Saturday, August 27, 2011

The United States of Delusion

During my recent trip to America, I noticed something that has taken me a while to put into words. Ironically, David Brooks, mostly famous for being the most fatuously irrelevant and dense columnist to hold a slot in a major newspaper, expressed it perfectly:

(Rick Perry) does very well with the alternative-reality right — those who don’t believe in global warming, evolution or that Obama was born in the U.S.

Here in Australia, people still believe in stupid things. "Chinese" medicine is ubiquitous; astrology, homeopathy, etc. are still out there. But the amount of delusion is muted. I don't see psychic palm reading shops every few blocks, or ads for psychic readings on late-night TV. That, in itself, is not that remarkable. The difference lies not so much in New Age silliness as alternate history.

In America, perfectly reasonable people believe in facts so orthagonal to reality that they must come from some other planet. I have met wonderful, good, intelligent people who believe any or all of the following:

Social Security is unnecessary. Because apparently, in the good old days, churches and local communities took care of the indigent. Apparently in this alternate reality there were no Hoovervilles.

Taxes are theft. The concept of paying for the government services you receive does not impact this view, because in most American's minds they receive nothing from the government. They hold this view while driving on publicly funded roads, fueled by subsidized oil, paid for by a stable currency that is the envy of the world, in cars that are ten times safer than they used to be thanks to federal regulations. Literally like fish, they spend so much time enveloped by the benefits of the government that they don't know they exist.

Global warming isn't real. Or if it is, man's activities have nothing to do with it. The planet spent hundreds of millions of years sequestering carbon in the form of fossil fuels; we've spent decades releasing it back into the environment. But somehow that simple basic formula of 1,000,000 to 1 doesn't matter?

Evolution isn't real. Mind you, these same people are perfectly capable of holding an informed discussion on how antibiotics are having difficulty coping with newer strains of disease.

Obama wasn't born in the USA. This from a Democrat!

Giving tax breaks to the rich create jobs. Despite, you know, thirty years of evidence. And rich people like Warren Buffet saying, "No, it doesn't."

Government regulations are bad. Asbestos apparently never existed in this time-line. Nor did the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.

Welfare queens are bankrupting the nation. Note that no one who worries about welfare queens ever, ever, complains about: the bloated, inefficient Defense industry, the wholesale theft carried out by Wall Street, or the fact that catching the welfare cheats that do escape the system would cost more than ignoring them.

Vaccinations are bad. Not just that they cause autism, but they are unhelpful and unnecessary. Because... I don't even know. Seriously, this is such a complete repudiation of the last hundred years of scientific medicine that I can't even guess what the hell they're talking about. Just look at an epidemiology chart. Any of them.

Obama is a: Socialist, Muslim, Atheist, Republican... I believe you could quite literally add any adjective to Obama's name, and find someone who believes it. Note that this delusion is not solely a feature of the Right: the Left has plenty of people who deduce the slightest nuances of Obama's character based on legislation passed by the Republican House. People project the most amazing conclusions, and the fact that they contradict each other (often at the same time!) has no more bearing than the fact that they contradict observed reality.

Again, I'm not talking about the ordinary issues of differing belief, like religion, UFOs, psychic powers, etc. I'm talking about history. Americans just seem more influenced by, and more certain of, histories that never happened. We're not arguing over the uncertain or the unknowable; we're arguing over recent history. Did polio retreat in the face of massive vaccinations? Did Bush or Obama pass TARP? Did Reagan raise taxes? These are things you can look up in a history book. Hell, most of these are things people lived through. And yet, their actuality seems fluid: their truth is either denied or declared irrelevant in the face of the desired narrative.

Invariably, I find that confronting these narratives with actual facts leads to argument, followed by silence. And the next day, I overhear the very same person reciting the very same narrative to someone else. The vitality of these alternate histories, their utter immunity to fact, is matched only by their convenience. Invariably the alternate history supports the conclusions of the speaker. This is standard psuedo-science nonsense, as practiced by every woo ever. The difference is that now it is practiced by ordinary citizens, on national politics.

