Sunday, February 27, 2011

Political Blather about "Burdening Our Children"

Here's a bit from an excellent NY Times op-ed where Paul Krugman lays open the Republican lies about worries over burdening the next generation:
Now, politicians — and especially, in my experience, conservative politicians — always claim to be deeply concerned about the nation’s children. Back during the 2000 campaign, then-candidate George W. Bush, touting the “Texas miracle” of dramatically lower dropout rates, declared that he wanted to be the “education president.” Today, advocates of big spending cuts often claim that their greatest concern is the burden of debt our children will face.

In practice, however, when advocates of lower spending get a chance to put their ideas into practice, the burden always seems to fall disproportionately on those very children they claim to hold so dear.

Consider, as a case in point, what’s happening in Texas, which more and more seems to be where America’s political future happens first.

Texas likes to portray itself as a model of small government, and indeed it is. Taxes are low, at least if you’re in the upper part of the income distribution (taxes on the bottom 40 percent of the population are actually above the national average). Government spending is also low. And to be fair, low taxes may be one reason for the state’s rapid population growth, although low housing prices are surely much more important.

But here’s the thing: While low spending may sound good in the abstract, what it amounts to in practice is low spending on children, who account directly or indirectly for a large part of government outlays at the state and local level.

And in low-tax, low-spending Texas, the kids are not all right. The high school graduation rate, at just 61.3 percent, puts Texas 43rd out of 50 in state rankings. Nationally, the state ranks fifth in child poverty; it leads in the percentage of children without health insurance. And only 78 percent of Texas children are in excellent or very good health, significantly below the national average.

But wait — how can graduation rates be so low when Texas had that education miracle back when former President Bush was governor? Well, a couple of years into his presidency the truth about that miracle came out: Texas school administrators achieved low reported dropout rates the old-fashioned way — they, ahem, got the numbers wrong.

It’s not a pretty picture; compassion aside, you have to wonder — and many business people in Texas do — how the state can prosper in the long run with a future work force blighted by childhood poverty, poor health and lack of education.
Krugman points out that Texas has a big budget deficit because the Republicans hid the problem until they won the elections and now the question arises "how to deal with the deficit?":
So how will that gap be closed? Given the already dire condition of Texas children, you might have expected the state’s leaders to focus the pain elsewhere. In particular, you might have expected high-income Texans, who pay much less in state and local taxes than the national average, to be asked to bear at least some of the burden.

But you’d be wrong. Tax increases have been ruled out of consideration; the gap will be closed solely through spending cuts. Medicaid, a program that is crucial to many of the state’s children, will take the biggest hit, with the Legislature proposing a funding cut of no less than 29 percent, including a reduction in the state’s already low payments to providers — raising fears that doctors will start refusing to see Medicaid patients. And education will also face steep cuts, with school administrators talking about as many as 100,000 layoffs.
You wouldn't want to burden the billionaires when you have a deficit. The US Congress just showed that this past December. And once they got Bush's tax cuts for the ultra-rich restored they suddenly discovered... can you believe it?... a budget deficit! So they want to cut, cut, cut.

Well, Texas will be doing the same right wing political two step. Now that they've discovered "deficits" in Texas, they will be cutting social programs. Not a peep about raising taxes on the rich. That would be too much of a burden. But producing more illiterates and school dropouts? Fine! That won't "burden our children", right? The hypocrisy of the political right is monumental.

Eyes on the Prize

I watched a couple of hours of the PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize today. It brought back memories of my youth. And it hammered home the point that social change only comes through a long and painful struggle. Those in charge, those who benefit from a system don't just pack their bags, hand you the keys, and then disappear.

I've seen this video series before, but with each viewing you gain a bit of new perspective. Now 50 years is the chasm through which I view the video. But what I see is the same story as today. Sure the words differ and the cast of characters has changed, but it is still those in power telling you that you have no rights, that you have to wait, that you are asking for too much, that you have to "respect your betters", that those in power know what is best for you, that to press for basic rights is an act of treachery and tantamount to rioting in the streets. All the same old lies. All the same old techniques to keep the bottom 90% of society down so it won't upset the very cushy applecart of those who have power.

I think of the protests in the Middle East. It is the same story. And when I think of the "quick victory" of Egypt and Tunisia, I can see how their "revolution" is already being subverted by those with power. The struggle for rights is eternal. As soon as you get some "rights" those on top set up new rules and add a layer that effectively puts you back "in your place". The Egyptians were promised that once they left Tahrir Square they would lift the Emergency Law. They haven't and it isn't. Their revolution is incomplete.

When I sat down to write this post and did a little search I was shocked to find this bit of news on Wired Magazine:
Eyes on the Prize, the landmark documentary on the civil rights movement, is no longer broadcast or sold new in the United States. It's illegal.

The 14-part series highlights key events in black Americans' struggle for equality and is considered an essential resource by educators and historians, but the filmmakers no longer have clearance rights to much of the archival footage used in the documentary. It cannot be rebroadcast on PBS (where it originally aired) or any other channels, and cannot be released on DVD until the rights are cleared again and paid for.

"It's a scenario from hell," said Jon Else, series producer and cinematographer for Eyes on the Prize, and now director of the documentary program at the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. "(Licensing agreements) are short because it's all we can afford. The funding for documentaries in this country (is) abysmal."

Securing clearance rights to archival footage is a growing problem for independent filmmakers -- and documentary filmmakers in particular. Filmmakers must pay for the rights to use every song, photograph or video clip included in the film. Since many documentary films are made with small budgets, filmmakers often can only afford to buy rights for a limited amount of time. That leaves many filmmakers essentially renting footage, and rendering their work unusable after a certain number of years unless they can find more funding to clear the rights again.
Some people fought back through an Eyes on the Screen project. The "property rights" issues must have been cleared up because I saw the series broadcast today. But it is scary that history can be "owned" and an important documentary can be buried because somebody wants to make a "profit" off of a social struggle!

This from the ugly corporate world that wants to force you to wear a logo on all parts of your body, to live and breathe brand names, to have your education reduced to watching commercials 24 hours a day, has struck again. They "own" the social history of the US and won't let this story be shown. Wow! If only the Klu Klux Klan had realized they could have used copyright laws to stop desegregation! They could have bought up rights to "we Shall Overcome" and sued every protester who tried to sing this protest song. They could have seized any video of Klansmen beating protesters claiming that the "images" were the sole property of KKK, Inc. and that news organizations could not broadcast scenes of mayhem and violence without first negotiating a license from the KKK and simply make that license prohibitively expensive. If only!

That made me think... yes there was some progress on race relations in the US but in some sense things are worse now. Back then it was a fight to be part of the community. But these days the corporations own everything and the fight is to get free of corporate control.

One thing I hated when I worked was the fact that I was forced to sign a contract, as a condition of work, that any idea I had whether at work or at home would be the "property" of the company I was working for. It was a slimy lawyer trick to own my soul. I couldn't have any thoughts which the company, if it so chose, could take me to court and enforce their "rights" on me. Nutty! I had no rights because my own thoughts didn't belong to me. That is the extent of the "corporate state" today. Hitler and his Nazis didn't even begin to scratch the surface to the evil to be mined by "property rights" through the legal system.

Freeman Dyson's Review of a James Gleick Book

The NY Review of Books has a wonderful review of James Gleick's new book The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood written by one of my favourite mathematicians, Freeman Dyson. Here are some key bits:
The consequences of the information flood are not all bad. One of the creative enterprises made possible by the flood is Wikipedia, started ten years ago by Jimmy Wales. Among my friends and acquaintances, everybody distrusts Wikipedia and everybody uses it. Distrust and productive use are not incompatible. Wikipedia is the ultimate open source repository of information. Everyone is free to read it and everyone is free to write it. It contains articles in 262 languages written by several million authors. The information that it contains is totally unreliable and surprisingly accurate. It is often unreliable because many of the authors are ignorant or careless. It is often accurate because the articles are edited and corrected by readers who are better informed than the authors.

Jimmy Wales hoped when he started Wikipedia that the combination of enthusiastic volunteer writers with open source information technology would cause a revolution in human access to knowledge. The rate of growth of Wikipedia exceeded his wildest dreams. Within ten years it has become the biggest storehouse of information on the planet and the noisiest battleground of conflicting opinions. It illustrates Shannon’s law of reliable communication. Shannon’s law says that accurate transmission of information is possible in a communication system with a high level of noise. Even in the noisiest system, errors can be reliably corrected and accurate information transmitted, provided that the transmission is sufficiently redundant. That is, in a nutshell, how Wikipedia works.
I love the idea of bottom-up knowledge. Too much of our life is controlled by top-down autocrats busy trying to mold us to fit their version of what we should be ("proper" citizens, "dutiful" servants, patient and loyal consumers).

