Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Know Your Sea Creatures

Here's a beautiful and informative video on the variety of sea creatures without backbones. This is a provocative video claiming "there is no such thing as a jellyfish":

By all accounts, jellyfish are creatures that kill people, eat microbes, grow to tens of meters, filter phytoplankton, take over ecosystems, and live forever. Because of the immense diversity of gelatinous plankton, jelly-like creatures can individually have each of these properties. However this way of looking at them both overstates and underestimates their true diversity. Taxonomically, they are far more varied than a handful of exemplars that are used to represent jellyfish or especially the so-called "true" jellyfish. Ecologically, they are even more adaptable than one would expect by looking only at the conspicuous bloom forming families and species that draw most of the attention. In reality, the most abundant and diverse gelatinous groups in the ocean are not the ones that anyone ever sees.
The above is from the Monterrey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.

Alert! The US Has Declared a "State of War" with China

Flash! This just in from the Wall Street Journal:
The Pentagon has concluded that computer sabotage coming from another country can constitute an act of war, a finding that for the first time opens the door for the U.S. to respond using traditional military force.
Since the Chinese have hacked US government and military sights a large number of times over the last few year, I expect the nuclear missiles are now on their way to Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, etc. Look out below!

Oh wait... the article goes on to say:
In part, the Pentagon intends its plan as a warning to potential adversaries of the consequences of attacking the U.S. in this way. "If you shut down our power grid, maybe we will put a missile down one of your smokestacks," said a military official.

Oh... I guess this is like the Democracies reponse to Hitler in the 1930s.
  • When Hitler seized the Ruhr, the western democracies warned him that was unacceptable behaviour.

  • When Hitler seized Austria in the Anschluss, the western democracies made it very clear that this was unacceptable behaviour by a modern state and could lead to war.

  • When Hitler threatened to take the Sudentanland, the western democracies said this was completely unacceptable militaristic behaviour, but you can have the Sudentenland because we are going to let you get away with this once, but that is all.

  • When Hitler seized the Dantzig corridor and invaded Poland, the western democracies said this was an "act of war" and put their militaries on "war footing" and them promptly sad and watched while Hitler and Stalin divided up Poland and decimated that country. This was the infamous "Sitzkrig" or "phoney war".
After reviewing a little history, I now have the proper "context" to understand this new US policy of computer sabotage being interpreted as "constituting an act of war". The US is following the policy prescriptions of the western democracies by making lots of threatening noises, but clearly intends to do nothing. This "act of war" nonsense is just throwing dust up. It makes the world more dangerous because it isn't clear what and when the US will react violently to an assault from outlaw nations like China. It makes us all more unsafe not safer.

My advice to the US: If you want to be taken seriously, then say what you mean and mean what you say. Don't go throwing around the words "constitute an act of war" unless you seriously mean it. Otherwise, when you want to warn a rogue nation like China that their actions "constitute an act of war", they won't believe you!

Oh... and if this is a new US policy, then publishing it as study paper within the Pentagon is not the way to put a nation like China on notice. If this is really going to be US policy, the US President needs to address Congress and ask for an endorsement through a vote for the policy that "a cyber attack constitutes an act of war upon the US and the US will unleash the full might of its military in response". That will get China's attention. Shuffling papers in the Pentagon will only get a chuckle out of the Chinese.

Oh... and yet another thought. If the US views cyber attacks this seriously, then it should immediately mandate a requirement to make the Internet more secure. It should enforce the requirement that all traffic be subject to protocols that make it simple and clear as to who sent what to whom when where and how over the Internet. Until that is done, the idea of "going to war" over a cyber attack makes no sense because it is just too hard to know who did what to whom on the current Internet infrastructure.

Proof that the US Government is Serious About Getting Citizens to Testify in Court

The US government is tired of sending summons to citizens and waiting for them to appear in court. The country has decided to get serious.

No more nice summons in the mail. Now they will imprison you and subject you to unlimited strip searches to make sure you are properly "motivated" to testify in court cases that the the police have decided are "serious". And of course the US Supreme Court fully agrees with this new vigorous interpretation of a citizen's "duty"...

From the BoingBoing blog:
The Supreme Court ruled today that former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft cannot be personally sued over his role in the arrest of an innocent American citizen, a Muslim man who was never charged with a crime. From the Associated Press:
By a 5-3 vote, the court said Ashcroft did not violate the constitutional rights of Abdullah al-Kidd, who was arrested in 2003 under a federal law intended to make sure witnesses testify in criminal proceedings. Al-Kidd claimed in a federal lawsuit that the arrest and detention violated the Fourth Amendment's prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures.

He was held for 16 days, during which he was strip-searched repeatedly, left naked in a jail cell and shower for more than 90 minutes in view of other men and women, routinely transported in handcuffs and leg irons, and kept with people who had been convicted of violent crimes.
The ACLU's response to the ruling is here.
I can't wait to find out what the new court policy is on parking tickets. Maybe kill your first born if you don't pay promptly? Sell your wife and family off into slavery? I'm sure that these new "patriots" in the judicial system in the US will come up with something appropriate because they are serious, the mean business, and they are "getting tough" on slackers who don't take "justice" as seriously as they do.

Krugman Takes Down Obama

Paul Krugman did not support Obama. He backed Hilary Clinton. I was aghast because putting up Clinton as a presidential candidate was saying that "America is no longer a democracy but an aristocracy" where the "great" political families vote in the husbands, then the wives, next the children, then the aunts, uncles, and cousins. Voila, you get a Medici style political system with graft and violence at its heart.

So I was big on Obama. He was a historical break. And I was fooled by his "community organizer" background and his "blackness". I thought: here's a guy that understands the downtrodden and will work mightily to lift up the poor and give all of the working people a decent future instead of using government as a pig trough for the greedy Wall Steet titans.

But I was a fool. Krugman pointed out that Obama was far more centrist and right-of-centre than anybody knew. And Krugman was right.

So... as pennance, I've excerpted this litany of complaints about Obama from a recent post by Krugman on his NY Times blog:
But on the Obama issue, I still think that the administration has made four serious misjudgments.

First, I think that it has paid too much attention to the short-run political risks of taking unpopular positions versus the medium-run political risks of having a lousy economy. Yes, a real mortgage-mod program would have fed Tea Party sentiment — but it might have meant a stronger economy in the second half of 2010, and that would have mattered a lot more. As best as I can tell, the political types in the White House have, year after year, operated on the principle that the economy is on the mend, so it’s time to pivot to centrist-sounding themes — only to keep finding that no, the economy isn’t on the mend, and they’re paying for that at the polls.

Second, the administration made what I continue to believe was the awful decision to pretend that the half-measures it was actually able to get were exactly right, not a penny too small. Would it have made a difference in 2010 if Obama had been able to say to the country, “I asked for more aid to the economy, but those guys blocked it, and that’s why we’re not recovering faster”? I don’t know — but it could hardly have been worse than the position he actually found himself in, which was trying to explain why a policy he insisted had been perfect wasn’t doing the job.

Third, it’s one thing to recognize that there’s only so much you can do; it’s another to adopt the arguments of your enemies. Since some time in the fall of 2009, Obama’s rhetorical stance has been basically that he’s like the GOP, but less so; can you even remember him offering a full-throated defense of Keynesian policies?

Finally, while the White House doesn’t set Fed policy, it does get to appoint Fed governors. Why are there all those vacant seats? Why weren’t there recess appointments?
There is more. Go read the whole post.

The tragedy is that Americans elected Obama in 2008 with a groundswell of hope and enthusiasm. The candidate of "hope" and "change you can believe in" has shown that he turned his back on "hope" and has failed to deliver any meaningful change. He has shown himself to be more concerned about "positioning" himself for a 2012 run than for fixing the economy for Americans in 2009, 2010, 2011, or 2012. He's feathered his nest but left the American public out in the cold.

Sure he is better, far better, than the right wing crazies who want to get back into power and complete the entire dismantling of the US government and economy started by Reagan and so nearly accomplished by George Bush. But while Obama is better, he is only a half-measure. He is a tiny step and not the long journey promised, the journey back to a land of promise and hope for all Americans. Sad.

How to Strangle Democracy in Its Cradle

Earlier this year it was exhilerating to watch the Egyptian people struggle for their rights and for a meaningful democracy. But those in power are like illusionists. Now you see it, now you don't. Here's a video to give you an idea of where "democracy" is now headed under the military council:

More details from this CNN report.

