Banks Game Dodd-Frank to Irrelevance

Michael CorleoneDean Baker wrote a very short but action packed article this morning, The Banking Industry Wins on Risk Retention With Mortgages. It is following up on Floyd Norris’s article in The New York Times, Banks Again Avoid Having Any Skin in the Game. It is all about the securitization of home loans. This probably sounds familiar because this is what wrecked the economy back in 2008. Given that the financial industry didn’t get harmed for what they did before, like a spoiled child, they never learned.

Norris explained that part of the Dodd-Frank law was to have required “risk retention” or “skin in the game” in their real estate securities. So when a bank bundled up a bunch of mortgages and sold them, it would have to keep a 5% interest. But there was a way around this. If the mortgage was considered super safe, this 5% risk retention wasn’t necessary. What made a loan super safe was if the borrower had a substantial down-payment. For example, if someone put down $100,000 on a $200,000 house, it was unlikely to be a problem because the home would have to go down in value by 50% in order for the bank to lose any money.

But this isn’t going to happen. The problem is that the banks had a lot of support in wanting to get rid of any requirements on loans. The economy is sluggish and people are having a hard time getting loans. So a chorus of voices rose up and said that we must do everything we can to encourage the banks to loan. Sigh. I am so tired of this. This is the neoliberal hellscape we now live in. It would be easier if the government just loaned the money directly. But instead, we have to allow private banks to enrich themselves making home loans, which the government guarantees. The banks do a useless job for a lot money at no risk to themselves.

The bottom line is expressed by Barney Frank, “The loophole has eaten the rule…” Except it is worse than that; maybe it would be better to say, “The loophole ate the rule and then died of poisoning.” And the truth is that it probably doesn’t matter. But bad policies are always enacted when they seem reasonable. It seemed reasonable for Bill Clinton to destroy welfare as long as the economy was doing great. It was only after the dot-com crash that it became clear that we still needed welfare as we had known it. So sure, the securities will be fine this year and net year. They may even be fine for the next decade. But eventually, we’ll see the same thing happen again.

Dean Baker pointed out that loans with no down-payments were four times as likely to default as loans with a 20% down-payment. He added, “It is also worth pointing out that the cost of requiring that banks retain risk on low down payment loans did not mean that people could not get loans without large down payments as often claimed.” It simply would have made loans slightly more expensive. But that was not how it was presented.

The the banks have won. Again. Just as expected. I remember back when we were in the middle of the crisis in 2008, there were bankers saying that the government really did need to regulate the banks because the bankers just couldn’t help themselves. But after the government stepped in and saved them, their tunes changed. Even the most minor of regulations were met with screams, “Socialism!” The bankers managed to water down the initial Dodd-Frank law, which was bad enough. But laws always have to be turned into policies by the bureaucracy. So the bankers have been working that system as well. And in the end, the people of the United States get the Michael Corleone deal that we can’t refuse, “Nothing.”

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That Film About Money

James SchamusI just found out about a film project, We the Economy. It is subtitled, “20 Short Films You Can’t Afford to Miss.” I learned about it indirectly via Tristero over at Digby’s Blog. The recommended films by James Schamus are very good. Sadly, that isn’t true for much of the other films.

I haven’t watched all of the series, but most of what I’ve watched has not impressed me in terms of substance. It’s not a surprise that the group got money to make its highly polished films. I would say they overall tilt decidedly rightward. What’s kind of sad is that in many cases, it isn’t clear that the artists making the films really understand. For example, the film on Debt and Deficits treats short term deficits as though there is a disagreement about them in a recession. That’s not true. There is only a disagreement about them when a Democrat is in the White House.

But of special concern is the Recessions episode. It is visually stunning, but is based upon John Steele Gordon’s ideas about recessions, which are largely that recessions are based upon supply shocks. He gives some minor lip service to the demand side of the equation, but that’s all. For example, he claims that recessions are all about bankers not loaning. Sometimes, certainly. What about right now? Oh, that’s right: we aren’t in a recession! It’s just that millions of people are out of work. I don’t know much of Gordon’s work, but he seems like one of these people — pretty much the standard in policy circles — who thinks all that matters is that the rich bankers are loaning to the rich corporations. What happens to the little people doesn’t matter.

