This is the toxic tribalism that repeats itself over and over throughout the west. Western victims are mourned and humanized, while victims of western violence are invisible and thus dehumanized. Aside from being repugnant in its own right, this formula, by design, is deeply deceptive as propaganda: it creates the impression among western populations that we are the victims but not the perpetrators of heinous violence, that terrorism is something done to us but that we never commit ourselves, that “primitive, radical and inhumanely violent” describes the enemy tribe but not our own (It’s the same tactic that explains why we hear so much about American journalists imprisoned in adversary nations such as Iran and North Korea, but almost nothing about Muslim journalists imprisoned for years without charges by the U.S. Government: thus deliberately creating the false impression that only those Bad Countries, but not us, do this).
Nancy LeTourneau does every other weekend at Political Animal. I think she does the best job of replicating what Ed Kilgore does during the week. And if we can’t have Sam Knight on the weekends, I’d rather have LeTourneau than the other options (good as they are). But this weekend, she decided to tweak some progressive noses. First, she published, Fast Track Isn’t So Fast. That was basically just a press release from Obama claiming that we shouldn’t fear fast track authority because “they can shut off ‘fast track’ with 60 votes and amend the deal.” That’s a good one! The Republicans control the Senate, and contrary to progressives’ hopes, they don’t seem at all concerned about this “threat to sovereignty.” I guess Ted Cruz heard from the billionaire donors that he wasn’t going to get any money if he got in the way of this. So we do need to fear fast track authority.
Next up, LeTourneau wrote, Who Threatens Our Privacy? This one also comes off like a White House press release. We are supposed to be as outraged that Wikileaks released the Sony hacks as we are that Snowden revealed the kind of things that our government is up to. It seems to be apples and oranges. And more to the point, it doesn’t seem to be about making people more concerned about the Sony release but rather making people less concerned about the Snowden relations. And that’s just nonsense.
But by far, the most annoying thing she published was, A Study in Contrasts. It is a comparison of Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker. And it is even intended as trolling, as she started the article, “I’m about to write something that will likely get me in hot water with a lot of my progressive friends.” That’s kind of standard New Democratic — or “centrist” — nonsense where the writer admits to knowing they are going to upset those rigid leftists by speaking The Truth™. But what follows is anything but.
She noted that on Warren’s economic legislation, there are no Republican co-sponsors. But on Booker’s criminal justice sentencing legislation, there are Republican co-sponsors. And… Nothing! That’s the extent of her contrast. So allow me to respond: she has got to be out of her mind! Does she really think that Booker has Republican co-sponsors because he is working in the shadows to form relationships with Republicans? Because that isn’t what’s going on. Booker is simply working in an area where Republicans are already working. So of course he has Republican co-sponsors.
Booker has always been a New Democrat. He’s a Wall Street guy. And LeTourneau was correct when she wrote, “Senator Booker became persona non grata when he criticized Democrats and the Obama campaign for going after Romney over his connections to Bain Capital just prior to the 2012 election.” But that isn’t because he could have hurt the Obama campaign. It was because he said something that went totally counter to what Democrats believe.
So Booker has his nice, safe Senate seat. And what he has chosen to work on is something that many Republicans are working on. So why didn’t the good people of New Jersey just elect one of those Republicans? Because they care about other issues. I have no doubt whatsoever about Warren backing Booker’s criminal justice reform legislation. It isn’t at all clear that he would vote for the kinds of economic policy that Warren is pushing — the kind of policy that Democratic voters are for.
The truth is that we need Democrats who push the existing Overton Window. And we need Democrats who can get things done. But there is nothing in what LeTourneau wrote to indicate that Booker can actually get things done. We will see. Getting Republicans to support ideas they’ve long supported means nothing. Meanwhile, Warren actually is changing the conversation. Check back with me after Booker gets one of those laws passed.
Paul Rosenberg wrote a great article over at Salon last week, Scott Walker, Forever Tarnished: Republican Governors Have Tanked the GOP Brand. It is about how the 2010 election allowed a bunch of true-believer conservatives to get hold of a number of states, causing them to put into practice the kind of economic policy that they are always claiming will create jobs and grow the economy. And the result has been just what readers of this site would expect: disaster. Instead of improving their economies, they’ve harmed them. And in exchange, they have slashed government services and still managed to destroy their budgets.
