Sunday, February 28, 2010

Obama's Shell Game of "Financial Reform"

Here is a bit from Paul Krugman's latest NY Times op-ed:
So here’s the situation. We’ve been through the second-worst financial crisis in the history of the world, and we’ve barely begun to recover: 29 million Americans either can’t find jobs or can’t find full-time work. Yet all momentum for serious banking reform has been lost. The question now seems to be whether we’ll get a watered-down bill or no bill at all. And I hate to say this, but the second option is starting to look preferable.


Many opponents of the House version of banking reform present their position as one of principle. House Republicans, offering their alternative proposal, claimed that they would end banking excesses by introducing “market discipline” — basically, by promising not to rescue banks in the future.

But that’s a fantasy. For one thing, governments always, when push comes to shove, end up rescuing key financial institutions in a crisis. And more broadly, relying on the magic of the market to keep banks safe has always been a path to disaster. Even Adam Smith knew that: he may have been the father of free-market economics, but he argued that bank regulation was as necessary as fire codes on urban buildings, and called for a ban on high-risk, high-interest lending, the 18th-century version of subprime. And the lesson has been confirmed again and again, from the Panic of 1873 to Iceland today.
It is pathetic that the American public lets the Republicans play their ideological games. These games led to Reagan and his "deregulation" revolution. It led to Bush with his give-away tax cuts to the super-rich and an unnecessary war topped off with the financial crisis that has created the Great Recession. Seems to me that should be enough to "wake up" Americans to the folly of Republican ideology. But apparantly it isn't. The fanaticism runs deep. The true believers are rabidly anti-government (and consequently pro-financial panics and depressions). Sad.

Waste & Fraud

It is funny how all US administrations seem to have the same litany of "going after waste and fraud" in government spending. Obama is carrying this a bit further by his claim to "belt tightening". Here's a bit from an article by Jo Comerford on the blog:
In his State of the Union Address, given several days before the 2011 budget was released, President Obama announced a three-year freeze on “non-security discretionary spending.” This was meant as a gesture toward paying down the looming national debt, but it should also be considered an early warning sign for leak number one. After all, the president exempted all national-security-related spending from the cutting process. Practically speaking, according to the National Priorities Project (NPP), national security spending makes up about 67% of that discretionary 34% slice of the budget. In 2011, that will include an as-yet-untouchable $737 billion for the Pentagon alone.

Within the context of the total budget, then, so-called non-security discretionary spending represents a mere 11% of proposed 2011 spending. In other words, Obama’s present plans to chip away at the debt involve leaving 89% of the budget untouched. Only the $370 billion going to myriad domestic social programs will be on the chopping block.


And speaking of waste, the Department of Defense is currently carrying weapons-program cost overruns for 96 of its major weapons programs totaling $295 billion, which alone are guaranteed to wipe out any proposed savings from President Obama's non-security discretionary freeze, with $45 billion to spare. That's only to be expected, since neither the Pentagon nor any of the armed services have ever been able to pass a proper audit. Ever.

If they had, what would have become of the C-17, the Air Force's giant cargo plane? With a price tag now approaching $330 million per plane and a total program cost of well over $65 billion, the C-17, produced by weapons-maker Boeing, has miraculously evaded every attempt to squash it. In fact, Congress even included $2.5 billion in the 2010 budget for ten C-17s that the Pentagon hadn’t requested.

Keep in mind that $2.5 billion is a lot of money, especially when cuts to domestic spending are threatened. It could, for instance, provide an estimated 141,681 children and adults with health care for one year and pay the salaries of 6,138 public safety officers, 4,649 music and art teachers, and 4,568 elementary school teachers for that same year. Having done that, it could still fund 22,610 scholarships for university students, provide 46,130 students the maximum Pell Grant of $5,550 for the college of their choice, allow for the building of 1,877 affordable housing units, and provide 382,879 homes with renewable electricity -- again for that same year -- and enough money would be left over to carve out 29,630 free Head Start places for kids. That’s for ten giant transport planes that the military isn’t even asking for.
I find it funny that going back to 1960 Eisenhower warned of the "military-industrial complex". His fears have been realized but that monster is now sacrosanct because of the "security" shibboleth. When will the American public wake up and realize they've been had?

You Gotta Love the Ants

Here's a nice clip of African driver ants and the mating ritual of the queen and males that fly up to the nest:

Oddly humans and ants are alike at some level: both are social animals that dominate their local ecology. Our cooperation is based on mammalian empathy with the added zest of an ape's ability to read other minds. Ants have none of this. Their social collaboration is built into their genes and runs blindly based on a small number of simple behaviours.

Edward O. Wilson, the father of sociobiology started his studies with ants. He has written some nice books on ants. And his great tome entitled Sociobiology that came out in the mid-1970s. His next big attempt at synthesis was his book Consilience. I bought the arguments of Sociobiology, but I'm less enthralled by those in Consilience.

Rot in the System

Here is a bit from a Robert Reich posting on the woes that the Democrats have self-inflicted:
If there was ever a time to connect the dots and make the case for government as the singular means of protecting the public from these forces it is now. Yet the White House and the congressional Dem’s ongoing refusal to blame big business and Wall Street has created the biggest irony in modern political history. A growing portion of the public, fed by the right, blames our problems on “big government.”

Much of the reason for the Democrats’ astonishing reluctance to place blame where it belongs rests with big business’s and Wall Street’s generous flows of campaign donations to Dems, coupled with their implicit promise of high-paying jobs once Democratic officials retire from government. This is the rot at the center of the system. And unless or until it’s remedied, it will be difficult for the President to achieve any “change you can believe in.”


But our President is not comfortable wielding blame. He will not give the public the larger narrative of private-sector greed, its nefarious effect on the American public at this dangerous juncture, and the private sector’s corruption of the democratic process. He has so far eschewed any major plan to get corporate and Wall Street money out of politics. He can be indignant– as when he lashed out at the “fat cats” on Wall Street – but his indignance is fleeting, and it is no match for the faux indignance of the right that blames government for all that ails us.
Obama has proved to be the black Jimmy Carter, i.e. ineffective as a leader. Lots of promise, but no delivery. He will make a wonder after dinner speaker once he is out of office. Maybe he will join Jimmy Carter in pounding nails to help house the homeless. But in terms of getting the US back on track and firing up the economy with jobs. Obama is a bust. He is too busy trying to find "common ground" with cynical Republicans.

Charlie Munger on the Financial Crisis

Here is half the dynamic duo of Warren Buffet/Charlie Munger who run Berkshire Hathaway giving a pretty grim assessment of the current financial crisis:

What bothers me is that none of the failings underlying this economic collapse have been addressed by the Obama administration. I understood why George Bush did nothing -- he was the puppet of the top 0.1% of the population that got fabulously rich under the swing to the right since Reagan. But I'm shocked that Obama has done essentially nothing to fix the problems.

The Stuff of Politics

Paul Krugman dissects what passes for dialog in American politics. Here's the key bit from a posting on his NY Times blog:
Person A says “Black is white” — perhaps out of ignorance, although more often out of a deliberate effort to obfuscate. Person B says, “No, black isn’t white — here are the facts.”

And Person B is considered to have lost the exchange — you see, he came across as arrogant and condescending.

I had, I have to admit, hoped that the nation’s experience with George W. Bush — who got within hanging-chad distance of the White House precisely because Al Gore was punished for actually knowing stuff — would have cured our discourse of this malady. But no. Why not?

Chait professes himself puzzled by the right’s intellectual insecurity. Me, not so much. Here’s how I see it: in our current political culture, the background noise is overwhelmingly one of conservative platitudes. People who have strong feelings about politics but are intellectually incurious tend to pick up those platitudes, and repeat them in the belief that this makes them sound smart. (Ezra Klein once described Dick Armey thus: “He’s like a stupid person’s idea of what a thoughtful person sounds like.”)
He has more to say. Go read the whole posting.

Watching the American political scene helps me understand how Hitler rose to power in Germany. You have a public that fails to connect the dots, that fails to see the logic of the politics, that fails to be curious about where the politics is leading. The German people paid a very heavy price for their unwillingness to understand what passed for politics in the early 1930s.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Big Brother Takes Another Step Forward

The US under George Bush decided that it would use the world of Orwell's 1984 to guide the government. While loudly talking about "freedom" and "liberty" they passed laws that removed fundamental rights.

