About Those Treasury Bills…

Treasury DepartmentSomething I hate as a reader of political and economic news is how stories just disappear. I was thinking about that this evening because a week and a half ago, I reported on an article by Neil Irwin that highlighted the fact that 30 day treasury bill rates had gone up from 0.03% before the government shutdown to 0.27% in the middle of it. So the question is, “What happened after that?”

They stayed at about that rate for most of the crisis, but on the 15th, with the Debt Ceiling looming, they went up again—to 0.35%. Then yesterday, as a deal seemed more likely, they dropped to 0.14%. And today? They are at 0.01%.

After Irwin published his article, Dean Baker pooh-poohed it. He said that it wasn’t scary because 0.3% is still a really low interest rate. And that is true. But the point was that the behavior of the Republicans in the House was having a very real effect on the economy. No one was claiming that the government wouldn’t be able to handle its short term debt needs.

The bottom line is that the Republican Party is always and forever claiming that they are the party of business. But they are anything but. And just as their brinkmanship hurt the economy, their abject failure last night helped it.

Don’t Talk About Delaying Obamacare

Jonathan ChaitJonathan Chait has an interesting idea about Obamacare. It is also really dangerous. He suggests that if the websites for the healthcare exchanges are not working properly by December, the federal government should delay the individual mandate for the first year. His argument is that the government shouldn’t penalize people for not getting something that is very hard to get. Fair enough. But my problem with the whole law has always been that the government shouldn’t force people to go to the private health insurance market and pay excessive prices for it. (We pay about twice what people pay for insurance in other advanced economies.) The whole of Obamacare is crony capitalism of the most blatant kind. That too makes getting healthcare harder. But I have seen damned few of my fellow liberals calling for that.

But it is very likely that the administration will have to do exactly that if the websites don’t get fixed soon. The issue is not really the state websites. Covered California seems to be working fine. The problem is with the Republican controlled states where the federal government has to do all the work. So not getting these problems worked out is a major problem. It will only embolden the Republicans to continue their efforts to kill the program with a thousand cuts. What’s more, it will tell the state-level Republicans that they were right to deny federally paid-for healthcare for their current uninsured poor.

Chait’s idea gets even worse in that he isn’t calling for a complete delay in the individual mandate. He only wants to delay it in those states where there is a problem. Again: these are the states where Republican legislatures and governors have not set up exchanges simply out of spite. Chait is offering to give the worst behaved politicians in the country exactly what they want: a delay in the new healthcare law. So what extremist Republicans couldn’t accomplish on the federal level, Chait thinks it is fine to allow them to accomplish on the state level.

The situation is very bad. And the federal government has to fix the problem and fast. It reminds me very much of all the building projects in Iraq after the war. In this case, I really wonder about the contractors that the government hired. My friend Will and I do different kinds of projects: setting up network labs and that short of thing. But it is very easy for us to be passed over for a job because some slick company comes in that spends 90% of its money on marketing. I suspect that the same thing is going on with the Obamacare exchange websites. The truth is that if the government had its own office to do this kind of thing, they’d probably do a great job for far less money. But the trend for the last four decades has been to outsource and that’s a constant problem.

I don’t consider myself any kind of a technical genius, but I have a very clear picture of the technical challenges facing the people working on the system. And they really aren’t that great. Basically, it is just a highly distributed database application. The main problem is making all the different parts work together. It ain’t rocket science. Unfortunately, as I’ve noticed in high tech there is a real prejudice against older techs and against anyone with colorful backgrounds. I’ve had many experiences working in groups where well over half the people were worthless. I’m sure in the bloated consulting firms that the government loves to hire, this is exactly the kind of thing that is going on. But I’m also sure that there are some great people working on the problems.

