Morning Music: Gang of Four

Entertainment! - Gang of FourOne of my favorite albums ever is Gang of Four’s first album, Entertainment! It holds up as well today as it ever did. Musically, it is hard to beat the driving rhythms of that tight-knit trio. You don’t need anything more than guitar, bass, and drums. And as I’ve discussed, the synthesizer destroyed a lot of music from that period, so in a sense, Gang of Four was lucky.

The other side of Gang of Four was the explicitly Marxist lyrics of Jon King. But more than that, there is an explicit rejection of common pop music tropes, such as the long song. But the main thing about the band was that they really didn’t sound like anything I had ever heard. Since then, of course, there is Red Hot Chili Peppers, which has always sounded to me like a pretty direct ripoff of the band. (Not that they aren’t great.)

Gang of Four is still performing. Kind of. There is only one remaining member — the amazing guitarist, Andy Gill. The music is good (I just listened to their/his latest album). But it isn’t like the old stuff. For one thing, it isn’t political like it used to be. I think if Jon King isn’t in the band, you really can’t call it Gang of Four.

Here is the band at the time performing “To Hell With Poverty” off that first album:

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Birthday Post: Jeopardy!

Jeopardy!The game show Jeopardy! is 51 years old today. But it hasn’t been on all that time. It started on NBC and ran from 1964 through 1979, with a two year absence from 1976 through 1978. During that period, it was hosted by Art Fleming. Then, after four years off the air, it was brought back in syndication with the new host Alex Trebek. It was created by Merv Griffin, who created pretty every “normal” game show you can think of. (All right, that’s a vast exaggeration.)

When I was a kid, I loved game shows. But I hated Jeopardy! There are good reasons for that. Now I kind of like it because I’m good at it. But it is just a quiz show. Providing the questions for the answers is very slightly clever. But it is designed this way simply to hide the fact that it is a boring quiz show. Eight year old Frank was no fool.

I’ve written three articles about the show. The first was simply, Jeopardy! In it, I explained why I would never try out for the show. Short answer: the up side is not compensation enough for the potential that I would humiliate myself. The second article was, “Power Players” on Jeopardy! Out of Touch. I was shocked that media figures were so ignorant and I commented on how the questions were easier for these elites than they are for normal contestants. And the last one was my finally getting around to answering a question that has been on my mind for years, Maximum Possible Win on Jeopardy! How much money could you walk away with on a single episode if you got every question right and maximized the “daily doubles”? $566,400. But the most anyone has ever won on a single episode is only $77,000. Only ten people have ever made more than $50,000.

Happy birthday Jeopardy!

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We Need to Think Before Bombing Iran

Robert FarleyLast week in The National Interest, Robert Farley wrote a fascinating article about how a war with Iran would go, Exposed: America Can’t Blow Up Iran’s Nukes. As I’m sure you will not be shocked to hear, those pushing for war with Iran have not thought this whole thing through. I think it is just a matter that a lot of people believe in the magic of total war, “If we can just fight Iran the way we fought Hitler, all will be well!” It’s just rubbish that shows as much ignorance about World War II as it does about the current situation with Iran.

Farley started the article with an overview of the situation in the Middle East. It isn’t good. Because of our brilliant idea to get rid of Saddam Hussein, we’ve created a power vacuum in the region. This was predictable. But what it means is that Iran and Saudi Arabia are fighting for control. And it ain’t pretty. According to Farley, there has been a massive military buildup in the region, “Saudi Arabia purchases more arms in a year than Tehran’s entire defense budget.” It’s a totally messed up situation. A deal with Iran is probably the only way to cool what has turned into an arms race.

The most important takeaway from the article is that we can’t just drop a few bombs and knock out Iran’s nuclear program. If by “total war” the military hawks mean “perpetual war,” then they might be right. Farley noted, “If the United States launches a major strike on Iran, it can expect to launch another strike in a few years, and another strike a few years later.” But as time went on, Iran would become better at securing its operations from attack. And that would mean either we lose in our efforts or we continuously increase our attacks.