Fast forward and you get Obama with his solemn pledge of "change you can believe in" and the idea that once government was safely out of the hands of the fanatical right and back into the liberal, humane Democrats. But things aren't turning out that way. Obama hasn't closed Guantanamo. Obama extended and deepened the war in Afghanistan. Obama didn't stop the policies of enriching Wall Street while ignoring the suffering that Wall Street has caused Main Street by the financial crisis produced by right wing anti-regulatory fanaticism. Nope. Obama has done nothing to rein in Wall Street. No new laws. No demand that taxpayers get anything for the hundreds of billions it has poured into the big banks.

And... finally here is the coup de grace from Obama's administration:
Yesterday evening, the U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to renew three expiring provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act, after the Senate abandoned the PATRIOT reform effort and approved the extension by a voice vote on Wednesday night.

Disappointingly, the government's dangerously broad authority to conduct roving wiretaps of unspecified or "John Doe" targets, to secretly wiretap of persons without any connection to terrorists or spies under the so-called "lone wolf" provision, and to secretly access a wide range of private business records without warrants under PATRIOT Section 215 were all renewed without any new checks and balances to prevent abuse.
This would make sense if the Democrats were a minority party subject to the dictates of a majority right wing Republican dominating presence in the House and Senate. But that isn't true. Obama has big majorities in both houses. And he decides to renew the Orwellian "Patriot Act"? Pathetic.

Oh... and notice how much coverage this got in the media. Yes, those servants of the people, the fourth estate, didn't bother to spread any light on this. So while politicians shout "liberty" and "freedom" from the rooftops, they continue to silently strangle people's rights in the backroom of politics.

For more details on how the US government works hard to ensure freedoms and liberties, read this article on how the Pentagon has kept busy.

Getting All the Benefits from a Placebo

Here's a very nice video by Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioural economics, and author of the book Predictably Irrational, a very nice book about what science knows about the limits and illusions of our decision-making.

The Deadly Mix of Government, Do Gooders, and the Moral High Ground

There is an excellent article by Deborah Blum in Slate describing how the US government in the 1920s poisoned its own citizens as part of Prohibition. I've bolded the key bit:
Frustrated that people continued to consume so much alcohol even after it was banned, federal officials had decided to try a different kind of enforcement. They ordered the poisoning of industrial alcohols manufactured in the United States, products regularly stolen by bootleggers and resold as drinkable spirits. The idea was to scare people into giving up illicit drinking. Instead, by the time Prohibition ended in 1933, the federal poisoning program, by some estimates, had killed at least 10,000 people.


By mid-1927, the new denaturing formulas included some notable poisons—kerosene and brucine (a plant alkaloid closely related to strychnine), gasoline, benzene, cadmium, iodine, zinc, mercury salts, nicotine, ether, formaldehyde, chloroform, camphor, carbolic acid, quinine, and acetone. The Treasury Department also demanded more methyl alcohol be added—up to 10 percent of total product. It was the last that proved most deadly.


Norris also condemned the federal program for its disproportionate effect on the country's poorest residents. Wealthy people, he pointed out, could afford the best whiskey available. Most of those sickened and dying were those "who cannot afford expensive protection and deal in low grade stuff."

And the numbers were not trivial. In 1926, in New York City, 1,200 were sickened by poisonous alcohol; 400 died. The following year, deaths climbed to 700. These numbers were repeated in cities around the country as public-health officials nationwide joined in the angry clamor. Furious anti-Prohibition legislators pushed for a halt in the use of lethal chemistry. "Only one possessing the instincts of a wild beast would desire to kill or make blind the man who takes a drink of liquor, even if he purchased it from one violating the Prohibition statutes," proclaimed Sen. James Reed of Missouri.
Go read the whole article. It is excellent. It shows how fanatical "do gooders" can be so blinded by their insane "morality" that they will go beyond any reasonable limit in their crusade to "fix" those they think need fixing. (And it shows how governments lose sight of the fact that they are servants of the people. Clearly if your government decides to kill you because you aren't doing what the government wants, it has lost sight of the real relationship: we hire government to organize us. Government's don't "hire" us.)

The above reminds me of the famous quote by Bertolt Brecht from his poem "Die Lösung" (The Solution) which was his commentary on the uprising of 17 June 1953 in East Germany:
After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had thrown away the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?
Sadly, too often the government figures it needs to "dissolve" the people, in this case, poison the people to teach them a "lesson".

Friday, February 26, 2010

Lecture by Lindzen on Global Warming

Richard Lindzen gives a lecture at Fermilab on Global Warming. It is well worth you time to watch the talk. Very interesting.

The facts that Lindzen musters are very impressive. He covers all of the typical skeptics concerns but with a literary flair and scholar's prodigious recitation of relevant quotes and facts. It is really entertaining.

But you need to have a free hour and half to enjoy the lecture.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Physics Lecture

Here is a very good physics lecture on the topic Holography, Quantum Gravity, and Black Holes by Jan de Boer. The material is mostly accessible to a general audience. I especially enjoy the material in the early part of the lecture where he shows how quantum physics, gravity, and relativity fit together and gives a sense of the difficulty of developing a quantum gravity theory that would unify these three great ideas.

Here's a nice video he shows during his lecture to help you visualize what it would be like to be able to travel at the speed of light:

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Police/Security Bureaucracy Gone Mad

Here's a sad tale of a father who was accused of being a paedophile for taking a picture of his own son on a ride in a shopping mall. He explained to the security guard that it was his own son. That didn't cut any ice. According to "the rules" at the mall, anybody taking a picture of any kid was by definition a paedophile and needed to have their pictures confiscated.

It wasn't just the security guard. Later while at a different place in the mall he was approached the police who wanted to arrest him for taking pictures of his own son and not handing them over to the security guard.

What a screwy world. Instead of having security and police attending to real crimes, they busy themselves with bullying ordinary people doing innocuous stuff. Crazy.

Temple Grandin at TED

Here Temple Grandin gives a talk on autism at the TED conference...

You need to read her books. They are full of fascinating stuff.

Cynical "Intellectual Property" Rights

The theory is that IP (Intellectual Property) rights laws are there to protect people, the people who create things and need to be rewarded.

But the way the IP industry defenders treat people and government who don't sign up as customers for expensive products they don't need puts the lie to this claim. The IP industry isn't about protecting "creators". It is about lining the pockets of big corporations, mainly big US corporations.

Here's a bit from a Guardian newspaper article that should make this point very, very clear:
... an influential lobby group is asking the US government to basically consider open source as the equivalent of piracy - or even worse.


It turns out that the International Intellectual Property Alliance, an umbrella group for organisations including the MPAA and RIAA, has requested with the US Trade Representative to consider countries like Indonesia, Brazil and India for its "Special 301 watchlist" because they use open source software.

What's Special 301? It's a report that examines the "adequacy and effectiveness of intellectual property rights" around the planet - effectively the list of countries that the US government considers enemies of capitalism. It often gets wheeled out as a form of trading pressure - often around pharmaceuticals and counterfeited goods - to try and force governments to change their behaviours.

Now, even could argue that it's no surprise that the USTR - which is intended to encourage free market capitalism - wouldn't like free software, but really it's not quite so straightforward.

I know open source has a tendency to be linked to socialist ideals, but I also think it's an example of the free market in action. When companies can't compete with huge, crushing competitors, they route around it and find another way to reduce costs and compete. Most FOSS isn't state-owned: it just takes price elasticity to its logical conclusion and uses free as a stick to beat its competitors with (would you ever accuse Google, which gives its main product away for free, of being anti-capitalist?).

Still, in countries where the government has legislated the adoption of FOSS, the position makes some sense because it hurts businesses like Microsoft. But that's not the end of it.

No, the really interesting thing that Guadamuz found was that governments don't even need to pass legislation. Even a recommendation can be enough.

Example: last year the Indonesian government sent around a circular to all government departments and state-owned businesses, pushing them towards open source. This, says the IIPA, "encourages government agencies to use "FOSS" (Free Open Source Software) with a view toward implementation by the end of 2011, which the Circular states will result in the use of legitimate open source and FOSS software and a reduction in overall costs of software".

