Friday, July 31, 2009

Corrupt Police Caught on Camera

Here is a textbook introduction to how police abuse their powers:

The police are given a great deal of authority to enforce laws, but the are not supposed to be judge, jury, and executioner. The above shows how some police cross the line.

Notice the "punishment"... put on administrative leave with pay. That sounds like a paid vacation. How is that punishment?

Here's another perspective: treat it with comedy...

Maher Takes Aim at Birthers

Here's a Bill Maher op-ed in the LA Times about the latest right wing obsession. Here are the key bits:

Never underestimate the ability of a tiny fringe group of losers to ruin everything.

For the last couple of weeks, we've all been laughing heartily at the wacky antics of the "birthers" -- the far-right goofballs who claim Barack Obama wasn't really born in Hawaii and therefore the job of president goes to the runner-up, former Miss California Carrie Prejean.


And yet, every week, the chorus of conservatives demanding to see his birth certificate grows. It's like they're the Cambridge police, Obama's in his house -- the White House -- and they need to see some ID.

And there's nothing anyone can do to convince these folks. You could hand them, in person, the original birth certificate and have a video of Obama emerging from the womb with Don Ho singing in the background ... and they still wouldn't believe it.

Which raises the question: Why, in this country, is it always the religious right that won't take anything on faith?


This flap might be a deluded right-wing obsession that is a total waste of time, but so was Whitewater, and look where that ended up. A handful of Republican operatives, enraged at Bill Clinton's unprecedented economic growth and budget surpluses, found a woman named Paula Jones, which led to a woman named Monica Lewinsky, which gave me enough material to eventually be able to buy a big house in Bel-Air. Which I'm still conflicted about.

More recently we had the Swift Boat allegations against John Kerry, in which Kerry was accused of volunteering to serve in Vietnam so he could jump in front of a bullet so he could get a medal and then throw it away to satisfy his urge to insult real Americans. This was so stupid that Kerry refused to even discuss it.

And we all know how well that worked out.
Maher fails to mention the vicious attack ads directed at Max Cleland, a triple amputee from Vietnam. The Saxby Chambliss attack ads said that Cleland did not love his country enough to care about its security. Odd. Cleland gave three limbs. Meanwhile, Chambliss the mad Republican attack dog:
In the 1960s, during the Vietnam War, Chambliss received five student deferments while attending the University of Georgia and the University of Tennessee College of Law and was also given a medical deferment (1-Y) for bad knees due to a football injury.
But facts don't stop the insane Republicans. They learned from Hitler the "big lie" technique. And, sadly, it works. Americans should be outraged. Look what Hitler did to Germany and the Germans. Sadly, the Republicans have used this technique again and again. Think of the Willie Horton ads. These Republican attack dogs even used this big lie technique of George Bush in the 2000 presidential primary:
An anonymous smear campaign began against McCain, delivered by push polls, faxes, e-mails, flyers, and audience plants. The smears claimed that McCain had fathered a black child out of wedlock (the McCains' dark-skinned daughter was adopted from Bangladesh), that his wife Cindy was a drug addict, that he was a homosexual, and that he was a "Manchurian Candidate" who was either a traitor or mentally unstable from his North Vietnam POW days.
When will the American people reject this gutter politics and demand that elections run on platforms stating policies and providing a vision?

Update 2009jul31: I think the following graphic demonstrates clearly that racism is alive and well in the US. Notice which region supports the "birther" nonsense. Then ask, which region historically has had a vision that people like Obama are not truly human:

Seems to me if you are willing to decide that certain people are "not people" then it is very easy to decide that some birth certificates are not real birth certificates.

Land of the Free

Here's a story that got my attention. This is all to familiar. It is like the story from a few weeks back where an upscale private pool had rented time for some inner city club to use its pool, but when the private club members complained about all those "black kids" the club cancelled the rental.

This story from BoingBoing is similar:
Rich NY town tries to shut down children's library because poor kids might use it

by Cory Doctorow

Marilyn sez, "The East Hampton Library on Long Island wants to add a children's room, but the East Hampton Village Zoning Board has blocked it for a year, even though the money for the expansion ($4 mil) has been already been raised by private donations. What's their objection to a children's room at the library?"
Library Director Dennis Fabiszak has said that the East Hampton Village Board of Zoning Appeals has expressed concern that an expanded children's collection would lead to more library usage by those who live in the less affluent areas of Springs and Wainscott...

The proposed 6,800-square-foot addition to a community that includes Martha Stewart, Rudolph Giuliani, and Katie Couric as summer residents would enable the library to add 10,000 additional children's books to the library's collection. Last year, the Long Island library ranked last for books available per child...

The library serves not only the Village of East Hampton but also the less affluent communities of Springs and Wainscott.
Library Expansion in Posh NY Hood Goes On

The History of Ketchup

I ran across a reference to an old Malcolm Gladwell article in the New Yorker in 2004. I'm always happy to read anything by Gladwell. And I wasn't disappointed. Here are some key bits:
Tomato ketchup is a nineteenth-century creation—the union of the English tradition of fruit and vegetable sauces and the growing American infatuation with the tomato. But what we know today as ketchup emerged out of a debate that raged in the first years of the last century over benzoate, a preservative widely used in late-nineteenth-century condiments. Harvey Washington Wiley, the chief of the Bureau of Chemistry in the Department of Agriculture from 1883 to 1912, came to believe that benzoates were not safe, and the result was an argument that split the ketchup world in half. On one side was the ketchup establishment, which believed that it was impossible to make ketchup without benzoate and that benzoate was not harmful in the amounts used. On the other side was a renegade band of ketchup manufacturers, who believed that the preservative puzzle could be solved with the application of culinary science. The dominant nineteenth-century ketchups were thin and watery, in part because they were made from unripe tomatoes, which are low in the complex carbohydrates known as pectin, which add body to a sauce. But what if you made ketchup from ripe tomatoes, giving it the density it needed to resist degradation? Nineteenth-century ketchups had a strong tomato taste, with just a light vinegar touch. The renegades argued that by greatly increasing the amount of vinegar, in effect protecting the tomatoes by pickling them, they were making a superior ketchup: safer, purer, and better tasting. They offered a money-back guarantee in the event of spoilage. They charged more for their product, convinced that the public would pay more for a better ketchup, and they were right. The benzoate ketchups disappeared. The leader of the renegade band was an entrepreneur out of Pittsburgh named Henry J. Heinz.


There are five known fundamental tastes in the human palate: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. Umami is the proteiny, full-bodied taste of chicken soup, or cured meat, or fish stock, or aged cheese, or mother's milk, or soy sauce, or mushrooms, or seaweed, or cooked tomato. "Umami adds body," Gary Beauchamp, who heads the Monell Chemical Senses Center, in Philadelphia, says. "If you add it to a soup, it makes the soup seem like it's thicker—it gives it sensory heft. It turns a soup from salt water into a food." When Heinz moved to ripe tomatoes and increased the percentage of tomato solids, he made ketchup, first and foremost, a potent source of umami. Then he dramatically increased the concentration of vinegar, so that his ketchup had twice the acidity of most other ketchups; now ketchup was sour, another of the fundamental tastes. The post-benzoate ketchups also doubled the concentration of sugar—so now ketchup was also sweet—and all along ketchup had been salty and bitter. These are not trivial issues. Give a baby soup, and then soup with MSG (an amino-acid salt that is pure umami), and the baby will go back for the MSG soup every time, the same way a baby will always prefer water with sugar to water alone. Salt and sugar and umami are primal signals about the food we are eating—about how dense it is in calories, for example, or, in the case of umami, about the presence of proteins and amino acids. What Heinz had done was come up with a condiment that pushed all five of these primal buttons. The taste of Heinz's ketchup began at the tip of the tongue, where our receptors for sweet and salty first appear, moved along the sides, where sour notes seem the strongest, then hit the back of the tongue, for umami and bitter, in one long crescendo. How many things in the supermarket run the sensory spectrum like this?
You need to read the whole article. Gladwell noodles around a subject finding all kinds of interests facts and connections. His article is a good example of a diligent application to Gladwell to the topic of food invention, food marketing, and ketchup.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Krugman Tries To Explain Obama

The current battle over health care in the US is an eye-opening lesson in how the right loves to play dirty politics, the politics of lies, misdirection, and smear. You would have thought that Americans would have had enough of that from the McCarthy era. But, no, they voted in Nixon in 1968 and got the biggest political corruption scandal in US history. You would have thought that they would have learned from that, but, no, they bought Reagan's "new dawn in America" and watched him run up a deficit building up a military that was already several times bigger than any other country's and chasing a Star Wars dream that would never work. You would have thought they would have learned from that, but they didn't. They voted in GWB in 2000 and got a "war of choice, not necessity" in Iraq which cost more deaths than 9/11 and over ten times as many injured as there were dead from 9/11. For what? To get back at the dictator who tried to assassinate his daddy?

