The Bad Side of Obama’s SOTU Address

Barack ObamaObama’s failure to reconcile words to deeds detracts mightily from the grab bag of ideas he offers under the catchy title “middle class economics.” As noted, these policies could really improve people’s lives. But while he’s out thumping for them, he’s in hot pursuit of what he hopes will be his last coup, approval of the Trans Pacific Trade Partnership. It’s such a popular idea he chose not to breathe its name in his speech. What he did say was worth sampling if only to savor its cleverness: “China wants to write the rules for the world’s fastest-growing region. We should write those rules… That’s why I’m asking both parties to give me trade promotion authority to protect American workers, with strong new trade deals from Asia to Europe that aren’t just free, but fair.”

He doesn’t want another free trade fiasco like that awful NAFTA, just “trade promotion authority to protect American workers.” Surely we can all be for that.

Nearly all left-leaning Democrats oppose the TPTP: Paul Krugman, Joe Stiglitz, Bob Reich, Elizabeth Warren. One can’t imagine Obama changing his mind on it any more than one imagines him asking any of them to help craft his new populist agenda. As he likes to reassure his donors, “I’m a market kind of guy,” meaning he comes as close as a Democrat can to being a market ideologue. And yes, there is such a thing.

Market ideologues aren’t the sort to throw bombs or ruin dinner parties but they’re ideologues nonetheless. Their solution for every problem known to mankind is to adopt “market principles.” Their influence on Obama’s generation of Democratic elites has been profound. It’s why so many of them apply market theory to issues to which it is ill-suited, such as carbon reduction, health care and public education.

Obama doesn’t get that free trade can be as good as he says for business and still be a terrible deal for workers. He doesn’t get that markets by their nature do a great job of creating wealth and a poor one of distributing it; that absent a strong government to encode and enforce a social contract there is no middle class; that pitting our workers against those lacking such support will eventually impoverish them. It’s why he opposed raising the minimum wage when he had the votes to do it in his first term. It’s why he bailed out banks but not homeowners, and abandoned the public option.

—Bill Curry
Let’s Not Morph Obama Into Elizabeth Warren Quite Yet

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American Double Standard Regarding Democracy

King AbdullahThere is this constant question about American foreign policy. Why is it that some countries are our allies when they are so horrible? Of course, the claim is always that we support “democracy” and “the rule of law” and “respect for human rights.” But that doesn’t seem to ever be the case. For example, I think that the United Kingdom is a democracy that supports the rule of law and respects human rights. But I don’t think that’s the reason that the UK is our ally. I think we decide whether to have an ally and only afterward do we apply those nice sounding labels on them.

More often, these labels are not used in the affirmative. We don’t generally say that we have an ally because of these things. Instead, we claim that a country is our enemy because they are not a democracy or whatever. And that fact came very much to the fore recently when King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia died. He was a horrible man — a despot. This is a man who was fine with beheading another for the “crime” of witchcraft. A real class act from a real classy country. But who needs class and, you know, the Enlightenment, when you have huge oil reserves and the biggest military in the world willing to do anything for you?

Hugo ChávezLast Friday, Glenn Greenwald put together a great compare and contrast, Obama’s Reaction to the Deaths of King Abdullah and Hugo Chávez. As readers of this site know, I’m fairly fond of Chávez. It wasn’t that he was an especially great leader. But he distinguished himself in that he wasn’t totally corrupt and he actually tried to make the resources of his nation work for the good of the people. (Imagine in a US president did that!) And that puts him well ahead of most leaders. That, of course, also put him at odds with the US government. If Chávez had been willing to make deals with US interests that made him and his friends rich at the expense of his people, the US government (and its lapdog media) would have been fine with him — regardless of what else he did.