What Rosenberg focuses on is the fact that all these decades right wing think tanks have developed policy ideas. But these ideas have not been based on good economics, but rather ideology. So rather than the states being those fabled “laboratories of democracy,” they have been the opposite: they’ve all done the same things. And they’ve all managed to get the same bad results. Of course, I wouldn’t get too excited about that. The worst case is Kansas, were Sam Brownback was just re-elected. Rather than admitting that his policies have failed, he just keeps claiming that his policies will take time to work. There is no teaching an ideologue. The question is where it is possible to teach the American media.
One of the things that has traditionally been nice about state level politics is that it was relatively pragmatic because it had to be. Unlike the federal government, state governments actually do have to balance their budgets. So normally, we wouldn’t expect to see states pass up free money like they get with the Medicaid expansion. But refuse many of them did. But it is hard to evaluate that behavior. Sure: it is needlessly cruel and fiscally stupid. But these Republicans never said they were doing it because it made humanitarian and economic sense. When it comes to the tax cuts, the services cuts, the infrastructure cuts — these were all done because it was going to make their economies boom. And just the opposite has happened.
The main idea that is behind all of this slash and burn economics is that tax cuts will stimulate the economy so much that the government will actually bring in more revenue. This is supply side economics. And since it was first tried in the early 1980s, it has literally never worked. Not once! Yet this is still the guiding light of Republican economic policy. When the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business polled prominent (mostly conservative) economists, it “couldn’t find a single economist who believed that cutting taxes today will lead to higher government revenue — even if we lower only the top tax rate.” But that’s why we have Arthur Laffer around: an official “economist” that Republicans can hire to tell them that they can cut taxes and everything will be great.
Rosenberg put it well:
Indeed, pundits as a class have internalized the notion of the GOP as the “daddy party,” the one that does best at all manner of male-stereotyped roles: fighting wars, running the economy, understanding how things work. The Democrats are supposedly the “mommy party,” the one that takes care of you when you hurt.
Rosenberg went on to discuss two different studies that showed that Republican economic policy in the states actually harm their economies. But the truth is, even if they worked, it would only be by helping a given state at the expense of other states. When Art Laffer was pushing his plan to the Kansas legislature, he said there was a war among states over tax policy. The idea was to lower taxes so that companies would move to the low tax state. This is, obviously, a race to the bottom — which states stupidly participate in all the time. But even on this level, the Republicans can’t seem to make their economic policy work.
The question remains whether the mainstream media will wake up and start covering this. Rosenberg seems at least a bit optimistic. I’m not. We didn’t need this new crop of Republicans loons to prove that conservative economic policy doesn’t work as advertised. The truth is that the media really do see the Republicans as the “daddy party.” And it is just easier to continue to push the same old narrative. (Look at the issue of fighting wars: can any reasonable person really think Republicans are good at that anymore?) But if there is a chance to get the truth out, it will be through the people. That’s pretty sad: we need the people to educate the journalists. But luckily, with the internet, we are in a much better position to do that now than we were before.
In the early 1970s, the great jazz musician Yusef Lateef produced a number of wonderful albums with the equally great jazz pianist Kenny Barron. Like all of Lateef’s career, it defies easy categorization. But his special interest in eastern music with its modal melodies give a lot of his work a classical feel. It’s the same thing that you hear in Bill Evans’ later work. The connection, of course, is Debussy — who was interested in a lot of the same music.
So I was interested to come upon the following video from 1972. They are playing with Bob Cunningham (bass) and Albert Heath (drums). And they are doing the Jerome Kern song, “Yesterdays” — from the Broadway musical Roberta (starring Bob Hope in the original cast). Lateef did it originally (On oboe!) back in 1959 on his album, Cry! — Tender. It’s a good song to do, because harmonically, it is fairly simple — perfect for the kind of music he does. And he begins and ends the song with an improvisation based on Debussy’s solo flute piece, Syrinx. It’s lovely:
On this day in 1894, the great pin-up artist George Petty was born. You certainly know his art, because it copies of it were used to decorate planes used in World War II — most notably the Memphis Belle. His father was a successful photographer of women — so maybe it was in the blood. Or maybe seeing dad’s nudes had an environmental impact on the young man.