Another issue is that attacking Iran will only make it more sympathetic to the worldwide community. And Russia and China would help Iran from the start. That means, one way or another, the Iranian government would get the most sophisticated military equipment in existence. So basically, we aren’t capable of quickly knocking out Iran in a way that wouldn’t also start World War III. Any military action against Iran would require continuous attacks on Iran. And in the end we would fail to achieve our stated objectives.

Of course, I don’t think that the “Bomb, bomb bomb; bomb, bomb Iran” crowd wants war with Iran because it will make the US safer or the world a better place. These same people never talk about doing anything to North Korea. They just want another chance to have another bloody good war. And this is why we run into the same thing again and again: we start a war and it is reasonably popular. But then, as time goes on, the people tire of it and wonder why we got into the war in the first place. But the cheerleaders for the war are never held to account.

This isn’t about power. No one doubts that the United States has the most powerful military in the world. But I’m not sure that people quite understand how costly was everyone’s idea of a just war: World War II. Conservative estimates indicate that the war directly cost the lives of 60 million people. The vast majority of those (especially civilians) were on the Ally side. I don’t think the Allies had much of a choice about World War II. We definitely have a choice about Iran. As Farley noted, “The United States has the capability to inflict grievous damage on the Islamic Republic, but cannot solve the problem of Iran by bombing alone.” So the question is: what is our pain threshold? I’d have to say that it is really low. And it is best to think about this now rather than after the bombs start falling.

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The Hypocrisy of the Libertarian Utopia

Steve FraserThose who champion the free market as the carrier of prosperity today are not only fanciful but really hypocritical. Take Orange County, for example: the home of the Goldwater movement back in the late 1950s and the early 1960s — to this day a very conservative, right wing, affluent place. Orange Country doesn’t exist as a high tech place without the defense industries, aerospace, huge government irrigation networks, waterworks, road building, tax subsidies, tax exemptions, federal subsidies: the whole world out of which Orange County and other sun belt communities were born.

Phoenix, Arizona, for example, or places in Texas depend utterly on government supports that build the infrastructure that makes the market exchanges possible and so on. This was always true — back in the Gilded Age in the 19th century. The railroads, which were the first major form of industrialization in the United States, depended on land grants — from states and the federal government — in order to build the railroads that they constructed across the country. They depended on governments to provide them with all kinds of federal subventions and tax exemptions. So it’s a myth that there ever was this free market that didn’t depend on the government.

—Steve Fraser
Conversations with Great Minds

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Rand Paul’s Final Steps to GOP Nomination

Rand PaulLast year I wrote, Why Republicans Will Nominate Rand Paul in 2016. My point was not primarily that Rand Paul would actually win the Republican nomination. It was that Rand Paul would sell his libertarian soul to get the nomination. Even by the time he was elected to the Senate, he had massaged his libertarianism to be acceptable to the Republican base. My favorite contrast in this regard is with his father who was for full drug legalization. Meanwhile, Rand Paul even holds his nose while offering the most tepid support of cannabis legalization.

My prediction at that time, “So by this time next year, he will have massaged every position so that it still sounds libertarian, while still being full of conservative red meat for the base.” And then, just a month later, I wrote, Rand Paul Continues to “Evolve” His Ideology. It was about how Paul wanted to go to war with ISIS. As I noted, “I don’t see this as anything different from America’s favorite comedy duo, McCain & Graham.” Indeed, there is no difference. I think that there is no more disingenuous politician than Rand Paul. The only thing he really believes is that he should be President of the United States.

Well, there is news on Rand Paul’s evolution toward becoming the Perfect Republican™. On Thursday, Paul Waldman wrote, How Rand Paul Is Losing His Distinctiveness. This time, it is about how Paul is pushing to increase funding for the military. Let’s think about this for a moment, because it is absurd. The United States spends 48% of what the entire world spends on military. So that’s 48% for the US and 52% for the other 195 countries. Basically: the US spends as much on the military as every other country combined. And yet we cowardly Americans just don’t feel safe enough. It’s pathetic.

I don’t think for a minute that Rand Paul thinks that the military is being hurt by its cutbacks. He’s just continuing to do what he’s always done. But you have to wonder, since he doesn’t believe in anything but his right to power, why did he spend all this time pretending to be a libertarian? Part of it is what I discussed about him last year: most conservatives like to think of themselves as libertarians. In theory they are all libertarians. It is only when actual policy comes up that they decide that it is better to be able to tell people what to do.