How do I know? Well, just look at Abdullah. For a good rundown of what a great guy he was, check out Murtaza Hussain’s obituary, Saudi Arabia’s Tyrant King Misremembered as Man of Peace. He was a vile man who not only supported just about every horrible thing the US does, but also did a lot of his own war making. Check out this example of his commitment to peace and democracy:

In Bahrain, Saudi forces intervened to crush a popular uprising which had threatened the rule of the ruling al-Khalifa monarchy, while in Syria Saudi-backed factions have helped turn what was once a popular democratic uprising into a bloody, intractable proxy war between regional rivals which is now a main driver of extremism in the Middle East.

But really, you don’t need to look any further than the 9/11 hijackers. Of the 19 men, 15 were from Saudi Arabia. Osama bin Laden himself was from Saudi Arabia. Any normal country would have to answer for that. If those 15 had instead been from Venezuela, we would have invaded the country. As it was, we helped stage a coup in 2002. It appears that to the US government, “democracy” is just another word for “countries that do as they’re told.” What’s even more frustrating is that the US media were universal in their condemnation of Chávez when he mocked Bush at the United Nations. No mention was ever made of the coup, of course, because that would have been unfair to Bush.

When Chávez died, this was the official response, which is as close to “good riddance” as these things ever get:

At this challenging time of President Hugo Chávez’s passing, the United States reaffirms its support for the Venezuelan people and its interests in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government. As Venezuela begins a new chapter in its history, the United States remains committed to policies that promote democratic principles, the rule of law, and respect for human rights.

Translation: unless you idiots in Venezuela elect a pro-corporate government, you won’t have a government committed to policies that promote democratic principles, the rule of law, and respect for human rights. It’s really that simple. Meanwhile, Obama had “deep respect” for Abdullah. Most of the statement is about all the great work that he did for peace and the education of his people. No mention is made of the Saudi Arabian government being committed to policies that promote democratic principles, the rule of law, and respect for human rights. That’s because it isn’t.

But it doesn’t matter. All this disingenuous nonsense means is that any country that plays nice with the US, allowing our corporations and military access, is fine. And if it doesn’t, then it is terrible. And expect the US to do everything it can to destroy that country. Because it isn’t okay to have oil reserves used to help the poor. There are needy corporations here in America!

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Shameless Republican Ad on 60 Minutes

60 MinutesI should have my head examined. Mental illness is the only explanation that I can think of for why I ever watch 60 Minutes — but most especially last night when the first segment was a Scott Pelley interview with John Boehner and Mitch McConnell. Now I’ll admit, these two did a fine job of embarrassing themselves. But mostly, it just provided an opportunity for these two bozos to state their talking points without fear of harassment. And there were all kinds of things they had to say that are, at best, total distortions — the kind of things you normally have to be a committed Fox News viewer to see. And 60 Minutes, as usual, was there to comfort the comfortable.

The interview started with the two Republican leaders expressing their dismay that Obama didn’t come to the State of the Union address with cap in hand. McConnell noted that Obama seemed like he was campaigning for a third term. Later in the segment, Boehner bemoaned the fact that Obama offered no olive branch, “I can tell you, we’re interested in working with him!” I’m curious just what these guys think that Obama would have gotten by showing up as a naughty boy who’d been caught. Because we know what happened in 2011, after the Democrats lost the House, when Obama did reach out to the Republicans. We came incredibly close to breaching the Debt Ceiling and only avoided it with, by far, the worst policy of the Obama years: savage cuts to government spending.

Boehner did most of the talking. He seemed like he really needed a cigarette. And he pushed the Republicans’ newest lie: the Democrats are responsible for income inequality. This came after Pelley asked if Obama shouldn’t get credit for the improving economy. As far as I can tell, he shouldn’t get credit for the improving economy, but he should get credit for increasing inequality. He’s like the opposite of God: when something good happens, he gets no credit; when something bad happens, he gets all the blame.

So why is it that the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer? Well, they weren’t willing to talk about how it was all due to the rich being over-taxed. But they did use the second standard Republican Economic Solution for Everything ™: regulation. But the only regulation that Boehner could think of was Obamacare. It, apparently, is the reason that the economy is getting more unequal. Or something.

