Al From: the Conservative’s Best Friend

Al FromI came upon a great article that Rick Perlstein wrote earlier this year at The Nation, From & Friends. It is a review of Al From’s memoir, The New Democrats and the Return to Power. In case you don’t know, Al From is one of the most vile political operatives of the last 30 years. As the founder of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), he stands as one of the most important figures in creating our modern dysfunctional political system. And the particularly great thing about From is that he sees himself as a great hero — the man who saved the Democratic Party.

What I’ve argued for a long time is that the DLC “solution” to saving the Democratic Party both destroyed the party and caused the Republican Party to make a hard right turn. According to From, without the Democratic Party becoming conservative on economic issues, we would have had a string of Republican presidents from 1992 onward. And implicit in From’s argument is that the Democratic Party lost the 1980, 1984, and 1988 elections because it was liberal. This is patently false.

The economic fundamentals were such that nothing the Democrats could have done in 80, 84, and 88 would have won then the presidency. The economy was tanking in 1980 and that is why Reagan beat Carter. The economy was roaring back in 1984 and that is why Reagan beat Mondale. And in 1988, the economy was still doing very well and that is why Bush beat Dukakis. And as Perlstein discusses in some depth, none of Carter, Mondale, nor Dukakis were liberal. They were all proto-New Democrats. The only reason that From doesn’t consider them as such is because they lost. That is apparently what it is to be a New Democrat: you have to be economically conservative and you have to win.

As for the elections after this period, the 1992 election was Clinton’s to lose. The fundamentals were even better for him in 1996. In 2000, Gore had a minor advantage in terms of the economy. But as we know, Gore actually won that election. The fact that the Supreme Court gave the election to Bush doesn’t mean anything. In 2004, Bush had as big an economic advantage as his father had against Dukakis in 1988. But the most telling election was 2008, when the economic fundamentals were even stronger in the Democrats’ favor than they had been in the Republicans’ favor in 1980. Yet while the Republicans took the opportunity to elect an extremely conservative president, the Democrats took the opportunity to elect a moderate (conservative Democrat) who was more interested in “bipartisanship” than liberalism.

That is the legacy of Al From. Now, even when the Democrats win presidential elections, liberals still lose. Our choice for president is now a modern Democrat, who is more conservative than an old Republican, or a modern Republican who is more extreme than Barry Goldwater and far less intelligent. Yet From’s 288 page awesomeness essay came with an introduction by Bill Clinton. And if we are very lucky, in 2016, we will elect Clinton’s wife who will continue the DLC tradition of offering us ever more neoliberal economic policy. Al From is a great political hero — for the conservative movement. Why any liberal would celebrate him, I can’t say.

Society Too Far Gone to Hear Richard Wilkinson

Richard WilkinsonThe following wonderful TED Talk is, How Economic Inequality Harms Societies. In it, Richard Wilkinson begins, “You all know the truth of what I’m going to say. I think the intuition that inequality is divisive and socially corrosive has been around since before the French Revolution. What’s changed is we now can look at the evidence — we can compare societies — more and less equal societies — and see what inequality does.” I couldn’t disagree more that we all know the truth; as a society, we are incapable of seeing the truth.

Wilkinson is mistaking himself and other like minded people who look at evidence and assuming that they represent the society over all. And it is funny that he would be giving this talk to the power elite at TED, because they above all don’t believe such things. Remember when Nick Hanauer gave his TED Talk about how the rich were not “job creators”? What happened was that the head of the lecture series decided not to release the video of the talk because it was thought to be divisive. “Divisive,” of course, is what the oligarchs that support TED Talks call anything that questions their position as the noble “free market” aristocracy.

The biggest intellectual problems stem from hidden assumptions. And over the course of my life, I have see the most pernicious assumption ossify into unquestioned truth. That assumption is that the economy is a kind of social Darwinian system that must be left as it is or else we will decay into a terrible world where everyone lives in poverty except the very top. We will become a third world economy — a “banana” republic. The idea that economies are artificial constructs that are never “natural” is anathema. And along with that goes the idea that the economy ought to be designed to work for everyone and not just the very top.

