Ira’s Brother George

George GershwinOn this day in 1774, the proto-environmentalist Johnny Appleseed (John Chapman) was born. I didn’t know he was an actual person. It turns out that he didn’t wander around planting seeds, however. He started nurseries and later orchards as a business. And much of the production of those nurseries were used (As always!) to make hard cider and other alcoholic beverages.

The sociologist and photographer Lewis Hine was born in 1874. He did great work during the first three decades of the 20th century to document the lives of regular Americans. A lot of his work was with the American Red Cross, documenting their relief work. In the 1920s he did a series of photographs of Americans at work. But despite his many great successes, he found it difficult to get work in the late 1930s. He eventually lost his house and he died in poverty. In other words, his is a typical story of what we do to great Americans with the temerity to do something with their lives other than make money.

The great poet T. S. Eliot was born in 1888. He is one of those “problem” poets—in his case antisemitism. But we all have character flaws, and it doesn’t too much matter to the work. What I most like about his poetry is his jagged rhythmic sense. I think it has had a profound effect on me in terms of my songs, which have grown ever more playful, although admittedly, less accessible to others. Here is Eliot’s “Hysteria” from around 1920:

As she laughed I was aware of becoming involved in her
laughter and being part of it, until her teeth were
only accidental stars with a talent for squad-drill. I
was drawn in by short gasps, inhaled at each momentary
recovery, lost finally in the dark caverns of her
throat, bruised by the ripple of unseen muscles. An
elderly waiter with trembling hands was hurriedly
spreading a pink and white checked cloth over the rusty
green iron table, saying: “If the lady and gentleman
wish to take their tea in the garden, if the lady and
gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden …” I
decided that if the shaking of her breasts could be
stopped, some of the fragments of the afternoon might
be collected, and I concentrated my attention with
careful subtlety to this end.

The singer-songwriter Marty Robbins was born in 1925. My mother was a big fan of his and his story songs. So this one is for her:

And the Roxy Music frontman, Bryan Ferry is 68 today. I’m torn on him. In many ways, he’s a pretentious twat. But I really do love those first two Roxy Music albums. Anyway, here is one of his solo efforts, “Let’s Stick Together”:

Other birthdays: Romantic painter Theodore Gericault (1791); novelist Joseph Furphy (1843); singer Olivia Newton-John (65); and actor Linda Hamilton (57).

The day, however, belongs to the great composer George Gershwin who was born in 1898. He is often mistakenly thought of as a “serious” or “classical” composer, but he was not at all. It is probably better to think of him as a musical theater composer, which he probably would be known as today if it were not for his death at only 38 due to a brain tumor. It is best to think of him as a cross between a jazz and a classical composer. It would have been interesting to see where he would have gone as a composer, because he certainly hadn’t reached maturity. Still, he left us with a lot of great music like Rhapsody in Blue, here conducted by a fan of his, Leonard Bernstein:

Happy birthday George Gershwin!

Megan McArdle Humiliates Eric Alterman

Eric AltermanEric Alterman is no wonk. He is an English professor, after all. And although he is perhaps better described as a historian, he is no mathematician. So you can imagine just how humbling it is when he starts making calculations. Like back in 2003, shortly after the invasion of Iraq, he predicted, “George W. Bush deliberately misled the country to launch an unnecessary war that will embroil this country in what could be decades of chaos, mayhem and murder, and cost us hundreds of billions and quite possibly trillions, while destroying the nation’s fiscal health in the process.” Ouch! He must regret saying that now!

At that time, Jane Galt—later revealed to be right wing hack and pseudo-libertarian Megan McArdle—was on hand to call Alterman on his bullshit. She wrote that while most things tend to end up costing more than first estimated, he was way off target. “But trillions? US GDP is roughly $10 trillion. Alterman is saying that over the long run, this war is going to cost us at least 20% of GDP. That’s nuts, and it’s not the first time I’ve seen those sorts of numbers around.” That had to sting! I can’t imagine how Eric Alterman could even show his face in public after that.

