Archive for July, 2010

A vanished world

July 31, 2010

Click on Captured: America in Color from 1939-1943 to see color photographs taken by the Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information of a United States that no longer exists.

Most people form their image of that era from black-and-white movies.  What gives these photographs their power is that they are of ordinary people and they are in color – which was made possible by Eastman Kodak Co.’s development of Kodachrome.

The lead-in to the photographs says they were taken to show the effects of the Depression, but the Depression mostly went away in 1940 and after.  The meaning of the photographs for me is their evocation of the look and feel of the world I grew up in, and which is no more.  Not only things, but people looked different then.

When I look at these pictures, I almost think that they are the real world, and the world I live in is some science-fictional dream.

Is Islam a religion of peace?

July 30, 2010

Islam is a warrior religion.  It was established by sword-wielding men on horseback, not poor people hiding in catacombs. There is nothing in the Koran about turning the other cheek, returning good for evil or doing good to those who hate you. Rather the ethic of the Koran is to live in peace with those who are willing to live in peace with you, but to defend yourself and your loved ones with all your might if you are attacked.

I don’t say this critically.  I am not a pacifist.  I do not turn the other cheek myself. The ethic of being peaceful if you can, but fighting if you must is what I was taught by my father, and what I believe in.

When you call Islam a “religion of peace,” this is not exactly false, but the implication is that Muslims are pacifists like the Quakers or the Amish or the followers of Mahatma Gandhi.  This is easily refuted by quoting some of the fiercer passages from the Koran about waging war against Christians and Jews.

Islam is not a “religion of peace” in the pacifist sense, but it is a religion with which it is possible to live in peace. If you read the whole Koran, you see that the context of those passages is that the followers of Mohammad were fighting for their existence against pagan, Christian and Jewish Arab tribes; there are other passages about living in peace with adherents of those religions if they are willing to live in peace with you.  There is a famous passage (in Sura 2) about no compulsion in religion.

Click on Peace and Love in the Quran for a deeper discussion.

Like the Christian and Hebrew Bible, the Koran is quoted by different people for different purposes. There is nothing in the Koran so bloodthirsty as passages in the Old Testament / Hebrew Bible calling for extermination of the Canaanite tribes.  If you knew nothing of Judaism and Christianity and somebody quoted Genesis 34: 14-29; Deuteronomy 3: 1-7; Numbers 31: 7-9, 15-18; Joshua 6: 21; or Judges 21: 10-24 to you, you would have a very misleading idea of those religions.

Mohammad famously said to followers after a great battle that they had returned from the “lesser jihad,” the battle against enemies, to the “greater jihad,” the struggle to master oneself.

Here is how the Muslim scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr described the Muslim warrior ideal in Ideals and Realities of Islam:

If one thinks of the Buddha as sitting in a state of contemplation under the Bo-tree, the Prophet can be imagined as a rider sitting on a steed with the sword of justice and discrimination [between good and evil] drawn in his hand and galloping at full speed, yet ready to come to an immediate halt before the mountain of Truth.

In Islam, when one thinks of the Prophet who is to be emulated, it is the image of a strong personality that comes to mind who is severe with himself and with the false and the unjust, and charitable towards the world that surrounds him. … He is that warrior on horseback who halts before the mountain of Truth, passive towards the Divine Will, active towards the world, hard and sober towards himself and kind and generous towards the creatures about him.

The “lesser jihad” still can be a religious duty, and Islam was spread, in part, through wars of conquest. Within the first couple of generations after Mohammed, the Arabs established an empire stretching from Morocco to the borders of India.

Christianity also was spread by conquest.  At least I think that Christianity would have had a much more difficult time establishing itself in North and South America if it had been Powhatan and Montezuma rather than John Smith and Hernando Cortes who possessed gunpowder weapons. Of the world’s three great missionary religions, the only one that was not spread through conquest was Buddhism.

