Filibuster Reform Now—Or Not

FilibusterWe are on filibuster reform eve. Three weeks ago, Harry Reid recessed the Senate, so when the Senate comes back into session tomorrow, it will still technically be the first day. And so, they can reform the filibuster with a simple majority vote. The question is whether they will. It is looking more and more like the Democrats will do what we can almost always depend upon them doing: folding. If there were a Nobel Prize in being spineless and not standing for anything when it matters, the Democratic Party would have racked up a whole lot of them over the last three decades. But there is no such prize, so all they’ve racked up is a bunch of losses.

I have two positions on the filibuster: ethical and practical. From an ethical standpoint, I’m against it. The filibuster makes an already ridiculously undemocratic Senate even more undemocratic. This isn’t about minority rights; we have the Constitution for that. This is about minority veto power. We should get rid of it for purely ethical reasons.

But there is perhaps an even more compelling practical reason to get rid of it. The Republicans will destroy the filibuster as soon as it is to their advantage. The moment a Democratic minority blocks their legislative agenda, the filibuster will be killed. Any Democrat who thinks otherwise is hopelessly naive. The Republicans play for keeps and when they are in power, they don’t fret over the thought that at some time in the future they might not have the filibuster to protect them. Anyway, the Republicans are also whiners. Even with their excessive use of the filibuster, most Senate Republicans think they have been badly abused.

So what’s the problem? Well, Harry Reid, a man I have long admired, seems to be set to collapse on filibuster reform. Actually, it is worse than that. Politico reported last Thursday that he no longer supports the “talking filibuster” where Senators would have to hold the floor in order to grind the Senate to a halt. So what we are likely to get is a change in the rules that will be useless. But! It will set a precedent so that when the Republicans are in power, they can destroy the filibuster and the Democrats will have absolutely no room to complain.

I still have a little hope. Jeff Merkley, who wrote the main reform plan being discussed, says that he has the votes. So who knows? According to AMERICA Blog, not only is Harry Reid wavering, but so are both of my Senators: Feinstein and Boxer. Thanks a lot, gals!

Regardless, write or call your Senators. This is really important!

Martin Luther King, Jr.

M.L.K.I am not a great follower of history, but Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of the few names that comes to mind when I think of people who gave of themselves to make this a better society.

Being white, I am naturally ignorant of the true struggles of any other race. I know my world; I hear rumors of others. And yet, here I am, at the request of a friend, blogging about a man, an historical figure, about whom I actually know very little. What I do know is that, because of men like Martin Luther King, Jr., our world ― as far from ideal as it is ― is better and more unified. His strength and bravery, his choice to become a voice for his people, cleared a path toward self-respect and hope. His people being anyone oppressed, abused, tortured, or murdered because of the ignorance, greed, and brutality of other human beings.

As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways in which I could respond to my situation ― either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course. ― Martin Luther King Jr.

See also King on Poverty.

The Letter G

Gis for God.

G is also for other fictional characters like Goldilocks, Godzirra!, and Gollum.

God. Say it backwards, and unlike Zed Zeppelin’s hidden Satanic agenda, it says dog. I like dogs. Dogs have done more good for people than everyone’s gods and goddesses put together. A dog has never killed another on behalf of a doggy deity. It is a fact that dogs and a proper diet have saved more lives than God. Whatever malignant or benign impact believers have had on the world is their own doing — not the actions of god working through them. Maybe they have themselves confused with marionettes.

“Do I look stupid? God damned right I’m an atheist!”

The President of Vice

The President of ViceOne of my very favorite features of The Onion is its portrayal of Joe Biden as a kind of working class lady’s man who has made it big but who still holds on to his working class roots. It’s kind of a high class version of Ronnie Dobbs, the regular character on the Cops like show “Fuzz” on Mr. Show. And I can see how it ought to appeal to both people who love and hate the real Joe Biden. Those who hate him will see it as belittling him. But those like me will see it as an homage: the man really is cool.

