Friday, December 31, 2010

An Old Man's Prediction

This is interesting. It is a prediction by Robert Paul Wolff on his blog. First he muses about the role of old men sitting around the fire to pass on folk wisdom. Sadly, the cold glare of a computer screen must substitute for the camaraderie of yesteryear. Here's his wisdom:
... trying to puzzle out the political ambitions and intentions of Sarah Palin. Would she run for the Republican presidential nomination? Did she even want to be president? One of my sons ... went on to suggest ... the answer to my questions. Palin has held three significant positions in her life: mayor of Alaska, Chair of the Alaska Oil and Gas Commission, and Governor of Alaska. She walked away from the second and third, each time because she saw an opportunity to maximize her fame and personal wealth. She clearly had no interest in actually being Governor of Alaska, nor is there the slightest indication that she wanted actually to be, or even had any idea what was involved in being, Vice-President of the United States. Since most people do most tings the way they do most other things, she will almost certainly run for the nomination, because that is the best way to remain famous and to develop new money-making opportunities without working for them. But should she have early successes in the 2012 primaries, as well she may, she will find some way, before the nomination process is complete, to drop out of the race, presenting herself as a victim of all manner of plots and prejudices. Indeed, even if she secures the nomination, it is a virtual certainty that she will quit the race before she is defeated on election day. That this will cause chaos in the Republican Party will be of no concern to her, for at no time in her entire career has she ever exhibited the slightest loyalty to anyone or anything beyond her own immediate interest.


Character is destiny, as Heraclitus observed some while ago, and character does not change.
I'm ever hopeful that the Republican party can find a way to self-destruct. So I'm more than willing to believe the above. If only it would come to pass!

Here's another bit of gray-haired sagacity which he passes on in another post:
As the seventeenth century passed grimly into the eighteenth, I can imagine that there were enlightened spirits in Ireland, England, and Scotland who cast an unillusioned eye on the world around them and said to themselves, "Thank God for Jonathan Swift, who keeps me sane." I feel much the same way about THE ONION, the satirical on-line faux newspaper whose reportage, even in these awful times, manages to find ways to skewer the insanities of the right.
If you feel wise beyond your years, you might try reading the whole post to see if you can sort the Onion satirical headlines from the real-but-insane headlines.

Krugman Celebrates 2010

Here is a bit from Paul Krugman's end of the year op-ed at the NY Times where he reviews the political hypocrisy that marked 2010 as "special"...
Hypocrisy never goes out of style, but, even so, 2010 was something special. For it was the year of budget doubletalk — the year of arsonists posing as firemen, of people railing against deficits while doing everything they could to make those deficits bigger.

And I don’t just mean politicians. Did you notice the U-turn many political commentators and other Serious People made when the Obama-McConnell tax-cut deal was announced? One day deficits were the great evil and we needed fiscal austerity now now now, never mind the state of the economy. The next day $800 billion in debt-financed tax cuts, with the prospect of more to come, was the greatest thing since sliced bread, a triumph of bipartisanship.

Still, it was the politicians — and, yes, that mainly meant Republicans — who took the lead on the hypocrisy front.
Read the whole article to get Krugman's highlights and lowlights in 2010 hypocrisy.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Karen Armstrong's "The Case for God"

This is an excellent review of human religious views over the past 10,000 years. It claims to be a "case for God" but really doesn't argue for God. I'm putting this book onto my list of "favourites" and would love to have time to read it again and again to really absorb all that is in it. It is a great sourcebook that will point you in many directions.

It presents the many views of God over the years and, as the viewpoints are reviewed, it gives away the specific preferences of Karen Armstrong. It is a book that combines a history of ideas with a bit of Karen Armstrong's view of what religion should be. I enjoyed both. Although I differ in modest ways from what Armstrong presents.
  • She does what a lot of historians do: she present a fairly linear view of history with a clear "plot line" with various persons presented as iconic and/or heroic. In reality, history is much more muddy & confused and there really isn't as much progress as it would appear. There are collapses of civilization which, when translated into the tale this book is telling, there are regressions in religion. But Armstrong doesn't linger over these.

  • She is much more enthusiastic about "ritual" than I am. But this is the great divide in our cultural pasts. She comes from the Catholic side and I from the Protestant. She gives more creedance to authority and discipline and distrusts individualistic practices. I reverse that. But we both agree that there is an innate religiosity in people, that it arises from our social impulses and wonder at the world, that the best theology recognizes the limits of language, and that practice and community are as important as ideas.

  • I appreciate her attempts at a global perspective which includes Chinese (Taoism and Confucianism), Indian (Hindu and Buddhism), Greek (mystery religions), as well as the three great monotheistic religions. As is to be expected from a person raised in the Western tradition her book is about 95% focused on the Christian tradition. I'm not competent to comment on much of the various religious traditions, but if her failings in getting the details of modern physics are any indication, she has only a superficial grasp of them. Enough to sound impressive to somebody with no background, but not that profound a knowledge. But I do appreciate her efforts to include these other traditions. I only fault her in not putting up serious "hazard" signs around the most egregious religious horror stories. In particular, she treats Islam with kid gloves which I find a bit hard to stomach. She does mention the horrors in Christianity's closet but blithely ignores those in Islam and she doesn't explore in any serious way the theological concepts of Islam or the divergences within this community over time.

  • As always in a book like this there is a problem with traditions that are overlooked or insufficiently explored. I recognize that it is necessary to cut a book down to size. I want more. But it is pretty obvious from Armstrong's writing career, she will be exploring the topics in the book more since her own writings have shown a clear direction toward exploring religious ideas across the cultures and through history. I can hardly wait for her next book. The previous ones have all delighted me.
Enough of generalities, let's look at her book. I want to pull out quotes that will give you a feel for the scope and depth of the book.

She looks at religion starting well into pre-history:
If the historians are right about the function of the Lascaux caves, religion and art were inseparable from the very beginning. Like art, religion is an attempt to construct meaning in the face of the relentless pain and injustice of life. As meaning-seeking creatures, mean and women fall very easily into despair. They have created religions and works of art to help them find value in their lives, despite all the dispiriting evidence to the contrary. The initiation experience also shows that a myth, like that of the Animal Master, derives much of its meaning from the ritualized context in which it is imparted. It may not be empirically true, it may defy the laws of logic, but a good myth will tell us something valuable about the human predicament. Like any work of art, a myth will make no sense unless we open ourselves to it wholeheartedly and allow it to change us. If we hold ourselves aloof, it will remain opaque, incomprehensible, and even ridiculous.

Religion is hard work. Its insights are not self-evident and have to be cultivated in the same way as an appreciation of art, music, or poetry must be developed.


As the German scholar Walter Burkert explains, it is pointless to look for an idea or doctrine behind a rite. In the premodern world, ritual was not the product of religious ideas; on the contrary, these ideas were the product of ritual. Homo religiosus is pragmatic in this sense only; if ritual no longer evokes a profound conviction of life's ultimate value, he simply abandons it.
Here is what she has to say about early Christian theology:
One of the most brilliant and influential of these early exegetes was Origen (185-254), who had studied allegoria with Greek and Jewish scholars in Alexandria and midrash with rabbis in Palestine. In his search for the deeper significance of scripture, Origen did not cavalierly cast the original aside but took the plain sense of the scripture very seriously.


Like a human person, scripture consisted of a body, a psyche, and a spirit that transcended mortal nature; these corresponded to the three senses in which scripture could be understood. The mystes had to master the "body" of the sacred text (its literal sense) before he could progress to anything higher. Then he was ready for the moral sense, an interpretation that represented the "psyche," the natural powers of mind and heart: it provided us with ethical guidance but was largely a matter of common sense. The mystes that pressed on to the end of his initiation was introduced to the spiritual, allegorical sense, when he encountered the Word that lay hidden in the earthy body of the sacred page.


Origen's method of reading scripture according to the literal, moral, and spiritual sense became standard throughout the Christian world. The monastic reformer John Cassian (360-435) introduced this type of exegesis to western Europe and added a fourth sense: the anagogical, which described the eschatological dimension of any given text. This fourfold method remained in place in the West until the Reformation.
Here is a bit about Islam which skips over the initial violent coercive history (see here for a bit about this):
Eventually, when the war with Mecca was turning in his favour, Muhammad adopted a policy of nonviolence. Wehn Mecca finally opened its gates volunarily, nobody was forced to enter Islam and Muhammad made no attempt to implement an exclusively Islamic state there.

Like any religious tradition, Islam would change and evolve. Muslims acquired a large empire, stretching from the Pyrenees to the Himalayas, but true to Qur'anic principles, nobody was forced to become Muslim. Indeed, for the first five hundred years after the Prophet's death, conversion to Islam was actually discouraged, because Islam was a din for the Arabs, the descendants of Abraham's elder son, Ishmael, just as Judaism was for the sons of Isaac and Christianity for the followers of the gospel.
While the above is broadly true, it ignores a lot of details that aren't as anodyne as presented.