One reason that Muslim rule established itself so rapidly is that Christians and Jews found more tolerance under Muslim rule than Muslims, Jews and heretic Christians always did under Christian rule.  This wasn’t true in every case, but Christians, Jews and Muslims lived together in relative harmony under Muslim rule in Spain, and when Jews were driven out of Spain by the Inquisition, some of them took refuge in the Turkish Ottoman Empire.


The Top Idea in Your Mind

July 28, 2010

Almost everybody has had the experience of struggling with a hard problem, then doing something else and suddenly having the answer come into your mind almost of its own accord.  You were thinking about the problem on some level without being aware of it.

Paul Graham

Paul Graham, a writer, entrepreneur and designer of programming languages, has an interesting essay about this on his web site.  At any given time, he writes, there is a “top idea in your mind.”  The problem is that you don’t necessarily determine what it is.

You can’t directly control where your thoughts drift. If you’re controlling them, they’re not drifting. But you can control them indirectly, by controlling what situations you let yourself get into. That has been the lesson for me: be careful what you let become critical to you. Try to get yourself into situations where the most urgent problems are ones you want to think about.

You don’t have complete control, of course. An emergency could push other thoughts out of your head. But barring emergencies you have a good deal of indirect control over what becomes the top idea in your mind.

I’ve found there are two types of thoughts especially worth avoiding—thoughts like the Nile Perch in the way they push out more interesting ideas. One [is] … thoughts about money. Getting money is almost by definition an attention sink. The other is disputes. These too are engaging in the wrong way: they have the same Velcro-like shape as genuinely interesting ideas, but without the substance. So avoid disputes if you want to get real work done. …

This is true of me.  Sometimes I find it hard to concentrate on the things I need to think about.  And sometimes thoughts come into my mind about arguments and grievances over extremely trivial things, very often from years and decades ago.  I will rerun some conversation in my mind where I got the worst of it, and imagine humiliating the other person.  If I did not make a conscious effort to free myself from these thoughts, I would literally go crazy.

As Paul Graham wrote:

Turning the other cheek turns out to have selfish advantages. Someone who does you an injury hurts you twice: first by the injury itself, and second by taking up your time afterward thinking about it. If you learn to ignore injuries you can at least avoid the second half. I’ve found I can to some extent avoid thinking about nasty things people have done to me by telling myself: this doesn’t deserve space in my head. I’m always delighted to find I’ve forgotten the details of disputes, because that means I hadn’t been thinking about them. My wife thinks I’m more forgiving than she is, but my motives are purely selfish.

I suspect a lot of people aren’t sure what’s the top idea in their mind at any given time. I’m often mistaken about it. I tend to think it’s the idea I’d want to be the top one, rather than the one that is. But it’s easy to figure this out: just take a shower. What topic do your thoughts keep returning to? If it’s not what you want to be thinking about, you may want to change something.

via The Top Idea in Your Mind.


“We won’t hire you if you’re out of work”

July 28, 2010

Many companies are only hiring people who already have jobs.  The unemployed need not apply.

I can see how this might make sense for an individual company.  Human resources managers are flooded with applicants for every job, they don’t have time to look at all the applications, so this is a quick and dirty way reduce the pile of applications to a manageable size. And no matter how arbitrary they are, there still will be plenty of qualified applicants left.  Age discrimination is not legal, but this is.

What a waste for the country as a whole!  There are people who want to work, who are well-qualified to work, but we can’t make use of their talents.  And over time this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The longer you are unable to work in your field, the more you fall behind.  You can take courses to keep up, as many are doing, but what good is that if employers don’t recognize them?

This is something to keep in mind the next time you read about some congressman or senator saying unemployment benefits make people lazy, or the retirement age needs to be raised from 67 to 69.

Congress is considering an economic incentives bill for small business.  If they provide incentives for hiring, they ought to make a distinction between hiring someone who is out of work and hiring someone away from another business.


Keynesian medicine for a sick economy

July 27, 2010

John Maynard Keynes was a very smart man.  Bertrand Russell, who was no dummy himself, said that whenever he argued with Keynes, he felt he was taking his life in his hands and generally emerged feeling like a fool.