There is a further discussion of Obamacare, which is part of the internet extras at the link above. Pelley actually pushed back against the Republican leaders — especially on the fact that they have no ideas for what they are going to replace it with. But eventually, Boehner was allowed to go on about what the Republicans want to do. Regular readers of this site should be able to list everything that Boehner said because it is the same list they always have, none of which lower healthcare costs: buy insurance across state lines (all insurers would run to the least regulated state and provide useless coverage) and tort reform (wouldn’t lower costs because doctors don’t actually over-treat because of insurance concerns). He didn’t mention high deductible plans, but maybe they just cut that. He did mention allowing small employers to group together. But Obamacare not only does that for small employers, but for everyone. And the Republicans hate it. At the beginning he mentioned “allowing states to create their own exchanges.” I assume this is just a new talking point to push King v Burwell.

The whole thing was totally disingenuous. At one point, Pelley did a lot of heavy lifting by allowing the two to dump all over Harry Reid for not allowing some of the crazy bills coming out of the House to have a vote in the Senate. This was somehow wrong, but the idea of sending a whole bunch of crazy bills to the president for his veto was just how the system works. Like I said, these two bozos dig their own graves just by talking. But most people don’t know much about this stuff. And instead of countering them as Mike Wallace would have done decades ago, 60 Minutes is just fine to let lies transmit to televisions all over the nation. Because who’s to say what is true? Certainly not Scott Pelley! He lives in a world full of fairies and elves, where you can have all the candy you want: the postmodern world where reality is whatever you say it is. Sadly, I don’t live in that world. If I did, 60 Minutes would have been canceled long ago, and the Republican leaders would have committed seppuku for the great shame they have brought to their families and their nation.

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Jacqueline du Pré

Jacqueline du PréOn this day in 1945, the great cellist Jacqueline du Pré was born. In her lifetime, she was hugely popular. And as is usual with classical music stars, that also meant that she was just ridiculously good. There is quite a lot of her work online. You could do worse than spend the evening listening to her. From my standpoint, she was rather too interested in the Romantic period. Just the same, her intense style fits the period well.

She had a tragic life. She only performed up the age of 28 — and her last recording was at the age of 26. At that time, she started to lose sensitivity in her fingers. In 1973, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She lived another 14 years, but without being able to play. That’s not just publicly; she couldn’t play at all. That strikes me as a kind of hell on earth — to have such an intimate relationship with an instrument and yet be estranged from it. If there is a god, she is evil and certainly not worthy of worship.

Here is du Pré playing Brahms’ Cello Sonata Op 99 with her husband on piano. I had to put it together in a playlist, because there isn’t a single video. But it cuts at the right time. It is very good. You should listen to it:

Happy birthday Jacqueline du Pré!

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On Scheduled Postings and OCD

Tired WorkerIt’s a curious thing. I’ve been away for a couple of days working very hard on a project of theoretical remunerative value to my life. But before I left, I wrote some fourteen articles and scheduled them. And it is strange to see the site work on autopilot in that way. It seems less authentic, somehow. But I figure that must just be from my perspective. It ought to look more or less the same from the outside. The only thing I can think is that I probably pick less interesting subjects when I am doing the writing in clumps. But maybe not.

The reason there were only four posts yesterday is because I had planned to be home by around 5:00 last night. Instead, it was closer to 11:00. And I was far too tired to write anything, having been lost in the world of Android development and the OEM Preinstallation Kit — trust me, you really don’t want to know, although I am planning on writing something about it tomorrow over at the Dirt Cheap Computers blog. It just goes to show, you should always over-cram when going away, because you never know.

There is another reason, however. The truth is that it is kind of upsetting to the blogging rhythm to not do it for a couple of days. When I got home, I immediately broke into panic mode: what am I going to write?! In many ways, doing the computer work was kind of a vacation. It’s like housecleaning: so concrete. You know when you’re done. With blogging, you are never done; you are only temporarily caught up. I could be a year ahead and I’d still worry. And I can’t even image what it would be like to come back to that. It would probably make me just stop. (Feel free to make a comment, but take note of who’s reading whom.)

