The Man With No Clue

This was him tonight:

And this was him less than a year ago:

People think death is something sudden, but one doesn’t die of old age that way. It takes decades as you notice your entire being fade away. I’m only 48 and I already feel it happening. It is sad to see this happening to Clint Eastwood. The truth is, he’s more of a libertarian. If his brain were sharper, he would realize that the Republican Party is no longer the party of Dwight Eisenhower. Eastwood is pro-choice and for gay rights—things the Republican Party is firmly against. But even the economic stuff that Eastwood agrees with the Republican Party on is only propaganda. The party is not actually in favor of individual rights. I don’t think that a younger Eastwood would be a Democrat, but he certainly wouldn’t allow himself to be used by the evil “power for power’s sake” Republican Party.

Sadly, Clint Eastwood earned the moniker above. I will from now on think of him as The Man With No Clue.

Serious Centrist Saletan’s Selfishness

William SaletanTwo weeks ago, Paul Krugman blasted William Saletan for his adoring love letter to Paul Ryan. Now, Saletan wants his letter back. He was blinded by his (typical) desire to find that mythical beast, the Reasonable Republican—just as Krugman said. And now that Saletan is repudiating his love, Krugman is the first—likely of many—to congratulate him for finally seeing the light. I’m afraid that Krugman may be falling for Saletan himself who claims to be another mythical beast, the Centrist Pundit.

William Saletan claims to be a liberal Republican. I’m somewhat impressed by this. Most such people call themselves centrists. Although I think “liberal Republican” is a misnomer, it has at least some information content. But I can see the problem with this naming thing. Whether Saletan or Friedman or any other Serious Moderate, they must grapple with the fact that they are socially liberal and economically conservative. This is what defines almost all of the Washington pundit class. And it is what allows them to claim that they are centrists or—even more perniciously—independents. They are no such thing. In fact, they are often extremists in both categories.

What most people find annoying about centrist pundits is the arrogance of their supposed objectivity. A quick look at their almost comically stereotyped views within the social and economic areas shows this clearly. Saletan’s social views are typically liberal: pro gay rights; pro abortion rights. I’ll bet he even believes in evolution! But his economic views are typically conservative: pro free trade; vaguely anti-union. Would you believe he’s very concerned about the deficit?!

The reason that Saletan and his peers share this kind of political outlook is clear enough: it speaks to their personal interests. They are socially liberal because the corresponding views improve their lives. They have friends who are gay. They’ve had girlfriends who have had abortions. Their careers depend upon a strong first amendment. So their lives would be poorer and their bank accounts too, if the social conservatives got power in the United States. As a result, they are socially liberal—even extremely so.

On the other side of things, they are rich. Whether on the TV, in newspaper, or increasingly even on the internet, pundits are rich. They are all well inside the top 20% of earners. As a result, Saletan finds it easy to be a booster for so called free trade. No Chinese worker is going to take his job. (Not that there aren’t about a million who could do it as well.) But unionized IT professionals might reduce his income. And increased taxes on the upper class could certainly reduce his income. So it just makes sense to argue that Social Security must be cut while ignoring the obvious fix of increasing the payroll tax cap, which it just so happens would increase his tax burden.

It is no accident that professional moderates like Saletan so often skew socially liberal and economically conservative. It is in their own best interests. And I don’t blame them. But I do blame the system itself, which selects for exactly this kind of thinking. It does it in the name of objectivity or “even handedness.” When accused of liberal bias, they can trot out conservative economic bona fides. When accused of conservative bias (Rarely!) they can trot out their liberal social bona fides. But these pundits are not objective or even handed. They are on the extremes in a very predictable way.

No one has written more about the supposed liberal bias of the mainstream media than Eric Alterman. When it comes to most issues, he shows that such claims are ridiculous; the media are generally moderate to conservative. But Alterman notes in What Liberal Media? the case on social issues is far from clear—reporters tend to skew liberal on these. But whereas reporters have responded to this kind of bias, pundits seem to have been blind to them.

