Monday, January 31, 2011

Schizophrenia in the US Republican Party

On the one hand, Republicans argue that the health care plan pushed by Obama and passed by the US Congress is "unconstitutional" because it forces people to buy health insurance whether they want it or not. From the Boston Globe newspaper:
A federal judge in Florida said in a sweeping ruling yesterday that President Obama’s health care overhaul is unconstitutional because the government cannot force individuals to buy health insurance.

On the other hand, Republicans are pushing to make ownership of guns mandatory. From the Argus Leader:
Five South Dakota lawmakers have introduced legislation that would require any adult 21 or older to buy a firearm “sufficient to provide for their ordinary self-defense.”

The bill, which would take effect Jan. 1, 2012, would give people six months to acquire a firearm after turning 21. The provision does not apply to people who are barred from owning a firearm.

Nor does the measure specify what type of firearm. Instead, residents would pick one “suitable to their temperament, physical capacity, and preference.”

The measure is known as an act “to provide for an individual mandate to adult citizens to provide for the self defense of themselves and others.”
Wow! Makes sense to me. It is "obviously" unconstitutional to try to give people medical insurance and help them live longer lives. But it is certainly constitutional to force people -- whether they are pacifists or if their religion forbids weapons -- to have to buy and carry weapons! Yeah, sure...

The American people must be idiots to keep electing such bold faced hypocrites as the Republicans.

Another Tienanmen?

Here is New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof who was in Tiananmen when the protesters were crushed, asks himself is this another Tienanmen?

Et Tu Brutus?

This is funny. Here's a Huffington Post article puzzled by the fact that the US government is calling for free access to the Internet and to media channels such as Al Jazeera for the Egyptians, but Americans are not free to get Al Jazeera...
Al Jazeera English Blacked Out Across Most Of U.S.

Canadian television viewers looking for the most thorough and in-depth coverage of the uprising in Egypt have the option of tuning into Al Jazeera English, whose on-the-ground coverage of the turmoil is unmatched by any other outlet. American viewers, meanwhile, have little choice but to wait until one of the U.S. cable-company-approved networks broadcasts footage from AJE, which the company makes publicly available. What they can't do is watch the network directly.

Other than in a handful of pockets across the U.S. - including Ohio, Vermont and Washington, D.C. - cable carriers do not give viewers the choice of watching Al Jazeera. That corporate censorship comes as American diplomats harshly criticize the Egyptian government for blocking Internet communication inside the country and as Egypt attempts to block Al Jazeera from broadcasting.

The result of the Al Jazeera English blackout in the United States has been a surge in traffic to the media outlet's website, where footage can be seen streaming live. The last 24 hours have seen a two-and-a-half thousand percent increase in web traffic, Tony Burman, head of North American strategies for Al Jazeera English, told HuffPost. Sixty percent of that traffic, he said, has come from the United States.


Cable companies are also worried, said Burman, that they will lose more subscribers than they will gain by granting access to Al Jazeera. The Canadian experience, he said, should put those fears to rest. In Canada, national regulators can require cable companies to provide certain channels and Al Jazeera ran a successful campaign to encourage Canadians to push the government to intervene. There has been extremely little negative reaction over the past year as Canadians have been able to view the channel and decide for themselves. "We had a completely different process and result here in Canada -- a grassroots campaign that was overwhelmingly successful," said Avi Lewis, the former host of Al Jazeera's Frontline USA. (He now freelances for Al Jazeera while working on a documentary project with his wife, Naomi Klein.)
I think it is hysterically funny for the US government to call for democracy and free access to ideas when the same doesn't exist (or exists in a watered down form) in the US.

It makes you think, doesn't it?

On second thought... I'm pretty sure most Americans are sufficiently propagandized by their own government to be convinced they are the freest of the free and it is some "commie plot" to imply that they don't have access to all relevant info. If all the Truth is in the Bible, why would you need Al Jazeera, right?

Egypt: The Dumbed Down Version

Here's a version of what is going on in Egypt. It has been dumbed down so that the "typical" American can understand it. But I can attest that is is as factually correct as any third hard report of the events on the ground can be.

For those who would like to understand better what is happening in Egypt, try reading this which is entitled "Why Egypt’s popular rebellion is the greatest historical event in a decade, and how Barack Obama missed the boat".


I spent a decade of my life pursing formal logic. The following graphic pretty well summarizes all that I now know about "logic"...

Click to Enlarge

After many years of hard study I've learned an important lesson: the more you learn, the faster you forget.

The US's Great Recession

This graphic from the Calculated Risk blog is the best illustration of how this is the worst recession since the Great Depression:

Click to Enlarge

This is "the big one" but unfortunately the US government didn't respond that way. Instead of a massive infrastructure program and a CCC or WPA effort to get people employed, the Bush administration and now the Obama administration have focused on giving trillion dollar handouts to Wall Street banks as the way to "revive" the economy. Well, a number of bankers are laughing all the way back to their banks as they declare record profits and huge bonuses for themselves.

Here's a nice graphic from an article by Murat Tasci of the Cleveland Federal Reserve published in on The Big Picture blog. It is a different way of making the point in the above graphic, i.e. the Great Recession is much bigger, deeper, and longer than the other post WWII recessions:

Good News out of Egypt

Here is the upside of the revolt:

I have to temper the optimism by pointing out that this was a video done by an English-speaking news organization with locals having English signs. That undercuts the 'authenticity' of the moment being recorded. But hopefully my cynicism is misplaced and this is a broader feeling among the people.

I remain deeply skeptical that real change can come peacefully. The longer Mubarak clings to power, the more likely it will require real force to remove him. But maybe I'm wrong. Here is a very recent news report from Reuters via the Guardian blog on news from Egypt:
Now Reuters confirms earlier reports about the Egyptian army's stance, and the army's statement that it would not use force against Egyptians staging protests demanding that Mubarak step down: According to Reuters:
[The army's statement] said "freedom of expression" was guaranteed to all citizens using peaceful means.

It was the first such explicit confirmation by the army that it would not fire at demonstrators who have taken to the streets of Egypt since last week to try to force Mubarak to quit.

"The presence of the army in the streets is for your sake and to ensure your safety and wellbeing. The armed forces will not resort to use of force against our great people," the army statement said.

"Your armed forces, who are aware of the legitimacy of your demands and are keen to assume their responsibility in protecting the nation and the citizens, affirms that freedom of expression through peaceful means is guaranteed to everybody."

It urged people not resort to acts of sabotage that violate security and destroy public and private property. It warned that it would not allow outlaws and to loot, attack and "terrorise citizens".
This solves half the equation. The question now is whether the Army will provide the push to get the stubborn Mubarak out. I do believe violence will be required but it now looks less like a bloodbath of civilians but more of a palace putsch to remove Mubarak, his inner circle, and the palace guards.

And here is some good news for Egypt coming from the US. Jimmy Carter clearly states that Mubarak has to leave office. From an article in The Nation:
Jimmy Carter, who knows the dynamics of the Middle East better than any US president, former or current, predicts that popular opposition to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has grown so intense that “he will have to leave.”

While President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have sent mixed signals since anti-Mubarak and pro-democracy demonstrations—not always the same thing—erupted across Egypt a week ago, Carter is blunt about what he refers to as the “earthshaking” events that are sweeping the Middle East.

And the former president is warning US officials to get on the right side of those events.

“The United States wants Mubarak to stay in power, but the people have decided,” says the former president, who in the late 1970s oversaw the negotiations that established a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel.
Unfortunately Carter goes on to make known that he favours Suleiman as the successor. But it is clear from the street that ElBaradei nas the nod for interim leader. Hopefully ElBaradei is smart enough to now want to hold power but to purely serve as an interim leader working to allow an orderly succession of power to a people's choice.

The Call for the Poor to Protect the Bond Coupons of the Rich

Here's a bit from an op-ed piece by Paul Krugman in the NY Times:
Last Saturday, reported The Financial Times, some of the world’s most powerful financial executives were going to hold a private meeting with finance ministers in Davos, the site of the World Economic Forum. The principal demand of the executives, the newspaper suggested, would be that governments “stop banker-bashing.” Apparently bailing bankers out after they precipitated the worst slump since the Great Depression isn’t enough — politicians have to stop hurting their feelings, too.

But the bankers also had a more substantive demand: they want higher interest rates, despite the persistence of very high unemployment in the United States and Europe, because they say that low rates are feeding inflation. And what worries me is the possibility that policy makers might actually take their advice.


What about inflation? High unemployment has kept a lid on the measures of inflation that usually guide policy. The Federal Reserve’s preferred measure, which excludes volatile energy and food prices, is now running below half a percent at an annual rate, far below the informal target of 2 percent.

