Richard Stallman Again

Richard StallmanLast year on this day, we celebrated the 60th birthday of the visionary Richard Stallman. I don’t like to repeat myself, but there is no one who I particularly want to celebrate. Jerry Jeff Walker is a fine singer-songwriter. Bernardo Bertolucci is a great film director. And I’m really fond of actor Alan Tudyk. But Stallman is probably the most important man you’ve never heard of.

So this day belongs to the great computer scientist and free software advocate Richard Matthew Stallman—often known as RMS, probably because it is a nerdy little mathematics reference. He started the GNU Project, which is what ultimately led to Linux. And he started the Free Software Foundation. As a programmer, his greatest accomplishment is probably writing the first gcc compiler. But I think what is more important has been his leadership in developing the free software movement. We should be building statues to him.

Here is a short interview with him. There is a great line in it, “Innovation is not my highest value; human rights are my highest value.” This is from a man who is several quantum levels above the technical expertise of all the pundits and businessmen who rant about innovation. That, in a nutshell, is why I so admire him.

Happy birthday Richard Stallman!

Obama Never Went After Financial Crime

Gretchen MorgensonGretchen Morgenson calls the lie to all the nonsense we’ve heard from the Obama administration this last five years about how hard they were working on financial crime that led to the global economic crisis of 2008, A Loan Fraud War That’s Short on Combat. “If there had been cases to make,” people from the administration would say, “We would have made them!” Well, it turns out—Contain your shock!—this is not true. Last week, the inspector general of the Justice Department issued a report, Audit of the Department of Justice’s Efforts to Address Mortgage Fraud (pdf). Morgenson sums up the report’s conclusion, “Complex financial crimes were the lowest priority for the criminal investigative division.”

This is not a surprise. I’m very cynical when it comes to this kind of stuff. It is very simple: the power elite do not go after the power elite. The law is meant to keep the little guy in line. The logic is that simple. But that doesn’t mean that we should accept things the way they are. But things will continue to be this way as long as we continue to elect people like Barack Obama whose call for “hope and change” was really about hoping that nothing changes. And no one should have been surprised. He never claimed to be anything but an establishment kind of guy. He was the candidate of the Wall Street bankers and so no one should have been surprised that he’s the president of the Wall Street bankers.

Dean Baker followed up Morgenson’s reporting with an analysis of his own, Locking Up the Banksters: It’s Not Hard. In it, he goes through the basics of building a case against systemic fraud: from the bottom up. That’s because at every level except the top, there was someone telling a subordinate to misbehave. And if the government were handing out prison terms, there would have been a whole lot of people who were not willing to fall on their swords for the sake of their bosses.

I have a personal example that is related, although I’m unsure where exactly it fits in the pantheon of financial crime. My wife and I owned a condo and owed about $80,000 on it. We were interested in refinancing and so we worked with someone who I think was representing Ameriquest, but I could be wrong. They printed out the loan offer and sent it to us. I went over it and noticed a problem. The fees were so high on the loan that despite the lower interest rate, we would end up paying more in interest over the term of the loan. I told this to the loan officer and I got almost no push back from her. She was well aware that she was offering me a terrible loan. She acted the way any con artist would when discovered: she made a hasty exit.

I tell this story to point out that the bankers knew exactly what they were doing. Of course, when it comes to the packaging of subprime mortgages, the con is baked right in. It was like a game of hot potato: get the bad loan and pass it off on someone else as fast as possible. Of course, the report itself didn’t even deal with securities fraud. So as bad as it shows the system to be, it is far worse.

Morgenson finishes her article by quoting former Delaware Senator Edward Kaufman, “The report fits a pattern that is scary for a democracy, that there really are two levels of justice in this country, one for the people with power and money and one for everyone else. And that eats at the heart of what I think makes this country great.” This is the basis of all our country’s problems. The powerful cannot be punished. The rich cannot lose money. The United States is well on its way to complete destruction. Sadly, our enormous military will prop it up for a while longer, during which we will do untold damage to our own people and people throughout the world.