And Dyson catches the joys of science:
The information flood has also brought enormous benefits to science. The public has a distorted view of science, because children are taught in school that science is a collection of firmly established truths. In fact, science is not a collection of truths. It is a continuing exploration of mysteries. Wherever we go exploring in the world around us, we find mysteries. Our planet is covered by continents and oceans whose origin we cannot explain. Our atmosphere is constantly stirred by poorly understood disturbances that we call weather and climate. The visible matter in the universe is outweighed by a much larger quantity of dark invisible matter that we do not understand at all. The origin of life is a total mystery, and so is the existence of human consciousness. We have no clear idea how the electrical discharges occurring in nerve cells in our brains are connected with our feelings and desires and actions.

Even physics, the most exact and most firmly established branch of science, is still full of mysteries. We do not know how much of Shannon’s theory of information will remain valid when quantum devices replace classical electric circuits as the carriers of information. Quantum devices may be made of single atoms or microscopic magnetic circuits. All that we know for sure is that they can theoretically do certain jobs that are beyond the reach of classical devices. Quantum computing is still an unexplored mystery on the frontier of information theory. Science is the sum total of a great multitude of mysteries. It is an unending argument between a great multitude of voices. It resembles Wikipedia much more than it resembles the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
I love the great "democratic" thrusts of our age: science, democratic governance, popular culture, Wikipedia, etc. These are expressions of individuals that rise up and catch wind if enough people are attracted, or they can fail -- like democracy in Germany in 1933 -- if not enough people are willing to stand up for individual rights and individual beliefs.

And this bit shows Dyson's great optimism:
The explosive growth of information in our human society is a part of the slower growth of ordered structures in the evolution of life as a whole. Life has for billions of years been evolving with organisms and ecosystems embodying increasing amounts of information. The evolution of life is a part of the evolution of the universe, which also evolves with increasing amounts of information embodied in ordered structures, galaxies and stars and planetary systems. In the living and in the nonliving world, we see a growth of order, starting from the featureless and uniform gas of the early universe and producing the magnificent diversity of weird objects that we see in the sky and in the rain forest. Everywhere around us, wherever we look, we see evidence of increasing order and increasing information. The technology arising from Shannon’s discoveries is only a local acceleration of the natural growth of information.

The visible growth of ordered structures in the universe seemed paradoxical to nineteenth-century scientists and philosophers, who believed in a dismal doctrine called the heat death. Lord Kelvin, one of the leading physicists of that time, promoted the heat death dogma, predicting that the flow of heat from warmer to cooler objects will result in a decrease of temperature differences everywhere, until all temperatures ultimately become equal. Life needs temperature differences, to avoid being stifled by its waste heat. So life will disappear.

This dismal view of the future was in startling contrast to the ebullient growth of life that we see around us. Thanks to the discoveries of astronomers in the twentieth century, we now know that the heat death is a myth. The heat death can never happen, and there is no paradox. The best popular account of the disappearance of the paradox is a chapter, “How Order Was Born of Chaos,” in the book Creation of the Universe, by Fang Lizhi and his wife Li Shuxian. Fang Lizhi is doubly famous as a leading Chinese astronomer and a leading political dissident. He is now pursuing his double career at the University of Arizona.

The belief in a heat death was based on an idea that I call the cooking rule. The cooking rule says that a piece of steak gets warmer when we put it on a hot grill. More generally, the rule says that any object gets warmer when it gains energy, and gets cooler when it loses energy. Humans have been cooking steaks for thousands of years, and nobody ever saw a steak get colder while cooking on a fire. The cooking rule is true for objects small enough for us to handle. If the cooking rule is always true, then Lord Kelvin’s argument for the heat death is correct.

We now know that the cooking rule is not true for objects of astronomical size, for which gravitation is the dominant form of energy. The sun is a familiar example. As the sun loses energy by radiation, it becomes hotter and not cooler. Since the sun is made of compressible gas squeezed by its own gravitation, loss of energy causes it to become smaller and denser, and the compression causes it to become hotter. For almost all astronomical objects, gravitation dominates, and they have the same unexpected behavior. Gravitation reverses the usual relation between energy and temperature. In the domain of astronomy, when heat flows from hotter to cooler objects, the hot objects get hotter and the cool objects get cooler. As a result, temperature differences in the astronomical universe tend to increase rather than decrease as time goes on. There is no final state of uniform temperature, and there is no heat death. Gravitation gives us a universe hospitable to life. Information and order can continue to grow for billions of years in the future, as they have evidently grown in the past.
I thoroughly enjoyed Freeman Dyson's review. Now I can look forward to reading James Gleick's book. I've got myself signed up for the first copy at the local library!

This review points at an article by James Gleick that was published too late to be included in his book. It was published as the article "The Information Palace" in the NY Review of Books:
The word “information” has grown urgent and problematic—a signpost seen everywhere, freighted with new meaning and import. We hardly need the lexicographers of the Oxford English Dictionary to tell us that, but after all, this is what they live for. It is a word, they tell us, “exhibiting significant linguistic productivity,” a word that “both reflects and embodies major cultural and technological change,” therefore a word crying out for their attention. In their latest quarterly revision, December 2010, just posted, the entry for “information” is utterly overhauled. (The OED, in case you hadn’t noticed, has evolved into an enterprise of cyberspace, rather than a mere book.)

The renovation has turned a cottage into a palace. Information, n., now runs 9,400 words, the length of a novella. It is a sort of masterpiece—an adventure in cultural history. A century ago “information” did not have much resonance. It was a nothing word. “An item of training; an instruction.” Now (as people have been saying for fifty years) we are in the Information Age. Which, by the way, the OED defines for us in its dry-as-chili-powder prose: “the era in which the retrieval, management, and transmission of information, esp. by using computer technology, is a principal (commercial) activity.”


Originally—and by originally I mean in the fourteenth century, when the written record begins, as far as the OED can tell—the word had a sinister flavor. It budged its way into the old gruff Anglo-Saxon as part of the Norman invasion. It meant something like “accusation” or “incrimination.” The earliest citation comes from the Rolls of Parliament for 1386: “Thanne were such proclamacions made‥bi suggestion & informacion of suche that wolde nought her falsnesse had be knowen to owre lige Lorde.” For centuries thereafter, informations were filed, or recorded, or laid, against people.

From then to now the word takes a twisty path, and the OED‘s lexicographers hold our hand around every corner. Information can be “a teaching; an instruction.” It can be “divine influence or direction; inspiration, esp. through the Holy spirit.” It can be “that of which one is apprised or told; intelligence, news.”
And this bit of sleuthing in the OED gives Gleick:
By the way, how do we know people have been talking about the Information Age for fifty years? The OED tells us. The first recorded usage is attributed to “R. S. Leghorn in H. B. Maynard Top Managem. Handbk. xlvii. 1024,” 1960. He turns out to have been Richard Leghorn, founder of Itek Corporation, which made aerospace spy cameras, and later Chief of Intelligence and Reconnaissance Systems Development at the Pentagon. In a single sentence Leghorn invented the phrase and predicted it would not catch on:
Present and anticipated spectacular informational achievements will usher in public recognition of the “information age,” probably under a more symbolic title.
No better title has come along. Along with information age, the OED now recognizes information storage, information transfer, information processing, information retrieval, information architecture, information superhighway, plus (the bad news) information explosion, gap, warfare, overload, and fatigue.

Bill Bryson's "At Home: A Short History of Private Life"

I absolutely love Bill Bryson's book. He has a wonderful writing style and a love of things, of details, of facts, of idiosyncracies. Everything I love. This book is supposedly looks at one house, the vicar's house in one part of England, but ends up being a tale about history and things and people and events. You name it, Bryson squeezes it into his tale. Delightful!

This bit got me up out of my comfy chair to post about the book. This is relevant to the social world of today. The right wing politics of today is driven by the ultra-rich who are determined to return us to the "wonders" of the 19th century when governments were small, the rich were "respected", and the poor knew their place. They want to turn us all into their servants. It isn't good enough to have us their wage slaves, they want a more total control of our lives. This description of servants from Bryson's book gives a better idea than I can draw:
Pamela Sambrook notes how two sisters worked in the same house -- one as a housemaid, one as a nursemaid -- but were not allowed to speak or indicate acquaintance when they met because they inhabited different social realms.

Servans were given little time for personal grooming, and then were constantly accused of being dirty, which was decidedly unfair since typical servant's day ran from 6:30 in the morning to 10:00 at night -- later if an evening social event was involved. The author of one household manual noted wistfully how she would have loved to provide her servants with nice rooms, but sadly they always grew untidy. "the simpler, therefore, a servant's room is furnished, the better," she decided. By the Edwardian period servants got off half a day per week and one full day per month -- hardly munificent when you consider that that was all the time they had for personal items, get their hair cut, visit family, court, relax, or otherwise enjoy a few hours of precious liberty.