But food and energy prices — and commodity prices in general — have, of course, been rising lately. Corn and wheat prices rose around 50 percent last year; copper, cotton and rubber prices have been setting new records. What’s that about?

The answer, mainly, is growth in emerging markets. While recovery in advanced nations has been sluggish, developing countries — China in particular — have come roaring back from the 2008 slump. This has created inflation pressures within many of these countries; it has also led to sharply rising global demand for raw materials.


What about commodity prices? The Fed normally focuses on “core” inflation, which excludes food and energy, rather than “headline” inflation, because experience shows that while some prices fluctuate widely from month to month, others have a lot of inertia — and it’s the ones with inertia you want to worry about, because once either inflation or deflation gets built into these prices, it’s hard to get rid of.

And this focus has served the Fed well in the past. In particular, the Fed was right not to raise rates in 2007-8, when commodity prices soared — briefly pushing headline inflation above 5 percent — only to plunge right back to earth. It’s hard to see why the Fed should behave differently this time, with inflation nowhere near as high as it was during the last commodity boom.

So why the demand for higher rates? Well, bankers have a long history of getting fixated on commodity prices. Traditionally, that meant insisting that any rise in the price of gold would mean the end of Western civilization. These days it means demanding that interest rates be raised because the prices of copper, rubber, cotton and tin have gone up, even though underlying inflation is on the decline.

Ben Bernanke clearly understands that raising rates now would be a huge mistake. But Jean-Claude Trichet, his European counterpart, is making hawkish noises — and both the Fed and the European Central Bank are under a lot of external pressure to do the wrong thing.

They need to resist this pressure. Yes, commodity prices are up — but that’s no reason to perpetuate mass unemployment. To paraphrase William Jennings Bryan, we must not crucify our economies upon a cross of rubber.
I'm betting that Bernanke caves. The modern world lives in a "democracy" but while you and I get "one vote", the rich get what the cartoonist Scott Adams called for: let the rich have many votes. Adams limited his call to 2 votes. But as far as I can tell the millionaires figure they should get a million votes and the billionaires are holding out for a billion votes. In short, they are corrupting civilization as it always has been. The rich and powerful want rules that make the happy and to heck with everybody else.

Judging Obama from his previous performances, I'm pretty sure he will soon be leaning on the Federal Reserve to make the banks happy. Why? Because Obama has sold himself to the highest bid, Wall Street has bought and paid for him.

And here is Obama with his newest shiny toy -- competitiveness -- to distract people from the real issue. This is from a January 24th NY Times op-ed by Paul Krugman:
Meet the new buzzword, same as the old buzzword. In advance of the State of the Union, President Obama has telegraphed his main theme: competitiveness. The President's Economic Recovery Advisory Board has been renamed the President's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. And in his Saturday radio address, the president declared that ''We can out-compete any other nation on Earth.''

This may be smart politics. Arguably, Mr. Obama has enlisted an old cliche on behalf of a good cause, as a way to sell a much-needed increase in public investment to a public thoroughly indoctrinated in the view that government spending is a bad thing.

But let's not kid ourselves: talking about ''competitiveness'' as a goal is fundamentally misleading. At best, it's a misdiagnosis of our problems. At worst, it could lead to policies based on the false idea that what's good for corporations is good for America.


So what does the administration's embrace of the rhetoric of competitiveness mean for economic policy?

The favorable interpretation, as I said, is that it's just packaging for an economic strategy centered on public investment, investment that's actually about creating jobs now while promoting longer-term growth. The unfavorable interpretation is that Mr. Obama and his advisers really believe that the economy is ailing because they've been too tough on business, and that what America needs now is corporate tax cuts and across-the-board deregulation.

My guess is that we're mainly talking about packaging here. And if the president does propose a serious increase in spending on infrastructure and education, I'll be pleased.

But even if he proposes good policies, the fact that Mr. Obama feels the need to wrap these policies in bad metaphors is a sad commentary on the state of our discourse.


Mr. Obama himself may do all right: his approval rating is up, the economy is showing signs of life, and his chances of re-election look pretty good. But the ideology that brought economic disaster in 2008 is back on top -- and seems likely to stay there until it brings disaster again.
A leader is so named because he leads. Not because he tricks people or dazzles them. Obama doesn't understand leadership. I'm amazed that the US, a country of 300+ million can't find a worthy leader. But since 1968 the US has been led by an unbroken line of incompetents and madmen. The absolute worst was George Bush. Obama looks good by comparison. But in absolute terms, Obama is at best a middling level president and falling as he gets more and more involved in selling the presidency for campaign contributions.

The fact that Obama did not slay the dragon on the Wall Street banks and how they orchestrated the biggest crash since the Great Depression will haunt him. A true leader would have seized the moment, like FDR did, to restructure the economy to ensure that greed and corruption were put back in a box and wouldn't threaten ordinary citizens for a generation or two. With Obama, the threat was cajoled and bribed and will be out of the box in 3 or 5 or 7 years to take everybody down again.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Egypt Has Selected an Interim Leader

He is Mohamed ElBaradei. All of the major parties in Egypt have agreed to let his lead a unity government.

So who opposes him? Well there are two parties. One is the intransigent Mubarak. The other is the brain dead, heel dragging, support the dictator until the people hate you American government. In other words, Obama.

So, yet again, Obama has allowed a historic opportunity to slip through his fingers. Tragic. I remember reading stories of Obama studying his Lincoln biographies because he felt he was called to be a great leader of America, a leader at a turning point leader like Lincoln. Well, Obama is no Lincoln. Lincoln had a plan. And Lincoln was willing to act swiftly and decisively including firing a highly popular general -- McClellan -- who failed to win the war. Obama dithers. Obama hides in the back room talking to his "advisors" while history bypasses him.

Here is a NY Times article that points out that the Egyptian have decided their future. It now looks like it will be bloodshed in the street, enough blood flowing until significant army units defect and the tide turns. It will be bloody but it didn't have to be. Obama will have blood on his hands.
Egypt’s powerful Muslim Brotherhood and the secular opposition banded together Sunday around a prominent government critic to negotiate for forces seeking the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, as the army struggled to hold a capital seized by fears of chaos and buoyed by euphoria that three decades of Mr. Mubarak’s rule may be coming to an end.

The announcement that the critic, Mohamed ElBaradei, would represent a loosely unified opposition reconfigured the struggle between Mr. Mubarak’s government and a six-day-old uprising bent on driving him and his party from power.

Though lacking deep support on his own, Dr. ElBaradei, a Nobel laureate and diplomat, could serve as a consensus figure for a movement that has struggled to articulate a program for a potential transition. It suggested, too, that the opposition was aware of the uprising’s image abroad, putting forth a candidate who might be more acceptable to the West than beloved in Egypt.

In scenes as tumultuous as any since the uprising began, Dr. ElBaradei defied a government curfew and joined thousands of protesters in Liberation Square, a downtown landmark that has become the epicenter of the uprising and a platform, writ small, for the frustrations, ambitions and resurgent pride of a generation claiming the country’s mantle.


Dr. ElBaradei also criticized the Obama administration, as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered the message via Sunday news programs in Washington that Mr. Mubarak should create an “orderly transition” to a more politically open Egypt, while she refrained from calling on him to resign. That approach, Dr. ElBaradei said, was “a failed policy” eroding American credibility.

“It’s better for President Obama not to appear that he is the last one to say to President Mubarak, it’s time for you to go,” Dr. ElBaradei said.


In a collapse of authority, the police withdrew from major cities on Saturday, giving free rein to gangs that stole and burned cars, looted shops and ransacked a fashionable mall, where dismembered mannequins for conservative Islamic dress were strewn over broken glass and puddles of water. Thousands of inmates poured out of four prisons, including the country’s most notorious, Abu Zaabal and Wadi Natroun. Checkpoints run by the military and neighborhood groups, sometimes spaced just a block apart, proliferated across Cairo and other cities.

Many have darkly suggested that the government was behind the collapse of authority as a way to justify a crackdown or discredit protesters’ calls for change.

“Egypt challenges anarchy,” a government-owned newspaper declared Sunday.

“A Conspiracy by Security to Support the Scenario of Chaos,” replied an independent newspaper in a headline that shared space at a downtown kiosk.
I am thoroughly disenchanted with Obama. He is a sold-out politician, a lackey for the big corporate interests. He has no vision. He is not a leader. He dithers. He has not courage. He is smart but only in a kind of rousing speech giver way. Beyond giving good speeches, he hasn't snow any real brilliance. He is an empty suit.
  • Obama has continued the Bush policy of torture.

  • Obama continues to do warrantless wiretaps of all Americans.

  • Obama chose to widen the unwinnable war in Afghanistan by doing a "Bush" surge that has failed.

  • Obama "gave" Americans a health care bill but it is a windfall for insurance companies and will do nothing to reduce the 20% extra cost that Americans pay because the US system is deeply burdened by insurance companies that spend all their energies trying to refuse coverage to those with a policy.