Who can’t but love articles like, Biden To Honor Fallen Soldiers By Jumping Motorcycle Over Vietnam Memorial. Or Biden Receives Lifetime Ban From Dave & Buster’s. Or Biden To Cool His Heels In Mexico For A While.

And you must remember this story from last September, Joe Biden Hitchhikes To Democratic National Convention:

The New York Times reported Monday, Biden Getting an Autobiography From The Onion (Whether He Wants It or Not). It seems that the staff of The Onion are as in love with this Biden character as all of us readers. So they’ve created an e-book, The President of Vice. The foreword of the book apparently opens:

Hombre, you’ve just done Uncle Joe a real solid buying this book. I ain’t the kind of guy who forgets his debts. Next time we meet there’s a tallboy of ice cold Beast on me. And if you’re a lady, I know a few tricks to repay you with interest, if you catch my drift.

At just $2.99, how can you resist? As for me, I was going to buy it, but I decided to pick up A Tale of Two Cities. But let me know if you read it.

Afterword

And here is some of the coolness of the real Joe Biden:

Is Inequality Holding Back the Recovery?

Price of InequalityBig happenings over the weekend. (You can take that as a joke if you like, but I’m quite serious.) Joseph Stiglitz wrote an extended OpEd over at the New York Times, Inequality Is Holding Back the Recovery. He presents four reasons for saying this. First, he notes the deleveraging problem: the middle class is feeling very poor because of the bursting of the housing bubble, but they haven’t seen their incomes increase since the crisis. Second, low income growth has caused the middle class to limit investment in things like education. Third, income inequality is keeping tax receipts low. And fourth, high income inequality is associated with economic instability.

Krugman responded in a blog post on Sunday. He noted that Stiglitz’s second and fourth points are important, but don’t really have anything to do with job growth since the bubble burst. But mainly, Krugman’s point is that the evidence isn’t that good for the theory that the rich don’t spend as much money as the poor. He notes that Milton Friedman showed that most of this correlation was actually due to people whose incomes had temporarily fallen. Understandably, they would spend more of their incomes on average. Similarly, people who get a suddenly windfall are likely to save more of it. So Krugman turns to data and shows that total spending was moving in the opposite direction than it would be given Stiglitz’s hypothesis.

Dean Baker then counters Krugman’s point by noting that much of the spending was driven by the stock and real estate bubbles where people thought they had more money than they actually did. He makes a number of other good points.

And then this morning, Krugman is back, yielding a little of the territory. But mostly, he is arguing again that economics is not a morality play. Just because you think something is right doesn’t mean it is good economics. It is entirely possible to have an unjust economy that works great. And this is where all three of these great economists agree: extreme income inequality is bad for us as a people. As we’ve seen over the last 35 years, the economy can grow without it improving the lives of the vast majority of its citizens. This counters the argument that Milton Friedman liked to make that even though the rich were getting far richer, the poor were also doing better than they would in a more egalitarian system. That simply is not true. (Of course, the moment you argued this with Friedman, he would switch to arguing some nonsense about rights and responsibilities—the typical libertarian bait and switch.)

See how fun economics is? If not, here’s your take home: income inequality is bad. It is turning us into a feudal system. Democracy requires some level of equality. If you don’t have it, then the rich can just buy whatever government they want. You know, just like in modern America.

Update (21 January 2013 11:55 am)

Matt Yglesias says that while he thinks Krugman may have the better argument, Stiglitz is probably still right:

Joe Stiglitz says high levels of inequality hold back economic recovery but Paul Krugman disagrees and I think gets the better of the argument. That said, I think Stiglitz’s conclusion may be correct. Krugman says you “you can have full employment based on purchases of yachts, luxury cars, and the services of personal trainers and celebrity chefs.” And I agree with him, you can. Or at least you could. But you don’t and that seems significant to me.

Classic Car Values

1963 Buick RivieraMy father showed me an article on the 1963 Buick Riviera. It was the first year that it had the new boxy design. And it sold for $4,333 at the time. That struck me. People tend to think of restored vehicles as being worth a lot of money, but given my intuition about inflation, it seemed like in inflation adjusted dollars, the car would sell for more or less what it now does as a “classic.” I decided to check.