Richard Wilkinson shows that the more equal a country is, the better off its people are in pretty much any way that you can think of. What’s more, the more equal a society is, the better off the rich are. Rich people in equal societies live longer. So we have a situation where the rich should rationally want a more equal society. Of course, that is exactly the opposite of what they will work for. They more than anyone believe the big lie that the economy works the way it does because it must — because it is “natural.” And believing this lie flatters them: it says that in some objective way they are better than most people. They never grapple with the idea that they just happen to be doing well in our society because they happened to have been born into a society that rewards what they are good at. Warren Buffett is one of the few who gets it, “I’ve worked in an economy that rewards someone who saves the lives of others on a battlefield with a medal, rewards a great teacher with thank-you notes from parents, but rewards those who can detect the mispricing of securities with sums reaching into the billions.”

I think of Wilkinson as those people at the end of Fahrenheit 451, holding onto knowledge for a later time when society is open to them. It reminds me of David Frum who has argued that he would be in favor of cannabis legalization if he could be convinced that it would not have any bad effects or lead people into “harder” drugs. It always struck me because it is a position that pretends to be reasonable but is completely closed minded. Just the same, the power elite may look at Wilkinson’s overwhelming evidence for having a more equal society and they will find a way to justify keeping things they way they are. Like Frum, they would require that there be some kind of assurance that there would be absolutely no down side to the change. But what they are really arguing is that nothing be done — because the current system works well for them.

So I see Richard Wilkinson as a noble but tragic character in our society. And we all suffer because our society is too far gone to see the obviousness of what he has to teach us.

Germany Doesn’t Need Violence to Enforce Its Will

Germany FlagWar is really not about killing. Rather, it is about wielding power. Countries often use physical violence to get other countries to do what they want. But there are lots of other ways that a country can do the same thing. And although war is a particularly awful way to yield power, we shouldn’t just cast aside other abuses of power as though they didn’t matter.

The United States is especially bad in this regard. We have no problem bringing in our military, but we meddle in just about every country on earth. Much of the time, violence is implicit. But we also use our economic power against countries all the time — directly as well as through international organizations like the International Monetary Fund. And as we move into the future, I’m sure that powerful countries will use this tactic more and more. As a result, I think we have to get past this idea that just because people are shooting at each other, the powerful are not abusing their power. More and more it seems that economic extortion is the rule rather than the exception.

Many people have noticed that I have a fairly bad opinion of Germany. I think their behavior in the EU has been absolutely terrible. One of the reasons for forming the EU was to integrate the region so that they didn’t have any more world wars. That’s a laudable goal. Just the same, we seem to have ended up with the same thing. It is just that no one is shooting. And I’ll admit: that’s a positive change. But the fact remains that Germany has the largest economy in the EU and the country uses it to push the rest of the countries around.

The best example of this has been how Germany has acted since the financial crisis of 2008. Instead of looking for the best way to heal the entire economy of the European Union, Germany has spent the time complaining that other countries — especially in the south — are just not as virtuous as they are and if only these countries would act more like them, all would be fine. If this sounds vaguely racist and not too different from German thinking during the lead-up to World War II, I don’t think it is surprising.

What Europe needs is for the countries who are doing well to spend more and increase their inflation rate to allow the countries that are doing poorly to produce more and climb out of debt. This is the most basic of economic concepts: everyone can’t simultaneously save or it will just cause further depression of the economy. It even has a name: paradox of thrift. But Germany has done exactly the opposite of what it should: it has kept wages down, making it even harder for other countries to compete and break into the German markets. And to top matters off, Germany is smug about what it’s doing. So they claim they are virtuous, even as they are causing enormous amounts of pain throughout Europe and to a lesser extend worldwide.

European Labor Cost Inflation

Paul Krugman put together this helpful graph to show what’s going on. It shows how much wages have increased since the monetary union was established in 1999. And what you see is that during a time when German wages should have been rising faster than in Italy and France, they have been rising at less than one-third the rate of these countries. And this is not just some accident; this is German government policy. Krugman put it well:

At this point the European imbalance problem is a German problem, caused by Germany’s persistent failure to have wage and price increases in line with what the euro requires. This German undervaluation is in turn exporting deflation to the rest of Europe. By contrast, France, Spain, and even Italy have been playing by the rules.

