Charles Austin Beard

Charles Austin BeardOn this day in 1874, the great historian Charles Austin Beard was born. I think what matters in historians is if they provide us with new ways of viewing the world. Beard was very much this kind of historian. It’s funny, having been born in 1964, I think I came of age in a great time of American hagiography and apologetics. No one seemed terribly interested in taking a cold, hard look at where this nation had come from and what it had become. And then came the time of Reagan. And now to even mention that the United States isn’t the best country that ever has been and ever could be is an act of heresy by those on the right.

As I discussed last year: Charles Beard was a progressive who saw the history of America through the lens of class conflict. This view has fallen out of favor. But his idea applied to the founding of the country seems correct. He argued that there were two revolutions. First, there was the revolution that we all know and love and that is immortalized with singing and a bit of dance in 1776. But there was a second revolution about who should rule. There were those who wanted at least a proto-democracy, as advocated by people like Paine and Madison. And then there were those who wanted a new aristocratic rule, as advocated by people like Adams and Hamilton. I think we can all agree that the results of that revolution are much more a muddle compared to the whole England business.

Beard argued that the original revolution was really all about economics and not much about the ideology that we now tell ourselves. Gerald Horne has done more recent work updating this concept in, The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America. The thesis is that a lot of the American owning class was in a big rush to sever ties with England because of the fear that the mother country was going to outlaw the slave trade. There is no question that this is true; the only question is how big a current it was in the revolution. I think it was fairly big.

That’s the great thing about people like Beard: they expand our minds. That is why conservatives hate them. Open minds question the status quo. And that is what all intellectual activity should be about. We want to improve upon the world. Conservatives want to ossify it.

Happy birthday Charles Beard!

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Darren Wilson Had Defense at Grand Jury

Demon WeedThis whole Darren Wilson grand jury thing is really starting to bug me. I’ve always thought that the police were above the law and they can get away with anything at all. But really, that is just a matter of trials — not grand jury indictments. And in this one, the more I learn, the more it is clear that all the evidence was dumped on the grand jury and then the prosecutors acted as defense attorneys. That’s just amazing, and of course, it just shows that all the discriminatory policing that the African American community suffers under in Ferguson is just one part of the problem.

The most recent bit of evidence regarding this came from a German Lopez article in Vox, Grand Jury Testimony Suggested Marijuana Made Michael Brown Violent. That’s Unlikely. That’s an obvious point on its surface. When Ezra Klein first tweeted out his article about Darren Wilson’s testimony seeming bizarre, there was one guy who responded multiple times with things like, “Brown had THC levels in his blood high enough to induce paranoia.” I just love this kind of thing because it is used every time to claim that this or that person must have been acting strange as though they were on PCP. (And people’s “strange” behavior on PCP itself is greatly exaggerated.)

What really struck me was Lopez’s description of a forensic pathologist who testified that it was unlikely that cannabis would have made Brown aggressive. After saying this, a prosecutor followed up:

Can I just clarify something here, doctor? Your credentials are as a forensic pathologist, although you have a working understanding of toxicology, you are not a toxicologist, correct?

This is a prosecutor at a grand jury throwing cold water on testimony backing up the victim in the crime. This is shocking. Truly shocking.

What I think happened was that Robert McCulloch had absolutely no intention of indicting Darren Wilson. But the political environment was too toxic for that. So he not only decided to throw all the evidence at the grand jury – he decided to put his department in charge of mounting what is undoubtedly a illegal defense of Wilson.

It is now clear how the whole thing went. The prosecution led with Darren Wilson’s testimony and everything followed from there. So once he talked about Michael Brown acting like a “demon,” the grand jury (which lots of help from the “prosecution”) latched onto Brown’s use of cannabis. There you have it: Brown was high and those people are cable of anything. And if one forensic witness disputes that, he can be beaten down. And don’t worry: the prosecution will absolutely, positively not bring in any witnesses that they consider are experts in that field. Because the prosecution absolutely, positively was on Darren Wilson’s side.