Debt, war, racial tension, natural disaster: America can overcome all of those, in fact has done so repeatedly. But this? I don't know. This isn't a disease of the body politic, or poison, or traumatic injury; it is addiction.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Stay classy, Chris Clarke

I wound up at blog called Coyote Crossing (great name, huh?) via a link from DailyKos, I think. The post was titled "Why I'm not voting for Obama in 2010." It was the usual litany of magical thinking and "I didn't get my pony" whining.

But some of the comments were pretty good, pointing out that if Obama did nothing else, he legitimized the aspirations of young black people. Of course this, and DADT, and all the other things Obama accomplished, aren't good enough for our dear Chris Clarke.

So I added a comment supporting the intelligent posters. For me, it was remarkably non-vitrolic. (You can read it here, if you care - Coyote Crossing, but you'll have to scroll down to find my comments). Chris responded with "your comment is pretty much composed entirely of fact-free condescension" and "So you’re willing to vote for a torturer to be pragmatic," to which I responded with, "Yes, if my option were a murder. And so would you."

Chris then responded with "We welcome disagreement here, but only that of the honest sort," told me I didn't know what deontology meant, and then... banned me. But not before one of his followers got in this:

Yahzi,  Apparently you know the theory of everything but the context and value of ‘NOTHING!’.  Have you been running into walls lately?  As in head first?  Huffing gasoline perhaps?  Or perhaps it’s congenital?  Mommy had to many post-preggers drinky-poos?

So I've been banned and mocked for suggesting that voting for Obama instead of a theocrat is the right thing to do. On a liberal blog.

Maybe Rick Perry has a shot after all.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Warren Buffet speaks

If you won't believe it from me, believe it from this guy:
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, tax rates for the rich were far higher, and my percentage rate was in the middle of the pack. According to a theory I sometimes hear, I should have thrown a fit and refused to invest because of the elevated tax rates on capital gains and dividends.

I didn’t refuse, nor did others. I have worked with investors for 60 years and I have yet to see anyone — not even when capital gains rates were 39.9 percent in 1976-77 — shy away from a sensible investment because of the tax rate on the potential gain. People invest to make money, and potential taxes have never scared them off. And to those who argue that higher rates hurt job creation, I would note that a net of nearly 40 million jobs were added between 1980 and 2000. You know what’s happened since then: lower tax rates and far lower job creation.

Stop coddling the super-rich
When even the billionaires are complaining that their taxes are too low, their taxes are too low. Republicans in Congress are objecting to extending the Payroll tax holiday even while they demand permanent extension of the Bush tax cuts, because the first one helps working people and the second one helps investing people.

Seriously. At what point do working people wake up and see what the Republican party stands for?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


Here's a picture of my birthday present:

Notice that huge, ugly flat spot on the left? That's a big iron plate. While I was at the BBQ store, I pointed to it and said, "What the heck is that?"

The clerk said all the Americans that come in say the same thing. Cheaper Aussie BBQs have nothing but a flat plate! I don't understand why; if you don't have a grill, it's not a BBQ, it's a stove. I already have a stove, thank you.

Anyway, I bought another grill rack to replace it, and cooked burgers for the Aussie relations for my birthday. I've also cooked chicken and steak on it (I think this might be Sara's present, too, since I suddenly seem to be cooking dinner twice a week). The good news is, I can eat steak again! Properly cooked, I can't tell it's grass-fed instead of corn-fed.

But at $27 a kilo, I don't think I can eat a lot of steak.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Scandals down under

Here's another difference between Oz and the US. Right now we have a major scandal developing; an MP has been caught spending hundreds of thousands of other people's money on hookers and booze. He's probably going to lose his job, and his seat will probably go to the Liberals, thus changing the balance of power in Parliament. This probably spells the end of the Carbon Tax, since the Liberals are our conservative party (Labor is our liberals. Can you imagine an American political party called Labor? Neither can I.)

The member for Dobell is a former national secretary of the Health Services Union, who is accused of paying for escort services and drawing out more than $A100,000 ($104,000; £63,000) in cash on the union credit card. Mr Thomson has claimed that other union officials had access to that credit card, and denies any wrongdoing. But Fairfax media claims to have obtained documents revealing that phone calls were made to two Melbourne brothels in 2006 from rooms hired in his name.