After she was done “proving” that Alterman’s numbers were wrong, she went after another well know innumerate: economist James Galbraith. He made the outlandish prediction that the Iraq War could take 5 years and 200,000 troops. What an idiot! No wonder the only people who ever quote him are similarly mushy headed thinkers like Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz. Megan McArdleBut McArdle was not afraid, she even went so far as to try to school Galbraith on what an opportunity cost is. Of course, as Jon Schwarz at A Tiny Revolution noted, she can’t even do basic arithmetic like division. But her point is not Galbraith; she is above all focus on the evil English professor and his suggestion that the Iraq War might cost more than Bush and company said.

Of course, it turned out that McArdle was completely wrong. The war really was that expensive, it really did take that many toops, it really did take that much time. Actually, it took more of all of them: money, troops, time. It also cost far more lives than she estimated. Gin and Tacos dredged up this old Jane Galt article last month and gave it the whole FJM treatment, A Very Special Time Warp FJM. It goes step by step, tearing McArdle apart. It wasn’t hard. As they said, “Megan McArdle labors mightily, and almost always unsuccessfully, to write columns that do not immediately collapse under the weight of mild scrutiny.” And this one was written ten years earlier!

But what I find most interesting is that it doesn’t matter that McArdle was totally wrong about this and so much else besides. She is still a shining light in conservative media. Last year, right after the election, David Brooks wrote, The Conservative Future. He was looking at all the new ideas and open minded thinking on the right. He highlighted Megan McArdle and wrote that she was one of the “soft libertarians” who “start from broadly libertarian premises but do not apply them in a doctrinaire way.” Apparently, nothing that McArdle can say or do will ever make her anything but a smart and insightful thinker.

Meanwhile, Eric Alterman continues to be the star on the left that he has long been. But being right doesn’t matter any more than McArdle being wrong matters. To some extent, that’s simply because he’s a liberal. Liberals are expected to be right when it comes to facts. Conservatives are only supposed to be right in a postmodern sense of the word—you know, where being right is the same as holding an opinion. What’s more, it is another example of conservative affirmative action. We can’t hold conservatives accountable because the pool of conservatives who can pass for intelligent political observers is so small.

Still, I think we need to point out the gross incompetence of commentators wherever we see it. I do it to liberal commentators all the time. There isn’t nearly as much fun to be had going after conservatives. Shooting fish in a barrel is easy compared to it.

Update (26 September 2013 8:05 pm)

In a private tweet, Megan McArdle responded, “Yes, you’re right, I was wrong about the Iraq War.” I always hate getting these kinds of responses, because it makes it all so very personal. It isn’t my intention to make her feel bad. My point is that no one is held accountable once they get a certain level of fame. So I don’t particularly care that she was wrong in this particular case. I don’t even particularly care that she has been wrong so often about so many things. (Just two months ago, I wrote, Megan McArdle’s Ridiculous Anti-Filibuster-Reform Argument.) The point is that it doesn’t matter. She will continue to be well paid to blather on. And this is part of why our politics is so screwed up.

Ridiculous GOP Debt Ceiling “Plan”

Debt Ceiling NegotiationsThere hasn’t been much news recently—at least on the national level. I think this is because everyone is waiting around to see just what the Republicans do to fuck everything up. The Republicans work as the equivalent of Iago in politics. Or perhaps a better analogy would be Worm from Rounders. He fucks everything up, but he doesn’t have a reason for it. It is just how he rolls. That seems to be the case with the Republicans and the government shutdown and Debt Ceiling crisis.

This morning, Jonathan Strong at National Review provided us with the goods, Revealed: The House GOP’s Debt-Ceiling Plan. And it is quite a “plan.” Basically, it is just a conservative wish list. The Debt Ceiling bill that the House Republicans are cooking up says, “We’ll raise the Debt Ceiling, and all you have to give us is everything we’ve ever wanted.” Well, that’s not exactly true. They aren’t asking for the death penalty for women using birth control and anyone caught having “unnatural” sex. But otherwise, it is all in there.