John Maynard Keynes

Prior to Keynes, the accepted thinking among economists was that the working of the free market always brings things into balance, and the best cure for recessions is to leave things alone and allow the balance to restore itself.  What Keynes noticed that his predecessors didn’t was that the economy could come into balance at a high level of unemployment and low level of economic activity, and stay there for a very long time.

A economic crash creates a domino effect.  When people lose their jobs, they stop spending money, which means that business is bad, which means that more people lose their jobs.  Bank failures beget bankruptcies, and bankruptcies beget bank failures.  Recovery can be slow, because businesses aren’t going to hire people unless there are potential customers.

Keynes thought governments could help speed up recovery by putting people to work on public projects, by cutting taxes, by running temporary budget deficits to put money into circulation, and by trying to push down interest rates so people could more easily borrow to buy things and businesses could more easily borrow to expand.  He thought government to stop the cascading effect of depression by creating social safety nets, such as unemployment insurance and deposit insurance.

The second part of his philosophy was that when times were good, governments should pay down their debt and try to keep inflation under control.

His ideas came to be accepted wisdom during the 30 or so years following his death in 1946, and recessions during that period were milder than in the pre-Keynesian era.  However, the first part of his philosophy was more popular than the second part.  The Clinton administration raised taxes and reduced civilian spending when times were good, but this was the exception rather than the rule.

A lot of smart people think the sick U.S. economy needs a stronger dose of Keynesianism than President Obama or the Democrats have been willing to propose.  I think the Keynesian medicine may not have as strong an effect as in the past.

We are coming down from an over-stimulated economy.  Under President Bush, the government cut taxes, especially in the upper brackets, while increasing government spending.  Government debt mushroomed, and consumer debt and the U.S. trade deficit continued their long-term upward trend.  This is something that could not go on forever, and so it stopped.  This limits the effectiveness of any stimulus.  People who get any extra money over and above what they need are going to use it to pay down debt.

We live in a global economy.  If we import increasing amounts of goods from foreign countries, any increased consumer spending is as likely to benefit foreign manufacturers as our own.

So it looks as if we have two bad alternatives.  One is to do nothing and let the economic stagnate.  The other is to try things that may have little effect.

I think we need to maintain the social safety net.  I don’t think we can cut off unemployment compensation for the long-term unemployed when there are five job-seekers for every job opening.  I think the federal government has to provide state aid to keep local government functioning.  You don’t foster a vibrant economy by laying off school teachers, closing public libraries and raising state college tuition. Budget problems have forced at least 38 of Michigan’s 83 counties, and an unknown number in other states, to give up paved roads.

Beyond that, I think we as a nation need to invest in things we need for our future – in infrastructure, education and scientific research.  And what better time to do it than now, when so many people are out of work and when interest rates are at near-record lows?


Escaping voice-mail limbo

July 27, 2010

If you’re trapped in voice-mail limbo while trying to reach a human being in a business or government agency, dialing “0” doesn’t always work.

Click on Dial-a-Human for a useful web site telling you how to bypass voice mail and reach a human being for many businesses and agencies.  I found the link on Andrew Tobias’ Money and Other Subjects web site.


Six months as a blogger

July 25, 2010

Today marks six months since I started this web log.  If I’d known how easy it was, and how much web hosts such as WordPress provide free, I might have begun years ago.

Unlike my 40 years working on newspapers, I don’t have to meet deadlines, I don’t have to write to a specific length and I’m not subject to anybody with the power to alter or disapprove what I’ve written.  On the other hand, I don’t do any real reporting.  There are bloggers who are excellent reporters, and excellent reporters who have blogs; I don’t fall within either category.

What I write comes from my reminiscences, my daily life, my reading and other Internet web logs.  Having a web log is like being able to write an unlimited number of letters to the editor.  I depend a great deal on material from regular newspapers and magazines which is available free on the Internet.  I would like to think I am symbiotic rather than parasitic; I help disseminate the material, and add my own insight for what it’s worth.  At the same time I do little to alleviate the financial plight of the magazine and journalism industries.

