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.

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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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"American Pie" Is a Reactionary Political Whine

American PieIn the first band I was ever in, the first song we did was "American Pie." I'm not sure why. It wasn't a song I was particularly fond of. It was probably because it was easy, although certainly "Wild Thing" would have been easier. It is a song that has largely been given a free ride over the years with his jumbled lyrics about the history of rock music. It is an okay song, but overall tedious and too long.

Earlier this year, Don McLean auctioned off the original lyric sheet for the song. He got over a million dollars for it. But he also claimed that the notes would reveal all there was to reveal. And what they revealed were really obvious things like the "the king" being Elvis and "the jester" being Dylan. I've never found the song particularly mysterious. It seems designed to make listeners feel good about themselves for figuring out its transparent metaphors.

Something else "revealed" by McLean was that the song was about the death of the rock-n-roll that he loved as a kid. He said, "[Life] is becoming less idyllic." You know what that's called: growing up. Everyone thinks "life" was more idyllic when they were kids because, you know, they were kids -- life was more idyllic. Nothing had happened to the music other than what had always happened: it continued to grow and evolve.

The other night, I was thinking about the song and the obvious hit me: it's a reactionary political song. It's the pop music equivalent of "Okie from Muskogee." It's one big -- eight and a half minute -- whine about how the hippies had ruined everything. The song makes continual reference to Christianity. This has generally been interpreted as the spiritual side of music, "Can music, save your mortal soul? And can you teach me how to dance real slow?" But that isn't really what he seems to be getting at.

The motivation behind "American Pie" is McLean's complaint about growing up and the loss of innocence. So he's just grabbed onto the cultural signifiers of the time that allow him to say "Now is bad, then was good." And give the sad sap content of the album -- with songs like "Empty Chairs" and "Vincent" -- we get a clear picture of adolescent discontent. (Yes, I know he was 25 at the time.) And he reached for a convenient excuse for his displeasure -- his parents and that "stuck-up girl in history class" no longer fitting the bill.

It's ironic that McLean's big whine would turn out to be exactly what he was complaining about: rock-n-roll with an over-serious, pseudo-intellectual gloss, ultimately stripped of its power. And the rest of his career is one of easy listening pop and country. There were people around who were doing the kind of rock music that he claimed to miss: The Troggs and Velvet Underground to name just two. But "American Pie" is not about the music. His discontent was with life. And he's way off target. "American Pie" could have been written in 1957 as a complaint about how Buddy Holly had destroyed music.


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Deficit Spending Crowds Investment In

Paul KrugmanIf weak demand leads to lower investment, which it does, and if fiscal austerity is contractionary, which it is, then in a depressed economy deficit spending doesn't crowd investment out — it crowds investment in. Or to be more explicit, austerity policies don't release resources for private investment — they lead to lower private investment, and reduce future capacity in addition to causing present pain. Conversely, stimulus in times of depression supports, not hinders, long-run growth.

—Paul Krugman
The Investment Accelerator and the Woes of the World

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We Atheists Should Admit We Might Be Murderers

Lauren NelsonIn the Friendly Atheist section of Patheos, Lauren Nelson wrote, Before You Claim the UCC Shooting Was About Christian Persecution, Consider All the Evidence. It's a relatively deep dive into whether the shooter was an atheist and whether this had anything to do with singling out Christians. And the answer to the first question is clearly no. He certainly had a problem with organized religion, but he doesn't seem to have been an atheist. We now we have some indication that the answer to the second question is also no.

But I think it is a mistake to make such an argument. Implicit in it is the claim that an atheist wouldn't target random people for execution as an expression of atheism. That might not be the case here, but given the frequency of mass shootings, it may well happen -- and soon. And then atheists will be in the same place that Christians now find themselves: committing the no true Scotsman fallacy. We'll have to listen to people claiming that anyone who really understood the tenets of atheism wouldn't have committed this horrible act.

I am an atheist, but I know the atheist community far too well to rely on this. There are many atheists who get mad at me for saying this, but there really is a strong connection between atheism and libertarianism. Atheism doesn't necessarily turn someone into a humanist. Many atheists feel it is perfectly acceptable to let human beings die in the name of their primitive economic theories. In general, they don't think it is all right to explicitly kill others. But it is hardly far off the beaten path. Ayn Rand was very much enamored with serial killer William Hickman and Nietzsche's Übermensch. It doesn't take any effort at all to actually become the serial killer and imagined Übermensch.