My guess would be that there is a more personal reason why Rand Paul has pretended to be libertarian — or at least libertarianish. He needed the resources that his father’s presidential campaigns have created. Now he’s a top tier Republican and isn’t so reliant on them. Of course, this does not mean that the Ron Paul supporters will abandon him. And this goes back to what I’ve long said about real libertarians, and is even more true of the libertarianish folk in the Republican Party: it’s all about low taxes. So they won’t abandon him. And the kids who support Paul because they want legalized cannabis are going away regardless because that has become the Democratic Party position — which they get without all the conservative baggage.

Waldman noted that the Republican Party is built on four ideas: “low taxes, small government, ‘traditional’ social values, and a large military.” But he thinks this creates a dilemma for Paul. But it really doesn’t. For one thing, neither Paul nor the Republican Party are actually for small government. But that gets to how one can claim to be for small government even as they think that having 48% of the world’s military spending is just not enough. Republicans believe in certain types of spending. According to them, if we just got rid of stuff the government shouldn’t be doing (eg, healthcare, retirement), there would be plenty of money for tax cuts and increased military spending.

There is just one step that Rand Paul must take to become a big player for the Republican presidential nomination. He can’t just be for more military spending. Walking the walk is really not what Republican politics is all about. He has to be able to talk the talk. He needs to start screaming about all the threats that the United States faces. He can’t say, “I would go to Congress and ask to go to war with ISIS.” He must say, “I love America so much I would disregard the Constitution and just go to war with ISIS. And Iran! And North Korea!” He can’t just be in favor of permanent war; he has to clearly enjoy it. And I don’t think he’s going to have any problem taking this final step.

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Why So Few People Vote

Register to VoteI just read an amazing article by Seth Masket at Pacific Standard magazine, Making Voting Harder Is a Time-Honored American Tradition. When I first saw the headline, I wasn’t going to read it. I thought that I knew what it was about. I know the ways that conservatives — from the very start of the union — tried to limit the franchise of voting. But that isn’t what the article is really about.

The whole system of registering to vote was not a conservative effort. It was rather the result of progressive reforms. There was certainly a lot of racism and general elitism. But the main thing was that the progressive movement was largely focused on anti-corruption. The belief was that many of the party machines were manipulating the vote. So they tried to stop this by requiring voter registration. This probably did have the effect of stopping that kind of corruption — but only by introducing a whole new kind of corruption that we live with today. Check out this graph:

Voter Turnout Over Time

What we see here is that eligible voters voted in very high numbers until registration was required. And then it plummeted. So we got rid of explicit corruption in the form of well organized political operations. And we replaced it with implicit corruption in the form of an electorate that is heavily skewed in the direction of wealth. And as you can see, there is basically no change in voting behavior ever since — for the last one hundred years.

Masket noted what’s perhaps most important for us to take away from this graph:

The timeline below makes it pretty plain that those new laws were the cause of declining voter turnout. Americans didn’t suddenly become apathetic or irresponsible after 1900. New voter registration rules meant that if they wanted to vote, they had to register for the privilege of doing so several months before the election.

I get annoyed every time I hear people — especially retired people — claim that the young and the poor shouldn’t vote given that they don’t care enough to make time for it. But the people who claim this don’t have to make time for it. They don’t have to pick the kids up after school. They don’t have to be on time for work. They don’t have to re-register to vote because they had to move. But instead of feeling their entitlement, these older and wealthier voters think that they are better than the people whose lives don’t make voting convenient.

It is in this context that the new Oregon voter registration law is so powerful. It takes an important impediment out of the way of people who want to vote. Throughout the last half of the 19th century, 80% of eligible voters showed up to vote in presidential elections. We could have that again. But of course, there are a whole lot of very powerful people who don’t want 80% of the people showing up to vote. Imagine how much better this country would be if we had 80% turnout. The Republican Party would have to change in major ways or be relegated to a regional party. Either would be an improvement. But more important: the Democratic Party would be far more populist. The laws passed in Washington would have something to do with what the people actually wanted. The country would be a lot closer to having a government of the people, by the people, for the people. As of now, it has perished from this nation.

