Archive for September, 2011

President Roosevelt on fighting unemployment

September 30, 2011

Here’s what President Franklin Roosevelt had to say in a Fireside Chat on Sept. 30, 1934, about infrastructure improvement and unemployment.  What he said is just as true today as it was then.

To those who say that our expenditures for Public Works and other means for recovery are a waste that we cannot afford, I answer that no country, however rich, can afford the waste of its human resources.  Demoralization caused by vast unemployment is our greatest extravagance.  Morally, it is the greatest menace to our social order.  Some people try to tell me that we must make up our minds that for the future we shall permanently have millions of unemployed just as other countries have had them for over a decade.  What may be necessary for those countries is not my responsibility to determine.  But as for this country, I stand or fall by my refusal to accept as a necessary condition of our future a permanent army of unemployed.  On the contrary, we must make it a national principle that we will not tolerate a large army of unemployed and that we will arrange our national economy to end our present unemployment as soon as we can and then to take wise measures against its return.  I do not want to think that it is the destiny of any American to remain permanently on relief rolls.

Click on FDR Chat 6 for the whole speech.

Hat tip to Fred Clark’s slacktivist web log.

President Obama executes a death warrant

September 30, 2011

Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.  No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.

==U.S. Constitution, Article III, Section 3

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentiment or indictment of a Grand Jury … … nor be deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law.

==U.S. Constitution, Amendment V

President Barack Obama at the beginning of last year said he had signed a list of death warrants for people he considered to be enemies of the United States, including an American citizen named Anwar al-Awlaki, a Muslim cleric in Yemen.

Al-Awlaki is said to have an operational role in al-Qaeda.  If this is true, he is guilty of treason, for which the penalty can be death.  But he was never charged with treason, or anything else.  An indictment would have given him a chance to turn himself in, and defend himself in open court.

It is very possible he was a guilty of something serious, but there is no way to know for sure because President Obama has taken on the role of judge, jury and executioner.

I don’t think I am using excessive language when I say this precedent is more dangerous to American freedom than anything Anwar al-Awlaki could have done as an al-Qaeda supporter.

If Presidential death warrants and assassinations come to be accepted as legal, there is no reason to think they will be limited to radical Muslims.   All kinds of people have been accused of terrorism—religious cults, right-wing militias, animal rights advocates, environmental activists, war protestors.

Conservative Republicans who think universal health care or financial regulation represent dangerous concentrations of federal power ought to consider whether giving the President the right to assassinate at will is a dangerous power.

Liberal Democrats who think President Obama can be trusted with this power ought to consider whether President Rick Perry, President Mitt Romney or President Michelle Bachman can be trusted with this power.

Click on The due-process-free assassination of American citizens is now a reality for Glenn Greenwald’s excellent summing up.

Click on A dark day for the Constitution: American killed by drone strike for comment on The American Conservative web log.

Click on Al-Awlaqi Should Have Been Tried In Abstentia for Prof. Juan Cole’s suggestion. [Added 10/1/11]

The soft bigotry of low expectations

September 30, 2011

When Barack Obama was elected President in 2008, he won a larger share of the vote of both white people and black people than did John Kerry or Al Gore.  But now his support among white voters has fallen off sharply.

A political scientist named Melissa Harris-Perry wrote in The Nation that Obama’s reflects an insidious form of racism.  President Obama’s achievements are equal to those of President Bill Clinton, she said, but while Clinton’s support increased when he ran for a second term, white voters are deserting Obama.

But President Obama’s support is declining across the board.  It is not that he has failed to appeal to this sub-group or that sub-group.   It is that the economy is getting worse, and he does not offer any hope for a turnaround.

Click to view

I agree that it is fair to compare Barack Obama with Bill Clinton.  Both are highly able politicians, with a good understanding of policy, who did little or nothing to challenge the status quo.  Clinton presided over a thriving economy.  This may have been due as much to good luck as good management, but it is a law of politics that those in office take credit for the rain and get blamed for the drought.  Unfortunately all the long-range problems which Clinton did not address and which George W. Bush made worse have come to a head now.

President Obama took office facing the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression (which may become the Second Great Depression), a jobs crisis, a mortgage foreclosure crisis, a financial crisis, a health insurance crisis, two foreign quagmire wars and an out-of-control national security establishment, plus a political opposition determined to keep the government in a perpetual state of artificial crisis.

