Sunday, October 31, 2010

How Obama is Falling Down on the Job

Here's a bit from a NY Times op-ed by Paul Krugman that examines the irrational frenzy to punish debts and deficits. In particular he lays into Barack Obama for failing to lead:
John Boehner, the House minority leader, was widely mocked last year when he declared that “It’s time for government to tighten their belts” — in the face of depressed private spending, the government should spend more, not less. But since then President Obama has repeatedly used the same metaphor, promising to match private belt-tightening with public belt-tightening. Does he lack the courage to challenge popular misconceptions, or is this just intellectual laziness? Either way, if the president won’t defend the logic of his own policies, who will?

Meanwhile, the administration’s mortgage modification program — the program that inspired the Santelli rant — has, in the end, accomplished almost nothing. At least part of the reason is that officials were so worried that they might be accused of helping the undeserving that they ended up helping almost nobody.

So the moralizers are winning. More and more voters, both here and in Europe, are convinced that what we need is not more stimulus but more punishment. Governments must tighten their belts; debtors must pay what they owe.

The irony is that in their determination to punish the undeserving, voters are punishing themselves: by rejecting fiscal stimulus and debt relief, they’re perpetuating high unemployment. They are, in effect, cutting off their own jobs to spite their neighbors.
Obama is a smart guy. But he refuses to see what is obvious. He came into power during a Great Recession but he has governed as if health care were the only major issue facing the citizenry. He has show no curiosity and no intelligence in dealing with the economy.

There are two excellent videos on this situation that were shown on CBS's Sixty Minutes. First they show the devastation that the lack of focus on jobs and the economy has done to small town America. That is followed by a video clip from that same show that points out the idiocy of "tax cuts" that is eating away at civil society:

Man the First Animal Shaped by Cooking

Here's a bit from an excellent post on the Neuroanthropology blog:
Richard Wrangham is Ruth Moore Professor of Biological Anthrpology at Harvard University, with a strong background in the study of chimpanzees. Wrangham argues that hominins began cooking their food 1.8 million years ago (mya) even though the earliest evidence of controlling fire is, at best, half that old. He points to the diet of chimpanzees:

Richard Wrangham has tasted chimp food, and he doesn’t like it. “The typical fruit is very unpleasant,” the Harvard University biological anthropologist says of the hard, strangely shaped fruits endemic to the chimp diet, some of which look like cherries, others like cocktail sausages. “Fibrous, quite bitter. Not a tremendous amount of sugar. Some make your stomach heave.” (from Cooking Up Bigger Brains)

Wrangham has elaborated the argument in a number of his academic papers (for an excellent review, see Wrangham and Conklin-Brittain 2003). He’s also argued that the kind of raw bush meat that chimpanzees eat – usually smaller monkeys, and even then only the mature males get it – is tough and unpleasant, with large portions of it in skin and fur that don’t go down easy, by any stretch.

Wrangham’s theory is controversial in anthropology, and I don’t fully agree with him, but he does put his finger on the complexity of the brain-jaw trade-off in human evolution. Our ancestors were steadily growing larger brains, energy-hungry organs, while the on-board apparatus that they used to get energy out of food (teeth, jaws, guts) was diminishing in effectiveness. Our ancestors had to come up with some sort of better solution, either better food or stronger food processors.
This is just a "taste" of the extensive post on cooking and our evolution. Go read the whole post. It is well worth your time!

The Curious Case of H.M.

There is one very famous case of amnesia. A young man, named H.M., with severe epilepsy was operated on, his hippocampus was removed, and he was left with profound amnesia. Research on him over the next 40 years established most of what is known about memory.

From an article in Esquire magazine by Luke Dittrich:
In 1953, the majority of H.M.'s hippocampus, along with some surrounding neuronal tissue, was surgically removed from both hemispheres of his brain (area in red). Because of H.M., it is known that memory function originates in this region. When Jacopo Annese finishes constructing his multidimensional, zoomable atlas of H.M.'s brain, scientists will be able to see at the neuronal level exactly how much of H.M.'s hippocampus and surrounding tissue Dr. Scoville left behind, and in what shape. The findings could transform memory science once again.
The article covers:
  • The supremely confident and "experimental" surgeon, William Beecher Scoville, who sliced his way into history (and is the grandfather of the author of this article).

  • Some aspects of the investigations on H.M. by Brenda Milner a brilliant young researcher from McGill who did the historical researches on H.M.'s memory loss.

  • The slicing and preservation of H.M.'s brain by Jacopo Annese of UC San Diego's Brain Observatory.
It is a fascinating slice of history that moves through generations and talks about aspects of how we came to know what we know about memory. There isn't much technical depth, but there is a wonderful sense of human life and the little accidents that make or break us.

This is especially poignant in the close of the article where Luke Dittrich makes clear how close a thing it was to his, and his grandfather's (William Beecher Scoville) never having been around to enable this story to be told:
I remember midway through one Christmas dinner, maybe his last one, when he pushed himself up from his chair at the head of the table, wandered back to his study, and came back a few minutes later with a crumpled bullet in his hand. He placed the slug down beside his plate, told us the story behind it. Stamford, Connecticut, turn of the century, a burglar breaks into the home of a young bachelor. The bachelor keeps a pistol by his bedside table but his pistol jams. The burglar's doesn't. A bullet enters the bachelor's chest, where it encounters a deflecting rib, skids away from a lucky heart. The bachelor survives and keeps the bullet as a memento. He eventually passes it down to his son.

The bullet just sat there, for the rest of the dinner, beside my grandfather's plate, and like some of the other artifacts in his home, it was both fascinating and terrible to contemplate. Had it found its target, had its aim been true, then my grandfather, his children, his children's children, most of the people sitting around the table, myself included, would have never existed. It was a matter of centimeters, a fluke of aim, bone, ballistics, and it had made all the difference, its repercussions rippling down through generations.
Life is full of tragic accidents. Some pay a price (H.M.) and some gain fame (William Beecher Scoville) from the flukes and accidents of history.

Torturers Show How Vicious They Can Be

Americans have reached a new low. They have revived the fine art of torturing anybody and everybody they "capture on the field of battle", whether they be fighters or taxi cab drivers who just happen to be in the area. Now Americans have now shown they have "stepped up their game" to become more than simple torturers: the US has become a heartless, vindictive, vicious torturer.

They have just given Omar Khadr a 40 year sentence for a battlefield death that may or may not have been his fault -- probably wasn't -- in a show of "toughness" (read: vindictiveness).

Here's a report from the Globe & Mail:
Omar Khadr was sentenced to 40 years for murder, terrorism and spying by a military panel today that was unaware that the confessed Canadian war criminal had agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence capped at eight years and the chance to return to Canada after one more year in Guantanamo.
I have no love for Omar Khadr. He comes from a terrorist family. I'm sure he violently hated Americans. But he was brain-washed by his father, a senior Al Qaeda figure. His only "crime" was to be a 15 year old "child soldier". Normally a child soldier would be taken in an rehabilitated. But the US wants to show they are tough... not only will the torture anybody they please, they will take a child soldier and torture than and bury them in jail for 40 years to make the point of how "tough" they are. Nutty. And infinitely cruel.

I think Ingrid Rice puts it best in a recent cartoon she drew:
Well it took 8 years: bullying, hooding, torture, threats of gang rape in afghanistan, denial of a lawyer for 2 years, years of interrogation in Guantanamo, threats of being sent to the Middle East to be tortured, being put through a kangaroo court but we did it! We finally got a guilty plea out of Omar Khadr.
I thought the election of Barack Obama indicated a step back from the barbarities of George Bush. Obama pledged to close Guantanamo. He didn't. He has allowed the obscene "military tribunals" to proceed, and now he gets this "victory" by getting an outrageous sentence, a vicious, pitiless, unjust, and inhumane sentence against a child soldier. Obama now wears the shame along with the rest of America for this hideous sentence.

The outrage is that the "military tribunal" was even more vendictive than the prosecutor who asked for 25 years. The "jurors" gave him 40 years. Serial killers get less time than this in the US!
In an impassioned closing argument Col. Jackson said the teenage jihadist was “misled by his father” and had no option but to fight in the fierce gun battle in Afghanistan in July 2002 where he was severely wounded and a U.S. special forces medic was killed.