My original expectation was that my web log would be read mainly by some of my friends and acquaintances.  WordPress facilitates the circulation of my posts on the Internet, and I am surprised and pleased that my writing is of interest to strangers.

One of my vices as a newspaper reporter was that I was overly prolific.  I wrote some things that I am proud of, a great many more mediocre and forgettable things, and some things I wish I hadn’t written.  My desire to write and get feedback from what I’ve written is addictive.  I would have served myself and my readers better if I had written less and better.

There were a couple of times in my career when I had weekly newspaper columns.  When I began them, I had a great backlog of opinions to express. Gradually I depleted my inventory of ideas, and reached a point where I ceased to wonder, What am I going to write about this week?, and started to wonder, What can I write about this week?  I promise myself, and you, that I will not fall into this trap as a blogger.  When I have nothing I want to write, I won’t write it.

The Copernican Principle

July 25, 2010

You’re not special.

Whitewashing vs. global warming

July 24, 2010

One of the simplest ways of slowing down global warming would be to paint the world’s roofs white or pastel shades and maybe the world’s asphalt highways as well.  White reflects heat; black absorbs heat.  A study released this week by the U.S. Department of Energy says that if all the roofs in the temperate and tropic zones were painted white, it would mitigate global warming as much as taking all the world’s automobiles off the road for 20 years.

If you want to stimulate the economy, why not put people to work painting roofs and roads.  It would be a more straightforward way of stimulating the economy than giving tax credits to businesses and home buyers; it would be a more straightforward way of mitigating global warming than cap-and-trade or subsidies for the windmill industry.

Now maybe there are technical objections to this that I don’t see, but I think that main problem with it is that our dysfunctional political and economic system is incapable of implementing simple and obvious solutions to problems.  Until the white paint industry forms a powerful lobbying group, there is no way of even getting this discussed.

Our politicians and political commentators take it for granted that it is impossible for government to actually achieve anything, as if this were a law of nature, like the impossibility of faster-than-light travel, which only whining liberals would ever complain about.  But I am old enough to remember that things weren’t always this way, and they don’t have to be this way.


Fox News, lies and videotape

July 24, 2010

Andrew Breitbart

Most journalists remember Janet Cooke, the Washington Post reporter, who in 1980 wrote a fake story about an 8-year-old heroin addict.  We also remember Stephen Glass, who wrote fake articles for The New Republic in the mid-1990s and Jason Blair, who did the same in the New York Times.

They all have one thing in common – that they all were fired, and will never work again for a reputable publication.  In Jason Blair’s case, the editors who hired him went down with him.

It’s another story Andrew Breitbart of Fox News.  The only price he will pay for his transparent lies about Shirley Sherrod is a non-apology apology, and a resolution to stick to more plausible falsehoods in the future.

For those who don’t know, Shirley Sherrod is a 62-year-old black woman who works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  She grew up in rural Georgia; when she was 17, her father was murdered by a white man who was never tried for the crime.  She gave a speech to the NAACP about how she had overcome her bad feelings about white people, and come to the realization that poor whites and blacks are the same and equally deserve help.

Brietbart aired a videotape of the speech doctored to make it appear that she thought only blacks, not whites, deserved help.  The Obama administration immediately fired her, only to apologize the next day when the full videotape was aired and the truth was known.

Brietbart’s mistake was to air a lie that could be so easily checked.  In the case of James O’Keefe’s faked tapes of the community organization ACORN, which make it appear ACORN employees gave aid and comfort to a pimp, it took a number of weeks to uncover the truth.  By that time the damage was done, and the truth never was able to catch up with the lie.  ACORN lost its funding and most people believe the original false story.

The same pattern holds for the so-called “climategate” scandal, the Obama administration’s alleged dropping of a Black Panther voter intimidation case and many others.  By the time the charge is proved to be without any basis, the public and the press have lost interest.

