Sonata for Francis and Poulenc

Francis PoulencOn this day in 1800, Millard Fillmore was born. He is generally considered one of the worst presidents. I don’t really get this. Yes, I guess in retrospect, the Compromise of 1850 was a bad idea because the Civil War was coming no matter what. And the Fugitive Slave Act really was a vile piece of legislation. It said that slaves who made it to non-slave states had to be returned to their rightful “owners.” But it was a bad time and let’s face it, there are historical reasons why the south has been and continues to be a very big pain and, frankly, regressive in its politics. If there ever is another rebellion against the federal government it will almost certainly start in the deep south.

Brief Aside About Slavery and Health Insurance

One thing I don’t understand to this day is why the federal government can’t fix problems like slavery through money. What I mean is, why couldn’t the government have just bought all the slaves, relocated them to other states and even created new states? After a short period, since there was no money in it, there would be nothing stopping the abolition of slavery. It’s important to remember that for the slave owners, slavery was primarily about money. All the racial inferiority rhetoric was just a way to justify the “peculiar institution” to the poor white population.

I’ve thought much the same thing about the modern health insurance industry. Why not just have the government buy all of them so that we wouldn’t be stuck with a stupid insurance company-based system of healthcare reform? The truth is, the healthcare insurance industry really isn’t worth all that much money. I don’t mean to equate the insurance industry with slavery. Clearly, slavery is not even in the same moral universe as health insurance. But they are both systems that harm our society generally for the sake of relatively small profits for a small number of people. But instead of just buying the end of slavery, we had a war that cost far more just economically, not to mention in terms of human life. As for our healthcare system, our sub-optimal system (Obamacare) will cost some lives, but mostly it is just a huge waste of money.

Amazing Morning Coincidence

This morning I felt like listening to Jean-Pierre Rampal. That isn’t totally unusual. I admire the man greatly. He was a great performer with an easy and enjoyable style. It seems like he isn’t even trying, even while playing pieces that I know from my own brutal experience to be terribly difficult. Anyway, so I put on the wonderful Suite for Flute & Jazz Piano that Claude Bolling had written for Rampal (a lot of great composers wrote specifically for him—see later). Anyway, it was very interesting that I chose to listen to Rampal, because when I went to do today’s birthday post a few hours later, I found that it was Rampal’s birthday. He was born on this day back in 1922. Here he is playing the whole Bolling Suite (with some “behind the scenes” footage) with Bolling himself at the piano:

Of course, I’m sure that I’ve read Rampal’s birthday before, so it is very possible that some vague brain connections led me to wanting to hear him this morning. I doubt it has anything to do with God or the astral plane.

Alone in a Cage of His Own Making

I never know exactly what to make of Nicolas Cage. Is he a brilliant actor or just an interesting person up there on the screen. I don’t think it much matters, because he is interesting and he’s starred in a number of very good movies. I’m still very fond of Lord of War and he really seems to act in Adaptation. I could provide you the excellent compilation of Cage saying nothing, Cage Does Cage. But I so love this scene from Adaptation that I wrote an article about it, You Are What You Love:

Other Birthdays

One of our many racist Supreme Court justices, John Catron (1786); postal innovator Heinrich von Stephan (1831); the original Alfred from the television Batman, Alan Napier (1903); surrealist artist Roland Topor (1938); and singer-songwriter Kenny Loggins (66).

Finally: the Great Composer

The day, however, belongs to the great French composer Francis Poulenc who was born on this day in 1899. He was one of Les Six, a group of (six) composers who in many ways weren’t alike. But they were not Debussy and Ravel. I think of them all, however, following from their stuff but with more attention to melody and less with the atmospherics that was typical especially of Ravel’s worst work. I would almost call Poulenc neo-classical—the Mozart of the modern period.