But the German people would be shocked to hear that they aren’t playing by the rules. Their government and their media are not only telling them they are behaving exactly as they should but also that all the problems in southern Europe is caused by those countries not being enough like Germany. So let me be clear: Germany is a bully. And praising them for not invading southern Europe is a pretty low bar of accountability. Carl von Clausewitz said that war “is an act of violence to compel our opponent to fulfill our will.” That is what German is doing now. They just don’t need the violence anymore.

How Media Enables Republican Extremism

Reed RichardsonSince 2008, it has become a biennial ritual in the political press. In the aftermath of every election — no matter the outcome — the media establishment carefully explains that the Republican Party will now have to move to the center, accept compromise and govern more responsibly. And each and every time — no matter the circumstances — the Republican Party ignores this counsel and instead becomes more extreme, more intransigent and more antagonistic toward governance.

You would think that, by now, the press would have learned this lesson. That after six years of getting it wrong, the press would have figured out that a relentless GOP campaign of unswerving opposition — launched mere hours into the Obama presidency — would never be so easily relinquished.

After its drubbing in the 2012 election, you’ll recall, the GOP commissioned a blue-ribbon panel to conduct a post-mortem on the party’s mistakes. When they were released to much fanfare in March of 2013, the final recommendations of the Growth and Opportunity Project were lauded by Beltway pundits as “bold” and “comprehensive” and received some egregiously positive and credulous coverage. The Republicans, so went the DC thinking, had finally woken up. To remain relevant, the party could no longer afford to substitute xenophobia, obstruction and anti-government nihilism for a policy agenda. And among the most notable and newsworthy of the GOP project’s priorities, it’s worth remembering, was [immigration reform]…

It didn’t take long, however, before this clarion call to solve one of our nation’s biggest challenges — implicitly by working with the recently re-elected President Obama — was drowned under a riptide of GOP nativism. In fact, in their progress “check-up” one year later, the GOP report’s authors omitted any mention of immigration reform — like the whole idea of supporting its passage had never even happened. On the GOP’s website, a series of congratulatory quotes from conservative leaders about the GOP’s progress in Hispanic outreach trotted a lot of vague marketing spin about better “engagement.” The phrase “comprehensive immigration reform” was, again, nowhere to be found.

Did the establishment media make a point of noticing the party’s huge feint toward the center on immigration reform over the past year-and-a-half? Not so much. Months after barely noticing that the Republican National Committee’s Director of Hispanic Outreach had quit in protest over the GOP’s “culture of intolerance,” major news organizations could still be found regurgitating party press releases and glossing over the growing anti-immigrant tenor of GOP rhetoric and its policies…

This is “objective” political journalism at its most insidious — projecting its can’t-we-all-get-along, centrist biases onto a increasingly hard-right party that has learned it can use the Beltway media’s “both sides do it” framing as political cover. Thanks to this false balance in the press’s political coverage, Republicans know they will rarely be held accountable for their unprecedented obstruction and reckless brinksmanship. Likewise, it works in their favor when the press overdoses on ambiguous complaints of “gridlock” and fuzzy talk of governmental dysfunction, by depressing voter turnout at the polls. Couple that smaller, more Republican midterm electorate with the GOP’s ruthless, state-level redistricting tactics, and you have a party that has managed to build an entrenched majority in the House and a stalemate in the Senate, all without having to compromise on a single piece of major legislation and without having had much of a policy agenda other than reflexively opposing the president at every turn.

In other words, with all of these factors working in their favor, why in the world would the Republicans ever bother to change? You might call the GOP crazy, but it’s not insane. No, that honor goes to a political press corps that keeps on enabling Republican extremism year after year and then can’t figure out why our broken democracy never gets any better.