After presenting the religious evolution during the Middle Ages, she summarizes it with:
But the theology of Scotus and Ockham was incomprehensible to all but a few experts. The theology of unknowing had encouraged humility; the new speculations of the schoolmen seemed to inflate their conceit and could be imparted to anybody who had the intelligence to follow it, regardless of his moral stature. Theology was not only becoming aridly theoretical; without the discipline of the apophatic, it was in danger of becoming idolatrous. Europe was on the brink of major social, cultural, political, and intellectual change. As it entered the modern world, spirituality was at a low ebb, and Europeans might find it difficult to respond creatively to the challenge.
Here is how she presents the Reformation:
In premodern society, men and women had experienced the sacred in earthly objects, so that symbol and the sacred had been inseparable. The Eucharistic bread and wine had been identical with the transcendent reality to which they directed attention. Now the reformers declared that the Eucharist was "only" a symbol and the Mass no longer a symbolic reenactment of Calvary but a simple memorial. They were beginning to speak about the myths of religion as theough they were logoi, and the alacrity with which people seized upon these new teachings suggests that many Christians in Europe were losing the older habits of thought.

The theological quarrels between Rome and the reformers and, later, among the reformers themselves were giving more importance to the exact formulation of the abstruse doctrines.
She has an interesting bit about the Marranos (forced Jewish converts to Christianity) who evidence the early modern trend toward skepticism and the loss of religion.

Here is a bit of her review of the Enlightenment:
Scarred by the theological wrangling and violence of the Reformation and the Thirty Years' War, European Deism was marked by anticlericalism but was by no means averse to religion itself. Deists needed God. As Voltaire famously remarked, if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.

The Enlightenment was the culmination of a vision that had been long in the making. It built on Galileo's mechanistic science, Descartes' quest for autonomous certainty, and Newton's cosmic laws, and by the eighteenth century, the pilosophes believed that they had acquired a uniform way of assessing the whole of reality. Reason was the only path to truth. The philosophes were convinced that religion, society, history, and the workings of the human mind could all be explained by the regular natural processes discovered by science. But their rational ideology was entirely dependent upon the existence of God. Atheism as we understand it today was still intellectually inconceivable. Voltaire regarded it as a "monstrous evil," but was confident that because scientists had found definitive proofs for God's existence, there were "fewer atheists today than there have ever been." For Jefferson, it was impossible that any normally constructed mind could contemplate the design manifest in every atom of the universe and deny the necessity of a supervising power.
She then talks about the Pietist movement that reacted to the impersonal Deistic universe by focusing on a "religion of the heart" that emphasized a personal relationship with God:
The Enlightenment tendency to polarize heart and head could mean that a faith that was not capable of intelligeent self-appraisal degenerated into emotional indulgence. This became clear during the religious revival known as the First Great Awakening that erupted in the American colony of Connecticut in 1734. The sudden death of two young people in the community of Northampton plunged the town into a frenzeied religiosity, which spread like a contagion to Massachusetts and Long Island. Within six months, three hundred people had experience "born-again" conversions, their spiritual lives alternating beween soaring highs and devastating lows when they fell prey to intense guit and depression. When the revival burned itself out, one man committed suicide, convinced that the loss of ecstatic joy must mean that the was predestined to hell. In premodern spirituality, rituals such as the Eleusinian mysteries had been skillfully crafted to lead people through emotional extremity to the other side. But in Northampton, the new American cult of liberty meant that there was no such supervision, that everything was spontaneous and free, and that people were allowed to run the gamut of their emotions in a way that for some proved fatal.

There was a paradox in the Enlightenment. Philosophers insisted that individuals must reason for themselves, and yet they were only permitted to think in accordance with the scientific method. Other more intuitive ways of arriving at different kinds of truth were now belittled in a manner that would prove highly problematic for religion.
I think her claim that the devotees of the Eleusinian mysteries were "properly" conducted is an unfounded generalization. There is far less known of the personal tragedies of those who "went off the deep end" with the Eleusinian mystery cult. But the conflict between rationalistic Deism and the new Pietism is a sound point. Armstrong is at her best -- in my view -- when she is teasing out these trends in religion over vast time periods.

Here is an excellent summary of the Age of Reason:
For d'Holbach, religion was born of weakness, fear and superstition; people had created gods to fill the gaps in their knowledge, so religious belief was an act of intellectual cowardice and despair. First, men and women had personified the forces of nature, creating divinities in their own image, but eventually they had merged all these godlings into a massive deity that was simply a projection of their own fears and desires. Their God was "nothing but a gigantic, exaggerated man," rendered incredible and unintelligible "by dint of keeping together incompatible qualities." God was an incomprehensible chimera, a mere negation of human limitations. His infinity, for example, simply meant that he had no spatial boundaries, but such a being was utterly inconceivable. How could you reconcile the goodness of an omnipotent God with human suffering? This incoherent theology was bound to disintegrate in the Age of Reason. Descartes, Newton, Malebranche, and Clarke, who had all tried to save God, were simply atheists in disguise.
She traces the roots of Evangelicalism:
The Evangelicals brought natural theology, hitherto a minority pursuit, into the mainstream. Even though they continued to insist on the transcendence of God, they believed paradoxically that he could be known through science as a matter of common sense. Wary of learned experts, they wanted a plain-speaking religion with no abstruse theological flights of fancy. They read the scriptures with an unprecedented literalism, because this seemed more rational than the older allegorical exegesis. Like scientific discourse, religious language should be univocal, clear, and transparent. The Evangelicals also brought the Enlightenment concept of "belief" as intellectual conviction to the center of Protestant religiosity and perpetuated the Enlightenment separation of the natural from the supernatural. Finally, in an attempt to ground their faith in something tangible, they followed the philosophes in making the practice of morality central to religion. They wanted a rationalized God who shared their own moral standards and behaved like a good Evangelical.
As we pass into the modern era we pass into a time of skepticism and disbelief. This is the modern era of "God is dead":
When the German philospher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) looked into the hearts of his contemporaries, he found that God had already died, but as yet6 very few people were aware of this. In The Gay Science (1882), he told the story of a madman who ran one morning into the marketplace, crying: "I see God!" In mild amusement,the sophisticated bysteanders asked him if God had run away or emigrated. "Where has God gone?" the madman demanded. "We have killed him -- you and I! We are all his murderers!" The astonishing progress of science had made God quite irrelevant; it had caused human beings to focus so intently on the physical world that they would soon be constitutionally unable to take God seriously. The death of God -- the fact that the Christian God had becvome incredible -- was "Beginning to cast its first shadows over Europe."
She also talks about the rise of Pentacostals:
At the other extreme of the intellectual spectrum, a form of Christian positivism developed that represented a grassroots rebellion against modern rationalism. On April 9, 1906, the first congregation of Pentecostalists claimed to have experienced the Spirit in a tiny house in Los Angeles, convinced that it had descended upon them in the same way as upon Jesus's disciples on the Jewish festival of Pentecost, when the divine presence had manifested itself in tongues of fire and given the apostles the ability to speak in strange languages. When they spoke in "tongues," Pentecostalists felt they were returning to the fundamental nub of religiosity that existed beneath any logical exposition of the Christian faith. Within four years, there were hundreds of Pentecostal groups all over the United States, and the movement had spread to fifty other countries. At first they were convinced that their experience heralded the Last Days: crowds of African Americans and disadvantaged whites poured into their congregations in the firm belief that Jesus would soon return and establish a more just society. But after the First World War had shattered this early optimism, they say their gift of tongues as a new way of speaking to God. ...

With the Great War, an element of terror had entered conservative Protestantism in the United States. Many believed that the catastrophic encounters at the Somme and Passchendaele were the battles that, according to scripture, would usher in the Last Days; many Christians were now convinced that they were on the front line of an apocalyptic war against Satan. The wild propaganda stories of German atrocities seemed proof positive that they had been right to fight the nation that had spawned the Higher Criticism. But they were equally mistrustful of democracy, which carried overtones of the "mob rule" and "red republic" that had erupted in the atheistic Bolshevik revolution (1917). These American Christians no longer saw Jesus as a loving savior; rather, as the leading conservative Isaac M. Haldeman proclaimed, the Christ of Revelation "comes forth as one who no longer seeks either friendship or love... He descends that he may shed the blood of men."
Then things took an even worse turn:
During their time in the political wilderness, the fundamentalists became more radical, nursing a deep grievance against mainstream American culture. Subsequent history would show that when a fundamentalist movement is attacked, it almost invariably becomes more aggressive, bitter, and excessive. Rooted as fundamentalism is in a fear of annihilation, its adherents see any such offensive as proof that the secular or liberal world is indeed bent on the elimination of religion. Jewish and Muslim movements would also confirm to this pattern. Before Scopes, Protestant fundamentalists tended to be on the left of the political spectrum, willing to work with socialists and liberals in the disadvantaged areas of the rapidly industrializing cities. After Scopes, they swung to the far right, where they have remained.