  • He kept in place the same financial "team" that caused the Great Recession by their unwillingness to regulate. His team has had no problem throwing trillions of dollars at Wall Street banks but has given almost nothing to help either Main Street or the honest homeowners who are being foreclosed either by trickery from their banks or because they had a personal tragedy that has temporarily cut their income so they can't afford their mortgage.

  • He lied to the American people with his political slogan "change you can believe in". He is no change. He is another centrist politician but one who dressed himself up as a left-of-centre people's candidate when in fact he was a corporate sell-out.
This policy disaster in Egypt is the last straw. I give up on Obama. He is useless.

Right Wing Myths about Gold

Here is a very useful anti-dote to the doting of the political right with hard currency, with the gold standard. Here's a bit from a post by Paul Krugman on his NY Times blog:
One of the discouraging features of economic debate today — maybe it was always thus, but it seems especially intense now — is how much of it rests on “facts” that aren’t, but which become articles of faith.


Anyway, one alleged fact I keep hearing is that recessions were short and shallow under the gold standard. I don’t know where that’s coming from, but it just ain’t so. The data aren’t as good for the pre-1933 era as they are now, but for what it’s worth they suggest that there were a number of nasty, prolonged slumps under the gold standard. In particular, the Panic of 1893 was associated with a double-dip recession that left industrial production depressed and unemployment high for more than 5 years. Here’s the estimated unemployment rate from Historical Statistics Millennial Edition:

That’s a pretty ugly, prolonged slump. Gold is no panacea.
The tragedy is that fanatical ideology of the right, an ideology that simply ignores fact and economic theory, is condemning millions to unemployment and underemployment for years and years unnecessarily. I guess this crime of the right isn't anywhere near as bad as the crime of the 1930s/early 1940s that saw a world war fought by fanatics of the right trying to change the world into its image under Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Tojo, and the rest. But I foolishly thought the world was smarter than this. I've been shown to be an idealistic fool.

Krugman Finds an Analogy for Egypt

This bit from Paul Krugman's NY Times blog seems to me to be dead on:
I’m a bit surprised not to see anyone drawing the parallel that has jumped out at me (maybe because I spent time in the Philippines in 1990 and 1991, working for UNDP): the People Power revolution in Manila in 1986. This has some of the same feeling: a dictator who’s a long-time US client, a mass popular uprising that’s more about the perceived corruption of the government than about any particular ideology; El Baradei seems to be playing something like the Corazon Aquino role.

Obviously the fact that this is taking place in the Middle East makes it a lot more fraught, but the script does seem similar.

The Philippine example may also serve as a useful model for what to expect if the revolution succeeds. The Philippines didn’t turn into Sweden; there was still plenty of corruption, democracy remains imperfect, etc. — none of which changes the fact that getting rid of Marcos was a very good thing. Egypt won’t turn into Sweden either, but maybe, just maybe, something good is about to happen.
I'm hoping something as good a Corazon Aquino happens for Egypt. I can image a lot of worse outcomes. It is hard to credibly believe something better than an Aquino outcome is possible for Egypt.

Knowing a little history is very helpful for understanding the world around you.

Bugs are Us

Here are some fascinating snippets from an article by Carl Zimmer in his Discover magazine blog. I've bolded the key bits:
There are probably 100 trillion microbes inside each of us, such that our bodies are ten microbes for every one human cell. Those tenants probably belong to several thousand species, with a collection of genes that’s perhaps a 100 times bigger than the human genome. These microbes live in our guts, lungs, mouths, noses, skin, and many other nooks and crannies. Far from making us sick, they help us in many ways, making food for us, defending us from invaders, and nurturing our immune systems.

These bacteria are also hosts to viruses. In World War I, the Canadian doctor Felix d’Herelle discovered the first virus infecting bacteria while studying the stool of French soldiers sick with dysentery. Once he isolated the bacteria-attacking virus, he could use it to destroy cultures of the dysentery-causing bacteria. He dubbed them bacteriophages (eaters of bacteria). In the decades since his discovery, scientists have discovered a mind-boggling number of bacteriophages in the ground, the oceans, and even in deep caves. They are, in fact, the most abundant form of life on Earth. Now researchers are turning the tools for identifying bacteriophages back to our own body.

Last year, Jeffrey Gordon and his colleagues looked in the guts of four pairs of identical twins and their mothers and discovered over 4,000 different kinds of viruses among them. Each person had several hundred kinds apiece. Most of these viruses were not predators, like the viruses that attack dysentery-causing bacteria, or the ones the give us a cold. Instead, the viruses merge with their host cell. They can be passed down from one generation to the next; only if they sense danger do these viruses break out of their host.


It’s astonishing for most people to learn there are between 500 and 1000 species of bacteria in their mouths. But now we must begin to get used to the fact that those bacteria are in a constant battle with hundreds–perhaps even thousands–of different viruses. One reason it’s such a big surprise is that these battles take place without any noticeable effect on ourselves. But it would be a mistake to think that they have no effect at all. The state of our mouth’s ecosystem plays a big role in our overall health.
Go read the whole thing to get all the dirty little details!

Seeing is Hearing

Who could have known that bird can toot their own horn. They aren't limited to vocalizations. They can wave their feathers and make sounds! From an article by Carl Zimmer on his Discover magazine blog:

But no one had any idea how manakins could make noises with feathers until Kimberly Bostwick of Cornell and her colleagues tackled the question. Bostwick took a high-speed camera into the jungle to film club-winged manakins. It turns out the birds flap their wings 100 times a second, far faster than typical birds. Later, she closely examined museum specimens. Club-winged manakins have one peculiar wing feather with a stiff, curved tip, right next to one with a series of ridges. Bostwick and her colleagues proposed that curved tips raked across the ridges on the neighboring feather like a spoon pulled across a washboard, producing the bird’s 1500-cycle-per-second sound.

Biologists are quite familiar with this way of making sound–but in crickets and other insects. Typically, they draw their legs across ridges on their exoskeleton, making their bodies resonate in a process called stridulation. Bostwick and her colleagues were proposing, for the first time, that a vertebrate could stridulate, too.

Since Bostwick published her first paper on the birds, she’s continued to study them to test her hypothesis. In a paper just published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, she and her colleagues report a new experiment in which they looked at the physics of the manakin feathers. They clamped the feathers in a device known as a vibration mini-shaker, and then–well, as you can guess–shook them. The scientists bounded lasers off the feathers to track their wiggles as the mini-shaker vibrated faster and faster. They used the device first to measure the special spoon-and-washboard pair of feathers. Then they measured how other feathers responded, and then, finally, they studied a set of ordinary and spoon-and-washboard feathers joined together on a ligament.

The scientists found that the spoon-and-washboard feathers resonated at about 1500 cycles, just as Bostwick had predicted back in 2005. The unmodified feathers on other parts of the wing, however, showed no such response when the scientists shook them one by one. But when they shook the spoon-and-washboard feathers together with seven neighboring wing feathers, the entire set resonated strongly at 1500 cycles.
Now I can stidulate as well before I shave in the morning. But I doubt I'm going to attract any mates with my low frequence stidulations! Maybe if I shave my legs and rub legs like an insect... on second thought, that probably isn't all that "attractive".

The Size of the Universe

Here's a gee whiz presentation of the size of our universe and a review of how science's idea of the universe has changed over time.

The size of the universe is normally given as 13.7 billion light years. But he points out that the Hubble space telescope is taking pictures of galaxies that are 46 billion light years away from earth, making the "observable universe" 92 billion light years across. This video claims that current theory says that the "whole universe" is 10^24 times bigger than the observable universe. It then give you a sense of scale by saying that the whole universe if bigger than the observable universe as the size of the observable universe is to the size of an atom. Wow! Now that's big!

The Way Forward in Egypt?

From the UK Guardian newspaper site that has a live feed of events in Egypt:

It appears that the opposition parties now have a strategy. Put Mohammed ElBaradai forward as a "unity" leader:
Sensational political developments in Cairo, with reports that five opposition movements, including the key Muslim Brotherhood, have mandated Mohammed ElBaradei to negotiate over the formation of a temporary "national salvation government."

Osama Ghazlai Harb of the National Democrsatic Front told BBC Arabic that this would be a transitional administration that would oversee the cancellation of the emergency laws and the release of all political prisoners.

The powerful Muslim Brotherhood, which has kept a low profile so far, said it was backing the demand along with other four groups.

It seems unlikely at this stage that the Mubarak government will agree to negotiate with to ElBaradei, but the publication of the demand adds a significant new element to Egypt's rapidly unfolding political crisis.
It also appears that the US is positioning itself in support of this move by calling for "free and fair" democratic elections via interviews with Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. This is echoed by ElBaradai:
The New York Times's Lede blog has more ElBaradei comments from that CNN interview:

"The next step, as everybody now agrees upon, is a transitional period a government of national salvation, of national unity and that prepares the ground for a new constitution, a free and fair election, these are the three basic demands."

