Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A new culture of idiots

A very long article that details the many ways in which serious thought can be derailed by bad behavior. It's all worth reading (although it should be taken with some tongue-in-cheek, as its choice of language makes clear). I just want to pull out the serious nuggets:
Bar Patron 1 seems moved not by facts but by a certain idea of a capitalist society, the idea that, in a free market, people get what they deserve.

Even on philosophical grounds, however, this view is exceedingly hard to defend. That is true according to none other than the archconservative twentieth-century apologist for capitalism, F. A. Hayek. He writes:
There is little a man can do to alter the fact that his special talents are very common or exceedingly rare. A good mind or a fine voice, a beautiful face or a skilful hand, a ready wit or an attractive personality are in a large measure as independent of a person’s efforts as the opportunities or the experiences he has had. In all these instances the value which a person’s capacities or services have for us and for which he is recompensed has little relation to anything that we can call moral merit or “deserts.”
The billionaire investor and oracular philosopher Warren Buffett echoes the point:
My luck was accentuated by my living in a market system that sometimes produces distorted results, though overall it serves our country well. 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. In short, fate’s distribution of long straws is wildly capricious.
In other words, ideas of deserts just don’t justify the going rate of rewards. Bar Patron 1 cannot infer his IQ or his deservingness from his paycheck.
 How Fox News created a new culture of idiots
 As an ironic example of the decay of modern discourse, note how the piece consistently misspells "desserts." It's even wrong in the Hayek quote, which leads me to conclude that Slate has replaced its editors with interns and/or Microsoft Word.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Practical arbitrage, or how to be a hedge-fund manager in your own backyard

Right now, Intrade has Obama at $5.55 a share. That means odds of 1.80 to 1.

Sportsbet has Romney at 2.63 to 1 (and Obama at a far more reasonable 1.50 to 1).

This means if you bet $10,000 on Obama at Intrade, and $7,000 on Romney at Sportsbet, you win no matter what!

You spend a total of $17,000; if Obama wins, you get $18,000; if Romney wins, you get $18,400. Either way you make at least a grand.

And,. you get to call yourself a hedge-fund manager, with an 8% return for 2 weeks worth of arbitrage, or a roughly 200% annual return.

This is what high-finance does; it makes money on the margin, the difference between what two groups of people think is reasonable. No wonder there is so much unreasonableness in the world; there is an entire financial market dedicated to exploiting it, and thus, perpetuating it.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Obama is our Gorbachev

Why do America's Super-Rich Feel Victimized?
Evident throughout the letter is a sense of victimization prevalent among so many of America’s wealthiest people. In an extreme version of this, the rich feel that they have become the new, vilified underclass. 

This is the triumph of Any Rand's fiction; the source of Romney's 47%. These people actually believe that half the nation are takers, being carried on the heroic shoulders of the makers. They actually think that everyone should be grateful to them for amassing huge fortunes and concentrating wealth while others starve.

Because they, and their poor, deluded, co-dependent victims/voters, actually think this is how economies work. I have had Right-Wingers tell me time and time again, if it weren't for these rich sugar-daddies, we would all starve. They really believe that.

And no amount of facts makes any difference. Common sense, Nobel-prize winning economic theory, empirical observation - none of it is sufficient to challenge the fantasy Ayn Rand unleashed. Those that have, made it, because of their innate genius, and without them, that wealth would not exist. If there wasn't a capitalist to cut worker pay while increasing hours and pocketing the result, why, there wouldn't be any work at all.

The mere fact that every nation with a tax rate close to %50 is a nice place to live - and every nation without is not - has no impact. The mere history of America's climb to greatness after WWII - when the top tax rate was 90%! - has no impact. The worship of a military that can do no wrong and never spend too much coexists, side-by-side, with the adamant belief that the government cannot even deliver mail efficiently.

Because, in the end, it is all about this:
“The idea that the rich deserve to be rich is a very comforting idea if you are rich.”
And all those blue-collar factory workers voting for Romney? They are rich, in a global sense; and they got rich in no small part because America exploited the world, 1/16 of the globe's population consuming 1/3 of the globe's resources. The billionaires are speaking for all Americans, who are after all the elites of the world.
And everyone understands that if being rich is not a sign of divine favor and personal character, then all those people are starving to death in Africa for no reason. All tjose kids in Asia are building our iPhones are being robbed; all that oil we bought for the trivial price of a few gold coins and a lot of guns to the biggest thugs in the region was theft.

To admit that the poor in our nation are poor through no fault of their own would be to admit that the poor in the world are poor through no fault of their own. When they accuse Obama of "apologizing" for America, this is what they mean.