—Reed Richardson
Post-Midterm Political Coverage of GOP Extremism Fits the Definition of Media Absurdity

Jonathan Swift

Jonathan SwiftOn this day in 1667, the great writer Jonathan Swift was born. He is best known for his satire in the novel Gulliver’s Travels and the essay A Modest Proposal. At less than 3,500 words, the latter makes the outrageous suggestion that the poor be able to sell their children as a food source to the wealthy — simultaneously reducing the parents’ burden and providing them with extra income. What particularly strikes me is that the proposal really isn’t that much different from what I hear from conservatives today. While it is certainly true that conservatives are hysterical in their commitment to protecting fetuses, most show little or no interest in offspring outside the womb. The bad condition of children is met with claims that the poor should not have had children they could not afford to keep. Today, a satirist would have to go to greater extremes, because conservatives today offer proposals that are too close to Swift’s.

Swift was English, but born in Ireland. And he spent most of the first half of his life trying make a living in England, only to be forced back to Ireland again and again. He was very good at making enemies. It was Queen Anne’s great hatred for Swift that finally got him to embrace Ireland. A Modest Proposal is, of course, explicitly about Ireland. Another of his essays, A Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufacture, got his publisher charged with sedition. The criminal idea was that the Irish should use their own natural resources to produce products rather than simply sending them to England. This is still an issue today where the United States hates countries that want to actually use their natural resources rather than just sending them to us to exploit.

In 1726 — at the age of 59 (roughly the same age as Cervantes when he wrote the first book of Don Quixote) — Swift published his masterpiece, Gulliver’s Travels. At the time, it was a biting satire of government and religion. Now, I think it comes off more as a satire of human foibles. And it is also a good adventure story — proto-science fiction, very much as Jules Verne would write a century and a half later. Like much of his work, Gulliver’s Travels was published anonymously, although it was eventually published under his name in his lifetime. And regardless, it was generally known what works were his. He had a distinct style.

Happy birthday Jonathan Swift!

Is Abetting as Bad as the Crime?

Relative GuiltI found this image on Facebook. For those who can’t see it, it reads, “You are just as guilty as the abuser if you know about animal abuse and do nothing.” The poster, Valerie VanOrden, added, “Ditto with child abuse or over-correction.” I assume “over-correction” is a reference to corporal punishment of children. I understand this sentiment, so it is not my intent to attack Ms VanOrden. But I think this is wrong and even dangerous.

It is easy to be so outraged at a crime that one latches onto “enablers.” When it comes to child abuse, the act seems so heinous that it is easy to define the abusers as not even human. Thus the humans who we can empathize with are those we focus our rage on. After all, each of us has the experience of being in a situation where someone misbehaved and we did nothing. So in a weird kind of way, attacking such people in different circumstances can feel like making amends for our own acts of cowardice. But that doesn’t actually make the current or past situations any better.

Doing nothing when a child or an animal is abused is wrong. But such signs (and arguments) don’t say that. They explicitly equate the acts. And that is preposterous. For one thing, what exactly does it mean to “do nothing”? If you see a man kick his dog, is giving him a dirty look enough? What about saying something like, “Don’t kick that dog!”? Or perhaps kicking the man? None of these things will necessarily end the man’s behavior? Even getting the man arrested, convicted, and jailed may not stop his behavior. So what level of engagement is required?

It is very possible that the best thing you could do in that case would be to tell everyone you know about the awful man who kicked his dog. It isn’t legal penalties that are primarily responsible for the much better treatment of animals today versus 200 years ago. In Henry Bergh’s time, horses were commonly flogged to death on the streets of New York. Now such behavior would be unthinkable. So I’m not at all certain that expecting every person to turn into informants for the police is necessary or even especially helpful.

There is also the problem that people who abuse animals and children are probably dangerous people. So encouraging little old ladies to confront such sociopaths is not necessarily a great idea. And confrontations can make things worse. I say this as a person with a long history thrusting myself into such situations. They usually do quiet the situation in the short-term, but at the expense of causing the anger to be focused on me. That’s fine, but I’m not sure if it helps the situation in the long-term.