I think it is way too soon to start talking about granting waivers. What we should be doing is focusing on solving the problem by any means necessary. I really can’t imagine the system being so screwed up that people can’t use it in December—and probably November. And if it does come down to granting waivers, giving them only to the states that have worked the hardest to kill Obamacare is not the way to go. The waivers should go to everyone. Most people without insurance really want to get it. They won’t be doing it to avoid a $95 penalty on 15 April 2015.

Welcome, the Patron Saint of Comedy!

saint genesiusI think Catholicism may be the most OCD religion in the world. I know, with the rosaries and Hail Mary’s and huddled masses it isn’t shocking, but that they have so many, very specific saints is pathological.

For example, Saint Genesius of Rome, the Patron Saint of Comedians.[1] He must have killed before he was killed.

It seems he was in a play that mocked Christianity for Emperor Chuckles McDiocletian’s amusement, when things suddenly got real. Genesius started seeing angels, made the mistake of telling everyone within earshot, and then asked to be baptized for real, on stage. What a drama queen! For coming out of the dressing room closet as a Christian, Diocletian had Genesius’ head removed, c. 286 or c. 303, doesn’t matter. What matters is what made Genesius a saint; not being a funny guy, for being a dead funny guy.

Of course it all started with a legend, as most religious stories do. Genesius of Arles (only one to a town please) worked as a legal clerk, heard about Christ and wanted to get baptized. At this point in the story he got some really terrible advice:

He…was not trusted by the bishop he found, who instead advised him that martyrdom was at least as good in the eyes of God. Genesius was eventually beheaded.

Martyrdom is at least as good?! That’s quite a span: dipped in water or decapitated. Meh, same difference. Genesius didn’t even bother to get a second opinion, he headed (headed…get it?) straight toward the sword. I guess that’s why he wasn’t named Geniusius!

[1] Also the patron saint of actors, clowns, comics converts (what are they?!), dancers, musicians, stenographers, printers, lawyers, epileptics, thieves, torture victims, and apparently, even magicians.

Republicans Think They’re “Winning!”

Winning!I was very interested to see that the very definition of Washington conventional wisdom, The Hill, called the goverment shutdown a rout of the Republicans. In Winners and Losers of the Debt-Limit Fight, Bob Cusack listed ten winners. Of them, seven were Democrats, one was a mix (women lawmakers), one was staff members but it explicitly made Republican David Vitter a loser, and one was Chris Christie, but only because he looks better because the other Republicans look so much worse. (I question this; Christie might look better in a 2016 general election, but he probably looks worse in the primary.)

Among the losers were some obvious concessions to “balance.” For example, Joe Biden was a loser because he wasn’t involved with the deal at all. That makes even less than no sense. And for some reason Cusack thinks immigration reform is worse off now than it was before. It was dead before and it’s dead now. Dead is dead. Two of the items are neutral, but I think they too hurt the Republicans. The first is “trust in the government.” That’s true, but I would say it is more along the lines of “Trust in the government when Republicans are in charge.” The second neutral item was the economy. Again, I think the real takeaway is that the Republicans will harm the economy. But the big losers are John Boehner and the GOP campaign committees that are seeing less money pouring in.

With all this conventional wisdom, you would think the Republicans would be off somewhere licking their wounds. But that isn’t the case. As I noted last night, Fox News was pushing the narrative that the Republicans were hurt but no more than the Democrats and Obama. But it seems that the most radical elements of the House Republican Caucus are at least trying to spin the shutdown as a glorious victory. Dave Weigel has all the gory details, but I thought this exchange was just brilliant:

Even outside the Chick-fil-A chamber, Republicans were full of reasons why the shutdown hadn’t hurt. Arizona Rep. David Schweikert tore into one reporter’s question about the “polls” showing the GOP’s reputation falling. “Did you look at the samples?” asked Schweikert. After the reporter slumped away, Schweikert told me that the media’s polls missed the target.

“We were in the field last week doing some polling,” he said. “I think the left and some of the media supporters on the left are going to be shocked when they look at these underlying numbers—the margin against the health care law among swing voters. The left hates me—the left has always hated me!—the right is with me, and the swing voters are moving. There was some amazing data in there.”