Nothing wrong with that, right? After all, the British government has said it will boost the use of open source software.

But the IIPA suggested that Indonesia deserves Special 301 status because encouraging (not forcing) such takeup "weakens the software industry" and "fails to build respect for intellectual property rights".
Microsoft doesn't care about "rights". It is a thugish monopolist that wants to extort as much money from its long suffering "customers" as possible. The recording industry isn't concerned about the rights of musicians and performers, it is concerned about maximizing the value to corporate owned "rights" to copyright material that was generally stolen from the creators by complex contracts that the artists didn't understand and didn't have any viable choice about. If you want to be a "star" you sell your soul to the industry and the RIAA makes sure that everybody pays their pound of flesh to the rapacious industry. This copyright stuff is a cruel joke pulled on the public. There is no real benefit having all these "rights" that only rich people get to enjoy the fruits of. I worked in an industry that required me to sign away all rights to my ideas as a condition of employment. I had a choice: be unemployed or let the company own my thoughts on and off the job.

John Cassidy's "How Markets Fail"

This is the best book I've read about the economic crisis of 2008. The book is divided into three secions:
  • Several chapters on economic theory and how "utopian" economists (one's who believe that an invisible hand gives the best result and needs no regulation) took control of academia, politics, and business. I've read several books that review economic thought. Cassidy's book is as good as any of them in covering ideas. I like the fact that he is more pointed in making clear how wrong these ideas were. He makes it very clear that this is lovely theory, wonderful math, but based on assumptions that have nothing to do with the real world.

  • Several chapters review the real economics that govern our world. He looks at things like behavioural economics and the kinds of cognitive failures that lead us into trouble. His fundamental point is build around the Prisoner's Dilemma that underlies "rational irrationality" (the fact that sometimes what is good for an individual is disasterous for a society).

  • The final chapters walk you thought the financial crisis that culminated in 2008. It is a good presentation of the history. It doesn't pull its punches. It names names.
This is an excellent book to read to understand what we just went though. And more importantly: how nobody is fixing the problem so we are condemned to go through it yet again until we can get politicians in place to change the rules to get the fanatical "free enterprise is perfect" ideology out of academia, politics, and business.

A Sticky Science

This is interesting, but the presenter is a bit too enthusiastic for my taste. The underlying science is interesting enough to

It is interesting that the mechanism with insects (capillary adhesion) is fundamentally different from that of an animal like the gecko (Van der Waals force).

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Climate Change & Models

Here is an excellent reason why I don't have a lot of faith in "climte warming" based on GCM (General Circulation Models). This is from a posting by Ben Herman on the Watts Up With That? blog:
We are looking for effects to cause temperature trends on the order of 0.1 deg C per decade. I will limit the following discussion to the transfer of solar energy only. Years ago when we were developing our radiative transfer models, we required solar energy conservation from a model to within about 0.1%, with no solar absorption by the atmosphere.

To accomplish this degree of conservation required an angular grid of 108 angles, and an optical depth increment of 0.01 for the numerical integrations of the relevant equations. Since it was necessary to also include polarization to avoid errors of up 10%, this introduced a 4×4 matrix into the calculations, increasing the number of equations by a factor of 16.

For a nominal optical depth of 0.1, this made 10 levels, so there was a system of about 16,000 simultaneous, highly coupled equations to solve. We assessed the resulting degree of energy conservation by summing the outgoing irradiance at the top and bottom of the atmosphere with the incoming solar at the top. This was with model that I would guess, and I stress the word guess, was much more accurate than what they use in the climate models. Now, if we assume that there was an absorption of solar energy in addition to scattering, we could not assess the accuracy because the irradiances at the top and bottom no longer equal the incoming solar due to internal losses from absorption.

Now,this was with a flat atmosphere model. With a more realistic spherical atmosphere, for various reasons due to the complexity of the model, it was very difficult to check for conservation of energy but undoubtedly, the conservation was not as good as with the simpler one dimensional flat atmosphere. We could check for programming errors in the spherical model by letting the radius of the sphere get very large (approximating a flat atmosphere) and comparing results to the flat atmosphere model. The agreement was very good but not exact (I can’t recall the deviations). The small differences between conservation and model results were due to numerical errors.The transfer equations must be solved numerically and this leads to the errors.

The above was for one wavelength. Now, to integrate over wavelength, other approximations are made which introduce additional errors. Other uncertainties due to the addition of aerosols with unknown composition, number density, shape effect, vertical profile, optical depth, complex index of refraction, etc have been well discussed and I will not go into that here. We have also assumed no clouds. The above applies just to the solution of the transfer equation, assuming all of the quantities mentioned above are known. While all of these errors may be quite small (some are undoubtedly not small) are they small when trying to predict resulting temperature trends of 0.1 deg C/per decade as I stated above? I don’t know but they certainly cannot be dismissed without careful consideration. The equations are non-linear in optical depth so the trends themselves will also have errors if the irradiances are incorrect.

The above applies primarily to transfer in the solar spectrum. In the IR, where scattering (except by clouds and precipitation) can be ignored, the problem is less complex, but the integration over wavelength is still a major issue. Again, I will not go into that here, but I believe I have raised some questions which could be of importance in obtaining the accuracies required for climate change issues.
That gives you a taste of the immense complexities of trying to "compute" climate. The above is a part of the climate that isn't even addressed in GCMs but is highly relevant to getting the right answer. That should give you a pretty good reason why you should be skeptical of claims of "accuracy" in predicting global warming.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Portrait of Krugman

I really enjoy Paul Krugman's writings. He is a very sharp cookie and his politics lines up with mine.

Here's a portrait of Krugman from the New Yorker:
... during the primary campaign Krugman was very critical of Barack Obama. He was critical chiefly because, of the three main candidates, Obama seemed to him the most conservative (his health plan, for instance, didn’t mandate universal coverage), but it wasn’t just his policies that Krugman objected to. He couldn’t stand all the feel-good stuff about hope and dialogue and reconciliation. He hated that Obama was out there saying nice things about Reagan when what Democrats needed to do most was debunk the persistent myth that Reaganomics had been good for America. He thought Obama was completely wrong to believe that the country’s problems were due largely to partisan nastiness, and ridiculously naïve to imagine that he could bring together Republicans and insurance companies to reform health care. “Anyone who thinks that the next president can achieve real change without bitter confrontation is living in a fantasy world,” he wrote in 2007. Krugman supported John Edwards, for his emphasis on poverty, for his ambitious health-care plan, and for his rough talk about attacking the interests of the wealthy. After Edwards dropped out, he supported Hillary Clinton. She wasn’t as left as Edwards was, but at least she was a fighter, and she obviously had no illusions about bipartisan harmony.
I thought Roberts was the best candidate because his policies were tilted the most toward the poor. He got trounced early, but in retrospect this was good because his presidency would have Clinton's look like a walk in the park. The Republicans would have gone crazy with his sex affair with baby. Clinton had sex affairs, but no baby and less obvious lies (oh, except for the "I didn't not have 'sex' with that woman!" statement under oath... right up there with his claims about "never inhaling" the marajuana in his youth).

Krugman went to Clinton as the second choice and I felt Obama was the better choice because I hate the tendency in the US to create "royal families" with a sense that they are 'owed' senatorships or presidency (e.g. the Kennedy clan or Bush 43 taking the mantle from Bush 41).

Read the article. It is full of interesting tidbits. I love the bit about Krugman's "political awakening" when he was shocked at Bush 43's outright lies. You need to read this to understand how Krugman went from blinkered academic to a voice at the barricades.

Day of Reckoning

Paul Krugman writes in his NY Times op-ed that the Republicans have achieved their goal, but it isn't clear what they are going to do with their "victory":
O.K., the beast is starving. Now what? That’s the question confronting Republicans. But they’re refusing to answer, or even to engage in any serious discussion about what to do.

For readers who don’t know what I’m talking about: ever since Reagan, the G.O.P. has been run by people who want a much smaller government. In the famous words of the activist Grover Norquist, conservatives want to get the government “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”

But there has always been a political problem with this agenda. Voters may say that they oppose big government, but the programs that actually dominate federal spending — Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security — are very popular. So how can the public be persuaded to accept large spending cuts?