What’s more, the people who are most likely to know about abuse are people who are being abused themselves. For example, if there is an abusing father who is beating the children, he is probably also beating the wife. I know of a couple of cases of truly heroic women who got their children out of these situations — cases in which the women were willing to accept being abused themselves but not when the situation degenerated to include the children. But these women are heroes, and the last thing we should do is lay shame upon all similarly placed women who are not capable of the heroism the situation demands.

When it comes to things like Catholic bishops covering up for priests who sexually abused children, the situation is different. Moving priests to new areas where they could continue to abuse children could very well be as bad as or even worse than what the priests were doing. In these cases, the bishop was acting as a kind of pimp for unwanted sexual encounters. But I’m certain that the bishops didn’t see themselves as pimps. They probably thought that the priests were just having difficulties that the bishops could finesse. There was just one boy that the priest couldn’t resist. Or there was too much pressure on the priest. Or thousands of other justifications that the bishop used to allow the priest to continue preying on the young. This is a special kind of villainy, but mostly one where the bishops managed to delude themselves into thinking they were doing something other than what they were actually doing. That doesn’t reduce their culpability, of course.

The bishop situation is different because they were actively facilitating child rape committed by priests. The situations that people face in their everyday lives are quite different. If you think that a neighborhood child is being brutalized by his parents, you should do something about it. There is a moral imperative. But not doing so is not equal to brutalizing the child yourself. And claiming that it is minimizes the initial act of brutality.

The Future of Darren Wilson and Police Abuse

Darren WilsonDarren Wilson has resigned from the Ferguson Police Department. In a statement, he claimed that he did not want to put the “residents and police officers of the City of Ferguson at risk.” And I suppose that is a better way to put it than, “I will be too busy with my ghostwriter and video acting courses.” And who can blame him? One needs to take advantage of these opportunities. I mean, how likely is it that he is going to get another opportunity to kill an unarmed teenager and walk away from even an indictment? I’ve predicted a six-figure book deal, but it is entirely possible that he could get over a million dollars. There are a lot of conservatives for whom he is now a hero.

I was surprised, however, to have a conversation with my father Thanksgiving night. Despite his hour per day of Fox News, he completely sided with Michael Brown. He didn’t find Wilson’s story credible. And interestingly, what he had a problem with was a minor statement. According to Wilson, the first thing he said to Brown and his friend Dorian Johnson was, “Hey guys, why don’t you walk on the sidewalk?” My conservative father just couldn’t get past that. Despite the fact that my father has never been in any trouble (he’s never spent a moment in jail), his interactions with the police have generally been very negative. And one thing is for certain: officers never ask people to do something, they tell them what to do. And Dorian Johnson’s quote sounds right, “Get the f*** on the sidewalk!”

Michael BrownWhat bothered me at Thanksgiving was that there was a lot of mention of the size of Michael Brown — by mostly non-political people. Michael Brown was 6'-4" and 290 pounds. No one was aware that Darren Wilson was also 6'-4", although lighter: only 220 pounds. The information that seems to have made it into the minds of the casual news consumer is, “I felt like a five-year-old holding on to Hulk Hogan.” It is poetic, but as such, it should be taken lightly. (There is the other way of looking at it: Darren Wilson is so used to manhandling smaller people, that dealing with someone larger really did frighten him.)

Despite my experience with my father, my takeaway from Thanksgiving is that the whole Michael Brown shooting will be remembered inaccurately and badly in the public sphere. It will be that Brown was a thug who maybe didn’t deserve to die, but who brought it on himself. And even worse, it will be seen as a case where the police officer acted appropriately. It will be yet another instance that separates the white and black communities. The white community will continue to think that cops are generally okay guys doing a hard and dangerous jobs. And the black community will continue to think that cops have chips on their shoulders and treat people of color as though they are guilty until proven otherwise. No one who reads this site can be confused about who I think is right.

There was always a problem with the Michael Brown case. The problems with policing and the criminal justice system are not about any particular person, police force, city, or region. People tend to overestimate the age of black children and to assume they are more dangerous than white children. This is not a problem with bad people. It is a systemic problem — dating back hundreds of years. It requires systemic solutions, and they start with economics. If we don’t look broadly at the problem, we will continue on with the white majority continuing to learn the wrong lessons from these pointless deaths.

