Inequality Breads Extremism

Simon Wren-LewisSimon Wren-Lewis at Mainly Macro tries to answer the question, What Is Wrong With the USA? He teaches at Oxford, so he sees things from an English point of view. And he’s seen that in the United Kingdom, the conservative press have pushed their far right to act in ways that are similar to the Tea Party here (although the issues are different). He suggests that most of the problems come from the right wing echo chamber.

What I think he misses is that this is not a problem with the far right in the United States. It is a problem with the entire right. I’ve written far too many articles over the last two years that are very much like, Moderate Republicans Really Are Extreme. There really is no distinction in ideology. They are all hardcore anti-choice, anti-entitlement, pro-tax-cut… I could go on for thousands of words, but I doubt there is a reason because you probably could too. The only distinction in the Republican Party is whether such policies need to be enacted today or whether they can wait a year or two.

But Wren-Lewis provided a graph that shows all anyone should need to see about what’s wrong here and there:

One Percent Share of Income

US and UK? Pretty bad. Italy and France? Pretty good. Looking at the graph you have to ask: have the rich done something really great the last three decades to justify getting so much more of the nation’s income? That’s a rhetorical question; of course they haven’t. These huge increases are the result of government policy. England had Thatcher. America had Reagan. And Italy and France did not.

Wren-Lewis notes that bad economic times and high levels of inequality bread angry right wing movements. And that’s what we are seeing now. Sure, the Tea Party are a bunch of racists, and let’s be honest, so are most of the other Republicans. But why are they so angry? Things are not going well. And who better to blame than the poor with darker skin.

This is why Democrats need to push actual liberal policy. We need things that will make the country better. As it is, with the 25 year New Democratic “we’re not quite as bad as the Republicans” approach to governance, we have at best slowed the growth of bad conservative policy. The people should get a clear choice. When another 2008 comes around, it is time for the Democrats to be bold. Because that is what the people will have voted for. If they want Republicans-Lite, they can look elsewhere. A vote for Obama was not a vote to end Entitlements as we know them.

Obamacare Is Not Liberal Policy

Mike KonczalMike Konczal has written the most insightful thing I’ve read this month about the problems with the Obamacare exchanges, What Kind of Problem is the ACA Rollout for Liberalism? He argues that the failure of the exchanges is not the result of liberalism; it is the result of neoliberalism. Or to put it more clearly: New Democratic ideology. We could have had an old fashioned approach to healthcare reform: a single payer health insurance system. That would have been simple. And I have had many frustrating conversations over the last two years with conservatives who complain about Obamacare and ask why we couldn’t just have a single payer system. The answer, of course, is that after Fox News started shouting about “socialized medicine” these same conservatives would be absolutely positively against single payer. But I digress.

Obamacare is so annoyingly complicated because it is designed to be a kind of public-private partnership and that no one thinks will be as good at reducing costs as a single payer system would be. If we had the simple government insurance system, the exchanges would be trivial. You would log on, enter your information, and the program would spit out how much it was going to cost you. Or even better: there would be no exchanges; the correct amount of money would just be taken out of your paycheck. Instead, we have a system that interacts with multiple private insurance systems and then these have to communicate with the government to figure out how much it will pay. And in the end, you have a totally messed up system that tells you to try back later.

The issue now is as it has been since Obama first became president: why do the Democrats make their laws more conservative when the Republicans block everything? The Democrats in Congress never even considered a single payer system. We were on track to get the conservative Heritage Foundation plan long before Kennedy died and the Democrats lost their super majority in the Senate. But as a result of the Democrats big rush to make the law more conservative ends right here with an over-complicated law that the Republicans can point at and say, “See! Liberalism doesn’t work!”

Well, in fact, we haven’t tried liberalism. For the last 35 years, Democrats have tried to “get along” with Republicans by moving more and more and more to the right. And the response? The Republicans just move more and more and more to the right. In fact, as the entire political system has moved rightward, the ideological divide between the parties has grown. For each step the Democrats have taken to the right, the Republicans have taken two steps to the right. Nice going guys!

Konczal pointed out something else that I really like because I’ve been saying it for a long time. Let me quote myself, because I think I put it better:

The truth is that the Republicans have backed themselves into a corner. It is not that alternative plans are hard, it is that they simply don’t exist on the right. When the Republicans decided that their very own Heritage Foundation plan (AKA Obamacare) was something straight from the rotting corpse of Stalin, they effectively gave up on any kind of “free market” approach to healthcare reform.

This is a very big problem for conservatives. The mess that our previous healthcare system was will not go away if Obamacare fails. The remaining conservative healthcare “reform” ideas either nibble around the edges or actually make things worse. The people will not stand for this—not for long anyway. So the only alternative to Obamacare is some kind of single payer system. This is yet another example of conservatives demanding everything and as a result, actually losing ground.