The conservative answer, which evolved in the late 1970s, would be dubbed “starving the beast” during the Reagan years. The idea — propounded by many members of the conservative intelligentsia, from Alan Greenspan to Irving Kristol — was basically that sympathetic politicians should engage in a game of bait and switch. Rather than proposing unpopular spending cuts, Republicans would push through popular tax cuts, with the deliberate intention of worsening the government’s fiscal position. Spending cuts could then be sold as a necessity rather than a choice, the only way to eliminate an unsustainable budget deficit.

And the deficit came. True, more than half of this year’s budget deficit is the result of the Great Recession, which has both depressed revenues and required a temporary surge in spending to contain the damage. But even when the crisis is over, the budget will remain deeply in the red, largely as a result of Bush-era tax cuts (and Bush-era unfunded wars). And the combination of an aging population and rising medical costs will, unless something is done, lead to explosive debt growth after 2020.

So the beast is starving, as planned. It should be time, then, for conservatives to explain which parts of the beast they want to cut. And President Obama has, in effect, invited them to do just that, by calling for a bipartisan deficit commission.
Go read his article to find out where he thinks the victorious Republicans will now go. (I think his analysis is right, so go find out what is in store for you!)

I can't believe that the American public continues to be suckered by the Republicans. When I read Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna I got to revisit the insanity of Republican politics of the late 1940s/early 1950s (the McCarthy era finding "commies" under every bed and destroying so many innocent lives). I remember the insanity of Goldwater in the mid-1960s advocating along with bomb-them-back-to-the-Stone-Age Curtis LeMay that nuclear weapons be used in Vietnam. I remember the sleaze of Nixon winning power by lying about a "secret peace plan" and then the abuse of power that led to Watergate. I remember the Reagan years with their destruction of unions and the insanity of the big budget Star Wars program (which still doesn't work). I remember the 1990s with Newt Gingrich bringing government to a standstill and the cynical politics of impeaching Clinton for the same sexual misconduct that was (and is) rife among all the big shots in Washington. And I remember the cynical wars that Bush started in the 2000s along with his big tax cut for the rich (knowing full well that Lyndon Johnson's failure to raise taxes and follow a "guns & butter" approach led to the horrible inflation of the 1970s). Ugly stuff. But still a large number of Americans support this morally bankrupt party, a party started by reformers who wanted to free the slaves but now is an anti-Black, anti-poor, rich man's club that cynically manipulates religious fundamentalists in order to win election after election (e.g. read this book).

Some Hard Questions

The blog TomDispatch has some very important, very hard questions for Americans:
So explain something to me: Why does the military of a country convinced it's becoming ungovernable think itself so capable of making another ungovernable country governable? What’s the military’s skill set here? What lore, what body of political knowledge, are they drawing on? Who do they think they represent, the Philadelphia of 1776 or the Washington of 2010, and if the latter, why should Americans be considered the globe’s leading experts in good government anymore? And while we’re at it, fill me in on one other thing: Just what has convinced American officials in Afghanistan and the nation’s capital that they have the special ability to teach, prod, wheedle, bribe, or force Afghans to embark on good governance in their country if we can’t do it in Washington or Sacramento?

Explain something else to me: Why are our military and civilian leaders so confident that, after nine years of occupying the world’s leading narco-state, nine years of reconstruction boondoggles and military failure, they suddenly have the key, the formula, to solve the Afghan mess? Why do leading officials suddenly believe they can make Afghan President Hamid Karzai into “a Winston Churchill who can rally his people,” as one unnamed official told Matthew Rosenberg and Peter Spiegel of the Wall Street Journal -- and all of this only months after Karzai, returned to office in a wildly fraudulent presidential election, overseeing a government riddled with corruption and drug money, and honeycombed with warlords sporting derelict reputations, was considered a discredited figure in Washington? And why do they think they can turn a man known mockingly as the “mayor” or “president” of Kabul (because his government has so little influence outside the capital) into a political force in southern Afghanistan?
There's more. Go read the whole posting.

This Afghanistan mess reminds me of the continuing stream of "new promises" and "new starts" in Vietnam. All the while the US government was secretly carrying out a bloody war of assassination within South Vietnam and subversion of governments all around the region. Hamid Karzai reminds me of the endless line of puppet leaders foisted by the US on the South Vietnamese after the US sponsored the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem. The "pacification" of the South Vietnamese into "strategic hamlets" was the bright idea of the US. The US has a similar "bright idea" for Afghanistan with McChrystal's "nation building" in Afghanistan.

My unsophisticated opinion was that the US should have supplied weapons and training to South Vietnam for a couple of years (which it did) and when that country's leadership couldn't pull it together and defend itself, the US should have stopped the military assistance (say by 1964). In Afghanistan, the US was justified in bombing the hell out of the Taliban and helping the Northern Alliance take over, but it should have stopped at that (in early 2002) and issued a warning that harbouring any more Al Qaeda would bring back the bombing. This idiocy of "nation building" is a joke. And Tom Englehardt's blog posting makes it very clear: just why is a dysfunctional America trying to nurture "nation building"? It makes no sense. If you can't put your own house in order, why are you out trying to "fix" your neighbor's house?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Robert Reich with Words of Wisdom

Here's a sane voice that needs to be heard in American politics. This is from Robert Reich's blog:
Not long ago I was debating someone on television. I thought the discussion was going well until the commercial break when a producer said into my earpiece “be angrier.”

“Why should I be angrier?” I asked him, irritated that he hadn’t appreciated the thoughtfulness of debate.

“That’s how we get channel surfers to stop and watch the program,” the producer explained. “Eyeballs are attracted to anger.”

At this point I lost my temper.

The incident came back to me when I heard about Evan Bayh’s decision to leave Congress because he felt it was becoming too partisan. The real problem isn’t partisanship. Bold views and strong positions are fine. Democratic debate and deliberation can be enhanced by them.

The problem is the intransigence and belligerence that has taken over Congress and much of the rest of the public — a profound distrust of people “on the other side,” an unwillingness to compromise, a bitterness and anger disproportionate to issues being discussed.

Anger makes good television, but it’s fake and it teaches Americans the wrong lessons. Anger also can win elections (Senate Republicans haven’t given Obama any votes because they’ve been eyeing the 2010 midterms since he took office, hoping for a rerun of 1994), but partisan anger is just as fake, and it undermines the capacity of our democracy to do the public’s business.
The tail is wagging the dog. The media is creating adversarial "politics" in the US so that it can sell more advertising. Wow! Is that ever backwards!

Entrepreneurship is Alive and Well in the USA

Here's an interesting article in the LA Times about a Xalisco-based drug dealer network that is growing quickly in middle-class
Immigrants from an obscure corner of Mexico are changing heroin use in many parts of America.

Farm boys from a tiny county that once depended on sugar cane have perfected an ingenious business model for selling a semi-processed form of Mexican heroin known as black tar.

Using convenient delivery by car and aggressive marketing, they have moved into cities and small towns across the United States, often creating demand for heroin where there was little or none. In many of those places, authorities report increases in overdoses and deaths.

Immigrants from Xalisco in the Pacific Coast state of Nayarit, Mexico, they have brought an audacious entrepreneurial spirit to the heroin trade. Their success stems from both their product, which is cheaper and more potent than Colombian heroin, and their business model, which places a premium on customer convenience and satisfaction.

Users need not venture into dangerous neighborhoods for their fix. Instead, they phone in their orders and drivers take the drug to them. Crew bosses sometimes call users after a delivery to check on the quality of service. They encourage users to bring in new customers, rewarding them with free heroin if they do.
And there is a side benefit from this new approach to drugs: less petty crime:
In Portland and elsewhere, competition among Xalisco dealers and the resulting lower prices changed the nature of the heroin trade. No longer were burglaries and holdups the measure of a city's heroin problem. Junkies could maintain their habits cheaply. A spike in overdoses was the mark of black-tar heroin's arrival.

"The classic picture of a heroin addict is someone who steals," said Gary Oxman, a Multnomah County Health Department doctor who conducted the study of overdoses. "That disappears when you have low-cost heroin. You could maintain a moderate heroin habit for about the same price as a six-pack of premium beer."

It was the same in other cities where Xalisco dealers settled. In Denver, addicts say the cost of a dose of black tar has dropped as low as $8.

In the Utah County suburbs of Salt Lake City, it was more than $50 a dose in the early 1990s.