This is why rattling sabers and God and guns and climate denial and Sharia fear and no sympathy for the 47% all mix up together. Because, in the end, it is about protecting what we have, whether we deserve it or not. And Obama, and Liberals, and Socialists, and Progressives, and all those people who talk about fairness - there is the strong, strong suspicion that they might mean global fairness.

To allow the light of fairness in, to admit even one chink in the perfection of the capitalist system, is to surrender our Empire. All the other facts are irrelevant; all the lies and truths are beside the point. Either things are the way they are supposed to be, or they aren't. Either you are voting for the continuation of the American Empire by armed force (as Romney has made clear), or you are not. Not to say Obama does not embrace the security state, the military, the banks, the hedge funds; but he does so reluctantly, instead of with full-throated zeal. It is not that they fear Obama will dismantle the Empire thorough direct action (despite all their nonsense claims of his Islamic Marxism); it is that they understand that he will let it decay through inaction, through failure to enforce the harshest terms of servitude on our commercial colonies, because he is merely a centrist instead of a full-on right wing zealot, and in these waning days of our empire, centrism might as well be surrender.

Obama is our Gorbachev.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Welcome to the clubbing

Watching the debate now... Obama is beating Romney like a baby seal. The way he comes out in his second set of comments, dissing Romney's "one-point" plan, is almost enough to make me think he threw the first debate on purpose. He wanted Romney to be totally unprepared for this. No more Mr. Nice Guy! Obama is downright hostile, right from the get-go.

And now Romney is talking about how he won't tax interest on dividends. Your bank account won't be taxed. WTF? When was the last time any working-class person in America got interest on a bank account? Does Romney still think it's 1980, or is he so stratospheric he doesn't know how bank accounts work when you have less than a million dollars in them? Mitt, middle-class people don't get dividends!

Candy Crowley is nailing it. Like Martha Raddatz, she is controlling the debate, asking follow-ups, even occasionally calling them out when they lie. Sorry, Jim. I loved ya, baby, but from now on, Presidential debates need to be moderated by women.

Romney just said he ran the Olympics and balanced the budget. Hang on - he got the Olympics a federal bailout! Does that count as "balancing?"

And now Romney said we're on the path to Greece. Yes, Mitt, we are; because, just like Greece, we have a national addiction to not paying taxes.

Obama just got asked a question about gender equality, and told a story about his grandmother training her bosses. How do you beat that? And now he's yakking about one of my favorite moves - when they killed the student loan guarantee program. Instead of paying banks to lend the government's money to students, the Obama administration now lends its money directly.

And the reason this is my favorite policy move (well, aside from ~DADT and ACA)? Because it is a precursor of how the ACA is going to play out. In 20 or 30 years, some clever administration will just cut out the middle-men and provide insurance directly to the people.

Romney is not bad; he still sounds like Reagan to me (except when he runs over the moderator). But he's saying things that aren't true, and Obama is not letting him slide. And the audience is not on his side, like it was with Reagan; some lady just asked Romney what was the difference between him and Bush. Ouch!

Romney just called himself a small businessman! W! T! F!  For the sake of my WTF keys, I am going to have to stop live-blogging this. But the fix is in; the O is back, and rope-a-dope is going to be a semester paper in every PoliSci class from now on.

Friday, October 12, 2012

A trenchant analysis

E. M. Caldawar has a particularly insightful (and long) post on automation here:Automation, Service Economy, and the Welfare State. I think he gets all the facts right, and I like his discussion of "non-productive" work - although I disagree with his conclusion.

I have longed explained to people who complained about the Welfare state that 100% employment is easy - just ban farm machinery (I forget who I originally heard that from). Once you lower the required skill set to poking in the ground with a stick, everyone can be profitably employed. But who wants to live like that - or even live in a society where anyone lives like that? So the problem with deriding the lazy unemployed is that, as automation increases, sooner or later your job will pass under the bar.

Eventually work will become a privilege; the chance to engage in a corporate exercise and become part of something greater will be a reward, not a requirement. Eventually a life well lived, with loves and passions, with joys and personal triumphs, will be justification enough for sustenance. Each life will be a work of art, valuable for its own sake.

Yes, I know, from our perspective, such a level of wealth seems farcical; but to some extent we are already there. We live in the only time in history in which poor people are fat. The problems posed by such a technological achievement would seem equally absurd to the ancient Greeks (or indeed, any ancient philosophers). Homer could never imagine that someday the "demon in men's bellies" would be defeated (not that it has, everywhere, yet).

Such a place would be the existentialist's nightmare, as well as the religious zealot's hell; people who have no fear or needs have no religion, but neither do they have convenient distractions from the innate meaninglessness of their lives. But for the rest of us, who just want to make our friends smile and our children healthy, it would be Paradise.

Monday, October 8, 2012

A glimpse into the mind of the Right Wing

Warning: it's not pretty.