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Morning Music: Shaun the Sheep

Shaun the SheepI’ve been on an Aardman Animations jag. Mostly, this has meant a lot of Wallace and Gromit and a little Chicken Run. But as nice as the music is in those wonderful films, they don’t compare to the amazingly catchy theme song to Shaun the Sheep. And it is that song that has been stuck in my head for two days, driving me even more crazy than usual.

There have been 130 episodes of the show — most about seven minutes long. But what I just learned is that Aardman created a feature length film, Shaun the Sheep Movie. But other than being shown at Sundance, it doesn’t seem to have been released in the United States. But I’m sure I’ll wait for the DVD anyway.

The theme song is “Life’s a Treat.” It was written by Mark Thomas and performed by comedian Vic Reeves. All you hear on the show is a the chorus, of course. Here’s the whole thing:

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Anniversary Post: Yaoya Oshichi’s Sadistic Murder

Yaoya Oshichi - Utagawa KuniteruOn this day back in 1683, Yaoya Oshichi was burned at the stake. She was 16 years old. Apparently, she had fallen in love with a temple page during a fire. So the following year (1682), she set a fire, hoping that she would get a chance to see him again. But she was caught. Apparently, the magistrate at her trial tried to save her life by claiming that she was 15 years old. (You had to be 16 to get the death penalty. This is accepted everywhere — except in Texas.) But the clueless girl corrected him and ended up burning. The story is a very famous one in Japan and has been broadly romanticized in literature.

This took place toward the beginning of the Edo period. At that time, the government applied the death penalty in cases of murder and, as with Oshichi, arson. And the ways they killed people were varied. The less terrible ones are decapitation, waist-cutting (just what it sounds like), are crucifixion. The more terrible ones are sawing (mostly what you are thinking), burning, and boiling. I really don’t understand these torture deaths. I can understand the eye-for-an-eye philosophy of the death penalty — even if I don’t accept it. But these torture deaths can only be the result of psychopathic minds.

So 333 years ago, a girl was burned death. I can’t say that we humans have gotten any better. And I am definitely not just talking about the recent activity of the Islamic State. Sometimes I think the one thing that binds together all of the “great men” of the world now and forever is a lack of empathy.

Happy anniversary of the sadistic murder of Yaoya Oshichi!

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Conservative Voter Suppression Is Elitist

Jonathan BernsteinI don’t know about you, but I could really use some good political news. It isn’t new; I wrote about it last weekend, Oregon Increases Freedom in Our Democracy. It was about the new law in Oregon that would automatically (unless they opt out) register people to vote. But I mentioned that there was little reason to think this would mean that more people would vote. Still, as the title indicates, I thought it was a great thing. It made voting easier and that’s wonderful. Democracy is a good thing. But before getting to the good news, let me briefly discuss why democracy is a good thing.

The standard take on democracy from conservatives is that if voting is too easy, all these idiots who aren’t engaged in politics will vote. “Idiots” is defined in the conservative world as, “Anyone who doesn’t hang on every word of conservative commentators.” But I am a big believer in The Wisdom of Crowds. The big problem that I see is that, for example, the rich generally are much better educated than the poor. But they are blinded by their own class interests. It is only by including everyone that we assure that the interests of everyone are taken into account.

But it is curious. While I was growing up, the big thing that made the US special was that unlike the USSR, we were a democracy. But today, conservatives are really quite outspoken in their opposition to this foundational idea of our republic. In fact, it is interesting: when Glenn Beck was a huge thing on Fox News I kept hearing people talk about how the US was a “republic” not a “democracy.” At first, I was confused, “It’s a democratic republic.” But it was really just the mainstreaming of the devaluation of the concept of democracy. It went along with Glenn Beck’s belief that America died when we started direct election of US Senators. Really what it means is, “My ideology is unpopular, so I don’t like democracy.”