Black tar is cheaper than pain medications. Xalisco dealers exploited that advantage and pushed relentlessly for new customers. Addicts in Columbus say they offered rewards for referrals to new users: eight or 10 free balloons of heroin for every $1,000 in sales an addict brought in.
I have no love for drugs, never used them, never will, but the US's "War on Drugs" strikes me as Prohibition all over again which fed big money to criminals leading to corrupted police and judiciary in all the major cities of the US. This "War on Drugs" has done the same, but the American electorate has never caught on and allows this disaster to keep unrolling. Sad. But at least this new "Walmart of drugs" is pricing stuff so cheaply that addicts can maintain their addiction and their job so the petty crime isn't as bad. But this tradeoff means that addiction is spreading.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

John Christy

I haven't read much by John Christy, but the following interview about 'climate change' presents a viewpoint that I accept. He says "yes, the data shows warming" but to take the hysterical IPCC "global warming" doom story is not supported by the facts. He points out that human changes to terrain have more to do with the measured increases, not greenhouse gases. I very much admire him, as a former lead author for IPCC, to admit that the IPCC is not a true scientific body but a self-selected, politically motivated group selling global warming hysteria:

One other comment: this interview was done by the Russia Today network. This is my first encounter with it. I liked this broadcast, but I'm leary of anything connected with Putin and his government. He's not an old-line Communist, but he is a power mad ex-KGB autocrat. I'm always willing to hear anything from any viewpoint and I then digest it by running it against my inner model of "truth" to evaluate how credible it is. This passes the test because it isn't trying to sell Russia. This ends up just being an interview. So I can accept it as face value. There is no hidden agenda here other than "filling time" and "establishing credibility" with news stories for the RT television network.


If you don't trust the Russians, then here is a web posting by good old boys, 100% card carrying Americans, that presents an even more in-depth critique of the global warming hysteria. Here is John Coleman with a special on his TV channel KUSI in San Diego. You can see an interview with John Christy four minutes into part 8. This is excellent. Christy talks about CO2 warming and why the NASA GISS surface-only data set is inadequate and misleading. He clearly states that his satellite-based volumetric data set doesn't show any global warming.

Note: My only quibble is that about 1:40 into part 2, while he is complaining about the gaffs & errors of IPCC in estimating the melting of Himalayan glaciers, he makes a ridiculous claim that the Himalayas represent one-tenth of the earth's surface. In fact it is closer to one-half of one percent. So he is off by a factor of twenty! Other than that error, everything else presented by John Coleman sounds true to me.

Barbara Kingsolver's "The Lacuna"

This was a fun read. It neatly crafted several topics of interest to me:
  • Mexico, its peoples, its culture, its history

  • Communists: Leon Trotsky plays a key role as well as the Mexican painters Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and David Sisueiros

  • The attack on the Bonus Army by Douglas MacArthur under President Herbert Hoover

  • The early years of McCartyism

  • The pleasure of reading yet another book by Barbara Kingsolver
As you can see, the strong historical elements attracted me. But the writing held me. At times I felt the writing craft wasn't that strong, but I did enjoy her effort to weave an interesting historical tale. The ending grabbed me by the lapels. She did a fine job of closing off the book with an artful ending. This isn't great literature with grand themes. But it is a thoughtful book that comments on American life and makes you think. It has depths to it that make it more than just a "good read". There is material to ponder as it resonates.

I have my quibbles.
  • I think she made Trotsky too attractive. He was ruthless and just as cruel as Stalin. Maybe not as paranoid, but Trotsky would not have hesitated to commit the millions of murders that Stalin "achieved".

  • The technique of stitching together narrative, journals, and editors comments was a stylistic technique that didn't help advance the story or lend it more credibility. It just added a bit of complexity that I wouldn't have done. But, take that with a grain of salt, since I'm not an accomplished writer and Kingsolver is.
I do recommend this book.

A Choice of Viewpoints

Here are two clips that give you a taste of two sides of the "global warming" debate.

First, Obama explains that you can't believe your "lying eyes" since any negative fact is just a fact while all those positive facts are not just facts but confirmations of a theory:

And here's a CBS News report questioning whether the emperor has any clothes along with the closing scene with a requisite confirmation that the "science is settled" and all the necessary facts are in and the time to question is well past:

My own viewpoint is that the truth is being trampled upon and you can't have science if you don't have openness, honesty, and debate. Here's a bit from a BBC news report that reflects my viewpoint:
Leading scientists say that the recent controversies surrounding climate research have damaged the image of science as a whole.

President of the US National Academy of Sciences, Ralph Cicerone, said scandals including the "climategate" e-mail row had eroded public trust in scientists.

His comment came at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in San Diego.

Dr Cicerone joined other renowned scientists on a panel at the event.

'Distrust has spread'

He said that the controversial e-mail exchanges about climate change data had caused people to suspect that scientists "oppressed free speech".

His fellow panel members, including Lord Martin Rees, president of the UK's Royal Society, agreed that scientists needed to be more open about their findings.

"There is some evidence that the distrust has spread," Dr Cicerone told BBC News. "There is a feeling that scientists are suppressing dissent, stifling their competitors through conspiracies."

Recent polls, including one carried out by the BBC, have suggested that climate scepticism is on the rise.

Dr Cicerone linked this shift in public feeling to the hacked e-mails and to recently publicised mistakes made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in one of its key reports.

Love in the Age of Science

I enjoy all kinds of blogs. Here's a bit from a posting by Jennifer Ouellette on the Cocktail Party Physics site. This is good advice and good science:
Back in 2004, Forbes reported on the work of Andreas Bartels and Semir Zeki, who claimed to have produced the first fMRI images of your brain on love. There is still some skepticism about their work; Caltech neuroscientist John Allman, for instance, cautions in the article about the difficulties of distinguishing between love and lust on fMRI scans, although Bartels argues his scans are markedly different from the areas of the brain activated when subjects are, say, watching pornography.

In fact, he's compared his fMRI images of people in love to those of mothers looking at their infants, and found the scans were almost identical -- except in the former case, there was extra activity in the hypothalamus, which is linked to sexual arousal. The reward center of the brain lights up when we're in love (winning the lottery produces the same effect), but what's really interesting is which regions get turned off: those commonly associated with things like moral judgement. Apparently love really is blind, and Bartels has the fMRI images to prove it:

[view the blog posting to see the picture!]

The study of love continues apace. According to this article in the Los Angeles Times, there's a new study by Bianca Acevedo (a postdoc at the University of California, Santa Barbara) that suggests one bit of conventional wisdom isn't true: the notion that after the first flush of romantic excitement wears off, partners settle into a less intense, more companionable relationship that is far less thrilling than the infatuation phase. Acevedo says this isn't the case for roughly 30% of US married couples. She looked at brain scans of couples married 20 years or so and still claimed to be in love -- and they showed the exact same neural activity as newlyweds, "only without the anxiety or obsession." I've only been married to the Spousal Unit for 2-1/2 years, so things are early yet, but one of (many) reasons I married him was the same lack of anxiety or obsession -- without sacrificing the excitement of being in love. It's a rare gift.
Oh... and I love the recommendation of a book that I truly enjoyed:
And speaking of sex, what Valentine's Day post would be complete without Mary Roach, author of Bonk, giving a TED talk about the 10 weirdest things you don't know about orgasms? Bonk ranks as one of the best popular science books ever written, in my opinion, because in addition to some truly fascinating science, Roach approaches her subject with good humor. (I especially like the bit about the woman who experienced orgasm every time she brushed her teeth: "You'd think this woman would have excellent oral hygiene," Roach wryly comments, but apparently not: the poor woman assumed she must be demon-possessed.)

Plain Speaking

Here is the unvarnished truth, but spoken with the complexities of academia, of finance theory, and of governance theory by Steve Randy Waldman of the blog Interfluidity:
Both globally and within most nations, the patterns of consumption required to sustain existing social arrangements are inconsistent with the distribution of the fruits of production. Social and economic stability, therefore, depend upon redistribution for which there is no overt legal framework or political consensus. To square this circle, the financial and government sectors have evolved means of hiding redistribution in complex, continually improvised arrangements. Unsurprisingly, massive wealth distributions arranged in this way leave much to be desired, in terms of straight corruption (the financial and government sectors redistribute a lot of wealth to themselves), justice (e.g. wealth is redistributed to those who happen to speculate early in bubbles), and sustainability (the illusion of value behind the claims of those from whom wealth is taken may prove fragile, but “loss realizations” are socially disruptive if they are not carefully paced and allocated).