The ridicule of the press proved to be counterproductive, since it made the fundamentalists even more militant in their views. Before Scopes, evolution had not been an important issue; even such ardent literalists as Charles Hodge, knew that the world had existed for a lot longer than the six thousand years mentioned in the Bible. Only a very few subscribed to so-called creation science, which argued that Genesis was scientifically sound in every details. Most fundamentalists were Calvinists, though Calvin himself had not shared their hostility to scientific knowledge. But after Dayton, an unswerving biblical literalism became central to the fundamentalist mind-set and creation science becamse the flagship of the movement.
Here is Armstrong's critique of literalism:
Their literalist approach showed a complete misunderstanding of the purpose of myth, which is "not to present an objective picture of the world as it is. ... Myth should be interpreted not cosmologically but ... existentially." Biblical interpretation could not even begin without personal engagement, so scientific objectivity was as alien to religion as to art. Religion was possible only when people were "stirred by the question of their own existence and can hear the claim that the text makes." A careful examination of the Gospels showed that Jesus did not see God as "an object of thought or speculation" but as an existential demand, a "power that constrains man to decision, who conftonts him in the demand for good."
Here is her summary of the 20th century theological Paul Tillich who tries to get past the literalism of both rationalist and evangelical Christianity:
For centuries, symbols such as "God" or "providence" enabled people to look through the ebb and flow of temporal life to glipse Being itself. This helped them to endure the terror of life and the horror of death, but now, Tillich argued, many had forgotten how to interpret the old symobolism and regarded it as purely factual. Hence these symbols had become opaque; transcendence no longer shone through them. When this happened they died and lost their power, so when we spoke of these symbols in a literal manner, we made statements that were inaccurate and untrue. That was why, like so many premodern theologians, Tillich could state without qualification: "God does not exist. He is being itself beyond essnse and existence. Therefore to argue that God exists is to deny him."
She also discusses the modern conflict between science and religion and how various thinkers try to resolve it:
[Stephen Jay] Gould revived, in new form, the ancient distinction and complementarity of mythos and logos in what he called NOMA (Non-Overlapping Magisteria). The "magisterium," he explained, was "a domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution." Religions and science were separate magisteria and should not encroach on each other's domain:
The matisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory)? The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they emcompass all inquiry.
The idea of an inherent conflict between religion and science was false. They were two distinct mageisteria that "hold equal worth and necessary status for any complete human life, and ... remain logically distinct and fully separeate in lines of inquiry."
She finishes with a look at the conflict between theism and atheism and considers the embrace of uncertainty by postmodernism as a possible resolution:
"If modern atehism is the rejection of a modern God, then the delimitation of modernity opens up another possibility, less the resuscitation of premodern theism than the chance of something beyond both the tehism and the atheism of modernity."
I see postmodernism as a poorly grounded movement and do not expect any future solutions to come from it. I do accept that what comes after the modern era will be an intellectual worldview that embraces the limits of knowledge and the uncertainty at the heart of our greatest intellectual edifices, e.g. quantum indeterminism and the incompleteness theorem of Kurt Gödel. But I reject the post-modernist relativity that holds all viewpoints are "equally valid". That simply isn't true. Different viewpoints have much to offer, but not all are equally acceptable or insightful or true.

From the epilogue of the book, you get a glimpse of Karen Armstrong's resolution of this puzzle about God:
Each tradition formulates the sacred differently, and this will certainly affect the way people experience it. There are important differences between Brahman, Nirvana, God, and Dao, but that does not mean that one is right and the others wrong. On this matter, nobody can have the last word, All faith systems have been at pains to show that the ultimate cannot be adequately expressed in any theoretical system, however august, because it lies beyond words and concepts.


There is much to be learned from older ways of thinking about religion. We have seen that far from regarding revelation as static, fixed, and unchanging, Jews, Christians, and Muslims all knew that revealed truth was symbolic, that scripture could not be interpreted literally, and that sacred texts had multiple meaning, and could lead to entirely fresh insights. Revelation was not an event that had happened once in the distant past but was an ongoing, creative process that required human ingenuity.
That is an idealized version of religion. In reality people don't rise to that level of insight and tolerance and understanding for others. It is a wonderful goal and a nice statement of Armstrong's religious aspirations, and maybe it is the way the world is headed, but it isn't clear. I accept her thesis that there is a common human religiosity underneath all the world's religions, but I don't buy that they are all equally valid nor do I even accept that historical religions are still a useful tool for our religious aspirations. I think the critiques of the militant atheists have merit. So the resolution is not yet clear to me.

I do buy into her vision of religion as an on-going enterprise that brings together communities through ritual to strengthen empathy and justice. But that isn't any historical religion I know. And, worse, I'm not sure how to get there from here.

The book is well worth reading. It will acquaint you with our cultural history and the evolution of religious thinking in the West (with a taste of religion from other parts of the world). This is one of those books that I would like to read several times because there is much to absorb. It is also a book that provides many jumping off places to dig into persons and historical events to understand them better.

Update 2010jan10: Here is Chapter 1 of Armstrong's book and a review in the NY Times. From Chapter 1 we get a glimpse of the structure of the book:
We need to understand how our world has changed. The first part of this book will, therefore, go back to the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, when the people of Western Europe had begun to develop their new science. We will also examine the mythical piety of the premodern agrarian civilization, so that we can see how the old forms of faith worked. It is becoming very difficult to be conventionally religious in the brave new world. Modernization has always been a painful process. People feel alienated and lost when fundamental changes in their society make the world strange and unrecognizable. We will trace the impact of modernity upon the Christians of Europe and America, upon the Jewish people, and upon the Muslims of Egypt and Iran. We shall then be in a position to see what the fundamentalists were trying to do when they started to create this new form of faith toward the end of the nineteenth century.

Fundamentalists feel that they are battling against forces that threaten their most sacred values. During a war it is very difficult for combatants to appreciate one another's position. We shall find that modernization has led to a polarization of society, but sometimes, to prevent an escalation of the conflict, we must try to understand the pain and perceptions of the other side. Those of us — myself included — who relish the freedoms and achievements of modernity find it hard to comprehend the distress these cause religious fundamentalists. Yet modernization is often experienced not as a liberation but as an aggressive assault. Few have suffered more in the modern world than the Jewish people, so it is fitting to begin with their bruising encounter with the modernizing society of Western Christendom in the late fifteenth century, which led some Jews to anticipate many of the stratagems, postures, and principles that would later become common in the new world.

How to Really Know the World

Here is an fine video by Hans Rosling that looks at how statistics can help us understand the world. More strictly, it is about how data visualization techniques can help us understand the world:

I love the bit where he states that "almost every Swede has more legs than the average Swede". That's his way of introducing you into more sophisticated statistics than simple averages that try to summarize phenomena in a single number.

You can think of the above as an hour long infomercial for Rosling's wonderful site that lets you explore data:

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

What Lies Ahead for the US Economy?

Here is a bit from Robert Reich's predictions:
What will happen to the US economy in 2011? If you’re referring to profits of big corporations and Wall Street, next year is likely to be a good one. But if you’re referring to average American workers, far from good.

The two American economies — the Big Money economy and the Average Working Family economy — will continue to diverge. Corporate profits continue to rise, as does the stock market. But typical wages are going nowhere, joblessness remains high, the ranks of the long-term unemployed are rising, the housing recovery has stalled, and consumer confidence is sagging again.

The big disconnect between corporate profits and jobs is likely to continue because America’s big businesses are depending less and less on U.S. sales and U.S. workers. Their big profits are coming from two sources: (1) growing sales in China, India, and other fast-growing countries, and (2) slimmed-down US payrolls.
There is a lot more good info in Reich's post, read the whole thing.

Why US Unemployment will Linger

The simple answer: Obama blew it. He didn't push for a big enough stimulus in early 2009 and when it was obvious it wasn't big enough he continued (and still continues) to pretend that his stimulus was "just fine".

The more detailed answer can be found in these graphs which show that the recovery has never taken root. The Republicans lies about "government spending" just isn't true. Except for census jobs, government jobs continue to disappear. And the rate of job creation can't even keep up with population growth. From an article in the NY Times...

Click to Enlarge

A Different "Law" for the Banks

Here is yet another example of a big bank "making a mistake" an trying to throw a family out of their home despite the law which says that owners can't be evicted on false charges and bad paperwork. But sadly, that law isn't applied in America. If it were, the CEO of Bank of America would be facing jail time for failing to stop the illegal foreclosures which his firm is perpetrating again and again...
In one of the more bizarre foreclosure cases, Bank of America is threatening to throw a West Hartford family out of their home even though the couple never missed a mortgage payment.

The largest bank in the United States earlier this month notified Shock Baitch and his wife Lisa (Friedman) Baitch that foreclosure action will start today – Christmas eve – unless the couple agrees to put their home up for a forced sale.


Because another unit of Bank of America erroneously reported to credit agencies that the family was seeking a loan modification, ruining their credit rating and as the result putting their mortgage into default.

All this is happening even though the bank – after admitting it erred and sent a letter of apology in September – handed this case to a special unit at Bank of America that is charged with dealing with severe customer issues. It promised to notify the credit reporting agencies that the couple were not deadbeats, but were good credit risks.