Does this mean that Republicans would enter into another shutdown standoff with no fear? That’s not how they look at it. They view any attempt to blame them for the shutdown, and not the president, as media bias in concentrate. This shutdown proved them right, and they’ll carry that knowledge into the budget battle.

“I think this exposed the president and made clear to the public that he’s unwilling to compromise,” said Michigan Rep. Justin Amash. “There’s going to be a lot of focus over the next few months about the failures of Obamacare. It’ll help Republicans because we stood up and fought—and there’s nobody who can blame Republicans, at this point, for Obamacare. We did what we could.”

The claim about the poll samples is priceless. This goes back to a Ted Cruz statement that 20% of one poll was government workers. He claimed that 20% of the people were not government workers. Except that they are. It’s interesting how these Republicans want to question the details of polling when it doesn’t fit their purposes. But they are willing to fund completely distorted polls. Or in the case of Schweikert’s polling “in the field,” it is undoubtedly something like, “I met with a group of Tea Party activists and they all agreed with me!”

The main thing here is the sense that the left is going to wake up tomorrow and be shocked to learn that the people really did support the Republicans. It’s very much like Linus yelling on the day after Halloween, “Just wait until next year!” In this case it is more along the lines of, “I have a poll! The people love me! You’ll see! Just you wait! You’ll see!” Meanwhile on planet earth, the Republicans continue to chip away at was once a sure thing of keeping control of the House and retaking the Senate.

Saint Sebastian, Patron Saint of Sports

Saint SebastianCatholics seem to have a saint for every occasion. Today we are taking a look at Saint Sebastian, Patron Saint of Sports of sorts.[1]

My religious background having been in the protestant camp, I know very little about saints (other than Francis of Assissi), so I knew nothing of Saint Sebastian. Today, our own Saint Frank sent me sleuthing and after some brief, yet quite intense research on a website (guess which) I learned the following, almost surely true facts about Saint Sebastian, The Twice Martyred:

  1. He might have been born around 256 and died in the vicinity of 288.
  2. His non-Christian name could have been Gallia Narbonensis (or possibly Gallileo Carbonisis), but his friends called him Sebastian for short.
  3. Apparently Mr Sebastian was a Christian with a mission at the time when, Christian scholars are pretty sure he became a captain in Diocletian‘s Praetorian Guard.
  4. Sebastian, who today could easily have been a life coach, encouraged Christian prisoners (and their families), who were on the sacrificial short list, to stick to their guns. Martyrdom; that’ll show the Romans who’s boss.
  5. Unfortunately, Diocletian felt that Sebastian’s attempts to cheer up the soon-to-die spoiled the fun. Who wants to kill someone who just stands there, praising the wrong god while lions knock them about? There may be no crying in baseball, but in ritual sacrifice it’s a goddamn rule.
  6. As punishment for being a such a killjoy, Diocletian had Sebastian tied to a tree and let his best archers practice hitting the tree. They were very good, so Sebastian survived the one or ten arrows that accidentally hit him and Irene of Rome [2] was able to fix him right up.
  7. When he got better, having suffered mere flesh wounds, and perhaps delirious from herbal pain management, felt empowered to stand on a step and talk shit to Diocletian, who just happened to be walking past.
  8. Diocletian was not amused. He had Sebastian clubbed like a baby Harbor seal and his body chucked into a sewer.
  9. The remains of someone that somebody pulled from the sewer and identified as Sebastian’s are now in Rome. Or France.

St Sebastian is an inspiration to athletes, especially archers, because of his willingness to take one for the team. Sebastian led by example: Be a team player, even if it kills you. Injured? Walk it off, and talking shit at your opponent is all part of the game.

[1] Judging from the many portraits of Saint Sebastian, he might be even more popular with the gay S&M crowd.