"Egypt needs to catch up with the rest of the world, we need to be free, democratic and a society where people have the right to live in freedom and dignity.... That's what you get after 70 years, Fareed, of utter brutal dictatorship, supported by everybody in the name of pseudo-stability."
It appears that Mubarak will fight to the bitter end. He has cut off Al Jazeera just as ElBaradai arrived at Tahrir square in Cairo. This would be a move by a regime desperate to hang on to control by suppressing news of any event it doesn't like. Here is a comment from the somebody on the scene:
The infuential Egyptian blogger Issandr El Amrani is suspicious about the absence of police.

He managed to get round Internet restrictions to post this on his Arabist blog.
Something very fishy is taking place — the Egyptian people are being manipulated and terrified by the withdrawal of the police yesterday, reports (some of them perhaps untrue) of widespread looting, and yesterday's (during the day) relatively low military presence in the city.

I can only speak about central Cairo, I suspect the situation is much worse in the Suez Canal cities, Alexandria and the Delta, and perhaps most of all the Sinai. I spoke to my former bawaab (doorman) who is near Aswan, where is he the police is still out and there is no military, although the local NDP office was ransacked and set on fire. So the situation is different from place to place, and there is very little national-level visibility.

There is a discourse of army vs. police that is emerging. I don't fully buy it — the police was pulled out to create this situation of chaos, and it's very probable that agent provocateurs are operating among the looters, although of course there is also real criminal gangs and neighborhoods toughs operating too.

For me, Omar Suleiman being appointed VP means that he's in charge. This means the old regime is trying to salvage the situation. Chafiq's appointment as PM also confirms a military in charge. These people are part of the way Egypt was run for decades and are responsible for the current situation. I suspect more and more people, especially among the activists, are realizing this.

I hope to have more steady internet access later. For now, the questions are:

• Why was the NPD building fire not put out even though it risks spreading to the Egyptian Museum?

• Why is Egyptian state TV terrifying people with constant pictures of criminal gangs?

• Why was there such a small military deployment during the day yesterday?

• Why were all police forces pulled out, and who made that decision?

• What is the chain of command today in the military? Is Armed Forces Chief of Staff Sami Enan still in position?

• If the reports about prison breakouts are true, how come these facilities have not been secured?

• Why are we getting reports of intelligence offices burning documents, CDs and tapes?

The situation is obviously very confusing at the moment. All I can say is that I have a hard time believing that Mubarak is still in charge, and that the hard core of the regime is using extreme means to salvage its position.
The only thing clear is that things will get exceedingly bloody over the next few days. Only if large portions of the military break ranks and join the unity government can widespread bloodshed be avoided.

Remember the Green Revolution in Iran. It is fully possible that Mubarak and/or his newly appointed henchmen can retain control by a bloody crackdown on people in the street.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Two days ago I put up a post that gave the link to the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) report.

Here is an excellent comment upon that commission by William Black, an American lawyer, academic, author, and a former bank regulator and Executive Director of the Institute for Fraud Prevention from 2005-2007. I've bolded the key bits:
The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) issued its report today on the causes of the crisis. The Commissioners were chosen along partisan lines and the Republicans, one-upping the Republicans’ dual responses to President Obama’s State of the Union address, have issued three rebuttals. The rebuttals follow a failed preemptive effort by the Republicans to censor the report – they insisted on banning the use of the terms “shadow banking system” (the virtually unregulated financial sector that conducts most financial transactions), “Wall Street,” and “deregulation.” The Republicans then issued their first rebuttal last month, their “primer.” The primer, following the lead of the censorship effort, ignored the contributions that the shadow banking system, Wall Street, and deregulation made to the crisis. The combination of the demand that the report be censored and the primer’s crude apologia critical role that the unmentionable Wall Street, particularly its back alleys (the unmentionable “shadow banking system”), and the unmentionable deregulators played in causing the crisis was derided by neutrals. The failure of their preemptive primer has now led the Republican commissioners to release two additional rebuttals to the Commission report. Again, they issued their rebuttals before the Commission issued its report in an attempt to discredit it.

The primary Republican rebuttal was issued by Bill Thomas, a former congressman from California and the vice chairman of the commission; Keith Hennessey, who was President George W. Bush’s senior economic advisor, and Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who was an economic advisor to President Bush on the regulation of Fannie and Freddie and principal policy advisor to the Republican nominee for the President, Senator McCain.

Republican Commissioner Peter Wallison felt his Republican colleagues’ dissent was insufficient, so he drafted a separate, far longer dissent. Wallison is an attorney who was one of the leaders of the Reagan administration’s efforts to deregulate financial institutions and later became the leader of the American Enterprise Institute’s (AEI) deregulation initiatives. His bio emphasizes his passion for financial deregulation.
From June 1981 to January 1985, he was general counsel of the United States Treasury Department, where he had a significant role in the development of the Reagan administration’s proposals for deregulation in the financial services industry….

[He] is co-director of American Enterprise Institute’s (“AEI”) program on financial market deregulation.
Each of the Republicans commissioners was a proponent of financial deregulation and was appointed to the Commission by the Republican Congressional leadership to champion that view. Three of the Republican commissioners were architects of financial deregulation. For example, the Republican congressional leadership appointed Wallison to the commission because they knew that he was the originator and leading proponent of the claim that Fannie and Freddie were the Great Satans that had caused the current crisis. The fourth member, Representative Thomas, voted for the key deregulatory legislation when he was in Congress and was a strong proponent of deregulation.

The Republican commissioners’ desire to ban the use of the word “deregulation” in the Commission’s report is understandable. There was no chance that they would support a report that explained the decisive role that deregulation and desupervison played in making the crisis possible. Wallison was a major architect of three successful anti-regulatory pogroms (primarily, but not exclusively, led by Republicans) that created the criminogenic environments that led to our three most recent fraud epidemics and financial crises (the S&L debacle, the Enron era frauds, and the current crisis). The Republican congressional leadership appointed Wallison to the Commission in order to place the nation’s leading apologist for deregulation in a position where he could defend it. President Bush appointed Harvey Pitt to be SEC Chairman because he was the leading opponent in America of the SEC Chairman Levitt’s efforts to make the SEC a more effective regulator. In each case, “mission accomplished.”

Each of the Republican commissioners was in the impossible position of having to investigate and judge their own culpability for the crisis. The Republican politicians who selected them for appointment to the Commission knew that they were placing them in an impossible position and ensuring that the Commission would either give deregulation a pass or split along partisan lines and lose some of its credibility. The proverbial bottom line is that the Commission would fail to identify the real causes of the crisis and the control frauds that drove it would continue to be able to loot with impunity.

In contrast, only one of the six Democratic commissioners was involved in financial institution regulation or deregulation. None of the Democrats was known as a strong proponent of any particular view about the causes of the crisis prior to their appointment. Brooksley Born was head of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) under President Clinton. She famously warned of the systemic risks that credit default swaps (CDS) posed. Her efforts to protect the nation were squashed by the Commodities Futures Modernization Act of 2000, which deliberately created regulatory “black holes” by removing the CFTC’s authority to regulate many trades in financial derivatives. Enron exploited one of these black holes to create the California energy crisis of 2001. The largest banks and AIG exploited the black hole to trade CDS. While the squashing of Brooksley Born was a bipartisan effort (Senator Gramm and Alan Greenspan were the most prominent Republicans in the effort), it was led by the Clinton administration – Messrs. Rubin and Summers at their arrogant, anti-regulatory worst.

By appointing Born to the Commission, the Democrats were admitting their error and ensuring that one of the Democratic Party’s great embarrassments – passage of the Commodities Futures Modernization Act – would be exposed. The Democrats were fostering rather than seeking to forbid discussion of their dirty laundry by appointing someone with a proven track record of taking on her own party.

In 1999, Born resigned as CFTC Chair. She retired from her law firm in 2002. She did not influence or seek to influence regulatory policy role during the crisis. She was not active in making comments about the causes of this crisis prior to her appointment to the Commission.

The next, nastier stage in the Republican apologia for Wall Street and the anti-regulators has already begun. Bloomberg reports that House Oversight Committee Chairman Issa claims to be:
“looking into allegations of partisanship, mismanagement and conflict of interest at the commission. The California Republican and two other lawmakers sent a letter yesterday renewing a demand for documents on the panel’s spending, its use of media consultants and its staff turnover.”
Issa is a deeply committed anti-regulator. He will not be investigating the allegations of partisanship and conflicts of interest by the Republican commissioners who have exemplified partisanship and who are in the impossible position of having to examine their own culpability for the crisis. He will seek to discredit any report and any expert who explains why financial deregulation and desupervision are criminogenic.

