"American Pie" Is a Reactionary Political Whine

American PieIn the first band I was ever in, the first song we did was "American Pie." I'm not sure why. It wasn't a song I was particularly fond of. It was probably because it was easy, although certainly "Wild Thing" would have been easier. It is a song that has largely been given a free ride over the years with his jumbled lyrics about the history of rock music. It is an okay song, but overall tedious and too long.

Earlier this year, Don McLean auctioned off the original lyric sheet for the song. He got over a million dollars for it. But he also claimed that the notes would reveal all there was to reveal. And what they revealed were really obvious things like the "the king" being Elvis and "the jester" being Dylan. I've never found the song particularly mysterious. It seems designed to make listeners feel good about themselves for figuring out its transparent metaphors.

Something else "revealed" by McLean was that the song was about the death of the rock-n-roll that he loved as a kid. He said, "[Life] is becoming less idyllic." You know what that's called: growing up. Everyone thinks "life" was more idyllic when they were kids because, you know, they were kids -- life was more idyllic. Nothing had happened to the music other than what had always happened: it continued to grow and evolve.

The other night, I was thinking about the song and the obvious hit me: it's a reactionary political song. It's the pop music equivalent of "Okie from Muskogee." It's one big -- eight and a half minute -- whine about how the hippies had ruined everything. The song makes continual reference to Christianity. This has generally been interpreted as the spiritual side of music, "Can music, save your mortal soul? And can you teach me how to dance real slow?" But that isn't really what he seems to be getting at.

The motivation behind "American Pie" is McLean's complaint about growing up and the loss of innocence. So he's just grabbed onto the cultural signifiers of the time that allow him to say "Now is bad, then was good." And give the sad sap content of the album -- with songs like "Empty Chairs" and "Vincent" -- we get a clear picture of adolescent discontent. (Yes, I know he was 25 at the time.) And he reached for a convenient excuse for his displeasure -- his parents and that "stuck-up girl in history class" no longer fitting the bill.

It's ironic that McLean's big whine would turn out to be exactly what he was complaining about: rock-n-roll with an over-serious, pseudo-intellectual gloss, ultimately stripped of its power. And the rest of his career is one of easy listening pop and country. There were people around who were doing the kind of rock music that he claimed to miss: The Troggs and Velvet Underground to name just two. But "American Pie" is not about the music. His discontent was with life. And he's way off target. "American Pie" could have been written in 1957 as a complaint about how Buddy Holly had destroyed music.

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Deficit Spending Crowds Investment In

Paul KrugmanIf weak demand leads to lower investment, which it does, and if fiscal austerity is contractionary, which it is, then in a depressed economy deficit spending doesn't crowd investment out — it crowds investment in. Or to be more explicit, austerity policies don't release resources for private investment — they lead to lower private investment, and reduce future capacity in addition to causing present pain. Conversely, stimulus in times of depression supports, not hinders, long-run growth.

—Paul Krugman
The Investment Accelerator and the Woes of the World

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We Atheists Should Admit We Might Be Murderers

Lauren NelsonIn the Friendly Atheist section of Patheos, Lauren Nelson wrote, Before You Claim the UCC Shooting Was About Christian Persecution, Consider All the Evidence. It's a relatively deep dive into whether the shooter was an atheist and whether this had anything to do with singling out Christians. And the answer to the first question is clearly no. He certainly had a problem with organized religion, but he doesn't seem to have been an atheist. We now we have some indication that the answer to the second question is also no.

But I think it is a mistake to make such an argument. Implicit in it is the claim that an atheist wouldn't target random people for execution as an expression of atheism. That might not be the case here, but given the frequency of mass shootings, it may well happen -- and soon. And then atheists will be in the same place that Christians now find themselves: committing the no true Scotsman fallacy. We'll have to listen to people claiming that anyone who really understood the tenets of atheism wouldn't have committed this horrible act.

I am an atheist, but I know the atheist community far too well to rely on this. There are many atheists who get mad at me for saying this, but there really is a strong connection between atheism and libertarianism. Atheism doesn't necessarily turn someone into a humanist. Many atheists feel it is perfectly acceptable to let human beings die in the name of their primitive economic theories. In general, they don't think it is all right to explicitly kill others. But it is hardly far off the beaten path. Ayn Rand was very much enamored with serial killer William Hickman and Nietzsche's Übermensch. It doesn't take any effort at all to actually become the serial killer and imagined Übermensch.