Rupert Murdoch

The real responsibility for all this does not lie with Brietbart, nor with Fox News CEO Roger Ailes.  The responsibility lies with Rupert Murdoch, the CEO of News Corp., the parent corporation.  He could have devoted Fox News and his other radio-TV and newspaper outlets to reputable journalism.  He has made a deliberate choice to renounced journalistic standards and appeal to prejudice to further his right-wing agenda.

This does enormous harm.  How many lives might have been saved in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, for example, if National Guard troops hadn’t held back on going in because of lying reports looters were shooting at rescuers and the city had become like Somalia?

I don’t wish harm to anyone, but Rupert Murdoch is an old man, and I hope his heirs think about their family’s reputation in history.


Are you smart enough to work for Google?

July 24, 2010

Click on this to read 15 questions Google asks job applicants.

Click on this for the answers.

Remembering William F. Buckley Jr.

July 23, 2010

A friend of mine gave me a copy of Christopher Buckley’s Remembering Mum and Pup. “Mum” and “Pup” were his pet names for his parents, Patricia Taylor Buckley and William F. Buckley Jr.  It wouldn’t have occurred to me to read the book otherwise, but it was more interesting than I expected.

William F. Buckley Jr. was once the face of the conservative movement in the United States, through his magazine, National Review, his syndicated newspaper column, his TV program “The Firing Line” and his many books.  I thought his opinions, except for anti-Communism, ranged from the misguided to the morally reprehensible.  His first books were an attack on academic freedom and a defense of Senator Joe McCarthy, and he was a champion of white supremacy in the American South and South Africa (a position he retracted after it was too late to make any difference).

At the same time I always watched “The Firing Line” on PBS, and often found food for thought in it.  Buckley did his homework, was courteous to his guests and debated issues of substance and not trivialities.  He made me think through my own positions.

I think the fact that Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck occupy Buckley’s niche in the conservative movement says something about how that movement has evolved over the years.  I think the fact that Limbaugh and Beck have the influence formerly held by Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite says something about how American society has evolved over the years.


The failed reconstruction of Iraq

July 21, 2010

Shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a Iraqi woman in her 20s using the name Riverbend started a web log called Baghdad Burning.  She described the life of an educated, middle-class family in Baghdad – a perspective on Iraq you didn’t get from the American press.

Here is her 2003 comment on the reconstruction effort: –

One of my cousins works in a prominent engineering company in Baghdad- we’ll call the company H. This company is well-known for designing and building bridges all over Iraq. My cousin, a structural engineer, is a bridge freak. He spends hours talking about pillars and trusses and steel structures to anyone who’ll listen. As May was drawing to a close, his manager told him that someone from the CPA wanted the company to estimate the building costs of replacing the New Diyala Bridge on the South East end of Baghdad. He got his team together, they went out and assessed the damage, decided it wasn’t too extensive, but it would be costly. They did the necessary tests and analyses mumblings about soil composition and water depth, expansion joints and girders and came up with a number they tentatively put forward- $300,000. This included new plans and designs, raw materials quite cheap in Iraq, labor, contractors, travel expenses, etc.

Let’s pretend my cousin is a dolt. Let’s pretend he hasn’t been working with bridges for over 17 years. Let’s pretend he didn’t work on replacing at least 20 of the 133 bridges damaged during the first Gulf War. Let’s pretend he’s wrong and the cost of rebuilding this bridge is four times the number they estimated- let’s pretend it will actually cost $1,200,000. Let’s just use our imagination. A week later, the New Diyala Bridge contract was given to an American company. This particular company estimated the cost of rebuilding the bridge would be around- brace yourselves- $50,000,000 !!

via Baghdad Burning.

How has that worked out?  Here is the report this month from the New York Times.

FALLUJA, Iraq — After two devastating battles between American forces and Sunni insurgents in 2004, this city needed almost everything — new roads, clean water, electricity and health care included.