So I’m not clear whether the writing from the last couple of days isn’t better than the writing of today. For example, the article about the maps on The Nightly Show seemed a little thin to me. Usually, I manage to have a bit more to say about a single idea. Republicans Are Not for Smaller Government seems like an argument I’ve made many times before. And of course, this exhausted article is just a bit of a ramble, interesting only to people who care about my life (now numbering zero if you include me) and maybe some people who are interested in the mechanics of running a blog with a semi-rigid publication schedule when you have absolutely no help.

People tell me that I have OCD. And there is no doubt that I do have some symptoms. My favorite is that I can’t stop thinking about jamming my fingers in the cuisinart or having my fingers slammed in a door. But I think we over-analyze ourselves and I would certainly come down on the light side of OCD (although admittedly, right now I cannot stop picturing my fingers slammed in a door jam). Still, it could be that the publication schedule here is a sign of whatever OCD I have. In my defense, if I had it bad, I would have posted something last night to make the five article quota. But the whole thing does seem more compulsion than commitment.

At this late hour, I do feel like I’m back in the swing of things. The problem is that it looks like I will have to go away tomorrow for a couple more days. So normally, you’d be reading about some film (I have a couple of those in the works), but I’ll schedule them for while I’m away. But I probably won’t have time to cram very much, so I will either have to carve out some time for posts, or just fall down on my commitment. We shall see.

Afterword

You can usually tell what I write in real time: it will have only a one in sixty chance of being posted at five past the hour. If it is schedule, it will have a one in one chance of being posted at five past the hour. Why five past the hour? I don’t know. But until there is a good reason to change it (And why would there be?) it will remain that way.

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How to Approach Death

Umberto EcoRecently a pensive disciple of mine (a certain Criton[1]) asked me: “Master, how can we best approach death?” I replied that the only way to prepare for death is to convince yourself that everyone else is a complete idiot.

Seeing Criton’s amazement, I explained. You see, I told him, how can you approach death, even if you are a believer, if you think that, as you lay dying, desirable young people of both sexes are dancing in discos and having the time of their lives, enlightened scientists are revealing the last secrets of the universe, incorruptible politicians are creating a better society, newspapers and television are bent on giving only important news, responsible business people are ensuring that their products will not damage the environment and doing their utmost to restore a nature in which there are streams with drinkable water, wooded hillside, clear, serene skies protected by a providential ozone layer, and fluffy clouds from which sweet rain falls once more? The thought that you must leave while all these marvelous things are going on would be intolerable.

So try to think, when you sense the time has come for your departure from this vale, that the world (six billion beings) is full of idiots, that the dancers at the disco are all idiots, the scientists who think they have solved the mysteries of the universe are idiots, the politicians who propose panaceas for all our ills are idiots, the journalists who fill page after page with vacuous gossip are idiots, and the manufacturers who are destroying the planet are idiots. In that moment, would you not be happy, relieved, and satisfied to leave this vale of idiots?

And then Criton asked me, “Master, when must I start thinking like this?” I told him that one mustn’t start too soon, because a person of twenty or thirty years of age who thinks that everyone else is an idiot is an idiot himself who will never attain wisdom. We should begin by thinking that all the others are better than us and then shift bit by bit, having our first doubts around forty, revising our opinions between fifty and sixty, and attaining certainty as we aim for one hundred, ready to call it quits just as soon as the telegram containing the summons arrives. Convincing ourselves that everyone around us is an idiot is a subtle, shrewd art, not at the disposal of the first Cebes to come along with a ring in his ear (or nose). It requires study and toil. You mustn’t go at it too quickly. You must get there gradually, just in time to die with serenity. Right up to the day before, you must still think that someone you love and admire is not an idiot. Wisdom consists in recognizing only at the right moment (and not before) that he too is an idiot. Only then can you die.