The most important question we must answer about our financial crises is actually a two-part question: why are we suffering recurrent, intensifying crises? To answer it we must find not only the causes of the crises, but also (and even more importantly) why we fail to learn the correct lessons from the crises and keep making even worse policy mistakes. The answer to the second question is dogma. The definition of dogma is that it cannot be examined or changed – except to become even purer. The ever purer anti-regulatory dogma creates the ever more intensely criminogenic environments that produce intensifying crises. The Commission’s report makes that clear. For example, Alan Greenspan claimed that markets automatically exclude fraud. He did so after the most notorious “accounting control fraud” of the S&L debacle (Charles Keating) used him to praise his fraudulent S&L, leading to the most expensive failure in the entire debacle. Greenspan learned nothing useful from the S&L debacle. He concluded that there was no reason for the Fed to use its unique authority under HOEPA to stop the pervasively fraudulent “liar’s” loans that were hyper-inflating the real estate bubble and leading us to a crisis. Greenspan ignored the FBI’s September 2004 warning that mortgage fraud was becoming “epidemic” and would cause an “economic crisis.” This anti-regulatory dogma that Greenspan exemplified spread through much of the Western world, and the resultant crises have done the same.

We are witnessing in the multiple Republican apologias for their anti-regulatory policies an example of why we fail to learn the correct lessons from the crises. The groups most in the thrall of the dogma appoint true believers in theoclassical economics to the body that is supposed to find the truth. These anti-regulatory architects of the crisis then purport to be impartial judges of the causes of the crisis that they helped create. The Republican House leadership now openly threatens to use aggressively its subpoena authority to bash anyone who dares to oppose the dogma and the Republican effort to censor the decisive role the anti-regulators play in causing our recurrent, intensifying crises.

The Commission is correct. Absent the crisis was avoidable. The scandal of the Republican commissioners’ apologia for their failed anti-regulatory policies was also avoidable. The Republican Congressional leadership should have ensured that it did not appoint individuals who would be in the impossible position of judging themselves. Even if the leadership failed to do so and proposed such appointments, the appointees to the Commission should have recognized the inherent conflict of interest and displayed the integrity to decline appointment. There were many Republicans available with expertise in, for example, investigating elite white-collar criminals regardless of party affiliation. That was the most relevant expertise needed on the Commission. Few commissioners had any investigative expertise and none appears to have had any experience in investigating elite white-collar crimes. These Republicans, former Assistant U.S. Attorneys (AUSAs) and FBI agents would have played no role in the financial regulation or deregulation policies in the lead up to the crisis. They would not have had to judge their own policies and they would have brought the most useful expertise and experience to the Commission – knowledge of financial fraud schemes and experience in leading complex investigative and analytical skills.

Why the US has Record Debt/Deficit

Here is an interesting post by Barry Ritholtz on his The Big Picture blog:
My friend (and Washington State money manager) Carl writes about our three trillion dollar war post:
The biggest reason the U.S. is marching towards receivership—-the U.S. refused to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Instead of raising taxes like we did to pay for WW 1 —we lowered them. Instead of having a high marginal tax rate for the wealthy, President Bush and the congress lowered taxes.

The following is just about Iraq and does not include the cost of Afghanistan.

Read about steps taken to prepare for and pay for WW 1.

And tax rates during WW 2.
Fascinating stuff — thanks Carl!
The links to WWI and WWII are to the "economic history" encyclopedia and are excellent. The link to the three trillion dollar war is to an excellent graphic that lays out the costs of the war in one big poster.

Bad News from Canada

Canadians tend to be reserved, modest, optimistic people. But here's a case where they have unleashed bad news on everybody. From
New homes burn faster

It's never been more dangerous to be a firefighter.

Our homes and the stuff inside them are nearly six times more flammable than they were 30 years ago.

What that means for firefighters is the amount of time they can safely be inside a house on fire has dropped from about 17 minutes to three minutes or less.

That's when flashover happens — the moment when a room or building is fully engulfed in flames.

"It's true,” said Ottawa Fire spokesman Marc Messier of the unprecedented danger facing firefighters. "It's mostly because of the products being used in construction and furniture fabrication."

He said unlike 30 years ago, when homes, furniture and appliances were made of solid wood and steel, modern day versions are made with glue, plastics and synthetic materials.

Such synthetics not only burn faster but produce carcinogenic emissions as they burn.
I bolded the key bit. There's more bad news. Go read the original.

Academic Treadmill

This brings back bad memories of being a graduate student...

The above is the Hui Zheng lab at Baylor, with their Gaga-esque production of Bad Project.

I got a chuckle from the video. At least they seem to be gelled as a group and willing to have fun and even poke fun at their laboratory lives. I did my graduate work in philosophy and remember it as a wasteland of isolation and indifference. There is a real rift between the two cultures. In the Humanities it is a solo flight. But in the Sciences you realize you are truly building on the giants who went before and you tend to work in teams.

Looking at Global Warming via Alaska Midges

Here's how global warming looks if you are midge living in Moose Lake (61°22.45′N, 143°35.93′W) in the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve of south-central Alaska (USA). The graph lets time run from right-to-left. You notice that it was much warmer in the RWP (Roman Warm Period) and the MWP (Medieval Warm Period) than it is now. This puts the lie to the doom-and-gloom crowd who sell the idea that we are into "unprecedented" runaway global warming that will destroy all life as we know it:

The above is from an article posted on the Watt's Up With That? blog and is a quick overview of an academic paper published in Quaternary Science Reviews. The authors state as part of their conclusion:
Within the limit of chronological uncertainties, some (but not all) of these cooling events at Moose Lake coincide with periods of reduced solar irradiance, such as the solar minima centered on the middle and late LIA [Little Ice Age] (250 and 100 cal BP [before present]), 1400 cal BP, and 3400 cal BP (Steinhilber et al., 2009).
But they refuse to extend this to make conclusions about "anthropogenic global warming". Yep, it is a career-killer if you go against the gospel that CO2 is cooking the planet. Only if you are a retired scientist or a non-academic can you dare go against the enforced "consensus" of global warming. Hopefully, someday soon the fanatics will lost control over "the science" and real science will again blossom in the field of climate science.

What is Happening in Egypt?

It is very hard to know. Popular movements are messy. I'm hoping this is lurch toward democracy and freedom. But it could descend into a worse tyranny than under Mubarak. Nobody knows what the future holds, but there is turmoil and change may be coming.

This video is promising because it implies that the military will not side with the police and crush the people. The military will ensure order but not crush the popular revolt. But this video may be misleading. Nobody knows. Only the unveiling of events over time will tell us what the future holds...

My guess is that the maneuvering by Mubarak and Obama to try and keep some semblance of the old regime in place will fail. I think the longer they string this out the more likely the country will fall into the hands of extremists like the Muslim Brotherhood. Sadly, if quick change had been allowed, moderates with a vision of a pluralistic Egypt probably would have retained control and real democracy might have had a chance to take hold. But with all this back room maneuvering with stage props like having the head of the intelligence service become VP means things will get ugly. (Can anybody think that making the head of the secret police/spies will lead to democracy?) Obama has dithered. This is the Obama who for the last two years has dithered and wasted opportunities to fix the mess in the US. Now he is dithering and condemning the Egyptians to live under either a police state or a radical theocratic regime. Sad.

The most intelligent commentary on the situation that I've seen has been by Ahmed Khalifa in an interview with CTV in Toronto during a rally on Saturday Jan 29 in Toronto. Unfortunately I can't find the video clip. But it is well worth watching for his comments on democracy.

Here is the video. Go to 00:55 to get the start of the interview with Ahmed Khalifa. Points he makes:
  • Egyptians do not want "another regime". They deserve freedom.

  • Omar Suleiman is a military guy, not an appropriate civilian leader.

  • The Western world's desire for "stabilization" shouldn't force Egyptians to choose between democracy and stabilization.

  • Notice that he intelligently refuses to speak for "what America should do". What he wants the Americans to get out of this is that Egyptians want freedom. If America decides it must go for "stabilization" then America will be acting as an imperial power and taking away Egyptian freedom so that Americans can be more "comfortable" in their own freedom.

  • He shows wisdom in pointing out that "democracy is not purity, it is a self-correcting process" and then walks through examples of the US and Canada have made mistakes in its democracy but over time has corrected these mistakes.