Krugman is up against that when he, once again, sits down to write an op-ed in the NY Times to explain to Americans why Obama's health care initiative is important and tries to warn the reader of all the tricks and lies coming from the Republicans:
At a recent town hall meeting, a man stood up and told Representative Bob Inglis to “keep your government hands off my Medicare.” The congressman, a Republican from South Carolina, tried to explain that Medicare is already a government program — but the voter, Mr. Inglis said, “wasn’t having any of it.”

It’s a funny story — but it illustrates the extent to which health reform must climb a wall of misinformation. It’s not just that many Americans don’t understand what President Obama is proposing; many people don’t understand the way American health care works right now. They don’t understand, in particular, that getting the government involved in health care wouldn’t be a radical step: the government is already deeply involved, even in private insurance.

And that government involvement is the only reason our system works at all.

The key thing you need to know about health care is that it depends crucially on insurance. You don’t know when or whether you’ll need treatment — but if you do, treatment can be extremely expensive, well beyond what most people can pay out of pocket. Triple coronary bypasses, not routine doctor’s visits, are where the real money is, so insurance is essential.

Yet private markets for health insurance, left to their own devices, work very badly: insurers deny as many claims as possible, and they also try to avoid covering people who are likely to need care. Horror stories are legion: the insurance company that refused to pay for urgently needed cancer surgery because of questions about the patient’s acne treatment; the healthy young woman denied coverage because she briefly saw a psychologist after breaking up with her boyfriend.

And in their efforts to avoid “medical losses,” the industry term for paying medical bills, insurers spend much of the money taken in through premiums not on medical treatment, but on “underwriting” — screening out people likely to make insurance claims. In the individual insurance market, where people buy insurance directly rather than getting it through their employers, so much money goes into underwriting and other expenses that only around 70 cents of each premium dollar actually goes to care.


Right-wing opponents of reform would have you believe that President Obama is a wild-eyed socialist, attacking the free market. But unregulated markets don’t work for health care — never have, never will. To the extent we have a working health care system at all right now it’s only because the government covers the elderly, while a combination of regulation and tax subsidies makes it possible for many, but not all, nonelderly Americans to get decent private coverage.

Now Mr. Obama basically proposes using additional regulation and subsidies to make decent insurance available to all of us. That’s not radical; it’s as American as, well, Medicare.
Read the whole article. There is a lot more very useful, very important information in it.

Ronald Wright's "What is America?"

This is another interesting book by Ronald Wright. Previously, I had read Stolen Continents and A Short History of Progress. I fully enjoyed them. They were full of unexpected bits of information and a new perspective on history. This book continues that path and some of the material overlaps with the previous book but that didn't reduce my enjoyment.

First, Wright is extremely sympathetic with the native population. So much of his writing points out the hypocrisy and betrayal in relations between the invaders from Europe and the native population. This is truly a sad tale. Awareness of the self-deception which the conquerers had about their motives and the facts of their history is important. As Wright pointedly reminds his reader in this book, a lot of contemporary American political behaviour shows a continuation of these ugly traits and this succeeds because so many Americans are unaware of their real history.

In talking about the lessons on government and democracy which the early colonists learned from the Six Nations, Wright points out:
Yet one memorial to the Iroquois can be seen wherever the United States does business under its Great Seal. The symbol of the Five Nation's combined strength was an eagle clasping five arrows in its talons. The United States raised the number of arrows to thirteen and put Latin in the bird's mouth: E PLURIBUS UNUM. Along with these Roman words and a Masonic pyramid stamped on each dollar, the filched eagle became a fitting emblem for the settlers' hybrid empire.
Wright shines a light into some of the uglier bits of American history:
One of the shabbier intercolonial fights was Plymouth's overthrow of Wessagusset, a small Anglican colony at peace with local Indians and therefore a rival in both religion and the fur trade. On the pretext of "saving" Wessagusset from a non-existent Indian plot, a Plymouth force murdered some of the colony's native allies in cold blood and made the deed stick to the Anglicans -- who then did come under Indian attack and fled back to England. "The trick," wrote Francis Jennings, was "diverting the blame to the 'savages.'" It was a trick that would be played again many times, most famously in 1773 at the Boston Tea Party, and most bloodily in 1857 at Mountain Meadows, Utah, where more than a hundred California-bound migrants were slaughtered by "Indians" who were mainly Mormons in fancy dress and greasepaint.
This will shock most American readers:
President Jefferson held out a seductivce vision of a mestizo North America: "The day will soon come," he told a gathering of Indians in 1808, "when you will unite yourselves with us, join in our great councils, and form a people with us, and we shall all be Americans; you will mix with us by marrriage; your blood will run in our veins and will spread with us over this great continent."


Notwithstanding his talk of an inclusive and just nation, President Jefferson (who, for all his enlightenment, was a slaveholder and often argued both sides of a case with equal eloquence) privately admitted to less lofty motives behind the civilizing scheme. Once Indians had become livestock owners on private plots, he wrote in 1803, they wouldn't need their hunting grounds and could be ensnared in the tender trap of debt:
To promote this disposition to exchange lands which they have to spare and we want ... we shall push our trading houses, and be glad to see the good and influential individuals amojung them run in debt, because we observe that when these debts get beyond what the individuals can pay, they become willing to lop them off by a cession of lands.
When debt alone was insufficient, bribery and corruption often did the job. Failing that, individual ownership would eventuallyl be imposed by federal law in 1887, when the nations driven to the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) were, in violation of all the Removal treaties, dismantled into private holdings by the Dawes Alltment Act -- frankly described by Theodore Roosevelt as "a might pulverising engine to break up the tribal mass."

Jefferson's words of two hundred years ago also help explain modern America's deep hostility to all forms of ownership and law that try to withstand the alkahest [universal solvent] of commerce. When the conflict arose inside western civilization -- with labour's challenge to capital -- no nation would show a greater dread of socialism than the United States. Today, some on the American right still denounce mainstream social democracies, including those of Canada and Europe, as "communistic" -- a laughable charge beyond the overheated air of neoconservative think tanks. Collectivity was savagery: like the red man himself, it was the red menace of its day. The Indians, wrote Senator Dawes of his Allotment Act, lacked "selfishness, which is at the bottom of civilization."

If you want to view the US from a persective different from what the schoolbooks offer, read this and read Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. As Santayana said "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Wizard of Wall Street are at it Again!

I was horrified to read that no lessons have been learned from the recent stock market crash. (Funny, I just did a post where a right wing ideologue that free markets are better than regulated markets because they "learn their lessons". And now I have a counterexample. Within six months of the crash!)

From an op-ed piece in the NY Times by Paul Wilmott:
ON vacation in Turkey, I am picked up at the airport by a minibus. It’s past midnight, pitch-black, the driver is speeding around corners. Only one headlight is working. And I have my doubts about the brakes. In my head I’m planning the letter of complaint to the tour company. And then the driver’s cellphone rings, he picks it up and answers it, he has only one hand on the steering wheel. Now I’m mentally compiling the list of songs to be played at my funeral.

That’s rather how I feel when people talk about the latest fashion among investment banks and hedge funds: high-frequency algorithmic trading. On top of an already dangerously influential and morally suspect financial minefield is now being added the unthinking power of the machine.

The idea is straightforward: Computers take information — primarily “real-time” share prices — and try to predict the next twitch in the stock market. Using an algorithmic formula, the computers can buy and sell stocks within fractions of seconds, with the bank or fund making a tiny profit on the blip of price change of each share.

There’s nothing new in using all publicly available information to help you trade; what’s novel is the quantity of data available, the lightning speed at which it is analyzed and the short time that positions are held.

You will hear people talking about “latency,” which means the delay between a trading signal being given and the trade being made. Low latency — high speed — is what banks and funds are looking for. Yes, we really are talking about shaving off the milliseconds that it takes light to travel along an optical cable.

So, is trading faster than any human can react truly worrisome? The answers that come back from high-frequency proponents, also rather too quickly, are “No, we are adding liquidity to the market” or “It’s perfectly safe and it speeds up price discovery.” In other words, the traders say, the practice makes it easier for stocks to be bought and sold quickly across exchanges, and it more efficiently sets the value of shares.