[2] Saint Irene of Rome, who as you know was the widow of the martyr Saint Castulus, and should not to be confused with Irene of Florence, a charlatan who didn’t know a salve from a poultice.

Arthur Miller

Arthur MillerOn this day in 1725, the great political radical John Wilkes was born. At that time, a radical believed in things like democracy. Also of note, he supported the American rebels. But as he got older, he became conservative. I think of him as the 18th century version of Christopher Hitchens.

Actor Irene Ryan was born in 1902. She is best known for playing Granny in The Beverly Hillbillies. However, I know her best as Berthe in the original cast of Pippin. Unfortunately, the only version of her doing “No Time at All” is not available for embedding. (Why do people do that?!) You can listen to it on YouTube, but it is not even the version that is on the original cast album. She was an interesting woman and a fine actor.

Other birthdays: actor Jean Arthur (1990); actor Rita Hayworth (1918); poet George Mackay Brown (1921); creepy stuntman Evel Knievel (1938); film and theater director Rob Marshall (53); comedian Norm Macdonald (50); and actor Matthew Macfadyen (39).

The day, however, belongs to the great playwright Arthur Miller who was born on this day in 1915. He is best known for All My Sons, The Crucible, and Death of a Salesman. That last one will likely be remembered as the best play of the 20th century. It is an amazing play. And it seems to be performed as much now as ever. That makes sense because it is more relevant than ever. In fact, now, Willy Loman seems like an especially tragic character because his delusion about the economic system he finds himself in is so rare. Most people I know take it for granted that hard work and intelligence will not guarantee even a modicum of success. We have become a nation of many cynical Biff Lomans and a small number (1%?!) of self-impressed Howard Wagners. Here is Dustin Hoffman as Willy and a very young Jon Polito as Howard in a film version of the play. I especially love the bit about the tape recorder. You don’t even need the rest of the scene or even the play. In that couple of minutes you know everything you need to know about America. There are people who can afford the latest gadgets but they can’t afford to support the men who made them rich. “You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away—a man is not a piece of fruit.” But Willy is wrong. A man is a piece of fruit in our society.

Of course, Miller was far more than Death of a Salesman. For one thing, he created a massive body of work that went well beyond the theater. I especially like his essays. He was a very insightful guy. He was also very liberal as well as being an atheist.

Happy birthday Arthur Miller.

Republicans United in Ideology

Broken GOPThis morning, Ed Kilgore asks, What Lesson Was Learned? It follows off an article by Ross Douthat, A Teachable Moment. But as Kilgore notes, the only lessons that Douthat thinks the Republicans should have learned from the shutdown debacle is that they should use better political tactics.

Kilgore notes, “I’m beginning to get the sense that the more loudly a conservative denounces the tactics of the fiscal fight as idiotic, the more he or she can be counted on to insist on agreeing with the ideology that motivated the idiocy in the first place.” Well, right. I’ve been saying this for a long time. The difference between the extreme and mainstream Republicans is entirely one of tone, not of ideology. If a bunch of people all agree on certain policies, there will of course be varying opinions about how best to get those policies enacted. So as long as all the Republicans continue their quixotic quest to roll back the New Deal, there will be members who think it is so important that we ought to destroy the economy to do it.

Eric Cantor gave a speech that nicely sums this up:

We all agree Obamacare is an abomination. We all agree taxes are too high. We all agree spending is too high. We all agree Washington is getting in the way of job growth. We all agree we have a real debt crisis that will cripple future generations. We all agree on these fundamental conservative principles… We must not confuse tactics with principles. The differences between us are dwarfed by the differences we have with the Democratic party, and we can do more for the American people united.

So that is the problem with the Republican Party. It has almost no ideological diversity. That’s why they all argue about tactics. They can’t question what others believe, so they are left only with how much others believe. Do you want to repeal Obamacare enough to shut down the government? How about force a government default? What about assassination?