I can’t blame him for not single-handedly solving all these problems at once.  My problem with Obama is that he does not show a way forward on any of them.   Melissa Harris-Perry does not claim that she shows a way forward.  Her claim is that Obama is no worse than his immediate predecessors and current rivals.

Unfortunately that’s true.  But this is like saying you should keep the doctor who can’t cure your life-threatening illness because he or she is no worse than average.  The point is not whether your doctor’s excuses for failure are valid.  The point is to stay alive.

The lesson of the Obama Presidency is that just choosing from the menu of candidates the system serves up is not enough to save our country and its liberties.


The stakes in the GOP presidential race

September 29, 2011

Click on Someecards for more like this.

The attractions of virtual reality

September 28, 2011

Science fiction writers have long imagined a world in which a virtual reality existed side-by-side with physical reality, and had just as much significance.  In the later Star Trek series, the crew’s fascination with the Holodeck and Holosuite created real problems.  But in Vernor Vinge’s True Names (1981) posited a virtual world in which people could interact in a more meaningful way than in the physical world.   Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992) and Walter Jon Williams’ This Is Not a Game (2009) depict near-future worlds in which virtual reality enriches physical reality, and people move back and forth between the two.

The problem is to draw the line between virtual reality enriching your life and virtual reality taking over your life.  A young blogger called “Frost” puts the issue thus.

Playing Halo makes your hindbrain think you’re a brave hero, defeating enemy tribes and protecting/impressing your women.  Watching Friends makes it think you’re hanging out with a bunch of attractive, witty friends.   Jerking off to porn makes it think you’re banging hot sluts.

If you let these kinds of artificial stimuli take over your life, you become a prisoner to Virtual Reality.  Maybe that’s OK to you.  If not, get ready to test your willpower in the coming years, because the VR stimuli is only going to get better.  If you want to live a complete and fulfilling real life, you have to be strong enough to resist the temptations of fake accomplishment that trigger your brain’s neurochemical reward circuits all the same.  … …

Setting limits on your virtual life will keep it from taking over your real life, he says; if you can’t set limits, you have to kick the habit entirely.

Remove the VR, and you force real life to intrude.  If you work a second full-time job in the World of Warcraft, this approach is probably best for you.  Quit cold turkey, and give yourself the challenge of having to fill up those once-wasted hours.  You can sit and stare at a wall, or you can hit the gym, call a friend, read a book, skip through a meadow or whatever.

Then there is a third option.

… Live a life of VR, and accept it.   Get your sense-of-accomplishment chemicals from imaginary quests, get your damn-son-I-get-laid-like-tile chemicals from Red Tube, and get your social interaction from 4chan.  Maybe you laugh now, but millions of men have already chosen this path, and the ability of technology to flood our brain’s reward centers will only improve with time.

When you stop and think about it, our whole social world is a virtual reality.  Middle-class people in the advanced industrial countries are free from the constraints of physical reality in a way that was only possible to a handful of aristocrats and emperors in previous centures.  We are less concerned about physical survival or physical pleasure than we are about winning prizes.

If Mahatma Gandhi or one of my Neolithic ancestors saw a teenager playing Grand Theft Auto, a speculator trading commodities on the Chicago Board of Trade, or me writing a post on my web log, it would seem the same to them—somebody doing abstract things with a keyboard and screen.

I think that there are (at least) four important distinctions to consider in deciding how far to go into the virtual world.


Citizenship in emergency: the 9-11 boatlift

September 27, 2011

The rescue of nearly 500,000 people from the southern tip of Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001, mostly by civilian skippers, was possibly the largest seaborne evacuation in history.

I never even heard of it until I came across a link to this video on Radley Balko’s The Agitator.

When will the student loan bubble burst?

September 27, 2011

Click to view

This chart from The Atlantic magazine’s web site shows how student debt has increased just since 1999.  The red line is student debt, the blue line is all other individual and family debt.  While American families overall have stopped taking on new debt and are even paying down existing debt a little, student debt loan continues to mount.

The New York Federal Reserve Bank estimated American student debt was $90 billion at the start of 1999 and $550 billion by the second quarter of this year, according to Sarah Jaffe on AlterNet; the U.S. Department of Education estimates student debt at $805 billion, and says it will soon reach $1 trillion.

One cause is the high unemployment rate among recent college graduates, which means they let their debts compound instead of paying them off; another is the increase in tuition at public colleges and universities.

