Quien es mas macho?

On The Last Word today, Lawrence O’Donnell asked, “Quien es mas macho?” between presidents Reagan, Bush Sr, and Clinton and Speaker Gingrich. I have many problems with O’Donnell, but he is at his best when doing this kind of thing. And in this case, he’s right. Basically Newt Gingrich destroyed Washington. He is the man who truly invented the Republican Party’s core philosophy, “Power for power’s sake.”

Accretion Fish

Accretion DiskTonight, on my way back from the garbage, I looked up into the sky. It was very clear and I could see a lot of stars. It made me think of my ancestor over tens of thousands of years who did the same thing. At first, they were just pretty lights in the sky. But over time, we noticed that they moved across the sky during the night. And then we noticed that these positions changed over the course of the year. And there were things like planets that misbehaved completely; they’re always a few bad apples.

Now when I look at the stars, I think of distant solar systems with planets, x-ray binary pulsars, galaxies, and quasars. But I don’t think these things because I’m smart or observant. In fact, I only this year began noticing the migration of birds. I know what I know by the accretion of knowledge of my ancestors. Without them and the language which allowed that knowledge to move from person to person and grow, these stars would only be pretty lights in the sky. Instead, they are pretty lights in the sky… And everything else.

This makes me think of some lyrics from Syd Barrett’s song Terrapin. Because without all the blessings of our species, we would still be just fish in a bowl:

‘Cause we’re the fishes and all we do
Are move about is all we do
Well oh baby, my hair’s on end about you.

Ten Ideas to Fix the Economy

Dylan MatthewsI have this strange idea that I don’t care for Dylan Matthews over at WonkBlog. But I just looked at my writing over the last year, and I find I am always very impressed with his work. I know that from time to time, he falls into false equivalence and splitting the difference fallacies. But mostly, he is a very good reporter who understands economics.

Last week, he wrote perhaps the best thing I have yet seen from him, Ten Ways to Reduce Inequality Without Raising Tax Rates. He lists ways that will reduce inequality for “both sides to get what they want.” That’s reaching up to Ezra Klein level adorableness. I am far too cynical to think that Republicans would ever go along with these ideas. The reason is simple: Republicans like inequality; they are as a rule against anything that is good for the country generally. (I would not have said this 30 years ago.)

1. Make it easier to start and join unions. Oh, there’s a proposal Republicans are going to jump on! This is a great idea. Unions are one of the big reasons why workers shared in the productivity gains after WWII for 30 years and their demise is one of the big reasons why workers have hardly shared at all in the gains of the last 30 years.

2. Weaken the dollar. This is all about big dicks on both sides of the aisle. A weak dollar makes our exports more competitive. But those who already have wealth hate a weak dollar because it lowers what their wealth can buy. But this is a no-brainer: a weak dollar is good for the economy. Politicians like a strong dollar because it makes them think they are powerful. Or something.

3. Promote trade in highly-skilled professions. This is one that Dean Baker pushes. We have allowed globalization to hit low wage workers in manufacturing, but we continue to practice protectionism for doctors, lawyers, dentists, college professors, you name it. If we had a truly free market, workers would have less money, but they would need less to pay for things like healthcare and education.

4. Force the Fed to get serious about unemployment. The Fed has a dual mandate to minimize inflation and maximize employment. But you’d never know it. All the Fed seems to care about is minimizing inflation. I think this has to do with the class of people at the Fed: they are the rentier class. No one they know is out of a job, but lots of people they know own stuff that would be hurt by inflation. Back in June, Matt Yglesias asked a great rhetorical question, “If the unemployment and inflation rates were reversed, would the Fed do something about it?” The answer is, of course, that they would work very hard to change it. But these numbers are not reversed and so the Fed continues to do the bare minimum.

5. Reform IP law—especially for medicine. This is another Dean Baker issue (although he talks about them all). Our intellectual property laws are used by companies to stifle innovation and competition. Check out more from Lawrence Lessig on this.