Kiss of the Spider Woman 30 Years On

Kiss of the Spider WomanI just watched Kiss of the Spider Woman. I first saw it right after it came out in 1985. It was a great film and particularly appropriate because the authoritarian regime in the film could easily have been the El Salvadorian government of that time, which was a very big issue in the United States. As a result, I probably saw the movie as much more serious than it is. In fact, although the film involves politics and torture, it is highly lyrical.

The thread that holds the entire film together is Luis’ (William Hurt) telling the story of a romantic film he once saw, Her Real Glory. It turns out that it was actually a Nazi propaganda film, but Luis is too naive to have noticed the politics. Valentin (Raul Julia) straightens him out but lets him continue to tell the story, given that Luis is only focused on the romance of it. The film uses this storytelling to recreate it as a film within a film, Her Real Glory. And it is very funny. For example, when the evil men from the French Resistance ran over a young French woman, I burst out laughing. It is not intended to be funny in Her Real Glory but it is in Kiss of the Spider Woman. There other such scenes like one near the end where the French Underground leader tries to rape the woman who is in love with the Nazi Chief of Counter-Intelligence. The villainy of the “bad guys” is just a tad less believable than Snidely Whiplash.

The whole film plays with this kind of postmodern take on perception and it is brilliantly successful. In the end, all of us at any time are stuck in a jail cell with one other person. And regardless of everything else and all of differences, we need to learn to connect with that other person. But ultimately, this is more about respecting ourselves than anything about the other person. So broadly speaking, Luis and Valentin both have the same character arc of self discovery and acceptance.

Practically speaking, Kiss of the Spider Woman is very serious. It brings to mind much more uncomfortable associations than the brutality of the El Salvadorian government which we supported so strongly. As political prisoners are periodically brought into the prison, they are hooded, just like at Abu Ghraib. Of course, the film is not about that or any political question at all. It is about the political nature of human relationships and love. This is why I think it is important to focus on the practical in politics. Ideological rigidity is what leads to Nazism as well as lesser political crimes against our fellow humans. As long as we can extend dignity to each other, all will be okay. Sadly, extending dignity is rarer than it ought to be.

Where the film falls down is in the third act. That is when Luis and Valentin are separated. Luis is paroled and the film spends a lot of time finalizing his personal transformation. It works well enough, but it breaks the spell. Hurt and Julia are so great together that just about anything else would be a let down. However, after the Luis plot is completed, the film ends rather well. Because of his machinations, Luis managed to keep Valentin from being tortured as long as he was around. As soon as he is gone, Valentin is again tortured. We see him in the prison hospital having just been badly tortured. A doctor gives him an injection of morphine and immediately, his lover Marta (Sonia Braga who also plays Leni, the heroine in the Nazi film) grabs his arm and they run out of the prison, to the sea, and sail away in a boat.

It is a beautiful and lyrical ending to the film. But it is also profound. Such personal connections are not only how we manage to continue on against adversary, they are why. Kiss of the Spider Woman is a rare film that looks clear-eyed at the brutality of life and still gives us reasons to say, “Yes!”

George Will’s Disingenuous Arguments

George WillTo me, the essence of liberalism is open-mindedness. In modern America, that is what differentiates a liberal from a conservative. I’ve written about this a lot around here. Conservatives start discussing any problem with a long list of things they just can’t do. Liberals on the other hand are more than willing to use free market solutions to problems, if they work. But as we saw with Obamacare, when liberals accept free market solutions, two things happen. First, liberals get weaker solutions. Second, conservatives turn against the free market solutions that they once pushed.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that conservatives don’t actually want to solve any problems and just bring up the “free market” approaches as a delaying tactic. But I think among the punditry and think tank workers, there are a number who are actually interested in solving problems. These are the Reformish Republicans. And that is sad. The most open-minded conservatives are still 90% closed-minded. And then there is George Will whose mind is 100% closed.

The purpose of Will’s newest column should be clear enough based upon its title, Democrats Are Making Income Inequality Worse. It ends with, “And [this is] why the loudest complaints about inequality are coming from those whose policies worsen it.” Dean Baker took on Will’s column, George Will Is Badly Confused on Economic Issues, Again. He tore it to pieces, in fact—showing that Will was doing what he usually does: making up numbers and distorting others. Go take a look for all the bloody details.