Sadly, this backsliding is all too familiar. This is why the story of civilization is a long litany of painful struggle, moments of glory, then a falling back into the black pit of corruption and misrule. Those who want to seize power to suck the blood out of the citizenry are many. The citizens can rarely put up the superhuman effort such as was seen in Egypt to try and achieve democracy. That is why history is such a long, ugly, disheartening story of struggle and strangulation. It is hard, really hard, to get out of the grasp of the greedy powerful who have their hands at your throat almost always.

Crazy Corporate Control

From a BoingBoing post by Cory Doctorow on how Google has gone crazy:
My latest Guardian column, "Google's YouTube policy for Android users is copyright extremism," examines the theory of copyright behind Google's announcement that it would bar people who unlocked their phones from using the new YouTube video store. This is the latest example of a new kind of copyright emerging in the 21st century, "configuration-right," in which someone who makes a creative work gets a veto over how all the devices that can play or display that work must be configured. It's a novel -- and dangerous -- proposition, akin to record companies telling which furniture you were allowed to move into the same room as your stereo, and to require that you close your window when the record was playing, lest your neighbors get some tunes for free.
Something has got to be done to keep "intellectual property" owners from sucking the air out of the sky and burying us under a blizzard of legal writ. It is crazy. They think they own everything. I'm waiting for somebody to press charges based on "owning" a time clock's seconds and demand that we all give back every second of our life or face charges of "theft". Nutty!

If you read the Doctorow article in the UK's Guardian, you find a jewel such as this:
Viacom is presently appealing a judgment against it in its infamous legal bid to shut down the service. Documents revealed during the previous court proceedings featured Viacom executives vigorously and profanely debating which one of them would get to run YouTube once they'd sued it into oblivion. This potent mixture of fear and lust for YouTube is why Viacom was paying multiple ad agencies to sneak video clips on to YouTube even as it was suing it, even going so far as to "rough up" the video before posting it so that it appeared to come from dodgy pirate sites – presumably, posting studio-fresh clips would have given the game away.
The greed is absurd. One capitalist screaming about the "theft" of another even while it is "roughing up" its own videos and slipping them onto the other's site to get the benefit of "buzz" while claiming that this kind of IP "theft" was harming it! The audacity! The sheer lying deceit of greed without limits!

This comment that ends Doctorow's article is telling. This is the corruption that comes with great money:
Google looked as if it had lain down with the dogs and woken up with fleas. Now it's back in the kennel, having learned nothing. It's come a long way from its early days, when it refused to compete with other search engines by running banners or accepting paid placement – when Google's policy was "don't be evil" and "don't suck".
Google is like those idealistic youth who enter politics to "make a difference" and push out the corrupt older generation. But along they way to getting the reins of power they make the little compromises, then the bigger compromises, and end up being the new "corrupt older generation".

Monday, May 30, 2011

What Every American Needs to Know

Here is the opening bit from a wonderful post by Robert Reich on his blog:
The Truth About the American Economy

The U.S. economy continues to stagnate. It’s growing at the rate of 1.8 percent, which is barely growing at all. Consumer spending is down. Home prices are down. Jobs and wages are going nowhere.

It’s vital that we understand the truth about the American economy.

How did we go from the Great Depression to 30 years of Great Prosperity? And from there, to 30 years of stagnant incomes and widening inequality, culminating in the Great Recession? And from the Great Recession into such an anemic recovery?

The Great Prosperity

During three decades from 1947 to 1977, the nation implemented what might be called a basic bargain with American workers. Employers paid them enough to buy what they produced. Mass production and mass consumption proved perfect complements. Almost everyone who wanted a job could find one with good wages, or at least wages that were trending upward.

During these three decades everyone’s wages grew — not just those at or near the top.

Government enforced the basic bargain in several ways. It used Keynesian policy to achieve nearly full employment. It gave ordinary workers more bargaining power. It provided social insurance. And it expanded public investment. Consequently, the portion of total income that went to the middle class grew while the portion going to the top declined. But this was no zero-sum game. As the economy grew almost everyone came out ahead, including those at the top.

The pay of workers in the bottom fifth grew 116 percent over these years — faster than the pay of those in the top fifth (which rose 99 percent), and in the top 5 percent (86 percent).

Productivity also grew quickly. Labor productivity — average output per hour worked — doubled. So did median incomes. Expressed in 2007 dollars, the typical family’s income rose from about $25,000 to $55,000. The basic bargain was cinched.

The middle class had the means to buy, and their buying created new jobs. As the economy grew, the national debt shrank as a percentage of it.

The Great Prosperity also marked the culmination of a reorganization of work that had begun during the Depression. Employers were required by law to provide extra pay — time-and-a-half — for work stretching beyond 40 hours a week. This created an incentive for employers to hire additional workers when demand picked up. Employers also were required to pay a minimum wage, which improved the pay of workers near the bottom as demand picked up.

When workers were laid off, usually during an economic downturn, government provided them with unemployment benefits, usually lasting until the economy recovered and they were rehired. Not only did this tide families over but it kept them buying goods and services — an “automatic stabilizer” for the economy in downturns.

Perhaps most significantly, government increased the bargaining leverage of ordinary workers. They were guaranteed the right to join labor unions, with which employers had to bargain in good faith. By the mid-1950s more than a third of all America workers in the private sector were unionized. And the unions demanded and received a fair slice of the American pie. Non-unionized companies, fearing their workers would otherwise want a union, offered similar deals.

Americans also enjoyed economic security against the risks of economic life — not only unemployment benefits but also, through Social Security, insurance against disability, loss of a major breadwinner, workplace injury and inability to save enough for retirement. In 1965 came health insurance for the elderly and the poor (Medicare and Medicaid). Economic security proved the handmaiden of prosperity. In requiring Americans to share the costs of adversity it enabled them to share the benefits of peace of mind. And by offering peace of mind, it freed them to consume the fruits of their labors.

The government sponsored the dreams of American families to own their own home by providing low-cost mortgages and interest deductions on mortgage payments. In many sections of the country, government subsidized electricity and water to make such homes habitable. And it built the roads and freeways that connected the homes with major commercial centers.

Government also widened access to higher education. The GI Bill paid college costs for those who returned from war. The expansion of public universities made higher education affordable to the American middle class.

Government paid for all of this with tax revenues from an expanding middle class with rising incomes.
There is much more. Go read the whole post.

This is the story that Americans need to hear. The media gives the right wing tale that spins the story as times are bad, everybody needs to tighten their belts, entitlements need to be cut, so that more tax cuts can be given to the billionaires and millionaires so that the Ronald Reagan promised "trickle down" economy might finally start to trickle. What the media won't tell you is that it will never trickle down. It won't tell you that for 40 years a right wing agenda has been triumphant and the bottom 90% of the population has stagnated while the elites have soared and made fortunes beyond the wildest imagination.

These lies have been heaped up for going on 40 years and the bottom 90% have believed them figuring that if they just buckle down enough, the goodies will shower down on them in a deluge of "trickle down". It won't. It never will. The rich are going to cling to every dollar they got. That's how they got rich. Not from giving money away, but from scooping up every loose dollar they could find. Giving tax breaks to the rich only makes the rich richer. It does nothing for the bottom 90%. The tax giveaways and privatizations and deregulations of the last 40 years need to be undone to get back to something like the Great Prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s.

Revealing the True Soul of US Television "News" Commentary

I've been bothered by how obviously right of centre the supposedly "liberal media" truly is in the US. There are many TV shows where they invite Republicans to bash Obama but no Democrats to defend him. Of they will have a panel of 3 right wing nuts to 1 "liberal" who gets shouted down by the stacked deck of "commentators".

Here's an article from the Washington Monthly that notes this same thing at Meet the Press this week:
It was quite a roundtable on “Meet the Press” yesterday. Viewers got to see a Republican strategist, a conservative pundit, a conservative Democrat, and an ostensibly center-left columnist who thinks that Democrats are big meanies when it comes to Medicare.

It was “Must See TV” for viewers eager to see a soul-crushing discussion.


It’s exasperating, but it’s worth reemphasizing what too many establishment types simply refuse to understand: Democrats are telling the truth. Indeed, Dems are doing what the media is reluctant to do: offering an accurate assessment of the Republican plan for Medicare. If voters find the GOP proposal frightening, the problem is with the plan, not with Democrats’ rhetoric.