Now is the time that I would normally embed Jean-Pierre Rampal playing Sonata for Flute and Piano, which Poulenc wrote for him. But I’ve already done that in the article, Jean-Pierre Rampal Plays Francis Poulenc. Instead, I present to you one of the last pieces that Poulenc wrote, Sonata for Clarinet and Piano. Here it is performed by the great German clarinetist Karl Leister with the great American conductor James Levine on piano. It is a lovely piece of music: sad and playful—even silly at the end. It is everything that I love about Poulenc. I really think that people who don’t think they like modern classical music should give this piece a listen.

Happy birthday Francis Poulenc!

Banker and Drug Dealer Economic Stimulus

Dean BakerMarketplace radio says that we should be happy for those big Wall Street bonuses because they lead to more spending and job creation. Of course spending by the Wall Street boys creates jobs, but the same is true of spending by drug dealers and bank robbers. It is a bit peculiar that a news show would try to use this fact as a justification for bonuses that arguably stem from rent-seeking activity that provides no benefit to the economy.

—Dean Baker
Marketplace Radio Says We Need Wall Street Bankers to Spend Money

Larry Sabato’s Useless Election Forecast

Larry J. SabatoLarry J. Sabato is a political scientist with a long history of accurately predicting the outcomes of elections. He hasn’t done such a good job during the last two election cycles, so of course, now he’s writing for Politico. He just published, Republicans Really Could Win it All This Year. That’s a pretty stupid title when you consider a few things. First, they obviously can’t win the presidency. Second, they already have the House of Representatives, and no one really expects them to lose it. And third, everyone knows that that the Republicans might take control of the Senate. That’s why I recently argued in Don’t Cry for the Democrats that even if they lose the Senate in 2014, they will almost certainly get it back in 2016. What Sabato should have titled his article is, “Republicans Really Could Win the Senate This Year.” It would have been a boring title, but it would have the advantage of being accurate and just as boring as the article itself.

Sabato claims that there are three things that really matter for the 2014 elections. First, is presidential approval. His argument is that presidential approval often hurts congressional candidates of his party. But not always. He also makes the totally unsubstantiated claim that it is just as likely that Obama’s approval rating will fall as that it will climb. I don’t see that at all. Obama is not Bush the Younger. I think he’s gotten about as unpopular as he can possibly get. What’s more, his current unpopularity is mostly due to the bad Obamacare roll-out, and that is definitely on the mend. Now, I don’t see Obama’s approval rating going way up, but I do expect it to get somewhat better over the next ten months.

The second important issue is the economy. File this one under “Sherlock, No Shit.” Still, he spends only two paragraphs on the subject. Mostly, he uses it to make an incoherent argument that a bad economy will be good for the Republicans but a good economy will not help the Democrats. He concludes with a perfect example of statement that says nothing but appears to, “So even if the economy continues to improve, Obama and the Democrats might not reap an electoral benefit.” That’s right, if the economy is booming, it might not help the Democrats. Alternately, if the economy is booming, it might help the Democrats. In other words: Sabato has nothing to say on the subject.

The final issue can also be filed under “Sherlock, No Shit”: the electoral playing field. This is what everyone is talking about and is the basis of, Don’t Cry for the Democrats: there are a lot more Democrats up for re-election than there are Republicans. There are 21 Democrats up and only 14 Republicans. But in 2012, there were 23 Democrats versus 10 Republicans and the Democrats managed to gain two seats. What’s more, the Democrats can lose 5 seats and still maintain control of the Senate.

Sabato ends his column with nothing more than a bunch of speculation, stated as though it is proof:

At this early stage, the combination of these three factors suggests a good election year for the GOP. The president is a Democrat and his approval is weak. The economy may be improving, based on GDP growth (4.1 percent in the third quarter), but voters still don’t believe their personal economy, at least, has picked up much. Instead, the major national issue of the moment is Obamacare, which at this point is a loser for Democrats. The structure of the election in the House and Senate also bends in the GOP direction.

Basically, all he’s got here is that the 2014 election will be a wash in the House and the Republicans have a decent chance of taking over the Senate with a slim majority. This is exactly what I’ve been saying for at least the last year. But let me put a positive spin on what Sabato wrote:

The president’s approval rating is weak but will likely improve over the next ten months. The economy is improving and people are feeling it more and more. The major national issue may continue to be Obamacare, but that is likely to get better in the next several months, where it will be a winner for Democrats. The Republicans have a structural advantage in the Senate, but they have to win six seats and they’ve shown themselves pretty clueless in picking candidates.