It has been said that the October 1987 stock market crash was caused in part by something called dynamic portfolio insurance, another approach based on algorithms. Dynamic portfolio insurance is a way of protecting your portfolio of shares so that if the market falls you can limit your losses to an amount you stipulate in advance. As the market falls, you sell some shares. By the time the market falls by a certain amount, you will have closed all your positions so that you can lose no more money.


By 1987, however, the problem was the sheer number of people following the strategy and the market share that they collectively controlled. If a fall in the market leads to people selling according to some formula, and if there are enough of these people following the same algorithm, then it will lead to a further fall in the market, and a further wave of selling, and so on — until the Standard & Poor’s 500 index loses over 20 percent of its value in single day: Oct. 19, Black Monday. Dynamic portfolio insurance caused the very thing it was designed to protect against.

This is the sort of feedback that occurs between a popular strategy and the underlying market, with a long-lasting effect on the broader economy. A rise in price begets a rise. (Think bubbles.) And a fall begets a fall. (Think crashes.) Volatility rises and the market is destabilized. All that’s needed is for a large number of people to be following the same type of strategy. And if we’ve learned only one lesson from the recent financial crisis it is that people do like to copy each other when they see a profitable idea.


Thus the problem with the sudden popularity of high-frequency trading is that it may increasingly destabilize the market. Hedge funds won’t necessarily care whether the increased volatility causes stocks to rise or fall, as long as they can get in and out quickly with a profit. But the rest of the economy will care.

Buying stocks used to be about long-term value, doing your research and finding the company that you thought had good prospects. Maybe it had a product that you liked the look of, or perhaps a solid management team. Increasingly such real value is becoming irrelevant. The contest is now between the machines — and they’re playing games with real businesses and real people.
I'm 100% behind Wilmott. This claim that machines can safely trade was shown false in the 1987 crash which was proportionally more severe than the 1929 crash.

In short, Wall Street brainiacs keep coming up with "sure thing" approaches where they don't understand the consequences of their own "innovations". They inflict them on the rest of us since crashes on Wall Street quickly devolve into crashes on Main Street. This is precisely why there is a need for financial regulation!

First Amendment "Rights"

Sitting in Canada, I can have fun watching the hypocrisy of American "patriots". All the law-and-order types wanted the Cambridge police officer Crowley to jail the Harvard professor Gates because Gates wasn't showing sufficient "respect" for authority. Funny. These "patriots" don't bother reading their on Constitution and its First Amendment rights.

Here's a nice article by published in Forbes by Harvey A. Silverglate, a criminal defense and civil liberties lawyer:
By longstanding but unfortunate (and, in my view, clearly unconstitutional) practice in Cambridge and across the country, the charge of disorderly conduct is frequently lodged when the citizen restricts his response to the officer to mere verbal unpleasantness. (When the citizen gets physically unruly, the charge is upgraded to resisting arrest or assault and battery on an officer.) It would appear, from the available evidence--regardless of whether Gates' version or that of Officer Crowley is accepted--that Gates was arrested for saying, or perhaps yelling, things to Crowley that the sergeant did not want to hear.

As one of Crowley's friends told The New York Times: "When he has the uniform on, Jim [Crowley] has an expectation of deference." Deference and respect, of course, are much to be desired both in and out of government service--police want it, as do citizens in their own homes or on their porches or on the street. However, respect is earned and voluntarily extended; it is not required, regardless of rank.

Some have posited that Crowley's tolerance for citizen vituperation was lower because the speaker was a black man, or a member of the city's economic and social elite. As a four-decade (and counting) criminal defense and civil liberties lawyer, I can say with reasonable assurance that while there might have been some degree of racial or, more likely, class animus that underlay the contretemps between citizen and officer here, fundamentally the situation can, and should, be analyzed as a free speech case.

Why? Because any citizen--white, black, yellow, male, female, gay, straight, upper or middle or lower class--who deigns to give lip to a police officer during a neighborhood confrontation or traffic stop stands a good chance of being busted. And this is something in police culture nationally--and probably all around the world (I've observed Frenchmen giving lip to Paris flics and gendarmes, also with bad results for the civilians)--that begs for change.


Some of the media commentary is quite remarkable, replete with claims that Crowley had a right to arrest Gates because the professor was loud and offensive. Yet what has happened to the notion that under the First Amendment, loudness is OK as long as one is not waking up neighbors in the middle of the night (known as "disturbing the peace"), and offensiveness is fully protected as long as it stops short of what the Supreme Court has dubbed "fighting words"?

This gets us to the heart of the matter. Under well-established First Amendment jurisprudence, what Gates said to Crowley--even assuming the worst--is fully constitutionally protected. After all, even "offensive" speech is covered by the First Amendment's very broad umbrella. Think about it: We wouldn't even need a First Amendment if everyone restricted himself or herself to soothing platitudes. I've been doing First Amendment law for a long time and I've never had to represent someone for praising a police officer or other public official. It is those who burn the flag, not those who wave it, who need protection.


There is a serious problem in this country: Police are overly sensitive to insults from those they confront. And one can hardly blame the confronted citizen, especially if the citizen is doing nothing wrong when confronted by official power. This is, after all, a free country, and if "free" means anything meaningful, it means being left alone--especially in one's own home--when one is not breaking the law.

Sgt. Crowley had every right to check on what was reported as a possible break and entry. But as soon as he realized that the occupant was entitled to be in the house, he should have left. He admits in his own police report that he was indeed able to ascertain Professor Gates' residency and hence right to be in the house.

As for Professor Gates' inquiries into the officer's identity and badge number (as Gates describes the confrontation) or his tirade against the officer (as Crowley reports), the citizen was merely--even if neither kindly nor wisely--exercising his constitutional right when faced with official power. Even if Professor Gates were wearing a "Fuck You, Cambridge Police" jacket, the officer would have been obligated to leave the house without its occupant in handcuffs.
Go read the whole article. It has a wealth of material on civil rights and the role of police.

Ethics can be Bought and Sold

Here's an thought provoking video of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I enjoyed reading her books Infidel, a very interesting autobiography.

This video is purportedly a thought piece about how the free market supports ethics. At 4:15 into the video she makes the claim that the radical fundamentalist Muslim who killed Theo van Gogh wouldn't have done the crime if he was in the US because he would have been "too busy feeding his family" and not living off the Dutch welfare system. That is simply absurd. There are lots of examples of social groups in the US who have learned to manipulate the slimmed down US welfare system (remember Ronald Reagan moaning about "welfare queens"). In short, criminals will be criminals under any system.

I dislike Hirsi Ali's move to the right. She is wrong-headed about many things:
  • She was enormously benefited by social democracy and now she bites the hand that fed her (read her autobiography). She reminds me of Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court justice who used affirmative action to get a first class education and has now kicked down the ladder he used to get up by making anti affirmative action rulings. At least she is honest to say that Holland gave her a hand up and she wouldn't have gotten it from the US.

  • At 4:50 she says she wants to replace government with philantropy. This is nuts. The rich are more likely to give "philanthropy" to operas and art galleries than to education and homes for battered women. She talks about "efficiency" but doing the wrong thing quicker or with less money doesn't make it better. The classic American "philanthropist" is Andrew Carnegie. He paid for libraries all around the US. But how did he get the money? He ran US Steel and kept the workers poor so that he could pile up his hundreds of millions (in today's terms tens of billions) in wealth. At least he didn't leave it to his dog like the "great" billionaire philanthropist Leona Helmsley.

  • What she says about Wall Street "learning lessons" and that in a democratic socialist society like Holland the lessons won't be learned because "it is easily taken care of by the government" is nonsense. Wall Street is a serial bubble creator. What lessons have they learned from Michael Milken and the junk bond scandal? The S&L crisis? The Long Term Capital Management crisis? The DotCom bubble? The Enron scandal? The WorldCom, Global Crossing, Adelphia, etc. scandals? She thinks lessons were learned from the housing bubble that will last for decades. That is nuts. Anybody who reads Charles Kindleberger's Manias, Panics, and Crashes: A History of Financial Crises would know that these "lessons" are never learned.