I’m at a loss to understand what, exactly, Ruth Marcus, David Brooks, and their cohorts would have Dems do. Congressional Republicans have a plan to end Medicare and replace it with a privatized voucher scheme. The proposal would not only help rewrite the social contract, it would also shift crushing costs onto the backs of seniors, freeing up money for tax breaks for the wealthy. The plan is needlessly cruel, and any serious evaluation of the GOP’s arithmetic shows that the policy is a fraud.

Which part of this description is false? None of it, but apparently, Democrats just aren’t supposed to mention any of this. One party is allowed to present this agenda, but the other party is expected to sit quietly on their hands.
With a constant barrage of right wing media telling people that entitlements are sinking the ship of state under a flood of debt. But not a mention of big Bush tax cuts for the rich or the uncosted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The message that Medicare can't be afforded is this year's flavour-of-the-day. Remember how in 2006 Bush tried hard to sell the message that Social Security is "broke", that is is "just IOUs", that the big budget deficits mean that the "only choice" is to cut entitlements like Social Security, it isn't hard to believe that most people think there is no hope and are willing to sign up for raising retirement to 78 and cutting benefits in half so that the government can go back to handing out more tax cuts to billionaires and millionaires who, this time, will cross their hearts and hope to die pledge that when they get these cuts they will churn out a lot of "trickle down" wealth so the bottom 90% can finally see a light at the end of the tunnel. Ridiculous.

Robert Reich served on the board of Social Security and constantly blogs to point out that the program is solvant with only a minor shortfall some 20 years out which is absolutely meaningless because nobody can predict with certainty if the economy will leap ahead by 5% next year or sink by 2%. But Republicans beat the drums of doom and sell the new religion of "gotta cut entitlements".

No wonder US politics is skewed so hard right. The media spouts right wing nonsense 24/7. They present a centre-right panel as "balanced". Tragic.

Vandals Didn't Just Take Down Rome

I detest self-appointed "guardians of the people" or "holders of truth" or "God's special ones" or any other idiotic claims to special grace that vandals and nihilists annoint themselves with.

Here is a sad story from Wired magazine of how hackers got into PBS and made a mess:
A hacker group unhappy with PBS Frontline’s hour-long documentary on WikiLeaks has hit back at the Public Broadcasting System by cracking its servers, posting thousands of stolen passwords, and adding a fake news story to a blog belonging to the august PBS Newshour.

On Sunday night, visitors to the Newshour website read the news that famed rapper Tupac Shakur had been found “alive and well” in New Zealand. The false story (Tupac died in 1996) was indexed by Google News, and spread rapidly through Facebook and Twitter, even after PBS pulled it down. “Again, our site has been hacked — please stay with us as we work on it,” read one of the Newshour’s several tweets responding to the incident Sunday.

The anonymous hacking group Lulzsec claimed credit for the attack in its Twitter feed, where it linked to several pages displaying information stolen in the hack. A calling card the intruders installed at pbs.org/lulz/ was still live by 2:00 a.m. EDT. The text read “All your base are belong to Lulzsec.” The title of the page was “FREE BRADLEY MANNING. FUCK FRONTLINE!”
This reminds me of the Vandals that brought Roman civilization to an end. While there are many things to detest about Rome and its cruelties, the Dark Ages were a step down for humanity, not a step up. And helping to bring civilization low was not a badge of honour for the Vandals but a detestable, permanent stain on this tribe of destroyers. This hacker attack proves that the Vandals are still with us.

I support Bradley Manning and detest the US treatment of him. But I also detest this hacker group that feels it has a right to act as judge, jury, and executioner. You cannot have a civil society when elements within it decide to trash the place. I can understand wanting to break the control of the elites who control society and misuse power for their own benefit. But wrecking havoc is not a social agenda and it does nothing to advance the fundamental changes needed to make a better world.

The future is ours to shape. But we don't build a better future by trashing the world around us. A better future is achieved constructively, not destructively, by thoughtful action not infantile tantrums.

Sadly "revolutionaries" can't be bothered with the hard work of education and the slow change of turning one person at a time from the flawed current state toward a better future. But real work to improve the world is done by building, not destroying, by enlightening one mind at a time, not by defacating in your own house and playing with your own feces. My whole life has been spent being frustrated by "revolutionaries" who can't be bothered to do the hard work of changing society and instead fall in love with their own intellectual masturbation. Sad.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

John Quiggin's "Zombie Economics"

I had high hopes for this book. It did cover the problems with economic theory over the last 40 years, but it wasn't as readable or as memorable as I would like. The book was aimed a little high for a general reader and the style was a slog. Too bad academics don't realize that style and wit are important in keeping their reader alert and interested. I found myself dozing off in too many places. This should have been a very important book. It is, but not for the general reader. That is a tragedy.

Chapter 1 covers the deceptive economic performance from 1985 until the bank panic of 2008 and how this "Great Moderation" seemed to verify the right wing (fresh water) economists which he calls "market liberals".

Chapter 2 talks about the absurd simplifying assumptions of right wing economics with absurdities like the "efficient market hypothesis".

Chapter 3 covers the DSGE models used by right wing economists to create a completely unrealistic theory for macroeconomic "policies" which basically come down to "the market knows best" so "hands off" and let it do its magic.

Chapter 4 reviews the elites constant claim that if you let them prosper, then everybody else will prosper, i.e. the "trickle-down economics" touted so popularly by Ronald Reagan.

Chapter 5 explores the deceptive claim the "privatization" would have magical benefits of downsizing government, while returning loads of booty to the government treasury, and unleashing the dynamism of private ownership to cause the economy to soar. As Quiggins points out, almost all of the big privatizations over the last 30 years have failed miserably. He says that in a mixed economy there is a place for some privatization, but right wing economists sold politicians a pig-in-a-poke.

These are all great topics to educate the broad public on. And I admit that if you are diligent you will get the necessary information. But sadly the presentation and style just aren't conducive to educating somebody outside the magic circle of economists.

Here is an example of him skewering DSGE models:
People are not, and cannot be, the infinitely foresightful, unbounded rational utility maximizers assumed in DSGE models. On the contrary, economic behavior, even that of highly sophisticated actors like the "rocket scientists" who design financial instruments for investment banks, is inevitably driven by a partial view of the world. Heuristics and unconsidered assumptions inevitably play a crucial role. For finite beings in a world of boundless possibilities, nothing else is possible.
That is a proper dressing down of DSGE models, but the general reader won't understand all the technical terms and the inside jokes about "rocket scientists with partial views" unless they have been doing a lot of reading. The text simply demands too much from an average reader.

There is a lot of material in this book which the broad public should know. Until this information is widely disseminated, the right wing economists (and politicians) can fool people into thinking that the disaster of 2008 didn't really happen and that it really wasn't because of their failed economic theories. That is dangerous. The world needs to steer away from the crazy radicalism of the freshwater theorists.

The chapter on "trickle-down economics" ends with three paragraphs that raise good questions but don't provide an answer:
All of this analysis is merely a preliminary to the big question: how can the growth in inequality be reversed and the more egalitarian society of the Great Compression be restored? Some steps, such as restoring progressivity to the tax system, seem obvious.

Even these obvious steps must confront the political realities of a system in which political power has shifted overwhelmingly to the wealthy. A study by the Center for Responsive Politics showed that about two-thirds of U.S. senators were millionaires in 2008. There are similar trends in other countries.

Improving the taxation system is a comparatively easy response. The decline in union membership has almost certainly played a substantial role in promoting inequality in market incomes, not to mention the removal of checks to the power and prerogatives of managers. But,how, if at all, can this decline be reversed? This is one of many questions we need to look at with fresh eyes.
The book is well worth reading, but be warned. It is a hard slog. And you won't feel as satisfied as you should that you understand how economic theory went off the rails and what needs to be done to get it back on track.

Bill Bryson's "At Home"

I've enjoyed all the books by Bill Bryson that I've read. He has a style that is both delightful and very readable. He loves detail. And he can tell a good story.

This book uses the 18th century parson's house that Bryson owns in the UK and builds wonderfully descriptive stories about architecture, people, history, objects, and customs. The book is an absolute delight.

