Studs Terkel and Fine Red Wine

Studs TerkelOn this day back in 1831, the co-inventor of the microphone, David E. Hughes was born. He also invented a number of other things by himself, most notably the spark-gap transmitter and the crystal radio. The latter was a very popular radio in the early days because it requires no battery, which is, I don’t know, totally awesome? He was also something of a musical prodigy, later becoming a professor of music.

One of the most creepy and vile serial killers ever, H. H. Holmes was born in 1861. The glamorous Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka was born in 1898. Henry Fonda was born in 1905. In 1910, Socialist realism painter Aleksandr Ivanovich Laktionov was born. And Liberace was born in 1919.

Guitarist Robert Fripp is 67 today. Although it is a different kind of radio that he has on, Jonathan Richman is 62. As far as I’m concerned, Pierce Brosnan was the perfect James Bond, and he is 60 today. And the great gymnast Olga Korbut is 58. Although I actually have a problem with gymnastics in general, I’ve had a crush on Korbut since I was eight. So it’s a good opportunity to enjoy her again:

Actor Debra Winger is also 58. Kevin McDonald from The Kids in the Hall is 52. And Janet Jackson is 47.

The day, however, belongs to the great oral historian and writer Studs Terkel who was born on this day 1912. He stayed with us—and relevant—halfway through his 97th year. He is best known for Hard Times, Working, and The Good War. What I most admire about him is the unusual life he led. He got a law degree, but rather than practice law, he went to work in a hotel. Then he went into theater and found himself in radio. He didn’t really start to do the stuff he was known for until he was in his 40s. And he did his most important work in his 60s and 70s. When it comes to the things that really matter—one of which is our fellow humans and their lives—greatness takes time. For most people, Marsellus Wallace was right: humans are like vinegar. But Terkel was like a fine red wine.

Happy birthday Studs Terkel!


Olga Korbut is often credited with (Blamed for?) changing women’s gymnastics from a sport of older, larger women to one of younger, smaller women. That isn’t really true. In the 1960s, there was a trend toward younger and smaller gymnastics and Korbut was just part of that trend. And not the end of it, either.

Mainstream Media Freak Out More Than Fox

Steven T. MillerI caught a few minutes of Fox News this afternoon. Supposedly straight news anchor Bret Baier explained that the resignation of acting IRS chief Steven T. Miller was just political theater because he was going to step down in June anyway. And then Charles Krauthammer added that it just wasn’t credible that a few low-level IRS employees would take it on themselves to give special attention to tea party groups. That, of course, makes no sense at all. If you were charged with checking 501(c)(4) applications and you saw a huge increase in applications from tea party groups, you would very easily think, “Maybe I should look into all these tea party groups.” Krauthammer’s argument assumes that IRS employees are a bunch of buffoons who can’t think for themselves. But that’s his (very typical) conservative prejudice. It isn’t close to reality.

But what struck me about the segment was not that, as usual, Fox News was spouting typical partisan nonsense as if it were news. It was that Fox News was saying just what I said they would say. And as I said, most of it would be true. At least, what Bret Baier said was true: it was political theater. Where I went wrong was to think that conservatives would care that Steven Miller had nothing to do with the scandal, except, you know, to fix it. I guess it isn’t the job of Fox News to report, you know, news. It’s just their job to attack the president, and they had enough for that in the fact that Miller was going away soon anyway.

What boggles my mind about all of this is, if anything, Fox News is being less hysterical than most of the Washington press. To some extent, I suspect this is just because the Fox News staff are relishing it; they think this will go on and on—maybe even bringing down the president—so there’s no reason to rush. Jonathan Bernstein has an excellent article at his A Plain Blog About Politics where he looked at all the excitement on Tuesday about this “important” collection of scandals. A good illustration of this is from last night’s The Daily Show:

When I saw this I was very angry. What Stewart is saying is that because there is a scandal about the IRS and the Associated Press, even if it doesn’t actually have anything to do with the president, that makes Benghazi a real scandal. This is the sort of nonsense that I expect The Daily Show to lampoon. But in its way, Jon Stewart and company are very much a mirror of Washington. And really: I’m getting to the point where I don’t even want to watch it; the aggravation is not compensated by the comedy—the comedy itself getting rarer and rarer, replaced by knowing observations. I don’t need The Daily Show to point out the foolishness of the politics; I get that all day long.