  • Her claim that welfare states will run up against a brick wall is simply an ideological claim. Each society will adjust to its own situation. She has no basis for her claim other than a prejudice that the Dutch as "paying too much" to help the needy. Funny, she didn't refuse to take this help when she was climbing up the social heap, but now that she is on top, has a well-paying job suddenly she wants to keep her money and make sure that government doesn't help anybody else. This is the classic hypocrisy of social climbers.
She now gets paid by a right wing think tank, American Enterprise Institute, so she dances to the tune they play. My respect for her has fallen. She is nothing more than a puppet who will dance to however pulls the strings. As you notice, the above video is from a the John Templeton foundation, the "charity" of a multi-billionaire stock investor who died and has endowed this foundation to fund scientsts to "prove" religion and to put out propaganda for the free market. Sadly, I believe she just might start touting the "spiritual values" of Al Qaeda if Osama Bin Laden could put her on the payroll. (She was a fundamentalist Muslim at one time, but anybody who can hop from one ideology to another so freely, can surely make the grand circuit and end up back where she started, right?)

In short, I personallly admire her for pulling herself up. He life story is amazing. I find her to be a very smart woman. But I find her politically appalling since she is so malleable and inconsistent in her beliefs.

Rogue Police

The Gates/Crowley has been all over the news. But that isn't the only case of rogue police. The local police have a long history of taking "justice" into their own hands by taking people they consider to be criminals out to Stanley Park and beating them. Or taking drunk natives out of jail and letting them freeze to death in back alleys downtown. Or kneecapping people that they feel are not "forthcoming" enough.

With a history like that, you would think the judicial system in Vancouver would be wary and want to ensure that justice is seen to be done. Not so here. The latest scandal: three off duty cops beat a news vendor savagely because he didn't drop everything and rush over with a copy of a paper when one of the cops barked an order. What do you get when you beat a guy and leave lasting physical damage? Oh, you get three weeks of "house arrest". Like that is a hardship. Like that will stop a bully from beating up his next victim!

Oh... and one of these 3 rogue cops is a lot like Crowley. He was an instructor at the police academy. Yep... you read that right. The guys who teach cops how to do their job are in fact out beating up innocent citizens because the innocent citizen does leap when told to "jump", doesn't ask "how high" when ordered to "jump".

And the judicial system seems to think this kind of "instructor" is just hunky-dory. Read it all here.

As for the victim?
Khan is also destitute and unable to work, his lawyer Mobina Jaffer told reporters outside court.

"Mr. Khan is not a vengeful person," she said of her client. "He's a very kind man."

But he suffers lasting effects from the assault and has been told by his doctor that he cannot drive, Jaffer explained.

"He's working very hard to get back to work," said the lawyer, who is also a Liberal senator.

Asked if Khan planned to file a civil suit against his assailants, Jaffer said: "He has not decided that."

But she said he was disappointed that the West Vancouver mayor and the police chief at the time, Kash Heed, never called him to offer an apology.

Khan and his wife said their life has changed since the assault.

"I now have to take care of three kids and my husband," wife Rabida Khan told reporters.
And beating up the newspaper vendor wasn't the only violence in which off-duty cop Gillian indulged in that night. Here are details from an earlier newspaper article:
About 1:30 a.m., the trio went to the Roxy and had more drinks. Gillan, who had been an officer for only 18 months, left alone from the Roxy and flagged down a passing Corvette, which picked him up.

The man driving the Corvette, Aubrey Simon, who has since died, told police he was driving to the Hyatt on Burrard Street to meet some friends. He said Gillan said he was a Vancouver cop, which struck Simon as odd, considering the man was extremely intoxicated.

Simon said Gillan suddenly became very angry, began kicking the car’s dashboard and climbed out the passenger window. Simon asked him if he was okay and Gillan replied: “If you come any closer, I’ll have people deal with you,” then walked out in the middle of the street.

Simon recalled he went into the Hyatt and phoned 911 to report Gillan’s irrational behaviour. By the time Simon came back outside, Gillan and two other men had a man pinned to the ground and appeared to be roughing him up.
What I find very mysterious is that the guy with the Corvette who gave the cop Gillian a ride, is now dead. Odd.


We've seen the Obama "Hope" balloon slowly deflate. Here is a Dylan Ratigan "Hope" that I would like to see float up. Near the end of this video he calls on the American voter to make historic change in the 2010 elections. I sure hope they do.

Toward the end of this clip there is a better discussion of US "politics" than you will normally ever see. Notice how Dylan Rattigan defines the "real political parties" in the US. If only the electorate would wake up and see this. And I am 110% behind his call for government to make a call for "aspirational" leadership, i.e. do things not because they are easy, but because they are hard and that will improve the future.

This clip has two people worth watching: Barry Ritholtz and Arianna Huffington. Both are rising in the new Internet age through their intelligent use of the new communication medium: the Internet.

The clip has lots of good solid discussion of the economic situation in the US, home prices, etc. Watch the clip. It is full of goodies.

Permanently Low Level?

The following graph of durable goods orders shows why Wall Street in on a boomlet:

The good news is that the economic collapse of Sept 2008-Jan 2009 is now done. So the stock market has "recovered". But if you look closely, there is no "recovery" in Main Street. We are at a new "permanant" low.

This brings to mind an infamous quote by the eminent economist Irving Fisher given just days before the famous 1929 stock market crash: "Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau."

It only took just over a decade to recover from "Fisher's plateau". Let's hope it doesn't take a decade to recover from this new "plateau" shown in the above graph.

Dean Baker Questions Reporting

Political spin is infamous. Psychologists have many experiements that show that "framing" can cause people to answer the same question different ways. Here's Dean Baker pointing out how the media is "framing" the health care debate and then acting "surprised" by the public response:
NPR Wonders Why Public Support for a Health Care Plan With a "Huge" Cost is Slipping

In its top of the hour news segment on Morning Edition Mora Liasson reported the results of a new poll showing dwindling support for President Obama's health care plan. Ms. Liasson noted pollster Stan Greenberg's assessment that people had heard about the program's "huge" $1 trillion price tag, but had not heard about the benefits of the program.

The program's huge price tag is equal to about 0.5 percent of projected GDP over the next decade. The Iraq war at its peak cost more than 1.0 percent of GDP. NPR and other news outlets rarely, if ever, referred to the "huge" cost of this war, which was twice the "huge" cost of President Obama's health care program. Perhaps the decision of supposedly neutral media sources to constantly warn that the costs of the program are "huge" has something to do with its dwindling public support.
Sadly, most people don't recognize the techniques that politicians, advertisers, and the media use to spin/frame/persuade followers/consumers/the public to adopt attitudes desired by the elite.

Down Takes on Palin & Clinton

I love Maureen Dowd's over-the-top style. Here in her NY Times op-ed Dowd takes a look at two leading ladies and does an analysis:
The woman who was prematurely counted in is out. And the woman who was prematurely counted out is in.

Goodbye, Sarah. Hello, Hillary.

In their vivid twin performances Sunday — Hillary on “Meet the Press” in Washington and Sarah at her farewell picnic in Fairbanks — two of the most celebrated and polarizing women in American political history offered a fascinating contrast.

Hillary, who so often in the past came across as aggrieved, paranoid and press-loathing, was confident and comfortable in her role as top diplomat, discussing the world with mastery and shrugging off suggestions that she has been disappeared by her former rival, the president.

Sarah, who was once a blazingly confident media darling, came across as aggrieved, paranoid and press-loathing in her new role as bizarre babe-at-large, a Nixon with hair extensions ranting about “American apologetics,” which sounds like a cross between apologists and Dianetics.

Sarah once criticized Hillary for being a whiny presidential contender, arguing that women who want “to progress this country” should not complain about being under a “sharper microscope,” but instead should just work harder to prove themselves capable. Now Sarah is a whiny presidential contender, complaining about the sharper microscope that women wanting to progress this country are under and rejecting advice to work harder to prove herself capable.

The Alaskan who shot to stardom a year ago as the tough embodiment of Diana the Huntress has now stepped down as governor and morphed into what the Republicans always caricatured Hillary as — preachy, screechy and angry.
There is a lot more interesting comparisons and analysis. Go read the whole article.

Twenty Years Later

Here's a bit from an article by Joshua Muravchik a right wing indeologue writing in a right wing journal talking about how the world is twenty years after the collapse of Communism. This first bit talks about Robert Heilbronner, one of my favourite historical economists. I love his book The Worldly Philosophers. It is well worth reading even today.