Perhaps the hardest part of the job was simply being attached to and dependent on people who didn't think much of you. Virginia Woolf's diaries are almost obsessively preoccupied with her servants and the challenge of maintaining patience with them. Of one, she writes: "She is in a state of nature: untrained; uneducated ... so that one sees a human mind wriggling undressed." As a class they were as irritating as "kitchen flies." Woolf's contemporary Edna St. Vincent Millay was rather more blunt: "The only people I really hate are servants. They are not really human beings at all."
That's the world that the ultra-rich want to resurrect. They want a world where humans are reduced to objects at beck and call. Where the only "needs" that count are those of the "superior" people. Where the riffraff are expected to scurry out of the way and be unseen, but at the same time to rush about doing everything possible to fulfill the whims of their overlords. That is the brave new world being proposed by the Republicans.

When Wisconsin's governor wants to remove the rights to negotiate working conditions or a wage hike bigger than inflation, he is telling hundreds of thousands of people in his state that their "job" is to be reduced to "servant" class, i.e. not seen or heard, but always scurrying about to make sure that their "betters" are well served.

The book is excellent. Excuse my social commentary. When I read I love to connect things within the book to things without. I love details because they are so many and so wondrously interconnected. I love history because the past is mysterious but crucial. In discussing rooms such as the buttery and the dairy, Bryson unearths the roots of language to explain the usage:
Some of the workroom names are not quite as strightforward as they might seem. Buttery has nothing to do with butter. It refers to butts, as in butts of ale. (It is a corruption of boutellerie, the same word from which butler and bottle are derived; looking after the wine bottles is what butlers originally did.) Curiously, the one service room not named for the products it contains is dairy. The name derives from an Old French word, dey meaning maiden. A dairy, in other words, was the room where the milkmaids were to be found, from which we might reasonably deduce that an Old Frenchman was more interested in finding the maid than the milk.
In this book about a house he ends up musing about foods and the lowly potato:
Potatoes, the other great food crop,of the New World, present an almost equally intriguing batch of mysteries. Potatoes are from the nightshade family, which is of course notoriously toxic, and in their wild state the are full of poisonous glycoalkaloids -- the same stuff, at lower doses, that puts the zip in caffeine and nicotine. Making any wild potatoes safe to eat required reducing the glycoalaloid content to between one-fifteenth and one-twentieth of its normal level. This raises a lot of questions, beginning most obviously with: How did they do it? And while they were doing it, how did they know they were doing it? How do you tell that the poison content has been reduced by, say 20 percent or 35 percent or some other intermediate figure? How do you assess progress in such a process? Above all, how did they know that the whole exercise was worth the effort and that they would get a safe and nutritious foodstuff in the end?
The book is a gem. Everybody should read it.

Liberal "Bias" in the Media

If you read the press or listen to politicians in the US, you constantly hear about "liberal" bias in the press. But ThinkProgress has this post on its web site that lets you see how "fair and balanced" means you get to see Republicans sell their swill while the Democrats get to stand by and watch:
Two weeks ago, the Washington Monthly’s Steve Benen noted that the lineup for the Sunday shows were stacked with Republicans and didn’t feature a single Democratic guest. Last Sunday also tilted heavily toward GOP voices. This Sunday the trend continues. Three Sunday shows — Fox, CBS, and NBC — locked out Democratic voices as featured guests:
Fox News Sunday: Gov. Mitch Daniels (R-IN), former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-AR)
CBS Face the Nation: Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ)
NBC Meet the Press: Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI), Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)
CNN State of the Union: Gov. Rick Scott (R-FL), Gov. Dan Malloy (D-CT), Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND)
ABC This Week: Gov. Jan Brewer (R-AZ), Gov. Nikki Haley (R-SC), Gov. Deval Patrick (D-MA), Gov. John Hickenlooper (D-CO)
ABC’s This Week, which featured two Democratic voices, did so as part of a balanced four-person panel.

As ThinkProgress noted this week, NBC’s Meet the Press had originally failed to feature a voice from labor to respond to Scott Walker’s appearance. After pressure from progressives, Meet the Press gave workers a limited presence, adding AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka as part of a five-person panel.

While every other Sunday show had a featured guest on to respond to the current political upheaval in Libya, Fox did not. Host Chris Wallace did not ask Mitch Daniels or Mike Huckabee — his two featured guests — a single question about Libya.
No wonder Americans are so docile. Not only do they fail to hear the whole story, they are told that what they hear is "biased" against what they in fact are hearing. Confusing!

Taxes in America

Funny how there are constant budget deficits and Republicans calling for more tax cuts, but then you have protestors like this:

or this:

Here's a post on ThinkProgress that asks the obvious questions:
Today, hundreds of thousands of people comprising a Main Street Movement — a coalition of students, the retired, union workers, public employees, and other middle class Americans — are in the streets, demonstrating against brutal cuts to public services and crackdowns on organized labor being pushed by conservative politicians. These lawmakers that are attacking collective bargaining and cutting necessary services like college tuition aid and health benefits for public workers claim that they have no choice but than to take these actions because both state and federal governments are in debt.

But it wasn’t teachers, fire fighters, policemen, and college students that caused the economic recession that has devastated government budgets — it was Wall Street. And as middle class workers are being asked to sacrifice, the rich continue to rig the system, dodging taxes and avoiding paying their fair share.

In an interview with In These Times, Carl Gibson, the founder of US Uncut, which is organizing some of today’s UK-inspired massive demonstrations against tax dodgers, explains that while ordinary Americans are being asked to sacrifice, major corporations continue to use the rigged tax code to avoid paying any federal taxes at all. As he says, if you have “one dollar” in your wallet, you’re paying more than the “combined income tax liability of GE, ExxonMobil, Citibank, and the Bank of America“:

[Gibson] explains, “I have one dollar in my wallet. That’s more than the combined income tax liability of GE, ExxonMobil, Citibank, and the Bank of America. That means somebody is gaming the system.”

Indeed, as politicians are asking ordinary Americans to sacrifice their education, their health, their labor rights, and their wellbeing to tackle budget deficits, some of the world’s richest multinational corporations are getting away with shirking their responsibility and paying nothing. ThinkProgress has assembled a short but far from comprehensive list of these tax dodgers — corporations which have rigged the tax system to their advantage so they can reap huge profits and avoid paying taxes:

- BANK OF AMERICA: In 2009, Bank of America didn’t pay a single penny in federal income taxes, exploiting the tax code so as to avoid paying its fair share. “Oh, yeah, this happens all the time,” said Robert Willens, a tax accounting expert interviewed by McClatchy. “If you go out and try to make money and you don’t do it, why should the government pay you for your losses?” asked Bob McIntyre of Citizens for Tax Justice. The same year, the mega-bank’s top executives received pay “ranging from $6 million to nearly $30 million.”

- BOEING: Despite receiving billions of dollars from the federal government every single year in taxpayer subsidies from the U.S. government, Boeing didn’t “pay a dime of U.S. federal corporate income taxes” between 2008 and 2010.

- CITIGROUP: Citigroup’s deferred income taxes for the third quarter of 2010 amounted to a grand total of $0.00. At the same time, Citigroup has continued to pay its staff lavishly. “John Havens, the head of Citigroup’s investment bank, is expected to be the bank’s highest paid executive for the second year in a row, with a compensation package worth $9.5 million.”

- EXXON-MOBIL: The oil giant uses offshore subsidiaries in the Caribbean to avoid paying taxes in the United States. Although Exxon-Mobil paid $15 billion in taxes in 2009, not a penny of those taxes went to the American Treasury. This was the same year that the company overtook Wal-Mart in the Fortune 500. Meanwhile the total compensation of Exxon-Mobil’s CEO the same year was over $29,000,000.

- GENERAL ELECTRIC: In 2009, General Electric — the world’s largest corporation — filed more than 7,000 tax returns and still paid nothing to U.S. government. They managed to do this by a tax code that essentially subsidizes companies for losing profits and allows them to set up tax havens overseas. That same year GE CEO Jeffery Immelt — who recently scored a spot on a White House economic advisory board — “earned total compensation of $9.89 million.” In 2002, Immelt displayed his lack of economic patriotism, saying, “When I am talking to GE managers, I talk China, China, China, China, China….I am a nut on China. Outsourcing from China is going to grow to 5 billion.”

- WELLS FARGO: Despite being the fourth largest bank in the country, Wells Fargo was able to escape paying federal taxes by writing all of its losses off after its acquisition of Wachovia. Yet in 2009 the chief executive of Wells Fargo also saw his compensation “more than double” as he earned “a salary of $5.6 million paid in cash and stock and stock awards of more than $13 million.”

In the coming months, politicians across the country are going to tell Americans that the only way to stave off huge deficit and balance the budgets is by gutting programs for the poor, eviscerating support for the middle class, eliminating labor rights, and decimating the government’s ability to serve the public interest. This is a lie. The United States is the richest country in the history of the world, and income inequality is higher now than it has been at any time since the 1920′s, with the top “top 1 percentile of households [taking] home 23.5 percent of income in 2007.”