Here is a typical example of Saletan using the social liberal/economic conservative combination to falsely imply his reasonableness:

I winced every time you [Paul Ryan] talked about your hard-line position on abortion, but I told my friends that voting records are misleading, that what a politician chooses to work on is more important, that social issues aren’t your thing, that your real interest is the budget.

Although this kind of belief combination is better than that of the modern wackos of conservatism, it is nothing like reasonable. It is self-serving and utterly subjective. We need to stop pretending that it is objective or centrist.

Greed and Debt: The Mitt Romney Story

Matt Taibbi has written a cover story for Rolling Stone called, Greed and Debt: The True Story of Mitt Romney and Bain Capital. You really ought to read it. It is filled with wonderfully truthful and snarky passages like this one:

[Mitt Romney has] been right with [the other banksters] on the front lines of the financialization revolution, a decades-long campaign in which the old, simple, let’s-make-stuff-and-sell-it manufacturing economy was replaced with a new, highly complex, let’s-take-stuff-and-trash-it financial economy. Instead of cars and airplanes, we built swaps, CDOs and other toxic financial products. Instead of building new companies from the ground up, we took out massive bank loans and used them to acquire existing firms, liquidating every asset in sight and leaving the target companies holding the note. The new borrow-and-conquer economy was morally sanctified by an almost religious faith in the grossly euphemistic concept of “creative destruction,” and amounted to a total abdication of collective responsibility by America’s rich, whose new thing was making assloads of money in ever-shorter campaigns of economic conquest, sending the proceeds offshore, and shrugging as the great towns and factories their parents and grandparents built were shuttered and boarded up, crushed by a true prairie fire of debt.

My assumption is that Taibbi is an asshole. But I’ll take a thousand assholes like him rather than one “nice guy” like Paul Ryan.

Update (29 August 2012 5:46 pm)

Taibbi has written a follow-up article where he responds to a correspondent who emailed:

You’ve completely misunderstood what private equity does and ignored the many success stories in the industry. There is a reason why many of PE’s biggest investors are unions and pension funds . . . who have benefitted more than once from private equity deals.

It amazes me that anyone would respond to his original article with this statement. No one—certainly not Taibbi himself—is arguing that private equity companies don’t make money for their investors. As Taibbi points on in the original, they don’t actually perform any better than the stock market itself, and if it weren’t for the tax law favoring them, they would do much worse. But the argument that Taibbi is making is that in the process of making their mediocre profits, PE firms are destroying our economy and society. What’s more (and Taibbi doesn’t make this case here), those union members who are making money from investments in PE are by definition not the people who have lost their jobs through PE takeovers of companies.

Again, you should really check out this article. It is a bit long (8,000 words), but it is worth it. In fact, I’d say it provides the best portrait of Romney I’ve yet read. Disturbing but enlightening.

Interest Not Debt Matters

In reference to the wonderful debt graph that Ezra Klein presented yesterday, Dean Baker presents an even better graph. This one is not on debt, because as Baker notes, the issue is not debt; it is interest on the debt. He notes sarcastically, “We don’t get back to the same devastating interest burdens we faced in the early 90s until 2019”:

Interest on Debt as Percentage of GDP
Am I pulling a fast one here by switching from debt to interest payments? Not at all. Suppose we issue $4 trillion in 30-year bonds in 2012 at 2.75 percent interest (roughly the going yield). Suppose the economy recovers, as CBO predicts, and the interest rate is up around 6.0 percent in 4-5 years. The federal government would be able to buy back the $4 trillion in bonds it had issued for roughly $2 trillion, immediately eliminating $2 trillion of its debt. This will make those who fixate on the debt hysterically happy, but will not affect the government’s finances in the least. It will still face the same interest obligation.