I'm ambivalent about the whole article, but I do like this bit:
Nineteen eighty-nine was a most extraordinary year. There are other years that are imprinted on historic memory, but most of them were occasions for horrible events (1917 or 1939) or disappointing ones (1789 or 1848) or the conclusions of great tragedies (1648 or 1945). The year 1989 was that rare moment when dramatic things happened that were overwhelmingly beneficent. As we watched the world change before our eyes, we learned many things. Looking back today on how the world has evolved in twenty years since that momentous time, we can distill several additional insights.

The economist Robert Heilbroner wrote in 1989: “Less than 75 years after it officially began, the contest between capitalism and socialism is over: capitalism has won.” This outcome reflected a startling reversal because as recently as the decade before, socialism—considering all its diverse forms lumped together—seemed at the apex of its global sweep, apparently confirming Marx’s prophecy that it was not merely desirable but destiny.

Heilbroner’s observation was noteworthy because he himself was not unsympathetic to socialism, and doubly so because he was no Communist. Given the hostile breach between Communism and democratic socialism, why should Heilbroner have conceded that the fall of the Soviet empire was tantamount to the end of socialism? Why did he not accept the claim advanced by some socialists that the end of Communism would only clear the way for a purer form of socialism?

Heilbroner saw how much the allure of socialism rested on the eschatological claims that Marx had made for it. Democratic socialists may have disdained—even detested—the Soviet version, but the fact that systems calling themselves “socialist” had proliferated around the world seemed to confirm the claim that history was marching inexorably away from capitalism toward something newer and presumably better and more efficient. Whether or not Lenin and Stalin interpreted Marx correctly, their enshrinement of him as the patron saint of a mighty empire gave his theories an unsurpassed weight in twentieth-century thought.

Heilbroner also saw that the fall of Communism culminated a trend. With social democratic parties having already forsaken the dream of replacing capitalism and with the developing world having realized that markets rather than state planning offered the surest path from poverty, the Soviet collapse sealed the issue. Socialism was finished.

Has the economic meltdown of 2008–09 reopened the question? Is socialism on the table again? Not at all. It only shows that you can always have too much of a good thing. The fact that free markets are the best mechanism for making economic decisions does not imply that freer is always better. The smooth functioning of the private sector depends on government to maintain a legal framework, to protect the public against unscrupulous behavior, and to provide vital goods that are not profitable for the private sector to furnish. Libertarians who dream of an economy entirely free of government are no less utopian than socialists.
That last paragraph is what caught my eye and has my agreement.

I agree that libertarians are utopian crazies. The real path forward is not the right wing politics of Muravchik or left wing ideologues. It is a careful picking our way forward using ideas from both camps. What the left has right is that a society is not just an accidental collection of individualists. What the right has properly understood is that concerns for social welfare have to align with our deepest commitments which are to self, family, local community, and spread out from there. Both sides need to recognize that freedom of thought and individual dignity are very compelling forces.

The required compromise is some blend of a framework and incentive. The government must frame laws to bind people together an ensure social justice. The government must support a value system that recognizes and encourages individual responsibility and the supports the fundamental bedrock of society: the family. Ideologues on left and right fail to see the two pillars.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Bill Schutt's "Dark Banquet"

This was a fun romp through some biology of blood suckers: bats, leeches, ticks, bedbugs, finches, and candiru. I like the author's style. He enjoys throwing in asides and personal commentary to lighten up the writing.

Did I learn a lot of science? No, not really. Richard Feynman found biology distasteful because it was like stamp collecting, i.e. too many facts and not enough theories. This book is full of stories, but it doesn't make contact with much real science. So you don't learn a lot of real science, but you do get a wonderful acquaintance with lots of interesting science "facts". Things to amaze your friends with.

The book is a quick read. Nothing too demanding. Lots of curious facts. Lots of solid "human interest" stories to make it more palatable to those who don't want too much fact and need more human interest to keep their attention up. I give it a big two thumbs up.

Michael Lewis Pokes Fun

There is a nice humour piece by Michael Lewis on the Bloomberg site that pokes fun at those who would mock Glodman Sachs. Presumably he is squashing "rumours" but in the process makes some very serious points:
Rumor No. 1: “Goldman Sachs controls the U.S. government.”

Every time we hear the phrase “the United States of Goldman Sachs” we shake our heads in wonder. Every ninth-grader knows that the U.S. government consists of three branches. Goldman owns just one of these outright; the second we simply rent, and the third we have no interest in at all. (Note there isn’t a single former Goldman employee on the Supreme Court.)

What small interest we maintain in the U.S. government is, we feel, in the public interest. Our current financial crisis has its roots in a single easily identifiable source: the envy others felt toward Goldman Sachs.

The bozos at Merrill Lynch, the dimwits at Citigroup, the nimrods at Lehman Brothers, the louts at Bear Stearns, even that momentarily useful lunatic Joe Cassano at AIG -- all of these people took risks that no non-Goldman person should ever take, in a pathetic attempt to replicate Goldman’s financial returns.

For too long we have allowed others to emulate us. Now we are working productively with Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and the Congress to ensure that we alone are allowed to take the sort of risks that might destroy the financial system.
If you enjoy this kind of humour, there is more, so go read the whole thing.

The Economy is Less than 2 Minutes

Here's a nice 2 minute summary of the US economy:

DeLong on US Intervention

Here's another excellent article by Brad DeLong. This one questions the government's approach to intervening to save the economy. First, he notes that history proves you can't let the economy recover by itself. But then he asks, but why did the government intervene in the way it has?
Conservative Interventionism

J. Bradford DeLong

29 July 2009

At this stage in the worldwide fight against depression, it is useful to stop and consider just how conservative the policies implemented by the world’s central banks, treasuries, and government budget offices have been.

Almost everything that they have done – spending increases, tax cuts, bank recapitalisation, purchases of risky assets, open-market operations, and other money-supply expansions – has followed a policy path that is nearly 200 years old, dating back to the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution, and thus to the first stirrings of the business cycle.

The place to start is 1825, when panicked investors wanted their money invested in safe cash rather than risky enterprises. Robert Banks Jenkinson, Second Earl of Liverpool and First Lord of the Treasury for King George IV, begged Cornelius Buller, Governor of the Bank of England, to act to prevent financial-asset prices from collapsing. “We believe in a market economy,” Lord Liverpool’s reasoning went, “but not when the prices a market economy produces lead to mass unemployment on the streets of London, Bristol, Liverpool, and Manchester.”

The Bank of England acted: it intervened in the market and bought bonds for cash, pushing up the prices of financial assets and expanding the money supply. It loaned on little collateral to shaky banks. It announced its intention to stabilize the market – and that bearish speculators should beware.

Ever since, whenever governments largely stepped back and let financial markets work their way out of a panic out by themselves – 1873 and 1929 in the United States come to mind – things turned out badly. But whenever government stepped in or deputised a private investment bank to support the market, things appear to have gone far less badly. For example, the US government essentially authorized J.P. Morgan to act as the country’s central bank in the aftermath of the 1893 and 1907 panics, created the Resolution Trust Corporation at the start of the 1990’s, and, together with the IMF, intervened to support Mexico in 1995 and the East Asian economies in 1997-98.

At the very least, few modern governments are now willing to let financial market heal themselves. To do so would be a truly radical step indeed.

The Obama administration and other central bankers and fiscal authorities around the globe are thus, in a sense, acting very conservatively, even as they embrace deficit-spending programmes, boost the volume of government bonds, guarantee risky private debt, and buy up auto companies. I understand what they are trying to do, and I am somewhat reluctant to second-guess them. They are all doing their absolute best, and I know that if I were in any of their shoes I would be making bigger mistakes than they are – different mistakes, probably, but bigger ones for sure.

Nevertheless, I do have one big question. The US government especially, but other governments as well, have gotten themselves deeply involved in industrial and financial policy during this crisis. They have done this without constructing technocratic institutions like the 1930’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation and the 1990’s RTC, which played major roles in allowing earlier episodes of extraordinary government intervention into the industrial and financial guts of the economy to turn out relatively well, without an overwhelming degree of corruption and rent seeking. The discretionary power of executives, in past crises, was curbed by new interventionist institutions constructed on the fly by legislative action.

That is how America’s founders, such as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, envisioned that things would work. They were suspicious of executive power, and thought that the president should have rather less discretionary power than the various King Georges of the time. Yet, today’s crisis has led to the establishment of such financial institutions.

So I wonder: why didn’t the US Congress follow the RFC/RTC model when authorising George W. Bush’s and Barack Obama’s industrial and financial policies? Why haven’t the technocratic institutions that we do have, like the IMF, been given a broader role in this crisis? And what can we do to rebuild international financial-management institutions on the fly to make them the best possible?