President Obama rightly stated in his State of the Union address last year that “nobody should have to go broke because they choose to go to college.”   If a college graduate doesn’t get off on the right foot, he or she can be in the equivalent of indentured servitude for the rest of their life.

But the student loan debt bubble affects more people than just the debtors.  If you have loan repayments of $400 to $1,000 a month, that’s money you don’t spend or invest in the larger economy.  And eventually, unless something changes, the student debt bubble is going to burst, with consequences as catastrophic to the larger economy as the bursting of the home mortgage bubble.

Student loans are different from other kinds of debt.  You can’t discharge the debt by going through bankruptcy.  The result is that unless you graduate from college and immediately get a job that pays big money, there is a good chance you will spend the rest of your life with a large, compounding debt from which you never can get out from under.

The average college student graduates with a debt of about $27,000, but that can easily mount to $100,000 or more through compound interest, fees and penalties.  Lenders can garnish wages, intercept tax refunds and, when the time comes, dock Social Security payments.

In his address last year, President Obama proposed student loan forgiveness after 20 years or, for those who commit to public service, after 10 years.  He also proposed a $10,000 tax credit for families who send sons or daughters to four-year colleges.  But his recent agreement with House Speaker John Boehner on the debt ceiling will actually make things worse for college students.  Under that agreement, interest would start accumulating on student loans while students are still in graduate or professional school.  By one estimate, this means they’ll leave school with 16 percent more debt on average.

One thing Congress could do to help would be to allow student loan debtors the benefit of federal bankruptcy law after a certain period—say 10 years.  But there is little chance of that.   In fact, the bipartisan congressional deficit reduction committee is likely to make things even harder on student loan debtors.

When I went to college in the 1950s, state colleges offered college educations to anybody capable of doing college work at tuition rates anybody could pay.  Middle class families could save up to put their children through college without going into debt, and poorer students could work their way through college without going into debt.

I would like to see the state college systems resume their original mission, and get rid of all the chancellors who want to turn colleges into profit centers for their own aggrandizement.  But seeing as how financially strapped the state governments are, there is little chance of this, either.

Click on Is the Near-Trillion-Dollar Student Loan Bubble About to Pop? to read Sarah Jaffe’s article on AlterNet.

Click on The Debt Crisis at American Colleges for analysis by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus in The Atlantic Monthly.

Click on Student Loans Have Grown 511% Since 1999 for the above chart with an accompanying article in The Atlantic Monthly.

Click on Why we need student loan forgiveness for the thoughts of Mychal Denzel Smith on The Griot web log.

Click on The student loan train wreck, The subprime student loan crime scene and Is higher education turning into a ripoff? for my earlier posts on this subject.

[Added 9/28/11]  I was hasty in asserting that other consumer debt is being paid down.

The FDIC in its quarterly report for the 2nd quarter shows that loan portfolios increased by $34.3 billion to commercial and industrial borrowers, auto loans increased by $9.7 billion, and credit card debt increased by $5.2 billion.

… The debt deleveraging story line … did not wish to take into account that consumers were defaulting and banks were writing off debts more than consumers were paying them down.

via New Deal 2.0.

Can liberals and libertarians join forces?

September 26, 2011

This video shows a conversation between Paul Jay, CEO and editor-in-chief of the left-liberal Real News Network, and Matt Welch, editor-in-chief of Reason, a libertarian magazine whose motto is “free minds and free markets,” on what liberals and libertarians have in common.

Liberals and libertarians both oppose the United States drift toward militarism and a police state.  They agree in upholding basic human rights under the Constitution.  They both are appalled by the idea that a President can issue death warrants, order someone locked up without a criminal charge or trial, or make it a crime to reveal the government’s crimes.  They both want to scale back the open-ended so-called “war on terror” and bring the Defense and Homeland Security budgets under control.

So why don’t liberals support the libertarian Republican Ron Paul?   The problem for liberals is Ron Paul is opposed to civil rights laws, to health, safety and environmental laws, to the social safety net and to laws to protect labor’s rights to organize – virtually all the accomplishments of the Progressive era and the New Deal.

Matt Welch argues that if your first loyalty is to the Constitution, this should be an acceptable tradeoff, and that a Democrat should vote for Ron Paul rather than Barack Obama.  One might ask Matt Welch whether he would vote for the liberal Democrat Dennis Kucinich if hypothetically Kucinich were to run against Rick Perry or Mitt Romney.   Kucinich is just as strong an opponent of militarism and the emerging U.S. police state as Ron Paul.