Anyway, according to Bernstein, the mainstream news sources have today figured out what I’ve been arguing all along: what scandals? He is quick to note that we just don’t know what is going to happen to these scandals. And I agree. It could turn out that Obama was bribing those IRS workers to go after his enemies—just like Richard Nixon! But it is much more likely that what is really happening is what I’ve been saying all along: the more we know, the less there appears to be a scandal.

That’s not to say that there aren’t really important issues associated with each one of the supposed scandals. My article Scandal?! is probably the best thing I’ve written this month and it discusses exactly that. But as for any scandal that involves President Obama breaking the law or using his office for undue advantage? That’s just nonsense. It’s a 1% chance at best. Mark my words: by this time next week, only Fox News will be covering this stuff with any amount of passion.

Matt Yglesias Wishes Republicans Better

Matt YglesiasMatt Yglesias has this tendency to apologize for behavior even as he demolishes it. He published a great example of this earlier this morning, AEI Chief: To Win Latino Votes, the GOP Needs an Agenda to Help Poor People. That sounds fantastic and almost unbelievable. The head of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Arthur Brooks, understands that in order to appeal to Latinos, the GOP needs to help the poor? That’s great! I’ve been arguing the same thing for a long time.

Alas, that isn’t what he said at all. After laying out what Brooks has to say, Yglesias adds, “The problem, of course, is that Brooks’ proposed solution looks an awful lot like nothing more than reframing.” And of course, that is Brooks solution. Conservatives love to talk about all the opportunities that they want to create for the poor. But when it gets down to actions, those opportunities end up being nothing more than the opportunities for the rich to exploit them.

Brooks in fact says that he wants the poor to know that they are not the cause of our fiscal problems. Instead, it is those evil middle class people. And by cutting Social Security and Medicare, there will be plenty of money for the poor. Well, Brooks has a different definition or “poor” than I do. I think roughly half the country is poor. Brooks is more of the “if they have a microwave oven they can’t be poor” school of thought.

Yglesias goes after the reality of the Republican Party in terms of how it wants to “reform” the budget:

The budget House Republicans have written cuts $0 in Medicare spending over the next ten years. It cuts $0 dollars in Social Security spending ever. It increases national defense spending. It sharply cuts cuts rates on high-income families. And it balances the budget. So who loses out? Poor people. It is true that starting in Year 11, the House GOP budget begins to cut Medicare spending. But it does so in a way that does very little to protect the interests of low-income retirees. And the cuts to Medicare are not used to avoid cuts in programs for the poor. In fact, the cuts to Medicare are not even used to avoid tax hikes on the poor. The style of tax reform favored by the House GOP ensures that along with spending on programs for the poor being cut, working class families will pay more in taxes.

Not exactly a “protect the poor” agenda. But Yglesias goes on to speculate what Brooks is really doing. Is he trying to push the GOP in the right direction? Is he just clueless? I think Yglesias nailed it at the beginning of article. Brooks is just another good Republican soldier, out there trying to claim that they really want to help the poor without, you know, actually helping the poor.

It is also interesting that Brooks employs racist Charles Murray who only yesterday wrote a defense of fellow racist, with particular attention to Latinos, Jason Richwine. So this is really just SOP for the conservative movement. And that is all clear from Yglesias’ article. Yet he still tries to argue that maybe, in some alternate dark matter universe that I have no access to, the Republicans really are trying to change into something a little less evil. If it makes the young blogger happy, I guess it is okay. But the rest of us don’t need to buy his happy horseshit. His hard nosed analysis destroys it anyway.

Rich Distract from Real Social Security Reform

1%Investment banker Jim Roumell has proposed a great idea over at the Washington Post. After 9/11, “strong” young men signed up with the military to defend America against… Well, I actually don’t know. At the time it seemed like an outburst of jingoism that had very little (if anything) to do with keeping America safe. But okay, let’s go along with Roumell’s analogy. Just like those courageous young patriots after 9/11, rich old patriots should sacrifice… Five years after the financial crisis.