Prosecutors wanted Mr. Khadr to be sentenced to at least 25 years in prison.

“The world is watching,” said a U.S. Justice Department lawyer and former U.S. Marine, Jeffrey Groharing, who led the prosecution of Mr. Khadr, the only Canadian held in Guantanamo.
Americans can now expect "American justice" to come home. They can start expecting that 12 year olds who have knife fights at school that kills somebody will get 40 years in jail. Yes... the "legal standard" of the US has been "tightened up".

I feel like the prophets of old in Israel: "Woe unto you America, for what you have done will come home to visit you. The shame will be upon you. The torturing and violence will take root among you. You have turned aside the mercy which was available, you have taken wrath and vengence to a new and terrible high. It shall come back to be live among you for generations. You shall feel the wrath of anger amongst you for this outrage you would inflict upon a youth shall be dealt unto your own children for generation after generation." Has the US no shame? America has become the outcast of nations for its barbarity. This sentence reeks of injustice.

I would hate to be an American soldier in any future war. They will be judged by this "Guantanamo standard". Any American soldier captured on any battlefield in the future must expect to be tortured, brought before a "kangaroo court", and sentenced to half a century in a dungeon chained to a wall. That's the "new standard" put forth by the US to replace the humane standard of the Geneva Conventions on war.

There is an old saying that applies: "Do unto others and you would have done unto you." American has sewed seeds of violence and hate that it the black fruit of their vindictiveness like dung for generations to come.

The True Nature of Canadians Revealed!

Here's Ingrid Rice's take on American insight into the "true nature" of Canadians...

I like Ingrid Rice's political point of view. If you look at the update to this post, you can see her viewpoint on the Omar Khadr case.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Robert Reich Comments on the Stewart/Colbert Rally

This is an excellent posting from the Robert Reich blog. I've bolded the key bits:
The true center of American politics isn’t found where most of us agree. We fiercely disagree. That’s not a problem. Democracy assumes disagreement.

The true center is about how we resolve those disagreements. Most of us believe we should work them out respectfully.

We don’t believe in winning political arguments through bullying, name-calling, lying, intimidating, or using violence.

In other words, the political center isn’t about what we decide It’s about how we decide. The center American democracy is a commitment vigorous debate, done honestly and civilly.

That’s why some of what we’ve been witnessing recently is troubling.

Consider the foot-stomping incident in Kentucky by Rand Paul supporters, just outside a Senate debate. Or Alaska GOP Senate candidate Joe Miller’s security detail handcuffing a reporter from a liberal-leaning website.

Consider last year’s congressional town hall meetings where members of Congress were shouted down, a Tampa town hall meeting turned violent, and gunshots were fired at Democratic campaign headquarters in Arizona.

Consider the outright lies about “death panels,” “government takeovers,” and the President’s nationality.

Consider Rep. Joe Wilson’s “you lie” outburst against the President on the House floor.

And the vitriol emanating at all hours from rage radio, yell television, and Fox News – against immigrants, intellectuals, “coastal elites,” gays, and the President.

We’re better than this.

This is not respectful disagreement. It’s thuggery. It has no legitimate role in a democracy. And most Americans are fed up with it.

Sadly, we needed two comedians to remind us.

People have to understand that there are good reasons to disagree. There is nothing wrong with having different viewpoints. We bring different experiences, different ideas, and different personalities to bear on our views about political life. If we all agreed it would be a very boring, very stultifying, very ugly society.

All political points of view have a role to play:
  • Real conservatives have a role to play in reminding us of truths from the past. They help hold us true to ourselves and to our roots.

  • Liberals are important to remind us of the great value of tolerance and an openness to new ideas, new people, and new social institutions.

  • Libertarians are important to remind us that government is a tool to facilitate our social interaction. We don't owe it allegiance if it isn't working for us.

  • Socialists are important to remind us that society is a collective endeavor. We have a duty to make sure that everyone is carried along as society moves forward.

Diagnosing the Sick US Economy

I've taken some graphs from a posting on the blog Calculated Risk.

This shows that the US economy is slowly mending from the Great Recession:

Click to Enlarge
But the money in the pocket, the real income, of people is recovery only very, very slowly:

Click to Enlarge
And the unemployment situation is even worse. There has been very little healing:

Click to Enlarge
What do these graphs show? That money is being made, the economy is reviving, but it is all going to the top 1%. The income in wages isn't coming back and the jobs certainly aren't coming back. The US economy is very, very sick. Unfortunately Obama has decided to focus on issues other than jobs and the economy in his first two years in office. He has left people to sink-or-swim. He's had plenty of time to help the Wall Street banks. He's more than willing to create new tax breaks. But he isn't willing to make any substantive moves to get the economy growing in a way that will help the bottom 99% of the population.

The Economics of Debt 101

In his NY Times blog, Paul Krugman provides a very simple statement of fact to bring home the difficulty of repairing the current financial mess:
The background to the world economic crisis is that we went through an extended period of rising debt. Now, one person’s liability is another person’s asset, so rising debt made the world as a whole neither richer nor poorer. It did, however, leave the borrowers increasingly leveraged. And then came the Minsky moment; suddenly, investors were no longer willing to roll over, let alone increase, the debts of highly leveraged players. So these players are being forced to pay down debt.

The process of paying down debt, however, must obey two rules:

1. Those who pay down debt must do so by spending less than their income.
2. For the world as a whole, spending equals income.

It follows that

3. Those who are not being forced to pay down debt must spend more than their income.

But here’s the problem: there’s no good mechanism in place to induce those who can spend more to do so. Low interest rates do encourage spending; but given the size of the debt shock, even zero rates are nowhere near low enough.
Since people who don't have excessive debt are very unwilling to spend to make the basic accounting equation work, this is the role of government. This is the Keynesian solution. The government is the agent of last resort. It can spend when agents in the private economy are unwilling to do the right thing.

Dowd Puts Obama on the Analyst's Couch

Here is the start of an excellent NY Times op-ed by Maureen Dowd:
Barack Obama became president by brilliantly telling his own story. To stay president, he will need to show he can understand our story.

At first it was exciting that Obama was the sort of brainy, cultivated Democrat who would be at home in a “West Wing” episode.

But now he acts like he really thinks he’s on “West Wing,” gliding through an imaginary, amber-lit set where his righteous self-regard is bound to be rewarded by the end of the hour.

Hey, dude, you’re a politician. Act like one.

As the head of the Democratic Party, the president should have supported the Democratic candidate for governor in Rhode Island, the one the Democratic Governors Association had already lavished more than $1 million in TV ads on. If Obama was going to refuse to endorse Frank Caprio out of respect for Lincoln Chafee, the former Republican who endorsed him for president and is now running as an independent, the president should have at least stayed out of Providence.

Reductio ad absurdum: After two years of taking his base for granted, the former Pied Piper of America’s youth had to spar with Jon Stewart to try to get the attention of young people who once idolized him.

Obama still has the killer smile, but he’s more often sniffy than funny. When Stewart called White House legislation “timid,” Obama got defensive and offered a less-than-thrilling new mantra: “Yes, we can but ...”

“We have done things that people don’t even know about,” said Obama, who left his Great Communicator mantle back in Grant Park on election night.

In 2008, the message was him. The promise was him. And that’s why 2010 is a referendum on him.

With his coalition and governing majority shattering around him, President Obama will have to summon political skills — starting Wednesday — that he has not yet shown he has.
She goes on to discuss why the hero has feet of clay, and why he needs to "shape up" and become a real politicians if he isn't going to fritter away the two remaining years of his presidency. She's spot on in many of her analyses:
We want the best people to govern us, but many voters are so turned off by Obama’s superior air that they’re rushing into the arms of disturbingly inferior pols.


His inner circle believed too much in the power of the Aura and in protecting the Brand. They didn’t think they needed to sell anything or fight back when the crazies started sliming them. They didn’t care that the average citizen needed an M.B.A. to understand the financial plan and a Ph.D. to fathom what the health care plan would mean.