It is simply unfair for Main Street Americans who’ve already been battered by one of the worst economic crises in our history to have to continue to sacrifice while the rich and well-connected continue to rip off taxpayers and avoid paying their fair share. That’s why a Main Street Movement consisting of Americans who are fed up with the status quo is rocking the nation, and one of its first targets should be tax dodgers like Bank of America and Boeing.
Go read the original post to get all the embedded links.

I'm sure hoping that governor Walker in Wisconsin has pushed the average American too far and the protests in Wisconsin will boil over across the whole US. There have been too many years of right wing "trickle down" economics that have larded the ultra-rich with tax cuts and given corporations handouts while cutting social spending and sneakily raising taxes on ordinary people by nickle-and-diming them on all kinds of "hidden" taxes.

Rich people in America can "buy" their rights. The bottom 90% have to stand in the cold like the demonstrators in Wisconsin to try and get the attention of their government so they have "have" their rights. I guess that is "the American way".

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Joys of Technology

I spent 30 years with computer systems and watched generation after generation of "enhancements" that added functions you didn't need and included failure modes and traps that we so predictable that people joked about them as "features" and not bugs. Here's the latest from Detroit courtesy of a NY Times op-ed by Maureen Dowd:
Ford executives invited me to Detroit to experience their snazzy new technology firsthand.

They are on the cusp of a system featuring the futuristic avatar Eva, the vaguely creepy face and voice of a woman on your dashboard who can read you your e-mail, update your schedule, recite articles from newspapers, guide you to the restaurant where you’re having lunch and recommend a selection from your iPod. Ford’s working on a Web browser, which would be locked while driving.

Remember when your car used to be a haven of peace from the world? Now it’s just a bigger, noisier and much more dangerously distracting smartphone.
Call me fuddy-duddy, but I never had a car radio for 30 years. I've got one now but the only time I listen to it is when I'm on the highway. I've just never felt the need for the "extras" that the car dealers ply you with. It is all just crap from my perspective. When I buy a car I'm looking for reliability, good gas mileage, comfortable ride, and safety. I'm not interested in "features" that are only good to get your attention off the job at hand and end up killing you.

I'm an old duffer now, but even as a kid I never wanted a car to "wow a girl". So I didn't get one until I was nearly 30. I'm amazed at how Detroit can sell a car by having a sexy model drape herself over the car. Funny. I've never seen a sexy woman drape herself over any car that I've owned. I guess they are an unadvertised "extra" that the dealer never took the time to sell me.

Maureen Dowd is on a crusade. I'm behind her... in my barcalounger urging on in the great battle to reshape humanity:
Over lunch at Ford, Sue Cischke, a dynamic company executive, argued that even before cellphones and iPods, drivers were in danger of distraction from reaching for a briefcase or shooing away a bee.

“Telling younger people not to use a cellphone is almost like saying, ‘Don’t breathe,’ ” she said.

Given that Americans are addicted to Web access and tech toys, she said, it will never work to simply ban them. “So we’ve got to figure out how we make people safer,” she said, “and the more people can just talk to their car like they’re talking to a passenger, the more useful it would be.”

Given that, however, we’re talking about human beings who live in an A.D.D. world, wouldn’t it be safer to try to curb the addiction, rather than indulging it? Nobody thought you could get young people to pay for music after downloading it for free, either, but they do.
Here's the fundamental engineering problem:
He says he doesn’t expect car companies — which are trying to make cars more seductive — to be arbiters of safety. “They were slow to move toward seat belts and airbags until we, the customer, said we want it,” he said. He sees the overwrought dashboards as trouble. “We can chew gum and walk, but we can’t do two cognitively demanding tasks simultaneously.”
The solution? Customers have to demand safety. Demand cars that are functionally clean, simple, and unencumbered by the seductive "goodies".

And how will the Obama administration respond to this existential threat?
Ray LaHood, the secretary of transportation, is livid about the dashboard bells and whistles. When he saw a Ford ad with a bubbly young woman named Kelly using the new souped-up system to gab on the phone hands-free and not paying attention to the road, he called Alan Mulally, the president and C.E.O of Ford.

“I said to him, ‘That girl looks so distracted, it belies belief that this is what you want in terms of safety,’ ” LaHood told me. “Putting entertainment centers in automobiles does not contribute to safe driving. When you’re trying to update your Facebook or put out a tweet, it’s a distraction.”

He said he would compile his own statistics, meet with car executives and use the bully pulpit. “We’ll see what the auto companies can do voluntarily and what we need to do otherwise,” he said. “I don’t think drivers should be doing any of that.”
Yep... you read that right. The Democrats are going to do just what the Republicans did... leave it to the manufacturers to "voluntarily" do the right thing. That's like watching the Wild Bunch arrive in town and have the sheriff walk over to tell them "now boys, we expect you to be on your best behaviour in own town, we are all decent folk here and expect you to respect that fact". Yep. The Wild Bunch was just full of "respect".

News Flash! Global Warming is Solved!

Thanks to hard working research scientists, we now have a solution for global warming. Luckily you and I will be able to have a front row seat in watching this "rectification project" undertaken around the world. I'm sure that it can all be pulled off in a few months. For details, read this National Geographic article Small Nuclear War Could Reverse Global Warming for Years.
Reversing Global Warming?

The global cooling caused by these high carbon clouds wouldn't be as catastrophic as a superpower-versus-superpower nuclear winter, but "the effects would still be regarded as leading to unprecedented climate change," research physical scientist Luke Oman said during a press briefing Friday at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C.
Now we can all relax. We can check "global warming" off our "to do" list! Thank goodness!

Wait... are you saying you aren't completely enthralled with the idea of unleashing a minor "global winter" around the world?
"Our results suggest that agriculture could be severely impacted, especially in areas that are susceptible to late-spring and early-fall frosts," said Oman, of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

"Examples similar to the crop failures and famines experienced following the Mount Tambora eruption in 1815 could be widespread and last several years," he added. That Indonesian volcano ushered in "the year without summer," a time of famines and unrest. (See pictures of the Mount Tambora eruption.)
You say you worry about the side-effects of radiation poisoning? Oh... and you say you don't trust that the "experts" have foreseen all the "known unknowns" to use the Rumsfeldian neologism. Oh, and there are those nasty "unknown unknowns". We won't even mention those!

Why is National Geographic publishing this ridiculous "article"? Are they like William Randolf Hearst with his yellow press, i.e. drumming up "small regional nuclear wars" as a fix for global warming because it will sell more of their National Geographic magazines? What is the point of this article?

The nuclear winter scenario was milked for all it was worth back in the 1980s. Why is National Geographic reviving this "research" now? And why in the context of "fixing" global warming?

Blinded by Ideology

The "red states" of the US think they are morally superior. One fact that supposedly supports this fact is the low unemployment in these states. But Paul Krugman points out that this self-congratulatory back-slapping is silly. These states received more stimulus money per-capita than the big states. So of course their economies revived faster:

Dean Baker points us to Feyrer and Sacerdote, who use cross-state variation in stimulus spending per capita to estimate the employment effects of the stimulus. They find a clear positive effect: states that got more money per person did better on jobs. ...

The point is that the best instrument Feyrer-Sacerdote found was population: low population states got a lot more stimulus per capita. As they say, this could be because they have a lot of roads per capita, or it could be because they’re rotten boroughs, with two senators even if they have no people.


... If Feyrer and Sacerdote are right, people in the Dakotas, Nebraska and so on are congratulating themselves on their good employment performance, a result of their rock-ribbed self-reliance — when what actually happened is that they got themselves an outsized share of the very stimulus they denounce.
Go read the original to get the links to cited articles.

This would not be the first time an ideologue blinded to his own prejudices ignores the facts in order to more vigorously give himself a back slap.

Lessons to be Learned

Here is an interesting piece comparing how a Japanese corporate leader is "rewarded" versus American corporate execs:

There is more information in this CBS news article:
Merrill Lynch boss John Thain spent $1 million decorating his office.

Haruka Nishimatsu, the president and CEO of Japan Air, knocked down his office walls so anyone can walk in.

He buys his suits at a discount store, because a boss who wears Armani puts himself at arm's length from his people.

"If management is distant, up in the clouds, people just wait for orders," Nishimatsu told CBS News through a translator. "I want my people to think for themselves."
There are a lot of lessons to be learned here for Americans. The English used to laugh at the "rustic" ways of Americans in the late 19th century and early 20th century. They they had their head handed to them by the upstart Americans. America in the late 20th century was at the top of the pecking order and "knew" that how it did things was the "best" in the world. But as Americans preen their ego, the rest of the world is passing them by. American business has hollowed out its own country and impoverished its own workers in a greedy rush to make top executives filthy rich. They have achieved their goal, but as a major said in Vietnam "we had to destroy this village to save it". Yeah, "saved" for what?

As for the salary being less than he pays his pilots, I don't doubt this. What the news piece doesn't go into is "other kinds of remuneration", e.g. stock options. I know that Japan doesn't have the gap between top and bottom like the US but I doubt the top guy is making less than his pilots. But this kind of story is refreshing.

