Bombing Iraq Because We Must Do Something

Karl SharroKarl Sharro wrote a satirical piece at his blog yesterday, We Give the Scottish Independence Referendum the Middle East Expert Treatment. It is along the lines of, If It Happened There… But instead of reporting on domestic affairs the way we would report on them if they happened elsewhere, Sharro is reporting on the Scottish vote to leave the United Kingdom the same way American “experts” report on the Middle East.

I don’t follow events in the Middle East enough to fully appreciate the article. But it is impossible not to get the gist of it. For example, the common confusion in the west regarding the Shai and Sunni Muslims is lampooned with, “The sectarian dimension relates to the independence question in a very complicated way, so for the purpose of journalistic expediency it’s not inaccurate to say that Protestants favor the union while Catholics prefer independence. Or the other way around.” They’re all the same. Am I right?!

But I was most taken with the conclusion to Sharro’s article because it gets to the real problem with the way that anything happening in the Middle East seems to cause otherwise reasonable people to throw up their hands and say, “What else can we do? We must bomb!” What he writes here seems to sum up the full extent of our thinking regarding ISIS, although its ridiculousness is apparent when applied to Scotland:

Finally, and drawing from our collective experience as Middle Experts, we must stress that the US should not and must not continue its policy of non-intervention in the Scottish independence question. We must do something. Things must be done. There is a necessity for the doing of things. It’s also the point at which we normally ask the requisite rhetorical question near the end of the end: should we allow Scotland to exist as a small oil-rich country? (Like, do we need another Qatar now?) President Obama must avoid this by arming the Protestants. Or the Catholics.

This is exactly the logic that I was talking about yesterday in, Education Reform: Help Those Who Don’t Need It. As I put it, “So it’s the same old American idea: it is better to do something, regardless of how bad it may be, than to do nothing at all.” I didn’t think about it much at the time, but when Obama said that the executive branch had not determined a strategy for ISIS in Syria, it was widely mocked — most especially by conservatives. This goes along with the idea that it is better to make a bad decision quickly than a good decision slowly. Of course, it just so happens that a quick decision leads to what conservatives always want: military action.

When it comes to ISIS, it seems that there was an actual reason for some of the bombing: to protect the Kurdish territory. I could be wrong about that, but that was what was reported. And that doesn’t mean it was the right thing to do; but at least there was something like a clear objective. The rest of the bombing campaign seems to just be what Sharro was lampooning. We seem to be bombing because we don’t know what else to do. And because it is what we always do. And it is more important to be seen to be doing something than to actually be accomplishing anything. The tragic thing about this is that Obama seems to be doing it to pacify people here in the United States who are broadly of two kinds: ignorant people who have been frightened by the second kind of people who are demagogues.

I’m sure that lots of “bad guys” get killed. But I’m equally sure that at least as many civilians die for the sin of having been born Iraq. One thing is certain: the people of Iraq would be far better off if the United States had never invaded back in 2003. People suffered under Saddam Hussein, and then they suffered more as a result of our war, and then they suffered in the aftermath, and they suffer under ISIS, and now they are being bombed because, hey, we have to do something!

H/T: Zack Beauchamp

Agrarian Justice Still Ahead of US Political Thought

Thomas PaineThomas Paine’s most visionary work was Agrarian Justice where he called for a Social Security kind of system for everyone over the age of fifty as well as a one-time payment to be made for everyone at the age of 21. It was to be funded with inheritance and property taxes. So it was actually a whole lot more liberal than Social Security, which is based upon a regressive tax and doesn’t provide any starting capital to young people. It was published in 1797, and if it were proposed today, it would be met with screams of “Socialism!”

It was written for the French Republic, although he took pains to note, “The plan contained in this work is not adapted for any particular country alone: the principle on which it is based is general.” In addition to being far ahead of our own time, the pamphlet is notable for its detail. Most of it goes into depth about how the program would be paid for. In roughly 6,000 words, Paine provides far more detail than was found in any of Paul Ryan’s budgets that were so loved by Washington journalists everywhere.

What is most interesting about the work, however, is the logic that he presents. I love it because it shows that he understood the problems with property rights. They provide a good to society, but with a cost: people can’t just start farming or hunting or foraging anywhere they want. He noted that native peoples in America had a standard of living that was greater than the standard of living of the poor in the “civilized” world. Just the same, they had a standard of living that was less than that of the rich. As a result, the rich should offset this deficit suffered by the poor through a small redistributive program.

It is a position not to be controverted that the earth, in its natural, cultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race. In that state every man would have been born to property. He would have been a joint life proprietor with the rest in the property of the soil, and in all its natural productions, vegetable and animal…

Every proprietor, therefore, of cultivated lands, owes to the community a ground-rent (for I know of no better term to express the idea) for the land which he holds; and it is from this ground-rent that the fund proposed in this plan is to issue.

It’s very simple. Yet even most liberals I talk to don’t understand it without an explanation. To Americans, the idea of property rights seems almost God given. But even on the most basic level, there is a cost to property rights: the cost of a government to enforce them. It is much more than just this, of course. The problem is that in modern America (and I assume most other places at most other times), most of the costs of property rights are hidden because they fall almost exclusively on the weakest people in society.