UN vote can’t make Palestine a state

September 25, 2011

The United Nations Security Council tomorrow will take up the question of whether to recognize Palestine as an independent state.  Weeks or months could pass before the question is put to a vote.  But since the United States already has announced we will veto any such recognition, the only question is whether the Security Council will grant Palestine “observer” status, like the Vatican.

Palestine 2007

But even if the United Nations did recognize Palestine as a state, that wouldn’t made it one, any more than recognizing Tibet, Chechnya, the Basque homeland or the Seneca Nation of Indians as independent states would make them such.   Palestinian statehood will come only when Palestinians force or persuade the government of Israel to accept it.

UN recognition certainly would be helpful to the Palestinian cause, just as French, Dutch and Spanish recognition was helpful to the infant United States during the American Revolution, and British recognition would have been helpful to the Confederate States during the American Civil War.  But it was victory in battle that secured American independence, and defeat in battle that denied independence to the South.

Similarly UN recognition of Chiang Kai-sek’s government on Taiwan as the Republic of China did not make it so.  Mao Tse-Tung’s government in Beijing was the actual government of China long before the United States and United Nations recognized it as such.

Currently the Security Council consists of five permanent members, the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China, and 10 members elected by the General Assembly, Bosnia/Herzegovina, Brazil, Colombia, Gabon, Germany, India, Lebanon, Nigeria, Portugal and South Africa.  To pass, a “substantive matter such as statehood for Palestine, would need nine votes, including concurrence of all five permanent members.  But the General Assembly could by majority vote take “procedural” action to upgrade the Palestinian observer status to that of a non-voting “Observer State.”

For what it’s worth, I wish the Palestinians well.  I would like to see them have their own government and live in peace with Israel.  I don’t foresee this happening anytime soon.  If I were a Palestinian, the thing I would most want the United States to do is to cut back on its $3 billion annual aid to Israel and to stop supplying Israel with advanced weapons such as bunker-buster bombs.

Suzanne Fields in a column in my morning newspaper accused President Obama of “throwing Israel under the bus”  Some bus!  Israel gets one-third of the U.S. foreign aid budget, and the runner-up is Egypt, which has been getting $1.3 billion a year essentially as a bribe to stay at peace with Israel.

Aid to Israel will not be cut as part of the U.S. budget-balancing effort.  President Obama has prosposed an increase in aid to Israel.  Republicans in Congress propose cutting foreign aid to Pakistan and to Arab states bordering Israel, but not Israel.  The Republican leadership repudiated Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and his son, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who wanted Israel included in the overall budget cuts.

A spiritual pilgrimage to Concord

September 25, 2011

My friend Anne Tanner e-mailed me a link to a web log written by her friend, Lori Erickson, an Episcopal deacon and travel writer who visits sacred sites—mainly sites of Christian pilgrimage, but including sites held sacred by different kinds of people for different reasons.

Anne foresaw that I would be particularly interested in what Lori Erickson saw and wrote about in Concord, Mass., home of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott and other people that we Unitarian Universalists like to think of as our spiritual ancestors.

Henry Thoreau's grave

Of all the markers, it was Thoreau’s grave that brought tears to my eyes. When you approach it from a distance, you can see a large, impressive monument that bears the name “Thoreau,” but as you draw closer you realize that this is the family burial stone, filled with the names of his relatives.  Nearby is a tiny marker that bears a single name: “Henry.”  In death, as in life, Henry David Thoreau doesn’t take up much real estate.

Here’s what touched me the most.  His grave is obviously a pilgrimage site for many people, for like many holy sites it’s covered with tokens and offerings.  I’ve seen hundreds of such holy sites before, but I was surprised and moved by what people bring to Thoreau’s grave.  Scattered around the small stone were pencils and pens, plus scraps of paper on which people have written their favorite passages from his work.  How utterly perfect.

Thoreau likely would complain about the waste of perfectly good writing utensils, but at the same time, I can imagine him being pleased that after all these years, his words still draw people here, to this quiet spot beneath tall trees.

via Spiritual Travels.


What polar bears do for fun

September 24, 2011

Some aphorisms of Hugh MacLeod

September 23, 2011

Hugh MacLeod is an on-line cartoonist whose home page gets more than 1.5 million hits a month.  I never heard of him until a few days ago when I came across a reference to him on another web site.