Because Obama stayed above it all on health care and delegated to Max Baucus, he missed the moment in August of 2009 when Sarah Palin and the Tea Party got oxygen with their loopy rants on death panels. It never occurred to the Icon that such wildness and gullibility would trump lofty rationality.
My bet is that he will fritter away his two remaining years. It is pretty clear to me that his flaws are flaws deep in his personality. He simply can't lead, he can't stand the thrust & parry of politics, he has a disdain for the hard work of partisanship. The jokes by Republicans that he ran a campaign in 2008 of being "the one" now appear to have merit. I now understand what they were saying. There is a big flaw in Obama's character. He's led a charmed life of always winning over others to his way. But he is in a situation where charm won't win the fight. He has to get in the trenches. But he disdains the grimy reality of struggle for a political ideal.

I see America as leaderless for 2 years. Then there will be two titanic battles. First, some champion will have to come forward and slay Obama. It is hard taking down an incumbent. Then that new leader will have to take on the Republican machine. That is a very hard task.

In short, the future looks very grim for the US.

The American Duopoly

In this post Fabius Maximus sees a problem with Obama's leadership:
In many ways Obama resembles Carter, both unable to function effectively due to lack of experience in politics and national affairs. Obama has accomplished little in his first two years; with a Republican House, he’ll accomplish little in his last two. His major significance in history might be to spark the long-expected reconfiguration of the US party structure.
This leads him to ruminate in a later post on the need to restructure the American political parties. Here is a bit from an excellent posting on the eponymous blog Fabius Maximus:
America no longer functions well, but our self-esteem remains untouched. Therefore the problems must lie elsewhere than ourselves. The most popular candidates for blame are our rulers (unworthy of our greatness) and our institutions. Examples are legion; here are a two.

(1) America needs leaders suitable to our wonderfulness

For a clear statement of America’s delusional beliefs we go to a master: “Third Party Rising” by Tom Freidman, op-ed in the New York Times, 21 October 2010:
We have to rip open this two-party duopoly and have it challenged by a serious third party that will talk about education reform, without worrying about offending unions; financial reform, without worrying about losing donations from Wall Street; corporate tax reductions to stimulate jobs, without worrying about offending the far left; energy and climate reform, without worrying about offending the far right and coal-state Democrats; and proper health care reform, without worrying about offending insurers and drug companies.

… We need a third party on the stage of the next presidential debate to look Americans in the eye and say: “These two parties are lying to you. They can’t tell you the truth because they are each trapped in decades of special interests. I am not going to tell you what you want to hear. I am going to tell you what you need to hear if we want to be the world’s leaders, not the new Romans.”
Friedman quotes Stanford University political scientist Larry Diamond: “We basically have two bankrupt parties bankrupting the country. … They cannot think about the overall public good and the longer term anymore because both parties are trapped in short-term, zero-sum calculations.” Bill Gross, the world’s top bond manager (in dollars), expresses similar sentiments:
American politics resemble an airline terminal with a huckster’s bowl waiting to be filled every two years. And the paramount problem is not that we contribute so willingly or even so cluelessly, but that there are only two bowls to choose from.
All very flattering to our ego. Now for another perspective: our institutions are efficient engines giving us what we want (not what we say we want). No party offers reforms because we don’t want to pay the price, because reforms tend to be painful and expensive. We might as complain about why McDonalds and Burger King have not been bankrupted by fast food chains selling low-cal meals of organic veggies and small portions of lean meat.

Where is the evidence that Americans want bold actions? Not in the polls. We want more services from the government, but we prefer not to pay for them. Cuts to other people’s benefits are OK. Having someone else pay more is also OK. Regulations on others may be necessary, but not on us. Strict enforcement of the laws is great, but when on us it’s oppression.
“Every nation has the government it deserves.”
— Joseph de Maistre (lawyer, diplomat, philosopher), Letter 76 dated 13 August 1811) published in Lettres et Opuscules
Go read the original post to get the embedded links.

My personal view is that hopefully the Republican Party by aligning itself with the fanatical fringe of the TEA party will fade away as a national party. I would then like to see the Democratic Party split between its left and right to create the two national parties that would bring sanity back to US politics.

The idea of a "new party" is seductive, but you have to go back to 1854 to find a national party that successfully started from scratch: the Republican Party. Most third party attempts fail after a few short years.

American Justice?

Consider the "justice" handed out by the US in two different cases:
  1. Berga, a subcamp of the notorious Buchenwald compound, was run as a death camp for American soldiers who did forced labour. The camp commanders, Erwin Metz, and his superior, Hauptmann Ludwig Merz, were tried for war crimes in Germany in 1946. Merz and Metz were found guilty and sentenced to die by hanging. Yet, in 1948, the U.S. government commuted their death sentences, and in the 1950s, the men were set free.

  2. Omar Khadr, a child soldier, only 15 when seized by US troops in Afghanistan and accused of throwing a grenade that killed a US soldier (but there is conflicting evidence and this isn't clear). His Al Qaeda father pushed him into Al Qaeda and at 15 international law says he can't be treated as a true soldier because he is still a child. But the US has held him for 8 years, tortured him, and is now asking for a 25 year sentence for this "dangerous combattant".
The US has gone off the rails in the last 65 years. It's economy is a mess because fundamental values of honesty, hard work, and a cheerful optimistic attitude have given way to cynical political manipulations, rampant greed by the top 1% of the population, and social conservatism that eats its own children out of a blind and stupid hate of the society that is changing around it.

Here is a video of a survivor of the Berga camp:

You can find more about his story and the shameless way the US backed off prosecuting the German camp commanders for their crimes in this CNN article.

You can read more about Omar Khadr in his Wikipedia page. And you can read about the vicious, wildly cruel "prosecution" call for a 25 year sentence here. It starts with:
Omar Khadr is "a terrorist and murderer" who should be sentenced to 25 years in jail, the prosecution told jurors during closing arguments Saturday at the Canadian's war-crimes trial.

Prosecutor Jeff Groharing said the murder, attempted murder and terrorism-related charges Khadr pleaded guilty to earlier this week "amount to hate crimes in the extreme."

Groharing said Khadr, 24, must face severe punishment for the pain and suffering he caused with his actions.
Funny... Khadr is a "vicious" murderer at 15 in a smoke-filled fight in which it is hard to know who did what, so he must be punished harshly. But the camp commanders who took American soldiers on a death march have their sentences commuted and are freed in a few years despite:
Acevedo's diary entry from that same day, April 19, paints a different picture. "More of our men died today, so fast that you couldn't keep track of their numbers," he wrote. "We kept on marching. I fell back of the column to help the sick ..."
The next day, he added, "Day and night, it rained. Every man was wet from top to bottom. We march and as we walked along the road you could see men which had been shot through the head. These were political prisoners. Every 25 yard intervals there layed 3 or 4 men -- men that couldn't make the march had to drop out, then were shot."
Something has gone horribly wrong in the last 65 years. The very idea of "justice" has been corrupted in the US.

There is something very strange going on in the US. Barack Obama was elected with a pledge to close down Guantanamo in 12 months. The understanding was that Obama would stop the military tribunals and move all prosecution into normal judicial hearings. None of that has happened. The charade of "justice" continues whether it is the ideological George Bush or the "supposed" liberal Barack Obama. It is as if there is a hidden hand of government that moves in its own mysterious ways despite the popular vote or the facade of democracy put forward by elections. Very strange.

Update 2010oct31: The Canadian cartoonist Ingrid Rice nails this situation. She has a cartoon of two US bureaucrats discussing the Omar Khadr. One guy says:
Well it took 8 years: bullying, hooding, torture, threats of gang rape in Afghanistan, denial of a lawyer for 2 years, years of interrogation in Guantanamo, threats of being sent to the Middle East to be tortured, being put through a kangaroo court but we did it! We finally got a guilty plea out of Omar Khadr.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Nima Arkani-Hamed on "The Future of Fundamental Physics"

Here is Nima Arkani-Hamed giving a series of 5 talks as part of the Messenger Lectures at Cornell University:

Lecture 1: Setting the stage: Space-time and Quantum Mechanics

Lecture 2: Our "Standard Models" of particle physics and cosmology

Lecture 3: Spacetime is doomed: what replaces it?

