals amount to the same thing? Or does it realize that, but hope that the rest of us won’t notice? That is, are they stupid, or do they think we’re stupid?
Prof, it's a lot worse than that. We don't exist to them. Lawrence Summers is so devoid of empathy he lost the presidency of Harvard by insulting the intelligence and competence of more than half the human race. Their fellow senior bankers, the people they meet at the country club, their friends and social circle--these are real to them, and the men more than the women. (And Jewish boys from Long Island who grew up reading history and science fiction and go on to win Nobel prizes in economics definitely don't exist.) The whole rest of the world just doesn't register. They are like blocks at the top of the pyramid, proclaiming that they are self-supporting.

I don't believe these people are in any meaningful sense reachable. It's just possible that Obama will persuade them to try something different but more likely that change will only come after disaster on the national scale. Remember that nothing has dented the conservative coalition in the Senate: not losing a war, not the collapse of the economy, not the dismal failure of response to Katrina. They are convinced that their personal power trumps reality, and their social circle supports them in this belief. I do not think the people in charge of Treasury [and the Federal Reserve are] is so very different. [2009.03.21: But it turns out that I was wrong about the Fed; the head of the St. Louis Fed agrees with Krugman.] But change is coming.

What, therefore, is the role of intelligent and informed people--intellectuals--in this time? (Our role, of course, is whatever we choose, and whatever we can do.) But what might we choose that role be if we want to come through the onrushing disaster not completely impoverished and contribute to setting the USA straight?

Monday, February 23, 2009

Croak of the day

It's early, but I think we have a winner:
It’s refreshing to have someone ask about the data before they write about it.--Bill Chapman of the University of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center
Reported by Carl Zimmer in his Discover blog.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Croak of the day award

Goes to an explanation of the on-going financial disater by the extra-ordinary journalist Billmon. Even though it's 6am here, I can't imagine anyone doing anything better. The comments are worth it, too.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Croak of the day award

It's early, but I don't think anyone's going to top dday's:
Republicans are starting to actually be blamed for their own policy ideas

10,000 Little Hoovers

[2009.02.22 - minor grammatical error fixed] The Herbert kind, not the vacuum cleaner kind. As Krugman observes, in Fifty Herbert Hoovers, most of the state governments cannot borrow when they desperately need to. And they pass this down to all the local governments, all the authorities and cities that depend on state services. Urban areas are cutting transit. Just about every state is going to cut education. And so on. (Bet they figure out how to keep paying for prisons, bah!) And these cuts are penny-wise and pound-foolish. Transit services save government and private money; without them, people will be spending money on automobiles, and states and cities on roads. Education is more of a long-term investment, but it's important one, and cutting it will prolong the depression.

This sucks. Hmmm, maybe they're the other kind of Hoovers after all.


Croak of the day award

Once again to The Shrill One:
things are so bad that the summarized musings of central bankers can keep you up at night--Krugman

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

This is what they think they want

Two months ago, I linked to an article about the on-going fiscal train-wreck in California. A deal has finally been struck and it is truly awful, even from an honest conservative viewpoint--penny wise and pound foolish. California will be revisiting this. There's no other possibility, and matters will be worse when it does. But isn't this what the conservatives have been saying they wanted all along? They want the 19th century back. Only one problem--what are the going to do with all the extra people? When you hear about this, when you think about this, when you see the human misery this is going to create, remember: someone wanted this, someone made this happen. Not an accident, not a fluke. Policy.


Monday, February 16, 2009

In 2010, the Senate

[Partly in response to remarks in Avedon Carol's most excellent Sideshow.]

A President who was a progressive firebrand would have to declare himself emperor to implement progressive policies in a country where the majority of the Senate is conservative and the Democratic House leadership is also conservative. Progressives now need to focus on Congress: on electing more progressive Senators, and on getting the House Democratic leadership to properly represent the progressive House Democratic majority. It begins to appear that Pelosi has noticed she represents one of the most progressive districts in the USA. Good, that's a start, but let's keep pushing. But, the Senate. The Senate is a problem. We need to focus on the Senate for 2010 (and 2012 and 2014 and...)

What is this? Hope from The Raven? But yes! Krawkkrawkkrawk! W. Bush and his administration were barriers to change. They are gone, and now there is a clear direction for progressive political action. Krawk!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Krugman, croaking at the stimulus and the bailout

In response to John Cole over at Balloon Juice wondering where Krugman spelled out his concerns about the size of the bailout.
My first cut says that the changes to the Senate bill will ensure that we have at least 600,000 fewer Americans employed over the next two years.--Krugman, "What the Centrists Have Wrought"
Remember, that's just the cuts from a bill that was too small to begin with. The total difference in jobs between doing enough and not doing enough has to be in the millions.

Here's Krugman on the amount of the stimulus:

what’s coming out of the current deliberations is really, really inadequate. I’ve gone through the CBO numbers a bit more carefully; they’re projecting a $2.9 trillion shortfall over the next three years. There’s just no way $780 billion, much of it used unproductively, will do the job."--Krugman, "Happy Stan"
Extra bonus snark, on the banking plan:
Question: what happens if you lose vast amounts of other people’s money? Answer: you get a big gift from the federal government — but the president says some very harsh things about you before forking over the cash.--Krugman, "Bailouts for Bunglers"


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Devil's Bargain

[minor typographic changes] The liberal blogosphere is a abuzz with the news that the Obama administration's justice department has continued to defend one of the deportations for torture with a pernicious doctrine of executive privilege.
"In a closely watched case involving rendition and torture, a lawyer for the Obama administration seemed to surprise a panel of federal appeals judges on Monday by pressing ahead with an argument for preserving state secrets originally developed by the Bush administration. [NYT]

The Raven is likewise astonished. One may reasonably explain the better-than-nothing stimulus plan by pointing to the conservative majority in the Senate, and perhaps even Geithner's rumored no-oversight gift to the corrupt banks as well. But actions of the Justice Department are entirely actions of the Executive, and there is no door other than the nation's Chief Executive at which they may be set. Now, it is possible that this is strategy: that the Justice Department intends to lose this case. But if that is so, it's a very risky strategy. What if a conservative court grants the defense?

But, croaks the Raven, I don't think that where it's at. It looks to me like a bargain was struck with the criminals of the Bush administration, just like the bargains made with other corrupt dictators who have been forced, finally, to leave office: defend us, let us retire, and we will go quietly. Frankly, I'm astonished. These people have already "left" public life. Unless they are punished, they will return again, or their next generation. I don't want to see another pointless war of aggression, I don't want another great depression, I want my civil rights back, I want all these things for future generations as well. There is also an ethical problem: this is corrupting. If the biggest criminals get off, what reason is there for the rest of us to toe the line? Corruption breeds corruption. And what are we going to do when the Arab/Islamic world decides that, under the Bush doctrines of enforcement of national laws internationally, they can deal out justice against these people within our own borders?