J. Bradford DeLong is Professor of Economics at the University of California at Berkeley and a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. In cooperation with Project Syndicate
My simple-minded answer: the US President took this idiotic approach because it was Paulson/Bush that started the intervention. Bush has a belief in "unitary executive" with all power going into the hands of a president. I can't explain why Obama has not changed course. Except, it appears to me that all that Wall Street lobby money has bought them a seat at the table as seen by "their men" were put forward by Obama: Larry Summers & Timothy Geithner.

Paul Krugman, Comedian

Who would guess that a straight up economist from Princeton could have me rolling on the floor in stitches?

Here's Paul Krugman making some very pointed, very funny comments about American ideological blindness:
Why Americans hate single-payer insurance

Because they don’t know they have it. A commenter points me to this:
At a recent town-hall meeting in suburban Simpsonville, a man stood up and told Rep. Robert Inglis (R-S.C.) to “keep your government hands off my Medicare.”

“I had to politely explain that, ‘Actually, sir, your health care is being provided by the government,’ ” Inglis recalled. “But he wasn’t having any of it.”
One of the truly amazing and depressing things about the health reform debate is the persistence of fear-mongering over “socialized medicine” even though we already have a system in which the government pays substantially more medical bills (47% of the total) than the private insurance industry (35%).

In a way, this is the flip side of the persistent belief that the free market can cure healthcare, even though there are no places where it actually has; people also believe that government-provided insurance can’t work, even though there are many places where it does — and one of those places is the United States of America.
I've always found it interesting that there is an inverse relationship between the strength to which a view is held and the level of ignorance on which it is based. Scientists are famous for making highly qualified statements. They know that truth is elusive. Most soap boxers are completely confident of their viewpoints because they have no clue how complex and uncertain the real world is.

Living Large

Here is an excerpt from the book Reset: How This Crisis Can Restore Our Values and Renew America by Kurt Anderson:
From the beginning of the 1980s through 2007, the share of disposable income that each household spent paying off its mortgage and consumer debt increased by 35 percent. Back in 1982, the average American household saved 11 percent of its disposable income, but then the percentage steadily dropped, to less than 1 percent in 2007.

Not coincidentally, it was during this same period that state-sanctioned and state-run gambling became ubiquitous in America. Until the late 1980s, only Nevada and New Jersey had casinos, but now twelve states do, and forty-eight of the fifty have some form of legalized betting. It's as if we decided that Mardi Gras and Christmas are so much fun we ought to make them year-round ways of life. We started living large literally as well as figuratively. From the beginning to the end of the long boom, the size of the average new American house increased by half, even as the average family became smaller. During the two decades ending 2007, the average new American car got 29 percent heavier, 89 percent more powerful, and 2 percent less efficient. Meanwhile, the average American gained about a pound a year, so that an adult of a given age is now at least twenty pounds heavier than someone of the same age during the 1970s. Back in the late 1970s, 15 percent of Americans were obese; more than a third of us are now.
Now that is "living large". But all good things must come to an end. The savings rate is up, everybody is talking diet, there is a buzz about moving from materialism to spiritualism. My guess is that it will last about another six months, then it will be back to Living La Vida Loca.

Green Shoots All Shot

The US stock market keeps roaring ahead. Good times can't be far behind, right?

Hmmm... some ugly facts keep disturbing the rosy picture. Here's the number of bank failures in the US:

And while your local bank is going under, there are far fewer trucks on the road:

So with that, why is the stock market booming? I dunno. The only thing that makes sense to me is that the fear of Oct 2008 to Mar 2009 of The Great Depression 2 has been replaced by a "thank goodness, it will only be a Great Recession". So prices have bounced back.

But when I look at this graph, I think they have bounced way too far back:

The above grahic makes the Great Depression look benign. So... if earnings are that bad, why is the stock market up? The talking heads of Wall Street are saying that there have been "earnings surprises", i.e. more profits than expected. But that's an easy game to fix. You set your expectations really, really low, and anything will be an "upside surprise".

And here is a terrifying quote:
“National New Home Sales, on a monthly basis, don’t even add up to half of the total foreclosure activity in California alone in a single month.”

-Mark M Hanson
So, I'm back to my original question: why is the stock market booming?

My guess is that fear & greed are running rampant again, fed by Wall Street manipulation. In other words, we are getting back to "normal".

Graphs from Barry Ritholtz's The Big Picture web site.

Update 2009jul28: There is a nice article on the UK Telegraph entitled "Stock markets are rising even as the economy bombs - what's going on?" that walks through this odd Wall Street rally given the real underlying state of the economy.

Baker Takes Down NY Times

I always find a chuckle when I read Dean Baker's blog. He finds media misrepresentation and ignorance and lays it out for all to "appreciate". Here's one about the NY Times misunderstanding of China, debt, and the exchange rate:
China "Manipulates" Its Currency By Lending the U.S. Money

The reporting on the U.S.-China relationship is approaching the absurd. The NYT tells readers that:

"Analysts said the United States seemed eager to play down areas of friction like China’s currency policy, in part because the Obama administration does not want to antagonize Beijing, its largest foreign creditor, when Washington is running a yawning deficit."

Okay, let's look at this more carefully. What is China's currency policy? Well, they want to keep their currency from rising, even though the country has an enormous current account surplus. How does China keep its currency from rising? It's very simple, they buy up huge amounts of dollar denominated assets.

Buying up dollar denominated assets means lending the United States money. This is the same thing. China "manipulates" its currency by buying up huge amounts of U.S. government bonds or short-term deposits.

In other words, we are supposed to be upset about China lending the U.S. money, but we won't complain about it too much, because we need them to lend us money. It's easy to understand how these people can miss an $8 trillion housing bubble.
It is pretty amazing that the leading newspaper in the US hires staff to report on economic affairs that doesn't understand economics. But as Baker would point out: maybe somebody who hired them doesn't want them to understand economics. The line between news, entertainment, and propaganda are pretty blurry.

Monday, July 27, 2009

We Favour Gradual Decay

Here's the financial crisis set to music. My favourite line is "we favour gradual decay":

Other lines I like:
  • We favour gradual decay

  • Keep kicking that can down the road

  • Just keep printing

  • It costs more than a war

  • We got a great big bailout, ten trillion bucks and more

Oh... and I saw this update of the old Communist maxim
From each according to his ability; to each according to his lack thereof
on Barry Ritholtz's The Big Picture web site.

Last Post on Gates/Crowley

Here's a pretty even-handed, but clearly rubuking Crowley essay by Robin Wells. This one puts "closed" on the affair for me. This is her post in the Huffington Post. I've bolded the bits that hit home for me:
We've embarked on a national attempt to find something redeeming in the Gates-Crowley affair - to find the "teachable moment." Obama's gracious and politically astute offer to bring the two men together is an example of what Obama does best - creating an uplifting moment of reconciliation, a feel-good moment in which each party can have their say in front of the cameras. But like a family psychodrama, I suspect that most of us know that it won't stop there, and nothing will really have been resolved. Like a marriage counselor who has seen this particular couple's arguments many times before, we know on a gut level that some hard truths are going to have to be addressed before the fractious couple that is white and black America can start to move on.

Yet, it's important to be clear that I'm not applying any kind of moral equivalence to the actions of Professor Gates and Officer Crowley. On the facts as we know them, I believe that the treatment of Professor Gates was unjust and unprofessional. Yes, he was belligerent to a police officer. But that is no crime, and nowhere has Officer Crowley shown that there was any chance of a crime being committed, confirmed by the Cambridge Police Department's quick decision to drop the charges against Professor Gates. Police officers are trained to be professionals, and a professional would have recognized that an obstreperous sexagenarian who walks with a cane standing in his own house and faced with a phalanx of armed police officers is no threat. And if Office Crowley had paid attention to his diversity training, he would have been prepared for the outrage accompanying perceived acts of racial profiling. The hard truth is that Officer Crowley's defense that he was just doing his job just doesn't wash. Having verified the facts, he had every opportunity to apologize to Professor Gates for the misunderstanding and leave. The hard truth that America needs to hear is that incidents of racial profiling and unfair treatment by the police and judiciary are oppressive facts of life for African American men even today.

However, the weary marriage counselor knows that finding a bogey-man and leaving it there isn't going to get this couple out of their troubles. Rather, it's likely to dig them in deeper into their self-justification.

