Monday, October 31, 2011

What Occupy Wall Street wants

Matt Taibbi says it better than I can:

Wall Street isn't winning, they're cheating

When was the last time the government stepped into help you "avoid losses you might otherwise suffer?" But that's the reality we live in. When Joe Homeowner bought too much house, essentially betting that home prices would go up, and losing his bet when they dropped, he was an irresponsible putz who shouldn’t whine about being put on the street.

But when banks bet billions on a firm like AIG that was heavily invested in mortgages, they were making the same bet that Joe Homeowner made, leaving themselves hugely exposed to a sudden drop in home prices. But instead of being asked to "suck it in and cope" when that bet failed, the banks instead went straight to Washington for a bailout -- and got it.

The short version: The top 1% own 40% of everything. They didn't use to. WTF is going on, and how do we go back to the way it was?

All OWS is trying to do is get people to talk; to challenge the sacred assumption that wealth is metaphysically a result of hard work and genius, and poverty is metaphysically a result of laziness and stupidity. Because it manifestly isn't.

No one is suggesting that lazy people should live in luxury, but food and medical care are not luxuries. No one is suggesting that successful people should be robbed of the products of their labors, but going from 36% to 39% top marginal tax rate is not robbery. And as Elizabeth Warren recently said, nobody got rich on their own. Nobody.

This bullshit libertarian vibe has been spreading through our society ever since Reagan attacked the dire threat of welfare queens. Our entire economy has been restructured to reward financial speculation instead of production. Not merely reward, but enable: the banks are too big to fail. This means that when they make a profit, they keep it, but when they make a loss, we all bail them out.

And the worst part of it all: the average voter in America doesn't know. The average voter thinks we have the  wealth distribution of Sweden, when in fact we look like Brazil.

OWS "wins" if all it does is make the public aware of the facts.

Sunday, October 30, 2011


I spent the day weeding the back garden. A steady flood of little beasties fled before my trowel; ants, crickets, spiders, flies, worms, and other things I did not recognize. The ground is thick, black mud which stains everything it touches.

It wasn't like this in Arizona. Nothing lived in that sandy clay. Usually not even plants. It was great!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Signs of doom

I read in Scientific American today that a poll of 1,500 American parents showed 25% of them thought vaccines could cause autism.

Think about that. One crooked doctor fakes a medical study for money, one D-list movie star gloms onto the idea to assuage her misplaced guilt, and a decade later one quarter of American parents are misinformed.

That's all it takes. Misinformation is that easy to spread in our society. The Republicans, of course, have been taking advantage of this for decades now - the latest is Paul Ryan sending out a fund-raising letter citing his concerns that "the safety net for the poor is coming apart at the seams and no one in Washington seems to care." Of course, Paul Ryan is one of the chief reasons that net is being destroyed, but it simply doesn't matter. As Mitt Romney is demonstrating, a politician can say literally opposing things on opposing days and it just doesn't matter.

Ironically, I think this weakness doesn't stem from the conservative elements of our culture. I think it is the final, potentially fatal, symptoms of New Age culture. In the New Age movement, you can say any silly thing you want, as long as you never say someone else is wrong.

Political Correctness has come to this: everyone is entitled to their opinion, which means no one is ever wrong about anything. You can make up evidence and logic for as absurd of a theory as you like; what you cannot do is present evidence, no matter how self-evident, that makes someone else wrong. You can get as high as you want, but you can't harsh anyone else's buzz.

We started this nonsense with the best of intentions: people have different religious ideas, and religious ideas are generally considered unprovable, so let's all just play nice and get along. We trained our news agents, our commentators, and our dinner parties to this standard. But then people started saying really stupid things, and when they got called on it, they claimed it was their "religion." And society allowed them to get away with - society had to allow it. Because, fundamentally, religious claims are not unprovable: even the most tenuous, vague, sophisticated theology makes at least one claim about the real world.

And having done so, immediately becomes subject to the rules of logic, reason, and science. Herein lies the rub: society was faced with the fundamental unworkability of the compromise between science and religion - has been faced with it ever since Darwin (Gould's "separate magesteria" was dead even before he named it). There were two options: 1) abandon religion to its own devices and allow rationality to box it into a corner until it died, or 2) abandon rationality and let religion off the hook. You can see which one we chose.

In no case did anyone ever say, "I want to live in an irrational society." What they said was, "I want my particular irrationality to be safe." But because we are human, we seek fairness, and the idea that other people should be allowed to have the same escape clause is hard to object to.