What I do know is that societies where the gap between the rich and the poor is as extreme as it is in the US are societies where the underclass is treated like dirt. You can see that in the US by going to any big city and watch the homeless wander around the streets. This is a very wealthy society, but it turns its back on so many of its own citizens. Shame.

Friday, February 25, 2011

An Interesting "Global Warming" Debate

Here are a series of e-mails on "global warming" between Freeman Dyson (a man I much respect) and Steve Connor, the science editor at the UK's Independent newspaper. There is much worth thinking about in this exchange of ideas. What I find amusing is the how Steve persistently misses what Freeman Dyson says in order to pound home is view on "global warming". This bit I especially like. It is Freeman Dyson, after many attempts, trying one last time to get Steve Connor to hear his viewpoint:
Of course I am not expecting you to agree with me. The most I expect is that you might listen to what I am saying. I am saying that all predictions concerning climate are highly uncertain. On the other hand, the remedies proposed by the experts are enormously costly and damaging, especially to China and other developing countries. On a smaller scale, we have seen great harm done to poor people around the world by the conversion of maize from a food crop to an energy crop. This harm resulted directly from the political alliance between American farmers and global-warming politicians. Unfortunately the global warming hysteria, as I see it, is driven by politics more than by science. If it happens that I am wrong and the climate experts are right, it is still true that the remedies are far worse than the disease that they claim to cure.

I wish that The Independent would live up to its name and present a less one-sided view of the issues.
Poor Freeman Dyson abandons the "discussion" because the e-mails are just a series of hectoring chastisements by Steve Connor of Freeman for failing to "join the consensus". Freeman simply tires of pointing out that he is a sceptic and that scepticism is at the heart of science.

How to Lie with Statistics

When I was young and impressionable there was a book How to Lie with Statistics that greatly impressed me. It makes you leery of arguments bolster with "data" and "graphs" because it teaches you to ask questions.

There is an infamous hockey stick graph. Here is a version from a screen grab of the video further down this post:

This shows a very scary sudden and big rise in temperatures. This is the kind of graph that Al Gore tramped around the world to "sell" global warming. The graph is impressive. But ti includes the infamous "hide the decline" trick revealed when the East Anglia CRU (Climate Research Unit) was hacked and e-mails revealed that some funny business was going on by major climate scientists to doctor their data. The above is a graph of temperatures when you splice in some surface temperature data.

Here is the same data without the extra surface temperature data:

Wow! Quite a difference. The top one should scare you and make you want to immediately sign up for Al Gore's program to fight global warming. The bottom one should make you say "what the hell is going in?"

If you want the story, watch this video of Richard Muller giving a talk at the CITRIS centre at UC Berkely on climate science. Here is the talk's title and abstract:
Global Warming -- The Current Status: The Science, the Scandal, the Prospects for a Treaty

Speaker/Performer: Richard Muller, Professor, Dept. of Physics, UC Berkeley

Recent events in the field of climate change have confused both the public and many "experts." I will try to elucidate what has been happening. Two out of three climate groups show no global warming for the past 13 years. What does that mean? Why does the third group (led by Jim Hansen) disagree? Why was there no treaty at Copenhagen? (It wasn't political, but technical!) Why do we hear so little about the Copenhagen follow-up meeting, this December in Cancun? What really happened in the Climategate scandal? How serious are the mistakes that embarrassed the IPCC (e.g. their claim that the Himalayas might melt in a few decades, subsequently retracted)? How reliable are the predictions of future global warming? (Pretty reliable, in my opinion.) I will attempt to give a non-partisan analysis.

At 20:55 he announces his own temperature analysis group. While I disagree with Richard Muller about how real global warming is, I applaud his setting up of this group -- Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature -- will use all the data, do it in a transparent way, and use standard statistics, publish this on the web, and allow third parties free and easy access to all data and analysis to check his group's work. Excellent!

At 25:24 he discusses how the IPCC models for Antarctica don't agree with the facts. Muller says that bother him. Yes! It should. I like the fact that Muller is honest. I am much more inclined to accept analysis from Muller than IPCC. Muller is a real scientist with a real honesty about data and theory and its limits.

At 29:48 he talks about "climategate" which is what the discrepancy of the two images at the top of this post are all about.

At 34:39 he reviews all the problems in the IPCC reports on global warming.

At 35:26 he discusses oil reserves. I get a chuckle out of this because he shows how the "amount of reserves" for a country like Canada suddenly showed hundreds of billions of barrels of oil that weren't there before! Magic! Yes... the magic of price changes.

The video is full of good things. I don't fully agree with Richard Muller, but he is the kind of guy that I could have a productive discussion with, and it is possible he could change my mind. I say that because he strikes me as honest about climatology. I'm willing to find new facts and re-interpret theories, but only with real scientists. The IPCC stuff is junk science. Al Gore is a snake oil salesman who doesn't tell you he will profit if you buy into his carbon trading schemes.

How the US Wages War on its Own Citizens

The US loves to pretend that its is "law abiding" and never petty or vindictive. But when you run afoul of what Uncle Sam wants, then surprisingly strange things happen to you. Things that look vengeful and vindictive, but Uncle Sam claims that just isn't so. Here's a bit from a Wired magazine article:
PayPal has frozen the account of a group that has been raising money for the legal defense of accused WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning, citing a failure to meet PayPal’s requirement for nonprofit groups.

According to Courage to Resist, a military veterans advocacy group that has been raising donations for Manning’s defense, PayPal froze the account after the group refused to link its PayPal account to its checking account, which would give the online payment provider access to funds in the checking account.

“We exchanged numerous e-mails and phone calls with the legal department and the office of executive escalations of PayPal,” said Jeff Paterson in a press release. “They said they would not unrestrict our account unless we authorized PayPal to withdraw funds from our organization’s checking account by default. Our accounting does not allow for this type of direct access by a third party, nor do I trust PayPal as a business entity with this responsibility given their punitive actions against WikiLeaks — an entity not charged with any crime by any government on Earth.”

[PayPal has since unfrozen the account. See update at bottom of this post.]

The advocacy group has been raising funds for the Manning Support Network and has so far paid Manning’s defense attorney at least $50,000 from money that it raised on the soldier’s behalf. Paterson did not respond to a call for comment, but said in the press release that his group opened the PayPal account in 2006.
Funny how that group was using Pay Pal for four years with no problem, but suddenly after the US has declared war on Julian Assange and everybody and everything associated with him, Pay Pal suddenly "discovers" a policy and decides to enforce it very selectively on just this one advocacy group for Bradley Manning!

Here's the really sleazy part:
Asked why, if the Courage to Resist account was opened in 2006, PayPal hadn’t raised the issue of linking it to a bank account earlier, Nayar did not have an immediate response. He said only that nonprofit organizations are allowed to open accounts easily and quickly.

“We don’t limit them prior to opening and saying they’re a nonprofit before allowing them to open an account,” he said.

With regard to PayPal’s assertion that it’s only following company policy, Courage to Resist says it repeatedly requested and was refused formal documentation from PayPal describing its policy.

“They opted to apply an exceptional hurdle for us to clear in order to continue as a customer, whereas we have clearly provided the legally required information and verification,” the group wrote.
Hannah Arendt made clear that great evil can be put forward in a form that is boringly banal. It uses the cover of indirection, denial, bureaucratic "requirements" to cover the unrelenting evil within its intentions. This soporific approach is sufficient to go under the moral radar of most people, so sleazy, evil regimes can work their murderous intent undisturbed. Uncle Sam is just using these "tools" to carry out an under-the-radar war against Julian Assange and Wikileaks. It is sleazy. It is evil. Obama should be ashamed of himself!

But I've learned since the 2008 election that Obama isn't "change you can believe in". He is the same old bureaucratic evil slime that went before him. He is just "more of the same". Sure he is a toned-down evil. He is definitely preferable to the Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Reagan, Oliver North, E. Howard Hunt, Nixon, and Scott Walker characters, but he is not on the side of the angels. He is just their "little brother" who believes that you shouldn't beat an old lady with a big and bloody stick, instead you should quietly put a pillow over her mouth and "relieve her of life's burdens".


Here is a film trying to humanize the protests in Wisconsin:

I'm more of a "just the facts, Ma'am" kind of guy, so this kind of "massaged" message doesn't do it for me, but I realize that a lot of people are more persuaded by pictures of puppy dogs and personalized pleas. So the above is to "give a human face" to the protest.

For a nuts & bolts guy like me, the facts are that the Republicans have been on a 30 year crusade to beat down the middle and working classes while giving all the breaks to their buddies, the ultra-rich. They have been wildly successful. Taxes are extremely low on the rich. Wealth has shifted from being reasonable well distributed to being hoarded by the top 1% with everybody else treading water (and actually sinking below water as real wages don't keep up with inflation). It is a political agenda that they called "trickle down" economics. With 30 years of experience, people should be able to judge for themselves just how much "trickle down" has occurred.