I received a chain email that starts with some pictures of Hiroshima being nuked, follows with some pictures of the vibrant city it is now, and then has some pictures of crumbling Detroit. It then spits out these pearls of wisdom (in big fonts and many colors, natch):

What has caused more long term destruction: the A-bomb,or Government welfare programs created to buy the votes of those who want someone to take care of them?

Japan does not have a welfare system.

Work for it or do without.

These are possibly the 5 best sentences you'll ever read and all applicable to this experiment:

1. You cannot legislate the poor into prosperity by legislating the wealthy out of prosperity.

2. What one person receives without working for, another person must work for without receiving.

3. The government cannot give to anybody anything that the government does not first take from somebody else.

4. You cannot multiply wealth by dividing it!

5. When half of the people get the idea that they do not have to work because the other half is going to take care of them, and when the other half gets the idea that it does no good to work because somebody else is going to get what they work for, that is the beginning of the end of any nation.

Can you think of a reason for not sharing this? Neither could I.


Why yes, "Kurt", I can think of a good reason for not sharing it: because it is not true.

5 seconds with Google shows this:

Social welfare, assistance for the ill or otherwise disabled and for the old, has long been provided in Japan by both the government and private companies. Beginning in the 1920s, the government enacted a series of welfare programs, based mainly on European models, to provide medical care and financial support. During the postwar period, a comprehensive system of social security was gradually established.[1][2] Government expenditures for all forms of social welfare increased from 6% of the national income in the early 1970s, to 18% in 1989.

Never mind the wisdom of advancing a political argument through pictures; the entire message is simply a lie.

Worse, the message is predicated on a fantasy. A cruel, sick fantasy. A sociopath's fantasy.
"Work for it or do without."
What if people can't find jobs, "Kurt"? Do you really think all those unemployed people are unemployed by choice? The bankers crashed the economy, but they took home billions in bonuses; and now you want the people who were living paycheck to paycheck to just starve?

This email is like an x-ray; it exposes the implicit assumption of Right Wing Morality Economics: that people who are poor are poor because they deserve it; by the choices they made. The idea that fate could have some impact, that people could be affected by the decisions made by others, never sees the light of day.

I want to know if "Kurt" ever went to a war. I want him to tell me how every man who died there deserved it, how those bullets sought out only the lazy, the incompetent, and the stupid. To tell me how every guy who was drafted deserved whatever he got, for being too poor to buy a deferment or just so plain stupid he thought he owed his society something when they called for him. To tell me how we all make our own fate, independent of anyone else's actions, even under artillery fire on the other side of the globe.

And if we can't choose our own fates in a war, then, really, when can we? Is there some magic glass wall that appears once the war is over that protects us from chance, misfortune, criminals, or the law of unintended consequences?

But lo, the idiocy continues; it gusheth forth. Yes, in fact, you can multiply wealth by dividing it; that is the basis of the entire modern economy. The industrial revolution can be essentially explained by multiplying wealth by dividing it (i.e. the division of labor, where each person does the same amount of work but the output is magically increased). You can, in fact, legislate the poor into prosperity by redistributing wealth; and when you do, you make the wealthy even wealthier. Yes, even wealthy people benefit from living in a society that minimizes income disparity, which is why billionaires of every third-world country fly to the West for health care. And as for the government taking what it gives, there were a lot of people who gave our government everything so that we could be free (see the aforementioned war); I think paying back a few tax dollars is more than fair.

This text was written by a sociopath. A creature who revels in a fantasy of power and independence, who has no empathy for others, who views every piece of good luck as his just reward and every piece of bad luck as someone else's fault, who would destroy every ounce of trust and connection that has built modern society so they can return to feudal savagery. And, incidentally, who has absolutely no idea how society, economics, or physics work.

But I know for a fact that the people reading and passing on the email are not sociopaths. So how does that work? How do decent, ordinary people participate in this kind of stuff?

The answer is, by degrees and dog-whistles. Because the underlying premise of the message agrees with their moral principle, they accept the message. But because the moral principle is essentially indefensible (you know as well as I do that the people passing this message are Christians, and thus are perfectly aware of "What you do to the least among you, you do to me"), they cannot face it directly, which means they cannot pick out the factual errors.

Instead, they respond to the tone instead of the specifics. And the tone is, "get off your butt and get to work." But the specifics get passed along, too, and they reinforce the tone in unintended ways. Thus by small steps did Reserve Police Battalion 101 find its way into history. At every stage, those men responded to the tone of duty, brotherhood, and obedience, without facing the specifics; if at any point they had challenged the factual claims presented to them, the whole thing would have fallen apart. Which is why they very carefully never challenged those claims (see Albert Speer, for example).