“I have never seen a case like this,” said Manchester attorney Wendell Davis, whose office handles many foreclosures.

Before taking the case, Davis said he thoroughly checked Baitch’s records and found that all his and his wife’s allegations were accurate.

“They have never even been late on a mortgage payment,” said Davis this morning in an interview.

Davis, a member of the Ct Bar Association’s foreclosure committee, said he is preparing a lawsuit to protect his clients because it’s the only way to hold Bank Of America accountable for its actions.
And this...
I guess what they are doing to his couple is not as bad as what Bank of America did in Florida where it seized a house which a Massachusetts couple had paid cash for. The bank removed belongings and changed the locks on the doors, according to a lawsuit the couple have filed in federal court.
In a country with a properly functioning legal system you are allowed a "mistake" once, maybe twice, but not time after time after time. But Bank of America (and the other big banks) have literally made this "mistake" hundreds if not thousands of times. It is time for the farce to end. Forcing innocent victims to go before courts to seek protection against criminals is just plain wrong. The cops should arrest the CEO of Bank of America and the other big banks. That would stop these illegal foreclosures!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

TSA Analyzed

Canada and Income Inequality

Canada has caught "the American disease". Here's a key bit from the latest Linda McQuaig article in the Toronto Sun:
This is a dramatic departure from the far greater equality that prevailed in the U.S. and Canada in the early postwar years — from 1945 to about 1980 — when the benefits of economic growth were more widely shared.

In the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, the real median family income in Canada was growing fast enough to double every 20 years. Since 1980, it has barely grown at all.

Middle class families have only managed to maintain their standard of living by working much harder than their parents, typically relying today on two incomes instead of one.

Meanwhile, at the top, things have been hopping. Indeed, virtually all the income growth in the last 30 years has gone to the top.

As a recent study by economist Armine Yalnizyan of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives documents, the top-earning 1 per cent of Canadians almost doubled their share of national income, from 7.7 per cent to 13.8 per cent, over the past three decades.

And the higher up the food chain, the bigger the gains. The richest 0.01 per cent — those now earning on average $3.8 million a year — more than quintupled their share of national income.
And she points out the consequences of income inequality on the underlying society:
The impact on Canada’s social fabric is huge and likely to grow. Recent research — particularly the work of British epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett — shows that less equal societies almost always have more violence, more disease, more mental health problems, higher infant mortality rates, reduced life expectancies, as well as less social cohesion. The effects are most pronounced at the bottom, but are evident throughout the society.

Perhaps most striking is the finding that people in less equal societies have reduced social mobility. In fact, there’s little upward mobility today in the United States. Those wanting to give their children a chance to actually live the American Dream are better off moving to Sweden.

There’s also evidence linking extreme inequality with serious economic problems. The level of inequality reached in 2008 was virtually identical to that of 1929, suggesting that large concentrations of wealth at the top create a dynamic leading to reckless financial speculation and Wall Street crashes — with their devastating consequences of recession and unemployment.

But perhaps the most important impact of concentrated economic power is on democracy. As the great American jurist Louis Brandeis put it: “We can have democracy . . . or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of the few. We cannot have both.”
And she diagnoses just why we have this "disease"...
Oddly, there’s been little probing of why income has gone so heavily to the top in recent years.

It’s hard to find any justification for the fact that, while the average CEO was making about 25 times the average worker in the late 1970s, today’s average CEO makes roughly 250 times the average worker.

Certainly there’s no evidence that today’s CEOs or other top-earning Canadians are any more talented, productive or hard-working than their 1970s counterparts.

The change is often attributed to “globalization,” although this fails to explain why it hasn’t happened in other advanced nations that also compete successfully in the global economy — like Germany, Japan and the Scandinavian countries.

A more likely explanation is that the rich have used their clout to get governments in the United States, Britain and Canada to change the rules, redirecting economic benefits to themselves.
And the rich used the same lies in Canada that they used under Reagan, i.e. if you lower taxes on the rich, the economy will grow faster and we will all be rich!
The rich also greatly enriched themselves by convincing governments to lower their taxes. Whereas the top marginal tax rate — the rate paid on income above a certain level — averaged 80 per cent in Canada in the early postwar years; it is now just 46 per cent (39 per cent in Alberta).

It was argued that lower taxes would encourage better performances at the top, increasing overall economic growth.

But that didn’t happen. On the contrary, economic growth rates were higher in the early postwar years — roughly twice as high — as they’ve been since 1980.
Read Linda McQuaig's most recent book, The Trouble with Billionaires:

Monday, December 27, 2010

George Bush's Memoir Skewered

Here is a bit from a London Review of Books' review of George Bush's autobiography Decisions Points:
Decision Points holds the same relation to George W. Bush as a line of fashion accessories or a perfume does to the movie star that bears its name; he no doubt served in some advisory capacity. The words themselves have been assembled by Chris Michel (the young speechwriter and devoted acolyte who went to Yale with Bush’s daughter Barbara); a freelance editor, Sean Desmond; the staff at Crown Publishing (who reportedly paid $7 million for the book); a team of a dozen researchers; and scores of ‘trusted friends’. Foucault: ‘What difference does it make who is speaking?’ ‘The mark of the writer is … nothing more than the singularity of his absence.’

As a postmodern text, many passages in the book are pastiches of moments from other books, including scenes that Bush himself did not witness. These are taken from the memoirs of members of the Bush administration and journalistic accounts such as Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack and Bush at War. To complete the cycle of postmodernity, there are bits of dialogue lifted from Woodward, who is notorious for inventing dialogue.

Occasionally, someone on Team DP will insert a lyrical phrase – the tears on the begrimed faces of the 9/11 relief workers ‘cutting a path through the soot like rivulets through a desert’ – but most of the prose sounds like this:
I told Margaret and Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Bolten that I considered this a far-reaching decision. I laid out a process for making it. I would clarify my guiding principles, listen to experts on all sides of the debate, reach a tentative conclusion, and run it past knowledgeable people. After finalising a decision, I would explain it to the American people. Finally, I would set up a process to ensure that my policy was implemented.
There are nearly 500 pages of this...
The sad fact is that Bush probably doesn't know how bad his 'autobiography' is because he's never read it!

I'm sure that fans of George Bush will be delighted by the style and content of this book:
Team DP has indeed created ‘a space into which the writing subject constantly disappears’; one learns almost nothing about George W. Bush from this book. The names of hundreds of other people are mentioned, almost always in praise – it is, in its way, the world’s longest prize acceptance speech – but none of them, outside of the Bush family, has any life as a character. Each new person is introduced with a single sentence, noting one or more of the following: 1) Texan origins; 2) college athletic achievements; 3) military service; 4) deep religious faith. The sentence ends with three personal characteristics: ‘honest, ethical and forthright’; ‘a brilliant mind, disarming modesty and a buoyant spirit’; ‘a statesman, a savvy lawyer and a magnet for talented people’; ‘smart, thoughtful, energetic’ (that’s Condi); ‘knowledgeable, articulate and confident’ (that’s Rummy); ‘a wise, principled, humane man’ (Clarence Thomas); and so on. Then the person does whatever Bush tells him to do.

Bush is the lone hero of every page of Decision Points. Very few spoken words are assigned to him, outside of the public records of speeches and press conferences, and in nearly all of them he is forceful, in command, and peeved at the inadequacies of his subordinates.


This is a chronicle of the Bush Era with no colour-coded Terror Alerts; no Freedom Fries; no Halliburton; no Healthy Forests Initiative (which opened up wilderness areas to logging); no Clear Skies Act (which reduced air pollution standards); no New Freedom Initiative (which proposed testing all Americans, beginning with schoolchildren, for mental illness); no pamphlets sold by the National Parks Service explaining that the Grand Canyon was created by the Flood; no research by the National Institutes of Health on whether prayer can cure cancer (‘imperative’, because poor people have limited access to healthcare); no cover-up of the death of football star Pat Tillman by ‘friendly fire’ in Afghanistan; no ‘Total Information Awareness’ from the Information Awareness Office; no Project for the New American Century; no invented heroic rescue of Private Jessica Lynch; no Fox News; no hundreds of millions spent on ‘abstinence education’. It does not deal with the Cheney theory of the ‘unitary executive’ – essentially that neither the Congress nor the courts can tell the president what to do – or Bush’s frequent use of ‘signing statements’ to indicate that he would completely ignore a bill that the Congress had just passed.

It is astonishing how many major players from Bush World are here Missing in Action. Entirely absent, or mentioned only in passing, are Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, John Yoo, Elliott Abrams, Ahmed Chalabi, Ayad Allawi, Rick Santorum, Trent Lott, Tom DeLay, Richard Armitage, Katherine Harris, Ken Mehlman, Paul O’Neill, Rush Limbaugh. Barely appearing at all are John Ashcroft, Samuel Alito, Ari Fleischer, Alberto Gonzales, Denny Hastert, John Negroponte and Tom Ridge. Condi and Colin Powell are given small parts, but Rummy is largely a passing shadow. No one is allowed to steal a scene from the star.