Lecture 4: Why is there a macroscopic universe?

Lecture 5: A new golden age of experiments: What might we know by 2020?

Legal Theft in America

Hard to believe, but the courts and the government in America is allowing the banks to proceed with outright robbery. They are allowing the banks to "foreclose" property which the banks do not own. And the owners have very little recourse because, of course, they are on the wrong side of the law. The banks "own" the courts and the police and the government officials, so you litterly have to get down on your knees and beg officials to look at papers and undo the gross crime that has been committed. And this is very hard to do because everybody knows that "the banks can do no wrong".

From Barry Ritholtz's The Big Picture blog:
• Lawsuit accuses Bank of America of seizing wrong house: Dr. Alan Schroit filed the lawsuit Monday in the 122nd State District Court in Galveston against the bank with which he has neither a relationship nor a mortgage. (The Galveston County Daily News)

• Christopher Hamby of Wheelwright, Ky., filed a lawsuit against Bank of America for repossessing his home by mistake and refusing to pay for damages other than replacing the locks. (Floyd County Times)

• Jason Grodensky bought his modest Fort Lauderdale home in December, he paid cash. But seven months later, he was surprised to learn that Bank of America had foreclosed on the house, even though Grodensky did not have a mortgage. (Sun Sentinel)

• A Hampton Pennsylvania woman is suing Bank of America, saying one of its contractors wrongly repossessed her home, padlocked the doors, shut off the utilities, damaged the furniture and confiscated a pet parrot, though her mortgage payments were on time. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

• Charlie P. and Maria Cardoso of New Bedford claimed that their home in Florida was free of any mortgage. They filed a lawsuit for a wrong foreclosure, claiming that the Bank of America had foreclosed. Their lawyers argued that the Bank had already been notified about the wrong foreclosure, in July, despite which it got foreclosed (South Coast Today)

• A Las Vegas woman whose condo was mistakenly emptied in a bungled foreclosure action could be the first person to benefit from a new state law. Nilly Mauck, left Las Vegas in mid-December for a snowboarding trip to Utah and returned to stay with a friend for a few days when she received a disturbing phone call. Something was amiss at the Coronado Palms condominium on Badura Avenue that she had owned for the past two years. (Las Vegas Sun)

• Ricky Rought paid cash to the Deutsche Bank National Trust Company for a four-room cabin in Michigan with the intention of fixing it up for his daughter. Instead, the bank tried to foreclose on the property and the locks were changed, court records show. (Dealbook)

• Sonya Robison is facing a foreclosure suit in Colorado after the company handling her mortgage encouraged her to skip a payment, she says, to square up for mistakenly changing the locks on her home, too. (Colorado Springs Business Journal)

• Thomas and Charlotte Sexton, of Kentucky, were successfully foreclosed upon by a mortgage trust that, according to court records, does not exist. (NYT)
Go to the Barry Ritholtz post to get the links to the underlying newspaper reports.

Here's Ritholtz's commentary on this outrageous "legal crime"...
Yesterday morning, I had The Misinformation Hour on TV as I got dressed for work. One of the comments that was made – “No one was wrongly thrown out of their home” — was repeated or ignored by hosts and guests alike.

This is patently demonstrably false, and yet no one challenged it.

The banks have gotten the Big Lie technique down to a science: State a lie so colossal that no one could believe anyone “has the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.” In practice, adding factually accurate, but irrelevant or misleading color, helps push the lie on unsusp0ecting rubes.

The banks and their many supplicants have been successful in doing just that in the robosigning issue. Any discussion about property rights, due process, or criminal investigations into perjury are thwarted; instead, the focus is on deadbeat homeowners. And note that I am the guy who in Q1 2010 wrote More Foreclosures, Please . . .)

The misdirection is successful, and the average reader/viewer/listener has no idea how badly they are being misinformed.

Beyond property rights and due process, the issue of this legal impossibility of being wrongly foreclosed upon (absent fraud), are the bailouts. Saving broken business models managed incompetently by bad management is a recipe for more errors and angst.

Fraudclosure is a perfect example of this. When you save broken companies from their own incompetence, this is what you get.

We have no record of how many people have been erroneously foreclosed — the banks themselves are the only centralized source of that data, and they ain’t talking — but we have lots of anecdotal evidence.

The plural of anecdote is not data; what is needed is a central collection of all the anecdotal errors of false or erroneous foreclosure — someone with a national office, say a US Attorney’s or Congressman’s office.
The rich have gotten rich in the US not only by distorting the regulatory and tax systems to give themselves an advantage, they have now become impatient and simply seized the legal system to allow them to execute outright theft by means of the instruments of state. Outrageous!

Not only have the ultra-rich scammed and stolen, they are busy undermining democracy via their bought-and-paid-for astro-turf "TEA party":

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Magic and the Mind

Here's a video from Scientific American that has two psychologists commenting on the cognitive tricks used by the magician:
I find magic in a video endlessly fascinating because you can start & stop and figure out where the magician snookered you. The discussion is helpful but not as exciting as the magic. I give the magic an A+. I give the two scientists a C.

On Governing: Asking the Right Questions

Here is a bit from a post by the eponymous Fabius Maximus blogger:
Summary: Riots in France and Greece. Calm in the United States. Which shows clearer vision and greater willingness to institute reforms? As usual, the media coverage gets it backwards. First in another series about the end of the post-WWII era, and our preparations for it.


In the United States we have an electorate almost delusionally complacent, conducting a boring election. Are elections useful if we do not discuss serious issues? Almost every critical problem is MIA:
  • Almost no discussion about the foreign wars draining our Treasury and breaking the Army.

  • Little serious discussion about reform of our financial system, which has imploded like clockwork every decade since the early 1970′s.
  • Bogus discussion about the governments’ (all levels) precarious financial condition (wide agreement about no tax raises plus cutting waste and foreign aid).

  • Little mention of our insanely expensive and counter-productive prison system, locking up a far higher fraction of our people than any civilized nation.

  • No mention about the cost and benefits of the American empire, or of our self-appointed role as global police.

  • Not only is there no mention about the rapidly declining educational performance of boys, but programs continue to focus on girls (see this series in Canada’s Globe and Mail).
Strong government actions and rioting in the streets at least would display signs of life. Response to the environment — even screams of pain — is a primary sign of life. Our delusional complacency (i.e., senescence) reveals much about the condition of the American republic.

What’s our problem? See the next post for an answer.
Well... I'm eager to see the answer. Even more. I'm eager to see something that goads Americans back into life. If is astonishing to hear of people who sleep as robbers ransack their house. Well... that is happening just south of me.

Will the Real "Tea Party" Please Stand Up

Here is an interview with Karl Denninger who founded the "Tea Party". He is outraged that right wing Republicans seized his group and dropped the original agenda in favour of the same old social conservative agenda of "Guns, Gays, and God"...

Toward the end of this piece he puts forward his complaint about "wedge politics", i.e. the two parties find an issue where there is a 50-50 split in the electorate and then can focus on winning a small number of people to get the "50% + 1 vote" majority to rule. He thinks this distorts the political process. That is an interesting perspective that I don't see discussed much. For all the Republican bellowing about "strict construction of the Consitution" and "the intentions of the Founding Fathers", they don't talk much about the fact that the founding fathers and founding documents never envisioned a "party system" of government and in fact that many saw partisan politics as a problem.

I wonder how many of those "partisans" of the Tea Party know its history, are aware of Denninger's unhappiness, or understand the role that the Republican Party is playing. My guess is "not much".

Here's Sarah Palin telling Tea Party protestors that they "are winning". Dylan Ratigan points out that this just isn't the case...

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Views on Global Warming

Here is a nice graphic from a report by Pew Research Center with results from polling the public on their views on global warming:

Click to Enlarge

It is pretty clear that the heyday for spending trillions to avert the "impending catastrophe" (impending since the alert first went out in a UN resolution in 1988) is now passed. Concern is slowly dying out. Why? It is 22 years after the early clarion call by global warming doomsters and public is slowly coming to the conclusion that "imminent doom" may not be all that imminent!