I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of just how generous Paine was being. He offered £15 to people at the age of 21 and £10 per year to everyone 50 and older. I managed to find the United Kingdom Nation Archives calculator for this purpose. But when I put in £15 in 1800, it told me that would be worth £483. This is roughly what £15 in 1960 would be worth today.

Looking at it another way, Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice is worth £10,000 per year. That’s in 1813 and he is unimaginably wealthy. But that income is supposedly only worth £340,000 today. That’s a lot of money to someone like me. But that is nothing compared to Mitt Romney (roughly $20 million per year at least), who is a small player — certainly nowhere near as rich as Mr Darcy. Similarly, in Jane Eyre (1847 — fifty years after Paine), the heroine is paid £30 per year as a governess. That’s less than £1,800 per year.

If we figure that the calculator is off by about a factor of fifty (and I think that is low), the lump sum payment at 21 would be roughly £25,000 ($40,000). And the old age pension would be roughly £16,000 ($26,000) per year. Note that Paine was offering a much more generous retirement than we do today in the US. But that shouldn’t surprise anyone; the United States has one of the most stingy retirement programs of any developed country.

It bugs me that politics in the United States have regressed. Of course the Republicans are totally unhinged. But the Democrats have spent the last two decades pushing ever to the right. If he were alive to day, I don’t think Thomas Paine would feel any more comfortable in the Democratic Party than I do. Certainly it is true that since Paine’s time, things have improved. But we seem to be headed in the wrong direction. In 1965, it was easy enough to think that things would only get better. But since then, the economic environment has gotten worse. And more than ever we need Thomas Paine. But we always have. We have still to catch up with his thinking from over 200 years ago.

See also: Property Rights

Democratic Chances of Holding Senate Keep Improving

United States SenateThere are big happenings in the Senate modeling community: the election is looking better and better for the Democrats. And I think this is excellent news for the country. But not in the way you probably think, coming from a Democrat.

Just two weeks ago, the Senate election model of The Upshot gave the Republicans a 67% chance of taking control of the upper chamber. But it has been coming down steadily since then. It currently gives the Republicans just a 52% chance of taking the Senate. Even the FiveThirtyEight model is down to a 59% chance. But what’s interesting is that it is now the outlier. No one else gives the Republicans that high a chance. Daily Kos gives the Democrats a 51% chance of keeping the Senate. And the Huffington Post model gives them a 57% chance of keeping the senate.

This isn’t to mention Sam Wang. He’s been bullish on the Democrats for a long time. He currently gives them a 70% chance of keeping the Senate on election day. (He gives an 80% chance if the election were held today.) But the most amazing change came from The Monkey Cage model. A couple of months ago, they gave the Republicans an 86% chance of taking over the Senate. That’s because the model at that time was entirely based upon fundamentals. But up into this last week, it still gave the Republicans a slight advantage. At least it did until today. Now they give the Democrats a 50% chance of keeping the Senate.

It is important to remember that none of this means that the Democrats will keep the Senate. But I think it means something far more important. The fundamentals are on the side of the Republicans. There are far more Democrats up for re-election than there are Republicans. The economy sucks. Obama has low approval ratings. Really: the Republicans ought to be looking at gaining ten seats. Instead, they are looking at six if everything goes their way.

What I think we are seeing at long last is voters punishing the Republican Party for its insanity. I think the constant obstruction and doing the bidding of the rich has finally seeped into the thinking of more casual voters. This isn’t a profound realization. It’s more like people preferring Coke to Pepsi: they just have a vague feeling that the Republicans aren’t worth giving yet another chance to. And it is manifested in Democratic candidates doing just a couple of percentage points better than they normally would.

This could be very good news for the nation. I don’t mean that because the Democrats might well hold the Senate. That’s good but nothing exciting. If the Republicans fail to take the Senate after this very favorable election and then they get clobbered in 2016, the party finally will reevaluate its “race to the right” commitment. And that is absolutely a good thing for America. We need two sane parties. The current situation cannot stand. Of course, if the Republicans do not change, there is my old standby: they become a regional party and the Democratic Party breaks in half.

Regardless, that’s what we are looking at. Anyone who cares about the Republican Party should hope that they blow this opportunity. Because you know what will happen if they manage to just get 51 seats in the Senate. There will be people everywhere talking about how this shows that liberalism is dead and how everyone repudiates Obamacare. And if the Republicans only manage 50 seats, the more reasonable but still wrong narrative will be that the country has turned against Republicans. But that’s an exaggeration that could be very good for the nation.

Teaching PolitiFact How Social Security Works

Social Security: The Phony CrisisIncreasingly, American political discourse is the very worst kind of relativism. This is especially true on the right. Conservatives seem to think that reality is whatever they want it to be. Say it enough times and it is true. Just like in Nineteen Eighty-Four, what two plus two equals depends, “Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once.” So everyone was pleased when various media sources came out with “fact checkers.”