A Late Night Babble

I’ve been experimenting for months, trying to create videos that don’t totally suck. And I am making progress. I still don’t feel comfortable releasing anything I’ve worked hard on. But I’ve decided to start releasing videos that I just throw together. It’s typical internet stuff, except that they deal with stuff I’m interested in. This time it is Graham Greene’s excellent Monsignor Quixote. I have a lot to say about the book, but I don’t have time right now to write about it. So I offer you “A Late Night Babble”:

The Graph the RNC Won’t Allow

Ezra Klein has again posted the following federal debt graph on WonkBlog, and I thought it was a good idea to put it up here. It is from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. The main thing that it shows is that the Republican obsession over debt and deficits is completely hypocritical. The only part of the debt that is truly unsustainable is the Bush tax cuts. And that is the only thing that the Republicans are committed to keeping.

CBPP Debt Time Series Graph

I watched a little bit of the RNC tonight. I saw parts of the Bob McDonnell and Scott Walker speeches. I know that I’m a partisan, but I still think I call my own side for its bullshit. I rarely see things that are clearly wrong or highly distorted by Democrats. But with these two guys at the RNC, there was almost nothing that wasn’t false or at least deceptive. One of the biggest things was this claim that we have a trillion dollar deficit. Everyone knows that the reason the deficit is so high is that the economy is bad so there is less revenue and more expenditures on safety net programs. But even apart from this larger context, there is the graph above. The biggest part of our deficit woes are due to the Bush tax cuts and this will only become worse as the decade continues.

I’m willing to admit that there are good ideas on what used to be called right of the political spectrum. But these ideas are all part of modern Democratic Party thought. The only thing that the Republicans have to offer are lies. The one consolation is that if the Republicans get in power, their economic policy will be the same as it always was—you know, socialism.

2016: Obama’s America

2016: Obama's AmericaI found this great review by Simon Maloy of the ridiculous right wing attack documentary on Obama, 2016: Obama’s America. It is by wingnut Dinesh D’Souza. I had heard about the film from my wingnut brother, who I assumed heard about it from Rush or Sean.

Anyway, Maloy should be canonized for not only watching the film twice but talking to the people who went to see it. He notes that the film, like all Obama haters, doesn’t actually have anything against Obama. It is all just a big plot. Give the man a second term and then we’ll all see.

What strikes me as most odd about this is that I’ve been hearing this for decades from conservatives when it came to liberal presidents. As I recall, this was the argument that the John Birch Society made against Kennedy when we didn’t turn communist on his inauguration.

After talking to a man who saw the movie, Maloy finds that the man doesn’t really buy many of the supposed facts in the movie. He does, however, accept the idea that Obama is this unknown (Unknowable?) quantity. And this is what D’Souza depends upon:

And that really gets to the point of 2016. The facts, the scholarship, the logic are all secondary to reinforcing the idea that—despite four years in office and a policy record to judge him on—Obama is still an unknown and threatening quantity. D’Souza’s exploitation of that belief is over-the-top and galling, but that’s clearly what 2016‘s target audience wants to hear.

Evil Republican Plan

White RepublicanJonathan Chait was on vacation, but he’s back this morning. And what is he doing? Depressing the hell out of me.

Chait has been pushing this idea—that I mostly accept—that demographics are soon going to crush the Republican Party. This is funny when you consider the strength of the argument and the fact that we spent most of the 2000s talking about how important the white evangelical vote was.

The column today doesn’t require that one accept Chait’s demographic argument. All you have to know is that the Republican Party accepts it. They are assuming this is their last chance to get into the White House entirely on the backs of the white vote. As so, if they manage this feat, they are going to quickly push through all of their awful reverse Robin Hood policies.

I knew they would do this. But it was only when reading Chait’s article that this morning that I saw just how evil this act would be. This would not be a continuing push for some Randian dystopia. This approach is more along the lines of screwing up the system in order to make it harder to enact later policy by Democrats and necessarily more moderate Republicans.

But why was I surprised? I knew these guys were evil.

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Prodigal Son

The Return of the Prodigal Son - Pompeo BatoniI was thinking about the Parable of the Prodigal Son recently. Ever since I was a kid I hated this story. It was just terrible. How could a father treat a loyal son in this way?!