The hard truth that Professor Gates needs to hear is that he is the one who handed over his power to Officer Crowley. Letting his agitation get the better of him, Gates lost the ability to shape the outcome of the encounter and set up his own victimization by a poorly trained police officer.

So what should Professor Gates have done instead? He should have invited Officer Crowley inside, sat him down and calmly explained to him, human to human, the personal outrage that he felt at being the target of racial profiling. Moreover, he should have credited to Officer Crowley the possibility that this was an innocent investigation without racial overtones, and that Officer Crowley was doing his job with good intentions. But by angrily demanding respect rather than quietly asserting confidence, Gates placed himself at the mercy of an insecure cop.

And there are more uncomfortable truths that go along with this story. One is that life isn't fair - those who have clearly been wronged are often the ones who must rise above the situation and be a bigger, better person. Another unpleasant truth is that moments like this will lay bare your internal weaknesses. One cannot help but be struck by the fragility of these two egos, neither of them able to put a brake on the runaway train. So if you don't want to cast yourself as a victim, you had better get strong internally.

And perhaps the final lesson is the hardest one for all of us. What each of these men brought to this doomed encounter was a deep grievance: grievance for being an acclaimed Harvard scholar yet disrespected as a black man, grievance for being disrespected as an officer, verbally assaulted while serving the public good. As long as we walk around with a sense of grievance - notice the word shares the same root as 'grief' - we're going to make ourselves the victims of those who are stuck in their own ignorance and pig-headedness. The difficult fact is that to let go of grievance requires us to become generous, even when we're the wronged party. In each and every moment - and particularly in moments like these - we choose who we're going to be.
There is a lot of wisdom in Wells' posting. For me that puts to bow on the package and I'm done with Gates/Crowley.

Only in America

From a local news organization WYFF 4, Greenville, South Carolina, I file the following story under "only in America"...
A driver, now identified as an Asheville firefighter, shot a bicycle rider because he was angry the man was riding with his child on a busy road, Asheville police said.

The shooting happened Sunday morning on Tunnel Road.

Officers said the victim was riding with his wife and had his 3-year-old son in a child seat attached to his bicycle when a driver approached him.

Police said the driver, Charles Diez, claimed he was upset that the victim was bike riding with his child on the heavily traveled Tunnel Road.

Diez pulled a gun and opened fire, hitting the victim in his bicycle helmet, according to police.

They said the bullet penetrated the outer lining of the helmet but did not actually hit the victim's head.

Police arrested Diez and charged him with attempted first degree murder.

His bond was set at $500,000.

Diez has been a firefighter with the Asheville Fire Department since 1992, according to officials.

On Monday, they confirmed he has been placed on paid investigative leave pending the outcome of this investigation.
OK, that is a bit of a cheap shot. These kind of nutty things happen in other countries as well...

But since the NRA-dominated US believes that the Constitution implicitly enrolled everybody into a "militia"
Second Amendment
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed
everybody in the US has a "right" to carry guns. So when you get angry, you don't yell at them, you point a pistol and shoot. And you get the above result. Only in America.

My real question is: Where is the NTA? (the National Tank Association) Where are those American patriots fighting for the rights of tank owners to drive their 60 ton heavily armed tanks up and down the streets of America exercising their Second Amendment Rights? I think the NRA are a bunch of wimps. Real Men won't stay in the NRA. Real Men will quit and join the NTA. That's right: real toys for boys! Patriot pride. Put a tank in every house! The only protection against an oppressive government is having every householder in US in the cockpit of a fully armed, fully loaded tank ready to take on any government agent who would dare undermine the sacred freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution!

Meanwhile, back here in Canada, I'm trying to support you Americans by setting up a NABA (National Atom Bomb Association). That's right! I want to amend the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to allow every decent right-thinking Canadian to bear arms, real arms, atomic bombs.

Progress report: so far I've got myself qualified as a true Red & White Canadian patriot, so I've signed myself up to get the first A-bomb. I want to expand membership in NABA, but I've finding it hard to find true blue Red & White Canadians that I could entrust with the solemn right to bear nuclear arms. So I'm a bit stymied. I figure I'll have push forward on my own. My first project is to put my A-bomb in the front yard with a sign "if you touch this, the last sound you will hear is the sound of freedom!"

Dumb Humans

Ready to get knocked off your high horse of human "superiority"? Watch this video and see that we are stupid compared to chimpanzees:

The saving grace for humans: since we are willing to copy, we have the essential tool for cultural learning. Chimps are too smart by half. They go for the reward and can't be bothered by the rigamarole of ritual and copying. So they don't build up cultural learning. They want the fast route to success which really means that their learning has to remain primitive.


Recession's Over? Hold the Celebrations

Here is Daniel Gross in Slate magazine pointing out the obvious:
The Great Recession ... is most likely over. Home sales, while still far below the levels of a year ago, have risen for three straight months—a first since 2004. The stock market has rallied 44 percent since March, thanks to renewed optimism and improving earnings from big companies like Goldman Sachs and Apple. In June, seven of the 10 indicators in the Conference Board Leading Economic Index pointed upward, including manufacturing hours worked and unemployment claims. Macroeconomic Advisers, the St. Louis-based consulting firm, says the economy is expanding at a 2.5 percent annual rate in the current quarter. Economic activity "will increase slightly over the remainder of 2009," Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told Congress.

Irrational exuberance it's not. But even stagnation would be an improvement over recent history. The U.S. economy shrank at nearly a 6 percent annualized rate between September 2008 and March 2009, a shocking slowdown that pitched the global economy into recession for the first time since World War II. "This looks an awful lot like the beginning of a second Great Depression," Nobel laureate Paul Krugman said in January. Catastrophe may have been averted. But when economists proclaim a recession over, they're celebrating a technicality: They mean economic output has stopped contracting. And while that is good news, you might wait a while before adding Judy Garland's rendition of "Happy Days Are Here Again" to your iPod. GDP growth alone can't feed a family or pay a mortgage. Cursed with a high national debt load and blessed with a dynamic, growing work force, the U.S. economy needs annual growth of at least 1.5 percent just to feel like we're standing still.

Worse, the data point that means the most to our psychological well-being—unemployment—is likely to keep climbing. The loss of 6.5 million jobs since December 2007 has spurred the sharpest rise in the unemployment rate since the 1930s.


Having survived a near-death economic experience, Americans now need to focus on surviving what's likely to be a pokey, painful recovery. "I see 1 percent growth in the economy in the next few years," says New York University economist Nouriel Roubini. "It's going to feel like a recession, even when it ends." Shifting our unwieldy $14 trillion economy from rapid reverse into neutral took heroic efforts from the Federal Reserve, the Treasury Department (in two administrations), two sessions of Congress, and, of course, the taxpayers. But the greater challenge may be getting the economy to start growing at a pace that creates jobs, boosts incomes, and raises corporate profits—all without triggering inflation.


It's too soon to judge whether this enormous fiscal and political gamble will work. But as was the case the last time the financial sector destroyed itself—the early 1930s—it will be up to Washington to lead the way. We're witnessing an immense and aggressive substitution of public capital for private capital—and it is probably essential to our recovery. But the best-laid plans of Ivy League academics and charismatic young presidents frequently go awry (see: Vietnam). The stimulus package will work its way into the economy very slowly and, by itself, isn't nearly large enough to make up for all the wealth and jobs lost in the last two years. And there's great uncertainty as to how one of the most crucial components of the smart economy—health care—will be affected.

Those on the right say the Obama plan can't work simply because it's directed by government. (Every Republican in the House voted against the stimulus plan.) But even some on the left say it's aimed disproportionately at industry. In an economy in which consumers account for 70 percent of activity, "what we need is more demand for goods and services," says Lawrence Mishel, president of the Washington, D.C.–based Economic Policy Institute. "The missing pillar in Obama's articulation is really making sure that people's wages rise in tandem with productivity." Critics and allies alike fret about the pace of aid.
I side with the left. There isn't enough stimulus to consumers. Too much of the stimulus money is going into pockets that won't spend it. As Daniel Gross points out:
In his first 100 days, Franklin D. Roosevelt said he wanted 250,000 young men working in the forests for $1 a day. Despite the howls of organized labor, a quarter of a million men were toiling in the Civilian Conservation Corps by the summer of 1933. They planted 3 billion trees, built 800 state parks, and saved the nation's topsoil. Larger public-works programs like the Civil Works Administration swiftly put millions of people to work erecting bridges and building dams.