They want Obamacare delayed for the exact period of time they will limit the Debt Ceiling. But wait, there’s more! They want the Keystone Pipeline green lighted, more oil drilling offshore, and an end to EPA carbon regulations. They want an end to net neutrality. They want tort reform. Not satisfied? There’s more! They want to cut the child tax credit. They want to means test Medicare. They what the REINS Act which would politicizes all scientific judgments in regulations. But don’t answer yet, because there is so much more! They want to gut Dodd-Frank. They want entitlement “reform” (i.e. cuts). They want the Ryan budget plan!

That’s all just for raising the Debt Ceiling for one year. Actually, that’s only about half of it. Click on over if you want to see the whole list. The main thing about it is that it isn’t just a bargaining ploy. Although it is best to start a negotiation with high demands, this list goes way beyond that. It says, “We’re not serious about this negotiation.” Of course, that was clear from the start. In the 2011 Debt Ceiling fight, at least it was about the budget. The Republicans were saying, “We’ll only allow the government to borrow more if they stop borrowing so much.” It was bullshit even then, but it made a certain amount of sense. In this case, Boehner has been saying he will only allow more borrowing if Obamacare is killed, even though the program pays for itself.

So why not throw in net neutrality?! Why not force through the Keystone Pipeline? Why not lower taxes (which makes the budget shortfall even worse)? It doesn’t have to make sense. In fact, it is not even supposed to make sense. It is a power play, pure and simple. The House Republicans are saying, “We don’t care about the United States and so we are willing to destroy it if we don’t get our way.” This battle should have been fought a long time ago. The Republicans should have been called on their bullshit. Now there is going to be real damage, but giving into the Republicans now will only put off a much more damaging fight later on.

We Cannot Reason With the Rich

Mark ThomaI’ve long argued that the big problem with the deficit hawks is not so much their desire to reduce the size of government, although that itself is short sighted. The big problem is that these deficit hawks only want to reduce the size of government on the backs of the poor. Thus we get calls for cutting entitlement programs, unemployment insurance, and food stamps. We don’t get calls for getting rid of “too big to fail” insurance or the Social Security tax cap or the low capital gain tax rate. Actually, we get just the opposite. Remember the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan? The first thing it did was lower taxes!

The brilliant Mark Thoma discusses this problem from a different perspective over at The Fiscal Times, The Real Reason for the Fight over the Debt Limit. Basically, he argues that we are all this together. He notes that the rich don’t face the same uncertainties that the rest of us do, and that this fact needs to be acknowledged. But increases in inequality have allowed the rich to wall themselves off from the rest of society and thus have a skewed view of who the supposed takers are.

I would go much further than this. Our system is set up so that the rich are simply not allowed to fail. Ever. Look at Jack Abramoff. He was convicted of the worst kinds of crimes against his clients and democracy generally. So he went to prison. But afterwards, he was not vanquished from polite society and prevented from having a decent job. Instead, he was given a multimillion dollar book contract and is widely heralded as a truth teller. That is what happens to The Chosen in this country. They take care of their own.

I don’t think that Thoma’s argument really works, however. You are never going to convince the rich that they really should support SNAP by claiming that we are all one big happy family. More compelling is my argument in The Revolution Will Be Televised: if the rich don’t allow the rest of society a reasonable lifestyle, there will be blood. And the first people on the gallows will be the rich. That is a kind of social insurance that the rich ought to be very interested in. (Of course, they aren’t; the rich are as short sighted as anyone.)

In Rage of the Privileged, Paul Krugman says that it is worse than Thoma indicates. He notes that the rich are all for the government when it is helping the rich. He is right, of course, but it is just more proof that the rich don’t care about anyone but themselves. If we had an actual democracy, we could do something about this. But we clearly don’t. So much advantage for the rich is locked in. For example, the rich don’t want to see the military budget cut because of all the great defense contracts. But it has been easy to convince the people that we must have a huge military to protect us, even though it is really all about protecting the profits of the rich.

What’s more, we now have a political system that is paid for by the rich. Only someone who can generate a billion dollars in campaign contributions is a viable candidate for president. Is it any wonder that the most liberal candidates we generate are people like Obama who are above all protectors of the rich? These people will never willingly give up power. And as long as they are in power, they will continue to do everything they can to harm the poor. And their success matters too little on who is in power in Washington.