Our choices are to overtly align the fruits of production with patterns of consumption, to continue to employ accounting fictions and magic to pretend away the contradictions, or to undergo some form of collapse.
My simplistic translation: the system is rigged and if it isn't fixed it will come crashing down. The only way a rapacious capitalist system can work is if the winners are forced to fork over some of their winnings so that those who are bankrupted can continue to play. This is the function of government: to let us all sit at the table. The fanatics of the right think it is fair and proper to let the foolish and unfortunate starve. Those on the left want to rob the rich and flatten society out into a dreary "sameness". The reality is that the path forward is between the extremes: you need to allow the rapacious to "win" to spur them on, but you have to harness them through taxes to ensure that the social organism doesn't collapse.

Ideally the rich give back in an orgy of philanthropy at the end of the end of their life so that they can have the best of both worlds: an unfetter career of greed and empire building and then a deathbed conversion to charity where they give the chips back to let the game go on. Sadly, this won't work. So you need to treat the rich like the Tutsi treat their cattle, you bleed them a little to nourish the community but not enough to endanger their health. We are in a strange capitalistic dance in which the rich must be given loose reins, but not so loose that they run away on us. In the end we must realize we are all in the same social pot, so we have to find a way to keep redistributing the chips to let us all play the game. We will never have social equality (that would be dull and require an iron hand who wants that?). And we'll never have an aristocracy (giving the virtuous elite a free hand to demonstrate their virtuosity) since it is well known that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. So a happy medium must be found. A dynamic but stable state. In short, an ideal state that we will never find but must dance around constantly redefining the social game to keep it within bounds.

That means we have to rein in the fanatics on left and right who don't understand the social dynamic. And we have to give up false hopes of a stable state and learn to live in a dynamic equilibrium that requires constant "jiggering" to make it work. The simplistic philosophies have to be abandoned for a mix of theory and pragmatism along with a dash of humility.

That's economic realism. That's the world we are condemned to live in. The sooner we understand and accept it, the sooner we can live a reasonably happy life. The longer it takes to get the various factions in society to accept this sad fact, the longer there will be needless suffering, cruelty, and injustice.

Watch a Sun Dog be Obliterated

Nothing like a little science practiced in the field...

Go read this posting on Watts Up With That? to get a description of a sun dog and to see a video of one being destroyed by shock waves from the Atlas V rocket launching the Solar Dynamics Observatory.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Selling a Lie

It is amazing how the US media never seems to have the will to uncover the lies told by the Republicans. Here's Paul Krugman in a NY Times op-ed doing yeoman's work to set the record straight:
''Don't cut Medicare. The reform bills passed by the House and Senate cut Medicare by approximately $500 billion. This is wrong.'' So declared Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, in a recent op-ed article written with John Goodman, the president of the National Center for Policy Analysis. ...

Now, Mr. Gingrich was just repeating the current party line. Furious denunciations of any effort to seek cost savings in Medicare -- death panels! -- have been central to Republican efforts to demonize health reform. What's amazing, however, is that they're getting away with it.

Why is this amazing? It's not just the fact that Republicans are now posing as staunch defenders of a program they have hated ever since the days when Ronald Reagan warned that Medicare would destroy America's freedom. Nor is it even the fact that, as House speaker, Mr. Gingrich personally tried to ram through deep cuts in Medicare -- and, in 1995, went so far as to shut down the federal government in an attempt to bully Bill Clinton into accepting those cuts.


The bottom line, then, is that the crusade against health reform has relied, crucially, on utter hypocrisy: Republicans who hate Medicare, tried to slash Medicare in the past, and still aim to dismantle the program over time, have been scoring political points by denouncing proposals for modest cost savings -- savings that are substantially smaller than the spending cuts buried in their own proposals.

And if Democrats don't get their act together and push the almost-completed reform across the goal line, this breathtaking act of staggering hypocrisy will succeed.
It is pretty clear to me that the Republicans will succeed. The Democrats are pathetic. This is a tragedy. Here's an article by Krugman pointing out that the current course in the US is leading to a spiral of out-of-control costs increases for insurance.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Global Warming Moderation

Here is a welcome statement by somebody easing back from the strident claims of the fanatical global warming crowd. This is excerpted from a posting by Geoffrey Styles in his Energy Outlook blog. While I still differ from him, I find a lot in what he says that I can agree, especially in the area of what it is reasonable to do in the face of uncertainties about the extent of Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW):
Since the publication of the hacked emails from the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit (CRU) last November, we've been inundated with news reports and opinion pieces questioning the scientific consensus behind climate change. An editorial in today's Wall St. Journal on "The Continuing Climate Meltdown" is just the latest example of this trend, following a weekend that saw the release of a remarkable BBC interview with the CRU's former director. The fact that all this coincides with a northern hemisphere winter that has deposited record snowfalls on regions that don't normally see much of the white stuff serves to reinforce the message that something is amiss with global warming theory. It has also had me wondering if I moved far enough south, as I cope with "ice dams", cabin fever, and other consequences of a pair of back-to-back blizzards in the D.C. area. While I agree that the recent revelations have given rise to an understandable wave of doubts regarding climate change, this may say more about the way that extreme climate predictions have been played up in the last several years than it does about actual climate change.

Even the most ardent adherents of the view that climate change is real, man-made to a significant extent, and extremely challenging for humanity must agree that the science supporting this perspective has had a rough couple of months--largely deserved. Whatever the "Climategate" emails said about the underlying analytical rigor of the dominant scientific interpretation of global warming, they revealed a worrying degree of defensive groupthink and gatekeeping among leading climate researchers. I'm pleased to see that an independent group has been set up to examine the practices at East Anglia-CRU, though the inquiry has already experienced controversies of its own.


While considerable progress has been made in the last decade solidifying the evidence supporting the AGW theory, significant uncertainty still remains about the future consequences it suggests, particularly as relates to regional impacts and changes in precipitation. A lot more also needs to be done to clarify the relationship between proxy data and instrumental temperature data, and to ensure that the latter are consistent and truly representative. However, I don't see these deficiencies as justifying complete policy paralysis, particularly when it comes to those actions that can be accomplished relatively cheaply, such as improved energy efficiency, or that offer substantial benefits for other concerns such as energy security, including expanding nuclear power, low-cost renewable energy, and R&D to bring down the cost of other renewables. As for whether the time is right to pursue more comprehensive measures, there's a legitimate debate to be had, but it shouldn't start from the false assumption that anthropogenic global warming has been disproved.
Read the original to get the full position of Styles and to pick up his links.

I'm happy to find common ground with somebody who is willing to back off from the fanaticism of AGW extremists. I'm willing to agree to those actions that are relatively cheap and have immediate benefit. What I opposed most vigorously were the calls to hobble economic growth to "save the planet".

This rankled me because it was the call by elitists -- the comfortably rich -- calling for the poor to give up hopes of having a comfortable lifestyle. I will never accept that. I will never accept a "leader" who lives in luxury telling me that I have to tighten my belt. Only if he is willing to step down to my modest lifestyle will I be willing to listen. All those "green" politicians jetting around the world to attend "conferences" on global warming still make me want to puke. Planes are wasteful greenhouse emitters. I say "pick up the phone". Electrons are cheap. But the rich want to party, want to jet to luxurious locations, and attend "conferences" without limit while they prescribe bitter restriction for the great majority of humanity. It was hypocritical and evil. I will never accept that.

Worshiping the God of War

Here is a bit from an interesting article by William J. Astore on TomDispatch:
No wonder that George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld were so eager to go to war in Iraq in 2003. They saw themselves as the new masters of Blitzkrieg, the new warlords (or “Vulcans” to use a term popular back then), the inheritors of the best methods of German military efficiency.

