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Dean Baker brought up an important issue today, New for Washington Post: Politicians Don’t Always Tell the Truth and TPP Is Not a Free-Trade Agreement. Primarily, he’s talking about the likely reason that Obama is pushing the TPP and TTIP, “President Obama is trying to get more business support for the Democratic Party.” But I’m more focused on just how awful these deals are.

As Baker has noted many times in the past, these are not “free trade” agreements. The two agreements involve nations in Asia (TPP) and Europe (TTIP) with which we already have pretty much free trade. What these agreements would do is make it very easy for business to contest local, state, and federal laws in newly created tribunals. Here is the key that ought to cause a shiver down the spine of all sentient beings, “Their rulings could not be over-turned by domestic courts.”

You know all the right-wing loonies who are always worried about the one world government or the imposition of sharia law? Well, that’s all nonsense. But this here is a very real threat. As I discuss a great deal on this blog, what we have to fear is the business community. Conservatives are constantly worried that it is the government that is oppressing them. But that isn’t the case at all. Our biggest threats come from private corporations with the government backing them up.

And that’s what we see with the TPP and TTIP. This is a very clear attack on national sovereignty. And this is why people like Obama want a quick vote on this — fast track authority. Because they know that a careful analysis of it will kill it. This is just another way for the business community to gain more power over us. I can’t say exactly how it would all work. No one can because these treaties have never been made public. But it is quite likely that what they would eventually mean is that local minimum wage laws were illegal. And local environmental laws were illegal. And local zoning laws were illegal.

I’m I going too far? I doubt it. Things that seem beyond the pale in one step are often totally acceptable in two steps — much less a hundred. Let me give you an example. In the 19th century, the idea of drug laws was preposterous and clearly unconstitutional. But by the beginning of the 20th century, the idea of taxing drugs and then using the power to effectively make drugs illegal was acceptable. And before long, the government just made laws that never would have been allowed a century earlier.

So going home to the house located a few meters from a new fracking operation after losing your only shot at justice in the TPP tribunals shouldn’t sound too far fetched. Because if we don’t work against it, it will become reality. This is an area where we really do have allies on the right. Of course, after Fox News starts pushing it, I can’t say. The black helicopter crowd isn’t hard to manipulate. As long as a Democrat is pushing the TPP and the TTIP, they will doubtless be against this move. But once President Cruz is pushing it, all bets are off.

Don’t Worry America: Obama Consults Iron Age Religious Texts!

Obama CopeOn Christmas eve, Politico published a terrible bit of journalism, Oh Come All Ye Faithful? Its contents are summed up in its subtitle, “Obama rarely seen in church, but advisers say his beliefs remain strong.” A lot of people seem to be hung up on the article because there is an implicit criticism. But I think it is offensive on a whole different and more general level. But it is something of a criticism.

In particular, the article provides a bit of quantification of the religiosity of president. For example, it noted, “In all, Obama has gone to services on about 6 percent of the Sundays of his presidency and just once on Christmas Day, in 2011, which also happened to be a Sunday. George W Bush, by contrast, went to church on close to 30 percent of Sundays during his eight years in office.” One could — in fact, should — counter this by noting that there was nothing especially Christian about Bush. He was a big Tim Tebow (Matthew 6:5) kind of guy in the way he constantly broke with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:

When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.

But this is the definitional American religious disease. It is one of the reasons I have so low an opinion of religion faith in this country. It seems so much about posing. Christians are fond of talking about their “personal” relationship with Christ, but it always strikes me that this personal relationship is awfully public. And nothing is more public than politicians who constantly talk about their faith. I am convinced that such acts not only speak to the hollowness of their faith in God but also in their faith of the belief of those listening.

A great comparison has always been between Carter and Reagan. Carter is a man who takes his religion very seriously. As a result, he did not talk about it very much. Reagan was a prototypical cultural Christian: for him, religion was a cultural signifier and little else. But he — and not Carter — was the man who made ostentatious religious displays critically important in American politics. It shows the shallowness of American Christianity that the vast majority of Christians think this is a good thing.

But that gets to the heart of what is so offensive about the Politico article. What it is really concerned with is pacifying the nation. “Don’t worry America!” it says. “Obama is a true believer who uses the Iron Age writing of our holy book in solving our Space Age problems!” It greatly disturbs me that Obama can only be trusted to make the right decisions if he’s getting those daily devotionals on his BlackBerry. And for reassurance, Politico asks people like Joel Hunter, “a Florida megachurch pastor.” He is one of “Obama’s two closest religious advisers.” I don’t think that any association with a megachurch would qualify one as a great theological thinker. His other “adviser” is a Pentecostal minister. For those who don’t know, Pentecostals are very much part of the “born again” movement. Think: Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.

You don’t need intelligence. You don’t need skills. You don’t need empathy. All you need is a good, very public, relationship with an Iron Age myth. That’s what makes a great president. Just ask Politico.