Now we have a society in which the gatekeepers against the spread of un-metered nonsense are religious fundamentalists; they are the only people sufficiently ballsy to say, "I want my irrationality, but I don't want you to have yours." Of course this used to be the rule; certain religions were deemed acceptable, and everything else was simply superstition. Religious tolerance degraded those invisible boundaries, and now the rest of our generally liberal society finds itself bound by politeness to let anyone spout any nonsense. And of course nonsense, once spouted, cannot be put back in the bottle. No idea, however idiotic, has ever been removed from the social consciousness, and the internet gives stupid ideas both an immortal home and a means to spread, to find each and every particular idiot dumb enough to believe that idiotic idea. The true lesson of the internet scam, of course, is that all of us are idiots about something; and now the power of the computer will relentlessly bombard us until it finds our weakness.

If we cannot find a way to separate the wheat from the chaff; if the public does not accept its civic duty to apply reason and logic to the claims of politicians, corporations, and institutions, then democracy is dead. This is not hyperbole: the Greeks understood that democracy presumes that the individual can govern himself. When our individual citizens can no longer stand up to nonsense at a dinner party, then they certainly can't do it at the ballot box, and the first charlatan with pretty hair and a convincing voice will lead us all to ruin.

Ronald Reagan was that avatar of doom. Reagan's genius was that he was a Hollywood actor; he was, at his core, a woo. He was the perfect marriage between conservatism and the New Age, and he gave his people a way to endorse woo without surrendering their conservative religious views. He made nonsense in economics respectable. And look at us now.

Reagan's followers have expanded on his gift, adding climate science and evolution (and birth certificates!) to the list of things it's socially OK to believe nonsense about.  The Tea Party embraces insensibility at its ultimate expression, simultaneously arguing for and against government intervention in society, without so much as a blink in-between (as in the immortal cry of "Keep your government hands off of my Social Security"). The Left, while subdued these days (no more Communism, at least), is still insane: Trutherism and Anti-Vaccism are generally liberal diseases.

Perhaps this explains why atheists have been writing best-selling books. Some people, at least, are beginning to see that if we can't have a tamed, controlled religious delusion, we're better off having none at all. It's not that we actively want to destroy all the joy and comfort people take from their religion; it's just that we can't afford the price. Just like drinking and driving don't mix, non-empiricism and the ballot box don't work well together.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The war on slavery isn't over

When you read these stories of women being abused and controlled, their spirits crushed through psychological trauma until they are nothing but slaves... try to remember that it's happening in 21st century America.

If there were no other crimes at all; if the Crusades and the Inquisitions and all of that had never, ever happened; even so, these tales of grief would be sufficient to indict the cult of obedience as the worst plague to ever strike mankind.

No Longer Quivering

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The worst thing Rush Limbaugh has ever said

I know is this a week old, and I realize that Rush Limbaugh has said so many truly offensive things as to make picking a lifetime peak a rather chancy operation, but I cannot get over the sight of Rush embracing The Lord's Resistance Army apparently on the sole strength of it having the word "Lord" in it's name:

Rush Limbaugh defends the LRA

How it was possible for Rush to research this group enough to uncover their statement of principles, without apparently discovering that they are worse than Nazis, is beyond comprehension. Even a single-minded partisan hack high on pain-killers and seeking to tar Obama with any brush imaginable, could not possibly overlook the horrific facts.

It really defies belief; except in one context: clearly Rush has lost all respect for his audience, and is literally just phoning it in. He'll say anything that comes to mind; the filter between his brain and his mouth has been completely obliterated. How is it this blowhard has any credibility left, even with his own group? How many times can you overlook blatant, sloppy, absurd lying and still count him as a credible source?

Actually, I have that question about almost every pundit on the Right. It's not so much that I disagree with them, as that they disagree with the facts, repeatedly, with impunity. When Michael Moore started playing fast and loose with the facts, I stopped listening to him, and discounted everything I had heard from him. How has that not happened to Rush?

Monday, October 24, 2011

Cheeseburgers in Paradise

I've had a nasty cold for the last week, and finally went to the doctor, primarily because I had a bunch of symptoms I've never had before. Swollen lymph nodes that only responded to regular doses of Ibuprofen (I think I've taken more Ibuprofen in the last week than in my entire previous existence) and having to blow my eyes instead of my nose.

