Monday, June 30, 2008

The lunatic dislocation of mind

I was listening to Rush Limbaugh today and heard a caller talking about how furious he was that anyone from the Obama camp would denigrate McCain's war service given the fact that McCain was bravely serving his country at an age when Obama was doing drugs and trying to figure out his identity. Rush believed this was a blistering point.

Ok, nevermind that the charge is apparently false. Do these pair remember the 2004 election? Do they remember what John Kerry was doing while George W. Bush was doing drugs and trying to figure out his identity? And there actually was a large and ochestrated campaign to denigrate Kerry's decorated war service from Bush surrogates - and Limbaugh approved and even helped!

'It exists!' he cried.

'No,' said O'Brien.

He stepped across the room. There was a memory hole in the opposite wall. O'Brien lifted the grating. Unseen, the frail slip of paper was whirling away on the current of warm air; it was vanishing in a flash of flame. O'Brien turned away from the wall.

'Ashes,' he said. 'Not even identifiable ashes. Dust. It does not exist. It never existed.'

'But it did exist! It does exist! It exists in memory. I remember it. You remember it.'

'I do not remember it,' said O'Brien.

Winston's heart sank. That was doublethink. He had a feeling of deadly helplessness. If he could have been certain that O'Brien was lying, it would not have seemed to matter. But it was perfectly possible that O'Brien had really forgotten the photograph. And if so, then already he would have forgotten his denial of remembering it, and forgotten the act of forgetting. How could one be sure that it was simple trickery? Perhaps that lunatic dislocation in the mind could really happen: that was the thought that defeated him.
--George Orwell, 1984

Blogger's Note - Modified slightly for better clarity of point [7-01-08]

John Yoo: liar for torture

Think Progress has the details.

I really hope that one day justice (the sort of justice that Yoo has worked so hard at denying others) catches up with this despicable human being, and that he one day finds himself having to explain all his lies and obfuscations in a war crimes trial.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Proof positive that a Bible oath means absolutely nothing

From the AP (via the New York Times)

As dignitaries watched under a red-carpeted tent at the State House complex, [Robert] Mugabe held a Bible and stood before a red-robed, white-wigged judge to swear to uphold his nation's laws ''so help me God.''
Meanwhile, Mugabe's thugs have been busy raping women who opposed his re-election, or, rather, his stealing of another election. His thugs have also been working towards Mugabe's "election" by attempting to kill the child of an opposition party member (among other acts of systematic violence) by throwing the 11 month old against a concrete floor.

Maybe Mugabe's thugs had Bible Psalm 137:9 in mind: "Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones."

Mountain gorillas: casualties of war

National Geographic explores the murder of a family of mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park, which is located in war torn Congo*. And it is not just a story about the dying of an intelligent and self-aware species that is one of our closest relatives on the planet, but also about that the Congo remains a heart of darkness where the horrors of the Rwandan genocide live on in ethnic warfare, with all sides of the conflict committing grave atrocities. As the article put it, the war zone "is a Hieronymus Bosch painting come alive."

The National Geographic help page suggests ways that you can help the gorillas survive the conflict. How to end the greater human conflict in the region is another matter, but using the Human Rights Watch resource page on Congo to stay informed about the situation is better than letting the problem slide out of mind, out of sight.**

*I refuse to recognize Congo as the "Democratic Republic" of anything.
** Jeffrey Sachs argues in Common Wealth (also see here for a lecture on the subject from Sachs) that by investing in world economic development, switching to sustainable energy sources, confronting global warming, and promoting family planning we can alleviate and reduce conflicts such as those in the Congo. This article by Sachs at Project Syndicate lays out the gist of his argument.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

One of the wrongest things I've ever heard in my entire life

"The pride and the presence of a professional football team is far more important that 30 libraries." - former Baltimore Ravens owner Art Modell

That was what Modell answered in response to being asked about the ethics of creating a bidding war between Cleveland and Baltimore to put taxpayer dollars into his pockets at a time when public libraries were being closed for lack of funds. As David Cay Johnston put it, "He spoke without a hint or irony or any indication that he had ever upon a midnight dreary, pondered weak and weary the effect of his greed upon the human condition."

Public libraries are the closest thing you can get in a secular democracy to a sacred temple. They are repositories of public knowledge - a tool by which citizens can obtain the knowledge necessary to make informed decisions about their government and society. They provide a means for self-improvement and personal growth. They are the most perfect example of the democratization of knowledge essential to our liberty (recall Frederick Douglass having to literally steal knowledge and self-education from his slave-masters.) They are one of the most pure symbols of what democracy is all about.

Which is why Modell's comment is one of the most abominable things I think that I have ever heard.

And for more on how professional sports stadiums have become a scam to enrich owners at taxpayer expense, peruse the Field of Schemes website.

The greatest fight scene ever in the history of cinema

From the 80s cult classic They Live by John Carpenter

Friday, June 27, 2008

Still determined to be wrong

This post at Wonk Room provides in microcosm the absurd lengths that this administration will go to in order to avoid knowing or believing information that it finds politcally or ideologically discomforting. It is for precisely this sort of behavior that I argued that this administration can be said to be determined to be wrong.

And this is why if I were only able to recommend a single book to demonstrate the core problem with this administration I would suggest The Price of Loyalty by Ron Suskind which examined how loyalty to ideology and leadership rather than free inquiry and facts ruled the White House of George W. Bush.

I hate CNN HN so much

I randomly caught some CNN HN and the story was about the "bombshell" news that Barack Obama had traded an e-mail (or e-mails) with Hollywood star Scarlet Johansson. During the segment they showed footage of Johansson walking on the red carpet in an extremely low-cut red dress.

This is not news. It is sensational gossip that only serves to dumb us down as a nation. Anyone working at the network who has a journalistic bone in their body ought to be ashamed of themselves. Especially for giving regular air time to the celebrity stalkers at the slimy TMZ organization.

George Lakoff Q & A about his new book

The above is an hour long discussion about Lakoff's most recent book - The Political Mind - which, from skimming it in the book store the other day, appears to be a popularization of the work of Drew Westen.* Of course, Lakoff isn't just popularizing Westen's research, but applying it to his own previous work about the nurturant/strict father political metaphors.

I've read all of Lakoff's political books, with the exception of Thinking Points, and they've all been interesting and thought-provoking (even where you might disagree with Lakoff). I'll definitely be reading this book when I get a chance (my library has a copy in transit.)

*Westen's The Political Brain was one of the better books I read last year and is certainly one that Democrats who seem petrified that Republicans might attack them on any given issue for not being a Republican (e.g. FISA capitulation) should read.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

"Justice" in America

If I was to go dump toxic pollution in the local river I'd get fined a couple thousand dollars. I would have zero chance of avoiding the fine and it would be a heavy financial burden. However, if I was a giant corporation and caused one of the greatest environmental disasters in American history - the effects of which are still being felt to this day - I'd be able to avoid paying the fine for 20 years ... and then I would have the Supreme Court slash the fine (for the second time) to practically nothing (relative to my profits.)

The fight over the punitive damages reached the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1999. Since then, Exxon filed more than 60 petitions and appeals, sought 23 time extensions and filed more than 1,000 motions, briefs, requests and demands. The company requested a reduction in the damages amount, a reversal of the verdict and a new trial, claiming jury misconduct and jury tampering, according to Rodgers.

More than 3,000 claimants died waiting for an outcome in the case.

The original jury award of $5 billion was intended to be the equivalent of about a year's average profits for the company. Last year, Exxon Mobil made $40 billion, the largest annual profit of any corporation in U.S. history.
But, hey, Exxon says it already paid for the clean-up and restitution (supposedly), so why should it have to be bothered with paying punitive damages (um, so that you have some reason to actually bother with safety precautions and out of a sense of equity to the victims of the region?) Yep, things sure do sound swell in Prince William Sound

Two decades later, the fragile ecosystem of Prince William Sound has yet to fully recover, especially on the hardest-hit beaches. More than 200 tons of oil remain in beach sediment. Herring — which are vital as food to 40 species of birds, mammals and fish — have never returned to pre-spill populations.

"Until herring recover, we are kind of treading water," said Riki Ott, a scientist and author in Cordova, Alaska. "Prince William Sound is beautiful, but if you take a shovel all you have to do is dig down six inches and there is oil. It smells like a gas station, still, today."
Update: Here is one of the victims of the Exxon Valdez spill who has supposedly been compensated already.