Like most liberals who have been paying attention, I’ve never liked Obamacare. The idea that the government would require people to buy into a broken health insurance market strikes me as an authoritarian overreach. But such theoretical considerations are not that important to me. What is important is getting a system that works. I’m sure the government will make Obamacare work. But it is a conservative policy, and I have always wanted a liberal policy: a single payer system, which would have worked far better.

Malcolm Gladwell Is Interesting But Wrong

David and GoliathMalcolm Gladwell is a very interesting writer. He’s published a series of provocative best sellers. And NPR just loves him. I like him too. It’s important to have people like him around. But it’s just as important to remember that he is almost always wrong.

A couple of weeks ago, I was listening to Marketplace and there was an interview with Gladwell about his new book David and Goliath. The idea of the book is that hardships often make us better. I agree with that in a moral sense; I think I am a much better person because of the things that have not worked out in my life; I’m glad that I’ am a better person than I once was.

The problem is that Gladwell seems to apply this idea to a very typical notion of success in life. He pays specially attention to dyslexia. This is an issue that I care about a great deal because I suffer from both auditory and visual dyslexia and it has been a real pain throughout my life. What’s more, I do not think that suffering from it has helped me. Yes, as a result of the difficulty I had reading when I was younger, I exercised my analytic abilities to simply figure stuff out rather learning it from books. And glad I am that I had those analytical skills! But I don’t for an instant think those skills came about because of my dyslexia. If I hadn’t had dyslexia, I would simply have had strong analytical and reading skills. What joy!

But Gladwell does think that Dyslexia helps. In the interview, he talks about the great lawyer David Boies. According to Gladwell, Boies’ dyslexia helped him, “He learned how to listen, and he also developed an extraordinary memory.” This is what Boies himself thinks. I don’t accept it. No one wants to admit that their disabilities harm them, but they absolutely do. Boies is brilliant and dyslexic, but he would have been brilliant and not dyslexic.

The truth is that it’s kind of stupid to talk about disabilities in this way. We all have them. We all work in such a way to maximize our strength and minimize our weaknesses. And I’m very pleased with my intellectual skill set. I have a number of friends who read very quickly and I’m jealous of that. But there’s no way I would trade away my dyslexia for a weaker mathematical intuition. And I wouldn’t trade away my empathy for more self-confidence, even though that would doubtless lead to better worldly success.

I got to thinking about Gladwell this morning when I came upon an interesting article at The Economist, Trouble at the Lab. It’s about how we tend to think that science is a gradual process of self-correction, but to a large extent it is a process of going a long way down blind alleys before realizing that we have to back up and take another road. It is very much in the tradition of Thomas Kuhn. But this passage really struck me:

“I SEE a train wreck looming,” warned Daniel Kahneman, an eminent psychologist, in an open letter last year. The premonition concerned research on a phenomenon known as “priming.” Priming studies suggest that decisions can be influenced by apparently irrelevant actions or events that took place just before the cusp of choice. They have been a boom area in psychology over the past decade, and some of their insights have already made it out of the lab and into the toolkits of policy wonks keen on “nudging” the populace.

Dr Kahneman and a growing number of his colleagues fear that a lot of this priming research is poorly founded. Over the past few years various researchers have made systematic attempts to replicate some of the more widely cited priming experiments. Many of these replications have failed. In April, for instance, a paper in PLoS ONE, a journal, reported that nine separate experiments had not managed to reproduce the results of a famous study from 1998 purporting to show that thinking about a professor before taking an intelligence test leads to a higher score than imagining a football hooligan.

I bring it up because this bit of research about priming is one of Gladwell’s favorites, although he usually tells it about a Trivial Pursuits game rather than an intelligence test. And it gets to the base of what Gladwell is all about: finding the cool, counter-intuitive take on the way things are. And as I said, people like him are really important. But don’t mistake his interesting ideas as anything more than that. If Gladwell pushes an idea that turns out to be right, it will be pure chance.

Guns Are Not Sexy! Guns Are Sexy!

Woman with GunDoublethink again. As Frank pointed out in his post Police Oversight and Dead Children, “Our society is all about guns; men are supposed to like them; boys are supposed to play with fake ones. I wish it weren’t so. But it is wrong for a society to tell a boy in a million ways that guns are cool and then blame him for getting killed.”

I was looking for an incendiary image that I could use for my last post. I wanted a picture of a woman looking afraid while holding a gun, so I typed “woman holding a gun” into Google search. The images that popped up were disturbing, but not in the way I was expecting.

I understand the phallic nature of guns, the sense of control and power that holding one apparently exudes, but I still think it’s a stupid and dangerous fetish. I presume that’s the reasoning behind making paintball and other types of “toy” guns look so realistic, so boys can play men (and by “boys” I mean grown men who don’t want their toys to look like toys). Actually, I understand that too.