In other words: Larry Sabato has added nothing of value to the discussion of the 2014 election.

Afterword

I want to be very clear here. My point is that Sabato is adding nothing to the discussion and that he seems to be cheer leading for the GOP. His conclusions are pretty much the same as mine in, The Next Three Election Cycles. That conclusion is that the Republicans will do slightly better than the Democrats but that mostly it will be a wash. But the way that Sabato puts it, it is that it is going to be a great year for the Republicans. It could be, just as it could be a great year for the Democrats. But the information he provides points to a wash. He seems to be pushing back against a groundswell of pundits saying that the Democrats are going to do well in 2014. No one is saying that.

Why the UI Extension is Probably Dead

John BoehnerThe Senate managed to overcome a filibuster because a whole six Republicans voted to allow formal debate on a bill that would provide extended unemployment benefits for another three months. Wow. What an amazing show of empathy and compassion from the party that hugs the Bible so close to its chest. Only 37 Republicans (Just 86%!) of those present voted not to allow debate about extend unemployment insurance. This is what we call a triumph of bipartisanship!

Of course, it basically means nothing. The Senate has passed a lot of stuff in the past that hasn’t gone anywhere. John Harwood laid out the current situation:

I know he’s serious because Harwood is not a jokester. To me, it would have been clear enough to tweet, “Boehner aide: despite Senate procedural vote, unemployment benefits extension likely to go to the House of Representatives.” Under the control the modern Republican Party, that is nowhere. You know the old song:

Nowhere under the rainbow
Boehner leads
It’s a land where Reps shows that
Obstruction is their creed.

For some reason, Jonathan Chait is sounding very optimistic this morning, How Democrats Can Force Republicans to Help the Unemployed. His basic idea is to tell the Republicans that unless they pass the unemployment extension, they will scuttle the Farm Bill. I don’t think that will work, but Chait is certainly right when he says, “Agriculture subsidies are a huge, bloated entitlement that shouldn’t exist at all on the merits, but Republicans like them because they benefit rich white people.” Again: wow. I didn’t think Chait was willing to come right out and speak the truth on that matter.

He also brought up an issue that is very aggravating to us liberals:

[M]ost Republicans in Congress are approaching the issue more delicately. Instead, they are professing to favor an extension of emergency benefits, but only if the measure is paid for with offsetting spending cuts. To simply extend unemployment benefits would “add to the deficit in an irresponsible way,” complains Republican Senator Mark Kirk. Boehner has made similarly noncommittal noises.

This isn’t a genuine expression of concern for the size of the deficit. When Republicans actually care about a policy that adds to the deficit, they just pass it and put it on the credit card. That’s how they passed the immensely costly extension of the expiring Bush tax cuts. For that matter, that’s how they passed every deficit-increasing measure during the entire time they controlled the government under Bush—wars, tax cuts, drug benefits, energy subsidies, surges—they put them all on the tab. Demanding an offset is how you stop a policy you don’t care about without having to admit you don’t care about it.

This is all quite true, but it is also the kind of thing that liberals tell each other. Conservatives tell themselves something different, “Well, the deficit wasn’t so bad back then. Anyway, we’ve learned our lesson!” This is total crap, but I think it is important for liberals to understand that this is what conservatives are thinking. It can be easily destroyed with a little history. When Reagan was running for president, one of his biggest complaints was our out of control spending. Once he was in office, he ballooned the deficit in unprecedented ways. Once Clinton was in office, the budget again became a big deal. But then once it was actually balanced, the Republicans claimed that that was a bad thing. Still, deficits mattered, but surpluses were no good. So Bush got rid of the surpluses and then some and then some more. It was, after all, under Bush that we got our first trillion dollar deficit. Under Obama, that deficit has nearly been cut in half. But today, all the Republicans claim that Bush was wrong. Again, while a Democrat is in the White House, the Republicans have learned their lesson: budget deficits are bad. So any claim by Republicans that this time is different and that they aren’t like old Republicans is just bunk.