But there is a more fundamental point here. Humans are clever. It does not take much to use just about anything to justify something that you did or want to do. True, it would be harder to justify murder using Jainism than Judaism. But I feel certain it can be done. And atheism is a hell of a lot closer to Judaism than it is to Jainism -- at least judging from the way that prominent atheists talk. So I think we atheists ought to give our theist brothers and sisters a break. We should just assume that some very prominent horrific act has already been committed by an outspoken and clear atheist.

Does this mean that atheism is bad? Not at all. It is just an acknowledgement that people use all kinds of things to justify their terrible behavior. And that would allow my fellow atheists to better see that the acts terrorists, lone gunmen, and Republican politicians do not necessarily say anything about the religion of those people. If there is one lesson from religion that I wish that atheists would learn, it would be the dangers of hubris taught in the Old Testament. As a group, we atheists are very full of ourselves. I would hate for me and my philosophy to be judged on the basis of Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.


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Prank Discloses Fraud of Mainstream News

Jon HendrenLast week, Edward Snowden got his own twitter account. It came as a bit of a surprise to me, because I just thought that he would have had one. But what surprised me even more was that a lot of conservatives were outraged by this. For example, George Pataki Calls for Twitter to Censor Edward Snowden's Tweet, Because America. Given the controversy, HLN (used to be Headline News) decided to bring some people on to discuss the issue. That was their first mistake, because it isn't a controversy -- just an example of conservatives demagoguing an issue, and that is not news.

To speak for the side that believes in the First Amendment, HLN wanted to get John Hendren -- the correspondent for Al Jazeera English. But instead, they got Jon Hendren -- a computer nerd who is apparently also a comedian and troll. In one way, it's an understandable mistake. Jon is far more famous on twitter than John. And this was all about twitter, after all. In another way, it's not understandable: Jon Hendren's twitter handle is @fart. It is even displayed on the screen while he's talking.

This video clip is three and a half minutes long. It's quite normal for the first two minutes of that. But I recommend watching the whole thing:

I don't think I've seen anything that funny in months. It reminds me of Bob and Ray's Komodo Dragon sketch. The joke in that sketch is that the interviewer is not listening at all to what the interviewee is saying. And the joke is repeated again and again. But that's planned. Here, Yasmin Vossoughian isn't in on it. She just is in real life what Bob and Ray's interviewer was: someone not in the least bit interested in the story or the people involved in it. And the comedic genius of Hendren is that he pushes it to the point that anyone even vaguely paying attention would have noticed.

We shouldn't vilify Vossoughian, because she is but a typical example of the mainstream news. I've seen this same thing over and over again with politicians. The conservative movement has used this fact to their advantage. It allows them to normalize extreme positions. It is not at all hard to imagine a politician saying, "All undocumented residents should be put into work camps," and have that followed up with, "And you think this is a position that will play well in the coming election?"

That's what really bothers me. It is very much like we no longer have news. We have entertainers playing the part of people bringing us the news. That's why they so love things like last week's mass shooting: they know just how real journalists would act in those situations. There's little concern of error. But when it comes to covering issues where there are two disputed sides, they are lost. So if Ted Cruz announces that all the Jews must be killed, they will just go for it, thinking that it is just one of those things that Republicans now think.

To his credit, after Jon Hendren appeared on HLN, he tweeted:

For the people watching HLN, I doubt it made any difference.

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Morning Music: The Spanish Entomologist

Greenhouse - Leo KottkeNext in our journey through the career of Leo Kottke, we have 1972's Greenhouse. He sings a lot more on this album. And at times, he's very good. For example, check out Tiny Island. He also does a few songs by John Fahey -- probably the biggest influence on Kottke's style. The album is a true solo album -- except for the last track on the album, it is just Kottke with his guitar. And it was recorded in just three days.

The song I've chosen today is, "The Spanish Entomologist." It is really too delightful for words. It's a medley. It starts with "Grand Texas" -- but you probably know it from the Hank Williams classic "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)." (That would be a good week of music -- following that progression.) And then he transitions into the Sons of the Pioneers song "Tumbling Tumbleweeds." And then back. Unfortunately, I can't find a live version of the song, so here is the title track with nothing to look at but the album cover. Not that it matters; it's two and a half music of joy.