The whole thing is shameful, and I now feel far worse about the grand jury in particular and the judicial system in St Louis County than I did when I first heard that Darren Wilson would not be indicted. I would be all for this if it were the new normal — that all accused will get this treatment. But, of course, we know that such special treatment will only be offered to police and other representatives of the power elite.

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Max Blumenthal Is an Anti-Semite in Germany

Max BlumenthalBased on what I knew about Germany and its national pathology and its failure to really take the right lessons from its own history, I was hardly surprised by the reaction that I received for attempting to describe the situation in Israel-Palestine. For instance, I wasn’t surprised that there were attempts to shut my talks with David Sheen down. However, when I was so promiscuously described as an anti-Semite, including by gentile politicians like Volker Beck, and that this behavior was considered perfectly normal in German society, I have to admit to some level of shock…

[T]his is a sick society that hasn’t addressed the core political and psychological and social trends that lead to the Holocaust. If anything it’s simply repackaged them beneath the fog of Holocaust guilt…

According to the commonly accepted German national narrative, because of the Holocaust, Germany gives Israel Dolphin class submarines with launching tubes retrofitted for launching nuclear missiles. And because of the Holocaust, Germany gives Israel discounted Corvette boats to attack fishermen in the Gaza Strip who are ghettoized and permanently confined to the second most densely populated place on Earth, surrounded by walls and remote controlled machine gun turrets — all because of the Holocaust. How this honors the millions turned to ash is beyond me.

—Max Blumenthal
Quoted in, The Minds of Others

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Economics Isn’t Physics, or Even Climate Science

Naked EconomistPaul Krugman announced some good news this morning, Keynes Is Slowly Winning. It seems that the OECD has changed course from its devastating focus on fiscal austerity toward stimulus. In fact, it has appointed one of Krugman’s old students, Catherine Mann, as its chief economist. But I was struck by one line in Krugman’s article. After noting that “the ground is shifting,” he said, “It has taken a while.” Indeed, it has. And it highlights something that has been on my mind: economics is no kind of science.

I think most people understand very well that economics is not like physics. Physics allows scientists to run experiments and really break down the world into discrete parts for study. So generally, economics is seen more like climate science. They are both fields where the phenomena are very complex and one must depend upon macroscopic observation and computer models. Yet economics doesn’t behave much like climate science. And it doesn’t even have the excuse of running into the practical world with political ramifications — they both do.

At its best, science makes marginal progress. The idea of anthropogenic global warming was first suggested long before there was much empirical evidence for it. And the scientific community did not latch onto it. But as the evidence got stronger, the scientific consensus got stronger. There may be politically motivated hacks like Fred Singer, but that isn’t the field; there are similarly inclined deniers of evolution, but no one suggests that there isn’t a scientific consensus.

But what has happened in economics? In the 1970s, stagflation caused the economics profession to go crazy — throwing out the demand-side thinking of Keynes and adopting a radical new approach to macroeconomics. It’s only fairly recently that economists (on the “left”) have started to realize that stagflation was not cause for a radical new theory but for minor changes to the Keynesian model. And in the end, this period of scientific psychosis seems to have been caused by a kind of insecurity on the part of the economists. They wanted a field that was built on first principles, like the real scientific field of physics. They seemed not to notice that physics has never solved the many-body problem. Complexity requires different tools.

Similarly, after the financial crisis of 2008, it seemed to be open season on loony ideas. I think that it was the ultimate proof that the profession had totally messed up in the 1970s. So I guess it was understandable that the profession would be in crisis. But in general, it didn’t see it that way. Even people as reasonable as Noah Smith seemed to think there was only minor disruption and in the end it turned out that economists had a good bead on The Truth™. But even if that’s true, it doesn’t explain how economists on the right (The very idea ought to stop people from referring to economics as a science!) lapsed into what can only be called apologetics. “How can we justify our ideology?!”

In addition to this, the economics profession has quite respectable and clearly smart people like Greg Mankiw who are big believers in Keynesian stimulus — as long as a Republican is in the White House. And what is so aggravating is that the economists who are most inclined to think of themselves as “hard scientists” are the ones who operate most as apologists. I understand, for example, that Ken Rogoff is a serious scientist and his papers are careful. But that doesn’t stop him running around the world making broad — And wrong! — political statements.