Jains Versus Christians

Sam HarrisThe Jains preach a doctrine of utter nonviolence. While the Jains believe many improbable things about the universe, they do not believe the sorts of things that lit the fires of the Inquisition. You probably think the Inquisition was a perversion of the “true” spirit of Christianity. Perhaps it was. The problem, however, is that the teachings of the Bible are so muddled and self-contradictory that it was possible for Christians to happily burn heretics alive for five long centuries. It was even possible for the most venerated patriarchs of the Church, like St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas, to conclude that heretics should be tortured (Augustine) or killed outright (Aquinas). Martin Luther and John Calvin advocated the wholesale murder of heretics, apostates, Jews, and witches. You are, of course, free to interpret the Bible differently — though isn’t it amazing that you have succeeded in discerning the true teachings of Christianity, while the most influential thinkers in the history of your faith failed? Of course, many Christians believe that a harmless person like Martin Luther King Jr, is the best exemplar of their religion. But this presents a serious problem, because the doctrine of Jainism is an objectively better guide for becoming like Martin Luther King Jr, than the doctine of Christianity is. While King undoubtedly considered himself a devout Christian, he acquired his commitment to nonviolence primarily from the writings of Mohandas K Gandhi. In 1959, he even traveled to India to learn the principles of nonviolent social protests directly from Gandhi’s disciples. Where did Gandhi, a Hindu, get his doctrine of nonviolence? He got it from the Jains.

—Sam Harris
Letter to a Christian Nation

How the Fed Enforces the Status Quo

Federal ReservePaul Krugman has written a couple of blog posts about David Beckworth. I know what you’re thinking, “Why would Krugman be writing about soccer? Or is he writing about the Spice Girls?” Don’t be an idiot like me: it’s Beckworth, not Beckham. He’s an economist of sorts. In the first post, Krugman was impressed that Beckworth agreed with him about the limitations of monetary policy when interest rates are already hanging around zero. But in his second post, Krugman grumbled because Beckworth seemed to be backtracking.

The argument that Beckworth is making is really interesting, even if Krugman’s argument is valid. Beckworth’s argument is that fiscal stimulus can’t really help the economy either. He claimed that any stimulus created by the government spending money would be offset by the Fed raising rates. Krugman countered that this isn’t true in the current situation where the Federal Reserve has consistently been unable to keep inflation as high as its (ridiculously low) inflation target. When it comes to this, I think there is an easier way to counter Beckworth. Basically, he’s just making the argument that there is never anything the government can do to fight economic downturns. So why bother?! That’s a typical conservative conclusion in search of an argument.

But there is something to be said for Beckworth’s argument in a general sense. In regular times, the Fed stands guard over the wealth of the power elite. If the economy starts to really take off — most especially in the form of workers actually earning more money for a change — the Fed raises interest rates to slow the economy down. The only time in the last four decades that we have seen a substantive improvement in the earnings of ordinary workers was when crazy heterodox Fed chairman Alan Greenspan went against what all the economists said.

The interesting thing is that Greenspan showed that unemployment could get down to below 4% without causing inflation. But the actual real world experiment hasn’t changed the thinking of economists. I still hear economists claiming that inflation below 6% is going to cause inflation. I know that things change over time. But 6%? Really?! That’s extreme. Things haven’t changed that much. But this is why I think it is better to think of economists as religious apologists than as scientists. But instead of arguing on the literal truth of the Bible, they argue for whatever is best for the power elite.

So in good times — or moderately good times — the Federal Reserve really does have the power to kill any recovery that democratically elected officials might be able to facilitate. And that really doesn’t speak well for us. It means that what hereditary “rights” did for feudalism, the Fed does for modern capitalism. And capitalism hardly needs such help! But with the Fed, it makes it substantially harder to break the established bonds of the power elite. It’s not just the fact that money makes money and that’s why you are best off being born rich. It is also that the most important economic entity in the entire world is there to enforce the status quo.

But just like we tell children fairy tales to make them behave, we tell ourselves comforting myths about meritocracy in America. But it is time to put away childish illusions and look at the cold reality of modern America. Then maybe we can change it.


See also: The Myth of the NAIRU and Its Purpose

Charles Olson

Charles OlsonOn this day in 1910, the great poet Charles Olson was born. He is one of my very favorite poets. He has a style that if very much like the beats but without all the all the nonsense that goes along with them. Even Allen Ginsberg tends to annoy me within the span of even a short poem. So Olson expanded on the works of the earliest of the modernist poets — writers I admire like William Carlos Williams and most especially Ezra Pound.

I most know Olson because of the poem “The Kingfishers” — you can read it at Poetry Foundation. But Olson’s greatest work is probably The Maximus Poems. It is his attempt to channel Pound — a man he owed much to artistically and nothing to politically. It was explicitly following The Cantos. But if you prefer, it is also something like Williams’ Paterson.

Shockingly, there is actually some video of Olson reading. Here is “Maximus To Gloucester, Letter 27 (withheld)”:

Happy birthday Charles Olson!