He is known for having created a kind of iconic figure: the Petty Girl. It sounds sexist: the women in the images have smaller than normal heads and longer and normal legs. I don’t especially see the smaller head. But the ridiculously long legs are hard to miss. These were created for Esquire magazine when it had centerfolds — the predecessors of those later found in Playboy. I assume they were thought rather racy in their day. Today, they look downright homey.
All right, not quite:
Happy birthday George Petty!
This last week, The Guardian published, Liquid Mercury Found Under Mexican Pyramid Could Lead to King’s Tomb. This has to do with Teotihuacan — a ruin site in modern Mexico that was a large city starting a few centuries BEC, which may have reached a peak population of a quarter million people around 450 CE. But here’s the thing: we really don’t know that much about the people who lived there. We don’t even know who they were, but it is now assumed they were people who emigrated from the south — at least some from the Mayan empire.
For the last six years, archaeologist Sergio Gómez Chávez has been excavating a tunnel under the ruins at the Pyramid of the Sun. At first, the tunnel was thought to be naturally occurring. But it indeed seems to be man made. The further they go in, the more interesting it becomes. They have now found three different chambers, one going down 20 meters below the temple. Along the way, they have found various artifacts: “jade statues, jaguar remains, a box filled with carved shells and rubber balls.” But most recently, they have found liquid mercury — as opposed to mercury ore. As a result, they believe they are on the verge of finding the first “royal tomb” ever found in Teotihuacan. And that’s important:
A royal tomb could lend credence to the theory that the city, which flourished between 100 CE – 700 CE, was ruled by dynasties in the manner of the Maya, though with far less obvious flair for self-glorification.
There are many other theories. As I said, we don’t know much about these people. But to my mind: of course it was a dynasty! This is just the way humans work. Consider: this is a major — multi-chamber — tunnel dug under the biggest structure in the city. Flair for self-glorification or not, that is the sign of at least one person with a very big ego and the power to feed it over a long period of time. A dynasty is almost required for that, because nothing other than some kind of god-king or God approved king would provide that kind of stability. Otherwise, there would always be someone trying to take over.
But look at our own society. Never has a country be so deluded about the idea of meritocracy as the United States. If many people don’t actually believe it, you would never know it by us constantly talking about it. Yet we could very easily see this country ruled by three members of the same family in the period of just 25 years. And it sure isn’t because they are so brilliant. George H W Bush was a reasonably competent bureaucrat. George W Bush was either incompetent or uninterested in the job. (Or both!) And Jeb Bush was anything but a stellar governor. Regardless, we would be happy if he was as good a president as his father. Humans just naturally fall for this kind of stuff. This is why we continue to allow unconscionable levels of inequality and don’t even pretend to provide “equality of opportunity” to our children.
So I am betting that within a year or two, we will find a “royal tomb” at Teotihuacan. But regardless, it ought to be fascinating what we do find.
Want to get really angry? WalMart moved into Teotihuacan and acted more or less how the Islamic State would, Teotihuacan Gets Mickey-Moused.
 This date is inaccurate. The Pyramid of the Sun — the biggest structure in the city — was built by 100 CE. So the city was doing quite well for a while before that.
In recent years, the money preoccupation has trickled upward, shaping our ideas about college as well as K–12 schooling. Not so long ago, private college was a luxury that few could afford. But in the nineteenth century, first Horace Mann and then Charles Eliot led the charge to make ability rather than heritage the price of admission to college. Though the intention was to recognize that wealth or lofty ancestry was no guarantee of intellectual ability, motivation, or academic inclination, it also came from the realization that a college degree opened doors and changed one’s future trajectory. During the same period, the introduction of excellent state university systems provided another avenue for bright and motivated adolescents with no money to get a college education. But as with K–12 education, when college changed from being a luxury for a few to a necessity for all, it redefined itself. Where once it had been a place to expand one’s horizons, read great books, get exposure to new disciplines, and learn how to participate in intellectual discourse, it now became another step toward getting a job or moving up a career ladder. The focus turned from getting a college education to getting a college degree.