Countless motions and almost twenty years later we have finally neared the conclusion of Exxon's efforts to evade its responsibility. However, the plaintiff's faith in the Government as well as the judicial system has been permanently eroded. In light of the United States Supreme Court perceived inclination to reduce the punitive damages, our hearts are heavy. With a further judgment reduction, total amounts in many peoples claims will not even scratch those monies owed to the State. It is frustrating to think that upon conclusion of this trial many of us will be going bankrupt, our lives ruined again in this endless nightmare.
Update II: Some more victims thrilled by the decision.

“This decision is a giant cold slap in the face,” said Garland Blanchard, 59, a third-generation fisherman who said he lost his marriage along with his two fishing boats, house, cat and dog to financial pressures caused by the spill. Mr. Blanchard expects to receive less than $100,000 from the settlement, down from the $1.2 million he had previously expected.

“Our lives and businesses have been destroyed, and we get basically nothing,” he said. “It’s pathetic.”

"... even the Soviets didn't torture for information"

Andrew Sullivan prints an e-mail on torture he received from a marine in Iraq (h/t Ed Brayton.) The whole thing is worth reading, but the following passage is something the Bill O'Reillys of the world might want to take note of.

In over a year on the ground, I never heard of or saw any Americans torturing anyone (except on the news). I heard of and saw Iraqis torturing on several occasions. And generally, the "intel" they got out of those sessions proved to be worthless.

It brought to mind the training I had received on POW handling a decade before as a 2ndLt in Quantico . We were told not to torture because (1) it was wrong and (2) it didn't work. I remember our instructors noting that even the Soviets didn't torture for information. because it didn't yield reliable information. The Soviets tortured for retribution, to make an example, maybe just for kicks, but not for information. That contention was borne out for me on the streets of Fallujah.

Torture doesn't work. In fact, in a counterinsurgency it works against you because it turns the locals against you. That is why the Marines took that guy back to his house. Because they knew we were trying to win that neighborhood's trust, and torturing one of their own was not the way to do it, even if he was working with the Muj. Kill him in open battle, sure, they would understand that, but not torture. It backfires on you everytime. Every story about our hapless spook operators torturing some terror suspect makes every Marine and soldier patrolling through the streets of Iraq and Afghanistan less safe.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Invasion of the economic underpants gnomes

Step 1: Cut taxes for the super-rich/increase spending/decrease revenue
Step 2: ????
Step 3: Profit

That’s the basic premise of the economic con-men that have managed to make their views mainstream despite the fact that these same views have been demonstrated to be false whenever they are put into practice. Jonathan Chait sets out to explain how and why that happened in The Big Con: The True Story of How Washington Got Hoodwinked and Hijacked by Crackpot Economics.

I’ve mentioned numerous books on this blog, but there are only a few that I have categorized as essential reading (Perfectly Legal for example.) This is one such book. The reason is that one of the themes I’ve tried to develop is the manner in which movement conservatism is based in a constant form of reality revision; Chait has managed to lucidly examine how this dynamic works in the specific realm of economic reality revision. And I noticed while googling that Anonymous Liberal feels pretty much the exact same way about the book, so I can save myself the trouble of explaining what I mean since A.L. already did that for me.

Based on the title of the book, I had expected it to be more or less a history of the rise of supply-side economics, and Chait certainly covers that ground. But the book is actually much more ambitious than its title suggests. Chait uses the story of how supply-side economics took over the Republican party as a case study on how modern politics operates. The first part of the book, which is everything you would expect based on the title, serves as a springboard for the second half of the book, which offers an incredibly insightful and accurate analysis of the fundamental structural asymmetries of American politics. In particular, Chait does a really good job explaining how prevailing norms in the media and fundamental differences in the way the Democratic and Republican parties operate have allowed conservative ideologues to inject what were once (rightly) considered fringe ideas into the mainstream.
Before proceeding with the review, I’ll take a moment to note that the introduction to The Big Con is available online. It lays out the purpose of the book and might be worth reading before continuing on with this review (which will be part review/part me dumping my notes without regard to organizing them into coherenace ... you were warned.)

Okay, back?

Chait uses the metaphor of global warming to explain what has been happening to the country for several decades now. Similar to how we have dips and dives in the temperature yet the long-term trend is for increased temperatures, we see rises and falls in the popularity of movement conservatism, yet the long-term trend has been for the country to drift ever towards the right. I've tried to make the same point to people in conversation by borrowing the metaphor that Richard Dawkins used in The Ancestors Tale about a bottle floating in the Gulf Stream: at any given moment its direction may appear random but in actuality the current is taking it in a specific direction. American politics has been becoming for years now ever more "conservative."

Jumping back to what I was saying about the reality revision, I have in one of my notebooks notes (duh) for a post I never wrote about movement conservatism being an assault on reality, that m.c. is constantly manufacturing its own truth as a means of making the world hospitable to its ideology (much as creationists do with evolution.) I have written down that whether it be science, press, history, economics, or whatever the pattern is the same: attack truth, characterize it as "liberal," then proceed to construct revised "truth" which is fit to an ideological mold. (With Regnery's P.I.G. series of absolutely attrocious and factually challenged books being the most vivid example of this process. ) I also noted that this pattern resembles dogmatic religious thinking, comparing the way the conservative movement revises reality to the way that creationists revise biology. (Chait noticed this similarity, as well.)

Towards the goal of creating its own reality the movement creates psuedo-institutions that parallel actual institutions like Fox News or the Competitive Enterprise Institute and employs pseudo-experts and pseudo-journalists like Michelle Malkin in order to create a parallel reality that meets its ideological needs. Which leads to Chait's next point about "the rise of pseudo-economists known as supply-siders."

This small cult of fanatical tax-cutters managed, despite having been proven decisively wrong time after time, to get an iron grip on the ideological machinery of the conservative movement.
These cranks formed an alliance with business lobbyists who took the opportunity to turn the GOP into a plutocracy. Over the last three decades, supply side economics has become something that is pursued by the Republican Party with an almost theological fervor and which is enforced with cult-like zealotry; their beliefs are not falsifiable.

The supply side movement originated in the 70s with the Laffer Curve and its promotion by Jude Wanniski and acceptance in 1974 by Dick Cheney despite glaring flaws with the “theory.” As just stated, supply side thinking managed to take over the party despite the fact that it was laughed at by other economists and that Arthur Laffer was already a laughing stock in economic circles for a dead wrong prediction he made about Richard Nixon (illustrating a truism of the conservative movement: being disastrously wrong doesn't count against you so long as what you said advanced the conservative movement ideologically.)

Chait explains that supply siders seem like priests rather than economists because supply side thinking is a “totalistic ideology” which can explain all economic activity in terms of tax rates on the rich. In practice, what this means is that “tax cuts for the rich are always good” irrespective of any other considerations or even demonstrated reality. There are arguments for cutting tax rates or reducing spending and what not, Chait observes, “but what sets the supply-siders apart from sensible economists is their sheer monomania” for tax cuts for the rich.

They believe they have completely revolutionalized and replaced standard economics: “Pure supply-siders [in contrast to economists who consider a variety of factors] see changes in tax rates as the single drive of all economic change.”

It is difficult to stress how ridiculous their views are - Chait points out their hysterical cries of impending economic doom as a result of such things as raising the top tax rate from 28 to 31 percent while failing to recall that our economy grew with a rate as high as 91 percent.

It is quite remarkable to consider that these “sheer loons” have captured the GOP and gained mainstream media acceptance despite the fact, pointed out by Paul Krugman in his 1994 book Peddling Prosperity, that “Not only is there no major deptartment that is supply-side in orientation; there is no economist whom one might call a supply-sider in any major [economics] deptartment.” The biggest advocate of tax cutting in academia is the conservative economist Gregory Mankiw who himself has written a book describing supply-siders as “charlatans and cranks” and which compared them to snake-oil salesmen.

So this didn’t originate from academia. It originated in places like the Wall Street Journal editorial page and neoconservative Irving Kristol’s The Public Interest, circumventing academic debate and going straight to the public claiming to have defeated economic thought. Remember that this is the same strategy that has been employed by Intelligent Design Creationists.