On the other hand, there are some good films. Bob Balaban’s episode on Globalization is pretty good. It deals with the subject in about the only sensible way possible. Globalization isn’t going away. So we need to manage it so that it doesn’t cause so many problems and so much insecurity. It does manage to avoid saying something that is obvious: globalization may have created a lot of jobs overseas, but that didn’t cause the stagnation of wages here. Policy allowed all productivity growth for almost four decades to go just to the capitalists and not to workers.

By far, the best film is James Schamus’ episodes 6 and 7, which together constitute, “That Film About Money.” In one way, it isn’t really that informative on the issue of money — nothing more than you didn’t already learn from It’s a Wonderful Life. But it goes into the messed up way that the financial system is run — especially in the second episode. In fact, the second episode might make you very angry. And it includes some nice interviewed sections with Richard Wolff, who is both charming and brilliant, “If you understand that, you’ll understand why the banks have recovered, and nobody else has!”

This is my playlist combining the two films together. It is a total of 15 minutes long, so it is worth the time:

That sums up the last two decades, “I know what we’ll do: instead of paying you to buy what we produce, we’ll lend you the money!”

The problem with the series is that it is definitely made by and for the TED Talk crowd. It’s smart and well made. It takes pains to appear even handed, while tipping distinctly toward the viewpoint of the power elite. But inside that context, good things get done. And that was especially true of the film by James Schamus.

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Republicans Can Always Find Economists to Justify Their Bad Ideas

Art LefferI’ve written before about the fiasco that’s been going on in Kansas, Art Laffer’s Toxic Prescription. Since the 1970s, Laffer has been selling the same old supply side snake oil. The idea is that cutting taxes will so stimulate the economy that it will actually bring more money into the government in the form of taxes. It isn’t true that there is no such thing as a free lunch, but this supply side myth is not one of those free lunches. Given our low level of taxation, it literally never works. But over three decades of failure has not stopped Laffer from continuing to push this idea.

Kansas is ground zero for this right now. Sam Brownback used Laffer’s ideas as an excuse to do what Republicans always want to do: cut taxes. This is not about economics. This is religious faith, which is why intellectual mediocrities like Art Laffer are held up as heroes on the right. But things have not worked out. The tax cuts have not spurred growth — unemployment is higher than it is in surrounding states. And the government has had huge deficits. The response from Brownback is that these things take time. Just keep waiting and eventually all will be well. Of course, the cuts to education are here today. And if the tax cuts were going to work, they would have worked by now.

But I learned something new about the Kansas story from an article by Mark Binelli in Rolling Stone, The Great Kansas Tea Party Disaster. He noted, “Back in 2011, Arthur Laffer, the Reagan-era godfather of supply-side economics, brought to Wichita by Brownback as a paid consultant…” Interesting. I knew that Laffer had consulted on how to destroy the Kansas economy, but I didn’t know it worked that way.

Here’s the thing. Since supply side economics is a religious faith, you don’t go hire an expert who will look at your options and decide on the best one. You decide what you are going to do and then you hire Art Laffer as a way to justify it. Laffer isn’t an economist; he’s a public relations device. So bringing him in to “consult” is picking your solution, because you know that Art Laffer has only ever had one idea (and it isn’t even his). So if you hire him, that’s the idea that you will get.

Many years ago, I was the head of software development at a high tech start-up. We did amazing work — arguably the best work I’ve ever been part of. But there was a shake-up among the owners and the brilliant founder of the company was pushed out. Suddenly, the company was controlled by a bunch of money guys who didn’t understand anything about technology. They hired a friend with a technological bent, but who was totally unqualified for the job. And he proceeded to destroy pretty much everything that was developed under the company’s founder. That was mostly on the hardware side. But at one point, they decided to hire a software consultant. This guy did work on web-based applications. So he studied what we were doing and — What a surprise! — he decided that we should convert the software to be a web-based application.