Unfortunately, there are too many real guns in the world and therein lies the real problem.

A Number of Very Bad Choices

bang gunIn yet another accidental shooting here in the U.S., a child is dead simply because someone who had no business having a gun in the first place, left it lying within easy reach of a child. So today, a 5-year-old boy is dead in a tragedy that was, as a chief deputy astutely observed, “avoidable.” Of course it was.

Leaving a child and a 6-month-old infant unattended is a negligent thing to do. Leaving those same children alone with a loaded gun is reprehensible. People make stupid choices every day, but stupid choices involving guns are pretty much guaranteed to go badly.

“[Babysitter, April] Ringhardt stated to investigators that she was carrying a handgun on her person in the home that day because she was scared being at home alone,” the statement said. “The handgun was a semi-automatic .40 caliber pistol. Ringhardt left the handgun on a coffee table in the living room and went to the bedroom to take a nap. When she was awakened from her nap, she noticed she didn’t see John around the house. She began looking until she found him deceased in the living room with the fatal gunshot wound.”

Even if she weren’t armed and afraid of being alone, children should never be left in the hands of someone who won’t actually be looking after them. What sensible person would leave a loaded weapon on a coffee table and then take a nap? If you’re afraid of being alone and the gun makes you feel better, nap with it! Better you should accidentally shoot yourself than lose a child left in your care.

Gilbert Lewis Dot Dot Dot…

Gilbert LewisOn this day back in 1857, the great Filipino artist Juan Luna was born. He was also involved in the Philippine Revolution and was even arrested for agitation. But the main thing of note about him is his painting. He had a distinct but compelling style. Happily, he was recognized in his own lifetime. But he died at only 42.

Comedian Johnny Carson was born in 1925. Everyone knows him, so I am just going to try to present to you a joke that Carson once told on the Tonight Show that no one but me thinks is funny. The Democratic National Convention was going on. Jerry Brown had run for president and he came in a distant third. But he was still an important presence at the convention. Carson said (more or less), “A reporter ask Brown if it bothered him that a lot people thought he was a new age hippy. And Brown responded, ‘Well, you give good karma out, you get good karma back.'” Okay, that’s a solid joke. But it died. Carson got nothing from the audience. So he ad libbed, “How about: he said it while meditating on ten pounds of raw liver?” I died. To this day, I think it is one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard. No one agrees with me. I guess you had to be there.

Other birthdays: the architect of the Ecole Militaire, Ange-Jacques Gabriel (1698); not the publisher of “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations,” linguist John Russell Bartlett (1805); Minnie in Bride of Frankenstein, actor Una O’Connor (1880); linguist Zellig Harris (1909); cartoonist Bob Montana (1920); actor Frank Sutton (1923); the fine film director Philip Kaufman (77); the once good buy finally hack science fiction writer Michael Crichton (1942); film director Ang Lee (59); film director Sam Raimi (54); and songwriter “Weird Al” Yankovic (54).

H2O Dot DiagramThe day,however, belongs to the great chemist Gilbert Lewis who was born in 1875. He is known for discovering the covalent bond and for his theoretical work on electron pairs. What you probably know him for is one of the first thing you learn in high school chemistry: Lewis dot diagrams. It is a surprisingly simple but powerful concept. You can see how it works with a water molecule on the right. Each atom has 4 pair locations and when atoms bond, they share one electron a piece. He did far more than this and if you are interested in chemistry and thermodynamics, you should look into him.

Happy birthday Gilbert Lewis!

Redneck Patriotism

Gun-toterThis image and accompanying text are from a multi-forwarded email that I received this morning.

This Guy Had The Guts To Put This On The Internet

There are people in my life whom I love in spite of our vast political and religious differences. (I feel a little like Diana Nyad dealing with Oprah — Oprah only sees what she wants to see.) So rather than respond to this rhetorical bile and risk offending someone whom I would rather leave in blissful ignorance, I’ll vent here.

[Editor’s note: I have not altered the unique grammatical structure or punctuation of this proud American’s defiant, unapologetic and God-fearing expression of patriotism, however I have omitted the variety of typefaces, American flags, eagles, photos of kittens appearing to pray, and so on.]