Jonathan ChaitOf course, Chait is only talking about the past. If the Democrats offered up a huge tax cut for the rich, the Republicans would not be concerned about adding “to the deficit in an irresponsible way.” If it was an unnecessary war with Iran, there would be no budgetary concerns. In fact, it wouldn’t matter what the money was spent on, as long as it ultimately went to the rich. This is why Republicans continue to push the totally refuted claim that “tax cuts pay for themselves.”

The reason that Republicans scream “class warfare” every time income inequality is brought up by liberals is that the Republican Party really is engaged in a class war. This is why last year at this time they had no problem getting rid of the highly progressive payroll tax holiday, but fought to the end to stop taxes going up a couple of percentage points on the rich. The problem with hopeful articles like Chait’s is that liberals tend to underestimate just how much the Republicans hate the poor. Sure, they want to give money to rich white farmers. But they don’t want to do it as much as they want to take money away from the poor, who I assume they always image as black.

But Chait could be right. I hope that he is. But recent history has shown that you can’t “triangulate” Republicans. They are determined to hurt the poor and (just as important) stop Obama from getting anything he wants.

2013 Review: Part 6

2013 ReviewFinally, the end of it. I think by this one, I’m starting to get the hang of it. Now I could go back and do it correctly. But that isn’t going to happen. Maybe if I do it next year, it will be better. I think I have a better idea. Just one introductory paragraph and then a list of the ten best articles from that month. That would be pretty simple and most usable for the readers. We’ll see.

November 2013

There were a few notable events in my life in November. I got my very first smart phone, a Samsung Exhibit. It isn’t as great as some of the newer phones, but it does all the things that the newer phones do. It seems the main thing about the newer phones are that they are a bit faster and they are thinner. Neither of those things matter too much to me. I really like my new phone, but it isn’t that great. I like that I can serf the web more easily than I used to be able to. In particular, having 4g, instead of no-g, is good. But it is still pretty hard to get any real work done. I also like the mic feature for texting. But it makes a lot of mistakes. For example, I absolutely cannot get it to recognize the word “atheist.” I just said the word a number of times and it gave me: 80 AST; a CST; ACS; eight CST; a fierce; a fifth. What’s more, I haven’t figured out how to make it stop censoring me. Today, it changed “sexualized” to “s*********.” Since when is “sexualized” a “bad” word? But the main thing is that the phone has not changed my life in any meaningful way. It’s nice to have, but it isn’t a big deal.

I coined a term in November, Placebo Policies. This came about because of all the whining about people losing their cheap healthcare policies because they didn’t meet the requirements of Obamacare. Hence the term. These are great policies in that they don’t cost much and they give the holder the feeling that he is covered. But when it comes down to it—if he gets sick—he will find that the policy is of no use. So all these news reports, in as much as they are true (which they usually aren’t), are just arguing that people should be able to keep placebo policies. And that’s really terrible. These reporters would feel terrible if you put it to them like that, “So you want to allow this person to go on thinking they have health coverage when they really don’t?” The stories ought to be the other way; they ought to be about consumer protection. These are the opposite: making sure that companies can continue to lie to their customers.

As I said in Part 5 of this series, the Obamacare website problems went on into November. Most of my coverage was like that in, Democratic Freak Out Will Not Help. As I pointed out again and again, it was just a technical problem. They had good people working on the problem and that no one had given them any time. In fact, every new bug that turned up was seen to cause for panic. This is typical of people who aren’t software development professionals. For those of us who are, we know that finding bugs is a good thing. It’s what you are supposed to be doing. If you have a broken system but you aren’t finding any bugs, you have a really bad development team. And by the end of the month, the system was basically fixed. Of course, work will go on fixing and improving it as long as it exists. That’s just the way software works.