But very quickly, it was obvious that they were useless. The television networks followed up the 2004 presidential debates by noting three inaccuracies made by Bush and three made by Kerry. It was always equal, even if Bush had said that there were WMDs in Iraq and Kerry had said there were 50 million uninsured Americans when there were actually only 49. And so the act of false equivalence became high art.

Michael HiltzikSuch ridiculousness has become passé. But now we have the official fact checkers who are with us every day. We have Glenn Kessler at the Washington Post and Fact Check but most of all, we have PolitiFact. To give you just a little taste of the stupidity that is PolitiFact, consider the statement from Eric Bolling who said that the US has “the highest corporate tax rate in the free world.” This is a common conservative talking point. It is intended to deceive and it does deceive. But it is technically true. PolitiFact gives it a “mostly true” rating, saying, “Officially, US rate is high, though firms usually pay less.” That’s right, but that doesn’t make the claim any less true. I hate when they do this, even when it is to someone as richly deserving as Bolling.

But flat out the best example of PolitiFact’s absolute incompetence came this last week, after Jeff Merkley said, “Social Security has never contributed one cent to the deficit. Not one cent.” Note that last sentence: people don’t usually add things like that if they are not 100% certain about what they are saying. And indeed, Merkley is completely right. Yet PolitiFact gave the statement a rating of “half true,” commenting, “Splitting the difference on Social Security.”

On Wednesday, Michael Hiltzik called foul on this one. It would seem that PolitiFact thinks that Social Security only gets revenue from payroll taxes. This is not true. It also gets revenue from income tax on Social Security benefits (from people who have enough extra money from other things to owe it) as well as from interest it gets on the Social Security trust fund. In fact, even though since 2010 Social Security has been paying out more than it has been collecting in payroll taxes, it is still bringing in more money in total than it is paying out. And it is projected to continue taking in more money than it is paying out until the year 2019, at which point it will have to start drawing down the trust fund.

After being so publicly called out, you would think that PolitiFact would note its error and at least change its rating to “mostly true.” But no. As Hiltzik pointed out today, A “Fact-Checking” Website Doubles Down on Its Social Security Errors. Instead of dealing with the criticisms, the writer of the original post, Dana Tims, sets up a straw man and whacks it down. Hiltzik explained:

Tims misrepresents what I wrote in my original critique, claiming: “Hiltzik does acknowledge that the interest he’s relying on to keep Social Security solvent can be viewed as adding to the deficit.” This is incorrect. What I “acknowledged” is that you can only hold that view if you’re wrong.

But there is a fundamental pardox with fact checkers. They have to be seen as unbiased. And in order to be seen as unbiased, they have to always come down somewhere in the middle. It is like the old power paradox of John Boehner where he only has power as long as he doesn’t use it. We live in a nation that has one rather typical political party with all that is good and bad about that. And then we have the Republican Party that has largely moved fulltime to Cuckoo Town where reality is whatever anyone says it is. In this kind of political system, it is only one who let’s facts guide him regardless of how that is viewed who can truly be a fact checker. I don’t know what PolitiFact is. But it doesn’t help anyone figure out what the truth is. And in this case, all it does is confuse people about how Social Security actually works.


If you want to know about Social Security, you really should read Social Security: The Phony Crisis by Dean Baker and Mark Weisbrot. It is now 13 years old and just as valid today as ever. I wrote a discussion of the book a couple of years ago, if you are interested.

Roald Dahl

Roald DahlOn this day in 1916, the great writer Roald Dahl was born. He wrote some of my favorite books when I was a child like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Fantastic Mr Fox. But by far my favorite book was James and the Giant Peach. I don’t really know what about the book so captured my imagination. It’s especially odd because I was no fan of insects — giant or otherwise.

I always associate Dahl with E B White, author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. But there isn’t actually any comparison. Dahl is a far more imaginative writer. And just as important: Dahl knew how to finish a story. I still read Dahl. I don’t much pick up White, although I did recently revisit Charlotte’s Web and I revisit Elements of Style from time to time.

When I was in the fifth grade, our class did a segment on tall tales. And at the end of it, we were all forced to get up in front of class and tell one of them. There was a lot of repetition with most students doing Paul Bunyan and similar stories. I fretted over this for days, knowing that if all else failed, I too could do Paul Bunyan or John Henry. And as I walked up to the head of the class, I still hadn’t made up my mind. And I remember having an epiphany: James and the Giant Peach was a tall tell.

Most of the kids had spent less than a minute giving their little speeches. Although I was a shy child, nothing inspired me so much as a captive audience. So I told the entire story from James and the Giant Peach. I was up there ten minutes. No one seemed to mind (not that I would have noticed). It is likely that everyone was relieved that they didn’t have to hear another story about a lumberjack or railroad worker.

Anyway, when I was that age, everyone loved Roald Dahl. This was when everyone was just starting to read Tolkien and more adult books. Although, if you ask me, he was a distinct step down in terms of telling a great story. But I’ve never really grown out of Dahl and John D Fitzgerald and John Christopher (Sam Youd).

This is kind of a bank-shot, but today is Fiona Apple‘s 37th birthday. And she recorded a great version of “Pure Imagination” from the film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. I love this video:

Happy birthday Roald Dahl!