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Anniversary Post: Bellerophon

Star WobbleOn this day in 1995 — 20 years ago — Bellerophon (51 Pegasi b) was discovered. It was the first planet discovered to be orbiting around a Sun like star — 51 Pegasi. It was the second exoplanet ever discovered. And it is quite a planet, which destroyed some theories about solar system formation. It is a very big planet: roughly half the mass of Jupiter. But it is really close to 51 Pegasi — just 0.05 AU, which is six times closer than Mercury is to the Sun. The year on Bellerophon is four Earth days long.

Bellerophon was discovered the way that about half of all exoplanets have been discovered: with Doppler spectroscopy. I put the animation above (courtesy of Zhatt at Wikipedia) so that you would see how this works. As I've discussed before, Jupiter doesn't actually orbit around the Sun; it orbits around the center of mass of it and the Sun (forget the rest of the solar system for now). But as a result, the Sun also orbits around the center of mass of the solar system.

As a result of Jupiter, the Sun wobbles -- changing speed by about 12 m/s over the course of one Jupiter orbit (12 years). Since the 1990s, we've had equipment capable of detecting Jupiter if we were observing from another solar system. In the case of 51 Pegasi, the wobble was much greater: 70 m/s. But in the early 2000s, new systems were installed that could detect wobbles as small as 0.3 m/s. And soon, we should have systems that can detect wobbles of just 0.1 m/s. That last one is important because the Earth induces a 0.1 m/s wobble in the Sun. It's very exciting.

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India Works to Stop Global Warming — Republicans Continue to Deny

Global Warming IndiaFirst it was China. And this last week, India Unveils Climate Change Plan. So now the first and third biggest greenhouse gas polluters have come out with plans to cut their emissions. In case you were wondering, we are now number two. But when it comes to per capita greenhouse emissions, we are still number one! So let's give a cheer for that:

We're number one! We're number one!

Back in August, after Obama put out new rules designed to fight global warming, the conservative reaction was not good. Marco Rubio said, "As far as I can see, China and India and other developing countries are going to continue to burn anything they can get their hands on." Of course, since the announcements of China and India, Rubio has had nothing to say. As Steve Benen said, Rubio Needs a New Excuse to Ignore the Climate Crisis.

That's true of all of them. Any reason they give for being against doing anything about global warming is nothing more than an excuse. It's like my three stages of global warming denial. But I've since learned that there are more stages, because literally no amount of information will ever stop the deniers. They simply don't want to do anything and the reasons are irrelevant.

But is this not the Republican Party since Reagan? They simply believe certain things and it doesn't matter how much evidence against it piles up. They don't accept global warming, and that is probably the most important, in the end. But they believe that tax cuts for the rich will fix the economy (I wrote about that earlier today). They believe that whatever next war they've gotten into their heads is going to turn out great. They believe that if only we make it easier for people to carry guns, our gun homicide rate will go down. It goes on and on and on.

It's not surprising that most of the things they just "know" also happen to help various wealthy interest groups. That's what it is all about. And there is no interest group more wealthy than the oil companies. So Steve Benen proposes an interesting question: what will Rubio's new excuse be? I don't think it is hard to predict. He's said other things against doing anything about global warming. He'll just pivot back to, "We can't hurt our economy!"

There will always be an excuse. And the economy is the perfect excuse because it can always be used. I've written a lot in the past that we really should have been doing something about global warming the past seven years, because lots of resources were going unused. It was a time when updating our power system would have actually helped the economy. Doing so during a booming economy will hurt it. But the Republicans will never accept this thinking. They will always be able to make the "It will hurt the economy!" argument. So they will make it — at least until crop failures and decimated coastal cities make it impossible.


Actually, I know what will happen. Eventually, there will be a new generation of Republicans who accept global warming when denial of it is as publicly supportable as denial of the Holocaust. And they will tell us that they are different from the Republicans that came before. They won't be. But the media will treat them as if they are. Because our media always does that. Because it has worked out so well thus far.


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Conservatives Can't Deal With Their Lack of Power

Jonathan ChaitI wrote that liberals have trouble handling authority. In general, we are much more comfortable fantasizing about power; the sensation of holding and using it seems to unsettle us, and we curl into ourselves with disappointment. Conservatives displayed far less grumpiness toward George W Bush than liberals have toward Obama until the very end, when Bush's presidency collapsed so irretrievably the right had to hastily abandon its largely worshipful pose and write him out of the conservative tradition in order to contain the fallout.