Bush called all of his tax cuts "necessary" to kick start the economy, but the 2001-2007 "recovery" was the worst ever experienced. The rich hoarded the tax cuts. Economists warned the Repubilcans about this. But the ideology of the Republicans is to do everything possible to reward the rich while beating down everybody else.

I don't need "heartfelt" video to sell me. I use the facts. But for those who want mood music, people-oriented messages, and puppy dogs, the above video is meant to let you get in on the "debate" about Wisconsin.

Scott Adams: How a Smart Guy Shows He is Stupid

I like Scott Adams' Dilbert cartoon, but I'm coming to loathe Scott Adams the human being. He is a reactionary "libertarian" who deliberately misunderstands the way the world works. Here's his latest blog posting:
What exactly is Social Security?

Some say Social Security is like a retirement plan, but that would require it to be self-funding, which it isn't.

I've called Social Security a Ponzi scheme because it's funded by the next generation of suckers. But Ponzi schemes are voluntary. So that analogy is flawed.

Some say Social Security is a social safety net. But old people wouldn't die on the streets if the program suddenly stopped sending out checks. You and I are compassionate. We would open our homes and take in the oldsters. The alternative would be feral gangs of senior citizens grazing on our rosebushes. That's not good for property values.

So it seems to me that the main purpose of Social Security is to prevent old people from sleeping on our couches. Keeping old people out of the house, and away from the rosebushes, is expensive, so we cleverly pass along part of the bill to people who haven't yet been born.

While each person in my generation is paying to prevent, on average, one old person from sleeping on his couch, the next generation will be paying to keep two or three old people out of the living room, and the thermostat below 85 degrees. It might seem like a bargain to them. I call that fair.

People in my age group don't have a cool name like the Greatest Generation. But I think we have a legitimate chance of someday being known as the Generation that Prevented the Greatest Generation from Sleeping on Its Couches.
He pretends to know know what Social Security is, but the answer is at his fingertips with Wikipedia. Just click the link I provided in the previous sentence.

He claims he doesn't know how it is funded. It has always been funded by the current generation paying for the current seniors' retirement. He wants to call that a Ponzi scheme. It isn't. It is the same principle that families are built on (parents care for children when they are young, the children take care of their senior parents). We don't talk about "family exploitation" and demand that children stop requiring parents to feed, clothe, and raise them. We don't talk about seniors "extorting" money from their adult children to help them. Why does Scott Adams want to see social programs as "exploitation"?

The reality is that back in the early 1980s Greenspan ran a group that changed the funding formula for Social Security. The worry was that the retirement of the Baby Boomers would bust the system. So the plan was to build up a huge surplus to tide the system over during the retirement of the Baby Boomers. So they started charging a lot more for FICA. And a big surplus was built up. And just last year did that process of setting aside hundreds of billions (trillions?) to fund the Baby Boomers finally came to an end because the number of retirees started growing, so the big surpluses have come to an end and the system will not start taking tiny amounts from that surplus to cover the extra costs over the next 30 years. Social Security is well funded. But the Scott Adams' of the world ignore this fact. Instead they focus on the fact that Social Security funds is just "IOUs" and are "meaningless". Well, if you are a thief, then ownership is "meaningless" and up for grabs. But for most normal people, the Social Security Trust Fund is well funded and isn't "going broke". Adams has to know this, but he willfully purveys the lie that it is some kind of "Ponzi scheme".

This is expecially funny because Scott Adams presents himself as a paragon of virtue would would willingly look after not just his own aged parents, but any aged person in need. He says "You and I are compassionate. We would open our homes and take in the oldsters.". If he is so compassionate, why is he complaining about a social program to help the aged? I don't know Mr. Adams but I suspect he is a hypocrite. I suspect he loves to play Scrooge McDuck and sit on his piles of gold and let the gold pieces trickle through his fingers and his real complaint is that the government would tax him to force him to exercise his so-called "charity" for others.

He claims that the US doesn't need Social Security because "Some say Social Security is a social safety net. But old people wouldn't die on the streets if the program suddenly stopped sending out checks.". But if Scott Adams read some history he would find that prior to government programs, a fair number of old people did "die in the streets". Those who were spinsters and never married, those who were childless couples, those who were socially isolated. But Scott Adams lives in an ideologues heaven where there are no storm clouds, where manna falls from heaven, and liberty reigns. He lives in a fantasy world. Prior to Social Security there was real privation among those too old to continue to work.

Ah... but the Scott Adams' of the world have a solution. They are pulling out the old playbook and calling for a "fix" to Social Security that would simply tell people to work into their late 60s, through their 70s, through their 80s, and if they are so luck as to live into their 90s, to keep plugging away at a job so that they don't become "social parasites" and require a rich man like Scott Adams to have to give up the possibility of a third vacation home, or taking his eighth getaway vacation, or hiring his fourth domestic servant. You know, times are tough for the rich, the world needs more WalMart greeters. That keeps the aged "productively employed" where they should be!

I gag when I think of Scott Adams. He is a hypocrite. He is too smart to not know the lies he spews. To point of social programs is to give everybody a social safety net. But Scott Adams wants to go back to the sharp divides of the Dickensian era when the rich could lord it over the underclass and the poor people knew that their life was a veil of tears, many years of hard work, and when their health failed, the only recourse was to crawl in a corner and slowly starve to death because the "charity" of the rich was certainly "on show" with lots of balls and galas where the rich showed off their "urge to help the poor" but in fact the poor were left to starve. All those "donations" really went to wine and dine the rich. It didn't end up as crusts of bread and a little milk for the poor.

Wisconsin: The "Shock Doctrine" Applied

Here is an interesting observation by Paul Krugman in his latest NY Times op-ed:
Here’s a thought: maybe Madison, Wis., isn’t Cairo after all. Maybe it’s Baghdad — specifically, Baghdad in 2003, when the Bush administration put Iraq under the rule of officials chosen for loyalty and political reliability rather than experience and competence.

As many readers may recall, the results were spectacular — in a bad way. Instead of focusing on the urgent problems of a shattered economy and society, which would soon descend into a murderous civil war, those Bush appointees were obsessed with imposing a conservative ideological vision. Indeed, with looters still prowling the streets of Baghdad, L. Paul Bremer, the American viceroy, told a Washington Post reporter that one of his top priorities was to “corporatize and privatize state-owned enterprises” — Mr. Bremer’s words, not the reporter’s — and to “wean people from the idea the state supports everything.”

The story of the privatization-obsessed Coalition Provisional Authority was the centerpiece of Naomi Klein’s best-selling book “The Shock Doctrine,” which argued that it was part of a broader pattern. From Chile in the 1970s onward, she suggested, right-wing ideologues have exploited crises to push through an agenda that has nothing to do with resolving those crises, and everything to do with imposing their vision of a harsher, more unequal, less democratic society.

Which brings us to Wisconsin 2011, where the shock doctrine is on full display.
That does help explain the bizarre behaviour of Governor Walker. The unions caved after a couple of days and gave up the 8% to 9% of salary he was demanding, but Walker didn't declare victory and pass his bill. Instead he continues to insist on the removal of collective bargaining rights. (Oh sure, he will let them "collectively bargain" for just one thing, pay increases, but only so long as whatever they fight for is less than the cost of living, in other words they have the right to "organize" and fight for pay cuts!)
In recent weeks, Madison has been the scene of large demonstrations against the governor’s budget bill, which would deny collective-bargaining rights to public-sector workers. Gov. Scott Walker claims that he needs to pass his bill to deal with the state’s fiscal problems. But his attack on unions has nothing to do with the budget. In fact, those unions have already indicated their willingness to make substantial financial concessions — an offer the governor has rejected.

What’s happening in Wisconsin is, instead, a power grab — an attempt to exploit the fiscal crisis to destroy the last major counterweight to the political power of corporations and the wealthy. And the power grab goes beyond union-busting. The bill in question is 144 pages long, and there are some extraordinary things hidden deep inside.
OK... now prepare to meet the dark side of the Republican craziness:
For example, the bill includes language that would allow officials appointed by the governor to make sweeping cuts in health coverage for low-income families without having to go through the normal legislative process.

And then there’s this: “Notwithstanding ss. 13.48 (14) (am) and 16.705 (1), the department may sell any state-owned heating, cooling, and power plant or may contract with a private entity for the operation of any such plant, with or without solicitation of bids, for any amount that the department determines to be in the best interest of the state. Notwithstanding ss. 196.49 and 196.80, no approval or certification of the public service commission is necessary for a public utility to purchase, or contract for the operation of, such a plant, and any such purchase is considered to be in the public interest and to comply with the criteria for certification of a project under s. 196.49 (3) (b).”

What’s that about? The state of Wisconsin owns a number of plants supplying heating, cooling, and electricity to state-run facilities (like the University of Wisconsin). The language in the budget bill would, in effect, let the governor privatize any or all of these facilities at whim. Not only that, he could sell them, without taking bids, to anyone he chooses. And note that any such sale would, by definition, be “considered to be in the public interest.”