Economics first developed out of the field of moral philosophy. And it still is moral philosophy. The fact that people use math doesn’t change that. And I think it’s perfectly fine that economics is part of moral philosophy. The problem is that modern economists — especially on the right — want to claim the mantle of objective science, even while they are pushing a philosophy — and one that even many liberal economists believe shows that the power status quo is just great.

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Law Enforcement: Home of Pussies

Darren WilsonI continue to be amazed at what pussies police officers are. But no one seems to notice — most of all the officers themselves. Every time one of them — usually with other officers and armed with clubs, mace, tasers, and guns — shoots, tases, or otherwise brutalized an unarmed civilian, they show not the slightest embarrassment in explaining that they were afraid for their lives. And no media organizations are willing to call them on their public expressions of cowardice because they supposedly have such dangerous jobs.

It was thus not at all a shock that Darren Wilson testified in the no-prosecution grand jury that he was vewy vewy scared. This is my favorite line, “And when I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan.” Translation: “I’m used to the people I oppress being easy to manhandle!” Okay. Whatever. But if Wilson is going to admit that he couldn’t handle an unarmed 18-year-old and that he was justified in shooting Michael Brown six times, can we at least all admit quite publicly that Wilson is a pussy who can only manage confrontations with his club, mace, taser, and gun? Must we continue on with this fantasy that it is perfectly all right to totally blow confrontations like this and that it shows police officers like Darren Wilson are strong and capable?

I’ve also been impressed with the pictures of Wilson in the hospital. I’m not saying that I’m some tough guy, because I’m not. I take great pride in avoiding conflict and being a coward. Being brave is overrated. Brave people get killed. But Darren Wilson’s wounds just don’t look that bad to me. They look like the sort of things that can happen during a collision on the basketball court. That’s not to say that they aren’t serious. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t feel as though my life had been in danger if I had received such wounds. But we’ve already established: I’m a coward. All I want is a public admission that Darren Wilson is too. Of course, I’m not a bully who hides behind a badge, club, mace, taser, gun, and a whole department of other armed men — most of whom I assume are not pussies:

I don’t think all cowards are created equal, however. For example, I’m not sure that in the cold light of day, I would just make stuff up to save my skin. And I can’t say that Darren Wilson did that either. But I am very much in agreement with Ezra Klein, Officer Darren Wilson’s Story Is Unbelievable. Literally. The story seems made up — or at least coached. Wilson’s narrative includes “plot points” like this one that highlights the stolen cigars:

I was doing the, just scrambling, trying to get his arms out of my face and him from grabbing me and everything else. He turned to his… if he’s at my vehicle, he turned to his left and handed the first subject. He said, “here, take these.” He was holding a pack of — several packs of cigarillos which was just, what was stolen from the Market Store was several packs of cigarillos. He said, “here, hold these” and when he did that I grabbed his right arm trying just to control something at that point. Um, as I was holding it, and he came around, he came around with his arm extended, fist made, and went like that straight at my face with his… a full swing from his left hand.

Shorter, “He was beating me up; he stopped to flash the evidence of his crime; he continued beating me up.” It’s not credible.[1] And that’s especially true when you consider that he testified a month after the shooting — more than enough time to hone his testimony. Again, that doesn’t mean he is lying. When you are in the middle of a confrontation, you don’t necessarily process events carefully. That’s especially true if you are a coward. And after days and days of working with attorneys, one isn’t necessarily even aware of how “truth” is being manufactured.

So Michael Brown is dead. Darren Wilson faces no consequences. Now he will probably get a job for another police department. (I assume it would be difficult to integrate him back into the Ferguson Police Department.) And I suppose that we’ve decided that this is just fine. Pussies are welcome everywhere in law enforcement. Who needs bravery and manliness when you have clubs, mace, tasers, and guns? And tanks; don’t forget the tanks!


