Global Warming and American Leadership

Sharks Discuss Global WarmingThis afternoon, Steve Benen was writing about Obama’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. They sort of agreed that maybe they kind of ought to think about someday considering the possibility that there could at some point in the distant future might be an agreement that could conceivable lead to an arrangement that something really should be done about climate change in the not too distinct future, but perhaps the very distant future if that doesn’t seem politically viable. (Samuel Beckett would be proud!) Anyway, it’s good that they are talking about these things. You can be certain if it were a Republican in the White House, they wouldn’t be discussing it.

Benen brings up a common conservative argument against an agreement, “But without China, it will be useless!” Before I get to Benen’s comments on this, let me take a moment to talk from the perspective of a man who was in the trenches in the earlier days of the climate change wars. Many people at that time were really worried about Chinese air conditioners. It sounded then like it sounds now: American imperialism. We as in us, the fucking United States of America, are the worst polluter. Let’s take care of our own addiction to fossil fuels and then we can think about the rest of the world. As it is, if we acted alone, it would make a big difference.

So I have little tolerance for this selfish madness. Steve Benen is like minded. But he has a slightly different take on it. He writes:

I’ve never cared for the argument, not just because it’s a defeatist attitude that dooms the future of humanity, but also because it ignores the potential for American leadership. Our willingness to lead shouldn’t be dependent on some other country’s willingness to do the same—we’re the global superpower, and we do the right thing because it’s the right thing, not because China agreed to a deal.

I completely agree with him. What’s more, this is one of my big complaints about the United States. You see, I used to be a true believer. When I was in school, I believed all that shit about our ideals. I thought that we really did always try to do what was right. Those people who hated us just didn’t understand us. We stood for things! And I still hope. But I think that Benen and I are both being way too idealistic. No one in power in the United States is going to do anything because it is right.

Timing Lightning Strikes

LightningLast night, I had my bedroom window open because even with the recent cooling, the room gets little circulation and stays very hot very late. So I was suddenly awaken at around 2:00 am, when a lightning storm rolled in. It was very cool with nothing between me and it. As I watched the storm and listened to thunder, half asleep, I remembered something I was told as a kid. “Every second between a lightning strike and the sound of its thunder represents a mile that the lightning is away from you.” So by this rule, if there is three seconds between the lightning and the thunder, the strike was three miles away.

That woke me up, because I knew it was wrong. Let’s go through this. A lightning strike causes sound and light to emanate from its location. The speed of light is so fast that it basically reaches our eyes instantaneously. But sound takes a little time. The amount of time it takes the thunder to reach us is the amount of time it takes sound to move from the origin of the lightning strike to us. That’s all very simple.

But that “one second equals mile rule” implies that sound travels at a speed of one second per one mile. And I certainly would have noticed that somewhere along the line. And I didn’t. What I remembered was that the speed of sound here at the surface of the earth is roughly 340 m/s. Why did I remember that? I have no idea. There are all kinds of bits of knowledge like that float around in my head—knowledge so useless you can’t even use it on Jeopardy! Anyway, that’s equal to roughly 0.2 miles per second.

So the rule is: for every 5 seconds, the strike was one mile away. Or, for my friends outside America: for every 3 seconds, the strike was one kilometer away. Except in China where the speed of sound is mandated to be much faster.

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Judy GarlandLet’s get right to the obvious stuff. Last year, Maurice Sendak died shortly before his 84th birthday. Having been born in 1928, he would have been 85 today. He was an author and illustrator of what he refused to call children’s books. His best known book is Where the Wild Things Are though he wrote and (especially) illustrated loads more. Google created an excellent doodle that runs for a minute and 45 second for the occasion. Check it out.

The great French realist painter Gustave Courbet was born on this day in 1819. His self-portrait is one of the best I’ve ever seen. When anyone thinks of 19th century French paintings, they think of the Academic and Impressionist schools. And the Realist school fed into those two. But Courbet’s art has a nearly unhinged aspect to it that is especially compelling.

Andre Derain was born on this day in 1880. He founded Fauvism along with Henri Matisse. I’m very fond of this school of art (which should surprise no one). And I’m fond of Derain. But I’m more fond of Kees van Dongen. That’s probably just because he painted more pretty girls. I fully admit that Derain is the greater artist. He’s also greater than Matisse who mostly annoys me in my old age.

Art critic and really quite interesting painter Fairfield Porter was born in 1907. Blues singer Howlin’ Wolf was born in 1910. Here he is doing “Smokestack Lightning”:

One of my favorite writers when I was a kid (go figure), Saul Bellow was born in 1915.

French singer Patachou is 95 today. Controversial sociobiologist E. O. Wilson is 84. Celebrity lawyer F. Lee Bailey is 80. Much vilified politician John Edwards is 60. Human frailties aside, I think he would have made a better president than Obama or Clinton. It’s sad that unlike the Republican Party, the Democratic Party seems incapable of forgiveness. And speaking of Republicans, John “Torture Memo” Yoo is 46. The Department of Justice’s Office of Professional Responsibility found that he had committed professional misconduct and recommended that the Pennsylvania Bar discipline him. This was later blocked, of course. And Yoo continues to be a Berkeley Law School professor and to get good paying speaking engagements. Similarly, Bobby Jindal is 42. He’s noted for claiming that the Republicans should stop being the “stupid party” while going around every day acting as proof that it is.

The day, however, belongs to another of my endless list of crushes: Judy Garland who was born on this day back in 1922. What’s not to love? She was beautiful, talented, and unstable—the Holy Trinity for me! Here she is doing a song from the turn of the century, “I Don’t Care”:

Happy birthday Judy Garland!