Two of the biggest promoters of supply-side were the “deranged” quacks Jude Wanniski and George Gilder. That might seem like an unfair label to put on them, but it’s hard to escape the conclusion that it's an accurate descriptor after listening to Chait. For supply siders their theory explains everything. For instance, he points out that Wanniski’s view of the utility of the Laffer Curve is so absolute that he even manages to turn it into a theory of developmental psychology! Quoting from Wanniski’s supply side book:

Even the infant learns to both act and think on the margin when small changes in behavior result in identifiable “price changes.” The infant learns, for example, something that politicisans and economists frequently forget, which is that there are always two rates of taxation that produce the same revenue. When the infant lies silently and motionless in his crib upon awakening, mother remains in some other room. The “tax rate” on mother is zero, yielding zero attentiveness. On the other hand, when the baby screams all the time demanding attention, even when fed and dry, he discovers that mother also remains in the other room and perhaps even closes the nursery door. The tax rate is 100 percent, also yielding zero attentiveness.
After pointing out that Wanniski also manages to explain the Nazi invasion of Poland in terms of supply side economic theory (Hitler had to invade because he left tax rates too high) Chait dryly observes, “It is amazing that Bill Clinton’s tax hike did not lead him to invade Canada.” Yet even though Wanniski is now widely recognized as unbalanced within even conservative circles his supply-side ideology is still dominant.

Chait gives four basic reasons for this dominance:
1. 70s “stagflation” (a phenomenon now better understood) cast doubt on traditional economic wisdom.
2. It gave Republicans a “Santa Claus” way of winning votes, casting Dems as Grinch. Irv Kristol saw political advantage
3. It benefited the rich so the powerful and rich supported the theory.
4. People are economically uninformed and fell for the pseudo-economic jargon.

Supply siders vs. Reality

They predicted that the Reagan tax cuts would not cause a loss in revenue. Deficts proceeded. They explained this away.

They predicted the Clinton tax hike on the highest income bracket from 31 to 39.6 percent would cause the economy and tax revenue to shrink. The deficit disappeared and was replaced with a surplus with “the economy enjoy[ing] its longest expansion in U.S. history” and with "the highest revenue growth [coming] from those same rich who were supposed to be adversely affected.” They explained this away.

They predicted that cost of the Bush 43 tax cuts would be small and that the budget surplus would be larger than anticipated. Revenues dropped to their lowest point since 1942 and the surplus disappeared and was replaced with a deficit. They explained this away.

Despite having been proved so ginormously wrong*, the supply-siders show no sense of contrition or shame. They proceed on, safe in their pundit positions and think-tank perches saying the same things inspite of the very obvious reality that their ideas are bunk. They don't need to be actually right about anything, all they need do is continue to propose ideological explanations for economic activity.

For example, they claimed the Clinton boom was in fact the result of Reagan’s tax cuts. Huh? This is particularly absurd given that they had already disavowed anything that happened to the economy after Bush 41 broke his no new taxes pledge. But then when economic growth began to slow at the end of Clinton's term they switched back and blamed Clinton for the economy! This is heads we win, tails you lose thinking.

Chait captures this absurdity perfectly where he describes the supply side reaction to collapsed revenue after Bush 43 cuts taxes for the rich:

As with the Clinton surpluses, external circumstance certainly played a role. Revenues would have fallen whether or not Bush cut taxes, and it made sense anyway for the government to run a temporary deficit in the face of the 2001 recession. But the point is that, once again, events confounded the supply-side view of the world. Sensible economists qualify their predictions because they understand that outside events can always intervene unexpectedly. The supply-siders do not qualify their predictions because they are monocausalists. Whatever else may come along to buffet the economy – the popping of the tech bubble, the Enron scandal, the war on terror and the war in Iraq – tax cuts ought to overcome it. Again and again this has proven horribly wrong. It is impossible to think of how events could have turned out worse for them, short of God appearing on Earth to denounce the Laffer Curve as an abomination.
Despite this failure to get anything right, the movement has been extremely succesful as gaining legitimacy, so much so that “fiscal conservative” in media reports now usually means supply-sider rather than someone who favors responsible spending and balanced budgets.

Chait then talks about the corruption of business merging with government, resulting in economic policy that combines tax cuts for the rich with increased spending for powerful lobbies. Laffer Curve theology (about tax cuts for the rich always being good for the economy) lends itself to creating an atmosphere which venerates business corruption. This corruption is also a result of movement conservatism’s disdain for experts and neutral advice (aka "liberal" advice.) The vaccum is filled with lobbying and ideologically driven policy.

Lord Reagan

Ronald Reagan is worshipped and regarded as a savior by movement conservatives because he mainstreamed movement conservatism by bringing it from the political fringe to the White House. It is for this reason that Reagan has been canonized

In the conservative mind, the Reagan presidency lives on in the golden shimmering past, an ideal that Reagan’s succesors must always strive to approach but can never fully live up to, like the teachings of Christ. There is indeed something distinctly religious about the expressions that the adoration of Reagan has taken.
Yet his actual record is not what his acolytes remember it as. For example, it has gone down the memory hole that while president Reagan was “frequently savaged … for his ideological infidelity.” Reagan is remembered as a champion of tax cuts but his tax raises are no longer recalled.

It is true that Reagan cut taxes for the wealthy in 1981, but he signed the largest tax increase in American history in 1982 and another large tax hike in 1983. He signed the Tax Reform Act in 1986 that conservatives still rail against today … they just somehow manage to forget Reagan did it.** I would offer the additional observation that Chait does not make: perhaps it is easier for movement conservatives to forget Reagan's tax raises because it is convenient to forget that they tended to shift the tax burden onto the middle class.

Reagan deification kicked into full gear after Bush 41 lost his re-election. The loss was blamed by supply siders on his fiscally responsible raising the highest tax rate from 28% to 31% in return limitations on spending from Democrats. By the time 1996 rolled around, Republican presidential candidate Bod Dole had jumped fully onto to the supply side bandwagon, signalling the triumph of ideological enforcers like Grover Norquist who have made sure that it is nigh impossible to be a Republican in good standing with the conservative movement without being a supply sider, despite the fact that most general Republican voters are not supply side zealots.

The anti-tax movement’s triumph does not represent a bubbling up of grassroots sentiment within the Republican Party. It is a top-down takeover by an elite ideological vanguard that has successfully redefined Republicanism as conservatism, conservatism as Reaganism, and Reaganism as a relentless and uncrompromising opposition to taxes, especially those paid by the rich.
The clearest example of this dogmatic belief in tax cuts for the rich is offered by a study conducted by William Niskanen in 2006 which found that since 1981 tax cuts have increased spending while tax hikes have reduced spending. Given that conservatives campaign on a supposed goal of cutting federal spending, how is it that they continue to support tax cuts for the rich? Because they have a faith-based belief in tax cuts for the rich that can not be disproved by reality.

As an example of how effective the supply side machine is at setting the agenda, witness John McCain. McCain in 2000 demonstrated the gulf between those who set the party’s economic agenda and the GOP electorate by being popular with the public despite not being a supply sider like Bush. Yet he was hammered by the base and activists for being basically a party traitor. In 2008, McCain has now embraced the economics that he had been against until deciding to run for president around 2004 (he had voted against the Bush tax cuts in '01 and '03). He even decided to vote for permanently repealing the estate tax which he had previously championed as the great cause of his hero Teddy Roosevelt. McCain's transformation into a supply sider is complete: he also now favors making permanent the tax cuts he had denounced on both moral and practical grounds.

The need to lie

Republicans have to lie to get elected because their economic policy is not favored by the public. “Lying has become a systematic necessity” for them.

So, when Bush and his allies came to the task of selling their tax-cut plan, what was required was not mere spin or exaggeration but a giant Potemkin edifice of rhetoric. The administration offered the public three broad rationales for cutting taxes. The first was the need to eliminate “overpayments.” The existence of a surplus, Bush said over and over, “means the government has more money than it needs.” Or, as his spokesmen sometimes put it: “It is not a budget surplus. It is a tax surplus.” Obviously they didn’t remotely believe this. If a surplus was a tax surplus, then a deficit would be a tax deficit. But of course when the surpluses were replaced by deficits, Bush maintained nothing of the kind.
When the surplus existed the purpose of tax cuts was to eliminate it. When deficit arrived the purpose of tax cuts was to regenerate the surplus! Like a character out of Alice in Wonderland these back and forth flip flop rationales continued and still do. It is standard operating procedure for the pseudo-experts in the movement.