But wait: it gets better! Roumell is saying that rich retirees should give up their Social Security. He suggests that those in the top 5% of the wealth distribution should do so. I don’t know Roumell’s net worth, but I’m pretty sure that he is a member of the 0.01%. So it would be pretty easy for him to give up his coming Social Security checks. But the people barely inside the top 5%? They would be earning about $80,000 per years in retirement, according to Dean Baker. Now, eighty grand in retirement is pretty good, but I’m not sure that I would call it rich. What is rich is obscenely wealthy people like Roumell calling this level of income “rich” when a few months ago they were screaming that $400,000 was “middle class.”

Most of Roumell’s OpEd just tries to show that his idea will bring in loads of money. In 2011, Dean Baker and Hye Jin Rho published a detailed study of this question, The Potential Savings to Social Security from Means Testing. They found that unless the government means tested down to the $40,000 per year range, there were very small savings to be had.

I think what is going on with Roumell is shown by what he didn’t mention in his OpEd: the payroll tax cap. Currently, there are no payroll taxes on incomes over $113,000 per year. Raising it even modestly to $200,000 per year would wipe out all of our Social Security funding problems. Forever. But Roumell doesn’t even want people to think about this obvious and just solution because it would cost him money. Let’s assume that the Roumell would normally have a working career (where he made more than $200,000 each year as is surely the case). He would probably have a 10 year retirement. With the higher payroll tax cap, he would lose about 50% more than he would by giving up his retirement benefits.

But who would really get screwed by Roumell’s plan are the people making right about the $100,000 per year mark. They would see no tax increase by raising the cap, but they would see a big hit from the loss of benefits. And that’s really typical of the super rich and their policy plans. They don’t generally recommend screwing the poor. First there is little money there. Second, it looks bad. But the people who have a fair amount of money but not a lot of political power? They’re a great target because the super rich can pretend that their plans will hurt the rich even while they help the super rich.

Regardless, I’m sure that Roumell’s plan is nothing more than an attempt to keep people from thinking about the real solution of raising the payroll tax cap. Because that is something that the rich would hate. If we could raise it to $200,000, what would stop us from raising it to a million? Or even eliminating it all together? And the truth is, other than the fact that we don’t live in a democracy and the rich control our politics, I see no reason not to do just that.

Dance with the Rhino

Ludwig WittgensteinI picked up Wittgenstein in 90 Minutes and wanted to see if I could read it in 90 minutes. But I got stuck on page 14 for well over 90 minutes. It was a logic problem. In Principles of Mathematics, Bertrand Russell argued that the foundation of mathematics was logic. But he ran into a nice little paradox. Some classes are members of themselves and some are not. For example, the class of humans is not a member of itself because a class is a not a kind of human. But the class of non-humans is a member of itself because the class of non-humans is in fact non-human. Okay, we’re all fine. But then in a Godel-like move (although this was three years before Godel was even born), he asks, “What about the class of all classes that are not members of themselves?”

Paradox alert! Danger Will Robinson!

If this class is a member of itself, then the class would not be a class that is not a member of itself. The class is defined as a collection of classes that are not members of themselves. Thus: it cannot be a member of itself. But if the class is not a member of itself, then it is a class that is not a member of itself. Thus it must be a member of itself, or more accurately: the class is not the class of all classes that are not members of themselves.

This is effectively Godel. Either (1) the set contradicts itself or (2) the set is incomplete. Regardless, there is a problem with logic here. Wittgenstein’s solution to this problem is just to say that there is no problem: it is improper to formalize mathematics in this way. As always with him, it comes down to semantics: we are trapped by our language.

Here’s the thing about Wittgenstein: I find his work aggravatingly trivial. That probably speaks to how profoundly he has influenced thought that most of my own personal philosophical thought (which seems original) is just what he thought. But he seems to go an awfully long way out of his way to come to an intuitive understanding of existence. As a result, it strikes me as full of sound and fury but in the end signifying nothing.