Here's a sample where he talks of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington's homes:
Monticello's celebrated contraptions -- its silent dumbwaiters, dual-action doors, and the like -- are sometimes dismissed as gimmicks, but in fact they anticipated by 150 years or so the American love for labor-saving devices, and helped make Monticello not just the most stylish house ever built in America but also the first modern one. But it is Mount Vernon that has been the more influential of the two. It became the ideal from which countless other houses, as well as drive-through banks, motels, restaurants, and other roadside attractions, derive. Probably no other single building in America has been more widely copied -- almost always, alas, with a certain robust kitschiness, but that is hardly Washington's fault and decidedly unfair to his reputation. Not incidentally, Washington also introduced the first ha-ha into America and can reasonably claim to be the father of the American lawn; among all else he did, he devoted years to meticulous effort to trying to create the perfect bowling green, and in so doing became a leading authority in the New World on grass seed and grass.
And this about beds and Shakespeare:
For much of history a bed was, for most homeowners, the most valuable thing they owned. In William Shakespeare's day a decent canopied bed cost £5, half the annual salary of a typical schoolmaster. Because they were such treasured items, the best bed was often kept downstairs, sometimes in the living room, where it could be better shown off to visitors or seen through an open window by passersby. Generally, such beds were notionally reserved for really important visitors but in practice were hardly used, a fact that adds some perspective to the famous clause in Shakespeare's will in which he left his second-best bed to his wife, Anne. This has often been construed as an insult, when in fact the second-best bed was almost certainly the marital one and therefore the one with the most tender associations. Why Shakespeare singled out that particular bed for mention is a separate mystery, since Anne would in the normal course of things have inherited all the household beds, but it was by no means the certain snub that some interpretations have made it.
The above is most interesting as an insight into 16th century customs as is this bit:
In one of his works, John Aubrey,the seventeenth-century historian relates an anecdote concerning the marriage of Thomas More's daughter Margaret to a man named William Roper. In the story Roper calls one morning and tells More that he wishes to marry one of More's daughters -- either one will do -- upon which More takes Roper to his bedroom, where the daughters are asleep in a truckle bed wheeled out from beneath the parental bed. Leaning over, More deftly takes "the sheet by the corner and suddenly whippes it off," Aubrey relates with words that all but glisten lustily, revealing the girls to be fundamentally naked. Groggily protesting at the disturbance, they roll onto their stomachs, and after a moment's admiring reflection Sir William announces that he as seen both sides now and with his stick lightly taps the bottom of the sixteen-year-old Margaret. "Here was all the trouble of the wooeing," writes Aubrey with clear admiration.
A few quotes from the book can't do it justice. You have to read it. It is a delight.

Labour Costs

Here is an interesting graph of US labour costs in a post on the blog Tim Duy's Fed Watch:

Click to Enlarge

What I find interesting is how labour costs (that's income to working people) was high when Bill Clinton handed the economy over to George Bush, but then is slipped and slided along until the George Bush 2008 Financial Panic. Since then, wages have been held down by the Great Recession.

There are "Laws" and then There are "Laws"

Supposedly humanity pulled itself up from the swamp by forming law-based societies, i.e. collective living guided by public law. But the US has moved into a brave new world where "laws" aren't public, they are secret!

The full text of Senator Wyden's speech is available here.

In this video Oregon Senator Ron Wyden gives a very useful review of illegal activities by intelligence agencies of the US. Watch the first ten minutes to learn some important history.

I especially appreciate this bit from his speech at 11:30:
When laws are secretly reinterpreted behind closed doors by a small number of government officials and there is no public scrutiny and no public debate you are certainly more likely to end up with interpretations of the law that go well beyond the boundaries of what the American public are willing to accept.
And at 14:00:
I don't believe the law should ever be kept secret. Voters have a right and a need to know what the law says and what their government thinks the text of the law means. And that's essential so the American people can decide whether the law is appropriately written and they are in a position to ratify or reject the decisions their elected representatives make on their behalf.
Sadly, the US government has just passed the Patriot Act where the law is in fact not completely public and the public has no right to know how the government "interprets" the law. The people of the US are governed by a cabal that acts in secrecy!

Why is the above such a "big deal". Well, look at this bit from Washington's Blog:
The "National Security" Apparatus Has Been Hijacked to Serve the Needs of Big Business

As I noted yesterday:
Claims of "national security" are ... used to keep basic financial information - such as who got bailout money - secret. That might not bode for particularly warm and friendly treatment for someone persistently demanding the release of such information.
I gave the following two examples:
Reuters noted in January:
U.S. securities regulators originally treated the New York Federal Reserve's bid to keep secret many of the details of the American International Group bailout like a request to protect matters of national security, according to emails obtained by Reuters.
And Business Week wrote on May 23, 2006:
President George W. Bush has bestowed on his intelligence czar, John Negroponte, broad authority, in the name of national security, to excuse publicly traded companies from their usual accounting and securities-disclosure obligations
Further evidence comes from the Department of Homeland Security's involvement in requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act.
But since the Obama government believes that citizens have no right to know what the laws say, nobody knows just how much "terrorism" laws are being used to protect fraud on Wall Street. And that is only one small example of the corruption possible when a government decides its own people have no right to know what are the laws that "govern" them.

David & Goliath Story, of Course Goliath Wins

Here is the story of a small Canadian company cheated out of hundreds of thousands of dollars through illegal charges by Telus, a big Canadian telecom company, then cheated through fraudulent testimony by Telus (and indifference from governmental authorities), then bankrupted, then vindicated...

So, you expect a David vs Goliath where David wins? Not in the real world. In this case Goliath absolutely destroyed David, then it was uncovered that Goliath had cheated and lied, and David was "vindicated" but since Goliath had already sold David's business for pennies on the dollar, David "won" back just pennies on the dollars. In effect, David had been bulldozed and destroyed by Goliath -- Telus -- and the legal system harrumphed and declared that "all has been done according to justice and that's the best result you can expect". Yep, truth wins out but in tatters, effectively orphaned and malnourished and homeless but "victorious" while Goliath continues to collect its billions and does its "business" to others.

Story by Cory Doctorow on BoingBoing:
Here's a sad and infuriating video from Cindy Quigley, founder of the now-defunct independent Canadian ISP OnCall. OnCall got its services via Telus, a regulated monopoly carrier, which drove them out of business with fraudulent charges and perjured testimony before an arbitrator and the regulator -- all of which came to light after the ISP went bust and lost the power to do anything about it.
No Hollywood ending here. The big bully creamed the little guy and then sauntered off. The little guy, Cindy Quigley, pulls herself up off the floor, dusts herself off, and declares she will go on fighting for "justice and the Canadian way". But, sadly, as far as I can tell, Telus is "the Canadian way", i.e. big business owns the government lock, stock, and barrel.

Political Dialog with the Deaf

The problem with trying to "debate" a political right winger in the US is that they "know" their facts and refuse to look at anything or concede anything. They have truth by the tail and that's that.

Here's a bit from Paul Krugman on his NY Times blog that exposes another "truth" of the political right which is complete fiction:
Discretionary Truthiness

I keep hearing Republicans say that Obama has increased nondefense discretionary spending by 80 percent; it’s one of those “facts” that apparently everyone on the right knows. So where does that come from?

Well, it turns out that Politifact is on the case — but gets it wrong, too, although not as wrong as the Republicans.

The number comes from taking nondefense discretionary spending as reported — which rose 26 percent from 2008 to 2010 (Table 8.7) — and then adding the entire discretionary spending part of the stimulus.

Politifact says that this is misleading because not all of the stimulus funds were spent in 2010. But it’s much worse than that: stimulus spending is already in those discretionary spending numbers. If you look at the table, you’ll see bulges in spending on education and ground transportation that go away after 2011; that’s the stimulus.

So this GOP talking point is a complete fraud; it’s based on counting the same spending several times over.
Go read the original post to get the embedded links.

There is no political dialog in the US because it is a "debate of the deaf". The political right simply refuses to look at facts and discuss what is or is not known. They are so imbued with political certitude that ideology passes for fact among these fanatics.