I want to focus on one thing that Will talked about: food stamps. It is particularly disingenuous. He wrote, “Between 2000, when 17 million received food stamps, and 2006, food stamp spending doubled, even though unemployment averaged just 5.1 percent.” Note the framing here: he starts in 2000, when the economy was overheated and the unemployment rate was below 4%. Baker noted that in 2006, there were 3.4 million fewer people with jobs. That probably explains half the increase given that most people support children.

In addition to this, food prices rose by 16% during that period. What’s more, according to Will’s own source, the number of people on food stamps in 2006 was still lower than it had been in 1995. This is despite a major push to get qualifying people to get welfare. So we aren’t seeing a huge explosion of “takers.” But note how Will is eager to distort the data to make his point. He starts with a conclusion: aid to the poor is bad. And then he shoehorns the data in a spectacularly distorted way to justify his predefined conclusion.

On a deeper level, Will is making the same old conservative argument, “Giving poor people food hasn’t eliminated poverty, so we shouldn’t give them food!” We got this from Paul Ryan who was arguing that aid to the poor hadn’t worked because if you didn’t count aid to the poor, there were as many poor as ever. That’s a damned strange argument to make against aid to the poor. The real argument is the Ayn Rand argument, which at least she was honest about: the poor shouldn’t be helped because they’re losers. But George Will can’t make that argument. He’s got to maintain his reputation as the modern William F Buckley.

The bottom line of all of this is that conservatives claim to be for a small government as a good in itself. In fact, this isn’t really true. Conservatives are for small government when it comes to the poorer classes. When it comes to welfare for the rich, they want to spend ever more. This is the same as their approach to taxes where they really don’t matter when applied to the poor and middle classes. Remember when Fox News went through a period of pushing for the poor to at least pay some taxes? Tax increases are always wrong, unless they are on the poor! But conservatives like the idea of a smaller government.

Liberals, on the other hand, don’t want a larger government. Social goods they want may require a larger government. But there is nothing about a larger government as such that they are looking for. This sums up how liberals are focused on practical matters and conservatives on ideological matters. And that is why problems come second (if at all), only after ideological purity. George Will wants to spend less on the poor, he doesn’t want to fix the problem of poverty—except in the one ideologically pure way: by spending less on the poor.

60% of Men’s Wages Down Over 40 Years

Poor RetireeMatt Yglesias is fond of saying that the best way to help people out of poverty is to give them money—direct cash assistance. His point is very simple: the problem with poverty is not having enough money. Things like drug addiction are primarily a result of poverty, not a cause of it. If you give the poor money they will use it to get healthier and more educated. Generally unstated is the fact that most programs proscribe the benefits to the poor because the power elite think the poor don’t make good decisions.

That’s where we get the whole conservative song and dance about poverty. Poverty isn’t about money and economic opportunity, its about culture. The people in the “inner city” just aren’t going to church enough! Of course that’s just conservative wish fulfillment. They think everyone should go to church (except of course their heroes like Ronald Reagan). And they think that they should never have to spend any money on the poor. Therefore, as always, the solution to poverty just happens to be what they already want to do. This goes along with the conservative response to the Ukraine situation: a war in the Middle East!

This morning, Paul Krugman published a great graph from the Economic Policy Institute. It shows the changes in the wages of males in real dollars from 1973 to 2012. Looking at just men is important because their work patterns have not really changed over this 40 year period the way women’s have. So the result is relatively pure. And what the result shows is that we have a very screwed up society:

Men's Real Wages

Just to be clear here: this shows that the wages of the bottom 60% have gone down over the last 40 years. This is a remarkable result because men are actually more skilled than they were then. They are more educated. And productivity is much higher. It is just that the extra money in the economy is being shared less equitably.

Notice how this goes against the claims of conservatives everywhere. The last resort of people like Milton Friedman was always something like, “The rich may be much richer, but the poor are at least somewhat richer.” Well, they aren’t! Of course, I don’t expect this to change any minds. In general, they will continue to make that argument despite the data. And if pushed, they will just move on to some argument such as looking at households rather than men where instead of a decline there is only stagnation. Or they will go all libertarian and say it doesn’t matter because: “Freedom!”