Conservative populists argue that progressive taxation is class warfare, but the underlying principle of modern liberal economic philosophy is that progressive taxation benefits the rich as much as the poor by helping to stabilize and maximize the potential of our economy and society.

Conservative populists also claim that growing income inquality and concentration of wealth at the top of society is evidence that the tax sytem is punishing the wealthy!

Republican policy amounts to the upward redistribution of income. Republicans in Congress have set their sites on cutting spending programs that help the poor like Medicare and Social Security while cutting back on enforcement of rich tax cheats to instead go after poor tax cheats who cost the country less; concomitantly they want to increase spending that benefits corparations and the rich.

So if you decrease spending programs that help the middle class and the poor and increase spending for rich and cut their taxes what does that equal? It is to give people a government that is less for them and more specifically for the really rich. It would be one thing if that was what the public wanted, but it is not. Which is why movement conservatives have to lie and try to marginalize any debate about the equity of their policy by calling it class warfare and what not.

Republicans have defined “class warfare” as “a term for any analysis that points the different impact some policies have on various income groups.” And as we saw in the 2004 presidential election, Republicans do not mind themselves attacking the rich when a Democrat is their target.
This need to lie is tantamount to an attempt to subvert the democratic process: “Conservatives’ distrust of populism has turned into a distrust of democracy, a belief that they can prevail only by trampling the processes that are meant to do the people’s will.”

The Media

The 2000 election marked a huge turning point in American politics but thepublic had no idea of this because the media didn’t inform them. The mainstream media told them the candidates were both consensus moderates.

For instance, liberal New York Times columnist Frank Rich wrote:

We’re stranded with two establishment, tightly scripted, often robotic candidates who are about as different as from one another as J. Crew and Banana Republic … The substantive disputes between the men are, in truth, minimal in a prosperous post-cold-war era when both parties aspire to Rockefeller Republicanism.
Joe Klein even wrote an article from the GOP convention in August where he asserted that the supply-siders had been driven from power in the party. This even though the supply-siders were running Bush’s tax policy and supported it fully!

This was typical of the election coverage: conventional wisdom was asserted over and over without evidence – both equal moderates with little difference in matters of policy – and thus the focus was on trivial issues of aesthetics. This allowed Bush to hide his true economic intentions.

So when we ask why it is that the right has successfully pushed to the fore deeply unpopular economic policies, part of the answer must lie in the failure of the news media to do its job properly. Political parties in a democracy are not supposed to be able to carry out an agenda by hiding it from the public. And, since most voters have neither the interest nor the expertise to follow the intricacies of Washington policy debates, the primary mechanism to prevent this is the press. That mechanism has begun to break down.
Media with a right-leaning fiscal bias tend to describe Republicans who dissent on social issues as “moderate” but Republicans who dissent on economic issues not so much. Media describes the belief that privatizing Social Security is really about crippling or eliminating SS as unhinged conspiracy theory even though that is exactly what it is by the admission of the people who came up with the idea.

During one of the debates in 2000 Gore was asked about the extremely popular Dingell-Norwood bill for a Patients’ Bill of Rights. He pointed out that he supported it and Bush didn’t. Bush called Gore a liar saying that he supported “a national patients’ bill of rights” and that he had brought Republicans and Democrats together to do that in Texas. In reality, Bush supported an Orwellian alternative bill which was believed by HMO advocates would weaken relevant laws rather than strengthen them and in Texas the healthcare reform he was speaking of passed over his objection.

Gore tried to interject to point this out, but the host Jim Lehrer tried to stop Gore and asked him if he would agree that he and Bush agreed on a patients bill of rights. Lehrer was in effect making Bush’s point for him! After Gore explained why this was not so, Lehrer told Bush he could answer Gore’s challenge of supporting Dingell-Norwood if he wanted, but that he wanted to know differences in the candidates and needed to move on. Bush responded that the difference between them was that he could get the bill done.

The hilarious postscript to this sorry episode occurred the following year. Bush browbeat Norwood into denouncing his own bill, arguing that Republicans had to stick together and deny victory to the Democrats. As a result, the bipartisan coalition for the bill, which until that point had appeared unstoppable, fell apart, and the bill died. Thus a saga that began with Bush promising to bring the parties together and to “get something done” ended with Bush tearing the parties apart and preventing something from getting done.
A problem (evident in the above scenario) identified by Chait is that the media tends to assume that both parties say what they mean. They lack skepticism, which makes them an easy mark for manipulation. Before Bush unveiled his tax plan he released it to reporters a day early on the catch that they could not show it to economists for review. This was a propaganda success as they bought the spin and hype of Bush's people that it wasn’t tax cuts for rich (though it was.)

But the biggest problem for the media is the fear of appearing to take a side in a partisan dispute.

It is often said that we’re entitled to our opinions but not to our own facts. The practical reality, though, is that in politics you are entitled to your own facts so long as you can marshal your fellow partisans to insist on them in unison.
This is an essential feature of the conservative movement. When the press plainly states the factuality of some policy, get everyone to call it a "liberal" lie and partisan bias, then the press eventually backs down, leading to he said, she said reporting where actual facts are not verified. So in 2000 Bush could lie about his tax cuts (Mathew Yglesias excerpted the specific passage, here.)

Character making

In 2004, the public favored Kerry on most issues and rejected Bush on most. But Bush got elected on the basis of perceptions about his and his opponent's character. The same thing happened in 2000. And both times the Democrat was characterized as a flip-flopper and exaggerator. Even in the '92 and '96 elections Republicans campaigned against Clinton on character.

This serves a strategic purpose. With policy that is unpopular, movement conservatives need to find another reason to get people not to vote for their opponents. Another necessity is anti-intellectualism which is a consequence of having to disregard facts which reflect poorly on the conservative cause.

Towards both ends, the partisan Republican media has a character machine that manufactures non stop stories about candidates character. These seap into and become a part of the mainstream narrative because reporters are more interested in personal narrative than issues. In other words, the press tends to be neutral on policy, partisan on character.

Chait says that the difference between conservative partisanship and liberal partisanship is demonstrated by comparing Clinton bashing books with Bush bashing books. The Clinton books are mostly based in rumor and gossip and unsubstantiated scandal, while the Bush books focus mostly on actual policy. Conversely, pro-Bush books leans toward hero worship while pro-Clinton books are more balanced.

There is also a difference in “liberal” and conservative think-tanks (one is interested in the pursuit of non-partisan research and one is interested in generating ideas and propaganda that promote movement conservatism.) And again there is a difference in liberal and conservative opinion; with the case in point being Sidney Blumenthal who lost his job for being too partisan for Bill Clinton. There is no such thing as "too partisan" within the conservative meda (just ask Sean Hannity.) And there is also an asymetry in partisan loyalty, with there being little that compares in the world of liberal opinion to the flat out hero worship displayed for President Bush by Fred Barnes.

Chait also makes the obligatory comment about liberal blogs being unhinged and intolerant equivalents of Michelle Malkin and what not but that unlike their conservative counterparts are not seen as credible by the mainstream media. This is true in the sense that it does demonstrate another difference in how conservative and liberal opinion is treated by the mainstream media, but it is fairly dissappointing that Chait can’t connect the dots and bother to notice that liberal blogs tend to represent the mainstream of public opinion he talks about in contrast to the establishment that has been shifting right. Chait seems to have a blindspot for the ways that he himself is part of the process by which people who turn out to be right factually and who hold views held by a large proportion of the population are maginalized as left-wing extremists. As Glenn Greenwald put it

In 2006, TNR's Chait denounced those who were trying to defeat Lieberman in the Democratic primary as "a pack of crazed, ignorant ideological cannibals" -- "exactly the sorts of fanatics who tore the party apart in the late 1960s and early 1970s." But just a few weeks ago, Chait himself expressed shock that "there's hardly any sense in which Lieberman is an independent figure" and is now nothing more than "a cog in the Republican message machine" -- exactly the basis for the primary challenged mounted by the people whom Chait was villifying as left-wing screeching radicals, and exactly the basis for the derision directed at TNR when they said in 2004 that their mission in life was to have Democrats be guided by Joe Lieberman's political principles.
Um ... ok, where was I before that digression? That's right. The character machine.