Excerpted at Salon, We’re Teaching Our Kids Wrong: Steve Jobs and Bill Gates Do Not Have the Answers.
James Gibney wrote a very interesting article following of a recent Gallup poll, Everyone Likes Obama’s Foreign Policy Except Americans. It seems that the world is actually quite keen on American leadership. And contrary to what pretty much every Republican will tell you, our allies are the most positive of all. The one exception to this is Israel, which thought that the US foreign policy was great under George W Bush. I think we can disregard any group of people who think that the high point of American foreign policy was the Iraq War. In addition to our friends being very happy with us, our enemies (at least as most would define them) are very unhappy with us. In Russia, the United States gets an amazingly low 4% approval rating. (I assume this is a reflection of the fact that Russian media is as biased and jingoistic as the American media is.)
But it is wrong to say that Americans don’t like Obama’s foreign policy. Right now, Americans aren’t that keen on foreign policy as a thing. But their opinion has improved steadily since Obama took over the presidency. So clearly, the Republicans who are shouting about America’s standing in the world are just preaching to the choir. (Gibney seemed strangely a bit confused on this point.) American approval of our own foreign policy reached a nadir at the end of Bush’s presidency with less than 30% and now it is almost 40%. And this is for a poll taken “even as Russia was annexing Crimea, Islamic State was beheading its way across the Middle East, Ebola was taking its toll in West Africa, and Europe was dealing with an unprecedented crisis in Greece.” If the poll were done today, I’m sure the numbers would be better.
But should we pay much attention to what Americans think in a general way about foreign policy? After all, we are the people who gave Bush a 51% approval rating the week before 9/11 and an 86% approval rating the week after. Even more stark, his disapproval rating went from 39% down to 10%. This is after he oversaw the worst attack on American soil ever — where his initial reaction was to sit there reading, The Pet Goat. (Although I will admit: goats really are charming animals!) Similarly, approval of our foreign policy went up after the Iraq invasion — the very thing that now makes Americans sad about foreign policy in general.
The main thing to consider here is that Americans are unhappy with the idea of intervention altogether. Since 1964, the Pew Research Center has been asking Americans if the United States should “mind its own business, internationally.” In 1964, only 20% said we should. The number went up quite a bit in the decades after that. But in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion, it dipped back down to 30%. And as of 2013, it is at an all time high: 52%.
So I don’t think it means much when Ted Cruz rants, “Today, the consequence of the Obama-Clinton foreign policy is that our friends no longer trust us, and our enemies no longer fear us.” The truth is that he is completely wrong on the facts. Our friends do trust us. Our enemies fear us even more. But most of all, the American people just don’t care.
A week and a half ago, David Auerbach wrote a very good and detailed article, Buyer Still Beware. It is in response to an article by libertarian economists Alex Tabarrok and Tyler Cowen, The End of Asymmetric Information. In that, they argue that the internet and other information delivery systems have greatly reduced the asymmetry of information, which has long been known to distort markets. So basically, we don’t need regulation, because people can just check Angie’s List. Auerbach makes a compelling case that having more information doesn’t help much given that it increases both good and bad information. The question is still how to find good information.
I would take it a step further — although Auerbach does imply this. All increased information does is create a kind of information arms race. People want more and better information about the products they buy. Sellers do not want this. It is much better for businesses to be able to control what people think and feel about products. And here is the main thing. Control of information is a major part of what businesses do. Consumers do not have the time or inclination to become fully informed about every product they buy. And I think this the critical issue.
On a practical level, libertarian ideas always lead to neoliberal policy. And this results in our getting worse systems. I understand that Obamacare might be better for a small number of healthcare consumers who have the time and inclination to really research all the insurance options. But for the vast majority of people, having a single-payer system is better. Overall, they would get a superior form of health insurance. But apart from that, their lives are easier because they don’t have to worry about something that really doesn’t improve their lives. Most people have the experience of just shifting through two or three insurance options at their employers — it’s a pain. The situation is just madness when it is 20 or 30.
