Aaron Swartz

Aaron SwartzAaron Swartz killed himself on Friday. For those of you who don’t know, he was a good guy: a technology savant who co-developed RSS when he was still a teenager. But most of all, he was an activist against our broken and evil intellectual property system. At 26, he was facing up to 35 years in jail for “intending” to release copyrighted documents to the public. That’s right: our federal government was threatening him with over twice the maximum federal punishment for rape using a drug.

Certainly, this had something to do with his suicide.

Chris Hayes discussed him on Up today. Check out the video below. But I thought that Dean Baker summed up what I think about all of this:

I have no special insight into the events surrounding his suicide. He had in the past had problems with depression, but there can be little doubt that he was very troubled by the prosecution hanging over his head. The Justice Department was pressing charges after he had been caught trying to download a huge number of academic articles through the M.I.T. computer system. The point was to make this work freely available to the public at large. While both M.I.T. and JSTOR, the system he was alleged to be hacking, asked to have the charges dropped, the Justice Department insisted on pressing the case, threatening Aaron with a lengthy prison sentence.

It is difficult not to be outraged by this part of the story. Here is an administration that could find nothing to prosecute at the Wall Street banks who enriched themselves by passing on hundreds of billions of dollars of fraudulent mortgages in mortgage backed securities and complex derivative instruments, but found the time and resources to prosecute a young man who wanted to make academic research freely available to the world.

That’s the liberal administration. Remember that.

Here’s Chris Hayes:

I like what Hayes read from Swartz’s article on depression. I only want to add that Hayes is wrong: there really isn’t any help, as far as I’ve ever been able to tell. But certainly, great stress (like having the entire federal prosecution machine attack you) only makes it worse. Sometimes, tragically, unbearably worse.

Republicans Have Nothing to Fear

John SidesThis morning, John Sides wrote a guest article over at Wonk Blog. It had a very cheerful sounding title, How Congressional Dysfunction Could Hurt House Republicans. I was looking for something to raise my spirits, because I’m pretty down about the Republicans in Washington. In fact, today I described them as terrorists, and I do not think this is the least bit hyperbolic.

Boy, did Dr. Sides disappoint! I think a better title for the article would have been, “How Congressional Dysfunction Will Not Hurt House Republicans.” But I can’t complain too much, because I already knew that. Especially after the new heights reaching in gerrymandering in 2010, there is little that will change. In fact, it would not surprise me if the Republicans gained seats in the House, after they greatly damaged the world economy by causing a United States government default.

So what’s up with that cheery title? Well, it turns out that some political science research shows that the electorate punishes whichever party is in control when the House is dysfunctional. Or more accurately: if House approval goes down, so does approval for the majority party’s incumbents. Sides quotes Rahm Emanuel regarding the details of governance, “Voters don’t give a [expletive] about that stuff.” And indeed they don’t. If the government defaults next month, I’m not sure if my sister Mary will have any idea it was a Republican decision.

I’ll tell you where I’m at. I just hope that for the next eight years we can avoid any catastrophes in Washington. And I hope that the Democratic Party will make a big push to control state legislatures in 2020. And if that can happen, maybe we can make some actual progress in the decade after that. Until them, I don’t think the Republicans have a God damned thing to worry about for destroying the United States. In fact, I expect them to be rewarded if just refrain from doing anything too damaging.

This is what you call “cognitive dissonance”: the ability to be hopeful and hopeless at the same exact time. Yeah psychology!

Afterword

This is the song I was listening to while I wrote this:

Saddam Hussein and the Debt Ceiling

Saddam HusseinI had a thought about the Debt Ceiling crisis. But first, let’s think about Iraq. After Saddam Hussein was deposed and Iraq got a new government, they still owed all the money that Hussein borrowed when he was in power. Many nations forgave some or all of that debt, but there was never any doubt that it was owed. It doesn’t matter if a ruler borrows lots of money just to abuse all the people in that country, after he’s gone those abused people owe that money.

Got that?

Because I’m not sure that the Republicans in Washington understand this. Their manufactured Debt Ceiling crisis is exactly the same. The 112th Congress voted to spend a certain amount of money. President Obama, as the head of the executive branch, is constitutionally required to spend that money. Now, the 113th Congress is suggesting that they don’t want to pay for roughly 40% of what the last congress voted for.

I am starting to lose my patience with this discussion. Platinum coins? Moral obligation bonds? Do we really need to live in this fantasy world created by the Republican Party? The Congress has mandated spending. The spending must be done. If they don’t want to mandate spending going forward, then cut the budget. The Debt Ceiling is ridiculous and it makes our country look even more foolish than usual.