Apparently this is a fairly common Australian virus. It makes me think of the great scene in Ursula Le Guin's Rhocannon's World where the space invaders, after several generations, finally begin to catch local diseases. Now I am a true Aussie!

On the way to the doctor's we stopped at Makker's (McDonald's, in the local parlance) and I ordered a cheeseburger, ketchup and mayo only. What I got was two buns, a soup can's worth of red and white sauce, and a slice of cheese. No burger. Seriously.

I took it back, and the shift manager had to ask me three times what I wanted. When I saw the receipt, I understood; the cashier had filled out an order for a cheeseburger sans everything, then added cheese, tomato sauce, and McChicken sauce (what they call mayo). Oddly there appears to be a key on the cash register for subtracting the patty, which shaves 90 cents off the price of the burger. Considering the mayo costs 40 cents, you have to wonder about the relative economics of their ingredients.

I think the problem was not just that the cashier was Asian and apparently had a bad grasp of English, but also that she had a bad grasp of burger culture. To her, a burger without meat was probably no stranger than a burger with cheese. How is she supposed to know what these crazy people consider normal?

I realize that this post, coming as it does on the heels of my paen to multiculturalism, might be construed as ironic, but it's not; it's just coincidental.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The horrors of the wrong kind of theocracy (as if there were any right kind)

More drivel from The American Thinker: Sharia uber Alles.

Not to discount the problems of Muslims integrating (or not) into their new home, or the fierceness of the Islamicists, but the fear of a Sharia takeover is completely unreasonable. Muslims are a tiny minority of American society; how could they possibly have any more influence than we let them? What all this Sharia panic really reveals is a lack of faith in democracy. Essentially these people view the government as an occupying force, unresponsive to the wishes of the majority, and therefore fear that a minority will be able to enforce radically unpopular, extreme, and un-Constitutional laws on the majority.

On the face of it, this is absurd. Sharia law cannot trump the Constitution. Period. Case closed. Either the panickers are unaware of the basics of law, or they are afraid that Muslims will eventually have the 2/3 majority required to amend the Constitution. In which case their real fear has nothing to do with law, and everything to do with culture. This is a cultural group that fears extinction. Of course, this is even more absurd. What is happening to white, Christian society in America (and Australia) is not extinction, but rather, the end of absolute unquestioned total dominance. It used to be that people were Christian of course, and that it was a given that virtually every political, social, and economic leader would be white, male, and Christian. Christian holidays would dominate the calender (including shutting down alcohol sales on Sundays), Christian themes would decorate the courthouses, Christian theology would be taken as true while other religions were classed under "mythology." And all of this would be done without anyone so much as making a peep about it. Sure, there would be occasional exceptions (Sammy Davis, Jr.), and tolerance would be extended to the exotic minorities, but the agar of culture would Christianity.

Now secularism has taken a deep root, and Christianity finds itself just one of many competing traditions. This loss of privilege has been greeted with cries of persecution, and perhaps those alarms are not as illogical as first appearances suggest. After all, these are the people who have been running things for a long time. Perhaps they have little faith in democracy because they know just how undemocratic their own rule has been. Perhaps they are aware of how a tiny, dedicated, well-financed minority can flout the Constitution, as they have repeatedly with Creationism, abortion restrictions, Ten Commandments displays, and school prayers. Perhaps they fear having religion imposed on them in the same unthinking, unrelenting manner as they have imposed it on everyone else.

The answer is not to raise panic over Sharia, or strive to reimpose Christian traditionalism. The answer is to embrace secularism. A solid regard for Constitutional rights, a recognition that secular morality is all that is necessary or appropriate for public policy, a focus on individual freedoms as opposed to tribal conformance, would all serve to create a future in which no religious tradition would dominate the public sphere. But of course, that is precisely the future they fear.

Fundamentally, the authors at The American Thinker do not trust in, or believe in, democracy. They see their vision of a theocractic society being usurped by a more vibrant, dedicated, committed group (ordinary people would probably use the terms "more fanatic, delusional, and crazy"). Those of us committed to secular society, however, see no reason to fear. Hollywood will absorb and ultimately hollow out the faith of the Islamicists, just like it did every other invading culture.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

What I don't miss about America

22% of children live in families that subsist on less than $22,000 per year for a family of 4.  9% of American children starve on less than $11,000 per year for a family of 4.

Fighting for the Other 22%

To be fair, I looked up Australia, and its poverty rate is 15%. But the poverty line here is $26,000 a year. More importantly, the number is going down, not up.