The enormous black hole in the book is the Grand Puppetmaster himself, Dick Cheney, the man who was prime minister to Bush’s figurehead president. In Decision Points, as in the Bush years, he is nearly always hiding in an undisclosed location. When he does show up on scattered pages, he is merely another member of the Bush team. The implicit message is that Washington was too small a town for two Deciders.
People interested in fact and not self-promotion will have to look elsewhere. But everybody should read this review in full. There is a lot more 'insights' into George Bush in this review. It is one of the best things I've ever read about him. It sure whittle Bush down to size using facts to lop off the lies leaving only a twig that thinks it is a mighty trunk.

Put Blame Where it Belongs

Here's a nice NY Times review of Matt Taibbi's latest book Griftopia:
Among the unfortunate legacies of the financial crisis of 2008 is a tendency among commentators to soft-pedal the outrage over what happened. In too many accounts, blame is considered impossible to assign given the complexities of modern-day finance. Those inclined to point fingers at Wall Street or Washington are frequently derided as innocents who do not grasp how the world really works.

The result is an apologia that goes something like this: Mistakes were made, despite the best intentions of financial professionals. Bankers lent too much money to poor people who never should have bought homes. Models used to measure risk broke down, and regulators were swamped. All of this was a shame, but accidents are a part of life, and an unavoidable part of the swashbuckling style of capitalism that has enriched Americans for generations.

Nonsense, Matt Taibbi says. In “Griftopia,” a relentlessly disturbing, penetrating exploration of the root causes of the trauma that upended economic security in millions of American homes, Taibbi argues that what unfolded was far from accidental. Rather, the nation suffered the equivalent of a hostile takeover of key areas of its commercial life by investment banking houses, while regulators and members of Congress abdicated their responsibilities either because they were influenced by campaign cash or because they believed the fairy tale that unsupervised markets always work best. The result, Taibbi asserts, was a thieves’ paradise — Griftopia.
In the good old days (say 2003) you had to walk the plank if you were caught with your hand in the cookie jar. But in the brave new world of Obama "compromise" you end up with nobody guilty of anything and the ship left steering the same reckless course toward the next bubble and crash.

Here's the sad truth:
Taibbi persuasively dismisses the argument that the financial crisis was caused by poor people with a taste for real estate, delineating how Wall Street eagerly handed out mortgages to anyone with a pulse, and then used the home loans as the material for a far more lucrative enterprise — the exotic investments known as derivatives. The derivatives market depended upon a steady supply of mortgages. But when too many of the bets went bad, Wall Street persuaded the Treasury to construct bailouts that Taibbi describes as a “labyrinthine financial sewage system designed to stick us all with the raw waste and pump clean water back to Wall Street.”
And if you wonder why the commodities market is "overheated" and headed for another 2008 run-up and crash, consider this. I've bolded the key bit:
In Taibbi’s telling, contemporary finance has perverted markets that once served important functions, turning them into frontier-style betting parlors. Futures markets, for example, were created to allow farmers to hedge themselves against fluctuations in crop prices, and were traditionally regulated to prevent investors from amassing holdings large enough to manipulate prices. But over the last two decades, the federal government, at Wall Street’s behest, pared down its rules, allowing speculators to dominate commodities markets. Wall Street then steered pension funds into commodities. This, Taibbi claims, was the real cause of the commodities bubble that sent oil prices soaring to ludicrous heights in the summer of 2008. And now, with many local authorities hurting for cash, Wall Street is increasingly brokering deals that turn municipal facilities like Chicago’s parking meters into investment vehicles controlled by overseas governments — deals that Taibbi presents as a taxpayer rip-off.
And guess what... oil prices are over-heated again. Oh, and Wall Street is recording record profits. Quelle surprise!

An Assessment of Obama

Here's a bit from an article by Paul Krugman and Robin Wells in the New York Review of Books:
But the Obama team has demonstrated neither toughness nor skill. The trouble was apparent right from the beginning. After the 2008 election, Obama had the political winds at his back. Yet rather than bargaining from a position of strength and demanding an economic program adequate to the scale of the economy’s problems, Obama made his goal the working out of a cooperative political process—accommodation and the fantasy of bipartisanship.

And despite warnings from many economists (ourselves included) that the stimulus package that resulted was much too small, Obama engaged in premature triumphalism. In February 2009, he said of the plan:

It is the right size, it is the right scope. Broadly speaking it has the right priorities to create jobs that will jump-start our economy and transform it for the twenty-first century.
The only thing missing was a “Mission Accomplished” banner.

Worse, the administration seemed unable to change its line once it became clear that the program was, in fact, inadequate. Progressives kept waiting for the moment when Obama would say something like “My predecessor left the economy in even worse shape than we realized—it’s time for further action.” That moment never came. Instead, officials kept insisting that the recovery was on track, long after it was obvious to everyone else that it wasn’t.

After the midterms, leading Democratic strategists blasted the administration for being tone-deaf: “A metaphor about a car in the ditch when people are in trouble and angry about the abuse of Wall Street, it’s just out of touch with what’s going on,” declared the pollster Stan Greenberg, while James Carville asked, “What were they thinking?” A better political strategy, said Carville, could have limited Democratic losses in the House to thirty seats, but the administration remained weirdly passive right through to election day.

The same passivity was visible on other fronts: the administration did nothing as its mortgage modification program degenerated into a subject of derision; it did nothing to address public anger over Wall Street bailouts; it dithered in the face of Chinese currency manipulation; it hesitated and prevaricated for weeks after the Gulf oil spill. The administration’s political strategy seemed to boil down to sitting around and waiting for the economy to improve.

Now the Republicans control the House and have effective blocking power in the Senate. And all indications are that they are ready and willing to use this position to deny the Obama administration any achievements it could point to in 2012. Even national security is no concern: Senate Republicans have blocked a badly needed strategic arms treaty on obviously spurious grounds. And the economy is clearly fair game: neither the plight of the unemployed nor the likely economic consequences of a sudden drop in purchasing power deterred Republicans from blocking an extension of unemployment benefits.
Go read the whole article. It has much more to say that is worth reading. For example, here is its assessment for the near term future:
Thus the Democrats must begin by facing up to the reality of an uphill struggle. The historic opportunity of 2008 has been squandered. While Democrats held the Senate this year, they will be in severe jeopardy in 2012, when a disproportionate number of Democratic senators will be up for reelection. And as we’ve just seen, they can’t count on the economy to propel Obama to reelection—in part because Republicans, whatever they claim or actually believe, will do all they can to keep the economy depressed.

Nor can they count on Obama himself to lead a comeback. In a dispiriting 60 Minutes interview given after the midterms, he actually seemed to accept Republican smears—blaming himself, not the GOP, for the failure to “maintain the kind of tone that says we can disagree without being disagreeable.” And it’s truly astonishing that as corporate profits hit new records despite mass unemployment, Obama apparently takes seriously accusations that his administration is antibusiness.

Even if Obama were suddenly to find an inner FDR, would anyone notice? His aloofness has become so indelibly registered in voters’ minds that if he tried to change style—even if he wanted to, a big “if”—this would immediately come across as opportunistic. Having trusted and been disappointed by Obama once before, they are very unlikely to give him another chance.
And this:
And this brings us to our last point. Democrats need to make it clear that if Obama isn’t going to be the leader of the Democratic agenda—and all indications are that he can’t or won’t—they will advance that agenda anyway, with or without his help. They have to be ready to delink their political fate from Obama, and make it clear that they won’t tolerate further undermining of their goals by deluded calls for bipartisanship. Progressive groups—MoveOn, for example—helped put Obama in office by mobilizing their members and followers through a variety of organizational strategies, including use of the Internet. They did so only to be ignored and dismissed once the 2008 election was won, and now they need to be revived.


In 2008, progressives fell for the fantasy of hope and change on the cheap; they believed Obama’s promise that the reforms America needed could float through on a tide of bipartisan reconciliation. It was not to be, and clinging to that illusion will only lead to more defeats. If progressives want to rebound, they’ll have to fight.

Global Warming Hits New England

We've seen dastardly outbreaks of "global warming" in Europe stranding passengers and a sudden strike in Australia where it snowed just a week ago (the equivalent of a mid-June snow in North America). Now the horrid "global warming" has hit New England and left God's dandruff everywhere...

I guess when an ice sheet stretches across North America a half mile thick we call all throw our hands up and say "you win 'global warming' enough!"

The Almost 2008 President of the US

The behaviour of John McCain today and the near-miss election of him to the US Presidency in 2008 shows just how dysfunctional US politics truly is. The guy is a fool and a neanderthal, but that didn't stop nearly half the electorate from voting for him in 2008.