It is no accident that these are pictures of Detroit. There are many crumbling cities in America, thanks to thirty years of tax dodging as a national sport, but they chose Detroit. The reason is obvious; but again, merely facing that fact would destroy the entire illusion.

And the illusion is what it always is: the pretense of power, the fantasy of control over one's own fate. The comforting lie that those other bastards deserved it, but you've been good and thus will be spared. This lie is only necessary when you are afraid. Poverty makes people afraid. Thirty years of Reaganomics have made people poor. And in their fear, they turn to... Reaganomics: the idea the financial success is a measure of moral purity. Because if they just are morally pure enough, they'll be saved.

To his credit, Reagan may have started the spiral that will completely unwind democracy. That's a legacy few can match (I'm looking at you, Augustus Ceaser!).

But he didn't. Obama's going to win, and this too shall pass, because in the end, the American people are not a people of small fears and despair.

And if not.... sucks to be an American, eh? Glad I was smart enough to make a better choice.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Etch-a-sketch in action

Romney definitely deserves credit for political shrewdness here. He properly understood that he could say anything at this debate without fear of retaliation from his base.

Witness his full-throated endorsement of regulation, his claim that we need more teachers., and his utterly incoherent defense of Romney care (it's fine to have government take-over of health care at the State level!). Why hasn't the Tea Party leapt on him for these deviations from orthodoxy?

Because he was beating Obama. All along, all he had to do was win, and they would forgive him anything. Once he gets the lead, he will be free to remake himself as a moderate to win the election; the Right won't hold him to what he says, since they will assume he's only saying it to win. It was never dishonesty that bothered them; it was just defeat.

Fortunately, it's too late; there isn't enough time left for Romney to convince the low-information voters of his secret new plan, and Obama's team has enough money to keep people reminded of what Romney has been saying for the last year.

Just to remind you what's at stake, here is a quote from a Republican congressman, "a physician by training, sits on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology:"

“God’s word is true,” Broun said, according to a video posted on the church’s website. “I’ve come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior.”

Oh, and more credit to Romney: apparently we're never going to see his taxes after all, and apparently that's OK. Romney refused to release the taxes, then kept bringing it up in the most maladroit way, and it doesn't matter; it's been two weeks and the media/electorate has totally forgotten about it.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Mitt Romney won the debate

Years ago, I read this story on the internet:

When I was in high school, I was on one of the debate teams my sophomore year. Our debate team had the distinctive honor of being the only debate team to ever beat the teacher's debate team.

Now, this was overseas at a DoD school where nearly every teacher was a full professor that also taught University of Maryland courses for the troops.

Why did we win? We all agreed ahead of time that we would just lie.  Being the evil bastards that we were, we would cite a source, but then just make up whatever we wanted. Since the debate 'winner' was picked by popular vote and the cote of the other teams immediately after the debate, the other team didn't have time to go fact check everything.

This is what Romney did; the Gish Gallop. He said he didn't have a $5T tax cut, claimed he would cut every non-essential program like PBS but would expand education, said regulation was necessary but rejected every banking regulation without suggesting any, claimed Obama should have followed Simpson-Bowles even though he wouldn't have, and basically through every position under the bus if it made him look good at the moment.

Obama, meanwhile, sucked. He didn't call Romney on any of his lies - including the $700B "stolen" from Medicare. And neither did Jim Lehrer.

I thought Romney sound like Reagan, which made him sound presidential, at first. But the more he went on, the more he sounded like a guy trying to sell me a line of bullshit. Also, running over the moderator made him look like a bully; the illusion of presidentiality evaporated every time he did that. Still, since the audience (pundits included) react solely to emotion and not facts, Romney won, and deserves credit for a good performance.

The only outcome for me, personally, is that I lost an immense amount of respect for Jim Lehrer. Only once did he call Romney out on a logical fallacy, and he let him off after one go. It distresses me no end that there is no forum in which these two men have to answer to facts; at no point in this campaign will the penalty for telling a bald-faced lie on national TV be any more than a few articles in independent media or a couple of partisan ads. "Balance" requires that any charge of falseness against one party must always be accompanied by an equal charge against the other; to their credit, the Republicans have realized that as long as Democrats stick anywhere near the truth, the Republicans can just lie all the time.

Obama will still win the election; but America will have to wait for a full-throated defender of the radical notions that taxes must go up, government is a force for good, and science is truth.

Monday, October 1, 2012

I know where God comes from now

"It's time to go to bed, Sophie."


"Because it's dark and cold out."


"Because the sun went down."


"Because it's bedtime, even for the sun."


"Because... the laws of physics, that's why."

In our house it's TLoP, but I can totally see why someone would finally devolve to Goddidit or even just because-I-said-so. The invention of theology is a consequence of having two-year-olds.