These aphorisms are from his book, Ignore Everybody: and 39 Other Keys to Creativity (which I haven’t read).

The more original your idea is, the less good advice people will be able to give you.

Good ideas alter the power balance in relationships, which is why good ideas are always initially resisted.

Your idea doesn’t have to be big.  It just has to be your own.

The price of being a sheep is boredom.  The price of being a wolf is loneliness.

Being good at anything is like figure skating – the definition of being good at it is being able to make it look easy.  But it never is easy.  Ever.

Your job is probably worth 50 percent of what it was in real terms 10 years ago.

Part of being a master is learning to sing in nobody else’s voice but your own.  Put your whole self into it, and you will find your true voice.  Hold back and you won’t.

The biggest mistake young people make is underestimating how competitive the world is.

Click on Gaping Void for Hugh MacLeod’s home page.

Click on Almost Famous for the story of how he gave up his job as an advertising account executive and began his present career.

Hat tip to Freedom Twenty-Five.

Kicking the Internet habit

September 22, 2011

When I worked for newspapers, I often would get home from work late at night, flop down on my sofa and start flipping through TV channels.  Even when I didn’t find anything I liked, I would sit in a mindless stupor and keep on going through the channels.  The next morning I would wake up tired and wonder why I wasted my time this way.

Nowadays I hardly ever watch television, and I only subscribe to the Basic cable service.  But sometimes I duplicate this mindlessly addictive pattern in my Internet use.  I go mindlessly flipping through different web logs, even though I’m not looking for anything in particular and don’t find any new or interesting information.

Scientific research indicates that just as people and animals can become conditioned to seek pleasure, they can be conditioned to seek novelty.  Other research indicates that the most effective form of conditioning is random reinforcement.  You keep trying even when there is no reward because (as the New York Lottery ads say) hey, you never know.

I enjoy writing on this web log, and am pleased that there are people who find it interesting, but sometimes it becomes an obsession, too, taking away more than is good from the rest of my life.   My reward is the number of page views.  I am conditioned, I supposed, to seek approval, even the approval of people I don’t know and will never meet.

I don’t want to make too much of this, but I am reminded of the devil Screwtape in C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, who tells his nephew that the most elegant form of damnation is to lure the subject away from doing what he ought to do to something that does not even give him real pleasure.

The on-line cartoonist “xkcd” posted ideas on how to break out of this conditioning.

I made it a rule that as soon as I finished any task, or got bored with it, I had to power off my computer.

I could turn it back on right away—this wasn’t about trying to use the computer less.  The rule was just that the moment I finished (or lost interest in) the thing I was doing, and felt like checking Google News et. al., before I had time to think too much, I’d start the shutdown process.  There was no struggle of willpower; I knew that after I hit the button, I could decide to do anything I wanted.   But if I decided to look at a website, I’d have to wait through the startup, and once I was done, I’d have to turn it off again before doing anything else. … … …

There’s some interesting research about novelty and dopamine, suggesting (tentatively) that for some people exposure to novelty may activate the same reward system that drug abuse does.   In my case, I felt like my problem was that whenever I was trying to focus on a (rewarding) project, these sites were always in the background offering a quicker and easier rush. I’d sit down to write code, draw something, build something, or clean, and the moment I hit a little bump—math I wasn’t sure how to handle, a sentence I couldn’t word right, an electronic part I couldn’t find, or a sock without a mate—I’d find myself switching to one of these sites and refreshing. 

Reward was briefly unavailable from the project, but constantly available from the internet.   Adding the time-delay removed the promise of instant novelty, and perhaps helped disconnect the action from the reward in my head.   Without that connection dominating my decisions, I could think more clearly about whether the task was really important to me. … …

It was remarkable how quickly the urges to constantly check those sites vanished.   Also remarkable was that for the first time in years, I was keeping my room clean.  Since the computer was no longer an instant novelty dispenser, when I got antsy or bored I’d look around my room for a distraction, and wind up picking up a random object and putting it away.

Click on Distraction Affliction Correction Extension for the full post.

Click on Resist Virtual Reality Addiction for the thoughts of young “Frost” on his Freedom Twenty-Five web log.

Click on How to Read for more of Frost’s ideas.  I don’t follow any of these suggestions myself, but that doesn’t mean they’re not good.

Click on The Acceleration of Addictiveness for the thoughts of entrepreneur-essayist Paul Graham.