This is my experience with consultants. In general, they aren’t the generalists you would think. Instead, there is one thing they know and when hired, they always find that the best solution is that one thing they know. In the case of my clueless employers, I don’t think they understood what they were doing. They probably met the guy at a bar and that was good enough for them. But clearly Brownback knew what he was getting. Laffer was not going to surprise him.

The whole thing is remarkably disingenuous. We actually know pretty well what works in terms of economic policy. But there are always conservative economists around to tell conservatives whatever it is that they want to hear. Alberto Alesina is there to tell them that budget cuts in a recession will create a boom. Greg Mankiw will tell them that stimulus spending is good when a Republican is in the White House, and that it is bad when a Democrat is in the White House. Funny that. And Art Laffer, the one trick pony, will tell them tax cuts will pay for themselves. We would be dealing with more open-minded people if we were dealing with the Spanish Inquisition.


H/T: Ed Kilgore

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One-Third Hope for a Democratic Senate

Sam WangAs you probably know, I’ve been paying pretty close attention to the race for control of the Senate. You can see the six main models listed on the sidebar on the right. And recently, things have not been going so well, as I discussed in, Democrats Are Sad Not Delusional. So I continue to focus on Nate Silver’s model — currently giving Democrats a 36% chance of holding the Senate — and using Sam Wang’s model to remain hopeful.

Right now, Wang’s model gives the Democrats a 45±15% chance of holding the Senate. But it has been as low as 25±15% just a couple of days ago. It isn’t this number that gives me hope. Wang provides a more interesting statistic: the meta-margin. This is how far off the polls would have to be for the election to be a toss-up (50% chance that Democrats would keep control of the Senate). Currently, the value is R+0.4%. That is: Republicans are up by 0.4 percentage points and if the polls are off by 0.4 percentage points in the Republicans favor it would be a toss-up.

Nate SilverThe reason this gives me hope is that polls usually are off by quite a lot more than that. Looking just at midterm elections (presidential election polling is better), the average magnitude of errors on elections since 1990 is 2.9%. Of course, that doesn’t mean that errors would be in the Republicans’ favor. In 1990, 1994, and 2002, the polls were off in the Democrats’ favor — meaning the Republicans did better than expected. But the last two midterms were off in the Republicans’ favor. And the last four elections total greatly favored the Republicans: +3.4%, +0.9%, -0.2%, +2.7%.

This doesn’t necessarily mean anything. The 1998 polls favored the Republicans by 4.9%. Then the 2000 polls favored the Republicans by 2.1%. But then it flipped and favored the Democrats by 4.0% in 2002. So maybe the polls are all making the Democrats look better than they will turn out to be. That would actually make sense, because the Democrats have been polling far better than anyone expected, given the fundamentals of this election. And if that’s the case, this could be a far worse election than I am expecting.

In the end, when I make my predictions going into the election, I’ll stick with the polls. But I hang onto the hope that the meta-margin provides. Of course, it is just a measure of the error that the models predict. Most of them claim that Democrats have about a one-in-three shot of keeping the Senate. And that means there is roughly a one-in-three chance that the Republicans will have a blow-out. So that’s not a lot to hold onto. But it’s something. As always, it will help if you vote.

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Sarah Josepha Hale Had a Little Lamb

Sarah Josepha HaleBefore getting to the birthday, on this day in 1947, Walt Disney testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Disney ratted on Herbert Sorrell, David Hilberman and William Pomerance. But maybe “ratted” is the wrong word, because he didn’t actually disclose any information. He just figured they were commies. And how did he know? They were part of the 1941 animators’ strike. Like most conservatives then and now, any liberal cause from workers’ rights to civil rights to environmental regulation must be a communist plot. There are many reasons why people generally have a bad opinion of Walt Disney today. This is one of them. But I mostly only care that his cartoon shorts sucked. Thank God for Warner Bros!