Conservatives in the Freedom Caucus suffer from a similar but different problem: they do not seem capable of comprehending a world in which they exert less than total power. This failure to compute leads to bursts of angry behavior that is ineffectual by design. No scalp will satisfy, not when any new head starts to look like another scalp. No Freedom Caucus member who finds himself in the party leadership can be anything but a sellout, since betrayal is the only explanation for the failure of the right-wing agenda.

—Jonathan Chait
The House's Right Flank Finally Got Boehner's Scalp. So Why Doesn’t It Feel Good?

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Why the Poor Aren't Supporting Bernie Sanders

Bernie SandersMartin Longman wants us to consider, Where Bernie Underperforms. He presented some numbers from the Pew Research Center. And there are four groups that he performs badly with: non-whites, less educated, less affluent, and more religious. But as Longman noted, these are not independent. In fact, I would say that they are exactly the same thing: Bernie Sanders doesn't do well with the poor. And poor Democrats are less educated, more religious, and less white. So let's cut the crap and talk about why Sanders does not seem to be appealing especially well to the poor.

What's weird about it is why people usually don't engage with the question. Longman asks some of the standard questions. Is it that he's Jewish? Doubtful. A northerner? Doubtful. Not religious? Doubtful. LiberalInCamo at Daily Kos had an idea in an article back in early July, Bernie Sanders' Two Big Problems: Race and Gender. That claim was, "Sanders silence on race and his tunnel vision on one political issue are problems." But I don't buy this at all. Sanders has since talked a great deal about race, but it hasn't changed his standing among non-whites.

For people of moderate incomes, a Republican getting in wouldn't be catastrophic. For the poor, it would be.

There is something that I commonly hear Republicans say that is actually true: members of minority groups care most about the economy. The idea that Latinos are single issue voters on immigration policy is just nonsense. Of course, these very same Republicans offer economic policy that hurts the vast majority of non-whites and whites. But that doesn't matter. And that certainly isn't the case with Sanders. His policies should be particularly appealing to non-white members of the society, because they are far more likely to be poor.

I've begun to wonder if there isn't skepticism toward Sanders amongst poorer people because they have learned that in this society the very best you could hope for is second best — or even just something that isn't especially horrible. Maybe Sanders' message sounds like a fairy tale. I know that it does to me — and I'm a Sanders supporter. But for the last several years, I've been trying to Demand the Impossible.

But let's consider the calculus here. Sanders would be unlikely to accomplish much more than Clinton — and might accomplish less. Both of them will be infinitely better than whomever the Republicans run. Under a Republican, things will be much worse for poor people. Given that there really are concerns about Sanders in the general election — being a "socialist" and being old and not having such a polished public persona — it's safer to go with Clinton.

As for me, despite the fact that I'm a strong Sanders supporters, I haven't decided for sure if I'm going to vote for him in the primary. If I feel that he has roughly as good a chance to win as Clinton by that time, I will vote for him. If I think he will bring down the party, I won't. But I tend to think that I will vote for him. In the end, the general election will almost certainly be what it always is: a Democrat versus a Republican. If the economy continues to grow, the Democrat will win; if it doesn't, the Republican will win.

But for normal people who don't read political science books, the safe choice is Hillary Clinton. What's more, for people of moderate incomes, a Republican getting in wouldn't be catastrophic. For the poor, it would be. And I suspect that why the poor are not jumping on the Sanders bandwagon.

See also: What Risk Is Bernie Sanders Worth?


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Why Supply Side Economics Doesn't Work

Neera TandenI came upon an old article by the President of the Center for American Progress, Neera Tanden, Burying Supply-Side Once and for All. I really liked the way that she framed the issue, because I hadn't thought about it in such stark terms. Conservatives claim that tax cuts will save us all because it will increase investment. But that isn't the way that economic stimulus works — ever.

According to the supply side dogma, we mustn't just lower taxes — we must lower taxes on the rich — the "makers." Doing so will incentivize them to work more. The theory seems pretty straight forward. Imagine that you are working 20 hours per week for $10 per hour. Your boss wants you to work more hours, but you don't want to. If she offered you $20 per hour if you worked full time, you would be far more likely to take that deal. The problem is that it isn't like this at all income levels. And an even bigger issue is that the rich get most of their money from capital gains. They aren't going to work more if their taxes are lower. And they aren't going to invest more, because they are almost certainly investing as much as the investment environment dictates.