[1] According to Dorian Johnson, Michael Brown’s companion, the cigarillos were transferred to him in the middle of the fight. However, Brown does this because he’s trying to get free from Wilson who has him by the collar. That makes a whole lot more sense. Wilson isn’t in a position to do much more than pull on Brown. Brown was trying to extricate himself and could use another hand. The whole of Johnson’s testimony is far more credible. Wilson would have us believe that he was “officer friendly.” But we’ve seen what he is like in a general sense: a little man with a chip on his shoulder and a gun in his hand.

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Mary Edwards Walker

Mary Edwards Walker - Medal of HonorOn this day in 1832, the great feminist Mary Edwards Walker was born. It is wrong to call her simply a feminist. She was many things, including a surgeon. She worked for the Union Army during the Civil War. In fact, while treating Confederate soldiers across enemy lines, she was captured by the traitors and accused of spying. She was later released in a prisoner exchange. After the war, she was given the Medal of Honor — the only woman to ever be given one.

There is a strange story about it, though. In 1917, Congress passed a law giving pensions to Medal of Honor recipients. The Army took the opportunity to re-evaluate the recipients (the Navy did not). They decided to knock 911 names off the list — one of which was Walker’s. She still wore the medal for her two remaining years of life. But you just have to wonder what the army thought it was doing removing those names. Regardless, Walker’s medal was restored by President Carter in 1977.

Mary Edwards Walker - Top Hat (1911)Walker was prominent in the women’s suffrage movement. She pushed the idea that woman already had the right to vote and there was no need to alter the Constitution. When this approach did not work, the movement transitioned to calling for a Constitutional amendment. But Walker never changed. This marginalized her in the movement. She was further marginalized by her opinions about dress. She felt that women should be allowed to dress as men if they thought it proper. She normally wore men’s clothing, including a trademark top hat.

Happy birthday Mary Edwards Walker!

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Radicals, Liberals, and Eric Alterman

Eric AltermanEric Alterman wrote a thought provoking article at Democracy, Why Liberals Need Radicals — and Vice Versa. He has divided the political left into the liberals and the radicals. Basically, they are the pragmatists and the idealists. It’s a good breakdown. And he noted that the liberals need the radicals to show them what they are fighting for. And the radicals need the liberals in order to get things done, because this is America and there ain’t gonna be no stinking revolution. I’m with him on this.

What’s more interesting is an implicit point in his article: there isn’t much remaining of radicalism on the left of the political spectrum. For example, I generally find myself on the left left edge of American politics — and often I find myself quite far to the left of that “respectable” edge. Yet I am incredibly practical. I think that income inequality is the biggest problem that we face. The solutions I propose, however, are things like increased estate taxes and a higher inflation target. These have traditionally been extremely mainstream ideas. It does not speak well of our country that they are considered radical.

But the reason that such vanilla economic remedies have come to be seen as “Socialism! Socialism, I tell you!” is because the conservative radicals, the ideologues, have been so successful at moving the playing field. That isn’t just due to their brilliance, although I will give them high marks on that front. Whereas liberal radicals have to push ideas mostly through force of will, conservatives get billions of dollars to develop and push their ideas. But I still maintain that the biggest reason that conservatives have recently been so successful has nothing to do with leftist radicals. It is rather that conservatives managed to take over the Democratic Party. They had a brilliant idea: they could redefine liberalism as social liberalism. And hence you get people like Clinton (pick one), Obama, and Andrew Cuomo.

Alterman went wrong, I think, in trying to distinguish between constructive radicalism and destructive radicalism. According to him, constructive radicalism is when people on the left start a conversation that moves liberals in a positive direction. And as an example of this, he mentioned Ta-Nehisi Coates’s excellent article, The Case for Reparations. Destructive radicalism is embodied in Ralph Nader’s failed 2000 presidential run. But is this distinction really valid a priori? Isn’t Alterman just looking at the negative effects of Nader’s campaign and saying it was an example of destructive radicalism?

I assume that Nader’s campaign was always meant to push Gore more to the left. I find it hard to believe that Nader thought he might win the election, along with a Congress of like minded people. I think what Alterman is getting at is found even more clearly in his second example, “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement directed against Israel.” Again, his argument is basically that it can’t work. But I have never seen the BDS movement as anything but a way to get a message out and to highlight the apartheid nature of the situation in Israel-Palestine. I don’t know how I feel about the issue, but it is clear that Alterman thinks it is destructive radicalism simply because he disagrees with it.