The great art lies in studying universal thought a bit at a time; scrutinizing changes in customs; monitoring the mass media day by day, the statements of self-assured artists, the apothegms of politicians who shoot their mouths off, the philosophemes of apocalyptic critics, the aphorisms of charismatic heroes; studying theories, propositions, appeals, images, and visions. Only then, in the end, will you experience the insight that everyone is an idiot. And at that point, you are ready for death.

Util the end, you must doggedly insist that some people say sensible things, that a certain book is better than others, that a certain leader really desires the common good. It’s natural, human, and proper to our species to resist the idea that all people are idiots, otherwise why go on living? But at the end, you will understand why it is worth the effort and how it can be a splendid thing to die.

Then Crito said to me: “Master, I wouldn’t like to make hasty decisions, but I suspect that you are an idiot.” See, I replied, you are already on the right track.

—Umberto Eco
Quoted in “On the Disadvantage and Advantage of Death”
In Turning Back the Clock


[1] The two names mentioned — Crito and Cebes — refer to Crito, a dialog where Crito argues for Socrates to let him buy his teacher’s freedom.

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Republicans Are Not for Smaller Government

Joni ErnstThe fact that Joni Ernst is a disingenuous fraud is not news. Many people have reported on her folksy lines in the response to the State of the Union speech. I think Michael Hiltzik dealt with it the best, Senator Joni Ernst Learned to “Live Within Her Means” — on the Taxpayer’s Dime. It’s not just that one speech, however. Her whole political career has been based on the cliche of growing up on a hard working family farm when times were tough. This is nonsense, of course. Ernst was born in 1970 — not 1920. This is a period when farm subsidies were good (as they continue to be). So it is no surprise that from 1995 to 2009 (the only period during which we have data), her extended family received almost a half million dollars of that sweet, sweet government welfare.

In this way, Ernst is entirely typical of her party. It is amazing to me that Republicans manage to get any traction at all by claiming that Democrats are divisive and wage “class war.” The Republican Party is committed to taking money away from the truly needy in the name of teaching them to “live within their means.” But they want to hold firm or even increase handouts for the affluent. And no, this is not just the reverse of the Democrats. The Democratic Party does have its targets, but they are mostly inefficiencies in expensive programs. As I’ve noted many times before, the programs that Republicans want to cut are almost exclusively ones that don’t cost that much money, because we are already fairly stingy when it comes to the poor and it doesn’t cost much to help them to begin with.

This highlights perhaps the most pernicious lie in American politics: conservatives want smaller government and liberals want bigger government. Leave aside the fact that Democrats really don’t care about the size of government — they simply want effective government. Do conservatives really want smaller government? Maybe in theory. They like the idea of getting government off the metaphorical back of Americans. But what they really mean is that they don’t want the government to get in the way of the rich doing anything that they want. If we passed a law saying that anyone who made more a $100,000 a year was immune to all government regulations (including taxes), the Republicans would have no platform except for a smattering of issues designed only to make the lives of the poor worse.

From a practical standpoint, Republicans have been the biggest spendthrifts of them all. That isn’t surprising, for as I noted, the things that the Republicans want to spend more money on are really expensive. This is why the deficit only gets bigger under Republicans (Reagan, Bush I, Bush II) and only ever gets smaller under Democrats (Carter, Clinton, Obama). I may be against deficit and debt obsession, but most Americans are not. And Republicans claim to care about debt and deficits, but all they really care about is cutting aid to the poor and middle classes. And as for taxes, check out, Reagan’s Legacy: Tax Cuts for Rich, Tax Hikes for the Rest.

What’s amazing is that people like Joni Ernst are allowed to go around talking about how we have to cut food stamps because the poor need a lesson about how to live within their means. She, and the whole Republican Party, should be widely mocked in the press. But apparently, our media think that “objectivity” requires respectful reporting on whatever delusions the Republicans are currently trafficking. I know if things were reversed and the Democrats were peddling nonsense in the name of helping the poor, the media would not report it respectfully.