November also brought the end of the filibuster on nominations. That was something I’ve been begging for for a couple of years. And once it was done, I wanted more. I wrote, Obama Must Use Filibuster Reform. What I meant was that now Obama needs to quickly fill all the openings on the courts. Because God knows, if he doesn’t and Ted Cruz is our next president, he will. Of course, as is typical for this president, I don’t see a great deal of urgency coming from the administration. We’ll see. But mostly, he seems to have other priorities.

Memorable Articles

Selective Conservative Outrage
I Love Democracy
Sympathy for Rob Ford
The Veil in the Western World
Conservative Ideological Clumping
How to Catch a Cheetah
Where’s My Third Lost Skeleton Film?!
The Q Filmcast
Income Inequality is Government Policy
Two Great Vincent Price Murder Films
Libertarians Just Don’t Like the Poor
No Economic Lessons from Star Trek

Enjoy the entire: November 2013 Archive.

December 2013

Now we are almost back to the present. It was almost exactly a month since I stopped watching MSNBC. The reason? Martin Bashir Fired, MSNBC Sucks. It isn’t just MSNBC, I think that liberals have a loyalty problem. The smallest scandal and liberals start firing each other. The best example of this was Shirley Sherrod. But when MSNBC fired Martin Bashir, I had had it with the network. What he did was not a firing offense. And then, less than a month later, the right-wing has Melissa Harris-Perry falling all over herself apologizing for what, I still don’t exactly get. But I feel certain that had she not done her parade of self-flagellation, she too probably would have lost her job. It’s just pathetic. And the truth is that I don’t miss MSNBC. It was convenient to put on while I was cooking dinner, but that was about all. And now looking back on it, it seems even worse. I still admire Chris Hayes, but Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell both have annoying and obvious biases. Regardless, I want to send my own little message that firing people like Bashir (and Alec Baldwin) for minor things costs them viewership on the other side. And I don’t think they gain a single viewer from their cowardly behavior.

Something I’ve written about a lot is the hypocrisy of conservative Christians. The public ones, anyway, clearly have two masters; God as they see it and free market capitalism as they see it. For short: God and Money. In December, I went after one of my favorite targets: Ross Douthat’s Politics Before Religion. Douthat is very ostentatious about his Catholicism. In the article I talked about how Douthat was cheering for the failure of Obamacare, even though it will give healthcare to up to 50 million people. And before that, he thought that Pope Francis’ liberalish public statements only mattered if they got more people to go to church. It didn’t even occur to him that Francis might think of these things as a matter of faith. That Francis cares more about the teachings of Jesus than he does money. And then, at the beginning of the year, I had much to say about another supposedly religious man, David Brooks Puts Profits over Prophets. Or pick another: Paul Ryan. They are all a bunch of phonies. See also: More on Politics First Religion Second.

In December, I started another series on income inequality solutions. I’ve been working around the edges. I figure I’ll get to the big ones later. The first was on the estate tax. The second was on higher inflation. I’ve got to get back to that series. There are a lot of things we can do. We have high income inequality because of government policy, not because it is “natural.” And so there are a lot of government policies that can fix the problem.

Memorable Articles

My Creepy People Models
Conservative Hatred of Nelson Mandela
Pennies from Heaven, Roses from Cairo
The Bald Soprano Economy
America’s Vague Caste System
One Year After Sandy Hook Little Changed
How to Not Become a Neo-Nazi
Play-By-Play Chess Action!
Blackfish
These Are Victims: Matthew Shepard and Emmett Till
Our Economic Turn From Shared Sacrifice to Social Darwinism
More Evil English With Palate and Palette and Pallet
The Beauty of Abandonment and Decay

Enjoy the entire: December 2013 Archive.

Afterword

If I had to pick one quotation from all my writing last year, it would come from my article in early December, Prison, Dentists, and the Least Among Us. It is sad, but it sums up the fundamental problem in our society and explains generally all of our problems:

In our society, justice is something that is applied to the poor. It is rarely something done for the poor. In a world where that’s what passes for justice, we would be better off with less justice.

Let us hope that things continue to get better. I know that as humans we have the power to make that happen.