This belief, this faith, in German-style total victory through relentless military proficiency is best captured in Max Boot’s gushing tribute to the U.S. military, published soon after Bush’s self-congratulatory and self-adulatory “Mission Accomplished” speech in May 2003. For Boot, America’s victory in Iraq had to “rank as one of the signal achievements in military history.” In his words:
"Previously, the gold standard of operational excellence had been the German blitzkrieg through the Low Countries and France in 1940. The Germans managed to conquer France, the Netherlands, and Belgium in just 44 days, at a cost of ‘only’ 27,000 dead soldiers. The United States and Britain took just 26 days to conquer Iraq (a country 80 percent of the size of France), at a cost of 161 dead, making fabled generals such as Erwin Rommel and Heinz Guderian seem positively incompetent by comparison.”
How likely is it that future military historians will celebrate General Tommy Franks and elevate him above the “incompetent” Rommel and Guderian? Such praise, even then, was more than fatuous. It was absurd.
The whole article is well worth reading. It looks at the misguided belief that the US can be so good at war that it will win. The author points out that this ignores luck and changeable facts. Worst, it igores the hard truth of how the effectiveness of the military since 2001 has going steadily downhill as Tom Englehardt's preface makes very clear:
Remember the 100 hours of combat that made up the first Gulf War, the mere weeks it took for Kabul to fall in the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, or the “shock and awe” wave of air attacks that led off the 2003 invasion of Iraq, followed by the 20-day blitzkrieg-like campaign that left American troops occupying Baghdad? Those were the days when, as retired lieutenant colonel and TomDispatch regular William Astore reminds us, the civilians in the Bush Pentagon thought they were the masters of lightning war. Now, skip almost seven years, and in Afghanistan the U.S. military has just launched the largest campaign since the invasion of 2001. Fifteen thousand U.S., British, and Afghan troops have been dispatched to take Marja, a single, modest-sized, Taliban-controlled city of 80,000 in one of more than 700 districts in Afghanistan, many under some degree of Taliban control or influence. How the time frame for success has changed.

The Benevolence of "Governing Bodies"

I'm big on a society of laws. The laws & regulations set the framework which makes sure we deal properly with each other.

But the eternal question is "Who watches the watchers?"

Here's a bit from an article from The Australian pointing out self-serving actions by the bureaucrats who supposedly run a copyright collective on behalf of the artists. But it sure looks like they are running this 'collective' for their own benefit and not the artists:
The Copyright Agency Limited was formed in 1989 to raise money from institutions using copyrighted works, such as newspaper articles, photographs and book excerpts, to reward the creators of these works.

But the collection agency last year paid $9.4 million in salaries, compared with a $9.1m direct allocation for authors and artists.

Among the highest paid at CAL was its chief executive Jim Alexander, who earned more than $350,000 last year, while another senior staff member earned between $250,000 and $299,000, another between $200,000 and 249,000, and five others between $150,000 and $199,000. A further 21 staff earned between $100,000 and $149,000.

In addition, the agency spent more than $300,000 on travel for its top executives, including a trip for its three senior executives to an International Federation of Reproduction Rights Organisations conference in Barbados, and a trip for four employees and board members to the Beijing Writers Festival.
I'm still big on laws & regulations, but I demand that we all be subject to the same laws and regulations and those empowered to act on "behalf" of others are watched closely so they don't become self-serving!

Here's an example of how the recording industry -- the one that is so quick to seek damages for copyright infringement from illegal downloading -- are ever so slow to pay up for their "use" of copyrighted material. This is from an article by Michael Geist in the The Star:
Chet Baker was a leading jazz musician in the 1950s, playing trumpet and providing vocals. Baker died in 1988, yet he is about to add a new claim to fame as the lead plaintiff in possibly the largest copyright infringement case in Canadian history. His estate, which still owns the copyright in more than 50 of his works, is part of a massive class-action lawsuit that has been underway for the past year.

The infringer has effectively already admitted owing at least $50 million and the full claim could exceed $6 billion. If the dollars don't shock, the target of the lawsuit undoubtedly will: The defendants in the case are Warner Music Canada, Sony BMG Music Canada, EMI Music Canada, and Universal Music Canada, the four primary members of the Canadian Recording Industry Association.

The CRIA members were hit with the lawsuit in October 2008 after artists decided to turn to the courts following decades of frustration with the rampant infringement (I am adviser to the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, which is co-counsel, but have had no involvement in the case).

The claims arise from a longstanding practice of the recording industry in Canada, described in the lawsuit as "exploit now, pay later if at all." It involves the use of works that are often included in compilation CDs (ie. the top dance tracks of 2009) or live recordings. The record labels create, press, distribute and sell the CDs, but do not obtain the necessary copyright licences.

Instead, the names of the songs on the CDs are placed on a "pending list," which signifies that approval and payment is pending. The pending list dates back to the late 1980s, when Canada changed its copyright law by replacing a compulsory licence with the need for specific authorization for each use. It is perhaps better characterized as a copyright infringement admission list, however, since for each use of the work, the record label openly admits that it has not obtained copyright permission and not paid any royalty or fee.

Over the years, the size of the pending list has grown dramatically, now containing more than 300,000 songs.

From Beyonce to Bruce Springsteen, the artists waiting for payment are far from obscure, as thousands of Canadian and foreign artists have seen their copyrights used without permission and payment.

It is difficult to understand why the industry has been so reluctant to pay its bills. Some works may be in the public domain or belong to a copyright owner difficult to ascertain or locate, yet the likes of Sarah McLachlan, Bruce Cockburn, Sloan, or the Watchmen are not hidden from view.

The more likely reason is that the record labels have had little motivation to pay up. As the balance has grown, David Basskin, the president and CEO of the Canadian Musical Reproduction Rights Agency Ltd., notes in his affidavit that "the record labels have devoted insufficient resources for identifying and paying the owners of musical works on the pending lists." The CRIA members now face the prospect of far greater liability.

The class action seeks the option of statutory damages for each infringement. At $20,000 per infringement, potential liability exceeds $6 billion.

These numbers may sound outrageous, yet they are based on the same rules that led the recording industry to claim a single file sharer is liable for millions in damages.

After years of claiming Canadian consumers disrespect copyright, the irony of having the recording industry face a massive lawsuit will not be lost on anyone, least of all the artists still waiting to be paid. Indeed, they are also seeking punitive damages, arguing "the conduct of the defendant record companies is aggravated by their strict and unremitting approach to the enforcement of their copyright interests against consumers."
So... what's wrong with this picture? It is that the big guys, the bureaucrats, the insiders, play by one set of rules and impose a different set on the little guy. Organizations set up to benefit copyright holders end up abusing their own clients while they feather their own nests.

Pet for the Day

For all those kids who never got a puppy as a present... there is hope...

Put this on your wish list...

On second thought... I'd hate to think the Tooth Fairy brought me one as a present. I would hate to wake up with this under my pillow.

Republican Hypocrisy

Here's an excellent clip of Rachel Maddow running down the list of hypocritical politcal maneuvers by the Republicans, i.e take one side, then hop to the other. You know, "flip flop". (Think back: this is the claim that Republicans used so successfully against Democrats during the Bush years. Where is the media now on "flip flop". All I head is stone cold silence from the media.) Wait a second... the Republicans are doing something worse than flip flop, they are practicing hypocrisy. They claim to stand for something, but when the Democrats take up the cause, the Republicans turn their backs and deny support to it.

Here is Rachel Maddow naming names... enjoy this recitation of in-your-face hypocrisy:

What I don't understand is why voters in the US can't keep this political sleaze in mind when they go into the polling booth.

I do understand why the media doesn't cover this: the media is owned by the rich, so they aren't keen on pointing out the inner workings of their own propaganda machine.

I don't understand why the Democrats are so flat footed on beating the bushes to publicize this hypocrisy. The Republicans were very effective at painting their opponents every shade of black they could. Why can't the Democrats?