The scandal that could bring down Australia's government

The difference, of course, is that sex scandals happen so frequently in American government that nobody expects them to change anything.

Monday, August 22, 2011

American infantilism

This author points out that our men and women in uniform deserve more than being put on a pedestal; they deserve to be treated as human beings. Along the way he points out everything that is wrong with American political life:

“America needs heroes,” it is sometimes said, a phrase that’s often uttered in a wistful tone, almost cooingly, as if we were talking about a lonely child. But do we really “need heroes”? We need leaders, who marshal us to the muddle. We need role models, who show us how to deal with it. But what we really need are citizens, who refuse to infantilize themselves with talk of heroes and put their shoulders to the public wheel instead. The political scientist Jonathan Weiler sees the cult of the uniform as a kind of citizenship-by-proxy. Soldiers and cops and firefighters, he argues, embody a notion of public service to which the rest of us are now no more than spectators. What we really need, in other words, is a swift kick in the pants. 

An Empty Regard

Although the authoritarianism of the Right is obvious, this disease also affects the Left. Every time you see a Progressive whinging about how Obama does not provide enough "leadership," you're seeing this sickness: this infantile desire to have someone else save us from ourselves.

Friday, August 19, 2011


Several people have complained that they cannot leave comments. I just tried to leave a comment on my own blog and was repeatedly denied.

I switched the comment type to "pop-up" box, which I loathe, but then when I tried to comment I saw red text at the bottom saying I wasn't allowed to use the blockquote tag. On the old form, when comments were listed by pages, I never saw any error messages. Just failure.

Let me know if this new format still doesn't let people add comments.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

It's as bad as you feared

Matt Taibbi's article in the Rolling Stone demonstrates the extent our system has been captured by the financiers.

Is the SEC Covering Up Wall Street Crimes?

It's all there: investigations being quashed, records being destroyed, SEC officers leaving their jobs to take cushy positions at the banks they were investigating days earlier. And it's all illegal, but the few people who pointed it out over the years were demoted or fired. In some cases the SEC turned over their investigation to lawyers hired by the banks under investigation.

We will never know to what extent the most recent financial collapse was due to pure fraud and corruption, because the people keeping the records destroyed them. They don't want us to know. Frankly, I think that tells us everything we need to know.

What is amazing to me is that the current crop of Republican politicians is busy blaming poor people for the bad economy, and asserting that poor people should pay to fix it. And yet ordinary people - that is, non-hedge fund managers - still call themselves Republicans. Future historians will look back on this period the way we look back on the Robber Barons, and marvel that such blatant plutocracy was so unrelentingly popular with the people being robbed.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Chickens come home to roost

“I think the U.S. has every chance of having a good year next year, but the politicians are doing their damnedest to prevent it from happening — the Republicans are — and the Democrats to my eternal bafflement have not stood their ground,” Ian C. Shepherdson, chief United States economist for High Frequency Economics, a research firm, said in an interview.

G.O.P. on Defensive as Analysts Question Party’s Fiscal Policy

Oh really, Ian, you're baffled? Completely flummoxed? You can't imagine why Democrats have not stood their ground and calmly explained sound fiscal policy to the electorate - the same electorate that has been fed voodoo economics for thirty years? For the last three decades professional economists have stood beside the financiers and politicians while they touted Libertarian mantras like "Taxes are theft" and "Government is the problem" and "Welfare queens," and now you're baffled that the political climate can't communicate the truth?

This is the price of the deal Reagan made. You lied to the Religious Right, got them to sign onto your tax and regulation free paradise, and proceeded to loot the entire planet. And now, when the looting has to stop so that the rich people will still have actual countries to live in, you're shocked that you can't just turn the mob around and send them home? After thirty years of shameless lying, you can't understand why people can't tell the difference between lies and truth anymore?