For those who reject the above claim, here is a post by Brad DeLong that offers a baker's dozen examples of right wing claims that are not fact-based.
  • On Glenn Hubbard's claim that Obama has "ruled out long-term entitlement spending restraint"

  • On Republican claims that contractionary fiscal policy is expansionary

  • On Mitt Romney's claim that uncertainty about government policy hobbles the recovery

  • On the OECD's claim that stimulative economic policy is "largely exhausted; therefore, we have to 'go structural'

  • On Thomas Saving and John Goodman's claim that the Ryan plan has no larger Medicare cuts in it than the Affordable Care Act does

  • On Irwin Stelzer's claim that investors are worried about a U.S. default

  • On Michael Barone's claim that Secretary Sibelius is "waiving away the law" for Obama campaign contributors

  • On Joe Nocera's claim that Democrats should not scorn Paul Ryan

  • On Speaker John Boehner's claim that only Democrats have voted to cut Medicare

  • On Stephen Moore's claim that "in reality" the Democrats are proposing a 62% top income tax rate

  • On the Wall Street Journal's editorial claim that "the regulatory tax on Americans is now larger than the income tax"

  • On Republican opposition to raising the debt ceiling: Right-leaning Clive Crook

  • David Brooks on how the Republicans should destroy Medicare the next time they try
The above are just the headers, for the details, go read DeLong's post.

And DeLong offers up yet more with this post.

US Freedoms

Funny, the US "celebrates" the fact that some political hooligans had a "tea party" in Boston harbour and destroyed a year's worth of tea because they didn't like the taxes under the Townshend Acts. That bit of public disturbance is put in the pantheon of "patriotic acts".

But here is a flash mob at the Jefferson memorial who are engaged in "dancing" and they get roughed up and jailed because in America that kind of "behaviour" is unacceptable. What?

Personally I think it is stupid to "dance" at the memorial (just as I see the Boston "tea party" as stupid destructive behaviour), but this behaviour doesn't merit the rough handling and the hauling off to jail. This demonstration shows that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and what is unacceptable public behaviour to one person is considered an essential and protected right by another. Such arbitrary enforcement of "public order" brings the police to ridicule. If they had simply ignored the "demonstration" I'm pretty sure the whole thing would have passed unremarked by the wider public. But by taking people down -- literally throwing them to the ground -- gives an importance to the demonstration that wouldn't have been there in a more tolerant and free society.

It is ironic that this police "action" took place in a memorial to a man, Thomas Jefferson, who felt that demonstrations and disorder was a necessary part of a vibrant democracy.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Healthcare Debate Flashback

CNBC's Mark Haines suddenly died this week, so some videos have been put on the web to celebrate his "take no prisoners" approach to dealing with guests on his show. Here's an example from August 2009 where he doesn't let Martin Feldstein from Harvard make some ridiculous complaints about the Democrat's health care plan.

Haines nails him with this one perceptive point: "Your argument is something that is easy to make by somebody who has money." Feldstein sees the world only from the lofty air of a rich Harvard professor who ignores the fact that a third of the people have no health care because they can't afford it. For Feldstein that isn't "rationing" that is a "choice". Yeah, sure...

Feldstein ends with the ridiculous claim that a health care plan would remove the ability of the rich to pick doctor, treatment, etc. Nonsense. The rich will always have choices. The whole point of the health care bill was to remove the lack of choice for those without the money. They don't get treatment because they can't afford it. That is a terrible "choice" but Martin Feldstein is quite happy with that kind of "choice".

Here's a bit from a September 2008 interview, he has it with a right wing spin doctor and comes right out and says "I find that one-sided crap insulting":

I like the way Mark Haines called them as he saw them. This reminds me of the classic joke about three umpires discussing their role in the game of baseball.
  • The first umpire says, “When the pitcher pitches there are strikes and there are balls, and I call them as they are.”

  • The second umpire says, “When the pitcher pitches there are strikes and there are balls, and I call them as I see them.”

  • The third umpire says, “When the pitcher pitches there are strikes and there are balls, but they are nothing until I call them.”
I'm almost willing to say that these comments and their commentary was nothing until Mark Haines called it.

Police Raid with Guns Blazing

Here is yet another "suspicious" police raid where they go in shooting and ask questions later:

More info from the UK's Daily Mail.

This happens far too often. I understand that a cop's job is difficult and dangerous, but being afraid doesn't mean you have the right to snuff out a life in a hail of bullets. Presumably people are "innocent until proven guilty" but once you are dead all that theory is useless. The innocent die as quickly as the guilty and if the cops don't do their job and bring the suspect before the court, you end up with a judicial murder. A crime was committed, but int his case it looks like the cops are the criminals. The fact that they have changed their story from "he shot first" to "he threatened us with a gun" won't hold water. I can't believe any police force in the world should have the right to bust into a person's home and not expect to face a homeowner scared out of their wits and holding a weapon.

In cases like this, I don't understand why the police don't simply announce "we have you surrounded, give up" and then lay seige to the house. The police can use tear gas to drive a recalcitrant person out of the house. Why are they going in guns blazing? Why wouldn't you expect -- in a country where the citizenry are armed to the teeth -- to encounter a terrified homeowner with gun in hand?

I remember when I was a kid and the Chicago police went in guns blazing and killed Fred Hampton. The initial news report talked about "an exchange of fire" but the news reporter, I think it was CBS, pointed out the strange fact that while there were literally hundreds of bullet holes inside Fred Hampton's apartment, there was no evidence of any bullets going the other way, out toward the police.

The intial story of a "police provoked into a fire fight" ended up being a lie. As you can see by reading this Wikipedia article, the police had used an insider to drug Fred Hampton before the raid:
O'Neal had slipped the powerful barbiturate sleep agent, secobarbitol into a drink that was consumed by Hampton during the dinner in order to sedate Hampton so that he would not awaken during the subsequent raid. O'Neal left at this point, and, at about 1:30 a.m., Hampton fell asleep in mid-sentence talking to his mother on the telephone. Although Hampton was not known to take drugs, Cook County chemist Eleanor Berman would report that she ran two separate tests which each showed a powerful barbiturate had been introduced into Hampton's blood. An FBI chemist would later fail to find similar traces, but no explanation for how Berman's tests could have been flawed was offered and she stood by her findings.


Automatic gunfire then converged at the head of the bedroom where Hampton slept, unable to wake up as a result of the barbiturates that the FBI infiltrator had slipped into his drink. He was lying on a mattress in the bedroom with his pregnant girlfriend. Two officers found him wounded in the shoulder, and fellow Black Panther Harold Bell reported that he heard the following exchange:
"That's Fred Hampton."
"Is he dead?... Bring him out."
"He's barely alive.
"He'll make it."
Two shots were heard, which it was later discovered were fired point blank in Hampton's head. According to Deborah Johnson, one officer then said:

"He's good and dead now."
Hampton's body was dragged into the doorway of the bedroom and left in a pool of blood. The officers then directed their gunfire towards the remaining Panthers, who were hiding in another bedroom. They were wounded, then beaten and dragged into the street, where they were arrested on charges of aggravated assault and the attempted murder of the officers. They were each held on US$100,000 bail.
That was cold blooded murder by the police. The government hated the Black Panthers. Rather than bother with arrests and trials, the "authorities" decided to short-circuit the process and deliver "justice" at the barrel of a gun.

You can only have a civil society if you have the rule of law. That means a functioning police and judiciary and a respect for the lives of citizens. I find it funny that the US can find fault with governments around the world, call them corrupt, but it seems unable to find any corruption at home. It reminds me of the late 1950s and early 1960s when the US went around the world preaching "human rights" while maintaining a Jim Crow, segregated, and brutal police state for the blacks in the Deep South. Hypocrisy comes easy to the government of the US.

You only get the government you deserve if you fight for it. You need to complain about police brutality and thugs in uniform. You need to fight crooked judges and prosecutors and the politicization of higher levels of the police (like the RCMP in Canada or the FBI in the US).

There was a notorious case of police brutality recently in Canada. But there are many more: Robert Dziekański, Ian Bush (a person under arrest who managed to shoot himself in the back of the head, or so claim the RCMP), etc.

Sadly, most people aren't "bothered" by police brutality until it happens to them. But then it is too late. If you don't stop it early, you can easily become the victim of police brutality. In the words of the famous German Protestant minister, Martin Niemöller, during the black days of Hitler's reign:
When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn't a Jew.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

A Question of Philosophy?