Here's a nice posting by Joe Klein at Time magazine giving his opinion of McCain. I've bolded the key bits:
The Senate today passed the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," which is a good thing. It did not pass the "Dream Act," which is a cold, cold abomination. There is a relationship between the two. Repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" will allow homosexuals--who have fought honorably in every one of America's wars--to serve openly. Blocking the "Dream Act" means that young immigrants, who were brought here illegally by their parents, will not be able to gain citizenship by completing college or by serving in the military.

The repeal of "don't ask" will get most of the attention in the media--as it should, another step toward the perfection of our democracy. But let us focus for a moment on the "Dream Act," a vote of staggering cynicism and ugliness on the part of most Republicans and five morally-deficient Democrats. Two of the original sponsors, John McCain and Orrin Hatch, voted against the bill...and one wonders why, especially in McCain's case, given the fact that he recently won reelection and doesn't have to pretend to be a troglodyte anymore. McCain has professed himself all misty and honored in the past when he attended ceremonies in which green-card holders and other non-citizens achieved citizenship through military service. But, because of the anti-immigrant mania, this flagrantly cynical and cowardly politician, would deny similar status to young people who--through no fault of their own--were brought to this country as children, grew up as Americans and love the country enough to serve it. If the Dream Act were passed, we would have gained an estimated 65,000 valuable, patriotic and productive citizens--college graduates, military service-members--each year. We could use them. (More on See a brief history of gays in the military)

McCain distinguished himself doubly this weekend, opposing the Dream Act and leading the opposition to "Don't Ask," despite the very public positions of his wife and daughter on the other side of the issue. I used to know a different John McCain, the guy who proposed comprehensive immigration reform with Ted Kennedy, the guy--a conservative, to be sure, but an honorable one--who refused to indulge in the hateful strictures of his party's extremists. His public fall has been spectacular, a consequence of politics--he "needed" to be reelected--and personal pique. He's a bitter man now, who can barely tolerate the fact that he lost to Barack Obama. But he lost for an obvious reason: his campaign proved him to be puerile and feckless, a politician who panicked when the heat was on during the financial collapse, a trigger-happy gambler who chose an incompetent for his vice president. He has made quite a show ever since of demonstrating his petulance and lack of grace.

What a guy.
Klein focuses on the failings of McCain. I think the focus should be on the failings of an American public that nearly elected such as weak, bitter, inconstant, unreliable, and untrustworthy person to the highest office of the land.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

TSA and Your Safety

I don't trust what TSA tells you about its scanning machines. This, which is from James Fallows' blog -- a snippet in which he quotes a physicist -- is something that I do believe:
There is no such thing as a risk-free dose of ionizing radiation. The federal government studied this using beagles right after World War II and found no safe dosage level. And for good reason.

The reason Albert Einstein won the Nobel Prize was for explaining the photoelectric effect, not for relativity. His explanation involved the discovery that light is absorbed and emitted in discrete energy packets called photons, like a stream of particle. Photons are only absorbed or emitted one at a time, and their energy depends on their frequency.

We learn two things relevant to current news from this:

1. All microwave photons are far too weak to cause damage to molecules through their absorption. The energy level of a microwave photon is sufficient to cause a molecule to rotate or vibrate (this is how microwave ovens work) but not to cause it to disintegrate or modify its structure, and those are essential requirements for causing a DNA molecule to mutate into a malignant strand. Epidemiology cannot answer this question because its methods are not aware of physical laws. They can place a statistical limit on mutagenicity, but physics actually rules it out as physically impossible. Lesson? Cell phones do not cause cancer. Period.

2. On the other hand, X-rays cause molecular damage very easily because they are extremely energetic. In fact, this is the reason why they permit you to see inside things. Anything further up the spectrum than the near-UV is capable of causing cancer. But UV is not energetic enough to penetrate. It is absorbed in the outer layers of the skin, and so can cause skin cancer but not, say, lung cancer. X-rays penetrate. They cause cancer everywhere. And dosage is cumulative over your entire lifetime. Every time you have an X-ray, you slightly increase your chances of contracting cancer. This is why the radiologist always goes into another (shielded) room and puts a lead blanket over parts of you that they aren't interested in. Now each additional dose is a small risk increase, to be sure, and the benefits of medical treatment are generally worth the risk (though I am frequently irritated by the tendency of dentists to X-ray my head with wild abandon).

So I will not go into the naked scanner under any circumstances. It is only for PR purposes, and I don't give a shit about helping Obama or Pistole or anyone else primp their public image. Millimeter wave is safe, X-ray is not, but you never know which one you're getting. TSA workers should be up in arms since they're standing around the machines unshielded all day long. This will eventually come back to bite the government.

You can take that from a physicist.

Oh, and by the way, being afraid of irradiated breast milk is idiotic. That radiation is not entering your body and so can't damage it. On the other hand, so long as the TSA has a policy [of treating breast milk as a "medical fluid'] , they need to honor it.
The part about "this will come back to bite the government" is something I would take very, very seriously.

Good News for the USA

Here is Daniel Gross at Yahoo! reviewing 2010 and declaring the US is the winner...

I sure hope he is right. I agree with Daniel Gross that you can't trust what Tom Friedman writes. But I disagree on Krugman. I tend to side with Paul Krugman. I'm willing to agree with Daniel Gross that the US isn't going to be another Japan, but I think Krugman is right in saying that the US is drifting toward Japan. I suspect Gross and Krugman are closer to each other than the above video would lead you to believe.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Human Ancestry

Here's a bit from a NY Times article by Carl Zimmer:
An international team of scientists has identified a previously shadowy human group known as the Denisovans as cousins to Neanderthals who lived in Asia from roughly 400,000 to 50,000 years ago and interbred with the ancestors of today’s inhabitants of New Guinea.

All the Denisovans have left behind are a broken finger bone and a wisdom tooth in a Siberian cave. But the scientists have succeeded in extracting the entire genome of the Denisovans from these scant remains. An analysis of this ancient DNA, published on Wednesday in Nature, reveals that the genomes of people from New Guinea contain 4.8 percent Denisovan DNA.

An earlier, incomplete analysis of Denisovan DNA had placed the group as more distant from both Neanderthals and humans. On the basis of the new findings, the scientists propose that the ancestors of Neanderthals and Denisovans emerged from Africa half a million years ago. The Neanderthals spread westward, settling in the Near East and Europe. The Denisovans headed east. Some 50,000 years ago, they interbred with humans expanding from Africa along the coast of South Asia, bequeathing some of their DNA to them.
Go read the original article to get the embedded links.

Human ancestry is so much more interesting with entanglements between modern humans, Neaderthals, and Denisovans. And then there are the "hobbits" (the Floresians) who make an interesting sideline. Obviously the story of human evolution will become much more interesting over the coming decades.

How Bureaucrats are Killing Science

I read the following and I couldn't believe my eyes. If you know anything of how science started you know it was from sharing stuff, from shipping stuff around, from people trying things out. And none of this was done by filling out forms in triplicate, dealing with layered regulations that seem intent only in preventing anything from happening. While I understand precautions and rules, common sense should prevail over bureaucratic inertia!

Read this posting in the RRResearch blog of Rosemary Redfield of the University of British Columbia:
FedEx, why oh why do you hate us so?

The cells we're trying to ship to London (post 1, post 2) are back in our freezer.

When I last blogged about them (on Monday) they had been sent back to us by the local FedEx office because the paperwork wasn't perfect and we needed to put the styrofoam container into an appropriately labeled cardboard box. We'd fixed the errors (not all ours) and were only waiting to get some dry ice from Chemistry Stores on Tuesday.

So we sent the cells off on Tuesday with 8 kg of dry ice, and on Wednesday they came back again! This time there were only three tiny errors in the paperwork, only one of which was our oversight. But the errors were easy to fix (at least after I again called the helpful people at FedEx's Dangerous Goods office), so we topped up the dry ice and sent the shipment off again (third time) on Wednesday afternoon.

It didn't come back on Thursday morning (premature sigh of relief), but when we tracked its progress on Friday morning we found that, although it had been accepted by the Vancouver airport office in Richmond and shipped off to their Memphis hub, Memphis had sent it back to Richmond! It had arrived there early on Friday morning and was awaiting clearance (customs?).

I thought it would then be delivered back to us, but when it hadn't shown up by Friday afternoon I had to rush to the airport to fetch it, because I didn't want the cells to thaw out over the weekend. The clerk at the airport FedEx office showed me the tracking record in his system. The package had been rejected by the Memphis Ramp Agent, without any explanation. The clerk couldn't find anything wrong with the paperwork or packaging, except maybe that the 'dangerous goods' status should have been indicated on the computer-generated waybill. He said that it's very tricky to do this annotation on a computer-generated waybill, and kindly gave me a stack of paper/carbon copy waybills to use next time. On Monday I'll call the Dangerous Goods office again, to see if they either agree with this or have another explanation.

To add insult to injury, the RA says that FedEx is charging us the full price (more than $200) for each failed shipment!

Will we try again? Maybe not. The researcher who was going to do the assays in London is about to leave for a post-doc position at Stanford. And the RA says that we should just do the assays here, because she's done them before and they're not difficult.