Of course, Norway came in with 3%. I asked Sara if we could move there, but she made a face and said they speak funny. This from the woman who says "bat-trees!"

Saturday, October 8, 2011

As the website Newser reported, the researchers “pitted a group of stockbrokers against a group of actual psychopaths in various computer simulations and intelligence tests and found that the money men were significantly more reckless, competitive and manipulative.” Even more striking, the researchers note that achieving overall success was less important to the stock speculators than the sadistic drive “to damage their opponents.”

How to stop the political insanity

And remember, I am a defender of capitalism. I like stockbrokers as a class. But these people are looting the planet, and they aren't even particularly motivated by wealth. They can't be reasoned with; explaining that we would all be richer if they gave up a little would not address their primary goal to "damage their opponents."

We have turned over the reins to psychopaths, and we need to take them back. What does taking the reins back look like. Two words: "government" and  "regulation." Keep that in mind the next time somebody tells how government regulation limits freedom. It does. It limits the psychopath's freedom. The rest of us, who are too poor to afford our own army of lawyers, already have plenty of limits on our freedom.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Unclear on the concept

It is not often you can deduce a philosophical error from a website name. In this case, however, the website "Atheism is False" lives up to its promise.

On the page outlining the problem, Stone explicitly states:

Atheism is false, and atheistic books fail to provide the justification for atheistic belief.

But of course this is absurd. No one believes in atheism; rather, one is an atheist because one does not believe in theism. Atheism can't be proven false; rather, one proves that a given theistic belief system is true.

Even if you could prove that atheism was false, how would that help? You still have to prove which of the many competing theistic believes is true. And once you prove that a given theistic belief is true, you've already defeated atheism, without any extra work.

So the goal is to prove a religion true. But true to form, Stone operates from within a false dichotomy. The only options he considers are a) atheism, and b) his particular form of theism. He takes it for granted that if one is convinced to believe, one will naturally choose his belief. He is worried about the tens of millions of atheists in America, but apparently utterly unaware of the hundreds of millions of Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists in the world.

Should we tell him? Or would that just be mean?

Sunday, October 2, 2011

From here, it looks like Cairo

Protestors in the streets day after day; their numbers growing; clashes with police; the high and mighty drinking champagne from balconies... Why does the news from America look like the news from Egypt?

The only thing missing is an ideology. Can you imagine if Communism actually worked? Just think what these protests would be like - just imagine the energy that would drive these revolutions if people thought there was an actual, functioning method to create social justice.

That's what it must have been like, back in the day. Now, people are occupying Wall Street for the sole goal of reducing the amount the banksters steal. They want to go back to the levels of theft found in the 80's. That's all.

Thin gruel to sustain a revolutionary movement. Wouldn't it be easier to convince your neighbors to stop voting for the political party that openly, nakedly preaches "I got mine, so screw you!". Apparently not.

Update: Here's a great article that lays it out in full: Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%. The top 1% now have 25% of the income, 40% of the wealth, and all of the growth of the last 10 years. As the article points out, this is poisonous even to the 1%. The idea that the top 1% somehow deserve their fantastic wealth because they produce more or are smarter than the rest of us should be clearly refuted by history: the most recent economic collapse was entirely the product of their genius. The recession was self-imposed, by the smartest financial minds we have.

Just one quote from that two-page article:

the chances of a poor citizen, or even a middle-class citizen, making it to the top in America are smaller than in many countries of Europe.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

More true faces

Charles Koch and Social Security

The summary: Friedrich Hayek is one of the prophets of Libertarianism, writing books on how social insurance (such as Social Security) is bad, wicked, and wrong.

Charles Koch is one of his adherents, a billionaire who funds the Tea Party and other right-wing attacks on Social Security.

In 1973, however, when Koch wanted Hayek to come teach at his think tank, Hayek declined. He had a preexisting medical condition, and thus could not get health insurance in America. Therefore, he preferred to stay in Austria, where the State provides free healthcare.

Koch convinced him to come to the USA anyway, by pointing out that Hayek could recieve Medicaid and Social Security (he even went so far as to send Hayek a SS brochure and encourage him to draw on it while living overseas).

So when a Libertarian tells you he's against government handouts, what he really means his he is against government handouts for you. Because every single Libertarian has his hand in the cookie jar up to the elbow. Even Ayn Rand, patron saint of self-centered narcissists, relied on Social Security in the end.