U.S. priorities and Big Brother’s technologies

September 21, 2011

The United States lags other developed countries in high-speed Internet service, green technologies, high-speed rail, fuel-efficient cars and buildings.  But there are some fields in which we do lead—the Big Brother technologies of war and surveillance.

The United States military is attempting to create biometric IDs for the entire populations of Afghanistan and Iraq.  What other country is attempting anything this ambitious?  The United States has pioneered unmanned aerial vehicles, the predator drones, which can fly themselves and target not just a city or a house, but an individual human being.  And this is just the vanguard of a robot army which will operate on land, sea and in the air.  What other country has anything to match this?

We Americans have not lost our Yankee ingenuity.  It is just being devoted to new priorities.  Christian Caryl wrote in the New York Review of Books that the U.S. aerospace industry has ceased research and development on manned aircraft, and is devoting its entire resources to improved pilotless vehicles.  Foreign companies may get ahead civilian aircraft technology, but the United States will maintain its lead in flying killer robots.

Click on Army Reveals Afghan Biometic ID Plan and Iraqi Biometic Indentification System for background information on biometric ID.

Click on Predators and Robots at War for Christian Caryl’s excellent article in the New York Review of Books.

Click on Flying Killer Robots Over Pakistan for my earlier post on this subject, and more links.

U.S. lagging in high-speed Internet

September 20, 2011

Double click to enlarge

A branch of the U.S. government, the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency, created the Internet, and Al Gore and other statesmen enacted legislation to make the resources of the Internet available to the general public.   The Internet is an American creation.

So how is it that the French offer broadband Internet service more than three times as fast at half the cost that we Americans pay?  I can remember when Americans mocked the French for their inefficient telephone system and other public services.  That was then.  Things are different now.

The difference in speed makes no difference to a casual Internet user such as myself.  But it would make a great deal of difference to an information-intensive business in a highly competitive market.  Internet service is part of the infrastructure we hear so much about, and it has to be maintained and upgraded, just like bridges, airports and levees.

I’m not sure why other countries should have gotten ahead of the United States on this.  We Americans are just as intelligent and enterprising as we always were, and our country has more than its share of scientists, engineers and other professionals.

One possible answer is in Federal Communications Commission policy.  A 1996 law requires telephone and cable companies to provide equal access to rival telecommunications companies.  In 2005, George W. Bush’s FCC reclassified Internet service providers as information companies, which freed telephone and cable companies to create local monopolies.  Without competition, there is no incentive to upgrade service.  If this is the root of the problem, then it is hard to see why Barack Obama’s FCC does not reclassify ISPs as telecom companies.

Click on Internet Speeds Around the World for the source and context of the infographic above.

Click on Akamai State of the Internet Report for a report on Internet services with international comparisons.

Click on Over 2 Billion Internet Users Worldwide for more information on Internet services worldwide.

Click on An Internet for Everybody for analysis in the New York Times by Susan Crawford, former special assistant to President Obama for science, technology and innovation policy.

Click on Come to the United States for slow and expensive Internet and Where is fast cheap broadband? Not in the United States for analysis by Erich Veith, a St. Louis attorney.

Long-time Republican leaves “apocalyptic cult”

September 20, 2011

Michael S. Lofgren was a respected Republican congressional staff member for 28 years.  He worked for Rep. John Kasich from 1983 to 1994, and then was a Republican staff member for the House and Senate budget committees until he resigned in June, saying the Republican Party had devolved into an “apocalyptic cult.”

He gave his reasons for quitting in an eloquent statement that is making the rounds of the Internet.  I think he sums up the current American political situation well.

I left because I was appalled at the headlong rush of Republicans, like Gadarene swine, to embrace policies that are deeply damaging to this country’s future; and contemptuous of the feckless, craven incompetence of Democrats in their half-hearted attempts to stop them.

Michael Lofgren

And, in truth, I left as an act of rational self-interest.  Having gutted private-sector pensions and health benefits as a result of their embrace of outsourcing, union busting and “shareholder value,” the GOP now thinks it is only fair that public-sector workers give up their pensions and benefits, too.  Hence the intensification of the GOP’s decades-long campaign of scorn against government workers.  Under the circumstances, it is simply safer to be a current retiree rather than a prospective one.

If you think Paul Ryan and his Ayn Rand-worshiping colleagues aren’t after your Social Security and Medicare, I am here to disabuse you of your naiveté.  They will move heaven and earth to force through tax cuts that will so starve the government of revenue that they will be “forced” to make “hard choices” – and that doesn’t mean repealing those very same tax cuts, it means cutting the benefits for which you worked.