As an example of "the most brainless form of partisanship imaginable” which now embodies the style of conservative punditry Chait focuses on Peggy Noonan.

Noonan personifies the character propagandists who have emerged on the right … she uses her perch as a Wall Street Journal columnist to wax poetic on the moral virtues of leading Republicans and savage the character of Democrats. The closest Noonan has ever come to explaining her ideology came in a column written during the impeachment drama in 1998. Dcscribing the moment that the Republican Speaker of the House Bob Livingston confessed his extramarital affair and resigned, she concludd that eh episode showe “different styles, almost characterological differences between Democrats and Republicans these days. The Democrats in Congress now are like the young Chuck Colson, partisan, ruthless and tough. The Republicans seemed like the young William Cohen, thoughtful and stricken.” This was during the height of the GOP’s impeachment fervor, no less.
He gives another example of her mind-numbing and substance free partisanship

In 2000, she said of the Clinton administration’s efforts to suppress leaks: “The code of omerta ran strong and was obviously enforced.” The next year she devoted the bulk of a column to praising Bush’s staff for the very same thing. (“They are loyal to him, and they are loyal to each other.”) When Al Gore’s campaign criticized Bush in 2000, she painted it as a monstrous evil. (“Al Gore is surrounded by tough mean operatives whose sole political instinct is to rip out the other guy’s guts and dance in the blood.”) But after Bush’s campaign attacked John McCain during the 2000 South Carolina primary – disparaging his military record and implying that his adopted Bangladeshi daughter was a black love child, among other tactics – she took it with equanimity. “You make the best case possible for yourself and what you stand for, and you paint your opponent in less attractive light,” she wrote calmly. “That’s what politics is."
Summing Up

This partisanship translates into a different style of governance, as well. Where as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton had Democratic majorities that challenged them on various issues, the Republican Party has acted in near complete unison with President Bush. This has allowed the President to abuse his power and cloak his government in secrecy. This secrecy and withholding of information from the public is vital to the conservative movement since it needs to conceal its agenda from the public. To further achieve this democratic subversion, Republicans use fierce partisanship and Congressional rules and tricks to hide the consequences of their policy and actions. This plus the gerrymandering of districts allows Republicans to stay in power despite having a radical and unpopular agenda. (Chait notes that had the war in Iraq went better the GOP would have retained control of the government.)

One of the most important observations that Chait makes in the book comes when he cites political scientists showing that Democrats have scarcely moved left over the last 30 years while Republicans keep going farther right. The center is defined as the space between parties, but with one party shifting radically right the "center" continues to shift right, too.

Another key observation is that

One of the classic traits of sectarian thought is a belief that failure can result only from doctrinal impurity. This is one of the defining features of modern conservatism. Every conservative setback is invariably followed by a purification ritual, whereby the conservative leader is declared a heretic.
Which means that conservatives now define leadership in purely ideological terms, i.e. there is no such thing as a good leader who is not a movement conservative. Ideological purity is all important even inspite of reality. Which might help to explain why movement conservatives consider any government that isn't run by themselves to be illigitimate, and why they don't seem to mind corrupt and undemocratic government so long as it can be said to advance their ideology. That sort of dogmatic thinking also serves as a template for authoritarianism to thrive on.

This "review" was more me transferring my notes from the book into a blog post. I promise the book is much more lucid than this post. In fact, to see what I mean you can read the lengthy article "Feast of the Wingnuts" at TNR which was adapted from the book by Chait.

*They were so wrong that I needed an invented word to describe how wrong they are.
**Chait views the TRA as being over-all a progressive reform, but misses something David Cay Johnston picked up on in Perfectly Legal, that the TRA had loopholes in it that led to the Alternative Minimum Tax eventually creeping up on the middle class. Kevin Phillips has also argued (in Boiling Point) that the TRA provided in a stealth manner lopsided benefits for the richest 1 percent of taxpayers; nevermind that it cut the top rate from 50% to 28% while raising the bottom rate from 11% to 15%.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Goverment still the problem ...

... for those who want to steal from the public coffers. Consider this post part 2 of this post.

From Free Lunch by David Cay Johnston

Despite all the deregulation rhetoric, government grows ever bigger. The number of federal government workers shrinks, but the ranks of people who are hired on contract at much greater cost increases. In 2000 workers hired on contract cost our federal government $207 billion. By 2006 this had swelled to $400 billion – rivaling the expense of either Social Security or interest on the federal government’s growing debt.

These contract workers typically cost twice as much as civil servants doing the same work, yet they are even less accountable. In Iraq we court-martial and imprison soldiers who under the stress of relentless urban combat kill innocents in a fit of anger of misjudgement. But the contract soldiers who fight alongside them, at two to ten times the pay, operate in a law-free zone, any killings they commit for foul reason unpunished and, some of our leaders assert, beyond the reach of any law.

At home, government and companies cooperate in withdrawing contracts and other documents from the public record. The profits generated by these companies are used, in part, to lobby for more contracts that drives up costs even further. Executives of these companies are also strategic donors to politicians, helping to ensure the continuing flow of tax dollars to their businesses. This is a benefit unavailable to even the most empire-building bureaucrat.
And now from Think Progress

Since 2002, the Army’s contracting budget has ballooned from $46 billion to $112 billion in 2007. However, as the AP reported last week, the number of investigators charged with hunting down fraudulent or wasteful contracts has stayed the same, at less than 100 agents.

Now the Army has proposed adding five active-duty generals who would oversee purchasing and monitor contractor performance — a move recommended by a blue-ribbon panel last fall. But the White House, through the Office of Management and Budget, “has shot down” the Army’s plan.
Think Progress continues on to point out that the oversight proposal that was rejected would have costed a 1.2 million and that at least 10 billion has been lost in Iraq since 2003. As TP puts it: "In other words, the White House opposes a contract oversight proposal that would cost a mere .012 percent of the $10 billion already lost to contract waste."

This might be legal, but if that ain't a crime I don't know what is.

How nature engineers a suicidal rat

From NPR's All Things Considered

When you see a cat pounce on a rat, it seems like a classic story about a predator and prey.

But scientists have recently discovered that sometimes the main actor is actually a tiny parasite in the rat's brain that makes the normally fearful rat think "oh how nice" when it smells a cat.

The parasite wants the rat to be caught by the cat because it needs to be in the cat's stomach to reproduce. New research sheds light on how this surprising little organism can manipulate a rodent to do its will.
The link above has a brief 4 minute, 41 second audio discussion of this research from Ajai Vyas and Robert Sapolsky. National Geographic also summarizes the research, here.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Trivia of the day

Question: What is the average temperature of the universe?

Answer: 2.73 degrees Kelvin. (-454.5 degrees Fahrenheit)

See here for an explanation.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Quote of the day

"[I]t would be a dangerous delusion were a confidence in the men of our choice to silence our fears for the safety of our rights: that confidence is everywhere the parent of despotism." - Thomas Jefferson, Draft of the "Kentucky Resolutions" (1798)

What he said

Glenn Greenwald on Obama's support of the Democrats' latest efforts to give the worst president in American history (and future presidents) more of our civil liberty.

The excuse that Obama's support for this bill is politically shrewd is -- even if accurate -- neither a defense of what he did nor a reason to refrain from loudly criticizing him for it. Actually, it's the opposite. It's precisely because Obama is calculating that he can -- without real consequence -- trample upon the political values of those who believe in the Constitution and the rule of law that it's necessary to do what one can to change that calculus. Telling Obama that you'll cheer for him no matter what he does, that you'll vest in him Blind Faith that anything he does is done with the purest of motives, ensures that he will continue to ignore you and your political interests.

Beyond that, this attitude that we should uncritically support Obama in everything he does and refrain from criticizing him is unhealthy in the extreme. No political leader merits uncritical devotion -- neither when they are running for office nor when they occupy it -- and there are few things more dangerous than announcing that you so deeply believe in the Core Goodness of a political leader, or that we face such extreme political crises that you trust and support whatever your Leader does, even when you don't understand it or think that it's wrong. That's precisely the warped authoritarian mindset that defined the Bush Movement and led to the insanity of the post-9/11 Era, and that uncritical reverence is no more attractive or healthy when it's shifted to a new Leader.