Here is the IPCC prediction:
Based on current models, we predict: under [BAU] increase of global mean temperature during the [21st] century of about 0.3 oC per decade (with an uncertainty range of 0.2 to 0.5 oC per decade); this is greater than that seen over the past 10,000 years; under other ... scenarios which assume progressively increasing levels of controls, rates of increase in global mean temperature of about 0.2 oC [to] about 0.1 oC per decade.
Here is the measured temperatures:
If you pick your start/stop points carefully, you can claim that this graph validates the IPCC prediction. But I think most people will look at this graph and no see much of a "signal" of increasing temperatures. Sure there's been a bit, but it isn't very clear that it is a sustained upward increase.

Robert Reich on the 'Price' of Democracy

Here's a bit from an excellent post by Robert Reich on his blog:
This, from the Washington Post’s conservative pundit George Will:
Total spending by parties, campaigns and issue-advocacy groups concerning every office from county clerks to U.S. senators may reach a record $4.2 billion in this two-year cycle. That is about what Americans spend in one year on yogurt, but less than they spend on candy in two Halloween seasons. Proctor & Gamble spent $8.6 billion on advertising in its last fiscal year.

Those who are determined to reduce the quantity of political speech to what they consider the proper amount are the sort of people who know exactly how much water should come through our shower heads — no more than 2.5 gallons per minute, as stipulated by a 1992 law. Is it, however, worrisome that Americans spend on political advocacy — determining who should make and administer the laws — much less than they spend on potato chips, $7.1 billion a year?
In a word, Mr. Will, yes.

The number of dollars spent isn’t the issue; it’s the lopsidedness of where the dollars come from. Even if the total were only $1000, democracy would be endangered if $980 came from large corporations and wealthy individuals. The trend is clear and worrisome: The great bulk of campaign money is coming from a narrower and narrower circle of monied interests.

Anyone who doubts the corrupting effect has not been paying attention. Our elected representatives have been acutely sensitive to the needs of Wall Street bankers, hedge-fund managers, and the executives of big pharma, big oil, and the largest health insurance companies. This is not because these individuals and interests are particularly worthy or specially deserving. It is because they are effectively bribing elected officials with their donations. Such donations are not made out of charitable impulse. They are calculated investments no less carefully considered than investments in particular shares of stock. They are shares in our democracy.
George Will is an excellent example of the witty point that Upton Sinclair was making when he said:
It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!
George Will sold his soul to the devil. George Will doesn't care a whit about democracy of "the little people". George Will, like the politicians, is bought and sold by the corporations and the ultra-rich in America.

America's Mid-Term Elections

Here is an excellent overview of the 2010 elections and the sad fact of political extremism in the US. This is from the MSNBC show Countdown with Keith Olbermann. He lays it all out, and very clearly calls out the political loons of the right for their lunacy. This should be required viewing:

Thinking About Education for Today

Here is a video from the UK's Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce:

I get a chuckle about the bit in this video at 2:15 where they point out that in the 19th century that public education was a revolutionary concept and that many people objected to it saying "it is not possible for many kids to 'benefit' from a public education". Funny. Many people in America today object to it because they complain about having to "educate somebody else's kid" and they don't like "big government" (and implicitly they want to go back to the 18th or 17th century where less than 10% of the population was "educated" which really meant "to a grade school standard"). Yes... the Tea Party is marching swiftly back to the past under the flag of "liberty" and "downsized government".

You can find more videos at the RSA home.

The Blighted Leadership 80 Years After the Great Depression

I foolishly thought that the science of economics was a real "science" and had made progress over the preceeding 80 years. But the response to the Great Recession has forced me to realize that "Economics" isn't a science, but a branch of Voodoo Science, just as George Bush the 1st pointed out in 1988.

Here's a bit from an article by Brad DeLong which gives some clarity of just how poorly most countries have handled the economic crisis:
At the end of 2008, as the financial crisis hit with full force, the countries of the world divided into two groups: those whose leaders decided to muddle through, and China. Only the Chinese took seriously Milton Friedman’s and John Maynard Keynes’s argument that, when faced with the possibility of a depression, the first thing to do is use the government to intervene strategically in product and financial markets to maintain the flow of aggregate demand.

Then, at the start of 2010, the countries that had been muddling through divided into two groups: those where government credit was unimpaired continued to muddle through, while countries like Greece and Ireland, where government credit was impaired, had no choice but to pursue austerity and try to restore fiscal confidence.

Today, another split is occurring, this time between those countries that are continuing to muddle through and Great Britain. Even though the British government’s credit is still solid gold, Prime Minister David Cameron’s administration is about to embark on what may be the largest sustained fiscal contraction ever: a plan to shrink the government budget deficit by 9% of GDP over the next four years.

So far, China is doing the best in dealing with the financial crisis. The mudding-through countries lag behind. And those where confidence in the government’s liabilities has cracked, forcing the government into austerity, are doing worst.
The rest of the article takes a deeper look at the UK. It is well worth reading.

Gary Small's "The Naked Lady Who Stood on Her Head"

I don't usually read books by psychiatrists about their cases. I generally view psychiatry dimly. The "talking cure" strikes me as not only expensive, but slow and also ineffective. But this book was suggested to me and the title is seductive, so I got it and started reading.

The writing style is fine, so it is easy to get into the stories. The cases are interesting. I don't buy all the "talking cure" stuff, but I accept the descriptions are fairly factual about some pretty bizarre people and their problems. I'm sure Gary Small is a nice guy. I just can't see that having "weekly sessions" for several years -- which must run into $50K or more -- is a "valuable" cure. Taking pills makes sense. Going to group therapy makes sense. From my readings, a lot of these problems will simply "go away" -- that's the placebo case -- and others are about as effectively treated by having a series of heart-to-heart talks with friends. So I have a hard time justifying a class of people who extort -- sorry, live off -- other's problems by spending an hour a week for them for years at a time charging a stiff fee.

So what do you get if you read this book? Some vignettes of bizarre character traits: the sociopath who marries two women, a guy who thought he had dementia but was merely drinking too much water an causing his electrolytes to fall to dangerous levels, a woman who mismanaged her diabetes and would go into a diabetic shock as a way of getting back at her mother, a shopaholic, etc., etc.

Lots of fascinating stories. If you want to get acquainted with the zoo of "human types", this book is a good introduction.

From the Afterword of the book:
When I think back on the unusual cases I have dealt with throughout my career, I'm surprised by how many there were and how hard it was to decide which ones to include in this book. Some were unusual because of the rarity of the diagnoses; others were noteworthy because of the complexity of the relationships and situations. Many had an element of emedical mystery, and as a young psychiatrist I sometimes found myself stumbling upon the correct diagnosis and treatment without even realizing it.

Each of these unusual cases -- whether it was a mute, naked woman standing on her head or a man who thought he would be more comfortable with only one hand -- also contained an element of the usual issues that we all struggle with at some point in our lives. ...

... Almost all of us will face emotional struggles during our lives. Whether we use humor, denial, or some other defense mechanism to cope with these struggles, taking some moments to reflect on how our minds work usually brings us insight and relief.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Geared Up for a Grin

Here is technology taken to a new height of entertainment...

Seeing the Future

Here are some bits from a post by Robert X. Cringely on his blog. This identifies a technology which he sees making a big difference in the near future. I agree:
Solarmer is effectively a Chinese company operating in America. Located in Baldwin Park, CA, Solarmer’s management is entirely from Taiwan, though many U. S. nationals are employed at the company. Solarmer is well funded, has been operating for several years now, and is moving relentlessly toward the goal of creating very large plastic solar cells that are 10 percent efficient, have a 10-year service life, and can be manufactured for $0.50 per watt or less.

Crystalline solar cells last for 25 years or more, but plastic or polymer solar cells have traditionally operated for only 2-3 years. Through the use of special UV-resistant coatings, Solarmer is attacking this longevity issue, though since the cost of plastic cells is so much less than silicon, 10 years is good enough.