This is going to be a tough decade for rich people. They are going to remember that they need the mob they've spent the last thirty years belittling. Millionaires who assert that they owe the government nothing are going to suddenly realize that the only thing standing between them and a Chinese concentration camp are all those working-class folks, those simple-minded buffoons who took slogans of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity seriously. Because the Chinese will totally sue you in World Court, extradite you, take your cash, and put your ass in a rice paddy with a shovel. And the shovel handle will be broken.

And the only thing stopping the Chinese from carrying out the destruction of the Western financial class is the Western working class, those millions of dupes both serve in and pay for the armed forces that stop the Chinese from saying international law is whatever they say it is. For years you've used the power of those dupes to say international law is whatever you say it is, right down to poisonous IMF austerity policies that were forced on other nations (policies suspiciously similar to the ones you are currently complaining about). And for years we went along with it, because frankly life under a Chinese communtariat did not sound as appealing as life under a free-market grab fest.

Ah, but you fixed that, didn't you. When the current crop of Republicans gets done destroying every single regulation, breaking every union, and eliminating all worker protections, then an awful lot of people are going to look at the overworked, overcrowded, oppressed Chinese middle class buying cars and pianos and wonder, "Why can't we have it that good?" And then you'll come crying to us about freedom and liberty and the American way, but it will be too late. You will have sucked all the blood out of that empire.

This is how empires fall: they become so successful that failure becomes inconceivable. At that point the political class stops asking for shared sacrifice to make the empire succeed, and concentrates on just making themselves succeed. After a while, this inward-focused gaze steers the entire nation off a cliff, and somebody else - somebody who was serious about shared sacrifice, like those Chinese fellows who execute corporate officers who screw up too badly - takes over the road.

America, in its blind patriotic exceptionalism, buried under religious purity tests that have replaced politics, saddled and broken by a financier class that crashed the global economy two years ago and yet is already back up to its old tricks, sure as heck looks like Rome devoting all of its political capital to simply keeping the current emperor from being assassinated by the next one.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Look, somebody agrees with me:
 The global financial system may exist to bring borrowers and lenders together, but it has become over the past few decades something else too: a tool for maximizing the number of encounters between the strong and the weak, so that one might exploit the other. Extremely smart traders inside Wall Street investment banks devise deeply unfair, diabolically complicated bets, and then send their sales forces out to scour the world for some idiot who will take the other side of those bets....

The last buyers in the entire world, several people on Wall Street have told me, were these willfully oblivious Germans. 

Also in the article is this insightful glimpse into the German mind:

This preternatural love of rules, almost for their own sake, punctuates German finance as it does German life. As it happens, a story had just broken that a division of a German insurance company called Munich Re, back in June 2007, or just before the crash, had sponsored a party for its best producers that offered not just chicken dinners and nearest-to-the-pin golf competitions but a blowout with prostitutes in a public bath. In finance, high or low, this sort of thing is of course not unusual. What was striking was how organized the German event was. The company tied white and yellow and red armbands to the prostitutes to indicate which ones were available to which men. After each sexual encounter the prostitute received a stamp on her arm, to indicate how often she had been used. The Germans didn’t want just hookers: they wanted hookers with rules .
It’s the Economy, Dummkopf!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

A conspiracy theory I can subscribe to

Conspiracy theories are the province of cranks, and for good reason. After all, "Never ascribe to malice what can be explained by stupidity," and "Hydrogen and stupidity are the two most common elements in the universe."

Still, I can't help but notice that hedge funds make money when the market is unstable. And that hedge funds control vast quantities of capital, thus exerting huge influence on the market. And, that markets are currently unstable.

Does anyone else see anything wrong with allowing the interests of the rich and powerful to include global financial instability?

These people leveraged and gambled the entire world into a financial crises. Then they made taxpayers around the world bail them out. Our financial recovery depends on some stability, but stability doesn't make hedge funds money, and by golly those fund managers have a lot of lost bonuses to make up for! So somehow, we wind up with massive financial unstability again.

I am no Communist. I understand and appreciate the necessity and value of a capital market. Buying and selling stocks really does add value to our economy. But hedge funds are a different beast. They work in exotic derivatives and leverage margins so high that there is really only one word to describe what they do: gambling.