Monday morning update: I just spoke to a FedEx Dangerous Goods expert. He said that the UK will not accept any shipments containing agents infectious to humans! My London colleagues had assured me that no import permit was needed for Haemophilus influenzae, and this document appears to confirm that, since H. influenzae is in Hazard Group 2.

Another update: I called FedEx back - it's a UK FedEx rule, not a UK government rule. Too bad they didn't bother to tell me this any of the other three times I spoke to them about this shipment; they'd have saved us a lot of money.
This is enough to pull you hair out and quit research. This is utterly nutty.

I think of Barry Marshall who proved that a bacteria causes gastric ulcers by testing his hypothesis on himself by drinking a culture of the bacteria. This would probably get him fired today for "unauthorized human experimentation" because you would need to file a request to experiment. The likelihood of getting an agreement would be close to impossible because people laughed at this theory and assured him that bacteria cannot survive in the acidic environment of the stomach. The test would never have been done. That's how you grind science to a halt.

The Redfield example spells out the doom of science to me. Oh sure, there will be lots of busy work in labs. People can always fill time. But when important experiments require bold steps and there is a heavy-handed bureaucracy to prevent it, nothing imaginative or exiting will be done. Science will end.

How to Think Like a Security "Expert"

This is sadly funny...
Tennessee anti-terrorism officials put ACLU on map of "terrorism events and other suspicious activity"

by Cory Doctorow

Ho ho ho: Tennessee anti-terrorist official gave the ACLU of Tennessee a hell of a Christmas present: according to them, the ACLU belongs on a map of terrorism events and other suspicious activity: "Equating a group's attempts to protect religious freedom in Tennessee with suspicious activity related to terrorism is outrageous. Religious freedom is a founding principle in our Constitution -- not fodder for overzealous law enforcement."
It would be funny if it were just a joke. But sadly it is a fact. It says volumes about the paranoia in the US and the profound stupidity of the security bureaucracy.

The Role of the US Military

Here is a bit from an very, very interesting post entitled "You can go strangle yourself with that yellow ribbon, or, here is what I want you to do instead of shaking my hand" by an anonymous "correspondent" on Tom Ricks' The Best Defense blog:
First off, wake up: we already have a politicized military and it is one-sided. In data collected by Adrian R. Lewis, "Republicans outnumbered Democrats by 8 to 1" in uniform and Tom has done a bit of fact finding in this department in Making the Corps. I can confirm this mainly through my own experience. I can only think of one or two men and women, way above my pay grade, who had any liberal leanings and they joined up before the 1980. I hid my politics out of a fear of retribution and because I thought the military was not supposed to be political. It is not conservativism that bothered me but the contempt for anything that would interrupt how the military should work and be used within that belief system. During boot camp, I was taught to hold civilians as nasty, sub-human liberals, which only distanced Marines from their own society. I had several First Sergeants and Officers question my motives about being in the Corps year after year once the origin of my degree was located. When my Marines asked me who I was voting for in 2004 I told them I wasn't voting because I didn't think it was okay to be engaged in politics whatsoever while in uniform. I said there was no pressure to vote or not vote and to make their own decision. A platoon commander overheard this, and instantly struck down my position and told them to re-elect the president or face the consequences of a lost war. It seemed unprofessional to me then and now.

This is a pretty new development in our history and one that should trouble anyone who is trying to fight a war. Typically we want an apolitical military with lots of talented people because they can use those talents in the fight and because we don't want military coups. The first component is what keeps the balance. Talented people come from all walks of political life and whether we like it or not, a lot of the talent we need in this kind of war (historians, linguists, cultural anthropologists, union leaders, Islamic scholars, grass roots organizers, student teachers and agriculture specialists to name a few) are generally not all conservatives but that shouldn't matter. Why not have feminists, soccer moms, gay dads, retired generals, Islamic privates, psychologists, businessmen, and so forth talking about issues in the military in forums like this unlike the current situation: a small group of "professionals" or ex-military who are typically right of center and generally white men.

The loss of political variety within our military has helped create the holy cow of defense spending. We seem to write blank checks for corporations that making things for the military and blank checks for the military itself while we hack apart the entitlement programs from WW2 such as the VA, DOT, Social Security, Education, and Medicare. No one wants to be seen not "supporting the troops," that elitist problem surfacing again, by voting against something wasteful or voting against something they don't have the military education to comprehend.
Here's a bit from his conclusion:
The uneducated decisions made and various untruths told after 9/11 by leaders we picked, have brought us to this impasse. Like it or not, regardless of who you voted for or what party you belong to, we cannot go back. We have a moral obligation to the people of Afghanistan and Iraq. We have irrevocably changed their lives by haphazardly invading their sovereign lands, toppling their governments, and upending their socio-economic lives. We have to show them our values are not imperialism, coercion, exploitation, torture, and abandonment. We will accept the consequences of our actions, correct our mistakes, commit more of our blood and treasure, and help them build the kind of countries they want over the next 90 years. If not, we face repeat consequences of terrorist attacks from the countries we abandon, justified suspicion of our motives by the rest of the world, and more half-cocked interventionist measures.
There is a great deal more in the post that is well worth you time reading. Very interesting thoughts. Eye-opening.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Economic Question, as Posed by Merle Hazard

Here's the burning question of today, posed in a musical riddle...

I'm voting Japan!

Goldacre on "Bad Science"

Here is a talk by Ben Goldacre at a Pop!Tech conference held in Camden, Maine in October. He points out the simple idea of science: pose theories and criticize them. He points out that quacks and fanatics have no problem posing their own theories, but they adamantly refuse to put them to the test of criticism:

Sadly, we live in a "modern" world in which most people are still pre-modern, i.e. they reject science in favour of holding to pet theories which they refuse to question and which they defend viciously.

Loss of Confidence in TSA

Here's a news story about a pilot exposing the fact that TSA is "security theatre", i.e. passengers are de-shoed, de-pocketed, de-belted, de-liquified, scanned, and groped before they get near a plane. But ground crew breeze through one door with a cardlock. That's TSA's idea of security. Any terrorist intent on planting a bomb on a plane wouldn't line up like a sheep to go through the specatacle of "airport security". They would simply steal a ground crew's card, then simply walk onto the airfield with his bomb! So much for "security"...

Notice that the whistle-blower isn't congratulated on spotting a weakness. No! He is haraassed and threatened, has his gun taken away, has an "official letter" telling him that "imparing the efficiency of TSA" or causing the "loss of confidence in TSA" is the real crime, not the incompetence of TSA, or the silly security theatre. The crime is spotting a weakness and a danger. The bureaucrats kill the messenger instead of fixing the problem. Yeah... like that is going to make people more "secure".

Understanding Your Enemy

From a very interesting article in the Boston Globe entitled "The Truth about Suicide Bombers":
The traditional view of suicide bombers is well established, and backed by the scholars who study them. The bombers are, in the post-9/11 age, often young, ideologically driven men and women who hate the laissez-faire norms of the West — or at least the occupations and wars of the United States — because they contradict the fundamentalist interpretations that animate the bombers’ worldview. Their deaths are a statement, then, as much as they are the final act of one’s faith; and as a statement they have been quite effective. They propagate future deaths, as terrorist organizers use a bomber’s martyrdom as propaganda for still more suicide terrorism.

But Williams is among a small cadre of scholars from across the world pushing the rather contentious idea that some suicide bombers may in fact be suicidal.
Here is an example that supports the depression interpretation:
Qari Sami did something strange the day he killed himself. The university student from Kabul had long since grown a bushy, Taliban-style beard and favored the baggy tunics and trousers of the terrorists he idolized. He had even talked of waging jihad. But on the day in 2005 that he strapped the bomb to his chest and walked into the crowded Kabul Internet cafe, Sami kept walking — between the rows of tables, beyond the crowd, along the back wall, until he was in the bathroom, with the door closed.

And that is where, alone, he set off his bomb.

The blast killed a customer and a United Nations worker, and injured five more. But the carnage could have been far worse. Brian Williams, an associate professor of Islamic studies at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, was in Afghanistan at the time. One day after the attack, he stood before the cafe’s hollowed-out wreckage and wondered why any suicide bomber would do what Sami had done: deliberately walk away from the target before setting off the explosives. “[Sami] was the one that got me thinking about the state of mind of these guys,” Williams said.

Eventually a fuller portrait emerged. Sami was a young man who kept to himself, a brooder. He was upset by the US forces’ ouster of the Taliban in the months following 9/11 — but mostly Sami was just upset. He took antidepressants daily. One of Sami’s few friends told the media he was “depressed.”
There are enough crazed suicides already in the West, i.e. people who decide to "go down in a blaze of glory" and kill innocent people by the score in their final desperate suicidal act. It seems to be a modern disease.

What I don't understand is the viciousness of it all. I can understand being depressed. I can understand killing yourself. What I can't understand is taking innocent lives with you. It requires a perverse mind, a vicious person, to decide to multiply your own unhappiness by spreading it to others. Bizarre. Rather than seek help and try to find joy, you decide to spread misery and hate. What a wildly counter-productive, miserable thing to do.