If this sounds to you like a perfect setup for cronyism and profiteering — remember those missing billions in Iraq? — you’re not alone. Indeed, there are enough suspicious minds out there that Koch Industries, owned by the billionaire brothers who are playing such a large role in Mr. Walker’s anti-union push, felt compelled to issue a denial that it’s interested in purchasing any of those power plants. Are you reassured?
These are just the things that Naomi Klein talked about in her book The Shock Doctrine (for my comments on her book, see here).

Krugman remains pretty pessimistic about the future:
The good news from Wisconsin is that the upsurge of public outrage — aided by the maneuvering of Democrats in the State Senate, who absented themselves to deny Republicans a quorum — has slowed the bum’s rush. If Mr. Walker’s plan was to push his bill through before anyone had a chance to realize his true goals, that plan has been foiled. And events in Wisconsin may have given pause to other Republican governors, who seem to be backing off similar moves.

But don’t expect either Mr. Walker or the rest of his party to change those goals. Union-busting and privatization remain G.O.P. priorities, and the party will continue its efforts to smuggle those priorities through in the name of balanced budgets.
The only thing that will really bring this 30 year reign of right wing craziness to an end is if the people catch fire like the Egyptians in Tahrir Square and fight tooth-and-nail to prevent the dark forces from smothering them for another thirty years.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

What Does Inequality Mean?

Here is a graphic from an article in Mother Jones magazine to give you an idea of just how extreme the income inequality is in America:
A huge share of the nation's economic growth over the past 30 years has gone to the top one-hundredth of one percent, who now make an average of $27 million per household. The average income for the bottom 90 percent of us? $31,244.

Click to Enlarge
The graphic is colourful and its proportions show the underlying data, but it is hard for most people to "take in" the enormity of the discrepancy. You need to spend time looking at the graphic and think and think hard to appreciate the grotesque reality it is trying to communicate.

Think about living in a world where one person can "work hard" and earn $30,000 while another who is also "working hard" but gets $27 million for their effort. Can you think of any activity that justifies this huge a gap between two human beings? Sure those who work harder, those with more responsibility, those with more talents deserve more, but not to this outrageously distorted extent.

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When I watch films that are meticulous "period pieces" of aristocratic times (i.e. before the Great Depression which seemed to have killed off "personal servants" and conspicuous display of wealth), I am appalled. Beggars at the gate starve to death while the elite "party" at a banquet table tossing out gobs of food that is wonderfully edible with no though of sharing with those who are starving. That is a horrible world. But during my adult lifetime I've watched that disgusting world creep back and re-establish itself.

I first knew something bad was up when you had the stories of Wall Street and the logo "Greed is good!" along with the TV show "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous". At first this was a bit of a lark since it was so unreal. But the rich have gone from being peripheral to once again lording it over people. They now command the majority of income and it keeps growing. The economy is stagnant for the bottom 90% but the rich have the politicians dancing to their tune so the fight isn't over taxing the rich more, it is over taking away the "fat pensions" and the "extra pay" that public union employees get. The rich have turned the poor on each other and chuckle as they fight light cats and dogs over scraps while the great gobs of wealth keep being diverted to the obscenely rich. Sick.

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What I find so outrageous about current US politics is that all the talk about cutting deficits never considers the fact that the budget problem springs from too many tax cuts for the rich! The original justification for tax cuts was that they would stimulate the economy and "trickle down" benefits to all. But looking at 30 years of hard times for the bottom 90% of the population puts the lie to "trickle down". The US needs to raise taxes on the rich!

Go read the Mother Jones article.

Brian Greene's "The Hidden Reality"

I have to admit that I had to struggle to get through this book. The theme of the book was exciting, but the writing was dull and wandered off into corners of such extreme "science" that it didn't look like science to me so my attention drifted and I had to work hard to keep up the level of attention necessary to plow through the book.

The book looks at 7 theories of "parallel" universes and 1 theory of off-the-wall "we all live in a simulated universe". That last one didn't belong in the book and was the capstone sealing the fate of this book in my mind: crap. The other seven theories were mildly interesting but struck me as a waste of brilliant minds:
  1. The Quilted Multiverse - the idea that we can only see part of the universe and if it is infinite then there can be infinite patches like ours that "quilt" the infinite fabric of the universe. And that in each of these the physical constants can be set slightly differently so you get an infinite variety. In fact, you can get an infinite number of patches are are exact mimics of the patch we inhabit.

  2. The Inflationary Universe - uses the idea of inflation to talk about how new universes can pop into existence as the inflationary universe continues its infinite expansion.

  3. Brane Universe - the idea that string theory requires a 10 dimension (or 11 dimension, depends on how you count them) universe in which we live stuck on a 3D "brane". There can exist many branes so there are multiple parallel universes.

  4. Cyclic Multiverse - uses the string theory multi-dimensional brane world as a way to allow branes to bang up against another branes. Each "bang" is in fact a "big bang" that generates a universe. This allows an eternal cycle of big bang then big collapse then big bang then big collapse ad infinitum without breaking the 2nd law of thermodynamics that requires entropy to increase. The entropy gets spread over the other dimensions.

  5. Landscape Multiverse - uses the fact that string theory allows 10^500 power different possible universes allowed by the underlying Calabi-Yau curled up dimensions of string pace, and you let the hypothesized "inflaton" field of the inflationary universe create all the "bubble universes" which give you every possible 10^500 different string-based universes replicated an infinite number of times.

  6. Quantum Multiverse - this takes the crazy "many worlds" interpretation of Hugh Everett III and populates an infinity of infinite universes that are hived off each time a quantum probability wave "decoheres" and collapses into the actual measured result in a world. Since the wave can decohere is many, many ways, then at each instant all over our current universe we are hiving off practically infinite numbers of new univereses where the decoherence gave a different result. Crazy stuff because it takes puzzle in our world and propagates an unimaginable number of multiple universes as "the solution" to this problem. Talk about rabbits out of a hat!

  7. Holographic Multiverse - takes some physics developed by Leonard Susskind that finds a duality between 3D objects within a universe to 2D objects on the event horizon of a something like a black hole. Mix this with string theory and you can speculate about bubble universes where their 3D innards are "determined" by 2D entities on the skin of the bubble universe.
There was some modest discussion of real physics. That I found interesting. Generally my interest perked when he could talk about things that were in theory testable. I also liked the bit about how the holographic principle was being used to develop calculation techniques that helped solve real world problems. But as far as using this to speculate about "multiverses"? Nutty. You might as well talk about the infinity of "universes" that are "called forth" by the eerie ability of continuous math, like calculus, to create and manipulate physical theories so there must be cardinality of the continuum number of "universes" out there. Nope, calculus is a tool. It does not tell us if the universe is finite in extent or infinite, it doesn't tell us if reality is continuously divisible or finitely divisible as quantum theory implies. Why would string theory -- as a mathematical tool -- be any different? It is a tool. Only once you connect it to reality through a mapping of mathetmatical structures to physical structures do you get a physical theory. So long as string theory is simply a tool, it tell us nothing about the underlying reality, just like calculus tells us nothing about the underlying reality.

Most of these theories in Greene's book are about stuff that -- by assumption -- are things we can never see. That strikes me as nonsense. It isn't physics. The only place where he can get my interest up is when he claims that the proposed universe beyond our own might have experimental and measurable impacts on our universe. That I can accept as potential science, but even here he ends up talking about "possibilities" and nothing tangible.

So I'm left wondering... why waste all that brilliance chasing fairy dust? Is it really the case that there are no interesting physical phenomena in the world we actually inhabit? I've been waiting for 30 years for a competent theory of superconductors. Nothing. Instead a bevy of high-powered physicists have wasted thousands of man-years on string theory. Understanding dark matter and dark energy which exist in our universe strikes me as important, but all this effort is diverted into chasing ideas that probably will never have any impact on real science. This book, and all this work on string theory, strikes me as the same tragedy as the last 30 years of Einstein's life: he chased dreams rather than do solid physics. It was a terrible waste of an excellent mind.

I don't recommend this book. Too much wild-eyed speculation. Far, far too little real physics. I've read Brian Greene's two previous books. They are fine. They are readable and they include real science. But neither is a "stand out" book that excites the reader. I do admire scientists who take the time to write for the public, but only a few have a real feel for the public and are able to write a book that sets a non-scientist's mind ablaze with possibilities and a glimpse into the real science. Partly this is because science is so highly technical these days. But also because it takes a peculiar writing talent to capture a reader's imagination. Brian Green has created "workmanlike" books in the past but nothing that blazed with brilliance. And, sadly, this latest book is quite a dud.

Update 2011mar04: Here is an audio of an interview of Brian Greene by NPR's Ira Flatow.

The Failure of the American Two-Party System

You don't have choice is your two parties are extreme right and centre-right. But that is the situation in the US today.