I’m thrilled when America becomes more democratic. In that way, I am entirely typical of the Democrats. Just the same, under normal circumstances, I would be typical of most Republicans. The anti-democracy push of recent years has come the way most things come in the conservative movement: from the top down. Of course, don’t expect to hear any Republican politicians talk about how terrible democracy is. Just expect them to do everything they can while in power to limit democracy. But I think we need to talk openly about this kind of stuff. What kinds of laws are being enacted in Republican controlled states? Modern poll taxes — laws to limit democracy. What kind of laws are being passed (or at least considered) in Democratically controlled states? Laws that increase democracy. As an American, you really have to ask why you would support a party that doesn’t believe in democracy.

On Thursday, Jonathan Bernstein wrote, Voting Is All About Registration. It is about a recent research paper that found that if people were automatically registered to vote (or could do so the same day), 3 to 4 million more people would have voted in the 2012 election. Now that’s not a huge amount. In fact, Romney lost the election by 5 million votes, so even if all these voters had been Romney supporters, he still would have lost. But it still represents roughly 2-3% of the vote.

I’m not going to lie to you. I think that a strong majority (maybe even a vast majority) of these voters are liberals. And the truth is that if 4 million more Democrats had voted in 2014, the two parties would have roughly tied for the total popular vote in House and Senate races. But even if most of those voters were Republican, I would still be thrilled that they got to vote. I would think that my job as a liberal was to make my policy ideas (which I know are better) more appealing to the people. In general, conservatives don’t think this way. And why would they? They’ve used fear and hatred very successful for decades. Winning on actual policy has never been their way.

But in the public consciousness, it is liberals like me who are elitists. I’ve never really understood that. It’s true, I scoff at ignorant people pushing stupid ideas. But conservatives do the same thing toward people like me, claiming that our good ideas are stupid or, hilariously, elitist. Contempt is something we all share. But conservatives think that the whole democracy thing is a joke. And that is absolutely the most elitist opinion that there is.

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Galileo on Ted Cruz

Galileo GalileiDear Ted…

[Y]our grasp of history is as secure as your grasp of science.

This is so wrong. This is more wrong than the geocentric model of the universe, the thing I actually spent my life debunking. (We knew Earth wasn’t flat, dang it. Columbus had already sailed!) What I battled wasn’t a ruling scientific theory, either. It was religious dogma. I am not saying that those are opposites, but mistaking one for the other is like mistaking you for someone with an understanding of climate science…

It’s like saying “by opposing vaccinations, I am just following in the footsteps of a heretic called Edward Jenner, who as we all know invented the light bulb.” This is like invoking Elizabeth Cady Stanton to support Men’s Rights Activism, but crediting her with Prohibition. It’s like saying, “I am a Democrat, just like Ronald Reagan, who of course won the Civil War.” You might as well thank Tesla every time you perform dark magic…

And I don’t care what you believe about the climate. I mean, I’m dead already. I don’t care what you do with the place. Just don’t use my name to lend yourself credibility. Once being forced into a lot of inaccurate statements by people whose grasp on science was lacking is enough.

Eppur si muove…

—Galileo Galilei (as told to Alexandra Petri)
An Open Letter From Galileo to Ted Cruz

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Modern Immigrants the Same as Always

Dream ActPew Research put out a great report this week, A Majority of English-Speaking Hispanics in the US Are Bilingual. What I love about it is that it counters most of the stereotypes that Americans have about our Spanish speaking immigrants. In particular, there is this idea, “Immigrants today don’t want to integrate with the rest of society!” This is such a tired complaint, that it is almost funny. This is what has been said about every immigrant group at every time in our country. It is true in a sense. What is distinctly not true is that there is anything different about “immigrants today.”

Think about it from the perspective of a new immigrant. If you settled in Russia, for example, don’t you think that you would naturally hang out with other American immigrants? They speak your native language; they share your culture; they are more inclined to help you out. This is not rocket science. It wouldn’t mean you weren’t committed to your life in Russia. But really, where are you going to go if you want a decent hamburger? Your becoming fully part of Russia is not something that you would do; it is something that your kids would do.