Like it or Not Venezuela Is a Democracy

Venezuela FlagAmerica does not believe in democracy. Remember the 2006 Palestinian elections when Hamas won? There was a total administration freak out over that one. Democracy is only valid if people vote for what the United States government wants. That’s in the Constitution. Look it up!

For a decade and a half, the United States has claimed that Venezuela couldn’t possibly be a democracy. They voted for Hugo Chavez! We don’t like Chavez. Therefore, Venezuela is not a democracy. Q-fucking-D.

Well, now Chavez is gone. Unfortunately, those stupid Venezuelans blew it again! They voted for someone else that the United States doesn’t like: former Chavez vice-president Nicolas Maduro. Don’t these Venezuelans know how democracy works?

It turns out that they do; it is just that they have an old fashioned idea that democracy involves the will of the people and related institutions. In fact, they have a very good electronic voting system with a clear paper trail that allows for vote audits. And thus far, they have audited 53% of the 14 April 2013 election results. And guess what: Maduro won fair and square.[1]

Well, a group of 14 economists and statisticians mostly from the United States have had enough. In an open letter, they say that the audit “leaves no room for doubt about the result.” They’ve calculated the probability that the election results are wrong at one in 25 thousand trillion. Yet, “The State Department has called the outcome of the election into question, and refused to recognize the results.” And even worse, the mainstream media just follow along, giving the impression that somehow Maduro stole the election.

I understand that a lot of people in the United States didn’t like Chavez and don’t like Maduro. My colleague Michael J.W. Stickings at The Reaction is one. And even I think that Chavez could have done a lot more with the resources he had at his disposal. What is not open to question is that Venezuela is a democracy and that the 14 April 2013 election was a free and fair one.

The government of the United States has to accept that it can’t always get its way. Is it any wonder that the Republican Party won’t compromise on anything when the government itself takes the same approach to the rest of the world? Regardless of what we think, other countries have a right to manage their own affairs. And that is especially true when we prop up truly vile dictatorships only to scream about the outcomes of free and fair elections that don’t go the way we want.

[1] The election was fairly close. Maduro got 50.6% and Capriles got 49.1%. There was a post-election audit of a random sample of 53% of the votes. It found no irregularities, but Capriles refused to accept defeat. He demanded that all of the votes be recounted. Eventually, the election commission relented and agreed to recount the rest of the votes. After first being satisfied, Capriles rejected this and asked for complete access to the entire voting system. It ought to be clear that the only election result that Capriles will accept is one where he wins. And that goes for the United States as well.

S&P and Anti-Meritocracy

S&PHow people continue to think that America is even moderately a meritocracy amazes me. Look at the banks. The Federal Reserve loans them money at low interest rates and allows them to lend it out at high interest rates. It would be like if Apple gave only you and your close friends the right to buy iPhones for ten bucks. You could then sell them for the going rate. You could not possibly lose money, right? Well, that’s what the Fed does for bankers because they are the “right” kind of people.

A similar thing is going on with the credit rating agencies. They are supposed to make sure that investing is sound. If they rate a bond as AAA, an investor should know that while the returns on that bond are poor, it is safe. But a big problem with the housing bubble was that banks were packaging a bunch of highly risky mortgages together and the the credit rating agencies dutifully rated them as safe investments—even AAA at times! When the financial crisis happened and all those ratings were shown to be dead wrong, the rating agencies just shrugged. “You can’t blame us,” they said. “It was just our opinion.” They make billions of dollars but aren’t accountable enough that their total failures even cause a ripple in their business models. S&P is supposed to make money because, you know, they are the “right” kind of people.

In 2011, around the time of the Debt Ceiling debacle, Standard & Poor’s (S&P) downgraded the federal government’s credit rating from AAA to AA+. That was the first time that this had ever happened. And for good reason. If the United States gets in a situation where it can’t pay its debts, it would mean that the entire world is struggling with Armageddon. So it wasn’t surprising that the S&P downgrade caused not the slightest blip in the borrowing costs of the United States. Apparently, companies are all for paying S&P and the other ratings agencies for legal cover. But actual investors knew that the S&P downgrade was meaningless.

Well, there’s big news out this morning. Standard & Poor’s has upgraded the federal government’s credit rating! Actually, its credit rating outlook. It is still AA+, but the outlook has changed from “negative” to “stable.” I’m sure that this will have as big an effect as the original downgrade. But something puzzles me. If S&P had this sub-credit rating tool, why didn’t they use it two years ago? Instead of downgrading us from AAA, they could have just changed our outlook to negative. That would have made the point without the embarrassment of demonstrating just how irrelevant the rating agencies are.

According to Politico:

On Monday, S&P said it was improving its credit outlook because of “tentative improvements” on several fronts, including the fiscal cliff deal that helped put a dent in the deficit and “stronger-than-expected private-sector contributions to economic growth” coupled with the recent profits of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

This strikes me as very weak tea. If there was any real concern in 2011, it was the fact that the House Republicans were willing to cause a federal government default over the Debt Ceiling. Otherwise, our debt situation was fine. We still face a Debt Ceiling crisis at the end of the summer. And despite what many want to believe, it looks serious. There are many in the Republican Party who really do want to refuse to raise the limit. And the lack of crisis over the Fiscal Cliff and the Sequester has just made them think that fears of catastrophe are over blow. So S&P is just continuing on with their pretend analysis.

The United States is divided into the “right” kind of people and the “wrong” kind of people. The “right” kind of people are the rich. If a poor person manages to claw his way to become rich, well, that just shows that the system works. And that is why for the last 35 years the rich have systematically made it harder and harder for the poor to do just that. At the same time, they’ve made it almost trivial for the “right” kind of people to get even richer on the backs of the “wrong” kind of people. And today we see another example of the “right” kind of people getting paid for useless analysis. If you invest based upon their advice, you are the “wrong” kind of people. The caste system is alive and well in America!