Afterword

I think that dealing with our economic problems is the most important thing to do because it has the broadest effect. But there are more specific things that we should do that would have greater immediate effects. In particular, I think that the police officers and prosecutors should be held accountable for what they do on the job. For example, Ricky Jackson and Wiley Bridgeman were shown to be innocent and released from prison 39 years after the crime. Regardless of what happens to them, nothing will happen to the police and the prosecutors who railroaded them. People claim to be for the death penalty because it disincentivizes murder, but no such concern exists when it is government officials using the system to kill innocent people. But the big problem is that the white community by and large thinks such things are just unfortunate errors in the system rather than what they are: explicit designs of the system.

Slavery as Fatal Design Flaw of the Constitution

The Counter-Revolution of 1776It is also worth reiterating that the potent concept that is racism is necessary but insufficient in explaining the past and present plight of those who are now designated as “African-American.” …

It is also the case that it is much too generous to conclude that the former slaveholding republic has suffered from a tragic flaw: it is more accurate to aver that this polity has suffered from a design flaw, that is, that it was not accidental that the fabled founders somehow “forgot” to include all of the former colonies’ denizens in its bounty. Unavoidably, this design flaw led to blazing conflagration that concluded formally in 1865.

In some ways, 1776 was an outgrowth of 1688: the result of “free trade in Africans” and resultant restiveness of overwhelming slave majorities in the Caribbean that drove the Crown to retrench on the mainland and the concomitant growth of the productive forces there, allowing North American colonies to strain at the leash held by the colonizer. Likewise, 1861 was an extension of 1776: the failure to resolve the nettlesome matter of slavery — indeed, augmenting this atrocious institution — culminated in bloody civil war. Strikingly, the supposed trailblazing republic and its allegedly wondrous Constitution had a fatal design flaw in the form of enhanced slavery, which caused it to crash and burn by 1861.

—Gerald Horne
The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America

The Moon Does Not Go Around the Earth

Moon RiseOn Thanksgiving night, I was looking at the moon. I find it endlessly fascinating, but probably not in the way that most people do. Everyone knows that the earth goes around the sun and the moon goes around the earth. But they are really screwed up about this. People watch the sun as it rises in the east and sets in the west and they know that what is really happening is that the earth is rotating on its axis and so it just appears that the sun is rising and setting. And that is more or less correct.

But then they look at the moon and they see that it rises in the west and sets in the east and know what is really happening is that the moon is rising in the east and setting in the west. And that is more or less complete wrong. The moon orbits the earth in the same direction that the earth rotates. So if the earth stopped rotating, the moon would rise in the west and set in the east — very slowly.

This is why watching a lunar eclipse can be a freaky experience. You are watching the moon go across the sky toward the west. And then the shadow of the earth begins happening on the east edge! It is counter intuitive. And if you continue to watch the eclipse, you will see it gets more weird. An eclipse can last almost two hours during which time, the moon will appear to move across the sky quite a distance.

Wittgenstein famously noted that the sun going around the earth and earth turning on its axis create the same observational evidence. And I think it is interesting that people may know that the earth goes around the sun, but they don’t really. It is just a little factoid that has been drummed into their heads. And we know this because of the way that they confuse what is going on with the moon. I know this because I used to teach planetary astronomy. Most students thought that the phases of the moon were due to the earth’s shadow and so were confused about how the moon could stay full all the way from moon rise to moon set.

My trick for teaching this subject was for my students to start thinking about the moon the way they do the sun. Forget what you’ve been told: the moon does not go around the earth. At least, the moon doesn’t go around the earth in any given night. It moves about 6° in that time, so it isn’t a big enough effect to worry about. The effect of the rotating earth totally swamps the effect the moon’s orbit.

We modern humans tend to greatly overestimate how much we know. We are told simple facts such as the moon going around the earth, but it confuses us more than anything. This might bee a good definition of a factoid. It is something people know, which is true. But it is not only useless to them, it actually confuses them by causing them to think that the moon travels across the sky because it orbits the earth.