The American reconstruction authorities decided, however, that the first big rebuilding project to win hearts and minds would be a citywide sewage treatment system.

Now, after more than six years of work, $104 million spent, and without having connected a single house, American reconstruction officials have decided to leave the system unfinished, though they portray it as a success. It is just one element in a strategy to complete or abandon rebuilding projects before American troops leave in large numbers over the next year.

The push to complete reconstruction work as quickly as possible has been met with scorn by Iraqi officials, who say some of the projects are being finished with such haste that engineering standards have deteriorated to the point where workers are in danger and some of the work is at risk of collapse.

The Falluja sewage system, in particular, mirrors the extensive problems that have marked much of the American rebuilding effort: a grand plan to provide a modern facility that diverged from Iraq’s most pressing needs, and was further troubled by millions of wasted dollars, poor planning, construction flaws, ongoing violence and little attention to sustainability.

via The New York Times


Thoughts about Top Secret America

July 20, 2010

Some thoughts about the Washington Post’s great series, Top Secret America, which came out this week, about the uncontrolled proliferation of secret intelligence and surveillance agencies.

1.  The series shows the value of traditional newspapers dedicated to journalism as a public service, and of the Washington Post specifically.  There is good journalism on Internet web logs, but none of them have the resources to conduct a two-year effort such as this.  At the same time the Post’s web site provides information that its print edition could not include.

I don’t know whether printing this series contributed to the newspaper’s profitability, compared to alternative uses of its resources.  I suspect that it did not, and I feel sure this was not a consideration going forward.  I don’t know whether you can have good journalism on a pure business model.

2. Back in 2004, there was concern about duplication and lack of coordination in intelligence activities, and Congress created the office of Director of National Intelligence under the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004.  But because of objections of existing intelligence agencies, the DNI was not given any actual authority to hire and fire or give orders – just to coordinate.  This is another example of how not quite doing the job is equivalent to not doing the job.

On the other hand, a certain amount of redundancy and duplication is a good thing.  Otherwise there is no margin for error and no exploration of alternatives.  It is a question of “how much” and not “whether.”

3.  The question of civil liberties is more important than the question of waste and inefficiency.  Would it be better if intelligence agencies really could keep track of the phone calls and e-mails of every American citizen? The government has virtually unlimited powers of surveillance, plus powers to imprison people without criminal charges, to torture, to assassinate and to silence whistle-blowers to reveal abuses of power.  It is a leap of faith to think that such powers were never be abused either by President Obama or by any President ever to hold office in the future.


A mosque near Ground Zero?

July 19, 2010

Actually, what’s being proposed for lower Manhattan is something called Cordoba House, a Muslim-sponsored community facility open to people of all faiths, like a YMCA or a Jewish Community Center.  It would have a swimming pool, basketball courts, meeting rooms and an interfaith chapel which would be used as a mosque.

The name commemorates the golden age of Muslim-ruled Spain, when Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together in peace and the cultures of all three groups flourished.

Some people take exception to a mosque being built just two blocks from Ground Zero, where the World Trade Center was destroyed by al Qaeda terrorists.  They said it is an insult to the victims of the 9/11 attacks, overlooking the Muslims among the victims.

I personally think the Cordoba House is a great idea.  The worst thing in the world, from the point of view of the al Qaeda and Taliban leaders, is a demonstration that the United States has a place for people of all religions, including Muslims, and that American Muslims reject their brand of religious intolerance.


Washington Post series on Top Secret America

July 19, 2010

The Washington Post is publishing an important investigative series on U.S. secret intelligence activities which are so vast and so out of control that nobody knows how much money is being spent, what it is going for or what use it is.

There are 854,000 people – nearly a million – with top secret clearance. Every day the National Security Agency intercepts and stores records of 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other communications which are separated into 70 different data bases. There is no effective oversight, no effective limitation on power, no effective limitation on spending.  It is, as Dana Priest and William Arkin say, a fourth branch of government.