So this isn't how stimulus works. Instead, it works by giving people more money, which they spend. Given that the rich already spend as much as they want, giving them even more money makes no sense. They will save it. And saving it will not get funneled into investments when we aren't at full employment. (Note: we are almost never at full employment.) Thus, if we are going to give money to people, we should give it to the poor, because we know that they will spend it and thus cause the money to move through the economy, doing the actual work of stimulus.

This is an excellent way to think about supply side dogma. It shows why it doesn't work. But also, it explains why conservatives say things that seem — on their face — to be ridiculous claims. When Trump and Bush and Rubio put out tax "reform" plans that are just big giveaways to the rich, it looks different to them. They think this is how you stimulate the economy. They implicitly accept the Say's Fallacy that supply creates its own demand and that any money given to the rich will automatically be invested. So it isn't like they are totally unhinged. They just have a deeply flawed theory of how the economy actually works. (Or they only care about the rich. Or both.)

The other side of this is that we have empirical data. Paul Krugman dealt with the issue in his column on Friday, Voodoo Never Dies. Supply side economics didn't even work under Ronald Reagan. The economy was good under him because of Federal Reserve policy and good old fashioned Keynesian stimulus. Under Clinton, the economy was supposed to fall apart when he raised taxes, but it didn't. It was supposed to boom because of George W Bush's huge regressive tax cuts — but instead we got anemic growth. And the economy was again supposed to die when Obama allowed top tax rates to go back up and Obamacare to start. Instead, the economy did even better.

So supply side is nonsense. But I do think it is important to understand so that you can counter conservatives. It won't do for us to talk past each other. They need to have their nonsense confronted directly. Because it is literally killing Americans.

Actually, it turns out that I had read Tanden's article before. But the article I wrote about it (and another) are worth checking out, Supply Side Dogma.

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Morning Music: Hear the Wind Howl

Mudlark - Leo KottkeIn 1971, Leo Kottke had his major label debut with Mudlark. I'm very inclined to present his 12-string version of Eight Miles High. But you can check that out on your own. Instead, we can listen to another song where he sings, "Hear the Wind Howl." The truth is, I'm not that fond of him singing. It's not that it's bad, but he is the kind of musician where you want him to just shut up and play his guitar. Of course, his playing is as great regardless of what else he's doing. That's true here where he does some beautiful slide work.

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Anniversary Post: Monty Python's Flying Circus

Monty Python's Flying CircusOn this day in 1969, the first episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus appeared on BBC One. I remember when I first discovered it, although I'm unclear what year it was — 1977 most likely. It was astounding. But I have to admit that a lot of it worked for me just because it was silly. I especially remember, Climbing the North Face of the Uxbridge Road. How could I not love that?

As I got older, I turned off to it. I started getting more of the inside humor and it seemed somewhat pretentious and always overdone. But about a year ago, I decided to revisit it. I watched the entire series in a short period of time. My first take on it was right: astounding. It's more the subtle points that impress me now. For example, the first episode of the second season, "Face the Press." It is most known for The Ministry of Silly Walks. But right at the start of that sketch, Cleese walks by a long line of delivery men — a payoff to the earlier New Cooker Sketch. It's a marvel, even today; but at that time, this approach to comedy just wasn't done.

There are things that have become so ingrained in the culture so as to be annoying. I really do find the Cleese "list" sketches hard to take. They depend entirely upon Cleese's acting, which is superb, but old hat now. These include some of the "best loved" sketches like the Dead Parrot sketch and Cheese Shop sketch. The Dead Parrot sketch has a bit right in the middle where Terry Jones says, "It's not easy to pad these up to 30 minutes." Exactly! People remember the beginning of it, but not all the wasted time of going to the brother's shop and all that. As for the Cheese Shop sketch, it ends stupidly. But I must admit it's brilliant when Cleese loses it with the musicians.

What works best for me now is when episodes hang together. I didn't know what to make of "The Cycling Tour" when I was young, but now it is one of my favorite episodes. It reminds me very much of what Palin and Jones would go on to do in Ripping Yarns. But the main thing is that in any episode — Any! — there is a tremendous amount to love. And then, of course, they went on to make three great films. Although, if you ask me, they're horrible live.

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