I like the prism through which Alterman sees the political left. But breaking down radicals into constructive and destructive is just a way of silencing them. If radicals are not making liberals uncomfortable, they have no purpose. Alterman understands this. But he’s applying an irrational theoretical construct to it. All radical proposals are impossible. Until they aren’t. Each liberal has to decide what radical ideas are useful to them. That’s going to depend on each specific liberal and each specific radical idea. I get it: Alterman doesn’t like the BDS movement. But he is wrong to generalize based upon that.

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Obama’s Actions Won’t Change Rep Reactions

Obama CopeOn Friday, Andrew Prokop wrote a great article over at Vox, What Could a Republican President Do With Obama’s Executive Power Theories? It deals with the argument that many people have made to the effect that if Obama can prioritize immigration then a Republican president can decide that he isn’t going to enforce the tax law. This is an argument that Jonathan Chait has made, and Prokop even quoted him, “What if a Republican president announced that he would stop enforcing the payment of estate taxes?” It’s a very frightening idea.

But I have a counter to it: norms are restrained by public opinion when it comes to the president. The reason the Republicans have gotten away with so much norm destruction is that the people (even the media to a large extent) don’t pay attention to Congress. It is all thought to be too technical and not of direct influence on policy — even though it most definitely is. And we see this very clearly in Obama’s decision. Why didn’t he just stop deportations of all 11.4 million undocumented residents? Because there are limits to this power.

Prokop discussed three areas where we liberals might be concerned about what President Ted Cruz would do: taxes, environmental law, and Obamacare. I was most impressed with the issue of taxes. So what would stop Cruz from prioritizing enforcement of tax law to incomes less than $20,000 per year? Apart from norms, nothing. The problem is that all those taxes not paid by people making above $20,000 per year would still be owed. When a Democrat (Or simply a reasonable Republican; oh, I crack myself up!) got back in the White House, all those taxes would be due — with interest and penalties.

And then there is the issue that Republican presidents have already done this sort of thing. Ezra Klein pointed out two important ones in a recent article, The Best Arguments for, and Against, Obama’s Executive Action on Immigration. Take special note of the last clause:

President George W Bush cut the number of IRS agents auditing estate tax abuses. One estate tax lawyer described the action to The New York Times as a “back-door way for the Bush administration to achieve what it cannot get from Congress, which is repeal of the estate tax.” At another point, the Bush administration evaded responsibility for regulating carbon emissions by refusing to open a legally important e-mail. That’s not to say future Republicans presidents can’t be more brazen, or come up with ways to go further — but who’s to say they won’t do it anyway?

That’s actually the crux of the matter, which I haven’t paid nearly enough attention to. Given the the Republicans are absolutely certain that Obama brought National Socialism to the United States, they are going to push every advantage once they have the White House. Obama doesn’t need to actually do anything; the Republicans have known before he was elected that he was doing things that were totally unconstitutional.

Prokop noted that the problem of later enforcement would apply to environmental regulations. And that Mitt Romney was planning to not enforce the individual mandate if elected in 2012 regardless. I would add to this. The individual mandate is not some liberal conspiracy. It is the most conservative part of the law. It protects insurance companies, not individuals. So if the Republicans want to harm their biggest constituency:

Matthew Dickinson wrote another interesting article over at his blog, No, Obama’s Executive Action Did Not Violate Governing Norms. He started by noting that even people on the right say they like the results of Obama’s executive action, “Instead, they direct their ire at Obama’s apparent willingness to violate some unspoken ‘norm’ that apparently constrained previous presidents from making significant policy change of this magnitude absent an overarching emergency.” Before I get to his argument, I think this is interesting because of course conservatives will not want to admit that they just hate undocumented kids and their families. As discussed in Winner-Take-All Politics, conservatives always resort to process arguments when the policy arguments are too obviously vile.