And look at the kind of questions you can answer if you assume that the moon does not orbit the earth! What is the phase of the moon during a solar eclipse? (New.) Can you see a lunar eclipse at dawn? (Yes.) And most of all, you won’t go your whole life thinking that the phases of the moon are caused by the earth’s shadow.

Afterword

Orbits are actually more complicated than this. Both the earth and the moon revolve around their shared center of gravity. That’s also true of the sun and the rest of the solar system, but the sun is so large that it doesn’t move much. Of course, that’s only true from our perspective. Our solar system is moving roughly 500,000 mph around the center of our galaxy. There is no such thing as absolute speed, which is what Einstein was talking about a century ago.

Billy Strayhorn

Billy StrayhornOn this day in 1915, the great jazz composer and arranger Billy Strayhorn was born. He is best remembered for his work with Duke Ellington. Of course, he largely isn’t remembered at all. Even people who don’t like jazz at all know who Ellington was. But Strayhorn worked in the shadows, and he seemed to have liked it that way.

He was a phenomenon at an early age. While still in high school, he wrote a musical. He also formed his own trio that played on local radio every day. And he wrote a number of great songs, including “Lush Life.” Here he is in 1964, performing it live:

Strayhorn wanted to be a classical composer, but he had the wrong skin color. His introduction to Art Tatum — a classical composer in his own way — pushed Strayhorn into jazz. And at the age of 23, he met and began collaborating with Duke Ellington. It is hard to say where one starts and the other ends. Ellington said, “Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine.” But being the established great man, Ellington took credit for much of Strayhorn’s work. Generally speaking, if you see a tune composed by Strayhorn and Ellington, it is Strayhorn’s. And Strayhorn is probably even more important as an arranger in creating what we now think of as the Duke Ellington sound.

That’s not to say that Ellington took advantage of the younger man. They had a symbiotic relationship. It is doubtful that Strayhorn would have accomplished so much without the protection and encouragement of Ellington. And Strayhorn got sole writing credit for the most famous song of the Duke Ellington orchestra, “Take the ‘A’ Train.” Here he is performing the song on piano with the orchestra. At the end, Ellington lists some of Strayhorn’s other compositions.

Sadly, in 1964 — at the same time he recorded “Lush Life” above, he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, which seemed to ended his career. He died three years later.

Happy birthday Billy Strayhorn!

Stimulative Effects of Environmental Regulations

Paul KrugmanPaul Krugman wrote about the current partisan nature of environmental laws and how it wasn’t always this way, Pollution and Politics.

I think it is important to understand why doing something about pollution is good for the economy — at least when economic demand is low as it is now. As you have no doubt seen, since the economy crashed in 2008, corporate profits are at an all time high. Because there are so many more people looking for jobs than there are jobs, there is no pressure to raise wages, so the the owners of capital can keep more of the profits of productivity gains to themselves. It’s funny that conservatives think that in this environment, businesses need incentives in the form of lower taxes and fewer regulations in order to “create” jobs.

The problem with this situation is that the rich — the owners of capital — end up just sitting on the money. There is no incentive for them to invest the extra money, because demand is low in the economy and they are likely to lose on the investments — in the short term at least. But by requiring that the owners of capital invest to improve their infrastructure, this money that would be sitting around in the pockets of the rich doing nothing would be cycling in the economy. (Say’s Law is a myth!)

It is understandable why corporations would not want to be forced to upgrade their physical plant. But the effect on the macroeconomy is win-win: there is less pollution and the economy is stimulated. And given that the corporations are sitting around harming the economy with a kind of paradox of thrift, there is no reasonable political complaint against environmental regulations in a depressed economy.

Of course, what we hear from conservatives is that a depressed economy is a bad time to enact environmental regulations because it will kill jobs. To start with, this is a disingenuous argument because they would make the same argument in a booming economy: we can’t harm the good economy! This second claim actually has a theoretical basis. But environmental regulations in a depressed economy is a jobs program. It takes money that the rich are refusing to spend and makes them spend it to create jobs. And meanwhile, we get a better economy and become more competitive compared to other countries.