Both my father’s parents came to the United States from Portugal. It is almost the very definition of “immigrants built America.” My grandmother worked a maid and my grandfather worked odd jobs — eventually working for Luther Burbank. They were eventually able to buy a small farm and lived off that and traveling around the area bailing hay for other farmers. Yet most of what I remember as a kid are Portuguese parades and a bunch of old people arguing in Portuguese. My father, on the other hand, doesn’t even speak the language. His older brother and sister are bilingual, however. And that’s entirely typical of immigrants to the United States.

So what do we see with those horrible “immigrants today”? It’s exactly the same. People who immigrate from another country tend to stick with their mother tongue — but note that this doesn’t mean they don’t also know English. Their kids tend to be bilingual. And their grandkids tend to be just as mono-linguistic as the rest of the country:

Spoken Language of Recent Immigrant Groups

Strangely, the Pew article discussed the potential effect of the large Latino community in keeping Spanish alive as a language in the United States. I have no problem with that, but even discussing it seems to be somewhat racist — as though there really is something different this time with these immigrants. The data in the report itself show this really isn’t the case. In the graph above, we see that Spanish is dying out as a primary language. What’s more, census data indicate that Spanish is dying out as the primary language at home. But it may be the case that it will die out slightly slower than other languages have.

The main thing here is that we need to remember that our recent immigrants are the same as our past immigrants. Trying to put new immigrants into a special category is just doing what we’ve always done to immigrants. We need immigrants — desperately — but we hate them. And that isn’t right or helpful.

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Comparing State Economies Is a Fool’s Game

Kevin DrumI like Kevin Drum very much, but I think he was a bit deceptive in an article last week, Three Cheers For the California Miracle! It is a comparison of the Texas and California economies. In 2014, California actually added more jobs than Texas. So much for the “Texas miracle.” Drum is correct that the whole business of the Texas miracle was nonsense from the beginning, “It was mostly just PR bluster.” Just the same, there is something good about Texas and other backwater states with regard to business: the cost of living is cheap and so companies don’t have to pay their workers as much.

This brings up what I think is a really important question, “Who wants to live in Texas?” I’ve been to Texas many times. I’m sure for some people it is just wonderful. But for most people, it is a hot place that is far better characterized by George W Bush than Jim Hightower. On the other hand, California is overall fantastic. Yes, I am a left coast boy and I’m mostly thinking of northern California and our adjuncts, Oregon and Washington. But I can’t imagine leaving the state because I could pay my employees a bit less. And apparently that is how most people feel because California has never seen the mass exodus of companies claimed by conservatives.

But you still have to give Texas its due. During 2014 (roughly), “California gained 498,000 new jobs, almost 30% more than the Lone Star State’s total of 392,900 for the same period.” 498,000 new jobs in Wyoming would mean a lot more than in California. The contrast is not so large with Texas, but it is still notable. California added 27% more jobs than Texas. But California’s population is 44% higher. Similarly, it total employment is 44% higher. Its GDP is 40% higher. Even its non-farm employment is 35% higher. None of this means that California is doing worse. I would say it is more or less a wash.

The real takeaway from Drum’s column is that all this stuff about a Texas “miracle” is rubbish. He provided the following helpful graph that shows the unemployment rate of all of the states around Texas. And what it shows is that Texas is right in the middle of the other states. In fact, if you look carefully, you can see that Colorado has actually seen a greater decrease in unemployment, even though it started at the same level. Obviously, there are reasons for everything, but Texas’ low taxes and “blowed up real good” regulations are not the reasons.

Unemployment in and Around Texas

We’ve seen this a lot. If there is a state that is doing well, conservatives claim that it proves that conservative economic policy is the cause. Usually, it is just random fluctuations. But roughly what we are seeing is a zero sum game. When State Farm moves from California to Texas (which it recently did), there aren’t more jobs created. State Farm did this to lower its costs and increase its profits. Those profits will go overwhelmingly to people who are already wealthy. And that just leads to more of what we’ve had over the last four decades: middle class stagnation and increased economic inequality. But that’s great! Just ask George Will.

But let’s not make the same mistake that the conservatives make. The Texas economy is doing okay. Without digging into the numbers, it seems to be doing as well or slightly better than California. Of course, the median household income in California is 25% higher. The main thing is that the US economy is improving, so things are getting better everywhere. This business of comparing different states is a fool’s game.

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