What Tabarrok and Cowen are up to here is just libertarian fantasy. They want there to be no need for regulation, so they have gone out looking for something to justify it. It isn’t a coincidence that their paper just happened to find what they were looking for. If they had come to some other conclusion, I question whether they would have written the paper. And I know that if they had, the Cato Institute wouldn’t have published it, because it has been very upfront about its lack of scientific ethics. (They are not in the business of publishing information that pushes against libertarian solutions.)
Auerbach also documents how libertarian information systems become, in real life, little fiefdoms. He mentioned the whole Silk Road debacle. I wrote about it earlier this year, How the Libertarian Dream Dies. But he also goes into some depth about Reddit, and how moderators on subreddits actually ban articles. For example, Simon Owens wrote an article, Should Reddit’s Powerful Mods Be Reined In? It was banned from the technology subreddit.
This, I think, is the fundamental problem with libertarianism. It would have us get rid of government because of its fairly minor oppression of us, and replace it with totally unaccountable private parties that could and would oppress us far more. It is just a matter of incentives. There may be a great macro-level incentive for all of us to follow the law, but we don’t all follow the law. The same is true in markets. There will be some who will not do well — or at least not as well as they think they should — and they will use whatever advantage they have. And the fact that this makes everyone else worse off doesn’t matter in the least.
I know what libertarians say in response to this. But it is no less fanciful than the notion that everyone will get along just fine and no one will try to game the system. It all depends upon perfect judicial systems. Or even worse: it is dependent upon voluntary judicial systems. There could not be a more perfect political philosophy for those that already have economic power. It’s the ultimate con, “Just get rid of the one thing that is stopping you from enslaving yourself and then you will be able to do whatever it is you want, without anyone to tell you what to do!”
Does the fact that I don’t believe everyone can get along perfectly in a libertarian utopia mean that I am cynical? I don’t think so. Basically what the libertarians are saying is that we don’t need government in a world where everyone gets along. And I agree: in that kind of world, we wouldn’t need a government. But that is not the kind of world that we live it. It is because of human imperfections that we have governments. And yes, governments are a mixed blessing. But “no government” isn’t mixed at all: it is just bad.
It’s sad that two respected economists like Alex Tabarrok and Tyler Cowen write such rubbish. Or not. Maybe it is sad that people who put forth such rubbish are respected. But they both write smart things a lot of the time. It is like libertarianism is a kind of disease. More than most ideologies, it fries the brain, making proponents think they are being smart and deductive when they are just being fanciful. They so want to believe. And there are rich people around with so much money to pay them to believe…
Do want to have a good cry? Then listen, my friends, to the story of Wenn der Vater mit dem Sohne (I don’t really know what it mean: “When the father with the son”?) — the 1955 directorial debut of Hans Quest. It stars Heinz Rühmann who plays Teddy, a man who runs a joke shop who has raised his landlady’s foster child — Ulli — as a son, since the boy was abandoned by his mother at birth. One day, Ulli comes upon a clown suit and Teddy explains that once upon a time, he was a famous clown who performed with his son. But after his son died, Teddy lost the ability to laugh and started the joke shop. Ulli convinces Teddy to begin performing and joins him on the stage. Happily ever after? Not at all! We aren’t even half way through the movie.
The mother returns — now married. She wants to take Ulli back with her to America. So Teddy and Ulli run away together. But alas, there is nothing to be done and the mother eventually takes Ulli back with her, leaving Teddy emotionally destroyed for the second time in his life. Now if this were some piece of garbage like Kramer vs Kramer, the mother would return Ulli to Teddy. But thankfully, this is not a piece of garbage. So the film ends with Teddy as a sad clown, performing “La-Le-Lu Nur Der Mann im Mond Schaut Zu” (Only the Man in the Moon Watches).
Here is a video with three times that the song is performed in the film. It’s very sweet:
On this day in 1956, the SS Ideal X was launched. It was the world’s first successful container ship. Actually, before that, it had been an oil tanker from World War II. But it was purchased by Pan-Atlantic Steamship Company and converted into a container ship. It carried 58 containers. Compare this to the biggest container ships today that carry in excess of 10,000 containers. It is truly remarkable.