Patrick’s Rule

July 18, 2010

Never trust a dog to watch your food.


Different tree, same monkeys

July 16, 2010

The new financial reform bill follows the pattern of the health reform bill.  Instead of changing the system is a straightforward way, Congress chose to create a new level of regulatory complexity which may or may not do good.

The main obstacle to progress is the Senate’s rule that 41 Senators can block a vote on any measure, and the Republican leadership’s willingness to use that rule to block the will of the majority.  A secondary obstacle is the Obama administration’s unwillingness to press for meaningful change.

The Senate rejected an amendment offered by Senators Ted Kaufman of Delaware and Sherrod Brown of Ohio to break up the six “too big to fail” banks so that they could no longer hold the economy hostage. But the bill does contain a provision allowing federal regulators to break up the banks if they pose a “grave risk” to the financial system.

The bill supposedly contains a version of the Volcker Rule, which limits the ability of banks to use taxpayer-guaranteed deposits to speculate in risky investments.  But according to Senator Kaufman the bill’s many exemptions and exceptions make this rule meaningless.

Instead of limiting the size of banks and the power of banks to gamble with taxpayer-insured money, the bill creates new regulatory agencies with new powers.  It trusts the regulators to be independent of the bankers and smarter than the bankers, and at the same time to refrain from using their power capriciously or arbitrarily.  Past history gives little reason for that trust.

The rule of law is almost always preferable to arbitrary regulatory power.  With a simple clear law such as the Kaufman-Brown amendment or a no-loophole Volcker Rule, both banks and the public would know where they stood and be able to plan accordingly.


U.S. economy under Democrats and Republicans

July 15, 2010

By almost every measure, the U.S. economy has fared better under Democratic Presidents than under Republicans. Some of this may be due to chance.  A President, after all, does not control the timing of the economic cycle.

But I think a lot of it is due to the fact that Democrats historically have been more oriented to wage-owners, and Republicans to holders of financial assets.  When there is a full-employment, high-wage economy, everybody does well.  A policy of “percolate up” beats one of “trickle down.”

Here are links that show what I mean.

Politicians Lie, Numbers Don’t by Michael Kinsley

Presidents and Congress, Democrats and Republicans, Spending, Taxation, Debt and GDP on the Angry Bear web site.

The Laffer Curve in real life by Jay Bookman, a blogger for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution [added 9/20/10]

Here are charts if you don’t want to plow through the links.  I admit I didn’t get sources for all the information in the charts, but you can get confirmation of the basic information in the links.

Also. keep in mind that, as they say on Wall Street, past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Chart added 9/26/2015.  Source: Mark Thoma

Jeb Bush’s Claims and Reality by Mark Thoma for Economist’s View.  [added 9/26/2015]

this chart added 2/8/11

this chart added 2/8/11

this chart added 2/8/11

this chart added 2/8/11


Is greed good?

July 14, 2010

Our free market system is supposed to be a way to reconcile self-interest with the public interest.  As Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations –

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

Smith patronized the butcher, the brewer and the baker that gave him the best meat, beer and bread for the best price.  So it was in their interest to give him the best product for the best price that was compatible with making a profit.  You didn’t need some mastermind, according to his theory, trying to figure out what was a just price.

Most human beings act in their own self-interest.  Certainly I do.  As a newspaper reporter, I was fortunate in being able to do work that I liked, and that I thought at the time served a public purpose, but I expected to be paid, and I would not have worked if I had not been paid. Nor did I ever turn down a pay raise because of the possibility I was being overpaid compared to some more-deserving fellow reporter.

At the same time, there are things I would not have done for money.  As a newspaper reporter, I would not have written something I thought untrue to keep in the good graces of an editor or publisher.  I felt a certain loyalty to my employer and to professional standards that was over and above my paycheck.

People who create value deserve to be rewarded.  People who create things of great value deserve to be richly rewarded.  At the same time our capitalistic free-enterprise system doesn’t have a good way to distinguish between people who create value and people who milk the system.