But there is a more fundamental point here. Humans are clever. It does not take much to use just about anything to justify something that you did or want to do. True, it would be harder to justify murder using Jainism than Judaism. But I feel certain it can be done. And atheism is a hell of a lot closer to Judaism than it is to Jainism -- at least judging from the way that prominent atheists talk. So I think we atheists ought to give our theist brothers and sisters a break. We should just assume that some very prominent horrific act has already been committed by an outspoken and clear atheist.

Does this mean that atheism is bad? Not at all. It is just an acknowledgement that people use all kinds of things to justify their terrible behavior. And that would allow my fellow atheists to better see that the acts terrorists, lone gunmen, and Republican politicians do not necessarily say anything about the religion of those people. If there is one lesson from religion that I wish that atheists would learn, it would be the dangers of hubris taught in the Old Testament. As a group, we atheists are very full of ourselves. I would hate for me and my philosophy to be judged on the basis of Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.


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Prank Discloses Fraud of Mainstream News

Jon HendrenLast week, Edward Snowden got his own twitter account. It came as a bit of a surprise to me, because I just thought that he would have had one. But what surprised me even more was that a lot of conservatives were outraged by this. For example, George Pataki Calls for Twitter to Censor Edward Snowden's Tweet, Because America. Given the controversy, HLN (used to be Headline News) decided to bring some people on to discuss the issue. That was their first mistake, because it isn't a controversy -- just an example of conservatives demagoguing an issue, and that is not news.

To speak for the side that believes in the First Amendment, HLN wanted to get John Hendren -- the correspondent for Al Jazeera English. But instead, they got Jon Hendren -- a computer nerd who is apparently also a comedian and troll. In one way, it's an understandable mistake. Jon is far more famous on twitter than John. And this was all about twitter, after all. In another way, it's not understandable: Jon Hendren's twitter handle is @fart. It is even displayed on the screen while he's talking.

This video clip is three and a half minutes long. It's quite normal for the first two minutes of that. But I recommend watching the whole thing:

I don't think I've seen anything that funny in months. It reminds me of Bob and Ray's Komodo Dragon sketch. The joke in that sketch is that the interviewer is not listening at all to what the interviewee is saying. And the joke is repeated again and again. But that's planned. Here, Yasmin Vossoughian isn't in on it. She just is in real life what Bob and Ray's interviewer was: someone not in the least bit interested in the story or the people involved in it. And the comedic genius of Hendren is that he pushes it to the point that anyone even vaguely paying attention would have noticed.

We shouldn't vilify Vossoughian, because she is but a typical example of the mainstream news. I've seen this same thing over and over again with politicians. The conservative movement has used this fact to their advantage. It allows them to normalize extreme positions. It is not at all hard to imagine a politician saying, "All undocumented residents should be put into work camps," and have that followed up with, "And you think this is a position that will play well in the coming election?"

That's what really bothers me. It is very much like we no longer have news. We have entertainers playing the part of people bringing us the news. That's why they so love things like last week's mass shooting: they know just how real journalists would act in those situations. There's little concern of error. But when it comes to covering issues where there are two disputed sides, they are lost. So if Ted Cruz announces that all the Jews must be killed, they will just go for it, thinking that it is just one of those things that Republicans now think.

To his credit, after Jon Hendren appeared on HLN, he tweeted:

For the people watching HLN, I doubt it made any difference.


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Morning Music: The Spanish Entomologist

Greenhouse - Leo KottkeNext in our journey through the career of Leo Kottke, we have 1972's Greenhouse. He sings a lot more on this album. And at times, he's very good. For example, check out Tiny Island. He also does a few songs by John Fahey -- probably the biggest influence on Kottke's style. The album is a true solo album -- except for the last track on the album, it is just Kottke with his guitar. And it was recorded in just three days.

The song I've chosen today is, "The Spanish Entomologist." It is really too delightful for words. It's a medley. It starts with "Grand Texas" -- but you probably know it from the Hank Williams classic "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)." (That would be a good week of music -- following that progression.) And then he transitions into the Sons of the Pioneers song "Tumbling Tumbleweeds." And then back. Unfortunately, I can't find a live version of the song, so here is the title track with nothing to look at but the album cover. Not that it matters; it's two and a half music of joy.

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Anniversary Post: Bellerophon

Star WobbleOn this day in 1995 — 20 years ago — Bellerophon (51 Pegasi b) was discovered. It was the first planet discovered to be orbiting around a Sun like star — 51 Pegasi. It was the second exoplanet ever discovered. And it is quite a planet, which destroyed some theories about solar system formation. It is a very big planet: roughly half the mass of Jupiter. But it is really close to 51 Pegasi — just 0.05 AU, which is six times closer than Mercury is to the Sun. The year on Bellerophon is four Earth days long.