I Am the Liberal­ Progressives Worst Nightmare.
I am an American.
I am a Master Mason and believe in God.
I ride Harley Davidson Motorcycles and believe in American products.
I believe the money I make belongs to me and my family, not some Liberal governmental functionary be it Democratic or Republican!
I’m in touch with my feelings and I like it that way! I like it that way!
I think owning a gun doesn’t make you a killer, it makes you a smart American.
I think being a minority does not make you noble or victimized, and does not entitle you to anything. Get over it!
I believe that if you are selling me a Big Mac, do it in English.[1]
I believe everyone has a right to pray to his or her God when and where they want to.
My heroes are John Wayne, Babe Ruth, Roy Rogers, and Willie G. Davidson that makes the awesome Harley Davidson Motorcycles.
I don’t hate the rich. I don’t pity the poor. 
I know wrestling is fake and I don’t waste my time watching or arguing about it.
I’ve never owned a slave, or was a slave, I haven’t burned any witches or been persecuted by the Turks and neither have you!
I want to know exactly where the churches are that Reverend Jesse Jackson and Reverend Al Sharpton preach, where they get
their money, and why they are always part of the problem and never the solution. Can I get an AMEN on that one?
I also think the cops have the right to pull you over if you’re breaking the law, regardless of what color you are.
And, no, I don’t mind having my face shown on my drivers license.
I think it’s good…. And I’m proud that ‘God’ is written on my money.
I believe that it doesn’t take a village to raise a child, it takes two parents.
I believe ‘illegal’ is illegal no matter what the lawyers think.
I believe the American flag should be the only one allowed in AMERICA !
If this makes me a BAD American, then yes, I’m a BAD American.

If you are a BAD American too, please forward this to everyone you know.
We want our country back!We NEED GOD BACK IN OUR COUNTRY!
And if I send you a lot of political stuff it is because I love this Country and the Constitution and you. I don’t like the way my
Country is being run and neither should you. So I send it to give you the truth. If you don’t like it … sorry I’m sending it anyway.


Art Mason
MSgt Arthur R. Mason USAF (Ret.)
Deo adjuvante non timendum [2]

Is this apoplectic outpouring of patriotism from a real person or is it just a Conservative variation of the ancient Chain Letter? Is MSgt Arthur R Mason USAF a real person? The only indication that he might be a walking, breathing (if not thinking) human being is on a restricted (and I’m pretty sure I know why) Yahoo! Group: “Army Security Agency Vets – A club for the top ten percent.” Verifying his existence isn’t really important. What’s important is that MSgt Arthur R. Mason USAF (Ret.) had THE GUTS to maybe have posted this rant on the internet himself!

Regardless of the original writer of this offensive, ignorant tirade, it is being passed around like a note in a 7th grade classroom. There is much to correct, mock or easily disprove, but what’s the point? People either agree with it or they don’t. I don’t, but obviously there are many people like MSgt Arthur R. Mason USAF (Ret.) who are filled with rage at imaginary wrongs and feel compelled to spew their impotent and misguided opinions at anyone with an email address.


This is a screenshot of page that I can’t get to now without joining the group.

Old Woman

[1] Unless you’re in another country, you will be sold a Big Mac in English.

[2] God helping me not to fear


Police Oversight and Dead Children

Andy LopezYesterday, two sheriff’s deputies killed a 13-year-old kid here in my home town of Santa Rosa. Thus far there aren’t many details of the case. According to the Press Democrat, the kid was walking down the street with what looked like an assault rifle but which was in fact a “replica.” According to the article, “The deputies stopped and told him to put down the weapon and within seconds several shots were fired.” It goes on to say that the boy, Andy Lopez, was hit repeatedly and died on the scene.

I know that a lot of people will wonder why the kid was carrying the fake gun. But I have a problem with this kind of second guessing. Our society is all about guns; men are supposed to like them; boys are supposed to play with fake ones. I wish it weren’t so. But it is wrong for a society to tell a boy in a million ways that guns are cool and then blame him for getting killed.

I’m sure that the deputies feel very bad. It has to be awful. Just the same, I don’t like what I’ve read. They told him to put down the weapon and within seconds they started firing? More information will come out and we’ll see what it all means.

A few weeks ago, I was at a family function and an old family friend was there who just retired from the very same sheriff’s department. He was complaining about recording devices and how administrators were always judging the actions of officers after the fact and how it wasn’t fair. I do get that. On the other hand, this is Santa Rosa, not north Richmond.

Most though, I don’t buy the whole “Monday morning quarterback” complaint. I’ve never had a job where someone above me wasn’t second guessing things I had done under stressful and time sensitive conditions. The big problem with this complaint is that it implies that police work is so much more dangerous than other jobs. It isn’t. What is different is that while fisherman are far more likely to die on the job, police officers are far more likely to kill on the job.

What’s more, police have enormous power that they abuse with abandon. So I think the real complaint about management second guessing them is that they think that no one should have power over them. Because that’s what they’re used to. On the street, no one can even question them. If one does, he risk at least a night in jail.

Meanwhile, in this case, a boy is dead for no good reason. And these things happen all the time. Not far away, a woman was killed by police because she had a vegetable peeler in her hand. Oversight is important. Police officers may think there is too much of it, but they are wrong. A child is dead.