Solarmer is steadily pushing cell efficiency, too, with their current world record in excess of eight percent efficient. Their goal is 10 percent and I believe they will make it.

Solarmer’s target of $0.50 per watt is based on low material cost and especially on low cost of production. The capital cost for producing Solarmer plastic cells is almost nothing as you’ll read below.


Solarmer says it intends to license its technology to commercial printers. The difference between printing Parade magazine for your Sunday paper or printing hundreds of thousands of plastic solar cells per day is the addition of an extra drying stage at the output end of the web printer.

That’s why Solarmer quietly works-away, relentlessly pushing its technology to produce a little more power for a lot less cost. Once the specs are where the company wants them to be, their process will be released to a magazine publishing industry that has been slowly dying, killed by a combination of economic recession and Internet publishing. Hundreds of web printers originally costing tens of millions each will be repurposed for inexpensive energy production at that target $0.50 per watt — not just grid-parity but a quarter the cost of power from coal.

Flexible plastic solar cells will go everywhere the sun shines, produced in long rolls, covering roofs and even windows (the cells can be made transparent). Efficiencies are lower, sure, but so will be the cost. Any structure can produce at least some of its own energy. And though the plastic cells will have only a 10-year life, that’s longer than a paint job lasts in Charleston.

It’s a strategy of ubiquitous good-enough solar power that I find very compelling as part of our energy future.
I believe that I have glimpsed the future and Solarmer looks like a nice big chunk of it.

Robert Reich Prognosticates the Post Mid-Term Obama

This is pathetic, but it is probably accurate. This is a bit from a Robert Reich blog post:
If Republicans succeed in taking over the House and come even close to gaining a majority in the Senate, expect calls for the President to “move to the center.” These will come not only from Republicans but also from conservative Democrats, other prominent Dems who have been defeated, Fox Republican News, mainstream pundits, and White House political advisers.

After the 1994 midterm, when Dems lost the House and Senate, Bill Clinton was told to “move to the center.” He obliged by hiring the pollster Dick Morris, declaring the “era of big government is over,” abandoning much of his original agenda, and making the 1996 general election about nothing more than V-chips in televisions and school uniforms.
This bit of analysis by Reich makes it brutally clear that the Democrats simply don't know how to lead:
Oddly, though, after Republicans suffer losses in the first midterms they pay no attention to voices telling them to move to the center. If anything, Ronald Reagan and the two Bushes moved further right.

Could it be that Republican presidents understand a few things Democrats don’t? For example:

1. There is no “center” to American politics. The “center” is merely what most people tell pollsters they think or want at any given time. Trying to move to the center by following polls means giving up on leadership because you can’t lead people to where they already are.

2. By the first midterm the public is almost always grouchy because the president wasn’t a messiah and didn’t change the world. No single president has that kind of power. The higher the expectations for change at the start of an administration, the greater the disillusionment.

3. Presidents’ parties always lose the first midterm elections because the President isn’t on the ticket, and the opposing party has had time to regroup and refuel. It’s always easier for the party on the outs to attack — and to mass troops for the assault — than for the party inside to defend.

4. The economy trumps everything else, even though presidents aren’t really responsible for it. So when it’s bad — as it was during the first midterms of Carter, Reagan, and Clinton — voters penalize the president’s party even more than usual. When it’s very bad, the electoral penalty is likely to be that much larger.

Why are Democratic presidents so much more easily intimidated by the “move to the center” rhetoric after midterm losses than Republican presidents?
And here is Robert Reich trying to "talk sense" into Obama. Sadly it will be ignored. Obama simply has not listened to anybody outside his elite circle:
Republicans are cynical about politics from the jump. Political cynicism fuels them. Democrats are idealistic about politics. When they become cynical they tend to drop out.

Message to Obama: Whatever happens November 2, don’t move to the center. Push even harder for what you believe in. Message to Democrats: Whatever happens, keep the courage of your conviction and get even more active.
What happens to dysfunctional countries? They become banana republics. I figure people should start a nationwide campaign to plant banana trees along the streets and in front of all public buildings. That will give the country the appropriate "feel" for the coming generation.

How to Draw a Line Between Obama and McCain

Obama has been in power for nearly two years. Brad DeLong looks at Obama's "accomplishments" and sizes them up compared to the known McCain initiatives. As I look through DeLong's list, it is hard to distinguish Obama from McCain. This reinforces the idea that the Democrat/Republican divide is the one between Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum:
Second, the ARRA--which would have been a McCain initiative had he won, by the way, or so his advisors say, even though opposed by every single Republican office-holder today--looks very much like it has achieved the results promised--even though it was done at only about 5/8 of the scale Obama proposed (the necessity of getting Voinovich, Snowe, and Collins on board to do pretty much anything weakened it) and what was proposed was only about 2/3 of what was appropriate.

Third, the bank stress tests--opposed by every single Republican office-holder today, by the way--appear to have performed much better than I at least expected (although HAMP and PPIP do not look like successes).

Fourth, the auto rescue--opposed by every single Republican office-holder today, by the way--has also performed much better than I at least expected.

Fifth, health care reform--also a Romney initiative, by the way, even though opposed by every single Republican office-holder today--appears to be performing, so far, as expected: providers are gearing up to deal with an inflow of more patients able to get insurance and insurance companies are thinking hard about how to handle themselves in the new market structure that will emerge after 2014--although, of course, health care reform was also weak tea relative to what ought to have been done, as the necessity of lining up sixty senators including a bunch of DINOs made itself felt.

Sixth, financial reform--also a McCain initiative, by the way, even though opposed by every single Republican office-holder today--appears to be performing as expected. At least, shady mortgage and other companies that function by making borrowers bear risks they don't understand appear to be scared of Elizabeth Warren.

Seventh, the TARP--also a McCain and a Romney and a Giuliana and a Paulson initiative, by the way, even though opposed by every single Republican office-holder today--has performed as well as expected. And it is important to note that the Republican legislators of Washington DC appear now, to a man, to be opposed to it.

Eighth, the focus on Afghanistan appears to be performing as well as focuses on Afghanistan ever do.

Ninth, the carbon tax--a Republican initiative pushed hard by Republican economists like Dick Schmalensee, Jim Poterba, Greg Mankiw, etc., even though opposed by every single Republican office-holder today--well, it did not pass because Republicans blocked it.

Tenth, cap-and-trade--also a McCain and a Romney and a Giuliani initiative, by the way, even though opposed by every single Republican office-holder today--well, it did not pass because Republicans blocked it.

Consider what the world would look like if the current crop of Republican candidates had been in control over the past two years: no TARP, no auto rescue, no financial reform, no stress tests, no ARRA. It would look much bleaker than the current picture looks.

Now I don't doubt that David Frum and his friends could have done a better job of governing America over the past two years if they had had total power over the U.S. government and if they had had omniscient prescient 20/20 hindsight about everything--and if they somehow could be convinced not to have launched a war on Iran in early 2009. But if they had lacked hindsight? I think that they would have done worse than Obama, even if they could have been restrained from launching a war on Iran in early 2009.

And, of course, David Frum and his friends are not the current Republican Party seeking office this November. They are a despised and exiled remnant, wandering through the desert of Sinai, longing for the fleshpots of Egypt with no manna in sight...
Ah yes... the Tea Party Republicans do strike a different pose. They separate out from Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum by taking radically crazy positions on all kinds of issues.

I believe that in Obama's mind there is a distinction between himself and McCain "the candidate for President". But the problem is that as "leader", Obama simply had no spine. He opted for "compromise" and snuggled up to Republican positions to avoid any "problems" with the Republican opposition. Sadly, the Republican opposition in December 2008 decided that the winning strategy for mid-terms in November 2010 would be to flatly oppose anything Obama proposed and paint him as a "socialist" for proposing policies that the Republicans had in fact drafted.

Guess what? Their strategy has worked. The public thinks Obama is a flaming radical so they have embraced the Tea Party Republicans as the party of "moderation" and a "fresh start". But the Tea Party Republicans are simply the craziest of the Republicans from the Bush years funded by the craziest of Americas many looney right wing billionaires.