Marketplace Magic: And Then a Miracle OccursConservatives always argue for their policies of letting the business community do whatever it wants because this will somehow create jobs. It is similar to their healthcare logic, “High cost healthcare; then a miracle occurs; low cost healthcare.” But in this case it is: cut taxes and regulations on corporations; then a micacle occurs; jobs are created.

Krugman suggested that the issue is primarily rising income inequality. But I really think it is mostly ideology. Environmentalism poses a huge problem for conservatives and that is especially true when it comes to global issues. Conservatives cannot accept that collective action is sometimes needed. This is actually quite a typical conservative-liberal divide. Liberals have no problem with individual action. In fact, if we could have a good society without government, liberals would have no problem with it. As I note a lot around here: liberalism is a very practical ideology. But conservatives are not okay with collective action. To them, the need for any collective action other than getting together occasionally and killing hundreds of thousands of people would prove that the government isn’t always the problem. Ronald Reagan would be wrong about, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.'”

This is why distinguishing between different economic situations is anathema to conservatives. Monetary stimulus is always inflationary. Deficit spending never creates jobs. And environmental regulations always kill jobs. My atheist friends rightly mock fundamentalist Christians who are immune to proof. But perhaps they should spend more time looking at political conservatives who seem to be no less immune to proof.

Afterword

Note that in practice, conservatives are not for a small government. But because they hate government, they simply turn it into a corrupt system that enriches their already rich friends. And the one area where they think the government absolutely much be small is in its role to help the weak.

Anarchist: Brown Family Shoulda Hired Prosecutor

Center for a Stateless SocietyI came upon an article by Chad Nelson, The Inherent Flaw of the Criminal Justice System. It is from the Center for a Stateless Society. Their slogan is, “A left market anarchist think tank & media center.” I just want to give them a big wet kiss and pat them on the head. They are so adorable! They are also deeply pernicious. These are the kind of guys that I was when I was a libertarian. And just as I was then, they are now fooling themselves. Who thinks that if you get rid of government all will be well? It takes studied ignorance to think that absence of government wouldn’t create a power vacuum filled by organized business interests that would be totally unaccountable. Neo-feudalism, here we come!

The article at hand is about how there is a conflict of interest when police officers are being prosecuted because the prosecutor’s office works so closely with the police. This is true. It is hardly the biggest problem with prosecutors in this country, but it is definitely a troubling issue that we should give serious thought to. But according to Nelson, this is just a sign that the government is out of control. The different branches of government don’t keep each other honest because they are all dedicated to the same government. Did you catch that?

Because there is a problem inside one branch of government, the different branches of government can’t work to limit power grabs. That’s kind of like saying, “My home network is down; the internet doesn’t work!” But what Nelson is really saying is that he hates the government and any part of the government will understandably support the idea of government and so this is bad. But he doesn’t come right out and say it because it sounds stupid. Because it is. Basically: the government is bad because I think the government is bad.

What Nelson thinks should have happened is that Michael Brown’s parents should have hired their own attorney to prosecute Darren Wilson. But where exactly the court for such a case would come from is not clear. Would the Brown family have to purchase a legal system on the free market? And if that was the case, why would Darren Wilson feel that he was bound by its findings? So that can’t be what Nelson thinks. Instead, it must be that like most libertarians, he thinks that the legal system is one proper governmental function. But given that he thinks that the government is completely useless in all other ways, why should we accept that collective action would work in terms of the courts?

As with all things libertarian, it only takes the slightest scratching to find gaping holes. If we can work with a government court system, we can certainly make the different parts of the larger court system work. In this case, it is hardly necessary for the Brown family to have their own lawyer (especially since in Nelson’s utopia, they would have to pay for it). What the Brown family actually asked for would have been far better: a special prosecutor. The problem in this case was that democracy didn’t work. It wasn’t that government didn’t work.

The problem here is that Chad Nelson, and I’m sure everyone at the Center for a Stateless Society, thinks that government is always the problem. Like voters in a general election, he really ought to grow up. The question is not between government and his utopia. It is between this government and the other that we would necessarily get. And history shows us that we are a whole lot more free than we would be under the rule of Walmart.


See also: There Are No Libertarian Republicans