6. Relax licensing rules. At last, an idea that a Republican might support! This is basically the idea that the guy who cuts your hair shouldn’t need to have a license. I think we could liberalize such requirements. But I don’t think they are all bad and I don’t think there is that much to be gained here. Hence: the perfect Republican issue!

7. Ease up on zoning restrictions. This basically means having a free market in housing. A lot could be done on this issue. Matt Yglesias is very interested in this subject. Check out his e-book, The Rent is Too Damn High.

8. Increase transfers. Instead of focusing on taxing the rich, focus on helping the poor. Matthews points out that much of Europe is more unequal than the United States. In fact, the United Kingdom and Germany have more regressive tax codes, but their societies are more equal because of all the countries do for the poorer classes. Of course, the biggest example of this is to provide healthcare for everyone. But we can’t have that here! At least, we can’t have it unless the insurance industry gets its pound of flesh.

9. Fund early childhood education. Want to make a society that really does have equality of opportunity? One necessary part of this is to help children early on enhance their cognitive skills. Necessary but not sufficient!

10. Get the lead out This one surprised me. Lead in painted surfaces have amazing consequences to society. Here’s Matthews:

It’s hard to overstate how important the removal of lead from household paint and gasoline has been in recent decades. There’s something approaching a consensus that deleading is responsible for the majority, if not the vast majority, of the decline in crime rates since the 1970s. One study says that 90 percent of the decline is attributable to deleading.

It’s not just crime. Much of the decline in teen pregnancy can be chalked up to deleading, and school performance is highly correlated with lead exposure. Even lead amounts below the so-called “safe” amount can reduce IQ by about 7 points. Lead is just a very dangerous chemical, one that hinders judgment in all manner of contexts.

We’ve done a pretty good job deleading, but the effort is by no means done. Many communities, primarily poor ones, still have buildings with lead pipes or lead-based paint. Children in such communities are liable to be exposed to crime, which leads to aggressive and cognitive/academic difficulties, to teen pregnancy, to commit crimes themselves, and to have lower cognitive functioning.

These are great ideas. I wish supposed liberals like our president would start talking about them. But even without that, it is very exciting to think about the options we have to create a more perfect union.

Letter to President Obama on Fiscal Cliff

Obama Question MarkDear Mr. President:

I am very concerned about the “Fiscal Cliff” negotiations. I don’t understand why you would offer a smaller increase on the top tax rate than the one that will happen automatically on Jan 1 in exchange for raising the Medicare eligibility age. Unfortunately, I don’t know what to think. Who knows what is really going on with these negotiations? But I fear that I and the many others who supported you are being sold out.

A bad deal on these negotiations will haunt the Democratic Party for a decade. The base (who the elites in our party really do seem to hate) will be extremely disillusioned after the giddy heights of last month’s election. Pundits are fond of saying that elections have consequences. But if this negotiation goes badly, your supporters will know this is not true—at least not now and not for us.

Stay strong. Go over the “Fiscal Cliff,” if need be. Please Mr. President, don’t screw this up.

-Frank Moraes

Right-to-Work Limits Employer Freedom

Rick SnyderAll this madness about right-to-work in Michigan got me to thinking. About libertarians. I’m not sure about the intricacies of the Michigan situation, but what right-to-work normally means is that unions can’t have a contract with employers to have a union-only shop and that non-union (non-dues paying) workers still get all the advantages of the union’s negotiations. Libertarians should hate this kind of law.

This is very simple: the government is stepping in and telling employers what kind of contracts they can make with their workers. Libertarians and conservatives generally should be against this kind of limit to the personal freedom of business owners. But as we know very well (as I have discussed in detail), libertarians don’t give a rat’s ass about freedom.

Libertarians hate unions far more than they love freedom. These right-to-work laws are really just prettified anti-union laws—they remove a union’s greatest resource: worker solidarity. Thus, libertarians (almost to a man) are for these anti-liberty laws.

I don’t suppose it is news that libertarians are (almost to a man) a bunch of pretenders. But I think it is important that we continue to call them out. Conservatives justify their hateful economic policies on libertarian grounds. And in this fight in Michigan, conservatives (including governor Rick Scott) are saying that these laws increase worker freedom. So they’ve got it exactly backwards. These laws take freedom away. But they do make the rich richer, and that, apparently, is the only thing that conservatives (and libertarian pretenders) care about.