Tragically Obama dithered the last few days. If early on he had let Clinton make the call for "free and fair" elections in Egypt things might have moved quickly to a conclusion before Mubarak came up with his strategy of turning loose criminals and provocateurs to create insecurity and using the Army to slowly strangle the revolution. I think of the many times that the US has found it easy to go beyond words and send in troops: the invasion of Grenada by Reagan over fears of Marxist revolutionaries, the invasion of Iraq over "suspected" weapons of mass destruction by Bush, the bombing and invasion of Panama to "extract" the President of Panama for drug trafficking, etc. Funny how the US felt unemcumbered to flex muscle to do whatever it felt was needed. But it has never flexed muscle to save innocent citizens from a dictator that has been propped up by the US. Very strange how the inhibitions of "morality" are so fickle.

I reserve the last word to a young "revolutionary"...

This little girl is what is scaring Mubarak and Obama. Yes... she is terrifying in her naive honesty. She hasn't yet become jaded and cynical with age.

Putting a Price Tag on Culture

The "culture industries" use copyright as a way to extort money from people for accessing the culture of a people. I am amazed when I learn that dead artists "earn more" dead than when alive. It is even more odd to learn that it isn't the artist who is earning this -- they are dead, right? -- and it isn't their families. It is an "entrepreneur" who has bought "rights" to the cultural artifact, the works, the ideas, the persona, etc. So you can't talk about Mickey Mouse without fear that the Disney Corporation will demand that you pay a license fee to use that name which is "property" of the Disney Corporation.


The good news is that some artists are fighting the insanity that the current money-mad culture has created with copyrights and lawyers. Here's a bit from an interview with Francis Ford Coppola:
Is it important to veer away from the masters to develop one’s own style?

I once found a little excerpt from Balzac. He speaks about a young writer who stole some of his prose. The thing that almost made me weep, he said, “I was so happy when this young person took from me.” Because that’s what we want. We want you to take from us. We want you, at first, to steal from us, because you can’t steal. You will take what we give you and you will put it in your own voice and that’s how you will find your voice.

And that’s how you begin. And then one day someone will steal from you. And Balzac said that in his book: It makes me so happy because it makes me immortal because I know that 200 years from now there will be people doing things that somehow I am part of. So the answer to your question is: Don’t worry about whether it’s appropriate to borrow or to take or do something like someone you admire because that’s only the first step and you have to take the first step.

How does an aspiring artist bridge the gap between distribution and commerce?

We have to be very clever about those things. You have to remember that it’s only a few hundred years, if that much, that artists are working with money. Artists never got money. Artists had a patron, either the leader of the state or the duke of Weimar or somewhere, or the church, the pope. Or they had another job. I have another job. I make films. No one tells me what to do. But I make the money in the wine industry. You work another job and get up at five in the morning and write your script.

This idea of Metallica or some rock n’ roll singer being rich, that’s not necessarily going to happen anymore. Because, as we enter into a new age, maybe art will be free. Maybe the students are right. They should be able to download music and movies. I’m going to be shot for saying this. But who said art has to cost money? And therefore, who says artists have to make money?

In the old days, 200 years ago, if you were a composer, the only way you could make money was to travel with the orchestra and be the conductor, because then you’d be paid as a musician. There was no recording. There were no record royalties. So I would say, “Try to disconnect the idea of cinema with the idea of making a living and money.” Because there are ways around it.
When I was a kid, books became "public domain" 55 years after the author died. But as you can see from the following illustration from Wikipedia, that period of "ownership" by the dead hand of the author keeps getting extended...

Click to Enlarge

The date at which the book will be "public domain" is receding faster than I age. In other words, I doubt whether I will live to see any more books put in public domain. The grasping hand of corporations makes sure that nothing will ever again fall into "public domain". Instead, everything will be milked for money. Insane!

Scott Adams Finds a "Solution" That is as Old as Civilization

I think this is funny. Scott Adams, the Dilbert cartoonist, thinks he is constructively working to solve America's deficit problem by finding a way to cajole the rich into paying enough taxes to cover the deficits. His solution? Curry favour with the rich! He thinks that is a "new solution" but I find it as old as the hills.

Here's an example from Scott Adams' opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal. I've bolded the key bit:
It's useful to keep in mind how the rich are different. When you are poor, you are willing to trade your time to earn money. When you are rich, you trade your money to get more time. For example, the rich hire people to clean their homes, and they don't waste time shopping for bargains. In business school I learned that when people have different preferences, you can usually find a way to engineer a deal.

Suppose we change the tax code so that in return for higher taxes on the rich, we figure out a way to give the rich some form of extra time. The bad version is that anyone who pays taxes at a rate above some set amount gets to use the car pool lane without a passenger. Or perhaps the rich are allowed to park in handicapped-only spaces.

Ridiculous, you cry! Remember, this is the bad version. And if the rich are only a tiny percentage of the population, they would have almost no impact on the traffic in car pool lanes or the availability of parking spaces for the handicapped. You wouldn't even notice the difference.

You could imagine a host of ways the government could trade time for money. Suppose all government agencies had a mandate to handle the affairs of the rich before everyone else. You wouldn't even notice that your wait at the Department of Motor Vehicles was 2% longer.

As a bonus, what happens to the economy when the people who are most skilled at making money suddenly have extra time? My bet is that they stimulate the economy by spending more or by earning more.
Funny... these are exactly the "rules" that apply in third world countries. I remember how Saddam Hussein's two rich sons we able to abduct and rape women at will. Is Scott Adams willing to contemplate that? I'm sure that some young sons of multi-billionaires are ready and willing to sign up "get out of jail free" cards for a program of rape and torture.

Maybe we can bring back the "good old days" when the knights of the land used serfs for targets to hone their skills. You know, turn loose the young lads of the peasantry and let them try to scurry for safety while the knights went out with broadsword or lance to practice picking them off to ensure that their skills were up-to-date.

Go read the Scott Adams piece to get a feel for how slimy the future will soon be if this "treat the rich special" idea catches on:
  • Everyone loves power. I'm guessing that the rich like it more than most people, on average. Another bad idea is to give the rich two votes apiece in any election. That's double the power of other citizens. Why stop as 2 votes? Under the current lobby system, if you are sufficiently rich, you can throw your weight around as if you counted for a hundred thousand votes or more. Poor Scott Adams is showing he hasn't rubbed elbows with enough really ultra-rich lately.

  • Suppose the government makes it a condition that anyone applying for social services has to write a personal thank-you note to a nearby rich person who, according to a central database, hasn't lately received one. Yeah, like if you lose your job, a requirement that before you can apply for unemployment you have to write a groveling letter to the local baron or lord so curry favour. If you want an idea of this world, go look at the preface of any book written in the 16th, 17th, and 18th century where writers groveled before the monied class.
All of Scott Adams' suggestions are a wonderful way to bring back the "good old days" when our "betters" lorded over us, literally lorded over us.

What I find astounding is the idea that there is a crisis. America today is more wealthy than it was 20 years ago and vastly more wealthy than it was 60 years ago when it was dealing with the incredible debt from WWII. But you didn't hear people crying that there was no solution other than bribing the rich to be willing to participate in society and pay their fair share of taxes. Back in the 1950s, the rich paid 94% of their income as tax (in the high brackets after you allowed low tax on the first X number of thousands of income). I don't recall the rich in revolt over this "burden". But today, when America is fantastically wealthy compared to the late 1940s/early 1950s, suddenly the wealthy are "burdened" with a 30% tax rate and simply can't be asked for more. Ridiculous!

If you want to eliminate the deficits and the accumulating debt: raise the taxes! The rich has stolen the government and re-written the tax laws to let them frolic while the society around them falls into shambles. This is ridiculous.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Intelligent Design or Evolution?

Here is an interesting twist on the age-old debate. Brad DeLong applies it to economics and discovers something wondrous. The Republican cultural conservatives who are rabidly anti-evolution and big on ID suddenly opt for "evolution" in economics. On the other hand, liberals who have a New Keynesian take on the economy backpedal from evolution and insist on intelligent design. Wonder of wonders!

From an article on Project Syndicate:
As Stephen Cohen, with whom I wrote The End of Influence: What Happens When Other Countries Have the Money, likes to say, economies do not evolve; they are, rather, intelligently designed. He also likes to say that, though there is an intelligence behind their design, this does not mean that the design is in any sense wise.

The first claim is, I think, incontrovertible. Since long before Croesus, King of Lydia, came up with the game-changing idea of standardized “coinage,” what governments have done and not done to structure, nudge, and put their thumbs on the scales has been decisively important for economic development.

Just look around you. Notice the hundred-fold divergence across political jurisdictions in relative levels of economic productivity and prosperity? I dare anyone to claim that the overwhelming bulk of that disparity springs from causes other than history and the current state of governance.

The second claim is also, I think, true. To say that economies are the products of intelligent design means only that some human intelligence or intelligences lies behind the design. It does not mean that the design is smart or optimal.