We are allowing a relatively small group of people to gamble with our economy. Worse, when their bets fail, we bail them out. Even worse, their bets only pay off when the economy is volatile. Worst of all, we coddle these blood-sucking parasites as if they were the best and brightest - as if they were "job creators." There is simply no reason to allow hedge funds to exist. The SEC already bans all sorts of transactions indistinguishable from gambling. It just needs to ban a few more. Corporations exist not by divine right, but because of the value they bring to society. When they stop creating value for society, there is no moral reason society needs to allow them to continue to exist. It is past time that we revise our corporate statues to exclude legalized gambling that requires market volatility.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Dick Cheny was right

Deficits really don't matter. The stock market is tanking, but Treasury bonds are selling great. Our credit is so good that a 10 year bond pays only 2.4% interest per year. So much for S&P's downgrade - as if those stool pigeons had any credibility, anyway. Remember, they're the people who brought us the GFC in the first place.

But the real point here is that Republicans, who claim to worship the Free Market, are ignoring the very clear statement the market is making. Businesses, with all their tax breaks and de-regulations, are a poor bet; America debt is a good bet. This is the classic example of not having a debt problem. Yet Republicans will go on beating the the deficit drum until the instant they take the White House. No surprise there; but why are Americans still listening to these people?

Home again

Our flight home wasn't too bad. Unlike the flight over, the plane was full, but also unlike the flight over, the baby slept. Once again she was a model of cuteness and got compliments after the flight for good behavior, despite the first two hours when putting her in the bassinet generated a full meltdown.

We got the short line for Security and breezed through Customs, thanks to the baby. So that kind of makes up for having to watch her climb the stairs to First Class for two hours every flight.

The trip was great for the baby. She discovered pianos, the ocean, pliable cats, and had lots of little girls and new toys to play with. She also developed a taste for graham crackers that will now forever go unfulfilled.

The trip was great was for us, too. We got to see a lot of people (though sadly not everyone!). I was in the States just long enough to start feeling like an American again. Then when our plane landed in Melbourne, every man in the compartment got up, logged into their smart phones, and started discussing the latest footy results.

Home again.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Strategy... Failed?

It's hard to see the debt deal as anything but a failure for Obama's strategy. The country didn't shut down, which in any sane world would count for something, but the impression is that Obama gave in to the hostage takers. Standard & Poor's explicitly blames its downgrade on the success of Republican obstructionism. In the end, the Republicans were the ones most willing to destroy the country; Obama's veto threat was shown to be hollow. Apparently actually caring about people is a major handicap in the current political environment.

There are two ways Obama can pull a victory out of this. One is if people blame the Republicans for the age of terror we just went through. Unfortunately this would require remembering this incident, and the American electorate usually has the attention span of a butterfly. It is possible that Wall Street will not forget, and that their financial contributions will reflect their fears of the fiscal chaos that would result with a Republican government (such as the balanced budget amendment, an idea so naive that it makes one suspect a return to the gold standard can't be far behind). But that would require our financial class to think beyond the next fiscal quarter, an event even less likely than regular Americans remembering that everything the Republicans said about the deficit was exposed as a lie seven years ago.

The other form of victory is too nebulous to count as a political victory. It is, at best, a moral one. If this deal is viewed as a compromise - even an unbalanced one - Obama might restore the notion that governing the country requires compromise. The Republicans have not considered any Democratic president since Reagan to be legitimate. Under Clinton this was encouraged as mere partisanship; under Obama it has become complete delusion (hence the birth certificate absurdity, the charges of secret Muslimhood, etc.). Thus any deal with a Democrat poisons Republican purity, which can only be good for political sanity. Ending the Republican Holy Crusade would be an achievement for the history books; doing it without completely wrecking the country in the process would be an achievement for those of us who have to live through this history.

If all Obama manages to get for his efforts is the legitimacy of two-party rule, that would be enough. But if all Obama gets for his compromise is crushed at the polls, future politicians will take note. It is not just the future of the Republican party on the line now; it is the future of democracy.