I don't like the weak-kneed Obama approach to politics. He has failed to deliver on the promises he offered in his campaign. I despise his currying favour with Wall Street. But he is head and shoulders above the slime-ball Republicans and their in-your-face hypocrisy, their "destroy the village to order save it" ideology:
One of the most famous quotes of the Vietnam War was a statement attributed to an unnamed U.S. officer by AP correspondent Peter Arnett. Writing about the provincial capital, Bến Tre, on February 7, 1968, Arnett said: "'It became necessary to destroy the town to save it,' a United States major said today. He was talking about the decision by allied commanders to bomb and shell the town regardless of civilian casualties, to rout the Vietcong."
If you want to read the argument for how the Obama "stimulus bill" has been useful, read this article by Daniel Gross at Slate. Here's a key bit:
So in the year since the stimulus bill was passed, it's become more and more difficult for opponents to make the case against it. And that opposition will get tougher still, because the stimulus has barely kicked into gear. The package was designed to be rolled out over a three-year period, in part because of logistics (it's tough to approve tens of billions of dollars of loan guarantees to wind-energy farms and solar power arrays in a few months) and in part because of politics. shows that only about one-third of what has been budgeted for tax breaks, new spending, and entitlements has been spent. While Congress' horizon extends only as far as November 2010, the Obama administration is looking ahead to November 2012. Congressional Democrats would have preferred a frontloaded stimulus that spent everything in 2010; the White House isn't particularly troubled that large chunks of the stimulus won't hit the economy until 2011. Thanks to the stimulus bill, there's still $515 billion worth of tax cuts, contracts and loans, and aids to entitlement programs set to enter the economy in the next two years. That will contribute powerfully to growth in 2010 and 2011.
As the above points out, Obama chose a "slow" recovery feeding the simulus money in over three years. The result has been much worse unemployment that necessary. That's my complaint about Obama. He does everything in half measures. He doesn't lead. He doesn't throw himself into the fight against the Great Recession. Everything is "calculated" and only half measures. And the great tragedy is that he allowed himself to be talked into the idea that the downturn wouldn't be as bad as it has been. So his 'half' measures turned into 'one third' measures with a lot more unnecessary suffering than there should have been.

Rather than ending on my sour reflections on the "stimulus", here's a bit from a more upbeat assessment by David Leonhardt of the NY Times:
Yet I’m guessing you don’t think of the stimulus bill as a big success. You’ve read columns (by me, for example) complaining that it should have spent money more quickly. Or you’ve heard about the phantom ZIP code scandal: the fact that a government Web site mistakenly reported money being spent in nonexistent ZIP codes.

And many of the criticisms are valid. The program has had its flaws. But the attention they have received is wildly disproportionate to their importance. To hark back to another big government program, it’s almost as if the lasting image of the lunar space program was Apollo 6, an unmanned 1968 mission that had engine problems, and not Apollo 11, the moon landing.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Herbert Hoover Redux

Or the 1937 version of Roosevent...

Here's a blog posting by Paul Krugman pointing out the bad reasoning behind being a 'deficit hawk' in the middle of a very bad recession:
There’s an economists’ duel underway in Britain. Everyone agrees that Britain needs to address its underlying budget deficit; but how fast? One group of prominent economists has published a letter saying that cuts should start more or less immediately.

But an equally or maybe even more prominent group disagrees, pointing out that slashing spending now would depress a still very weak economy. Their letter isn’t public yet; I’ll post a link when it is.

As you might guess, I’m very much in agreement with the second group. It’s important to be clear that the call for immediate austerity isn’t grounded in unarguable economics; in fact, the arithmetic tells you that what Britain does in the next year or two is virtually irrelevant to its long-run solvency. Instead, the call for immediate austerity is based on an appeal to “credibility”, which is very much in the eye of the beholder.

So for Britain’s sake, I hope that the UK version of 21st century Hooverism doesn’t prevail.
Go read the original posting to get the links he has embedded.

The Bizarro World of Politics

Obama is being attacked by the idiot right, the do-nothing Republicans, for actions which actually helped the country: stimulating the economy as the country was nose-diving into a Great Depression. (This from Republicans who under Bush funded a $170 billion "stimulus" plan in early 2008 which was a "tax rebate" plan and then in October 2008 gave $700 billion to bailout Wall Street). But Obama puts up the most idiotic "defense" of his own stimulus policies. Pathetic...

Here's Obama's spokesman, Robert Gibbs, claiming "success" at job creation by Obama:
MR. GIBBS: We know that 2 million people would not be receiving paychecks that are now.


Q In spite of those 2 million jobs and in spite of all the talking you’ve done about the opportunities the stimulus spending has created, the fact remains, as we discussed about the poll, people don’t see it. They don’t see $800 billion worth of job creation.

MR. GIBBS: Well, we haven’t spent $800 billion yet.
By my simple-minded math, you spend $800 billion and "create" 2 million jobs, that means you are paying $400,000 for each job! That is insane. A WPA-style jobs program could create well over 20 million jobs for the same amount of money, i.e. $40,000 per "created" job.

I don't get the 2009 "stimulus" bill. The 'tax cuts' portion didn't directly create any jobs. The 'state and local governments aid' did "save" some jobs, but these are high priced jobs and rewarded states that were financially profligate. The 'money to "extend" unemployment benefits' is paying people to be unemployed. That makes no sense to me. You should pay people to work, not to sit on their duff and collect dole. Seems to me the role of government is not to pick winners but to provide a framework. Providing a WPA-style work program at minimum wage ensures nobody starves and doesn't favour any special interest group. It would be far cheaper and spread the benefit around to a larger number of people.

Here is an interview by George Stephanopoulos with the Council of Economic Advisor chair, Christine Romer, giving a positive spin to Obama's stimulus "plan".

What I don't like is her going along with the "cut the deficit" crowd. She knows the following facts (from Wikipedia):
The common view among mainstream economists is that Roosevelt's New Deal policies either caused or accelerated the recovery, although his policies were never aggressive enough to bring the economy completely out of recession. Some economists have also called attention to the positive effects from expectations of reflation and rising nominal interest rates that Roosevelt's words and actions portended. However, opposition from the new Conservative Coalition caused a rollback of the New Deal policies in early 1937, which caused a setback in the recovery.
But she is playing politics and pretending that being "tough on deficits" is what is needed. That very same policy caused a loss of almost 7 million jobs and a 37% slump in manufacturing in 1937-38 (see Wikipedia):
By the spring of 1937, economic indicators had regained the production, profits, and wage levels of 1929, except for unemployment, which remained high, although it was considerably lower than the 25% unemployment rate seen in 1933. In June 1937 some of Roosevelt's advisors urged spending cuts to balance the budget. WPA rolls were drastically cut and PWA projects were slowed to a standstill. The American economy took a sharp downturn in mid-1937, lasting for 13 months through most of 1938. Industrial production declined almost 30 per cent and production of durable goods fell even faster.

Unemployment jumped from 14.3% in 1937 to 19.0% in 1938, rising from 5 million to more than 12 million in early 1938. Manufacturing output fell by 37% from the 1937 peak and was back to 1934 levels. Producers reduced their expenditures on durable goods, and inventories declined, but personal income was only 15% lower than it had been at the peak in 1937. In most sectors, hourly earnings continued to rise throughout the recession, which partly compensated for the reduction in the number of hours worked. As unemployment rose, consumers' expenditures declined, leading to further cutbacks in production.
I despise the Republican hypocrites. But I've also come to despise Obama as an inept leader too busy trying to mold "compromise" to be bothered to lead. He has picked people who favour the bankers and who indulge in the old political spin. What the US needs is straight talk, so that when you claim "change you can believe" that slogan really means something and not "politics as usual".

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

L. Michael White's "From Jesus to Christianity"

This was an interesting and fairly exhausting survey of the era from just before Jesus to 200 AD. Its main focus was on the development of Christianity as a separate religion with its own scripture and church. It covers modern scholarly opinion. It is fine stuff, but it doesn't have the zing, the excitement, to opinions that would make the fairly dry material "stick". So I was disappointed. It isn't exhaustive enough to be a reference book and it isn't challenging enough to be a "good read". It is simply a substantial book on a difficult subject that treads carefully to give authoritative views. So I was left unhappy.

The writer, L. Michael White, was the expert behind the PBS Frontline documentary From Jesus to Christ. That was excellent. This book was so-so.

I know it is hard to write "exciting stuff" about such a well researched field, but I do like other writers better: Bart D. Ehrman, John Dominic Crossan, and Paula Fredriken come to mind as writers who had a more deft hand in writing an engaging story. White is exhaustive, but without a thematic line to drive the "story" along it becomes just words. I was left paging back and forth in White's book trying to get things to "stick" in my memory. The writing was too dry.

This book is worth a read, but I suspect you will be disappointed as I was. It is solid material, but it is presented in a format which just doesn't "stick".