It’s interesting, really. As the story moves on, it seems like it is coming to a big ending. The son says, “Why are you celebrating the return of this jerk?!” And we expect the father to say something like, “But you will always be my favorite and I’m going to give you a pony tomorrow.” Or something. But no. Instead, it’s just, “Yeah. I’m a dick. I take you for granted. I’m an asshole that way. But I have no intention of changing, so buck up, sucker!”

Here is the text from the New American Standard Bible, which I understand is one of the translations that stays closest to the original Greek:

And He said, “A man had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.’ So he divided his wealth between them. And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living. Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country, and he began to be impoverished. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would have gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him. But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.”‘ So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves,[1] ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate.

“Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he became angry and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began pleading with him. But he answered and said to his father, ‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.'”

Out of the blue, I realized that this story is about the redemptive power of Christianity. Even though you have frittered away all the great things God gave you, he will still welcome you back. Yes, yes, I know: I’m dense. But now that I understand it, I understand better what I don’t like about Christianity.

This story brings us back to the Mother Teresa / Jeffrey Dahmer problem. This is simple. Mother Teresa seemed to have had doubts about Christianity toward the end of her life. By Christian dogma, if she lost her faith, she is in hell. On the other hand, Jeffrey Dahmer became a Christian while in prison. If he truly found Jesus, then he’s in heaven right now. I don’t see how such a system can be seen as anything but evil. Even allowing that both of them got into heaven, by the parable, God must have yawned when Mother Teresa arrived but had a big party for Dahmer.

I know what my Christian friends would say. It would be some variation on, “God works in mysterious ways.” This seems to me the ultimate cop out. If God’s ways are not just inscrutable, but absolutely contrary to our normal sense of morality, how can we possibly believe he should be worshiped? The “Good News” that Christians talk about is that regardless of how awful you are, if you follow Jesus you will have an eternity of bliss and regardless of how good you are, if you don’t follow Jesus you will have an eternity of torment. I don’t see how this news is good and I don’t see how anyone could find it a compelling reason to believe.

I am getting closer and closer to developing a spiritual belief system that works in the modern world. One that does not necessitate believing in folk tales, denying science, or hating people who are different. Thinking about Christianity helps me in this endeavor. Most people read the Bible and think, “How can I make this work for me in the modern world.” I ask a different question, “Why doesn’t this work in the modern world?”

Let’s be honest: Christianity does not work in the modern world. God hasn’t written anything down for us and he is not writing through anyone, except perhaps in the most oblique way. Finding God (for lack or a better term) is an process that requires constant change as advances are made in science and philosophy. Any religion must be a work in progress. Christianity may have been state of the art 2000 years ago, but it is not today. Imagine what kind of religious thought we could have if men like William Lane Craig spent their lives trying to improve on Christianity rather than trying to shoehorn reality into it.

[1] These are supposedly Jesus’ actual words. It doesn’t sound like he has a problem with slavery either. I understand that apologists would likely claim that he is talking about the kingdom of heaven. But I don’t see what this buys us. There are slaves in heaven? Gabriel is a slave, perhaps? This is what you get when you insist that the 2000 year old document is the divine word of God.

TED: Megaphone for Elite

Sarah Silver

Sarah Silverman did a TED Talk that wasn’t released and it got me thinking. I’ve written before that as good as these talks often are they have a pernicious philosophical basis. In particular, they imply that they are just “telling it like it is.” They claim to be objective.

This in itself is a big problem. It is fine for an individual to think that he is just following where the facts lead. Little delusions do little harm. But when an institution suffers from the same delusion, it can do great harm.

Dirty Jobs

For example, Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs fame gave a talk about how the idea of self actualization was bad. Based upon his experience, people doing grungy manual labor were the most happy. For all I know, this is true. To me, the biggest problem in modern life is finding meaning, and if I were a shepherd, I might well be much happier.

But the rich and famous Mr Rowe hasn’t actually lived with the people who appear on his show. He only sees them while the cameras are around. People tend to be happy when people show a sincere interest in them.