Bellerophon was discovered the way that about half of all exoplanets have been discovered: with Doppler spectroscopy. I put the animation above (courtesy of Zhatt at Wikipedia) so that you would see how this works. As I've discussed before, Jupiter doesn't actually orbit around the Sun; it orbits around the center of mass of it and the Sun (forget the rest of the solar system for now). But as a result, the Sun also orbits around the center of mass of the solar system.

As a result of Jupiter, the Sun wobbles -- changing speed by about 12 m/s over the course of one Jupiter orbit (12 years). Since the 1990s, we've had equipment capable of detecting Jupiter if we were observing from another solar system. In the case of 51 Pegasi, the wobble was much greater: 70 m/s. But in the early 2000s, new systems were installed that could detect wobbles as small as 0.3 m/s. And soon, we should have systems that can detect wobbles of just 0.1 m/s. That last one is important because the Earth induces a 0.1 m/s wobble in the Sun. It's very exciting.

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India Works to Stop Global Warming — Republicans Continue to Deny

Global Warming IndiaFirst it was China. And this last week, India Unveils Climate Change Plan. So now the first and third biggest greenhouse gas polluters have come out with plans to cut their emissions. In case you were wondering, we are now number two. But when it comes to per capita greenhouse emissions, we are still number one! So let's give a cheer for that:

We're number one! We're number one!

Back in August, after Obama put out new rules designed to fight global warming, the conservative reaction was not good. Marco Rubio said, "As far as I can see, China and India and other developing countries are going to continue to burn anything they can get their hands on." Of course, since the announcements of China and India, Rubio has had nothing to say. As Steve Benen said, Rubio Needs a New Excuse to Ignore the Climate Crisis.

That's true of all of them. Any reason they give for being against doing anything about global warming is nothing more than an excuse. It's like my three stages of global warming denial. But I've since learned that there are more stages, because literally no amount of information will ever stop the deniers. They simply don't want to do anything and the reasons are irrelevant.

But is this not the Republican Party since Reagan? They simply believe certain things and it doesn't matter how much evidence against it piles up. They don't accept global warming, and that is probably the most important, in the end. But they believe that tax cuts for the rich will fix the economy (I wrote about that earlier today). They believe that whatever next war they've gotten into their heads is going to turn out great. They believe that if only we make it easier for people to carry guns, our gun homicide rate will go down. It goes on and on and on.

It's not surprising that most of the things they just "know" also happen to help various wealthy interest groups. That's what it is all about. And there is no interest group more wealthy than the oil companies. So Steve Benen proposes an interesting question: what will Rubio's new excuse be? I don't think it is hard to predict. He's said other things against doing anything about global warming. He'll just pivot back to, "We can't hurt our economy!"

There will always be an excuse. And the economy is the perfect excuse because it can always be used. I've written a lot in the past that we really should have been doing something about global warming the past seven years, because lots of resources were going unused. It was a time when updating our power system would have actually helped the economy. Doing so during a booming economy will hurt it. But the Republicans will never accept this thinking. They will always be able to make the "It will hurt the economy!" argument. So they will make it — at least until crop failures and decimated coastal cities make it impossible.


Actually, I know what will happen. Eventually, there will be a new generation of Republicans who accept global warming when denial of it is as publicly supportable as denial of the Holocaust. And they will tell us that they are different from the Republicans that came before. They won't be. But the media will treat them as if they are. Because our media always does that. Because it has worked out so well thus far.


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Conservatives Can't Deal With Their Lack of Power

Jonathan ChaitI wrote that liberals have trouble handling authority. In general, we are much more comfortable fantasizing about power; the sensation of holding and using it seems to unsettle us, and we curl into ourselves with disappointment. Conservatives displayed far less grumpiness toward George W Bush than liberals have toward Obama until the very end, when Bush's presidency collapsed so irretrievably the right had to hastily abandon its largely worshipful pose and write him out of the conservative tradition in order to contain the fallout.

Conservatives in the Freedom Caucus suffer from a similar but different problem: they do not seem capable of comprehending a world in which they exert less than total power. This failure to compute leads to bursts of angry behavior that is ineffectual by design. No scalp will satisfy, not when any new head starts to look like another scalp. No Freedom Caucus member who finds himself in the party leadership can be anything but a sellout, since betrayal is the only explanation for the failure of the right-wing agenda.

—Jonathan Chait
The House's Right Flank Finally Got Boehner's Scalp. So Why Doesn’t It Feel Good?

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