For one thing, the process by which the design decisions are made resembles committee work: most people want a horse, but the push and pull and tug of negotiation produces a camel. Moreover, the government officials, lobbyists, and interest groups doing the designing may not have the public interest in mind – or even know what the public interest happens to be.

Most of the time in America, the process of intelligent design of the economy has gone well: that is why Americans are so relatively and absolutely rich today. After all, the Founding Fathers were keen on redesigning the infant American economy. Alexander Hamilton was clear on the primacy of commerce and industry.

In particular, Hamilton was convinced of the importance of a sophisticated banking system to support the growing economy. And he and his Federalist colleagues, including John Adams, believed strongly in providing infant industries with room to grow – even using money from the Department of War to fund experiments in high-tech industry.

When the Democratic-Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, replaced the Federalists, they quickly decided that their small-government principles were an out-of-power luxury. Wars of conquest, territorial acquisition, continental surveying, and canal and then railroad subsidies were good for voters, immigrants, and pretty much everyone else except the outnumbered and outgunned Native Americans who got in the way.

Indeed, any government that builds infrastructure and allocates land titles on the scale of the nineteenth-century US government is “Big Government” incarnate. Add steep tariffs on imported manufactured goods – rammed through over the angry protests of farmers and southern planters – and you have the policies that intelligently designed much of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America.

After World War II, it was again government that led the redesign of the US economy. The decisions to build an interstate highway system (and to spend most of that money on suburban commuter roads) and to jump-start the long-term mortgage market – reflecting the widespread belief that General Motors’ interests were identical with America’s – literally reconfigured the landscape. Combine that with the large-scale development of the world’s leading research universities, which then educated tens of millions of people, and with the tradition of using defense money to finance high-tech research and development, and, voilĂ , you have the post-war US economy.

Whenever push has come to economic shove, America’s government has even deliberately devalued the dollar in the interest of economic prosperity. Franklin Roosevelt did it during the Great Depression, and Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan did it, too.

This history is worth reviewing because America is poised for another debate over whether its economy evolves or is designed, with President Barack Obama’s opponents claiming that whatever is good in America’s economy has always evolved with no guidance, and that whatever is bad has been designed by government.

This claim is, of course, ludicrous. American governments will continue to plan and design the development of the economy, as they always have in the past. The question is how, and whether the design will be in any sense wise.
There's more, especially on "competitiveness". Go read the original article.

I find the irony of ID vs. Evolution going topsy-turvy in the economic field really, really funny. What a great twist by Brad DeLong.

Obma's Political Calculus

From Ezra Klein at the Washington Post:
Mike Konczal says that "in a non-crisis time, [Obama's State of the Union] would have been a great vision of the role of government in the economy." But this isn't a non-crisis time. Unemployment is stuck above 9 percent, we've not yet hit our peak rate of foreclosures, recent job growth hasn't even been enough to keep up with population increases, there's still a chance of further financial crises in Europe, and the United States government has basically walked off the field. We just had an election in which both parties proclaimed jobs the central issue, but the State of the Union had few answers for those who're out of work.

I sat in on a briefing yesterday where various "senior administration officials" explained the theory behind the State of the Union. When they were asked about shifting their focus to the future when the economy was so bad in the present, they explained that they got pretty much everything they thought they could get -- and, in fact, more than they thought they could get -- in the tax-cut deal, and it was time to let that work. Left unsaid is that they can't get anything more out of a Republican House, and so there's little point in begging.

This is, essentially, a bet: The economy isn't currently growing fast enough to bring down the unemployment rate. But the administration expects that it will be growing that fast very soon.
I've got a different kind of bet for Obama. I'm betting that, when people voted for him in 2008 in response to his "change we can believe in" electioneering, they didn't expect he would play a game of political calculus and "wait out" his Republican opponents. I'm willing to bet that they elected him to lead.

Now I know why Obama keeps telling people that he can "lead" only if the people push from the bottom. It's the same strategy. He can "lead" by waiting for the people to change things, then he can get out in front of the parade and pat himself on the back for the "change" he brought about. Now that's the kind of "change" I can believe in with Obama.

Obama's First WTF Victory

Obama's State of the Union speech was a clarion call for better education, more research, new technology, and a more productive economy -- the Win The Future (WTF) challenge. Labs across America have burned the midnight oil and are just now showing the first fruits of a populist response to Obama's new national goals.

First up, Seth Goldstein has decided that too much time is lost by men tying neckties in preparation for a tough workday. This cries out for automation. Thankfully, Seth's genius helps us fill the technological breach...

The country has a pressing need... and patriotic research rushes in to fill the breach. Now America can leverage the ingenuity and patriotism of her people to advance competitively on all fronts in this global economic competition.

Robotics was first off the block with an utterly amazing solution to unemployment. This wondrous machine will give American workers the advantages needed to out-produce and out-create all other countries. Rest assured, creative types are quickly responding to the WTF challence across the land. More advances will come. Keep your eyes peeled for the next amazing advance.

Speaking of pressing needs... A true robot to clean, press, and fold your clothes is quickly being assembled to meet the WTF challenge. Here's a prototype:

Libertarianism and Self Interest

Funny... here's a story about the icon of Libertarians, Ayn Rand, having feet of clay. This was published in the Huffington Post:
Miss Rand, famously a believer in rugged individualism and personal responsibility, was a strong defender of self-interest. She was a staunch opponent of government programs from the New Deal and Social Security to the Great Society and Medicare.

A Library of Congress survey of the most influential books on American readers, "Atlas Shrugged" ranked second only to the Bible. Rand's influence is encyclopedic ranging from Alan Greenspan to Paul "I grew up on Ayn Rand" Ryan (R-Wis), a "Young Gun" who aims to cut or privatize Medicare and Social Security.

The Right should be commended politically for their ability to develop and stick to a unified message. But close inspection of this unified message reveals a disappointing secret identified by a student of the Godfather of Neo-conservatism, --- the University of Chicago's Leo Strauss. The student, Anne Norton ("Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire") identified what she called VIP-DIP meaning Venerated in Public, Disdained in Private. "Do as I say, not as I do." The list of vip-dipers on the Right runs from Harold Bloom to Newt Gingrich, but certainly not Ayn Rand. Right?


A heavy smoker who refused to believe that smoking causes cancer brings to mind those today who are equally certain there is no such thing as global warming. Unfortunately, Miss Rand was a fatal victim of lung cancer.

However, it was revealed in the recent "Oral History of Ayn Rand" by Scott McConnell (founder of the media department at the Ayn Rand Institute) that in the end Ayn was a vip-dipper as well. An interview with Evva Pryror, a social worker and consultant to Miss Rand's law firm of Ernst, Cane, Gitlin and Winick verified that on Miss Rand's behalf she secured Rand's Social Security and Medicare payments which Ayn received under the name of Ann O'Connor (husband Frank O'Connor).

As Pryor said, "Doctors cost a lot more money than books earn and she could be totally wiped out" without the aid of these two government programs. Ayn took the bail out even though Ayn "despised government interference and felt that people should and could live independently... She didn't feel that an individual should take help."

But alas she did and said it was wrong for everyone else to do so. Apart from the strong implication that those who take the help are morally weak, it is also a philosophic point that such help dulls the will to work, to save and government assistance is said to dull the entrepreneurial spirit.

In the end, Miss Rand was a hypocrite but she could never be faulted for failing to act in her own self-interest.
This is funny because it shows that Ayn Rand was consistent in her beliefs. She believed in self interest. If that meant that you sell the suckers a philosophy of "objectivism" to make it easier to pick their pockets, that is fine. If it means that you are a VIP-DIPer, that is fine. It is for small minds to be consistent. For demi-gods like Ayn Rand, the rules don't apply. They are simply rules to allow her to acquire great wealth worthy of her noble mind. Leave it to pettyfoggers and the impotent to quibble about consistency and the "principles" of libertarianism. Ayn Rand knew what she was doing. She was selling snake oil to line her pockets. Only fools would believe that snake oil is "medicine". It isn't. It is a vehicle for self aggrandizement by the "great minds" of history such as Ayn Rand.

From the Wikipedia article on Libertarianism:
Modern libertarianism was influenced by Ayn Rand's international bestsellers The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957) and her books about her philosophy of Objectivism Two other women also published influential pro-freedom books in 1943, Rose Wilder Lane's The Discovery of Freedom and Isabel Paterson's The God of the Machine.

In the 1950s many with classical liberal beliefs in the United States began to describe themselves as "libertarian." Academics as well as proponents of the free market perspectives note that free-market libertarianism has been successfully propagated beyond the US since the 1970s via think tanks and political parties and that libertarianism is increasingly viewed worldwide as a free market position. However, Libertarian socialists Noam Chomsky, Colin Ward and others say the term is still considered a synonym of anarchism in countries other than the US.