Here is a post by Dean Baker on his Beat the Press blog that reveals what the press knows about "philosophy":
The Wall Street Journal Tells Us It's All About Philosophy

The news media keeps trying to tell us not to worry about who gets the money, the issue is one of philosophy. The WSJ picks up the task today telling readers that the difference between conservative and liberal budget plans:

"The big takeaway is this: The debate over how to reduce the deficit is truly a philosophical one about the size of government."

Is that so? The Congressional Budget Office tells us that it will cost $34 trillion (5 times the size of the projected Social Security shortfall) more to provide Medicare equivalent policies through private insurers than through the traditional government Medicare program. This would be additional money paid by taxpayers and beneficiaries to insurers and providers. Is the desire to hand this money over to these groups a question of philosophy?
Go read the original post to get the embedded links.

I should point out that the role of the media in a democracy is also a question of philosophy, but obviously these Wall Street Journal types have never bothered to study the issue. They know as much about philosophy as the average dog knows about higher mathematics. Zilch!

Learning Something New Every Day

The other day I was shocked to see a news clip of former president Bill Clinton grabbing Paul Ryan and telling him to "keep up the fight" to cut entitlements. I was shocked. The Democrats are supposed to be for "the little people" and here is a former leader showing he sides with the rich, big business, and the Republicans. I couldn't believe my eyes.

But Dean Baker has brought me down to reality. He points out that I didn't really know the "real" Bill Clinton:
Bill Clinton, Who's Known for His Plan to Cut Social Security

In an article reporting on how the Republicans are backing away from the Ryan plan for privatizing Medicare. the NYT quoted former President Bill Clinton on the need to cut Medicare spending. Mr. Clinton was speaking a daylong conference of the deficit sponsored by Wall Street investment banker Peter Peterson.

It would have been worth reminding readers that Clinton is a big proponent of cuts to Social Security. At the deficit conference that Peterson sponsored last year, Clinton boasted that he had wanted to cut Social Security but congressional leaders from both parties blocked him. The cuts that he wanted would have reduced benefits by approximately 1 percent a year. This means that retirees in their 70s, 80s, or 90s, would be getting almost 15 percent less in Social Security benefits today, if President Clinton had gotten his way.

His desire to cut Social Security puts Clinton far outside the mainstream in the Democratic Party. In fact, it puts him far to the right of the majority of the Republican Party. It would have been appropriate to remind readers of this fact so they could put Mr. Clinton's interest in cutting Medicare in context.
Live and learn. I knew Bill Clinton was part of the New Democrats in the US and aligned with the Third Way in the UK. I knew these were more "centrist" than the Democrats in the US or Labour in the UK. But I didn't realize how right wing some of their ideology really was. I've learned something new!

How are ordinary people supposed to get a government that stands for them when the political party run people like Obama touted as a "community organizer" but really is a "Wall Street organizer" and Bill Clinton run as a "populist" when in fact he was a front for big money interest? No wonder people give up and call the two parties in the US Tweedledee and Tweedledum. They run front men who pretend to take positions while keeping mum about their real ideology.

From Wikipedia:
In politics
  • During the 2000 United States presidential election, candidate Ralph Nader pointed out that George W. Bush and Al Gore were not very different in their corporate policies, and called them Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

  • Helen Keller, the first deafblind recipient of a Bachelor of Arts degree and a prolific writer and left-wing activist said this of democracy in the US. "Our democracy is but a name. We vote? What does that mean? It means that we choose between two bodies of real, though not avowed, autocrats. We choose between Tweedledum and Tweedledee."

  • Leading up to the United Kingdom general election, 2010, Tory leader David Cameron compared coalition-building British party leaders to "Tweedledum talking to Tweedledee, who is talking to Tweedledem."
The average Joe on the street doesn't have time to read the minds of politicians to find out what their real ideology is. The whole point of party politics is to get the party to vet the candidates so that the party name counts like a "brand" label that provides a guarantee about the product. Sadly, political parties these days are too busy cashing in and getting rich to be bothered with acting like a real political party with a real political platform and some real quality control over their candidates.

How the Media "Works" in America

This is an excellent post by Dean Baker on his Beat the Press blog:
Is It a Fact That the U.S. Deficit Is "Ballooning?"

The Congressional Budget Office actually projects that the deficit is on a downward path, but the NYT still felt the need to tell readers that the deficit is "ballooning" in an article on the agenda for an upcoming meeting of G-8 leaders. The article also felt the need to describe the deficit as "giant."

These comments reflect the reporters or editors political views. They do not inform readers about facts in the world.
Why bother sending reporters out onto the street when you can simply make the stories up? That's the formula for success for the tabloid press. Dean Baker is pointing out that mainstream media has caught on and and is using this "cost cutting" measure. Not only does it save costs, it allows them to "spin" the news the way their masters want it presented.

Dean Baker Spots a Bit of Blindness

Upton Sinclair diagnosed the problem with the Washington Post long before Dean Baker spotted the problem. From Wikiquote: It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!

Here is the problem that Dean Baker spotted in the Washington Post coverage on the entitlement debate:
Hey Stupid Seniors! The Post Says a 9 Percent Cut In Social Security Benefits Won't Hurt

It's amazing what you can learn reading the Washington Post. Today it's lead editorial told readers that reducing the annual cost of living adjustment for Social Security by 0.3 percentage points won't hurt. This would come as news to most seniors who rely on Social Security for most of their income.

This 0.3 percentage point cut is cumulative. After a person has been retired for 10 years benefits would be roughly 3 percent lower than would otherwise be the case. Benefits would be almost 6 percent lower after 20 years, and almost 9 percent lower after 30 years, when most beneficiaries will be in their 90s.

The poverty rate is highest for the oldest seniors, most of whom are women living alone. Most people think cutting benefits for this group by 9 percent would hurt, thankfully we have the Washington Post to tell us otherwise.

(This is a newspaper that has run front page stories warning that raising taxes by less than 1 percent [of income] on people earning $300,000 a year would inflict real pain.)

The rationale for the benefit cut is the use of an alternative measure of inflation, the chained consumer price index, that assumes substantial substitution between consumption items in response to prices changes. The Post asserts that this index is a more accurate measure of inflation.

Actually, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has an experimental elderly index that measures the rate of change in the basket of goods and services consumed by people over age 62. This index shows that the inflation rate experienced by the elderly increases by an average of 0.3 percentage points more than the overall CPI to which Social Security benefits are indexed.

While this is an experimental index that does not track the actual purchasing patterns of the elderly (e.g. examining the specific retail outlets where they shop and the items they purchase), those who are interested in an accurate cost of living adjustment would advocate a fuller elderly index. Those who want to cut Social Security benefits advocate using the chained consumer price index, which we know will show a lower measured rate of inflation.
Go read Baker's original post to get the embedded links.

When I read this bit about how the Washington Post's editors see "entitlements" I'm reminded of the scene in the film Titanic where the rich and leisured "gentlemen" elbow the women and children out of the way so that they can get into the lifeboats and get away from the sinking ship. These "gentlemen" mouth an ethic of a "higher morality" but when push comes to shove, they are only to eager to throw the elderly under the bus so they can afford to upgrade their 400 foot yacht next year for the 600 foot version.

And... here is Dean Baker's post on "privatizing" health care benefits:
David Brooks Calls for Improved Defenses Against Martians and Cutting Medicare

It's pretty brave of the NYT to routinely feature a columnist who is completely out of touch with reality. David Brooks has another tirade today in which he lays out his, "Medicare Survival Guide."

Brooks is very upset that the Democrats won the special congressional election in New York by telling people that the Republicans want to end Medicare. Apparently, Mr. Brooks has not read the Medicare plan that was put forward by Representative Ryan and approved by the House with the support of all but 4 Republicans. This plan replaced the current Medicare system with a voucher, which seniors would use to buy health care insurance. That certainly sounds like ending Medicare. It would be interesting to know what Mr. Brooks would consider ending Medicare.

According to the Congressional Budget Office's assessment of the Ryan plan, it would increase the cost of buying Medicare equivalent policies by $34 trillion (5 times the projected Social Security shortfall) over the program's 75-year planning horizon. Adding in the $5 trillion in costs shifted from the government, the Ryan plan would increase the cost to beneficiaries of buying Medicare equivalent policies by $39 trillion.

In pushing the defense plan against Martian attacks Ryan tells the Republicans:

"They need to lay out the facts showing that Medicare is unstable and on a path to collapse, as Representative Paul Ryan is doing."

