ISIS Isn't Medieval

John TerryISIS is not re-enacting the seventh-century Arab conquests, even though some among its ranks may think they are. They're nostalgic for a make-believe past, and those among them who know plenty about Islam's first decades have conveniently revised medieval history to fit modern ideological needs...

Islam's early spread focused on expanding the number of believers without wholesale destruction of existing social structures. In contrast, ISIS's determined lack of capacity for negotiation is what sets it apart from the early Islamic conquests.

Given this context, ISIS's insistence on an all-or-nothing caliphate isn't "medieval" at all. It is a thoroughly modern group.

—John Terry
Why ISIS Isn't Medieval

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Are You Ready for Economic Collapse, America?!

Kevin McCarthyI was strangely concerned yesterday morning when I read that Kevin McCarthy had removed himself from consideration as Speaker of the House. It's not like he would have been great, but he didn't seem to be totally insane. And all we are really asking of the Republicans in the House is that they not destroy the world economy for the sake of making a "statement." So who's it gonna be now? Currently, we only know of Daniel Webster and Jason Chaffetz — two freaks. Is this what we have to look forward to?

The conventional wisdom — which I have generally followed along with — is that with power goes responsibility. Boehner acted the way he did because he — like all the Republicans — knows (or thinks) that blowing up the economy would be bad for them. Therefore, anyone in the job would be responsible. But that's a questionable assumption, not a compelling conclusion. This really hit home to me when I heard Ben Carson interviewed on Marketplace. It was clear that Carson didn't understand what the debt ceiling was all about. And I suspect that this is also true of many, if not most, of the Republicans in the House.

I'm starting to have these visions of Donald Trump in the White House with a General trying to explain to him that bombing Moscow would be a bad idea. Such a large part of the Republican Party has been completely cut off from the real world for such a long time. Their delusions now dictate their policies. And we've most definitely seen this with regard to the debt ceiling, where many Republicans have tried to make the case that breaching it would be no big deal. So what happens if such a person becomes Speaker of the House? Or are we going to get what the freaks always claim with a government shutdown: if only they just hung on another day, week, month that they would have "won"? It's madness, but sadly all too possible.

According to Think Progress, Kevin McCarthy Suggests House Republicans Are Ungovernable, May Need To "Hit Rock Bottom." It is hard to construe that in any way that isn't terrifying. When drunks "hit rock bottom" they destroy their lives. The GOP hitting rock bottom could well destroy the world economy.

Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog wrote a really angry, and I think accurate, article yesterday, First They Came for the GOP Moderates... It isn't even directly about the crazies in the Republican Party; it's about the likes of Colin Powell, Christie Todd Whitman, and William Weld. He noted, "The party in recent years has made its right-centrists... increasingly unwelcome. And they did nothing to fight back, except occasionally stamp an ineffectual foot..."

I'm angry too. The Republican Party didn't just wake up this way one morning. And it isn't just the Republican "moderates," either. (It's really kind of a joke. Whitman withheld clean syringes from drug users because facts don't matter to her any more than they do Louie Gohmert.) It's also the fault of the Democratic Party -- most especially the New Democrats. And it is the fault of the American people for not caring enough to distinguish because a moderate party and proto-fascist radicals.

But perhaps McCarthy is right: sometimes you need to hit rock bottom. But that's not a statement about the GOP, but the world. Maybe this is what it will take for us all to realize that we can't allow any country to have the kind of power that the US has. All it takes is a handful of talk radio created lunatics and a disinterested electorate and the economy is destroyed. It's truly amazing.

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Another Debt Ceiling Crisis

Debt Ceiling NegotiationsIs it already that time of year again? Another chance for the Republican Party to destroy the world economy with a debt ceiling standoff? Oh yes! Christmas comes but once a year, but the impending disaster of a US government default is something that pays benefits all the time. And we are but one month from another deadline when all reasonable Americans ask, "Are the Republicans really this reckless?!" The answer to that is: yes. They are like teens left along to monkey with the control room of a nuclear power plant. They don't want anything to go terribly wrong, but they aren't wise enough to know what they don't know.

Back in 2003, the Republican Party raised the debt ceiling on the very same day that they passed a budget busting tax cut that did almost no good for the economy because it targeted the very rich. Imagine that: the Republican Party of 2003 was the careful one. If they manage to control Washington in 2017, I suspect we are looking at things that will make the Iraq War look like a wise and considered decision. I'm thinking: a war with Iran that devolves into a global nuclear war with Russia. I'll bet Kevin McCarthy is fantasizing about it right now.

There was talk that Boehner might resolve this and various other issues before he stepped down as Speaker of the House. He did say, "I don't want to leave my successor a dirty barn. I want to clean the barn up a little bit before the next person gets there." But we haven't heard anything from him recently. And even if he does raise it, is will most likely be a temporary measure — the same kind of thing he did for the government shutdown. Let's never fix anything! Let's just push the confrontation ahead a month or two!

Michael Hiltzik has pointed out that the whole idea of the debt ceiling was originally created in 1917 to give the Treasury Department more latitude to deal with the federal budget — not less. It was created so that Congress didn't have to vote on every little thing. "The debt limit became a fiscal pitfall only after 2010 when talk of holding it hostage for political ends became commonplace." The only previous time there was anything like this was under Newt Gingrich in 1995. And think about that for a moment. I have lots of policies that I prefer. But the idea of risking default for the sake of winning a political battle should be seen as treasonous.

I know what people say: the Republicans wouldn't really cause the country to default! But I see no reason to think otherwise. The truth is that it might well benefit them politically. It would send our economy into a tailspin and the American people, in their wisdom, might reward the malefactors with complete control of the federal government. Or it would destroy the Republican Party. I am convinced it is the uncertainty about that which stops the Republicans from doing it. Regardless, the debt ceiling issue will come back, because it never goes away. Not as long as the Republican Party exists in its current form — as a failed party.

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Morning Music: Up Tempo

Leo KottkeYou will have to forgive me for spending a second day on Leo Kottke. This is the end of the week, except for tomorrow when I plan to post a whole set by Kottke. And I realized that I hadn't made it very far through his career. But at this point, he starts to mix it up more — singing, using a band, and also not being on YouTube. So I figured we would stop on this album and it would make a good overview of his early music.

Today we listen to a very nice slide guitar number, "Up Tempo." It's a beautiful tune — managing to be both upbeat and sad at the same time. Also, kind of funny.

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Anniversary Post: Kepler's Supernova

Kepler's SupernovaOn this day in 1604, Kepler's Supernova was first observed. It wouldn't be noticed by Johannes Kepler until a week later, but he observed it for a year and published a book about it. It's an important event because it was the last time a supernova was observed in our galaxy. (We observe them in other galaxies.) And that's really interesting if you consider that just 32 years earlier, Kepler's colleague Tycho Brahe had observed another supernova. So two supernovas in a small span of time, and then nothing for over 400 years. But that's the way random events are.

In general, a supernova would have to be closer than 100 light-years from the Earth to have an effect on us. Statistically, we should have one within 33 light-years every 250 million years. That's one of the things about us being out here on the edge of the galaxy: it's kind of boring. But it is probably also necessary for the development of advanced life. Further in, life on the Earth would have likely been destroyed before it got too far.

Kepler's Supernova is thought to have been something on the order of 20,000 light years away. The one Brahe observed was less than half that distance. Still, these supernovas were far, far away -- where they belong.

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Our Dysfunctional Press Brought Us Marco Rubio

Marco RubioOn Tuesday at Vox, Ezra Klein wrote, Why Marco Rubio Is Insisting That His Massive Tax Cuts Will Pay for Themselves, Explained. Of course, you don't need to read the article to know the answer. Anyone around here knows the claim: his tax cuts will unleash the economy and cause such an increase in tax revenues, that the tax cuts will pay for themselves. This is literally the idea of every major Republican politician since at least late 1980. This is especially funny considering that Rubio pushes this image of himself as the hip-hop loving young guy with the new ideas.

What's really bothersome is that Rubio now has one of these fake think tanks that spit out "studies" that prove that conservative policy would be just awesome. In this case, it is the Tax Foundation, which Klein stated charitably, "It produces research, churns out charts and tables, and scores tax plans, but it's motivated by an anti-tax agenda." Not that it is any worse than the Cato Institute, but let's be clear: it is an organization that will only ever produce ideologically appropriate studies. In other words, it isn't in the truth business; it is in the dogma justification business.

Ezra KleinSo now Rubio can go on television and not worry. Anytime someone questions him about his ludicrous tax plan, he can say, "The Tax Foundation has scored my budget and finds that it will create surpluses. Also: ponies for all good boys and girls!" The Tax Foundation even describes itself as "nonpartisan." That, of course, means nothing at all, other than that they don't specifically align themselves with the Republican Party. Of the three people on their board of directors that I can find out information about, all are Republicans. Conservative hack Glenn Hubbard used to be on its board. It's a conservative group with a very big ax to grind.

This wouldn't be a problem if we have an actual free and independent press that took its job seriously. But instead, when we get a discussion of it at all, it will be of the typical form, "The Tax Policy Center says Rubio's plan will create a huge budget deficit — just like all the previous similar plans have; but the Tax Foundation says it will create surpluses and ponies; who can say which is right?!" And it is this kind of reporting that allows Republicans to continue to claim that their tax cuts pay for themselves after decades of false promises to do so.

You have to give the Republican Party credit. They were the first to see that we live in a postmodern world. They saw that you could just lie and the press would frame at opinion. Global Warming isn't a matter of science, but rather a matter of opinion. Is Planned Parenthood extracting viable fetuses from mothers and then extracting their brains while they are alive? It's a matter of opinion! I've long thought that we get the government we deserve. But I'm beginning to think that's wrong. We get a truly dysfunctional government because our news outlets have decided that their job is to entertain rather than inform. Marco Rubio is the creation of our media system.


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Results of Our Bombing War: Innocents Killed

Max FisherBut regardless of any human error, there is a deeper and not-at-all accidental cause to blame, and it is the same thing that has contributed to the American bombing of so many wedding parties and innocent villages before: this is how a bombing war works. This is what a bombing war does. It is the war we've chosen in Afghanistan, the war we've chosen in Syria and Iraq, and the war that, if history is any guide, the United States will continue to choose over and over. When we treat it as mainly an accident or an aberration, we obfuscate that fact and ignore what makes this incident truly terrible.

—Max Fisher
Bombing a Hospital in Afghanistan Is the Modern American Way of War

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Wells Fargo Cheats and Gets Praised for It

Wells FargoMatt Taibbi wrote a really interesting article last week, Wells Fargo's Master Spin Job. It's about this program that Wells Fargo has started, HomeLIFT. In it, qualified homeowners will be given $15,000 for a down payment on a house. So in the Detroit area, Wells Fargo is putting $5.25 million dollars toward this program. Why such an exact figure? It turns out that this is the amount that the bank is required to give to the area. The money it is paying is punishment for wrongdoing, but politicians and reporters all over the nation are presenting it like it is a great act of kindness.

This is all about the robo-signing scandal of the last several years. "People all over the country found themselves booted out of their homes thanks to bogus affidavits signed by 'vice presidents' and 'regional managers,' who were often scraggly kids just out of college blindly signing hundreds of documents a day, if not more." Wells Fargo was one of many banks caught doing this and was part of a $25 billion settlement. There are various parts to the settlement, and Wells Fargo figured out this great way to spin their punishment to make it look like they are the good guys.