Here's a bit from an article by Robert Reich:
You can’t fight something with nothing. But as long as Democrats refuse to talk about the almost unprecedented buildup of income, wealth, and power at the top – and the refusal of the super-rich to pay their fair share of the nation’s bills – Republicans will convince people it’s all about government and unions.

Republicans claim to have a mandate from voters for the showdowns and shutdowns they’re launching. Governors say they’re not against unions but voters have told them to cut costs, and unions are in the way. House Republicans say they’re not seeking a government shutdown but standing on principle. “Republicans’ goal is to cut spending and reduce the size of government,” says House leader John Boehner, “not to shut it down.” But if a shutdown is necessary to achieve the goal, so be it.

The Republican message is bloated government is responsible for the lousy economy that most people continue to experience. Cut the bloat and jobs and wages will return.

Nothing could be further from the truth, but for some reason Obama and the Democrats aren’t responding with the truth.
There is a war by the top 1% on the bottom 99% in America, but that isn't presented by the media or by the political parties. Consequently the US economy is in the toilet and will stay that way:
The truth that Obama and Democrats must tell is government spending has absolutely nothing to do with high unemployment, declining wages, falling home prices, and all the other horribles that continue to haunt most Americans.

Indeed, too little spending will prolong the horribles for years more because there’s not enough demand in the economy without it.

The truth is that while the proximate cause of America’s economic plunge was Wall Street’s excesses leading up to the crash of 2008, its underlying cause — and the reason the economy continues to be lousy for most Americans — is so much income and wealth have been going to the very top that the vast majority no longer has the purchasing power to lift the economy out of its doldrums. American’s aren’t buying cars (they bought 17 million new cars in 2005, just 12 million last year). They’re not buying homes (7.5 million in 2005, 4.6 million last year). They’re not going to the malls (high-end retailers are booming but Wal-Mart’s sales are down).

Only the richest 5 percent of Americans are back in the stores because their stock portfolios have soared. The Dow Jones Industrial Average has doubled from its crisis low. Wall Street pay is up to record levels. Total compensation and benefits at the 25 major Wall St firms had been $130 billion in 2007, before the crash; now it’s close to $140 billion.

But a strong recovery can’t be built on the purchases of the richest 5 percent.
The American electorate is clueless. They are unhappy and they lash out. The Tea Party is a symptom but its anger is directed at straw men that the ultra-rich has set up to distract the easily distractible:
The truth is if the super-rich paid their fair share of taxes, government wouldn’t be broke. If Governor Scott Walker hadn’t handed out tax breaks to corporations and the well-off, Wisconsin wouldn’t be in a budget crisis. If Washington hadn’t extended the Bush tax cuts for the rich, eviscerated the estate tax, and created loopholes for private-equity and hedge-fund managers, the federal budget wouldn’t look nearly as bad.

And if America had higher marginal tax rates and more tax brackets at the top – for those raking in $1 million, $5 million, $15 million a year – the budget would look even better. We wouldn’t be firing teachers or slashing Medicaid or hurting the most vulnerable members of our society. We wouldn’t be in a tizzy over Social Security. We’d slow the rise in healthcare costs but we wouldn’t cut Medicare. We’d cut defense spending and lop off subsidies to giant agribusinesses but we wouldn’t view the government as our national nemesis.

The final truth is as income and wealth have risen to the top, so has political power.
American politicians on both right and centre (there is no effective left) have been bought off:
The reason all of this is proving so difficult to get across is the super-rich, such as the Koch brothers, have been using their billions to corrupt politics, hoodwink the public, and enlarge and entrench their outsized fortunes. They’re bankrolling Republicans who are mounting showdowns and threatening shutdowns, and who want the public to believe government spending is the problem.

They are behind the Republican shakedown.
This is the culmination of 40 years of agitation, calculation, and political maneuvering by Republicans that became effective because Nixon embraced the "southern strategy", i.e. use social conservatism to get the shock troops to use to blind the public to the real agenda: make politics subservient to the ultra-rich.

William Black on the Supersized Banks

Here are some bits from an excellent article by William Black from Barry Ritholtz's The Big Picture blog:
What exactly is the function of the financial sector in our society? Simply this: Its sole function is supplying capital efficiently to aid the real economy. The financial sector is a tool to help those that make real tools, not an end in itself. But five fatal flaws in the financial sector’s current structure have created a monster that drains the real economy, promotes fraud and corruption, threatens democracy, and causes recurrent, intensifying crises.

1. The financial sector harms the real economy.

Even when not in crisis, the financial sector harms the real economy. First, it is vastly too large. The finance sector is an intermediary — essentially a “middleman”. Like all middlemen, it should be as small as possible, while still being capable of accomplishing its mission. Otherwise it is inherently parasitical. Unfortunately, it is now vastly larger than necessary, dwarfing the real economy it is supposed to serve. Forty years ago, our real economy grew better with a financial sector that received one-twentieth as large a percentage of total profits (2%) than does the current financial sector (40%). The minimum measure of how much damage the bloated, grossly over-compensated finance sector causes to the real economy is this massive increase in the share of total national income wasted through the finance sector’s parasitism.


2. The financial sector produces recurrent, intensifying economic crises here and abroad.

The current crisis is only the latest in a long list of economic crises caused by the financial sector. When it is not regulated and policed effectively, the financial sector produces and hyper-inflates bubbles that cause severe economic crises. The current crisis, absent massive, global governmental bailouts, would have caused the catastrophic failure of the global economy. The financial sector has become far more unstable since this crisis began and its members used their lobbying power to convince Congress to gimmick the accounting rules to hide their massive losses. Secretary Geithner has exacerbated the problem by declaring that the largest financial institutions are exempt from receivership regardless of their insolvency. These factors greatly increase the likelihood that these systemically dangerous institutions (SDIs) will cause a global financial crisis.

3. The financial sector’s predation is so extraordinary that it now drives the upper one percent of our nation’s income distribution and has driven much of the increase in our grotesque income inequality.

4. The financial sector’s predation and its leading role in committing and aiding and abetting accounting control fraud combine to:

• Corrupt financial elites and professionals, and

• Spur a rise in Social Darwinism in an attempt to justify the elites’ power and wealth. Accounting control frauds suborn accountants, attorneys, and appraisers and create what is known as a “Gresham’s dynamic” — a system in which bad money drives out good. When this dynamic occurs, honest professionals are pushed out and cheaters are allowed to prosper. Executive compensation has become so massive, so divorced from performance, and so perverse that it, too, creates a Gresham’s dynamic that encourages widespread accounting fraud by both financial firms and firms in the real economy.

As financial sector elites became obscenely wealthy through predation and fraud, their psychological incentives to embrace unhealthy, anti-democratic Social Darwinism surged. While they were, by any objective measure, the worst elements of the public, their sycophants in the media and the recipients of their political and charitable contributions worshiped them as heroic. Finance CEOs adopted and spread the myth that they were smarter, harder working, and more innovative than the rest of us. ...

5. The CEOs of the largest financial firms are so powerful that they pose a critical risk to the financial sector, the real economy, and our democracy.

The CEOs can directly, through the firm, and by “bundling” contributions of its officers and employees, easily make enormous political contributions and use their PR firms and lobbyists to manipulate the media and public officials. The ability of the financial sector to block meaningful reform after bringing the world to the brink of a second great depression proves how exceptional its powers are to corrupt nearly every critical sector of American public and economic life. The five largest U.S. banks control roughly half of all bank assets. They use their political and financial power to provide themselves with competitive advantages that allow them to dominate smaller banks.

This excessive power was a major contributor to the ongoing crisis. Effective financial and securities regulation was anathema to the CEOs’ ideology (and the greatest danger to their frauds, wealth, and power) and they successfully set out to destroy it. That produced what criminologists refer to as a “criminogenic environment” (an atmosphere that breeds criminal activity) that prompted the epidemic of accounting control fraud that hyper-inflated the housing bubble. ...


We need to commit to fixing the real economy by guaranteeing that everyone willing to work can work and making the real economy sustainable rather than recurrently causing global environmental crises. We must not spend virtually all of our reform efforts on the finance sector and assume that if we solve its defects we will have solved the other fundamental reasons why the real economy has remained so dysfunctional for decades. We need to be work simultaneously to fix finance and the real economy.
There is more in the original article, go read the whole thing.

The great tragedy of the 2008 election was that a "reformer" was elected who promised "change you can believe in" but he ends up captive to Wall Street and has left the very actors who caused the financial crisis in charge of the economy. Put simply: Wall Street has bought the presidency. Worse, the Republican party is filled with right wing crazies who are worse than the financial parasites of Wall Street. Wall Street would suck the blood out of the economy slowly, the rabid Republicans would drive the economy over a cliff immediately. The American people have been left with a completely dysfunctional political system with no solutions at hand and now white knight on the horizon. It is bleak. Until the electorate awakens to the deep mess the country is in, things will either tread water under Obama and quickly by strangled by the Republicans. Sad.