Actually, this is not what the facts show. The projections in the Medicare Trustees report, as well as the CBO baseline budget, show that the program faces a relatively modest long-term shortfall. The amount of money needed to balance the program over its 75-year planning horizon is less than 0.3 percent of GDP, approximately one-fifth of the increase in the rate annual defense spending between 2000 and 2011.

There are important issues as to whether the assumptions underlying these projections will prove accurate, importantly limiting the increase in doctors' compensation under Medicare. However, this is a question of whether Congress will adhere to the current law, not a need to change the law.

The Brooks piece also contains the wonderful line:

"Many Democrats don’t want to go down in history as the people who did nothing while bankruptcy loomed."

Actually, they already will go down in history that way. Apparently no one told Brooks about the economic downturn. (He has probably been too busy preparing the defense against Martians.)

The Democrats, like their Republican counterparts, completely ignored the run-up in the housing bubble. The collapse of this bubble is likely to cost the country more than $5 trillion in lost output. It is also the reason for the large deficits that concern Brooks so much. Unless the Democrats can ensure that people like Brooks write the story, they are destined to go down in history as people who did nothing while economic disaster (I have no idea what Brooks means by "bankruptcy" and most likely he doesn't either) loomed.
Again, go read the original to get the embedded links.

Brad DeLong on the Economic Outlook

I enjoy Brad DeLong economic papers. He gets too down in the bushes on politics for my taste (OK, I'm a dilettante while he's a pro, he can name names, I can only vaguely identify political positions).

Here's a post where he looks at the Q2 growth figures for the US:
Time to PANIC!!: Second-Quarter Real GDP Growth Looks Slow Enough to Put No Upward Pressure at All on the Employment-to-Population Ratio

by J. Bradford DeLong

Click to Enlarge

Time to push the panic button.

Macroeconomic Advisers is revising their tracking forecast of real GDP growth in the second quarter. It now looks as though, come July 1, that there will have been no gap-closing in the six quarters since the start of 2010.

That means that it is:
  • Time for Quantitative Easing III...

  • Time for pulling more spending from the future forward into the present, and pushing more taxes from the present back into the future...

  • Time to use Fannie and Freddie to (temporarily) nationalize mortgage finance and fix the ongoing foreclosure crisis...

  • Time for a weaker dollar...
DeLong knows that his call for action will be ignored. Sadly, the politicians in the US has spent the last two years worried about a sudden breakout of inflation so they have announced that no more stimulus is possible. Instead the "little people" will just have to suck it up and pay the price for Wall Street's sins. Yes, as it has always been, the people at the bottom pay for the excesses of the rich and greedy.

And... here is a bit from another post by Brad DeLong:
Learned Helplessness and Macroeconomic Policy

Duncan Black:
Eschaton: 16 Months Since The Pivot: It's been about 16 months since the White House geniuses started talking about deficits instead of stimulus or jobs, leading us into the insane conversation we're having now. Next job report comes out one week from today. Last one had unemployment at 9.0%.

As I understood it back at the start of 2009, the pivot from fighting the recession to restoring stability to U.S. long-run public finances was supposed to come when recovery was well-established and we could see 7.5% unemployment approaching--or when worry about the state of America's public finances was causing long-term real Treasury interest rates and inflation premia to spike.
But that was not the White House's plan. I don't know what the White House's plan was. I don't know what the White House's plan is. It doesn't seem to involve the most obvious and practical steps--recess-appointments to the Federal Reserve Board who will advocate QE III and Treasury communications to shape expectations of the value of the currency.
Sadly Obama and his government are out fighting ghosts and creatures of overheated imagination while "the little people" live with blighted lives of unemployment, under-employment, stuck in bad job situations, fighting banks that want to foreclose on their homes, etc. I thought, back in 2008, that Obama as a "community organizer" understood the needs of the people. I failed to realize that he "understood" the needs of Wall Street and the billionaires even better.

The Great Recession Drags on and Krugman Says "nobody in power cares!"

From a post by Paul Krugman on his NY Times blog:
Third Depression Watch

Last year I warned that we seemed to be heading into the “Third Depression” — by which I meant a prolonged period of economic weakness:
Neither the Long Depression of the 19th century nor the Great Depression of the 20th was an era of nonstop decline — on the contrary, both included periods when the economy grew. But these episodes of improvement were never enough to undo the damage from the initial slump, and were followed by relapses.

We are now, I fear, in the early stages of a third depression. It will probably look more like the Long Depression than the much more severe Great Depression. But the cost — to the world economy and, above all, to the millions of lives blighted by the absence of jobs — will nonetheless be immense.
Brad DeLong points us to Macro Advisers, which has now downgraded its estimates for second-quarter growth. As Brad says, these estimates now suggest that we have now gone through a year and a half of “recovery” that has failed to make any progress toward closing the gap between what the economy should be producing and what it’s actually producing.

And nobody in power cares!
The suffering of the unemployed and under-employed is ignored by Washington politicians while they curry favour with the rich and powerful by showing great concern over "inflation", the read worry of every bond coupon clipper. Just shows that government ignores "the little people" while it runs in circles and jumps through hoops to entertain the rich and powerful.

Oh... and there is this from Krugman:
Who You Gonna Bet On? An Update

It’s not quite a year yet since Business Week ran a piece ridiculing my concerns about prolonged economic weakness, comparing it to the wisdom of John Paulson, who saw a boom — particularly in housing — just around the corner. Still, it seems worth revisiting.

How do you think it’s going?
The media in the US are the lapdogs of the rich and powerful. They make sure that truth and fact is not heard. Instead they spread the lies and dogma that the elites need to keep the "little people" confused and cowed.

How Do We Know that High Oil Prices are Speculation?

Here is a bit from a post by Matt Taibbi on his Rolling Stone blog that provides the secret decoder ring to help us spot speculative hoarding. Notice the bit about "finding it hard to find buyers of oil"? Strange. If oil prices are driven up by excessive demand, there should be lots of buyers out there demanding more. But that's not what the Saudis reported in 2008:
When oil prices surged to a ridiculous $147 a barrel in the summer of 2008, conventional wisdom held that normal supply and demand issues were the cause. Both the Bush administration (in the form of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission) and most of Wall Street (through both media figures and market analysts) blamed such factors as increases in oil demand from the Chinese industrial machine, and the failure of Americans to conserve, for the surge in crude prices.

Goldman Sachs, while outrageously predicting a "super spike" that might cause oil to reach as high as $200 a barrel, blamed piggish American consumers and preached conservation as a bulwark against oil supply disruptions. The bank's "Oracle of Oil," Arjun Murti, even broadcast the fact that he owned two hybrid cars.

Well, thanks to Wikileaks, we now know that when the Bush administration reached out to the Saudis in the summer of '08 to ask them to increase oil production to lower prices, the Saudis responded by saying they were having a hard time finding buyers for their oil as it was, and instead asked the Bush administration to rein in Wall Street speculators.
Matt Taibbi goes on to provide more details. Read the whole article.

I'm guessing the current price spike is just another "manipulation of the market". The good news is that the US has anti-trust laws that stop this illegal manipulation of the market. So don't hold your breath. I'm sure that Obama will sick the Justice Department out there to investigate all those Wall Street firms (think Goldman Sachs) that are milking the market. I'm sure the feds are eager to put the squeeze on Obama's main political backers, you know, the ones who provide lots of campaign "donations". Obama is just as eager as the Republicans before him to stop this illegal behaviour because the politicians in Washington hold their duty to the American citizen as their highest duty, their solemn obligation, way up there... almost as high as their obligation to keep their business buddies who provide the soft funds and under the table money happy.

The wonderful thing is that America has finally rid itself of the ugly side of democracy, where you have to go out and meet & greet people, make promises to the electorate, and actually serve as a "representative". They've streamlined this into a one-stop shopping service for the ultra-rich who simply buy and sell politicians. No fuss, no worry.

Political Rights in America

The US loves to flaunt its "freedoms" that are Constitutionally "protected". Here is an example of "freedom in action"...