On this day in 1788, a truly remarkable woman was born: Sarah Josepha Hale. She was a prominent writer and editor, but I’ll get to that in a moment. Let’s start with the fact that she was born just after the US Constitution was ratified, and she lived until well after the Civil War and shortly before the Progressive Era. As Mr Rochester would have said, she was tenacious of life.

Her parents were very liberal and so they educated her the way that they would have educated a boy. Of course, she could not go off to college, so she was largely self-taught. She became a school teacher in her early twenties but married two years later. Over the next nine year, she had five children. And then her husband died. According to Wikipedia, she worn black the rest of her long life “as a sign of perpetual mourning.” I mention it only because I love stuff like that.

A year after her husband’s death, she published her first book of poetry, The Genius of Oblivion. And then, four years later she published her first novel, Northwood: Life North and South. Her politics were fairly conservative by modern standards, but for their time, she probably was as liberal as most Democrats — maybe even me. She was against slavery, but for sending the slaves to Liberia. That was in 1827, which probably made her more liberal than Lincoln some years later. But even though she lived to 1879, she never believed in women’s suffrage.

She is considered the most important person for making Thanksgiving a holiday. I’m not at all interested in that. But I am interested in a book she wrote in 1830, Poems for Our Children. It contained perhaps the most famous poem in America:

Mary had a little lamb,
Its fleece was white as snow;
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go.

It followed her to school one day,
Which was against the rule;
It made the children laugh and play
To see a lamb at school.

And so the teacher turned it out,
But still it lingered near,
And waited patiently about
Till Mary did appear.

Why does the lamb love Mary so?
The eager children cry;
Why, Mary loves the lamb, you know,
The teacher did reply.

Perhaps Hale’s greatest legacy is that she pushed early American publishing away from English writers. At the time, most American magazines contained mostly reprinted work from our recent captors. And you can easily see why. American artists of all kinds were generally of an inferior quality. We just hadn’t set up the kind of institutions that are necessary to help young artists to maximize their potential. But obviously, the only way to do that was to encourage the publication of American writers as Hale did.

In addition to her work with magazines, she managed to publish almost fifty books in her lifetime. She lived a remarkable life.

Happy birthday Sarah Josepha Hale!

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Klayman Announces Lawsuit Shows Racism

Larry KlaymanYou would know I was being ironic if I wrote, “Those subhuman blacks are such racists!” But if I were a conservative, well, you would have to assume that I was serious. I know this sounds like an extreme example, but conservative lawyer Larry Klayman was over at that bastion of sanity WorldNetDaily Friday, Time to Act on Obama’s Ebola-Gate. Basically, it is about yet another of his useless and costly lawsuits. But apparently, Klayman just can’t help himself because, you know, he’s a bigot.

There is, perhaps, nothing that a modern American conservative believe quite as much as “reverse racism.” They think that there is no racism in America because there are no laws that stop people from doing particular things because of their race. But they also believe — contrary to their first claim — that there is racism, and it is against whites for people even claiming that the other kind of racism exists.

Here is the money quote — the one you would know was ironic if I wrote it:

Does anyone doubt that former Alabama Gov George Wallace was a racist, after he banned blacks from attending the state’s university in the 1960s? So too can anyone refute that Obama’s not even temporarily banning West Africans from entering the United States is also as least de facto racism, as this high risk caper puts whites and others at risk at the expense of not even temporarily “inconveniencing” his fellow Africans. Wallace and Obama are both despicable and both to be condemned to the trash heap of history for their actions.

I’m not going to break the whole thing down — much less the rest of the article with such priceless quotes as, “But I am not a racist, and neither are you!” I just want to focus on three little words: “his fellow Africans.” Really?! Obama is an African? That’s amazing. It is now the sixth year of Obama’s presidency, and people on the right can still not accept that he is an America. He is still that inscrutable “African” who managed to trick a lot of the “real” (white) Americans to vote for him. It is a shockingly racist statement. Since Obama is black (whatever that is supposed to mean), he sides with his “fellow Africans” and against “whites and others.”