What Barack Obama did here was wrong and destructive. He's supporting a bill that is a full-scale assault on our Constitution and an endorsement of the premise that our laws can be broken by the political and corporate elite whenever the scary specter of The Terrorists can be invoked to justify it. What's more, as a Constitutional Law Professor, he knows full well what a radical perversion of our Constitution this bill is, and yet he's supporting it anyway. Anyone who sugarcoats or justifies that is doing a real disservice to their claimed political values and to the truth.

The excuse that we must sit by quietly and allow him to do these things with no opposition so that he can win is itself a corrupted and self-destructive mentality. That mindset has no end. Once he's elected, it will transform into: "It's vital that Obama keeps his majority in Congress so you have to keep quiet until after the 2010 midterms," after which it will be: "It's vital that Obama is re-elected so you have to keep quiet until after 2012," at which point the process will repeat itself from the first step. Quite plainly, those are excuses to justify mindless devotion, not genuine political strategies.

More at the link.

Edit- And let's put this in perspective:

We have a president with extremely low popularity levels. He is arguably the worst president in American history. His party suffered an historic defeat in the last election. He has broken law after law, promise after promise, told lie after lie. His presidency is a disaster and a disgrace. As he approaches the lameduck stage of his presidency, it can honestly be said that the world is a worse place as a consequence of his presidency. And yet a Democratic majority Congress - a Congress which was voted in because the public was sick of the inability of Republicans loyalists to do anything other than defer to the will of their Leader - is about to give this President (and future presidents) more of our liberty. They are about to set into precedent that lawbreaking deserves immunity if the president ordered it - a principle rejected by the United States at Nuremberg. They are about to give the president telecom amnesty even though he could not get that from a Republican Congress two years ago ... and the Democratic candidate for president who has campaigned on a promise to restore our Constitutional order is going to vote for it!

This is exactly what I was talking about with ideologues being rewarded for being as fiercely ideological and partisan as they like. Can anyone possible imagine the opposite scenario taking place, with a Republican Congress capitulating to the lawbreaking of a Democratic president?

James Madison, in "Memorial and Remonstrance" (1785), argued that

[I]t is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties. We hold this prudent jealousy to be the first duty of citizens, and one of [the] noblest characteristics of the late Revolution.
Ok, what about the 1000th experiment on our liberties?* When will these Democrats in Congress think its time to take alarm? 1004? I'm tired of waiting, and I'm tired of hearing their excuses. In a previous comment I said that:

I don't expect that much from Obama ... I'm not looking for a silver bullet or anything. My hope for the presidential race was for someone who wouldn't continue to shred the Constitution and start more endless wars. I think the real battle is at the Congressional level where we need to get enough reformers elected to where we can turn American back into meritocratic democracy rather than a plutocracy.
And that's still what I think. Obama is the best option in the presidential race. But this Congress which has given us this latest disgrace has got to go. And we should continue to hold Obama's feet to the fire when he does things like this.

*I mean this literally. I'm counting signing statements.

Friday, June 20, 2008

That didn't take long

Mr. Obama supports the "compromise" bill granting amnesty to telecoms for helping the government spy on US citizens illegally for profit. He says he will work in the Senate to remove the amnesty provision, but given that it is unlikely the provision will be removed it seems a given that he has effectively announced his endorsement of "legalizing" lawlessness when it profits politicians and large corporations.

Which means taxpayers paid telecoms via their government to spy on them.

What happened to all the campaign rhetoric about protecting civil liberties, eh?

Update: I found this at Think Progress

Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) has consistently spoken out and voted against granting retroactive immunity for telecoms that participated with the administration’s warrantless wiretapping program. This stance was part of the reason he won the support of Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT), a leader on civil liberties issues.

One of Obama’s advisers on intelligence and foreign policy advisers, however, is someone who “strongly” supports telecomm immunity. John Brennan is a former CIA official and the current chairman of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance. In a new National Journal interview, Brennan makes it clear that he agrees with the Bush administration on the issue of immunity.
And the ACLU on this "compromise"

"No matter how often the opposition calls this bill a ‘compromise,’ it is not a meaningful compromise, except of our constitutional rights. The bill allows for mass, untargeted and unwarranted surveillance of all communications coming in to and out of the United States. The courts’ role is superficial at best, as the government can continue spying on our communications even after the FISA court has objected. Democratic leaders turned what should have been an easy FISA fix into the wholesale giveaway of our Fourth Amendment rights.

"More than two years after the president’s domestic spying was revealed in the pages of the New York Times, Congress’ fury and shock has dissipated to an obedient whimper. After scrambling for years to cover their tracks, the phone companies and the administration are almost there. This immunity provision will effectively destroy Americans’ chance to have their deserved day in court and will kill any possibility of learning the extent of the administration’s lawless actions. The House should be ashamed of itself. The fate of the Fourth Amendment is now in the Senate’s hands. We can only hope senators will show more courage than their colleagues in the House.
Update II: I would suggest that if you're bothered by this, you contact Senator Obama's campaign and express your (if you feel like me) utter dissapointment at his running away from the premise of his own promised campaign. Hopefully, a deluge of complaints about him betraying his own campaign rhetoric might change his mind over the course of the next week.

As I hinted at above, it seems like Obama is trying to have his cake and eat it too with his "I'll try to remove telecom but..." passive voice response. Glenn Greenwald explains this further in one of his updates

Nobody should be fooled by Obama's vow to work to remove telecom amnesty from this bill. Harry Reid is already acknowledging that this "effort" is likely to fail and is just pure political theater: Reid said: "Probably we can't take that out of the bill, but I'm going to try." The article continued: "Reid said the vote would allow those opposed to the liability protection to 'express their views.'"

We should continue to demand that amnesty is removed from the bill -- and fight it to the bitter end -- but this whole separate vote they'll have in the Senate on whether to remove amnesty is principally designed to enable Obama, once he votes to enact this bill, to say: "Well, I tried to get immunity out, and when I couldn't, I decided to support the compromise." It's almost certainly the case that Hoyer secured Obama's support for the bill before unveiling it.

Either way, Obama -- if amnesty isn't removed -- is going to vote for warrantless eavesdropping and telecom amnesty, and his statement today all but sealed the fate of this bill. There is no point in sugarcoating that, though we ought to continue to fight its enactment with a focus on removing amnesty in the Senate. Greg Sargent makes several good points about Obama's statement.
And let's take a look at the response of Obama again

It is not all that I would want. But given the legitimate threats we face, providing effective intelligence collection tools with appropriate safeguards is too important to delay. So I support the compromise, but do so with a firm pledge that as President, I will carefully monitor the program, review the report by the Inspectors General, and work with the Congress to take any additional steps I deem necessary to protect the lives -– and the liberty –- of the American people.
In other words: trust me with these powers, I'll use them responsibly. No. No, I will not trust you, Senator Obama. I trust no one with such powers. I trust the law. The (D) after your name is not some kind of magic charm that means you or your administration is to be trusted with the Ring of Gyges.

As Thomas Jefferson put it:

[F]ree government is founded in jealousy, and not in confidence; it is jealousy and not confidence which prescribes limited constitutions, to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust with power: that our Constitution has accordingly fixed the limits to which, and no further, our confidence may go ... In questions of powers, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.
And as John Adams said

There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty.
And choosing this key issue to do what Democrats love to do - cave on the issue - so that you can try to say you're for civil liberty while also saying you're "strong" on national security (i.e. voted with Republicans to erode civil liberties) doesn't do a lot in the way of earning my trust, anyways.

It is with actions like these that the tide inches closer in, with each approach taking back a little bit more of our liberty as it dissappears like a castle made of sand.

Update III: I noticed this comment/reply comment at Balkinization

At what point do you think that the Republicans in Congress are going to wake up in a cold sweat about the vast surveillance powers they've just handed to a liberal black Democratic president?

January 21, 2009.
Spot on, I say. And this is going to stress our constitutional order. When a Republican is president, movement conservatives are comfortable granting him virtually unlimited powers to do what he says need be done in the name of national security. When a Democrat becomes president they then panic that they are living under totalitarian tyrrany irrespective of whether or not they actually are (case in point).