I love it when the cop says "I can do whatever I want" as he arrested a CBC camera man covering a peaceful protest by citizens in Newark, New Jersey about street shootings that have left innocent people dead. The "law" in the US says you have the right to assemble peacefully, but apparently the police are unaware of this "fact". They obviously haven't heard of the US Constitution and its 1st Amendement:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Under the Newark N.J. police interpretation of citizen "rights", you have a right to try to peacefully assemble for redress of grievances, but if you actually get onto the street, then the police can "do whatever they want" and arrest you, manhandle you, throw you into jail, etc. So much for "freedoms" and "rights" in America.

Making the Country Safe for Private Exploitation, uh, "Enterprise"

The Canadian government... oops, I forgot, it is now officially "The Harper Government"... has decided that providing troops in an emergency is wrong because it would inhibit the chance of "private enterprise" to profit from misery and suffering with the Quebec floods.

From the Globe and Mail:
At a time when distressed flood victims in Quebec’s Richelieu Valley were urging the federal government for more troops to help deal with the crisis, Ottawa refused to send in additional soldiers, saying it would put them “in competition with the private sector.”

In a letter sent to the Quebec government last Friday, federal Public Safety Minister Vic Toews explained that the Canadian Forces were too busy with “defence activities” to respond to their demands and denied the province’s request for more troops.
It is good to see that Stephen Harper knows his priorities. When there is a choice between helping the victims of a natural disaster or giving his private enterprise buddies a chance to gouge desperate people by selling them "assistance" during the disaster, Harper has picked his ideological favourite: the rights of business over the rights of the people.

I'm guessing this isn't just Harper letting his greedy buddies exploit the suffering. I'm guessing this is Harper being vindictive about the fact that the Quebeckers aren't sufficiently enamoured with his government to vote in more Conservative MPs. This is the way Harper punishes them for not voting "correctly". It is a new concept in government services: you get service if you vote for the government party, otherwise you twist slowly in the wind hung by your recalcitrance and refusal to understand the proper mechanics of Canadian "democracy".

The Right Not to be Groped Goes Down in Flames

I'm no fan of the right wing fanatics in the US, but I was a fan of the Texas attempt to tell the US government that they should abide by the US Constitution's 4th Amendement which prohibits:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
But under the "war on terror" (a war which by very definition can never end because there will always be some "terrorist" somewhere), the US government has told Texas it can have its law or it can have its airports, but it can't have both.

From the Texas Tribune:
A threat from the federal government to shut down Texas airports or cancel flights may have killed legislation by Tea Party conservatives in the Texas Capitol to prohibit federal Transportation Security Administration agents from conducting "invasive searches."

“I don’t cave in to heavy handed threats by the federal government,” said an angry Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, the Senate sponsor of the bill, who ultimately withdrew the bill.

House Bill 1937, which was passed by the House earlier this month, would make it a misdemeanor offense for a federal security agent to “intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly [touch] the anus, sexual organ, buttocks, or breast of the other person, including touching through clothing, or touching the other person in a manner that would be offensive to a reasonable person.”

Two TSA officials visited Patrick at the Capitol earlier today to discuss the legislation. They warned him that the legislation “could close down all the airports in Texas,” he said. After their departure, U.S. Attorney John E. Murphy sent a letter to Speaker of the House Joe Straus and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst saying the bill would “conflict directly with federal law” and that if it became law, “TSA would likely be required to cancel any flight or series of flights for which it could not ensure the safety of passengers and crew” until the agency could seek a court order stopping the measure from being carried out.
It looks like Texans have chosen to keep their airports while giving up their freedoms. Chalk up another victory for Al Qaeda.

America the "Free"

Yes... freedom for the big boys to run roughshod over the "little people". Not only do they buy and sell politicians to get ever more "tax cuts" for billionaires and gazillionaires. They are into making sure that workers never get a break.

From cnet news:

A new California lawsuit accuses Apple, Google, Adobe Systems, Intel, and other tech companies of violating antitrust laws by allegedly conspiring to fix employee pay, as well as working out "no solicitation" deals with one another.

The suit (PDF), which seeks class action status, was filed today with the California Superior Court in Alameda County and alleges that because senior executives from Adobe, Apple, Google, Intel, Intuit, Lucasfilm, and Pixar "entered into an interconnected web of express agreements to eliminate competition among them for skilled labor," affected employees from those companies are entitled to compensation.
Yep... the lawsuit includes the "do no evil" Google, the company founded by two idealistic computer students from Stanford who, once they became billionaires, decided that billions are not enough. And that "the law" doesn't apply when you are massively rich. The rules only apply to the little people.

Even though the companies were found guilty of collusion and "the little people" were left missing dollars out of their pocket, the legal system in its infinite wisdom didn't feel that these companies had to compensate the victims. So they are back with a lawsuit:
In the complaint, Hariharan seeks restitution for lost compensation as well as treble damages for those who are a part of the suit, which includes salaried employees from the companies during January 1, 2005, to January 1, 2010.

The suit focuses specifically on the companies targeted by a 2009 antitrust investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. That investigation, and the civil lawsuit that followed, were settled back in September of last year, with the aforementioned companies agreeing to discontinue the use of "do not cold call" lists. Nonetheless, the suit says the companies are still profiting in the aftermath of the practice.

"The DOJ has confirmed that it will not seek to compensate employees who were injured by defendants' agreements," the suit says. "Without this class action, plaintiff and members of the class will not receive compensation for their injuries, and defendants will continue to retain the benefits of their unlawful collusion."
Have you ever heard of a bank robber not being required to give up the ill-gotten loot from his robbery? Neither have I. But these big companies have bent the legal system so that they can be found "guilty" but get to keep the loot. The poor victims are forced to go and pursue their own legal case to try to get restitution of what was stolen from them.

Yep... America, land of the free. Those free to rob the little people.

Locked Out

I just suffered three days of being unable to log in to my blogger account. There is nothing at the Blogger status page about this problem, but if you do look under "known issues" they have this very short, very unhelpful bit:
We're investigating an issue which is preventing login and comment posting for some users, and hope to have a fix released shortly.

Thanks for your patience in the meantime. — LATEST UPDATE ON TUESDAY, MAY 24, 2011

LABELS: comments, login, outstanding

from: http://knownissues.blogspot.com/search/label/login
Given the service outage two weeks ago that kept blogging down for a day and meant that items posted on May 12 only showed up slowly over the next week with no explanation, this indicates to me that Google has "lost interest" in Blogger. I guess it isn't making the big bucks that the overpaid employees and over-compensated stock holders of Google need to keep the lifestyles to which they have become "accustomed".

I find the number of bugs and failings of Google's Blogger to be outrageous. I worked in the industry building systems where 10 to maybe 100 people would use the systems we built. We built sound software and when something did go wrong (and our sites were around the world so service was sometimes very hard) we got things back up in hours and at most a day or two. Blogger has tens of thousands (maybe hundreds of thousands) of users, and the quality of the software is truly crappy compared to what I'm used to producing. And to cap this off, Google, Apple, and Microsoft -- all the big boys -- love to pound themselves on the back about hiring "the best" and being "the brightest". I don't think so. They seem slightly better than mediocre but they certainly strike me as overpaid and far too cosseted with management treating them like little princes and princesses.

I simply can't trust that Blogger will be available or reliable. Don't be surprised if this blog simply comes to an end one day either because Goggle can't be bothered to fix its own bugs or because I've simply grown too frustrated with "service" to continue posting thoughts on this increasingly unreliable tool.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Philosophy of Government, Supposedly

Here is a nice post by Dean Baker in his Beat the Press blog that ridicules the idea that the difference between the Republicans and Democrats is "just a difference in philosophy":
The Wall Street Journal Tells Us It's All About Philosophy

The news media keeps trying to tell us not to worry about who gets the money, the issue is one of philosophy. The WSJ picks up the task today telling readers that the difference between conservative and liberal budget plans:

"The big takeaway is this: The debate over how to reduce the deficit is truly a philosophical one about the size of government."

Is that so? The Congressional Budget Office tells us that it will cost $34 trillion (5 times the size of the projected Social Security shortfall) more to provide Medicare equivalent policies through private insurers than through the traditional government Medicare program. This would be additional money paid by taxpayers and beneficiaries to insurers and providers. Is the desire to hand this money over to these groups a question of philosophy?
Go read the original post to get the embedded links.

I suppose that whether you are a billionaire or a beggar is just "philosophical". One obviously interested in "higher things" (like bigger numbers) while the other can't get his mind out of the gutter (or the cardboard box in which he resides). Yes, it is all "just philosophy".