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Anarchy on The Nightly Show

Larry WilmoreIs it the intention of Comedy Central to promote anarchy here in the United States? I’m not talking about revolutionary comedy or contrarian views. I’m talking about something important. I’m talking about map madness.

Thursday on The Nightly Show, Larry Wilmore focused on Cuba. As a result, there were two countries that had themselves displayed in map form. I’m not going to say anything. Just see if you notice anything that doesn’t make sense. You need to take the wide view, however.

First is Cuba, of course:

Nightly Show - Cuba

And next is China:

Nightly Show - China

One reason I liked The Nightly Show immediately was the south side up map that Wilmore has behind him. I like maps. I like how they distort reality. So it is nice to be reminded with different projections and different orientations. But if you are going to have a south side up map in back of you, you had damned well better have other maps similarly oriented. Both Cuba and China are presented north side up.

What the show is doing is not reminding us of our geographical delusions. Instead, it is creating anarchy!

Afterword

If the show wanted to present maps in random orientations as if to say, “There is no up,” I would not have a problem with that. There is a difference between introducing chaos because the world is chaotic and maps are liars, and just making stuff up. But mostly, I just think that if you are going to play with people’s perspectives, you should really do it. Not that I’m serious about this. And The Nightly Show continues to show great promise.

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Virginia Woolf

Virginia WoolfOn this day in 1882, the great writer Virginia Woolf was born. Last year, I read her most famous novel, To the Lighthouse. I wrote at the time, “The language is quite beautiful — much of it as exact as poetry.” That’s about the highest praise that I can give to a writer. Of course, I also wrote, “It’s like beneath the words, Woolf is whispering to the reader, ‘Soon you will die and all you will have to show for it is the fun you had along the way. And you aren’t having much fun, are you?’”

It’s surprising that Woolf isn’t more of an icon of literature. There seem to have only been three writers of the 20th century who were especially brilliant when it came to the raw technique of writing: Woolf, Stein, and Joyce. I know a lot of people love Woolf and Stein, but it is only Joyce who is truly a star. The contrast of Woolf and Stein is a good one. They are so different, their marginalization cannot be a coincidence. It’s sexism.

Woolf, of course, struggled with depression her whole life. And her eventual suicide would be romantic if it weren’t so tragic, and if I didn’t have a pretty good idea of just how violent it probably eventually was. As Stevie Smith noted, having suicide as an option is a great blessing because we know that we can end whatever pain we are in. So it isn’t surprising that some people choose the option, and I am not going to second guess them. But it is always sad.

Happy birthday Virginia Woolf!

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Is Homer Simpson Bi-Curious?

Humanity's Achievements

This is a screen capture from a recent episode of The Simpsons, “The Man Who Came to Be Dinner.” It’s a good example of the density of the comedy that the show produces. In the episode, Homer is explaining to aliens on another world the great achievements of humanity. This image is only on the screen for a couple of seconds. And if I hadn’t paused it, I would have missed the best joke in it. The one joke that everyone gets is, “Free Refills” and “Did I mention ‘Free Refills’?” It’s so Homer! And so is the utter laziness of “Pre-mixed Peanut Butter and Jelly.”

I’m not quite sure how to take “Ringo Starr’s All Star Band.” I assume that it is a reference to the fact that Ringo Starr is embarrassingly bad. He really has no talent and never has had any talent. He did, however, star as himself in an episode in the second season, “Brush with Greatness.” But this had to do with a teenage crush of Marge, and nothing to do with Homer.

“Instant Replay in MLB” is very silly. I think it may well kill the game. I’m not a sports fan, but I like the snark on the issue.

What I didn’t notice at all was the fourth item, “Grindr.” I had no idea what it was, so I looked it up. According to Wikipedia, “Grindr is a geosocial networking application geared towards gay, bisexual, and bi-curious men.” I’m sure the writers just loved that one! It’s so great to throw in the middle of Rupert Murdoch’s empire. And the idea of Homer being bi-curious is funny as hell.

The Simpsons still has an unbelievable amount of vitality even 26 years on. It really is amazing.

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