During the week that this piece was written, the debt ceiling fiasco reached its conclusion.  The economy was already weak, but the GOP’s disgraceful game of chicken roiled the markets even further.  Foreigners could hardly believe it: Americans’ own crazy political actions were destabilizing the safe-haven status of the dollar.  Accordingly, during that same week, over one trillion dollars worth of assets evaporated on financial markets.  Russia and China have stepped up their advocating that the dollar be replaced as the global reserve currency – a move as consequential and disastrous for US interests as any that can be imagined.

If Republicans have perfected a new form of politics that is successful electorally at the same time that it unleashes major policy disasters, it means twilight both for the democratic process and America’s status as the world’s leading power.

via Truthout.

That’s strong language, but I don’t think it is exaggerated.


Rick Perry enters the G.O.P. mainstream

September 19, 2011


Optimism, pessimism and delusion

September 18, 2011

The believer is happy.
The doubter is wise.
    ==Spanish proverb

Most human beings are more optimistic than the facts warrant.  Many studies show that people regard themselves as more important, more well-regarded, more talented and more virtuous than their friends and loved ones see them.  We think we are like the children in Lake Wobegon, who are all above average.

Martin Seligman, the author of Learned Optimism (1990, 1997) and Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Achieve Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment (2002), which I read a couple of years ago, thinks this is a good thing, not a bad thing.  Morbidly depressed people on average have a more accurate idea of their life situation than optimists, but they don’t do as well.  Seligman claims it is better to be optimistic and slightly unrealistic than to be pessimistic and clear-sighted.

Martin Seligman is the psychologist who developed the concept of “learned helplessness.”  His experiments showed that dogs or undergraduates who are confronted with problems for which there is no possible solution tend not only to give up, but to fail to respond to future problems.  Through further study, he concluded that the reverse is true.  Success in solving problems gives a sense of mastery that carries over in responding to future problems.

He found that optimism is a major factor in the success of insurance salesmen, West Point plebes, and athletes.  Optimists on average are more successful and pessimists less successful than their level of talent and commitment would lead you to expect, he wrote; optimists on average are less subject to disease, if only because they are more likely to maintain good health habits and follow doctors’ orders.

Pessimists on average are more subject to depression; optimists are more resilient in the fact of adversity.  I would have expected optimists to be more likely to collapse when their illusions are punctured, but Seligman said this is not the case. This is not to say that pessimists can’t be healthy or successful in life, just that the odds favor optimists.

Seligman found that optimism and pessimism come from “explanatory strategies.” Pessimists regard bad things as pervasive, permanent and personal (“this happens with everything, it happens all the time and it’s all my fault”) and good things as particular, temporary and external. Optimists are the reverse.

I was brought up to believe it better to take responsibility for failures and to refrain from boasting of successes.   If Seligman is right, the reverse is true.

People tend to have an inborn “set point” for optimism and pessimism, Seligman wrote; in his experiments, there were some people who never gave up no matter how many times they failed, and others who were defeated by the least little thing.  But it is possible to consciously change your set point, he said.

Seligman told how, while gardening, he snapped at his five-year-old daughter for some minor thing.   The daughter asked him if he had noticed that she hadn’t done so much whining lately.  Seligman acknowledged that she had. She told him that if she could stop whining, he could stop being a grouch.   The point is that it is possible to consciously change your patterns of behavior, whether you’re a young child or middle-aged adult.   Seligman said his own “set point” is mild pessimism (so is mine, I think).   He said he has used his techniques to teach himself and his children optimism.

But since pessimists tend to have a more accurate perception of reality than do optimists, the desired state is not be locked into either optimism or pessimism, but to control your mind so you can shift between optimism and mild pessimism as the situation warrants.

Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a chapter in her book Bright-Sided debunking Seligman.   His conclusions have no scientific foundation, she wrote; for every study that confirms his ideas, there are others rebutting them.  Seligman is doing well financially as a lecturer, consultant and workshop leader, but she said his claims go beyond his knowledge.  She said she confronted him with her objections in an interview, and he was such a difficult subject that she wondered if he was trying his “learned helplessness” theory on her.  I think there is truth in her objections, but I also think that, taken as a philosophy of life rather than a scientific theory, Seligman’s ideas have merit.