All of this leads me to the same place I’ve been for a while. The Republican Party must be defeated at the polls again and again. They must be crushed to such an extent that the party is either destroyed (allowing the Democratic Party to break in half) or taken over by traditional conservatives who want to keep things as they are now, not bring them back to the way they were in 1860.

I beg of you: vote next year! The date is 4 November 2014. Mark it down!

I Like to Keep Things in Perspective


I find this oddly comforting. My triumphs (learning to walk, etc.), my colossal failures (let’s not get into that right now), all my hopes and dreams — pretty much everything that keeps me awake at night — are insignificant. No need to worry about nothing.

OMG! Create Your Own God

Your Own Deity
Finally, intelligent design! Mix and match your own gods with our OMG magnetic dress up set and turn your refrigerator into a shrine.

Includes the following mix-and-match gods:
God (Judeo-Christian-Islamic)
Neolithic Goddess
Tlinglit Eagle
Flying Spaghetti Monster
Burning Bush

I know when the house is a mocking, don’t come a mocking, but I don’t think any religion considers “Burning Bush” as a god. Only the very silly Knights Who Say Ni! worship shrubbery.

St Sebastian: A Stitcher’s Little Helper

On yet another circuitous route to a point of interest I have yet to find, I found a truly useful martyr. Personally, I’d rather not have him forever suffering and relentlessly judging me as I sew together some little trifle to brighten up a chair, but I’m weird that way.

But it gets even better! If you order this amusing bit of trivialized Christian lore today, you’ll pay full price and I won’t get a commission of any kind.

The Most Frustrating 25 Minutes Ever

Sam SederWatching the video below was one of the most frustrating things I have ever done. It is a clip of Sam Seder on the Majority Report talking to a libertarian. It is not the first time I have seen Seder talk with a libertarian. Like me, he finds libertarians endlessly fascinating. But for some reason, it seems only idiot libertarians call him. Or maybe it is just that most libertarians are idiots. I don’t know for sure, but I’m afraid that it is the latter. This isn’t to say that there aren’t brilliant libertarians. Just read Reason Magazine and you’ll find very smart writers. But as a group, I think they are a dim lot.

In another video, a libertarian claimed that it would be okay to have slavery if the people voted for it. I don’t think it would have been hard to explain to the guy what the problem is. By his theory, the 60% white residents of Georgia could re-enslave the 30% black residents and it would be just fine by the principled libertarian.

This video features a different kind of libertarian. But I’m not really sure what kind. He seems like he is mentally challenged but he’s absolutely certain that he’s the smartest guy in the room. And there is a kind of deluded brilliance to his evasions. Basically, the whole clip is him challenging Seder with some question like, “Name a time when regulation worked?” Seder replies that the Clear Water Act has provided the nation with safe drinking water. The guy then responds that Seder is giving him a specific example, which is, of course, what the guy asked for in the first place. Then he says, “But we’re getting side tracked with what you want to talk about.” So Seder (who has far more patience than I have ever had) graciously asks the guy what he wants to talk about. And the process repeats.

The whole thing does provide a nice window into the libertarian mind. The caller has clearly worked out a perfect libertarian world in his mind. But when that world peaks out into the world, it falls apart. This doesn’t happen on the policy level. It happens when the ideas are even expressed to someone who knows anything about real world economics. For example, this guy admits that there was a lot of regulation in the 1950s and that we had strong economic growth. But that doesn’t prove anything because he just knows if there hadn’t been regulation the economy would have grown faster. Because nothing can compete to the perfection that exists inside his mind.

It’s also interesting that such people don’t understand how economies work. For example, given that the economy is depressed, passing a bunch of laws that made power plants run cleaner would actually improve the economy because it would force the private sector to use some of its idle money to employ people to update their plants. If the economy were booming, passing such laws might hurt the economy. But in the libertarian mind, new regulation will always hurt the economy because they just define regulation as hurting the economy. It’s brain dead economics.

Regardless, most people will find this video very funny. It drove me crazy. But it is a good example of what we are up against.