Arizona United States Senator Barry Goldwater's libertarian-oriented challenge to authority had a major impact on the libertarian movement,[45] through his book The Conscience of a Conservative and his run for president in 1964.[46] Goldwater's speech writer, Karl Hess, became a leading libertarian writer and activist.
Admit it... you have to rank "libertarianism" up there with the other great "systems of thought" like Hitler's "nazism" and Mao Tse-tung's "little red book".

The wonderful thing about Ayn Rand is that she helped the social system by making sure that those "little people" who would simply suck wealth out of the economy for their petty interests could be tricked into believing he confection called "libertarianism" which would allow the truly noble minds of their time -- like her -- to enjoy an even bigger share of the social wealth. She convinced them to disdain government. That left more for her. This is the secret of all great minds. Get people to throw away their lives in order to let you have more goodies to frolic with and waste. In short, treat humans an objects to be disposed of as fits your fancies.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Hot Off the Press! Come and Get It!

You can see the pdf version of the full
at this government web site.

My favourite bit starts at page 389: "The Economic Fallout"
Never has it been clearer how poor business judgments we have made have affected Main Street.” Indeed, Main Street felt the tremors as the upheaval in the financial system rumbled through the U.S. economy. Seventeen trillion dollars in household wealth evaporated within 21 months, and reported unemployment hit 10.1% at its peak in October 2009.
This is the gift of George Bush and his Republican mantra of "government is your enemy" and "deregulate, deregulate, deregulate". And the most amazing thing? Nobody has gone to jail for destroying $17 TRILLION... you can be sent up the slammer for life for stealing $100 if you are from the bottom layers of society. But if you are Wall Street banker and destroy millions of lives, you get to keep you 2008 multi-million dollar bonus, and... you get an even bigger bonus in 2099... and an even bigger bonus in 2010! Life is sweet!

Oh... and while everybody loves to talk about "the heroes" who went off to fight the wars, something strange happened back home. From a NY Times article:
While Sgt. James B. Hurley was away at war, he lost a heartbreaking battle at home.

In violation of a law intended to protect active military personnel from creditors, agents of Deutsche Bank foreclosed on his small Michigan house, forcing Sergeant Hurley’s wife, Brandie, and her two young children to move out and find shelter elsewhere.

When the sergeant returned in December 2005, he drove past the densely wooded riverfront property outside Hartford, Mich. The peaceful little home was still there — winter birds still darted over the gazebo he had built near the water’s edge — but it almost certainly would never be his again. Less than two months before his return from the war, the bank’s agents sold the property to a buyer in Chicago for $76,000.

Since then, Sergeant Hurley has been on an odyssey through the legal system, with little hope of a happy ending — indeed, the foreclosure that cost him his home may also cost him his marriage. “Brandie took this very badly,” said Sergeant Hurley, 45, a plainspoken man who was disabled in Iraq and is now unemployed. “We’re trying to piece it together.”
And... of course no white collar criminal guilty of stealing this soldier's home is ever going to go to jail. No, those long jail terms are for the "real crooks". The guys who do a stick-up at the corner store and steal $100. This idea of taking a soldier's home? That can't be a crime. That's "just business", right?

Last Man Standing

From an article by David Freed in the Atlantic magazine entitled "The Last Stand of Ricardo Sanchez". This article recounts sad facts about guys in white hats and black hats:
But Sanchez, who prior to his retirement was the highest-ranking Latino to have served in the Army, has his own burden to bear. His year directing military operations in Iraq soon after the fall of Baghdad saw low-level enemy resistance erupt into full-blown insurgency and virtual civil war. And revelations of detainee abuse that occurred on his watch at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison forced him to retire from the Army in 2006.

Although an Army inspector general’s report cleared Sanchez of any wrongdoing, it found failures of oversight and execution at all levels, as did congressional and news-media investigations. Sanchez says his former superiors dodged his repeated requests for guidelines that could have helped to avert the Abu Ghraib scandal. Now, in a remarkable turn for a general who helped lead the prosecution of the war, he is calling for the creation of a “truth commission” to probe possible crimes involving waterboarding and other torturous interrogation techniques put into practice during the Bush years. For someone who has lived by the military code since joining the junior ROTC at the age of 15, it is something of a quixotic quest.


Before deciding to lambaste the White House’s prosecution of the war, Sanchez tells me, he went through three years of “tremendous soul-searching.” He sought advice from several four-star officers, who, he says, supported his decision to come forward and even helped him shape his message. But after he first delivered that message in a speech to military journalists in October 2007, when he accused the Bush administration, Congress, and the State Department of incompetence and of engaging in partisan politics at the risk of troop safety, “nobody wanted to get involved, because of potential fratricide across the board, and they began to very quickly walk away.”

Sanchez was working part-time as a paid consultant to the military, mentoring other generals in joint and interagency war-fighting operations as well as senior noncommissioned officers assigned to top leadership positions. The Joint Forces Command stopped calling Sanchez after this speech, he says, and his mentoring contract was not renewed—a decision he believes came straight from Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Mullen’s spokesman, Captain John F. Kirby, said that his boss “was, in fact, troubled by some of the public positions” Sanchez took after leaving the service, but denied that Mullen played any role in ending Sanchez’s contract.

The lucrative consulting jobs that have come to many of his retired peers have eluded Sanchez: not a single company doing business with the federal government has ever contacted him about full-time employment. Fellow flag officers he once considered friends have shunned him, he says, as “radioactive.” The only general to lend him a hand in retirement, according to Sanchez, has been Wesley Clark, the retired four-star general and 2004 Democratic candidate for president, who helped him land a seat on the board of Asynchrony Solutions, an information-technology consulting firm headquartered in St. Louis.


In May of 2009, surrounded by the likes of Rachel Maddow and Ron Suskind at an event billed as a “Blueprint for Accountability,” Sanchez upped the ante by launching his call for a truth commission about the Iraq War. “If we do not find out what happened,” he told a reporter at the event, “we are doomed to repeat it.”

But given the political climate, Sanchez tells me in his kitchen, he doubts that any senior members of the Bush administration will be made to answer for their transgressions anytime soon.


I notice a chain around his neck and ask him if he still wears his dog tags. Sanchez gazes at me for a long moment, as though surprised anyone would notice, then reaches inside his shirt and produces them, jangling.

“I will always be a soldier,” he says, eyes misting. “I will go to my grave with these dog tags around my neck. It’s my whole life.”
The sad fact is that the guys wearing the black hats get to dance on, get the big money, get to thumb their nose a "the little people" and their quaint ideas about morality and justice. While the guys in white hats get to bite their tongue and twist in anguish knowing that they were screwed by the "golden boys" the "wise guy insiders" the ones who know "it is all a game" and "he who dies with the most toys wins". Guys who believe in honour, duty, justice, fairness, and hard work are chumps. They get to do all the work and never get the glory. While they are sweating the hard stuff, the guys in the black hats are taking the glory and plotting their next escapade.

George Bush was a spoiled frat boy his whole life. He's never been accountable for his failures. He's never been called to account for the harm and grief he has caused. When he got in trouble he could call his powerful daddy to get him out of the scrape. And Bush got to be top dog. For Bush that was a short jog up from his born-with-a-silver-spoon-in-his-mouth life. For a guy like Ricardo Sanchez to make it from the bottom of the labouring class up to a lieutenant general was a long hard climb. It was equivalent to climbing Mt. Everest from the bottom to within 1000 feet of the top. Meanwhile, Bush got up in the morning from the highest base camp only a couple of thousand feet from the top of Mt. Everest, breakfasted on the finest foods labouriously carried up the flanks of the mountain on the backs of sweating men. Finished his breakfast and took a short stroll to the top of the mountain, the presidency. He didn't break a sweat. He was "born" to be president.

Bush was perfect for the presidency because his morals were for sale. He was just what corporate America wanted as a leader. A born-again Christian who could sell his religion to the fools in the pentecostal movement to get the big numbers to win the presidency. But Bush is a funny kind of Christian. He never bothered with the "it is harder to get a rich man into heaven than it is to get a camel through the eye of the needle" kind of Christian. He never heard the "sell all that you have, give it to the poor, and follow me" call from Jesus. He just heard about the bit that if you put on a pious face, you can dupe a lot of people into supporting you. You could use your easy Christian morality to turn America into a "torture nation". You could use your power to invade Iraq in a "war of choice, not necessity" and kill hundreds of thousand and bankrupt the US. And do that with style. I still love your arrival in "fighter pilot" uniform on the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln shortly after the troops got to Baghdad and you strode out to the microphones under the banner "MISSION ACCOMPLISHED".

Yep... I still chuckle about that. Good one! That's up there with Obama's "CHANGE THAT YOU CAN BELIEVE IN". I love it!

By the way... if you want to understand why Iraq will cost the American taxpayer 3 TRILLION DOLLARS, click here and look at this graphic.