What’s more, there is a selection problem. Unsuccessful farmers don’t show up on Dirty Jobs. For most people, it isn’t a choice between a secure job as a museum curator and a secure job as a farmer. Higher prestige jobs tend to be more secure.

Rich men telling young people that they will be happiest if they forego college and take a menial job are just evil.

TED Talks Elitism

TED Talks are geared toward the elites and what their interests are. Basically, it is a series by, for, and of Michael Bloomberg. And there’s nothing wrong with that. What is wrong is the implication that these talks don’t funnel the truth into a very narrow Overton Window: that occupied by the mainstream media — socially liberal but economically quite conservative.

And the thing is that as much as I care about social issues, economic issues are the ones that most affect people in America today. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was a repugnant policy, but income inequality is destroying our society. DADT harmed a relatively small number of people in the military, but income inequality harms hundreds of millions in this country. DADT could have waited, but income inequality cannot.

Sarah Silverman

I was shocked to hear that Sarah Silverman’s TED Talk was effectively banned. Chris Anderson — that bastion of thoughtcrime policing — called the talk, “God-awful.” Luckily, someone finally leaked the video. And guess what? All she did was a stand-up routine that was completely in character for her:

I’ve more or less come to the conclusion that as much as I might generally agree with certain rich people, they are all pernicious actors. Because of what our society values, these people have too much power. This isn’t the power to explicitly force us to do anything. Instead, it is the power to force their ideas — regardless of how extreme — into the public discussion.

I may agree with Paul Krugman today, but tomorrow, he could say anything. And because of his wealth (and not his arguments), he will be heard. This is a major problem and it is well on display in the over 1000 TED Talks online.

Sarah Silverman by Joan Garvin under CC BY 2.0.

Apple Sucks

Apple SucksI’ve been unhappy with Apple for decades and this recent case against Samsung is a good example. I know there are a lot of Apple apologists out there. These are the same people who made excuses for Apple’s use of sweat shop labor. On this point, I have a question: why is it necessary for Apple to save a couple of dollars per unit? Would they really lose any sales if a $169 iPod was $172? I doubt it. And that is all it would cost to have made these units in the United States, or at least under more humane conditions.

But the main thing is that Apple has been a pox on the high tech industry. Microsoft was a problem because they slowed innovation due to their dominance and incompetence. Apple has managed the same thing with all of their “look and feel” lawsuits. This is rich coming from a company that while innovative in their packaging has never created any innovative software or hardware.

I’m not a partisan in the Apple-PC wars. I just don’t care. Give me a computer and I will use it. So I think I’m objective when looking at the industry. And in this Apple-Samsung lawsuit, Apple sucks. Matt Yglesias makes most of the argument today:

To look specifically at what I’m unhappy about, the jury upheld several Apple patents which amount to saying that if there are now-standard elements of touchscreen user interfaces that Apple did first in iOS now only iOS can use them. Another aspect of the case relates to the allegation that Samsung products have been violating Apple’s “trade dress” by basically looking too much like iPhones. That I’m less concerned about. What troubles me is the verdict upholding the US Patent and Trademark Office’s decision to say that, for example, Apple should have a legal monopoly on the pinch-to-zoom feature which I think is a great example of how the modern-day patent system has gone awry.

Think about cars and you’ll see that, of course, lots of different companies make cars. But they all have some very similar user interface elements. In particular, there’s a steering wheel that you turn left and right to shift the wheels and there’s a gas pedal and breaks that you hit with your right foot. Imagine if the way the automobile industry worked was that each car maker had to devise a unique user interface. So maybe GM cars would have a steering wheel, but Toyotas would have a joystick, and Honda you would steer with your feel and use your hands to control the gas and breaks.

The part of the argument that Yglesias doesn’t talk about is how UI elements free up consumers from being stuck with a particular company. Using his excellent analogy about cars, if you knew how to drive a Toyota, you would be far less free to move to GM because you wouldn’t know how to use its steering system. This is madness. What’s more, these software patents are bullshit. They stop innovation; they don’t encourage it.

Shame on Apple.