Newspaper map of the world

July 14, 2010

The Newseum in Washington, D.C., has a fascinating  Newspaper Map of the World that allows you to read front pages of newspapers around the world just by mouse-clicking on the city location on the map.  You can also get a display of newspaper front pages by region, and access to a newspaper’s web site if it has one.

Not every nation or region of the world participates.  There are 24 newspaper front pages from Germany, but only one from France and only four from the entire continent of Africa.  Still, it is interesting to see the newspapers from the different, even if you can’t read the language, and English-language publications aren’t limited to English-speaking countries.

The display includes newspapers from every U.S. state and editions the Stars and Stripes, the U.S. armed forces newspaper, published in Germany and Japan.


Conservatives and liberals: the difference

July 13, 2010

According to blogger Freddie de Boer, the difference between conservatives and liberals is this: –

When conservatives argue, they say, “My position is the really conservative one.”

When liberals argue, they often still say, “My position isn’t too liberal. Don’t worry.”

Picking on cigarette smokers

July 12, 2010

When I covered business for the Democrat and Chronicle, I would always look for the cigarette smokers – taking their breaks outside the building, in scorching sun or freezing rain.  They were generally the rebels and malcontents, and they gave me an insider’s view I couldn’t have got from the company executives or PR people.

The reversal in attitudes toward cigarette smoking is one of the biggest societal changes in my lifetime. When I was growing up, not smoking marked me as an oddity.  Humphrey Bogart smoked cigarettes. So did Edward R. Murrow. Smoking was cool.

Now it is smokers who are in the minority.  And they are a highly unpopular minority, subject to all kinds of petty persecution.  It is as if society needs an unpopular minority group that it is legitimate to despise and pick on, and in a society increasingly tolerant of differences of race, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation, somebody else has to be found to fill that ecological niche – not that smokers are lynched or denied the right to vote.

Smoking is hazardous to your health.  And nicotine is addictive.  But the U.S. approach to this problem is not to regulate the tobacco companies, or eliminate subsidies for tobacco growers, but to interfere with the daily lives of individual cigarette smokers.

A Wharton School of Finance study found that Philip Morris (now the Altria Group) was by far the most profitable on the companies on Standard & Poor’s 500 index.  An investment of $1,000 in 1957 in the S&P index would have yielded about $125,000 by the end of 2003, but $1,000 invited in Philip Morris would have yielded nearly $4.6 million.

I never smoked cigarettes.  I recall at age 12 or 13 picking up an adult’s smoldering cigarette from an ashtray when she was out of the room, and inhaling. It was so unpleasant I never tried it again.  But I have no feeling of self-righteousness over this.  I do other things that are bad for my health, and I fail to do things I ought to do for the sake of my health.

So I believe in live and let live.  I think I’m better off smoking than not smoking.  But I know that nobody ever made themselves immortal by observing safety rules.


The legacy of nuclear testing

July 12, 2010

David Inman writes a weekly column answering questions about old movies and TV shows, which is published in my local newspaper’s TV section. In last week’s column, he wrote about how the movie, “The Conqueror,” starring John Wayne as Genghis Khan, was filmed in Utah in 1957 near a nuclear test site still contaminated with radioactive fallout.  Inman wrote that John Wayne, co-stars Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead and John Hoyt, and director Dick Powell all died of cancer.  He said a 1980 article reported that 91 of the 220 members of the cast and crew had contracted cancer.

I take this with a grain of salt.  I don’t know the source of the information, and, more importantly, I don’t know how many of a random group of 220 adults could be expected to contract cancer over a 23-year period.  Even so, the legacy of radioactive contamination from nuclear testing is real. Whatever the effects on human health, they are not nothing.

Click on Nuclear Explosions 1945-1998 to see the whole sad history in graphic form.  The video is more than five minutes long, but it is worthwhile watching the whole way through.


Naomi’s Rule

July 11, 2010

If you want a kitten, start out by asking for a horse.