I will admit, I am a very people centered person. I find it hard to love the thinking of a man who was a monster, or in Wittgenstein’s case, an arrogant and narcissistic bully. And I think this is largely why he has been so important in the history of philosophy. There is no question that he was unimaginably (for me) brilliant. When combined with his aggressive personality, it is not surprising that lesser thinkers would cow to him. After all, Schopenhauer was the first to introduce eastern thought in a serious way into western philosophy. Wittgenstein just continues that trend, effectively making mystical arguments against philosophy.

But I should be clear. I have found my little efforts at reading the great man himself frustrating: I find he lacks clarity in the way that, say, Kant did not. And there is another fundamental problem to it: logic itself is composed of large stretches of dark matter. So logical arguments against logic or at least our ability to discuss it strike me as contradictions themselves. And I’m fine with that. Wittgenstein had mystical tendencies. I am a mystic.

One big argument that Wittgenstein had with Russell was how one can know there is no rhino in the room. Wittgenstein claimed that we couldn’t know. Russell argued that we could know because: “Look: no rhino!” The only way I can accept Wittgenstein’s argument is on solipsist grounds: we cannot know anything but what is going on in our minds. And that is an interesting idea that I find compelling, but from a philosophical standpoint, it is also a trivial observation. By that observation, how could he say he was even having that conversation with Russell?

Existence is a paradox. But at least we can dance. And if you want to, dance with the rhino. He’s in the room. Really.

IRS More Powerful Than the Military?

Rob PortmanThis IRS scandal is going from irrelevant to enraging. What bugs me most is that everyone is running around acting like it is a proven fact that some terrible thing was done. We’ve been through this time and time again. Even thus far in this scandal, the more information that comes out, the more benign it all appears. The IRS targeted conservative 501(c)(4) groups because the vast majority of the applications were coming from conservative groups. Politically incorrect? Absolutely. Wrong? Sure. But some kind of attack on conservative America? No way!

Here’s something that hasn’t gotten much coverage: those applications that the IRS preferentially targeted conservative groups for were voluntary. The groups didn’t have to get approval; they could have just filed their taxes as 501(c)(4) groups and waited to see if the IRS complained. Which would take up to six years. What’s more, I have yet to see any reporting of a conservative group getting denied 501(c)(4) status but there has been reporting of liberal groups being denied. Like I said: the more you know about this scandal the more it seems like a tempest in a teapot.

Now, of course, there is talk of impeachment. Impeachment! Based upon what? As far as I can tell the reason is that the conservatives don’t like Obama and they think the proper thing to do when you don’t like a president is to impeach him. There is a very real sense in the Republican Party that if you can’t have things the way you want them, you are justified in destroying the system. As I’ve noted time and again, American conservatism is no longer a traditional political movement and the Republicans have become a revolutionary party.

In an article yesterday at the National Review we got the take on all this from one of the “reasonable” Republicans, Portman to Obama: Come Clean. In it, Rob “my son’s gay so now I support gay rights” Portman magnanimously said that talk of impeachment is “premature.” This is because there has been no direct connection between Obama and any of these scandals. It hasn’t even been clear that any of these scandals would be an impeachable offense. That’s even true of the Associated Press scandal. (That’s what’s so terrible about that case.) Of course, Portman hasn’t thought it through that much. In fact, he seems to assume that the administration was directing these low-level employees in the IRS. But if the administration were even talking to the IRS, that would be an impeachable offense. Portman doesn’t seem clear on that.

But there was one thing that Portman said that really floored me. “The American people have been betrayed in fundamental ways by the most powerful agency in government.” That’s a conservative all over. The IRS is the most powerful agency in government. It isn’t the Pentagon—you know, the people with all the guns. It isn’t the Department of Energy with all those nukes. No, it is the IRS. Because again, in Republican World, whatever it is that you don’t like is the most powerful and most pernicious.

Seams in Socks

I’m on my way to my sons’ baseball game and wanted to mention tactile sensitivities!

My son is extremely sensitive to seams in socks! We just got through a 15 minute battle with lining up the seams properly, with his bulky baseball socks in his baseball cleats, phew! Luckily, he transitioned well and got right into the car to go down to the field but sometimes the seams in the socks issue can turn into tantrums that are difficult to recover from.

We found Socks without Seams here.