Things aren't going quite as swiftly in New Deal 2.0. So far, only a fraction of the stimulus funding has entered the economy via tax cuts ($43 billion) and another chunk via aid to state and local governments ($64 billion). Much of that, however, was used to avert cuts rather than to create jobs.
And, in true Hollywood style, Daniel Gross ends with a note of optimism:
Historically, the economy has kicked into higher gear when a development comes along that can touch every part of the economy, not just particular sectors: the steam engine, electricity, the computer chip, globalization, the Internet, cheap money. By definition, it's almost impossible to know what the next disruptive, discontinuous great leap forward is going to be. On several occasions, Lawrence Summers has remarked that when he was involved in the big economic summit Bill Clinton held after winning the 1992 election, he didn't recall hearing many mentions of the words the Internet.

"Past performance is no guide to future returns." That's the disclaimer that every investment manager provides clients. And it's true in economic terms, as well. The United States has historically responded with resilience and flexibility to periods of economic distress. Despite the army of authors dedicated to the proposition that the New Deal was an unadulterated failure, FDR's efforts averted disaster, ended the nation's worst economic downturn, and created lasting infrastructure that has paid economic dividends for decades—from the Hoover Dam to the Appalachian Trail (the real one, not Mark Sanford's fictional one). History suggests, but doesn't guarantee, that the United States is likely to do so again.
Go read the whole article. It has lots of little jewels in it. Lots of details. I enjoy Gross's writings. I think he is heads above most other economic writers.

Evaporating Wealth

Daniel Gross has an interesting article in Slate that looks at how the economic crisis has decimated the ranks of HNWIs (High Net Wealth Individuals):
Consulting firm CapGemini conducts an annual census of high-net-worth individuals, defined as people with at least $1 million in investable assets, excluding primary residences. "We've been doing this report for 13 years and haven't seen this kind of loss of wealth since we started," said Ileana van der Linde, principal at CapGemini's wealth-management practice. North America saw an 18.5 percent decline in its high-net-worth population, from 3.02 million in 2007 to 2.46 million in 2008. Even though they were more likely to be diversified in bonds and cash—instead of simply plowing money into stocks—the HNWIs' collective net worth fell from $10.85 trillion in 2007 to $8.44 trillion in 2008, down 22.2 percent. The ultra-HNWIs—those with at least $30 million in assets—suffered even more. That segment of the population fell 25 percent.
According to most right wing ideologues these people should be fleeing states with high taxes to shelter in states with low taxes, but that isn't happening:
High-tax areas like New York and California—places where politicians have been talking about potentially raising taxes on the rich to deal with budget crises—held up better than the national average. The New York region, which has the most HNWIs, at 561,000, lost only 13.6 percent of its rich population last year. Los Angeles and San Francisco lost 17.8 percent and 15.3 percent, respectively. As for Maryland, the Baltimore metro area had a 19 percent drop in high-net-worth population.

Comparative tax havens like Florida, Nevada, and Arizona didn't see an influx of millionaires in 2008. Far from it. In 2008, Las Vegas lost 38 percent of its HNWIs, and Phoenix lost 34 percent. Florida, which has no state income tax and hasn't been talking about one, was a killing field for the rich. The three major metro areas that lost more than 40 percent of millionaires in 2008 were all in no-income-tax Florida—Orlando (42 percent), Miami (42 percent), and Tampa (51 percent). The decline has nothing to do with taxes and everything to do with bursting asset bubbles. Florida, Vegas, and Phoenix are places whose economies were dominated by ultra-bubbly real estate markets and where lots of businesses owned by wealthy people are dependent on construction, tourism, and leisure—sectors that got seriously whacked in 2008.
Ahh... but as we have learned during the last two big economic crashes, all that "theorizing" by right wing nuts has very little to do with what goes on in the real world that real people inhabit. The theories may sound grand, but life is quite a bit more messy and, well, "real" than the purist's theorizing.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Politics as Jabbing a Stick in the Eye

Here is an essay by Erik Tarloff that I encountered on Brad DeLong's Egregious Moderation web site. It is excellent. I've bolded key bits:
Erik Tarloff on Republicans

And the GOP...? - Erik Tarloff: I'd like to talk about political culture. Specifically, the Republican Party's political culture. Can we at least agree on this much? The most egregious demagoguery of the past 60 years has come from the Republicans. This is a separate issue from the validity of their political philosophy or the efficacy of their governing praxis; this solely addresses the way the party approaches the competitive aspect of its business. Is there any reader out there, Republican or Democrat, who would deny that the party that gave us Martin Dies and Joseph McCarthy and the young Richard Nixon and Charles Colson and Ted Agnew and Lee Atwater and Karl Rove and the Swiftboaters and Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber has been the more willing to deploy fear, suspicion, and prejudice, and to attempt to destroy personal reputations, in order to manipulate the electorate?

I'm not talking about the mere existence of these people.... I'm talking about the willingness of the party's establishment to pander to them, to embrace and utilize them. Upright, respectable Republicans have often, in the past, privately recoiled from the pitchfork brigade in their midst; Eisenhower found McCarthy despicable and Nixon distasteful, for example, and Nixon himself, during his presidential years, held Agnew in contempt. George H. W. Bush restricted Atwater's machinations to the times he regarded himself as being in "campaign mode," an implicitly unsavory state of existence from which he tried to distance himself when no election was in the immediate offing....

The current birther nonsense is the latest manifestation. It isn't so much that this mindless drivel, repeatedly disproved with incontrovertible documentation and rendered implausible by the promptings of simple common sense, persists.... What's distressing is the unwillingness of respectable or at least influential public figures, the Sean Hannitys and Rush Limbaughs and Liz Cheneys and G. Gordon Liddys, not to mention twelve sitting members of Congress, to disavow it. They must know better. They do know better. They often phrase their suspicions in coy ways that prove they know better but are trying to squeeze a few drops of political advantage out of it just the same.

Something troubling has happened to the Republican Party in the last twenty years or so, and it demonstrates why these tactics are always a bad idea, even if they win you the occasional election. The respectable, responsible wing of the Republican Party, the wing that for decades thought it could use its crazies but still control them, has been unhorsed. The crazies are in the saddle. The sorry spectacle of the noble John McCain forced continually to kowtow to the religious right wing honchos of his party during last year's presidential campaign, and his evident although only intermittent pain at being confronted with what he had thereby unleashed; the transparent and pusillanimous eagerness of Mitt Romney in pursuit of his party's approval to disavow almost everything he has ever stood for in public life; the willingness of putatively serious conservative pundits to defend and even laud the indefensible and incoherent Sarah Palin; the reduction of a once-proud political philosophy to a set of simple-minded bromides and shibboleths, combined with vitriolic, dishonest, and irrelevant personal attacks on the other side...these bespeak a party that has lost not only its way, but its soul. If you're willing to keep on telling your supporters that the other side f----- pigs, at some point they may actually believe it....

So why should Democrats do anything other than celebrate? The Republicans, after all, seem to be in total disarray. Isn't that good news for the party in power? It isn't. For one thing, in a democracy, a skilled and plausible opposition keeps a government on its toes. It keeps it honest. It forces it to examine policy decisions with more rigor. But more important, someday --- and if President Obama's economic recovery program isn't successful, it could be as soon as 2012 --- the Republicans are going to win back the presidency. They could regain control of Congress sooner than that.... The election of a well-born and genial cipher to the premiership in Britain next year doesn't promise to be catastrophic. But the results in Italy in 1922 and Germany in 1932 weren't nearly so innocuous.

I'd much rather be governed by a party the policies of which I deplore but one that governs responsibly, competently, and with respect for the Constitution, than by a theocratic cabal dictated to by its own most rabid supporters, mistrustful of facts, demonizing of its opponents, and scornfully dismissive of all points of view that diverge from its own. You can argue with the former, you can debate it, you can contest elections with it. Sometimes you will win and sometimes you will lose, but the victories and the defeats will be over matters of real consequence. When, instead, political battles are deliberately waged by one side over red-herrings that arouse passion and irrational anger, when they are fought over the contrived question of whether one candidate personally freed a convicted rapist for a weekend furlough, or went to Moscow as a student in order to enlist as a Soviet spy, or somehow faked his heroism in Vietnam, or is a Muslim or a socialist or an illegal alien, then we have ventured into the realms of pig-f------. It debases all public discourse. No one finally benefits from that, not even the victors.
Hopefully everyone knows enough history and politics to understand fully the essay. I fear that the reference "the results in Italy in 1922 and Germany in 1932" slipped by with too many people under the age of 50 having no clue what is being referenced: