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 Pets.com Sock Puppet

Pets.com Sock PuppetIf there is a single image that sums up the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s, it is the Pets.com 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 Pets.com 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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Our Imperfect Government Killing Machine

Scott LemieuxIn late September, the Supreme Court refused to stay the execution of Richard Glossip, whose conviction on a charge of murder has been strongly called into question. However, his execution was stayed at the last minute by Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin. Glossip's fate remains unclear, but we can be certain of one thing: The American death penalty system is irretrievably broken...

The problem is that even though Glossip's moral case is strong, his legal case is much less so. For better or worse, appellate courts place great weight on the "finality of judgment." Even if a judge disagrees with Justice Antonin Scalia's view that it does not violate due process for the state to execute a factually innocent person who was given a procedurally fair trial, Glossip represents a trickier case. He does not have, say, exonerating DNA evidence and an unshakeable alibi affirmatively demonstrating his innocence. The state does not have a very good case that he is guilty, but we do not know for a fact that he is innocent.

Appellate courts are therefore not well equipped to deal with this kind of gray area. This is where governors need to step in with their powers to commute the sentences and/or pardon people convicted of crimes. At the very least, [Oklahoma Governor Mary] Fallin should ensure that Glossip is not executed. But public officials who are inclined to support the death penalty, particularly in red states where they also face electoral pressure to be extra-tough on crime, cannot be trusted to do the right thing.

This is the reality of the death penalty. A division of labor is set up in which numerous officials, operating within their formal legal authority, act in concert to produce a flagrantly unjust outcome for which no one person is responsible. As the legal scholar Mark Graber puts it, "Richard Glossip is likely to be executed because capital punishment enhances prosecutorial power to secure unreliable and arbitrary death sentences."

This is simply not a system that can be defended. It is becoming increasingly difficult to disagree with Justice Breyer's conclusion in June that the death penalty is categorically unconstitutional. Even if the death penalty could pass constitutional muster in the abstract, in practice it cannot be applied without violating the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Glossip's case is merely one example of far too many.

—Scott Lemieux
Why the American Death Penalty System Is Broken


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Obama's Pathetic TPP Legacy

Barack ObamaNow the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a done deal for all intents and purposes, it bears looking at again. The argument for it is that it is going to be great for the economy. That's what President Obama keeps saying anyway. Of course, it's bunk. Dean Baker made a good comparison recently, Donald Trump Says His Tax Cut Will Lead to 6% GDP Growth and President Obama Says TPP Will Boost Growth. That's right: he's saying that Trump's widely mocked claim that his policies will lead to 6% growth are as ridiculous as Obama's claims about the TPP.

It turns out that even people who are in favor of TPP don't make much in terms of claims for it. The Peterson Institute claims that it will increase economic growth by 0.03% per year. This is literally at the level of noise. And in fact, that's what others say. The United States Department of Agriculture said that the effect would be "too small to measure." So we are getting a treaty that will weaken local laws, harm workers all over the world, and increase the prices of patented and copyrighted goods. But on the plus side... Well, there is no plus side.

So we are getting a treaty that will weaken local laws, harm workers all over the world, and increase the prices of patented and copyrighted goods. But on the plus side... Well, there is no plus side.

For a while, a lot of people like me thought that maybe the crazy Republicans would step up and make this an issue. After all, isn't this treaty exactly what they are always claiming liberals are trying to do: create a one world government that will tell the good God fearing people of Texas or Arkansas or Mississippi what to do? But they aren't concerned about this treaty because they know that the down side will only affect the poor people and the up side will help the rich people. Thus it is everything that Republicans want in a law or treaty: something to screw the poor and help the rich.

But you might wonder: if the TPP is going to produce basically no economic growth, why do the rich care? Well, it is the same reason that drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been such a big deal for such a long time. There is not enough oil there to make any difference to us on a national level, much less a world level. But it did mean billions of dollars for people who were already hugely wealthy. So it is a big deal to do. And it is the same thing here. This treaty is huge for the pharmaceutical industry. It is huge for Hollywood. But are we going to get better drugs or movies? Don't be silly. This is about them being able to collect more rents on things they've already made.

So it is sad that Obama has pushed this through. In the end, I suspect people will remember him for Obamacare. But they will mention TPP in the same way that people mention NAFTA and Bill Clinton. "Oh yeah, well that was a mistake." Not that Obama will ever suffer because of it. After he's out of office, I'm sure that Pfizer and Roche will be eager to give him a million bucks to drop by and give a speech on something like volunteerism.

Plutocrats: 1
America: 0


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Democratic Leadership vs Republican Brinkmanship

Republican FascismDaniel Drezner wrote an interesting article at The Washington Post last Friday, The Politics of Leadership and Anger. He noted that President Obama has moved from "weary resignation and shifted into frustrated outrage." It's understandable. So far this year, we have had more mass shootings — "incidents where 4 or more people are killed or injured by gunfire" — than we have had days (294 mass shootings in 297 days). The death toll has to get very high before the national news even notices one. And Obama is angry about it — not least because he's tried to do things in the past and the Republican Congress has stopped him.

At the same time, Republicans claim to be very unhappy about the fake sting videos involving Planned Parenthood. Are they any more angry than Obama is about these mass shootings? They don't seem to be. Actually, if you ask me, I think it is mostly fake — demagoguery for their base. But even if we take their anger at face value, it is no worse than the president's. Yet as Drezner noted, Obama is not using the situation to block all the business of the government until Congress does what he wants: (1) threaten to veto all appropriation bills; (2) refuse to raise the debt ceiling; (3) demand the resignations of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.

Now Drezner has no answers as to why this is. In fact, he seems to be under the delusion that John Boehner is in the same class of politicians as Obama: "a traditional politician who recognizes the limits of what can be accomplished without political support." And that's just nonsense. Was Boehner not one of Newt Gingrich's hatchet men? Wasn't he in favor of the government shutdowns in 1995 and 1995-96? Why, yes he was! And didn't he vote to impeach President Clinton? Yes! In fact, only two of four charges passed against Clinton, but Boehner voted for all four.

I think it is critically important to remember this: even the "reasonable" Republicans are crazy. Remember in 2013, Boehner didn't want to pick a fight with Obama over the continuing resolution. His stated reason was that the Republicans didn't have as much leverage. He wanted to pick the fight over the debt ceiling — a far more dangerous act of brinkmanship. And so this isn't — as Drezner claims — about the Tea Party. If anything separates the establishment from the Tea Party it is practical experience. They are all just as crazy; it is just that the establishment types wield the crazy more effectively.

So the problem is not that some in the Republican Party have poisoned it. It is that the Republican Party is itself rancid. And it has been since at least 1981 when Ronald Reagan said, "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." The conservative movement — and America in a general sense — has managed to forget the first four words at the beginning of that sentence, and decided that the government is always bad. So why not shut it down? From the standpoint of the conservative, as long as the government continues to do the things they want (like send Social Security checks), then it's fine.

At this point, I don't think there is any way forward with the Republican Party. It will not reform from the inside — at least as long as it has any amount of political power. It must be destroyed. This is not a Cold War situation where we can move forward together while disagreeing. That was the way it was 40 or 50 years ago. We are now in a World War II situation. The Republicans are determined to destroy a century of American progress. They must be stopped. They must be destroyed.


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Morning Music: Mona Ray

Dreams and All That StuffIn 1974, Leo Kottke put out one of his most successful albums, the all instrumental Dreams and All That Stuff. There is a lot of production on the album, which I tend to think is more about making the process more fun for him than us. Although it is generally effective, especially on When Shrimps Learn to Whistle (which you should check out).

Today, we listen to a very pretty song that still makes me slightly sad with its longing, "Mona Ray." It's easy to get caught up in his technique, but the music really is beautiful. It's easiest to experience by not watching him as he plays. But it is wondrous regardless.

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Anniversary Post: First Image of Far Side of Moon

First Picture of Other Side of MoonOn this day in 1959, the Soviet Luna 3 spacecraft transmitted the first ever pictures of the far side of the Moon. I thought we might take this opportunity to discuss why it is that the same side of the Moon is always facing us. Although I should tell you that this is not exactly true. I think we are able to see about 55% of the Moon's surface, because it jiggles. But for all intents and purposes, we see the same moon each night. This is because it is tidally locked.

The Moon once rotated rapidly. But over time, the Earth's gravitational field slowed it. The force from the Earth produces a bulge in the part of the moon that is directly facing the Earth -- and also directly opposite (just like the Moon created tides on Earth). This has the effect of squishing down the sides, so that the moon looks like a football with the pointy end facing Earth. Of course, the deformation isn't anywhere near that great. But that's the basic idea.

While the Moon was spinning fast, the bulge was always slightly after the direct line. As a result, the gravitational field had a net torque on the Moon, slowing its rotation. The effect was very small. But it's amazing what you can accomplish in a billion years. I used to tell my students to image the Moon (or any other tidally locked object like Mercury) as if it were a frying plan. The handle would always be facing just a little off center from the Earth, and would thus be constantly pulled slightly in the opposite direction of the Moon's rotation.

Luna 3 was the first mission specifically meant to photograph the other side of the Moon. Luna 1, sent in January of that year, was meant to crash on the Moon. It missed. (Don't laugh: we missed the Moon the first time we tried.) And it became the first human object to go into orbit around the Sun. Luna 2, sent in September, actually hit the Moon. Later, in February 1966, Luna 9 would be the first spacecraft to make a soft landing on the Moon (or any other place).

The radio signal on Luna 3 was so weak, that the spacecraft had to get almost all the way back to Earth in order to transmit its 18 images. The one above is the first transmitted back. I think we humans have become far too cavalier about this kind of stuff. What we now do in space is mind boggling. It's always nice to go back five or six decades and see what we were doing and just how hard it was. Oh, and no one knows for sure what happened to Luna 3. But it probably burned up in the Earth's atmosphere.


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