But I’m not a fool. I know why the Republicans don’t want to fight over the budget and are instead trying to blackmail the president over the Debt Ceiling. They don’t want to be held accountable for budget cuts. Hell, they don’t even know what they want to cut! They know that the government is too damned big and they are going to continue knowing that until the government doesn’t exist. Because their knowledge is not based on any facts whatsoever.

If I had any faith in the American electorate, I would say, “Fine! Let the Republicans destroy the economy!” But I feel certain that on 5 November 2014, we would find that at best, all that had happened was that the Republicans had lost a couple of seats in the House. A great country like the United States, does not get a revolutionary party like the Republicans without a dysfunctional electorate—without 40% of its (mostly liberal) members not voting.

Unfortunately, unlike Iraq, there will be no one eager to cancel out our debt if we default. People in the military will not be able to go without pay. Seniors will die without their benefits. Oh yeah, and bond holders will not sit idly by while their investments disintegrate. But there will be a big up side for conservatives. The government will have to pay far more for its debt going forward and so will use this as an excuse to reduce benefits. Shock doctrine USA!

I have a new definition for the word “patriot”: someone who hates—Really hates—the United States. Or we could all just agree to call the Republicans what they are: terrorists.

Downton Abbey

Downton AbbeyI almost never use the word “romantic” to describe sexual attraction and relationships. I generally mean it to indicate that something involves heroic archetypes. Sadly, I’m afraid that I got this way reading Ayn Rand. However, it is a far more useful word when used this way. I think it is a mistake to cloak sexual love in airy words.

This comes to mind because I just watched the first season of a very romantic television show: Downton Abbey. My sister Kim has been bugging me to watch it because she likes it and thought it would appeal to me. I checked and noticed that it was created by Julian Fellowes, whose script for Gosford Park is as great as anything ever created for a film. So I got very excited for about a minute, before forgetting that Fellowes had anything to do with the series. But yesterday, I finally sat down and watched the show. And I swear I am not making this up, I though, “Oh! Julian Fellowes create this!” It was only after talking with my sister that I was helped to remember that, in fact, I already knew it was by Fellowes.

The series is very good and I find it deeply affecting. This is mostly because the vast majority of the characters are so noble. And, of course, the characters are rather familiar. Bates seems very much like Parks from Gosford Park, for example. But Fellowes does a good job of mixing up things that it all feels comfortable without being stale. It also shares about the same mix of up and downstairs plot, with the downstairs getting a bit more of the focus.

The first episode works the best. As the series progresses, it gets more and more far fetched. Even apart from this, there is the continuing problem of Thomas and O’Brien, the male and female Iagos[1] of the series. It would be one thing if they, like Iago in Othello, were critical to the plot. But they are nothing but working in the alleys—mostly making trouble for Bates. Add to this that Downton Abbey is a modern drama with otherwise fairly well developed characters, and these two create problems that are much bigger than any of their evil machinations. Namely: they add an unwelcome melodrama to an otherwise fairly sophisticated modern drama.

There is a theme that is everywhere in Fellowes’ work: the responsibility of rank. I am deeply divided on this point. On the one hand it is true: the rich have traditionally had responsibilities that went with their positions. On the other: it is much easier to be rich, and today the rich have no such obligations. So I wonder why we talk about this. The idea that the rich have responsibilities continues on today, of course. But it now manifests itself in the myth of the Job Creator where the rich flatter themselves they are doing good moral work when all they’re really doing is getting richer. But in Downton Abbey we see a very clueless young man learn that his valet needs a sense of self-worth as much as he does. It is a nice sequence.

Overall, Downton Abbey is a very good series. It does have its problems. Sometimes, I think the directors try too hard; there is too much Steadicam work and artistic touches that pull me out of the story. There are character problems, as I’ve noted. And I don’t think that Fellowes does a good enough job as Executive Producer—there is not enough subplot resolution; I feel that the series is nothing but loose ends going forward. But all of this is transcended. I have enjoyed spending time with these characters and I want to spend more time with them.

Afterword

I really liked this bit of dialog by Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith), “When something bad happens, there’s no point in wishing it had not happened. The only option is to minimize the damage.” Alas.


[1] I am going to try to be a little more understandable. Iago is the villain in Othello. He is the one who, through insinuation and other machinations, convinces Othello that his new bride is unfaithful to him. This causes Othello to kill her and then when he learns the truth to kill himself. Whenever I talk about Iago, what I’m getting at is not so much that he is evil. It is rather that there would be no story without Iago. Truly, Iago is a pathetic plot device. Basically, because he is evil he causes trouble that the plot depends upon. A modern drama generally provides much more motivation for an “evil” character. In Othello, Iago does have some motivation: Othello passed him over for a promotion. Is that enough of a motivation? I don’t think so. Similarly, Thomas doesn’t like Bates because Bates has the job he had temporarily. Is this enough for him to still be plotting years later? Again: I don’t think so.