Brian Tashman at Right Wing Watch noted:

Klayman argues that Obama had declined to enact a ban on travelers coming from West Africa not because medical and disease experts have advised against such a move, but because the president is “a reverse racist whose actions, not just with regard to Ebola but across the board, are skewed toward feathering the nest of ‘his’ people, and calculated to harm the rest of us if not destroy the entire country.”

I also like how Africa is a single place in the minds of conservatives. It isn’t 20% of the land area of the world with 47 countries. I guess this goes along with the school district that wouldn’t allow two Rwandan children to enter school because of Ebola concerns. You know: it’s the “dark continent”; how could anyone tell one region from another — much less one nation from another! I mean, Rwanda is only 2,600 miles from the closest country with Ebola. But that’s just “I’m an ignorant American” syndrome. It isn’t racism.

I’ve only said it once, so let me repeat it: Larry Klayman is a bigot. But he has lots of support. If you have a strong stomach, you can read through some of the comments. One person claimed that his lawsuit wouldn’t work, “Crooked judges would rather see themselves and their families die of Obola, than allow discovery on Obola’s forged documents.” Another has it all figured out, “Obama WANTS half of America to die. WHY? CONTROL.” And another gave the obligatory shoutout to the conservatives’ newest authroitarian BFF, “I notice that Russia is clamping down, and Putin is right to do it.” (I can’t actually find any indication that this is true.)

What bugs me is that I’m sure Klayman is no kind of social pariah. That is something that the upper reaches of our society have lost sight of. Norms are enforced by people paying a social price for breaking those norms. But going around publishing racist comments about the president don’t disqualify him from being at all the good parties. I don’t know, but given that it wasn’t for Andrew Breitbart, why would it be for Klayman? The one good thing about this is that you don’t have to read the future Fall of the American Empire because you get to watch it in real time.


H/T: Digby

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No Obamacare Change Will Impress Conservatives

Ramesh PonnuruRamesh Ponnuru now works at Bloomberg View, which goes along with my theory that any smart conservative will eventually end up with a good job at a mainstream news outlet because there are so few conservative writers who aren’t totally insane. But while I like him and think he often has really insightful things to say about American politics, he is usually just a conservative who can’t see beyond his limited worldview. Take, for example, his article today, Sorry, Obamacare Is Still Unfixable.

Earlier this year, I wrote, Ramesh Ponnuru Obamacare Warning to Conservatives. That was in reference to his article warning that Obamacare was not about to “implode.” But I criticized him for implying that conservative complaints about Obamacare were substantial. They aren’t. And to be honest, I don’t see that Ponnuru’s complaints are either.

In today’s article, he attacked the plan of Senators Mark Warner and Mark Begich to add “copper” plans to Obamacare. These would be plans with low premiums and high deductibles. Ponnuru says that such plans might hurt Obamacare, “That migration could, however, make the exchanges less stable by reducing the amount of money that healthy people are putting into them through their premiums.” It’s possible, but given the conservative tendency to always assume the worst about Obamacare and always be wrong, it is hard to take the “could” complaint very seriously.

But Ponnuru’s complaint especially annoys me because what Warner and Begich are doing is trying to appease conservatives. It is conservatives, after all, who are always yelling about how “catastrophic insurance” is the solution to all our problems. But once such things are on the table, they complain about high deductibles. Indeed, Ponnuru complains about the ridiculously high deductibles in the current “bronze” plans. And I agree: it’s terrible. And I don’t like the idea of “copper” plans. I wanted and continue to want a more liberal plan. The current plan is extremely conservative. Democrats are working to make it even more conservative. And the reaction by conservatives is that moves in their direction are no good. Because, let’s face it, Obamacare will never be any good. There is no “replace” of Obamacare; conservatives just want to kill it.

This brings up an issue: is healthcare in the United States better under Obamacare than it was before? I think the answer to that is clearly and resoundingly, “Yes!” That should be the question for conservatives like Ponnuru, just the same as it is for liberals like me. It shouldn’t be, “Is Obamacare better than whatever solution you have in your head?” I’m not saying that Ponnuru is being disingenuous, but it is just too easy for people (Like me!) to get lost in theoretical-land and not deal with the world as it is.