Using yearly inflation data from InflationData.com, I created a spreadsheet and calculated the inflation adjusted price of the 1963 Buick Riviera at every year from then until now. So in 1970, it was worth $5,493. In 1980, it was worth $11,669. In 1990, it was worth $18,520. In 2000, it was worth $24,405. And last year, it was worth $32,565.

But I ought to point out one thing about inflation that I learned recently reading Social Security: the Phony Crisis. Inflation doesn’t just measure how fast prices rise. It adjusts for improvements in products. So a 1963 car really should be worth quite a lot less than the inflation rate would indicate because the car hasn’t improved over the last 50 years. But still, I think this exercise is a valuable one.

So now I knew that the 1963 Buick Riviera would cost $32,565 dollars in 2012 dollars. How much were fully restored models actually selling for? I went over to Hemmings Classifieds to look. Of course, it doesn’t list what the cars are selling for; it lists what people are asking. There where four in basically new condition: $19,900; $19,995; $22,900; and $24,495. In other words: a lot less than the car sold for originally.

I guess this doesn’t mean that much. I had noticed before that the value of cars tended to be right about the cost of restoring them. But with all the buzz about “classic” cars and all the celebrity collectors, I am still a little surprised that the cars don’t retain at least their sticker value.

Downton Abbey Second Pass

Downton AbbeyLast night I introduced my father to Downton Abbey. (Listen up, JMF!) He seemed to like it well enough. But he was really bothered by how horrible all the upstairs people were. I didn’t think they were all that bad. And he very much liked the cook, who, on second view, is very amusing.

The whole time, I was thinking of one thing: Bates. As you may recall, Bates is the noble valet how was injured in the second Boer War. But also: Alan Bates played the honable, but troubled butler Jennings in Gosford Park. It was one of his last roles. And it made me wonder if Julian Fellowes didn’t provide Bates this name as an homage to the late great actor.

One thing I was reminded of that I had meant to note when I wrote about it before, is the rather over-done direction. I’m all for making such a film dynamic and unlike what have traditionally been the very boring Masterpiece Theatre film versions of novel classics. But I’m also not keen on the Steadicam, and it is way overused here. I had flashbacks of Goodfellas. (Scorsese’s worst excesses involve the Steadicam.)

So there you go: a few thoughts on watching Downton Abbey with my dad.

Incoming Andromeda!

AndromedaStrangely, this is not in the news. There is a coming crisis and there appears to be not a goddamned thing we can do about it. But first: some background.

It is often said that the Andromeda Galaxy is the nearest galaxy to the Milky Way. This is not actually true. It is just that it is the nearest big galaxy to us. Galaxies are like solar systems: they have satellites, and maybe those satellites have satellites. The Milky Way has at least 26 satellite galaxies. Andromeda has at least 36. It’s a wonder you can still find parking downtown!

With all of this celestial congestion, it’s no surprise that things are always running into each. And as it turns out, the Andromeda Galaxy is headed straight for us! And it is going to be really bad. But there’s good news: we have a lot of time to prepare. Roughly four billion years. But it’s not like we can just focus on this problem. Undoubtedly many life destroying asteroids and comets will hit the earth during that time. Also the luminosity of the sun is raising; in only one billion years, it will be so bright that the oceans will evaporate. And there is always the possibility of a supernova nearby that will kill all life on earth. There really is so much to prepare for, and that isn’t even including the upcoming Debt Ceiling crisis.

Actually, I fully expect that humans will go extinct within 10,000 years. But even assuming the very best of our species (And regular readers will know what I think of that!) we don’t have more than 100,000 years on this planet. That’s kind of a cheerful thought, when you consider that’s how long we’ve already been here. That is assuming we even exist, which I mostly doubt.

Regardless of all this, the smart and hard working people at NASA have put together the following video to show what’s going to happen to the Milky Way Galaxy when our sister Local Group galaxy rams into us. It is really cool. And it helps me keep things in perspective. But nonetheless, I still worry about that Debt Ceiling.