Matt TaibbiTaibbi documented how in most cities, the press has just gone along with Well Fargo's framing of the issue. KMOX wrote, "Local Companies Join Forces For Home Ownership." That was about the HomeLIFT program in St Louis that was putting in $4.75 million, "Again, this was exactly the amount specified in the court settlement." The same thing in Fresno, "The $7.5 million Fresno program was, again, exactly the amount mandated by the Westland settlement." And when Taibbi confronted Wells Fargo, they said it was just an extension of its CityLIFT program. But then it turns out that CityLIFT was just another court mandated program because of Wells Fargo's discriminatory loan practices.

But I was wondering about what this would all mean if Wells Fargo were doing this voluntarily. It wouldn't make me feel good about it. It's kind of like the guy who beats up his wife and then brings her flowers the next day. Sure, the flowers are nice, but they hardly make up for the beating. And it is only too clear that the flowers are a kind of bribe, "Forgive me because the most recent thing I did is nice." It's certain that the guy is going to beat up his wife again. And he knows that the flowers work just fine — and if they fail, perhaps some jewelry.

This program is not going to make up for all the people who were wrongly thrown out of their homes. It is just a marketing campaign. But that's the really sick part of this whole thing: this part of the settlement was explicitly meant to be marketing, "The terms mandated that the bank spend $67 million on a series of measures to repair its reputation in communities hit the hardest by foreclosures and robo-signing." Our "justice" system is making sure that people continue to trust the banks that it wouldn't allow to fail back in 2008. It's disgusting.


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Was NAFTA a Disaster? Close Enough!

Donald TrumpRecently, Donald Trump was on 60 Minutes. I watched parts of it and I agreed with a number of things he said. This was before his "tax reform" plan came out and he showed himself to be a really typical, boring Republican. But one of the things he talked about in the segment was NAFTA. He said, "It's a disaster..." And Mark Thoma, decided to look into the question, Is Donald Trump Right to Call NAFTA a "Disaster"? As I've pointed out in the past, Thoma is no firebrand. He's a careful, if liberal, economist. And so his conclusion is that it is complicated.

Fair enough. But the main claim that was made for NAFTA was that it was going to a boon for jobs. But what did we see? We saw the loss of "somewhere in the neighborhood of 350,000 to 700,000 jobs." But to be fair, in a nation the size of ours, that isn't a huge hit — between a quart and a half of a percent. But the point is that it was supposed to be a job creator. On the one thing that the deal sold as, NAFTA was indeed a disaster. It didn't do what it was supposed to do.

The evidence for its impact on Mexico is not even great. Brad DeLong — who might be biased, since he worked on the deal — finds that it netted a million and a half jobs. Others claim less. And as Thoma pointed out, "But whatever the actual number, just like for the US, it's also relatively small." There was no economic boom in the region. And the reason for that is that China became a big deal so all those jobs that would have gone to Mexico went to China instead. That's obviously bad for Mexico, but also bad for the US, because if the jobs had gone to Mexico, those workers would have bought a lot of stuff from America that the Chinese are not.

But I think that Thoma is being too kind. I don't think that the point of NAFTA was ever to create jobs. It was designed to make it easier for rich people to screw over working people here in the United States. Well, that's probably putting too negative a gloss on it. It was a way for the rich to enrich themselves even more. In other words, it was yet another government program designed to help out the people who least needed helping. The fact that those people saw greater profits by going to China hardly changes the dynamic.

And now we have the TPP. It's a treaty that isn't even about breaking down trade barriers. Most of the signatories already have low tariffs. The big thing in the agreement is intellectual property law, and these will put unheard of tariffs — hundreds and thousands of percent — on covered items. Is this going grow the economy? Is this going to create new jobs? One thing that NAFTA clearly did do was increase inequality. TPP will surely do the same thing. It will make the poor poorer. It will make the rich richer. But in the end, no in power will care, because they know they can always hire another lackey like Obama to push through the next trade deal.