Ponnuru ended the article in a way that makes me even less keen. He wrote, “An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll earlier this month found that only 36 percent of the public favors Obamacare.” That’s true, but hardly relevant. People don’t even know what Obamacare is. It is just that the word “Obamacare” has been vilified like the word “liberal” — and by the same people. No change to Obamacare will make “Obamacare” popular. Even if it was reformed to consist only of tort “reform” and huge tax cuts for the wealthy, conservatives wouldn’t like it because it has “Obama” in the word.

I am sure that Ponnuru knows this. So the end of his article is nothing but conservative propaganda. And more generally, but to a lesser extent, that’s true of the whole article. Ponnuru is better than this. Sadly, the conservative movement is not.

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Bad Climate News and the Need for a Predator

CaribouOver at Vox this morning Brad Plumer reports, São Paulo Is the 7th Largest City in the World. And It’s About to Run Out of Water. It is experiencing “the worst drought in eight decades.” It really is bad: the city’s reservoirs are down to 5% of their capacity and there have been intermittent and widespread water outages. The proximate cause is that the region has received only 40% of the rainfall it normally does and the water utility had refused to implement water rationing, preferring anemic “free market” measures.

As for the more substantive reasons for the drought, Climate Central points to global warming and deforestation, which of course are related. Right now, here in California, we are in a similar situation. And in our case, it seems to be all global warming. Historical correlations between temperature in precipitation in the vast majority of the United States is negative — and it is particularly so here in California.

My concerns about global warming has always been focused on rainfall. The evil irony is that a warmer world will produce more rain, but it does so primarily over the oceans. So there are potentially devastating effects on agriculture, and those effects are going to harm the United States a lot. As for California, I won’t be surprised at all if in a hundred years, it is a ghost state because we just don’t have the water to support 38 million people. But I’m surprised that São Paulo is being so affected. It is on the edge of a forest and close to the coast. But that’s the thing about all the carbon we’ve pumped into the atmosphere — it is an experiment we are conducting on the planet, and we have little idea just how it is going to work out in its specifics.

CaribouMeanwhile, Andrea Thompson at Climate Central reported, Hot News: 2014 On Track to Become Warmest Year. It follows from an announcement by the National Climatic Data Center that following September being the warmest on record that we are “likely” to see 2014 be the warmest year. Even if the last three months are just as warm as the average of the years 2000 – 2013, it will tie with the warmest year.

But it is madness that we are even talking about this. Forget 2014. The warmest year on record: 2010. Second warmest: 2005. Third warmest: 1998. This last one is the only non-21st century year on the list of the ten warmest years on record. I’m again reminded of the caribou. The lack of wolves caused the species to get over-populated in Newfoundland. The caribou were so successful that they were destroying their habitat and starving, so wolves had to be reintroduced.

We need some wolves, but not to keep our population in check. We need wolves to keep our global capitalism in check. I’m not saying that we need to harm the economy. We are not turning a blind eye to global warming because the people or even the capitalists generally want that. We are doing it because there is one industry that has a huge incentive to stop us from doing anything about global warming: the fossil fuel industry. And they have enormous resources to create doubt. So yes, we are destroying the planet because about ten thousand people all over the world want to hang onto their current profits, which are almost all dependent upon externalities.

Any individual human would behave better. The current conservative line on global warming would be seen as irrational in an individual. Consider a man who said, “Unless you can prove to me that I’m going to die before my children are grown, I’m not going to buy any life insurance!” And the same conservatives who say we can’t do anything about global warming unless we know, also say that they must be allowed to carry a gun with them at all times just in case. I understand the philosophical thread: conservatives don’t believe in collective action. But the fact remains that we all have far more to worry about regarding global warming than we do lone gunmen. (Or black helicopters!)

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America Is Afraid of Everything

Cable Hysteria - US vs Canada

This image comes from Digby, Exceptionally Hysterical. What it shows is the coverage of yesterday’s shooting at the Canadian Parliament. On the left is CNN with, “Terrified Capital.” I’m sorry: “TERRIFIED CAPITAL.” On the right is the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) with, “Soldier Dies After Parliament Hill Attack, Gunman Also Shot Dead.” Stark difference.