Heads or tails, it won't really matter. It wil be either Democrats are not protecting us from terrorists and we're going to die (John Bolton already expressed this view) or Democrats are not protecting us from terrorists and they're Liberal Fascists (Jonah Goldberg, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, et al.)

The Pledge Project

My attention has been elsewhere, but Alonzo Fyfe has been devoting his blog for the last month to explaining why "under God" has no business being in the Pledge of Allegiance. He has now compiled a table of contents post which links to all 33 essays in the series. This might be the sort of thing you want to e-mail to friends and family who don't consider the inclusion of "God" in the Pledge and on our money to be a big deal.

This Pledge Project is about creating a nation where rationalists can have a chance of winning public office and positions of public trust.

This is about creating a nation where the government is not teaching its citizens from the youngest age that their government looks on people who do not support 'one nation under God' the same way it looks on people who do not support 'liberty and justice for all'.

It is about creating a nation where the government does not put up signs in every government building and child's classroom that state, "Only a person who trusts in God can be one of us. And if you want to be one of us yourself, then you must also trust in God."

Baleful quote of the day

"I'm not here to say that the government is always right, but when the government tells you to do something, I'm sure you would all agree that I think you all recognize that is something you need to do." - Senator Kit Bond, explaining why telecoms should given retroactive immunity for helping the government illegaly spy on American citizens

Heck, makes sense to me. Republicans keep saying the Constitution establishes a Christian nation based on "Christian principles."

Bond is just expressing the Abraham view of authority. Sure, it might sound wrong to murder your son, but you recognize that when God tells you to do something you need to do it.

Now they're the "far left"

Simon Owens has written up a summary of the Strange Bedfellows coalition of right/left* civil libertarians that has formed to fight telecom amnesty and other Constitutional violations that are taking place in a "bipartisan" manner (i.e. Republicans break the law and then Democrats capitulate and legalize the law-breaking.)

In the comment section of this post today by Glenn Greenwald exploring how key Democratic leaders define "bipartisan" as capitulating to Republican lawlessness I noted that the center of American political discourse is continually redefined as the halfway point between movement conservative ideologues and non-ideologues.** It in this manner that opposing the give-away of our Bill of Rights protections for the sake of granting legal imunity to the telecoms that have purchased such a give-away from members of Congress by throwing money at them becomes a "far left" position.

*I hate using left/right convention but for the sake of expediancy I'm using it to convey the point.
**In this instance, the new "center" consists of agreeing to legislate the President's lawlessness rather than just letting him do it without approval.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Quote of the day

"After years of disclosures by government investigations, media accounts, and reports from human rights organizations, there is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account." - Army Major General Antonio Taguba

Obviously, Taguba is a left-wing far lefty communist Marxist Dhimicrat liberal fascist S-P who hates America and is infected with Bush Derangement Syndrome.

Obama endorses Bush enabling Democrat

Glenn Greenwald has the details of Obama having cut an ad supporting the reelection of John Barrow in Georgia despite the fact that it is difficult to distinguish Barrow from a Bush supporting Republican and that his Democratic primary challenger has policy positions which match the stated positions of the Obama campaign.

I have to say that this is incredibly frustrating. Why are Democrats so determined to shoot themselves in the foot? You would have thought that Obama would have learned his lesson: he previously endorsed Joe Lieberman over his Democratic primary challenger Ned Lamont and now Obama is going to be rewarded for that choice by having Lieberman speak at the Republican National Convention about how Obama is a Marxist extremist and what not.

The last campaign of Barrow was truly sickening. He was running ads talking about how opposed to the "death tax" he is. How many of his constituents are actually effected by the estate tax? Given that "the wealthiest 0.27% of Americans are the only ones who pay estate taxes" I'm guessing not many. Barrow supports an endless trillion dollar war in Iraq but the richest of the rich Americans need to be able to maker sure their grandkids can inherit a Renoir or a second yacht tax free? And who is going to make up that revenue difference? Barrow's constituents.

Shame on Obama for supporting Barrow.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

First they're wrong, then they don't exist

From Wonk Room

The extreme storms and record-breaking floods that have devastated the Midwest, killing dozens, disrupting the nation’s infrastructure, causing billions of dollars in damage, and sending food prices skyrocketing, are consistent with the effects of global warming on the region predicted eight years ago.
But whenever scientists worn of such possibilities they are attacked as alarmists and what not. This is part of a larger pattern: experts who worn of unpleasant or ideologically uncomfortable possibilites are first dismissed as being wrong. Then, after what they predicted happens, they cease to exist:

A week ago, Gov. Chet Culver (D-IA) told reporters:

Very few people could anticipate or prepare for that type of event.
Unfortunately, just as with the Iraq debacle, Katrina, housing bubble, and September 11 attacks, experts warned against this type of disaster — but they have been ignored by the press and blackballed by this administration.

Government is the problem

"For more than a quarter century now our government has been adopting rules that tilt the playing field in favor of the rich, the powerful, and the politically connected. These rules accomplish this by taking from the uninformed, handcuffing law enforcement, squelching whistle-blowers, and making it even harder for those who were wronged to get redress. The new rules have taken special aim at those supposed economic criminals, the regulators." - David Cay Johnston, Free Lunch

It is standard dogma of Reagan acolytes that "government is the problem." That begs the question: what's the problem?

If you are former Halliburton subsidiary KBR, your problem would be that your army overseer will not approve $1 billion dollars in charges because "[t]hey had a gigantic amount of costs they couldn’t justify" and "the money that was going to KBR was money being taken away from the troops, and I wasn’t going to do that."

The solution would be for the army to remove that overseer, then out-source review of KBR charges to another contractor at an additional cost to the tax-payer, then approve the charges because "We could not let operational support suffer because of some other things.” Or in other words: we were afraid that if we asked KBR to account for their costs they wouldn't do their job.

Or in other words: KBR profits from gouging the tax-payer because they aren't held accountable for their actions. And the taxpayer had to foot the bill of finding a private auditor who would Enron KBR's books to justify the charges (which, not incidentally, are also paid by the taxpayer.)

For KBR, a government of civic minded individuals dedicated to serving the public good rather than private interest is the problem.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

An answer for Hannity

As I mentioned several days ago, I made a mistake in my first response to Sean Hannity's question about we can expect universal healthcare to work. A mistake in the sense that I underestimated how stupid Hannity is.

Hannity had asked what happened to the Social Security "lockbox" that Democrats had promised. My answer basically went about explaining how regressive taxes meant to pay for Social Security were used in the 80s to fund tax cuts for the rich and could not be blamed exclusively on Democrats. If I had remembered this passage from Perfectly Legal, however, it would have demonstrated that Hannity's question is dumber than it already appears.

Fear that the excess Social Security taxes would be used to finance the tax cuts on which George W. Bush campaigned in 2000 prompted him to promise again and again on the campaign trail he would not touch that money. “In my economic plan, more than $2 trillion of the federal surplus is locked away for Social Security,” Bush said. “For years, politicians in both parties have dipped into the Trust Fund to pay for more spending. And I will stop it.” Two months after he was sworn in, Bush said that “another priority is retirement systems of Americans. And so the budget I set up says that payroll taxes are only going to be spent on one thing, and that’s Social Security. But the Congress won’t be using the payroll taxes for other programs. Lockbox, I think, is the terminology they like to use up here.”

By then the Wall Street Journal had already concluded that Bush intended to pick the lock on the Social Security box. Bush’s economic plan, the Journal reported, uses “all the Social Security surpluses … to fund the government for the next two years, and to spend well over $100 billion of Social Security funds in each of the following three years.
That's what happened to the lockbox. George W. Bush cracked it open to pay for tax cuts for the rich. So did Democrats in the 1980s ... to pay for Ronald Reagan's tax cuts for the rich. And funds from Social Security were used in the 90s to pay for the budget. Funny how Hannity forgets the part of the equation that has Republicans in it.

This is an outrage and needs to be stopped. It needs to be stopped because it is a form of subterfuge that amounts to backdoor regressive taxation where the middle class is taxed to subsidize tax cuts for the rich. Despite this, however, it still doesn't make the point Hannity intended it to make.

Recall again what Hannity asked. How can the government that bankrupted Social Security be expected to get a Universal Healthcare progam to work. Two loaded problems in Hannity's framing of the question.

1. Social Security is not bankrupt.
2. The problems with Social Security, to the extent that they exist, are a matter of policy, not of necessity.