For over 40 years politicians have kept edging to the right to win elections. As a result the real interests of the working class and the middle class has been completely abandoned in favour of the interest of the top 0.1% of Americans, the ones who can afford to buy their politicians and skip sullying their hands "voting" or engaging in a contest of ideas. The art of "selling" a naive public on some socially conservative issues to bait them into a frenzy and send them off to vote the agenda of the top 0.1% under the pretense of fighting gay marriage, abortions, immigrants, school prayer, balanced budgets, socialists-born-in-Kenya, etc.


Tea Party America

Here is the "love of liberty" you can expect once the Tea Party takes power...

The sad fact is that a lot of people who parade around loudly claiming their patriotism and their "love of liberty" are simply right wing thugs more interested in seizing power and forcing others to conform to their straight-jacketed views than they are in a democracy in which people have the right to differing points of view and the right to publicly demonstrate in support of their views.

Here's Maureen Dowd's take on this incident:
The misogyny reached its zenith outside a Rand Paul debate in Lexington, Ky., on Monday night when a group of Tea Party toughs roughed up a woman from because she wouldn’t move on.

One man, wearing a “Don’t Tread on Me” button, ripped off her wig and wrestled her to the ground with the help of another man, and a third Paul volunteer stamped his foot on her shoulder when she was down.

A New Energy Future?

Here's a bit from a post by Robert X. Cringely that is very optimistic about solar energy:
My work on this past summer’s Startup Tour introduced me to a number of energy startups with technologies that will actually make a difference in this age-old pattern of supply and demand. Because for the first time the supplies that are being created are renewable — they generally won’t be depleted. There is no new well involved to come online then peak and then die. There is just slow and steady energy production growth for 25 years or so from the same facility to which is added over time another and another and another machine.

We have one solar startup that is moving slowly and inexorably toward a target of making electricity from sunlight for $0.50 per watt. They are about three years from reaching their goal, at which point they will bring online a manufacturing capacity greater than the world has ever seen — all without spending a cent to develop that capacity (cue spooky music).

Electricity from coal usually costs $2.00 per watt to produce, so $0.50 per watt is amazing. What if this is hype and they are off by a factor of 10? Electricity at $5.00 per watt is still competitive with everything except coal and hydro. It’s still amazing.
I love the positive feeling that Cringely exudes. I sure hope he's right. He sure sounds like this is the real deal:
That low price per watt scares the crap out of BP and will change the geopolitical balance in the world within a decade, making the Middle East maybe a little less important.

How the Mighty Have Fallen

The Obama administration promised "change you can believe in". It had a mandate. It had a county that was prostrate from the mismanagement of the Bush Republicans. The economy had nose-dived. Unemployment was rampant.

This should be the setting for a Clark Kent to step into a phone booth and put on a Superman uniform.

A lot of people in late 2008 thought they had spotted Superman. They elected him President. But he has greatly disappointed all but his most diehard fans, and of course the Wall Street banks and the other big money interests.

Barack Obama has failed to take seriously the worst recession since the Great Depression. He has played Nero fiddling while Rome has burned.

Here is a posting from Paul Krugman's NY Times blog that highlights just one area (of many) in which Obama has failed:
I haven’t written at all about HAMP — the administration’s disastrously failed home mortgage modification program, which was supposed to be the modern version of FDR’s Home Owners Loan Corporation. My excuse, such as it is, is that I don’t presume to know the legal ins and outs well enough to devise an alternative.

But still: this is a case where the administration had (and still has) the money, $50 billion from TARP. That should be enough to dangle some pretty big carrots in front of lenders. And it could have had sticks, too: it could have advocated cramdown, it could have taken advantage of the popular anger to put pressure on the banks at any time — and especially as the foreclosure scandal has broken.

And HAMP’s failure isn’t news: it has been obvious for more than a year that the thing wasn’t working. I mean, the money wasn’t even being spent, which is a scandal in itself at a time when the economy so desperately needed help. And tales of the Kafkaesque process have been spreading for many months; read David Dayen’s series at Firedoglake.

But there has been nothing; no significant changes, no major rethinks, just excuses.

I really don’t understand the passivity here.
The answer isn't the Tea Party of bringing back the ideological insanity of Bush Republicans. It is to toss out the incompetent, do-nothing Democrats and replace them with fresh blood that will be responsive to the public need. It requires replacing the blowhards and talking heads with people willing to roll up their sleeves and do the hard work required to pull America back from the brink. It means getting Obama out of the way and bringing in somebody how can lead and who understands that leadership means telling people hard truths and calling on them to rise up and face those hardships in united action to create a better tomorrow.

Taking Stock

Tom Engelhardt takes stock of the political winners and losers in an article on his blog. There is much of interest about America's wars and "partners" around the world. But this bit about Obama caught my eye:
Barack Obama & Company: He had the numbers (in the polls and in Congress) and the popularity in early 2009. He could have done almost anything. But first, in the key areas of foreign and economic policy, he surrounded himself with the old crew, the deadest of heads, and the stalest Washington thinking around. While this was presented as an Ivy League fest of the best and the brightest, so far their track record shows them to be politically dumb and dumber. They missed out on jobs (about as simple and basic as you can get), and took a dismal year of review to double down twice on a war from hell. Now, the president stands a reasonable chance in 2012 of turning over to a new (possibly far more dismal) administration an even more disastrous Afghan War, an unfinished Iraq crisis, a Guantanamo still unclosed, “don’t ask, don’t tell” still in place (who says the coming Congress will care to do Obama’s bidding on this one, now that he’s bypassed the courts), and a jobless nonrecovery or worse -- and that’s just to start down the path of DisObamapointment.
And here's his assessment of a long time US ally:
Great Britain: The British lion just got a haircut and -- who could be surprised -- most of the hair that got cut was shorn from women and children, always first to disembark from the HMS Economy. One other casualty of government slashing, however, is the British defense establishment, suffering an 8% budget cut over the next four years -- which means losing lots of jets, 17,000 bodies, and even the fleet’s flagship aircraft carrier, which will be “decommissioned,” leaving the British unable to launch a plane at sea until at least 2019. As the Washington Post politely put the matter: “[T]he [government’s] moves amount to a tactical scaling down of military ambition by the one European ally consistently willing to back the United States with firepower in international conflicts.” Put more bluntly, as the British in their imperial days used native recruits to help police their colonies and fight their wars, so in recent years, the Brits have been America’s Gurkhas. No longer, however, will Britain be, militarily speaking, the mouse that roared. Despite pathetic pledges to remain at the American side in Afghanistan forever and a day, the sun is now setting on the British military, which means that the U.S. has lost its key sidekick in any future “coalition of the willing.” (Note for the Pentagon: Carpe diem. The Brits are the canary in the mine on this. Sooner or later, it will be your turn, too. By then, of course, women and children in the U.S. will already be well shorn.)
Go read the whole article to get the low down on the many depressing facts & situations facing the US.

Monday, October 25, 2010

An Inconvenient Truthiness

Warren Meyer runs the website and has made an interesting and informative video on "global warming". This is an excellent anti-dote to Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. It comes in 9 parts:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

Part 5:

Part 6:

Part 7:

Part 8:

Part 9:

Arguing for Austerity

Those who claim that stimulus spending in the US will only create inflation because unemployment is "structural" and not demand-driven need to look at the following table by Mike Konczal on the blog new deal 2.0:

This shows that unemployment is widespread, among all age groups, and among all education levels. A "structural unemployment" problem would be one where the 1960s clerk typist pools disappeared as personal computers allowed supervisory staff to do their own communication. In this situation demand for typically younger workers with modest education would spike as these people were forced to change careers. That's structural. But with the Great Recession unemployment is up across the board.

Austerity makes no sense in this environment. It was tried in 1937-38 when FDR was convinced that recovery was underway and that he had to head off inflation by reducing deficits. Read the Wikipedia article on the Recession of 1937-38 to get details..