Now the Ideal X was not the first container ship. That would be the Clifford J Rogers. But I don’t think that’s quite fair, because it didn’t transport the standard twenty-foot equivalent unit (TEU) containers. And the whole purpose of container ships is that they are standardized. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be important.
If you are an American and you are out of work, it is probably because of container ships. Well, not completely. There are lots of political reasons. But without container ships, those wouldn’t matter that much. Think of the total crap that comes to this country from China — things like toy rings that kids get in gumball machines. The only reason that this is profitable to make that is that the transportation costs are greatly reduced. Container ships allow that.
All this talk of globalization being about allowing companies to get the cheapest labor is true. But if it was expensive to transport the goods, it just wouldn’t happen. And one thing you will notice is that America still does a fair amount of manufacturing of cheap stuff. It is just that it is on a small scale. It might be reasonable to produce a million plastic rings in China, but if it is only 100,000, the transportation costs make it cheaper to produce here.
I certainly think that container ships have had a far bigger effect on the world than computers. And of course, if resources were shared somewhat equitably, container ships would have been a much bigger benefit to everyone. Instead, they have more or less facilitated taking money from the poorer people in the developed world and giving it to the poor people in the developing world. And that’s overall a good thing. But along the way, it shouldn’t have been that the rich have simply gotten unimaginably richer — largely because of a technological advance that they had nothing to do with.
Happy birthday container ships!
Last week, Steve Benen wrote, Steve King Unveils Radical Court Scheme. It seems that King is proposing a new law, Restrain the Judges on Marriage Act of 2015. It would stop federal courts from having jurisdiction over cases related to marriage. It is actually somewhat funny. This is the ultimate sign that conservatives have lost the same sex marriage debate. But Benen is confused because King claims to be a “constitutional conservative,” and such a law would be outrageously unconstitutional. What gives?
Well, Ed Kilgore responded, Yes, Constitutional Conservatives Are Radicals. He pointed out that what these conservatives mean when the append “constitutional” to their descriptor is just that they want to go back in time — to when the Constitution was new — “before it was ruined by courts and legislators and presidents alike.” And so, in this particular case, King doesn’t see a problem, because this is a states’ rights issue: the federal government should have nothing to say about how states want to deal with issues related to marriage. I have a few things to add.
Note that by this logic, the federal government would have no right to end slavery — much less Jim Crow. The thinking of people like Steve King is so shallow that their philosophy basically gives no guidance regarding policy matters. It is very much like the Stephen Colbert idea of “truthiness” where the the truth is whatever you feel in your gut. They really think this is a good thing. But Rob in High Fidelity is right, “I’ve been listening to my gut since I was 14 years old, and frankly speaking, I’ve come to the conclusion that my guts have shit for brains.” Or more to the point: the gut is just a repository for all our baser instincts, like hating and fearing people who aren’t members of our tribe.
The more fundamental issue is that constitutional conservatives actually are neo-confederates. Because the document that they constantly return to is not the Constitution but the Articles of Confederation. I wrote about this last year with regards to Garrett Epps’ excellent book, Wrong and Dangerous: Ten Right-Wing Myths About Our Constitution, Conservatives on Constitution Are Wrong and Dangerous. The Tenth Amendment has a very distinct change. The Articles said “the powers not expressly delegated to the United States” are given to the states. The Constitution said, “The powers not delegated to the United States…” The difference is in implied powers, and this is huge as Epps explained:
If you hang out with hardcore conservatives (including libertarians), you will hear the Tenth Amendment brought up all the time: the federal government is interfering, taking all this power from the states, and it is unconstitutional. This is because their understanding of the Constitution is that it is just following the Articles of Confederation — when this one difference is the primary reason that we needed a Constitution and could not continue on as a confederacy.
This is also why these kinds of conservatives so often turn out to be racists. This misunderstanding of the Tenth Amendment was using in the nullification campaign of John Calhoun to support slavery. And after the Civil War, it went away — only to come up again in the 1950s in support of Jim Crow. These same people gloss over the far greater powers that the Fourteenth Amendment gave to the federal government. So Ed Kilgore is right that these people are indeed radicals and they want to go way back in time. But they are also neo-Confederates, and the main reason that they are is because they want the right to discriminate.