It's important to consider what Hannity means by "bankrupt." He means that at some point 3o to 40 years from now there might be a shortfall in Social Security, depending on the projections that you look at. Even then Social Security would be able to pay out most of its benefits, so bankrupt is an odd way to describe the program.

As Paul Krugman has pointed out, the Social Security "crisis" is invented and we can choose to fix Social Security with relatively little difficulty if we choose to do so. In this regard, Hannity is correct: if we choose to elect a goverment of plutocrats that is determined to cut taxes for the rich and shift the tax burden while cutting spending that doesn't directly enrich corporations and the megawealthy then we will not be able to afford a universal health care program.

This is why (I surmise) folks like Hannity see Social Security in crisis. They do so for the same reason they see WMDs in Iraq or don't see global warming. Social Security - one of the most succesful and popular programs in U.S. history - is a living anti-proof of movement conservative ideology. They need for it to be a failure.* Which might explain some of the comical mental gymnastics that Hannity and others engage in to arrive at the conclusion that Social Security is in crisis which can only be solved by privatization.

Al Franken explored these cognitive contortions at length in The Truth (with jokes). The most humorous example offered by Franken being George W. Bush after visiting the Office of Public Debt Accounting declaring that "there is no 'trust fund' - just IOUs that I saw firsthand, that future generations will pay either in higher taxes, or reduced benefits, or cuts to other critical government programs." Three weeks later during a prime time press conference on Social Security Bush said that "Social Security will be bankrupt" several decades from now and that the trust fund is just "file cabinets full of IOUs." Bush offered a privatization solution: "I propose that one investment option consist entirely of treasury bonds, which are backed by the full faith and credit of the United States government."

Ok, can anyone guess what those IOUs Bush looked at were? That's right! U.S. treasury bonds.

In my first response I observed that Hannity would offer you Republican governance as a solution to problems that would in reality increase under (more or greater) Republican rule. I also offered the qualification that Democrats are not free from the sin of acting as plutocrats rather than democrats. Which is why it is important to counter the cynicism that is so vital to the cause of Hannity and the conservative movement. We can do this by being aware of what has happened to this country and by remembering that We the People have a say in the fate of the nation. It may take some time and effort, but we can vote out the goverment that has been killing the American dream for 3 decades now.

David Cay Johnston, in Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You with the Bill), suggests a question we might ask as we head into the election.

Since 1980 it has become official policy to ensure that the rich receive the benefits of government. This is a shift from government policy in the years after World War II to grow the middle class, remaking America into a land of better-educated and healthier people, a land of suburbs and single-family homes where opportunity was based less on status and wealth than on hard work and merit.

So who is better off today than they were 30 years ago? [An allusion to Reagan famously asking in 1980 if you’re better off today than four years ago.] The middle-aged factory worker whose plant closed even though it earned a healthy profit or the Wall Street investment banker who brokered the deal to ship the machine tools overseas, where pay is three or four dollars per day? The billionaire CEO or the middle manager whose company health insurance has been cut yet again? The war contractor or the brain-injured veteran?
*President Bush planned on "saving" Social Security with a plan that would speed up the appearance of deficits while increasing their size; it would also have benefited money managers charging administrative fees.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Paul Krugman saves me the trouble

In my notebook I have an entry that reads simply "tax relief for the middle class." I jotted that down after hearing Obama say that during a speech. I was going to write something about how the adoption of Bush's language for describing tax cuts represented Obama "thinking like an elephant" by putting a Democratic spin on a Republican frame (think about that one for a second.) I was also going to try and buttress that point by saying something about how the Tax Policy Center's analysis showed that Obama's plan will lose 7% of expected revenue under current law over the next 10 years but will raise revenue by 2% if you take Bush's tax cuts as a baseline demonstrates the way that the Republican Party is rewarded by acting ever more ideologically by dragging the American center "right."

I would have had some difficulty articulating that point to my satisfaction*. Thankfully, however, I won't have to try since Paul Krugman has written an op-ed which sort of says that same thing.

*My frustration at not being able to articulate to my satisfaction my response to Sean Hannity is the reason I was experiencing difficulty with that post despite having the content of the post done for days now. I stepped away from it for a day or so to clear my head and will just suck it up and post it tomorrow.

Surprise! Pseudo-doubters backed by conservative think-tanks

From Framing Science

A new study by a team of political scientists and sociologists at the journal Environmental Politics concludes that 9 out of 10 books published since 1972 that have disputed the seriousness of environmental problems and mainstream science can be linked to a conservative think tank (CTT). Following on earlier work by co-author Riley Dunlap and colleagues, the study examines the ability of conservative think tanks to use the media and other communication strategies to successfully challenge mainstream expert agreement on environmental problems.
The study's conclusion

Our analyses of the sceptical literature and CTTs indicate an unambiguous linkage between the two. Over 92 per cent of environmentally sceptical books are linked to conservative think tanks, and 90 per cent of conservative think tanks interested in environmental issues espouse scepticism. Environmental scepticism began in the US, is strongest in the US, and exploded after the end of the Cold War and the emergence of global environmental concern stimulated by the 1992 Earth Summit. Environmental scepticism is an elite-driven reaction to global environmentalism, organised by core actors within the conservative movement. Promoting scepticism is a key tactic of the anti-environmental counter-movement coordinated by CTTs, designed specifically to undermine the environmental movement's efforts to legitimise its claims via science. Thus, the notion that environmental sceptics are unbiased analysts exposing the myths and scare tactics employed by those they label as practitioners of 'junk science' lacks credibility. Similarly, the self-portrayal of sceptics as marginalised 'Davids' battling the powerful 'Goliath' of environmentalists and environmental scientists is a charade, as sceptics are supported by politically powerful CTTs funded by wealthy foundations and corporations.
Now recall Molly Ivins saying that "the American press has always had a tendency to assume that the truth must lie exactly halfway between any two opposing points of view" and it is easy to see how effective the tactic of funding books, pundits, and experts (or "experts" if you prefer) that dispute the scientific consenus on global warming is at shaping the public's understanding of the issue (remember the image from An Inconvenient Truth of a media sampling of reports on global warming showing 53% to cast doubt on AGW despite a similar sample finding 0% dispute in the scientific literature.)

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Moyers on class warfare

From Bill Moyers Journal

Here we go again. No sooner does Barack Obama challenge John McCain on extending George Bush's expensive tax cuts for people at the top than cries go up of "Class War! Class War!" Look at this essay posted on the website of capitalism's op-ed page in the WALL STREET JOURNAL. It accuses Obama of a "class-warfare tirade" for a speech he made critical of "tax breaks for big corporations and wealthy CEOs."

Now, Obama's economic policies should get a full critique. As should McCain's. But, please, can we put aside that old canard spouted by Wall Street apologists every time someone calls for greater equity between working people and the rich? Truth is, there's been a class war waged in America for thirty years now from the top down, and the rich have won.

Here's the latest dispatch from the front page - this story, in the news section of the WALL STREET JOURNAL, about how some corporate executives have finagled lush payouts to their heirs if they die in office:

If Eugene Isenberg dies while still heading up Nabors Industries, his estate would get an additional $288 million dollars - that's more than the company's first-quarter earnings.

But it's less than the $298 million Brian Roberts would get from Comcast if the Grim Reaper comes calling on his watch.

Pity poor Ray Irani: His golden coffin wouldn't be quite as glittering. Occidental Petroleum would top off his estate's tank with a measly $115 million dollars.

Class war? Well, you don't see those fellows or their heirs adding an extra cup of water to their soup, diluting their kids' milk, and giving them carbonated soda because it's cheaper than milk. You can bet your Gucci slippers they're not lining up on the main street of a small town to get bread they can't afford to buy because the rise in gasoline prices forces a choice between food and fuel. And you won't find them borrowing money from their bosses just to buy gas to get to work, or abandoning their cars on the side of the road and walking away when the tank runs out.

What's happening to American workers is not the result of natural forces alone. No, it's happened because corporate and political powers connived to keep wages down while shredding their workers' safety nets. For some time now the Great American Wealth Machine has been cranking out jackpots for the people at the top and pushing working people further down the ladder. The growing divide - that roaring inequality - is the subject of this broadcast.
The rest is worth watching/reading.