To decide to go out in a "blaze of glory" requires a perverted mind:
Islam forbids suicide. Of the world’s three Abrahamic faiths, “The Koran has the only scriptural prohibition against it,” said Robert Pape, a professor at the University of Chicago who specializes in the causes of suicide terrorism. The phrase suicide bomber itself is a Western conception, and a pretty foul one at that: an egregious misnomer in the eyes of Muslims, especially from the Middle East. For the Koran distinguishes between suicide and, as the book says, “the type of man who gives his life to earn the pleasure of Allah.” The latter is a courageous Fedayeen — a martyr. Suicide is a problem, but martyrdom is not.
A decent person, an honest person, a kind person would crawl in a corner and die quietly rather than spread misery.

But the modern world is awash in deluded people, both non-religious and religious, who can talk themselves into horrifying deeds:
In 2002, he approached a group of 15 would-be suicide bombers — Palestinians arrested and detained moments before their attacks — and asked if he could interview them. Remarkably, they agreed. “Nobody” — no scholar — “had ever been able to do something like this,” Merari said. He also approached 14 detained terrorist organizers. Some of the organizers had university degrees and were intrigued by the fact that Merari wanted to understand them. They, too, agreed to be interviewed. Merari was ecstatic.

Fifty-three percent of the would-be bombers showed “depressive tendencies” — melancholy, low energy, tearfulness, the study found — whereas 21 percent of the organizers exhibited the same. Furthermore, 40 percent of the would-be suicide bombers expressed suicidal tendencies; one talked openly of slitting his wrists after his father died. But the study found that none of the terrorist organizers were suicidal.

The paper was published last year in the journal Terrorism and Political Violence. Adam Lankford read it in his office at the University of Alabama. The results confirmed what he’d been thinking. The criminal justice professor had published a book, “Human Killing Machines,” about the indoctrination of ordinary people as agents for terrorism or genocide. Merari’s paper touched on themes he’d explored in his book, but the paper also gave weight to the airy speculation Lankford had heard a few years earlier in Washington, D.C., while he was earning his PhD from American University. There, Lankford had helped coordinate antiterrorism forums with the State Department for high-ranking military and security personnel. And it was at these forums, from Third World-country delegates, that Lankford first began to hear accounts of suicide bombers who may have had more than martyrdom on their minds. “That’s what sparked my interest,” he said.
This helps explain the spate of terrorist suicide bombings. And it helps explain the modern spate of mass killings. These are people who in less "media saavy" times would have gone into the back room and cut their wrists or hung themselves, decide to get their "moment of glory" by making life miserable for so many, many others.

And, of course, in the hands of fanatics like al Qaeda, this manipulation of a suicidal tendency gives them a wonderful tool to create "martyrs":
Lankford writes of al Qaeda-backed terrorists in Iraq who would target and rape local women, and then see to it that the victims were sent to Samira Ahmed Jassim. Jassim would convince these traumatized women that the only way to escape public scorn was martyrdom. She was so successful she became known as the Mother of Believers. “If you just needed true believers, you wouldn’t need them to be raped first,” Lankford said in an interview.
This is simply a crime dressed up as "religion" and turned into a horror to create more horror.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Dangerous Left Wing Tract

Here's a bit from a fun piece -- with a serious intent -- by Paul Krugman as an op-ed piece on the NY Times:
Hey, has anyone noticed that “A Christmas Carol” is a dangerous leftist tract?

I mean, consider the scene, early in the book, where Ebenezer Scrooge rightly refuses to contribute to a poverty relief fund. “I’m opposed to giving people money for doing nothing,” he declares. Oh, wait. That wasn’t Scrooge. That was Newt Gingrich — last week. What Scrooge actually says is, “Are there no prisons?” But it’s pretty much the same thing.

Anyway, instead of praising Scrooge for his principled stand against the welfare state, Charles Dickens makes him out to be some kind of bad guy. How leftist is that?

As you can see, the fundamental issues of public policy haven’t changed since Victorian times. Still, some things are different. In particular, the production of humbug — which was still a somewhat amateurish craft when Dickens wrote — has now become a systematic, even industrial, process.
Krugman goes on to point out specifics of how the right uses the media to propagandize -- spew lies -- that unfortunately Americans never hear any corrections about, so it ends up being believed.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Clarification on the $250,000 Line in the Sand

Here is a bit from a NY Times blog post by David Leonhardt that helps show just how crazy the fight was the $250,000 and up tax cuts:
We’ve heard from several readers who wanted to know how much money households with $250,000 a year in adjusted gross income — that is, those who would have been affected by the Democrats’ original proposal on the Bush tax cuts — actually make. The answer seems to be about $315,000 a year.

Some background: President Obama and other Democrats originally proposed the expiration of the Bush tax cuts on income above $250,000 a year. With the Republicans taking over the House, the Democrats retreated from that proposal and agreed to extend all the Bush tax cuts for two years. But Democrats say they still want to see these high-end cuts expire in 2012.

There are two aspects of the high-end cuts that often get lost in the public discussion. The first is households with more than $250,000 a year in adjusted gross income would still get a tax cut — on their first $250,000 of such income. On average, this tax cut would equal about $6,500 a year, regardless of whether a household had $250,000 in adjusted gross income or $1 million (or much more) in adjusted gross income. If all the Bush tax cuts are extended, by contrast, households making at least $1 million a year would receive an average annual tax cut of $104,000.

The second issue is that earning $250,000 in adjustable gross income is different from earning $250,000 in total income. High-income households tend to take a significant number of deductions. At our request, Roberton Williams at the Tax Policy Center analyzed the total income of households with $240,000 to $260,000 a year in adjusted gross income. On average, they made $315,000 in adjusted gross income, including $32,000 in capital gains and dividends.

So when you hear talk about taxes on people makes at least $250,000 a year, it really tends to means taxes on income above $315,000 a year.
So all that grandstanding by Republicans over "everybody" should get a tax cut, was a fight to make sure that people making six times the average American household's income.

Funny, when you make six times as much, what do you buy six times as many of? You don't eat 18 meals a day. Even buying a house 6 times the size of an average house isn't something most people do. You don't drive 6 cars. I guess you could take 6 times as much vacation, and you can buy clothes that cost 6 times as much. But it is hard for me to understand the tenacious fight to make sure that very, very wealthy people get such big tax cuts.

At the same time, Republicans have the audacity to say that unemployment insurance should be stopped because it encourages people to be "lazy". This is the Marie Antoinette syndrome. These Republicans spend too much time with their rich friends. They simply don't know how ordinary people live (and they obviously don't care). That's the real crime for which Marie Antoinette lost her head: when the mobs from Paris stormed the gate, Marie Antoinette was so disengaged from reality that when she was told they were rioting because of "bread" her response what "well, let them eat cake!"

If you want the details on what a $250,000 income will buy, read this.

A New Criminal Class in America

Who? The banks! Here's a NY Times article to introduce the banks with their badly managed "paperwork" who are illegally seizing properties around the country under foreclosure laws that simply assume the bank has a right to your property and you have to beg, plead, spend a fortune, wait for months for the slow wheels of justice to grind. But banks whiz through seize property and make off like bandits!

Here's a bit of the article:
In a Sign of Foreclosure Flaws, Suits Claim Break-Ins by Banks

By Andrew Martin

TRUCKEE, Calif. — When Mimi Ash arrived at her mountain chalet here for a weekend ski trip, she discovered that someone had broken into the home and changed the locks.

When she finally got into the house, it was empty. All of her possessions were gone: furniture, her son’s ski medals, winter clothes and family photos. Also missing was a wooden box, its top inscribed with the words “Together Forever,” that contained the ashes of her late husband, Robert.

The culprit, Ms. Ash soon learned, was not a burglar but her bank. According to a federal lawsuit filed in October by Ms. Ash, Bank of America had wrongfully foreclosed on her house and thrown out her belongings, without alerting Ms. Ash beforehand.

In an era when millions of homes have received foreclosure notices nationwide, lawsuits detailing bank break-ins like the one at Ms. Ash’s house keep surfacing. And in the wake of the scandal involving shoddy, sometimes illegal paperwork that has buffeted the nation’s biggest banks in recent months, critics say these situations reinforce their claims that the foreclosure process is fundamentally flawed.
So... the people who brought you sliced and diced "securitization" which crashed the economy and cause the Great Recession are back with more fancy paperwork that covers over illegal and unethical acts. Before it was selling paper as AAA when it was junk. Now it is seizing properties they don't own because the securitized mortgage bonds have improper and missing paperwork.

And guess who will pay for this mess? The million dollar bonus receiving bankers who got a $800 billion taxpayer bailout? Nope! You, the taxpayer, will pay for this mess through years of legal cases clogging the courts to straighten out the mess. Meanwhile the bankers will be blowing you bubbles. Literally, they will be blowing up new bubbles to enrich themselves because the Obama financial regulation act doesn't regulate any better than wet tissue paper when it comes to restraining fraud and illegality on Wall Street!