NAFTA might not have been a disaster in a general sense. But it wasn't a good thing. And we have responded to that by passing trade deal after trade deal. We don't live in a democracy, my friends.


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Morning Music: Airproofing

Leo KottkeIn 1976, Leo Kottke moved to the now defunct Chrysalis Records. His first album for them was the self-titled, Leo Kottke. It consists only of instrumentals -- except for the first song, Nashville session musician Bob Morris' "Buckaroo." The songs are produced in a much more evocative way than had been the case before. They could easily have been used for a film score.

Today, we are going to listen to "Airproofing." It is hard driving, relentless number. I haven't mentioned it this week, but Kottke has done a number of Baroque pieces. There are a lot of Baroque aspects to his music. "Airproofing" doesn't sound Baroque, but it still contains a lot of the techniques typical of the period. And the first time you listen to it, it's kind of like watching a tightrope walker. But trust me: he doesn't fall. Just enjoy the music.

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Anniversary Post: 2005 Kashmir Earthquake

2005 Kashmir EarthquakeOn this day, exactly ten years ago, the Kashmir earthquake occurred. It killed over 86,000 people — and displaced almost three million. Its aftershocks were substantial all by themselves. One of was 6.4 magnitude — not that much less powerful than the most powerful earthquake I've ever experienced, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. And compared to most people, I'm laxidasical about earthquakes. I'm sure I would have terrified living through this quake — if I did manage to do so.

The earthquake had a magnitude of 7.6. It was felt as far away as Afghanistan and China. More than 70% of the casualties were in the city of Muzaffarabad. That's remarkable when you consider that the current population of the city is slightly less than 100,000. Smaller towns were apparently reduced to rubble. It's hard to imagine. And the infrastructure in the area was not up to the task of rescue. Communication was virtually cut off. But in the end, over $5 billion in relief did make it to the area. And life continues on.


Here's one for James Fillmore: in 1956, Don Larsen pitched the only perfect game in a World Series in MLB history. Is that because there just haven't been that many World Series games, or because of something about the competition in the World Series? That sounds like a good subject for an article. Unfortunately, Larsen never played for the Twins — or even the Senators.


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The Evolution of the Sock Puppet Sock PuppetIf there is a single image that sums up the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s, it is the sock puppet. The company hired the advertising agency that had recently had great success with the Taco Bell chihuahua. So they came back with the the little dog puppet with a microphone. The ad campaign was hugely successful in terms of generating attention for the company. But in the end, it wasn't enough. It wasn't a stupid idea, but the company ran through a ridiculous amount of money. They even had a float made of the puppet for the 1999 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade — certainly a waste of money. A sock puppet can only do so much.

The puppet was performed by comedian Michael Ian Black. He's a funny guy. The commercials work really well. But he's a terrible puppeteer. The thing you notice with bad puppeteers is that they don't even try. There is no effort made to match the sound. The mouth opens and closes at whatever speed while the puppeteer talks, and doesn't when he isn't talking. Still, in this case, it is clearly meant to be a hand puppet as they constantly show the arm and the wrist watch. And part of the charm is just how badly it is all done.

After was liquidated, the sock puppet was sold to Bar None — the car loan company. They changed him. He was no longer as simple a sock puppet. This was probably because they got rid of Black. I must admit to preferring his voice. But whoever they got was an actual puppeteer. A great puppeteer can work with anything. But just check out the great moves done with the puppet's lips. And, of course, his snout stays level and his jaw moves down like an actual dog (or any other animal that has a jaw).

I have a general theory that pretty much everything is better with puppets. They add the cartoon universe to real life. Like in the Bar None ad, it would be really difficult to have an actual human do that without making the audience hate him. But he's puppet, so somehow it's okay.

Image from Wikipedia where who I'm supposed to acknowledg is less than clear.


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