The Bush/Republican Great Depression

Here's a very nice paper by Dean Baker published by the Center for Economic and Policy Research. I've pulled out a few bits that I find most informative:
CBO also calculates that the gap between potential GDP and actual GDP will be $730 billion in 2010. This is equal to almost $2,400 in wasted output per person. By 2014, when CBO projects that the economy will again be close to normal levels of unemployment, the economy is projected to have lost a total of $3.4 trillion in output due to the downturn, more than $11,000 per person, as shown in Figures 1a and 1b. Losses of this magnitude swamp the damage done by even the worst policy mistakes of the last half-century. The losses from the recession also vastly exceed the cost of any of the government programs that have proven controversial in recent years, as shown in Figure 2.
Think about this. The Republicans are raising a big stink about "Obamacare" and "the Obama stimulus". But these programs are tiny compared to the economic losses cuased by the Republican "deregulate, deregulate, deregulate" ideological fanaticism under Bush.

The loss of $11,000 of production by unemployment is a huge loss to a society. It is money that can't be recouped in any obvious way because you can't reach back into the past and put people to work. The nearly 10 million "officially" unemployed or 18 million who are forced out of the work force or under-employed are a loss because they become a burden on family, friends, and social services. The bankers and right wing ideologues are against "stimulus" which would put these people back to work. They think that unemployment will "discipline labour" and teach others to be more "economically prudent". But in reality, the very class of people who precipitated the economic disaster -- the Wall Street banks, the hedge fund managers, and other big money men -- have all been rewarded through TARP (a George Bush bill passed in 2008, necessary for the economy, but which rewarded the miscreants who created the problem in order to save the rest of us from complete economic collapse) and by Federal Reserve policies and on-going programs by Obama.

Dean Baker addresses the inequity of the pain suffered by this worst economic downturn in 80 years:
The situation is made even worse by the fact that these losses are not evenly shared. High rates of unemployment create anxiety among tens of millions of employed but vulnerable workers. They also put downward pressure on the wages of workers who most fear unemployment, which are disproportionately workers without college degrees. However, the unemployed and under-employed bear the bulk of the loss that results from the economy operating far below its potential level of output. These workers have, by far, seen the sharpest decline in income and are in the most precarious financial situation. They have suffered the greatest losses from the Great Recession.

By contrast, corporate profits have completely recovered from the downturn. In the 2nd quarter of 2010, the broadest measure of corporate profits, net operating surplus, stood at $1,570 billion. This is $104 billion, or more than 7.0 percent, above the pre-recession peak reached in the 2nd quarter of 2007, as shown in Figure 3. The recovery of profits suggests that corporations, or more specifically their major shareholders and top executives, are no longer feeling the pain of the downturn.
Here's Baker's attack on those who would "fix" the problem by austerity measures. He points out that is an "indirect" technique. Whereas stimulus spending is a "direct" technique:
Proponents of fiscal stimulus see the direct effects of the stimulus as fostering growth. Government spending, for example on infrastructure or education, directly employs people and also provides paychecks that will mostly be spent by the workers hired, creating additional demand and employment. Transfer payments like unemployment benefits or tax cuts also put money into people’s pockets, much of which will typically be spent, thereby creating demand and jobs.

By contrast, advocates of fiscal adjustment, in the form of higher taxes and/or lower government spending, rely on the indirect effect of these policies to increase growth. The argument is that fiscal adjustment will reduce the government’s demand on the economy’s resources, thereby allowing the private sector to make better use of these resources. In principle, this shift to private sector spending comes about through lower interest rates, which both fosters domestic investment and leads to a lower-valued currency that supports improvements in the trade balance.
Relying on these indirect measures is quite uncertain. By definition a recessionary time is a time of slack demand and with Fed rates at zero percent, there is no stimulus to come from monetary policy. For a country like the US with a relatively small part of the economy involved in international trade, the benefits of a lower valued dollar are consequently small. The reality is that during a Great Recession, government spending does not "crowd out" private spending because there is little or no private spending. The very point of government stimulus is to make up the shortfall in spending because of retrenchment in the private side of the economy.

Here is Dean Baker's conclusion:
There has been a considerable effort to tout the merits of fiscal austerity as a route to restoring growth. This argument has been put forward in direct opposition to arguments for increased stimulus for boosting the economy. While there may be a case that lower deficits can foster growth under some circumstances, the evidence presented in the Broadbent and Daly paper does not suggest that a movement toward lower deficits in the current economic situation in the United States would be expansionary.


Finally, all the countries that successfully used austerity to boost growth had much higher interest rates than the United States does at present. This meant that there was substantial room for rates to decline following the imposition of austerity.

Understanding Deficits during Great Recessions

Paul Krugman has a post on his NY Times blog which explains in very simple terms why government deficits make sense in situations like today, i.e. during a Great Recession. Here is the start of his post:
One of the common arguments against fiscal policy in the current situation – one that sounds sensible – is that debt is the problem, so how can debt be the solution? Households borrowed too much; now you want the government to borrow even more?

What’s wrong with that argument? It assumes, implicitly, that debt is debt – that it doesn’t matter who owes the money. Yet that can’t be right; if it were, we wouldn’t have a problem in the first place. After all, to a first approximation debt is money we owe to ourselves – yes, the US has debt to China etc., but that’s not at the heart of the problem. Ignoring the foreign component, or looking at the world as a whole, the overall level of debt makes no difference to aggregate net worth – one person’s liability is another person’s asset.

It follows that the level of debt matters only if the distribution of net worth matters, if highly indebted players face different constraints from players with low debt. And this means that all debt isn’t created equal – which is why borrowing by some actors now can help cure problems created by excess borrowing by other actors in the past.

To see my point, imagine first a world in which there are only two kinds of people: Spendthrift Sams and Judicious Janets. (Sam and Janet who? If you’d grown up in my place and time, you’d know the answer: Sam and Janet evening / You will see a stranger … But actually, I’m thinking of the two kinds of agent in the Kiyotaki-Moore model.)

In this world, we’ll assume that no real investment is possible, so that loans are made only to finance consumption in excess of income. Specifically, in the past the Sams have borrowed from the Janets to pay for consumption. But now something has happened – say, the collapse of a land bubble – that has forced the Sams to stop borrowing, and indeed to pay down their debt.

For the Sams to do this, of course, the Janets must be prepared to dissave, to run down their assets. What would give them an incentive to do this? The answer is a fall in interest rates. So the normal way the economy would cope with the balance sheet problems of the Sams is through a period of low rates.

But – you probably guessed where I’m going – what if even a zero rate isn’t low enough; that is, low enough to induce enough dissaving on the part of the Janets to match the savings of the Sams? Then we have a problem. I haven’t specified the underlying macroeconomic model, but it seems safe to say that we’d be looking at a depressed real economy and deflationary pressures. And this will be destructive; not only will output be below potential, but depressed incomes and deflation will make it harder for the Sams to pay down their debt.

What can be done? One answer is inflation, if you can get it, which will do two things: it will make it possible to have a negative real interest rate, and it will in itself erode the debt of the Sams. Yes, that will in a way be rewarding their past excesses – but economics is not a morality play.
Go read the rest of his blog post to find out why and how government debt is in fact a solution to this problem.

Krugman has a wonderful way of explaining economics. Sadly the politicians don't listen to him. Worse, they grab the public microphone and shout the very wrong economic platitudes that Krugman warns against. Politicians make the problem worse, not better!

I thought a smart guy like Obama would grab the microphone like FDR did during the Great Depression with his "fireside chats" and explain to ordinary folk the situation the world is in and what needs to be done to get out of it. But sadly Obama has sold his soul to Wall Street like the rest of the politicians, so there will be no help coming from him. The American people are going to have to solve this problem themselves. And, as Paul Krugman points out, that means a "lost decade" because it is so hard for a disorganized people to do the right thing when the right thing seems counter-intuitive and especially when politicians are shouting in your ear their wrong-headed sound bites.

You might think that Obama would listen to a Nobel-prize winning economist. He hasn't. Obama didn't even listen to his CEA, Christine Romer. Instead he was in thrall to Larry Summers, Ben Bernanke, and Tim Geithner, the trio who worked hand-in-hand with the rabid right wing Republicans to create the problem by ignoring the housing crisis, by advocating "deregulate, deregulate, deregulate", and by coming up with half measures and the empty platitudes of the past in the face of the greatest economic crisis in 80 years.