Dickinson goes on to argue that presidential norms are kind of mythical anyway. The main thing that keeps presidents in check is that other branches of government push back — as they were designed to. As far as I can tell, Dickinson is somewhat conservative. Fundamentally, his argument is the same one made by John Boehner that the executive action will make the Republicans less likely to get along. But I think Dickinson in wrong about this. I suspect that Republicans won’t do much but bluster. They don’t actually care about the issue, but it does give them a lot of political ammunition. And in 2016, the executive action could be a difficult issue with the Democratic nominee having to finesse the question, “Will you reverse the executive action on immigration?”

Ultimately, politics continues on as it always has. And I don’t see any reason to think that what Obama has done is unprecedented. I discussed the biggest issue last week, Obama’s Executive Action Is a Double Win. When Republicans are already certain Obama is Stalin reincarnated, nothing he actually does will affect how the Republican Party acts.

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American Policing as Occupying Power

Charles PierceThere is something gone badly wrong in the way police are taught to look at civilians these days. This is the logic of an occupying power being employed on American citizens. Ever since 9/11, when we all began to be told that we were going to have to bend a little bit, and then a little bit more, to authority or else we’d all die, the police in this country have been militarized in their tactics and in their equipment, which is bad enough, but in their attitudes and their mentality, which is far, far worse. Suspicion has bled into weaponized paranoia, especially in the case of black and brown people, especially in the case of young men who are black or brown, but this is not About Race because nothing ever is About Race. Even the potential of a threat requires a deadly response, Dick Cheney’s one-percent idea brought to American cities and towns until Salt Lake City, of all places, winds up with cops who are deadlier on the streets than drug dealers. This is how you wind up with Darren Wilson. This is how you wind up with Michael Brown, dead in the middle of the road. This is how Darren Wilson walks, tonight, for the killing of Michael Brown. This is how you end up with an American horror story.

—Charlie Pierce
Dead of Night: the Ferguson Decision

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Don’t Stop at Michael Brown, Kill the Poor!

Michael BrownI don’t have much to add on the grand jury decision in Ferguson. It went exactly as I expected. This isn’t because I thought the process was corrupt, although it certainly might have been exactly that. It was just that police offers are only indicted in the absolutely most egregious cases. So unless there was a photograph of Michael Brown on his knees with Darren Wilson putting a bullet into his head, I would not expect an indictment.

Regardless, none of this is about Michael Brown or Darren Wilson. This is about a “justice” system in the United States that is totally out of control. The police literally have a license to kill. I just saw a couple of minutes of MSNBC and one of their commentators said one of the standard things, “When police go to work in the morning, they don’t know if they are coming home that evening.” That’s even more true of truck drivers and cabbies. But no one holds that up as a reason we should apologize for them acting like Bernhard Goetz. The “police have a dangerous job” is not really true and is no excuse for bad behavior.

So what are we going to do about this? Nothing. We didn’t need the death of Michael Brown to point out that we have a broken system. And that broken system goes far beyond what police and prosecutors do. An arguably even bigger issue is inequality and racism. But in general, we won’t talk about them either. It is considered “class warfare” to do so. Mitt Romney claimed that we should talk about these issues in “quiet rooms,” which is just another way of saying that we should never talk about it.

Meanwhile, people are born into hopeless situations because of their “race” and the economic situation of their parents. But this supposedly is not about class warfare. We have a society in which actual class warfare is defined as just the way things are. There is neither racism nor a lack of opportunity because Daymond John! But bringing up these issues supposedly is class warfare. And the people of the United States — most especially minority groups and the poor more generally — are so beaten down that they just accept it.

And now it has been decades that we’ve been sold a kind of social Darwinian lie. And it all sounds very noble: we must reward the winners! But if you dig down just a little way, you will find fascist dogma: the weak are dragging down the nation so we must let them fail (that is: die). And we must worship the powerful because they are great. Of course, evolutionarily, this is nonsense. What a species needs is diversity. And what is unsuccessful in the current environment might be amazingly successful in a later environment. It isn’t hard to imagine a future where people who are good at trading stocks are useless and people who can predict the tides are priceless.

But fine, let’s kill the weak and worship the the powerful. Because: freedom!

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