What’s sad is that if I had only told you the headlines, you would have known: the first was from some American outlet. Even right now, The New York Times headline is, After Shooting, Fear and Anxiety Take Over Ottawa. And you would have known that the second headline was from some other country where they still report the news. Right now, the CBC headline is, Ottawa Shooting: A Day of Chaos Leaves Soldier, Gunman Dead.

I have a message for my fellow Americans: stop being such pussies. Constantly flying into fits of terror does not make us look tough. It makes us look like frightened children. As Russell Saunders noted yesterday, “As of this writing, the number of patients diagnosed with Ebola in the United States can be counted on one hand, and the number who have died on one finger.” Is there no threat too small that we won’t freak out?! If Malia gets a paper cut, will the headlines read, “BLOOD FLOWS IN THE WHITE HOUSE”?

The situation in Canada is pretty clear. There was a violent person who the Canadian government already knew about. He killed a man, which is sad in a general sense and a tragedy for those close to him. And now the violent man is dead. It doesn’t mean planes are heading for our skyscrapers. No black helicopters coming. No Ebola epidemic.

But you know what? There are 10,000 germs on every square inch of your skin! What’s more, every year, over two million children under the age of 5 die of diarrheal diseases. If I were you, I’d get to the bathroom fast. Not only can you vigorously wash your hands over and over again, it will also hide you away so that the rest of the world won’t have to see what cowards Americans are! This is why we spend on our military just under what the rest of the world combined spends: because we are terrified of a fair fight. Because we are the few, the arrogant, the pussies.

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Here’s Johnny!

Johnny CarsonOn this day in 1925, the comedian Johnny Carson was born. When I was a kid — a little kid, because my parents were, well, permissive — I liked him well enough on The Tonight Show. Unlike the adults who watched the show, I liked it more when there were guest hosts. Two of my favorites were David Letterman and David Brenner. But I thought that Carson was funny. I enjoyed watching his show. Of course, I remember thinking that Bob Hope specials were so funny and when I’ve had a chance to see them as an adult, I’ve been horrified. (The movies are just fine.)

But Carson did tell one of the funniest jokes I have ever heard. It involves our current governor who just so happens to have been our governor then. In case you didn’t know it, Brown had a reputation for being, well, very California. People referred to him as “Governor Moonbeam.” Having told you that, I will just quote from last year’s birthday post:

The Democratic National Convention was going on. Jerry Brown had run for president and he came in a distant third. But he was still an important presence at the convention. Carson said (more or less), “A reporter ask Brown if it bothered him that a lot people thought he was a new age hippy. And Brown responded, ‘Well, you give good karma out, you get good karma back.’” Okay, that’s a solid joke. But it died. Carson got nothing from the audience. So he ad libbed, “How about: he said it while meditating on ten pounds of raw liver?” I died. To this day, I think it is one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard. No one agrees with me. I guess you had to be there.

Carson started doing magic as a young man. He continued with it through college before thinking better of it. But he clearly never lost his interest as you could see on the show where he often booked magicians — often even good ones. And of course, there was my absolute favorite part of his show, Carnac the Magnificent. The best part of this clip is when Carnac says that he needs quiet and Ed McMahon says, “You’re getting a lot of it tonight.”

I could give you an overview of Carson’s rise to fame, but there really is nothing more boring than than the stories of people who worked in radio and the early days of television. It is always the same, “He did one thing here and then he moved and did a different thing there and then he was at yet another place doing yet another thing.” It ends with, “And in 1962, he reluctantly took over The Tonight Show.” And he did the show until 1992 when they gave it to Jay Leno. Leno, you may recall from the early days of Late Night With David Letterman. That was when Leno worked as a comedian. By the time he took over The Tonight Show, Leno was working in another medium that I could never quite figure out. Carson, on the other hand, could always make me laugh. Here’s a parody of Columbo that I rather like:

Happy birthday Johnny Carson!

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