The Golden Bowl

The Golden BowlI just watched the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala production of Henry James’ The Golden Bowl. The main thing that struck me about the film was Jhabvala’s screenplay. If I had written an adaptation of James’ novel, it would have been a cynical mess. But this film is a tribute to human dignity and the abilities that we all have to grow and learn and change. It is the kind of film that makes you cry where you think you wouldn’t.

The best example of this is when Maggie goes to comfort Charlotte about her sudden and bewildering situation of losing her lover (Maggie’s husband) and being forced to move to America with Maggie’s father, who Charlotte is married to. Before doing so, Maggie’s husband asks what she will say. Maggie replies, “It will depend upon what she will say to me—whatever she can find to save her pride.” And so she goes. And Charlotte saves her pride by claiming that she is taking Maggie’s father away from her because Maggie has always been jealous of their love. It is a wonderful sequence that rips your heart out the same way as the end of A Tale of Two Cities, “It is a far, far better thing that I do…”

Although I think the film is very good, it does have its problems. The biggest problem is that the first half of the film moves along awfully slowly. In the end, it does all pay off, but less committed viewers would probably just turn it off. Another problem, and this may just be me, is that Uma Thurman just isn’t that good. Her accent seems all over the board and at times she plays scenes like the character is a psychopath. Still, she’s a good crier, and has a wonderful scene with Nick Nolte at the very end.

There is one other problem, but it is indicative of my pedantic nature regarding dramatic structure. The film is about 4 people. But it ends being only about Charlotte. I understand why this was done: it is clear where the other characters end; there is happiness all around. It is harder to get Charlotte there. But I think this was unnecessary. I don’t really believe she will ever be that happy. Anyway, the novel isn’t really about happiness it is about acceptance. And we know that Charlotte learned that lesson.

Otherwise, the film is quite beautiful—everything you expect of a Merchant-Ivory film. You’re still better off with A Room with a View or The Remains of the Day.

The Sound of Waiting

WaitingDo you hear it? It’s the sound of waiting. There’s only one thing on most pundits’ minds (Oxymoron?) and that is the dreaded fiscal cliff. This morning, Ezra Klein continued to push his “Obama’s gonna screw his base, ain’t that keen?!” theory. John Waggoner of USA TODAY complains that the markets are not freaking out about the Fiscal Cliff as much as he is. (There’s hope, however: with his x-ray pundit eyes, Waggoner sees that the markets are on the verge of the freak out he so desires to see.) But mostly we just see a lot of finger tapping. Conservatives are waiting for the terrible deal they know is coming. Liberals are waiting for their inevitable betrayal by the Democratic Party.

Otherwise, nothing is happening. Really. Let’s look at WonkBlog, shall we. In the last 24 hours, here are the articles that they’ve published:

Why more and more businesses are being taxed like people
The deep, real spending cuts we’ve already passed—and that no one talks about
Wonkbook: A critical week for fiscal cliff negotiations
Five ways raising eligibility could change Medicare
Berlusconi’s back, but the Eurozone crisis isn’t *
Where things really stand in the fiscal cliff negotiations
Forecasters are optimistic about U.S. carbon emissions. Should they be? *
Graph of the day: Medicare age change matters most for minorities
Study: The U.S. government has way too many overlapping programs *

I’ve marked the ones that do not directly relate to the Fiscal Cliff. Thus, two-thirds of the articles deal with the budget negotiations. It is like political reporting at the federal level is being held hostage to these negotiations. And the partisans on the left and right are correct: we will be screwed. So maybe it is time to move on to other issues like American hubris or law enforcement murder.

Afterword

I lied a little. There was one more: Sarah Kliff’s fun Lunch Break, this time: A stop-motion history of GIFs.

For the record: gif is not a good format, it is not much used any more, and it patented status caused a lot of us to hate it and refuse to use it until it became free about 10 years ago.