Overdosing on positive thinking

September 17, 2011

I expanded this article and rewrote the headline on Sept. 18, 2011.  I inserted the two videos on Nov. 1, 2011.  The RSA Animate video at the beginning of the article is abstracted from a longer talk recorded in the longer video at the end.

Somebody—maybe it was Robert A. Heinlein’s Lazarus Long character—remarked that if you pray hard enough, you can make water flow uphill.  And if you pray and water continues to flow downhill?  Obviously you didn’t pray hard enough.  The contemporary U.S. cult of positive thinking tells us that if we think positively enough, we can be healthy, wealthy and loved.  And if we aren’t?  We weren’t positive enough.

Barbara Ehrenreich in her 2009 book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, said this attitude permeates American society.

The medical profession prescribes positive thinking for its supposed health benefits.  Corporations demand their employees be cheerful and optimistic, and, when they lay people off, send them on their way with self-help courses.  Evangelical megachurches tell parishioners that you only have to have faith to get what you wish for, because God wants you to have it.

At the extreme, positive pastors such as Joel Osteen are preaching a form of sympathetic magic, like the Cargo Cults in the South Seas following World War Two; all you have to do to get what you want is to visualize it and wish for it hard enough.

Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, encountered the positive thinking cult when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.  When she expressed her fear and anger on an Internet message board, a fellow patient told her to run, not walk, to therapy, because she supposedly was harming her recovery with her bad attitude.  Ehrenreich, who has an advanced degree in cell biology, thought  her anger was justified.  She had reason to think her cancer may have been caused by her earlier hormone replacement therapy.  She said that hopefulness is better than despair, and cheerfulness will make life easier for your caregivers, but there is no clinical evidence that either will make your cancer go away.

In her book, she traced the history of positive thinking back to the late 19th century, and its origins in Phineas T. Quimby’s New Thought and Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science.  She saw Quimby and Eddy as rebels against Calvinism, under whose influence people literally did make themselves sick through obsession with sin and their personal unworthiness.

The creed of the “abundance” gospel is the opposite of Calvinism.  Instead of telling people they are sinners who need to be forgiven, positive preachers told them that they are entitled to the good things in life, which God will give them if they just wish for them and have faith that they will get it.   Poor people were encouraged to talk out mortgage loans they couldn’t pay back, because God would provide.

When illness or economic calamity struck, they were told the fault was in themselves, because of their imperfect faith.  Positive preaching turned out to be a kind of reverse Calvinism.  People were told to constantly monitor their thoughts and feelings, for lack of optimism rather than sinful desires, and to blames themselves for their misfortune.

Positive thinking is a means of social control, Ehrenreich wrote.  Corporate employees with increasing work loads are given motivational talks, not increased pay and benefits.  The unemployed are told their lack of a sufficiently positive attitude keeps them from getting a job, and may have caused them to be unemployed in the first place.  They are encouraged to blame themselves, not employers or the economic system.  They are told to think positively, not band together to demand jobs or change the economic structure.

People giving positive thinking advice may be as cynical as the outplacement counselor played by George Clooney in the movie, “Up In The Air.”  But Ehrenreich found positive thinking is gospel in the higher as well as the lower levels of the corporate world.  In 2206, Mike Gelband, head of Lehman Brothers’ real estate division, warned Lehman CEO Richard Fuld of the real estate bubble. Fuld fired Gelband for his bad attitutde.  Two years later, Lehman Brothers went bankrupt.  Ehrenreich pointed out the similarities between American corporate attitudes and the mandatory optimism of Stalin’s USSR or the Shah’s Iran.

The problem with the kind of optimism that denies reality is that reality eventually catches up with you.  What is needed is the kind of fortitude than enables you to face whatever comes.


“No parking” signs to remember

September 17, 2011

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Pennsylvania and the electoral college

September 16, 2011

Pennsylvania Republicans are considering a plan to change that state’s winner-take-all system for awarding electoral votes for President.  Instead of the state’s 20 electoral votes going to whichever candidate carries Pennsylvania, 18 of the electoral votes would go to whoever gets a majority in each of the state’s 18 congressional districts, with the remaining two going to whoever carries the state.

PA congressional districts

Only two states—Maine and Nebraska—award their electoral votes this way.  All the rest go with winner-take-all.  The Pennsylvania Republican thinking is that Democrats normally carry Pennsylvania as a whole, but Republicans carry many individual congressional districts, so that the change would work to their advantage.  In fact, because of the way Pennsylvania congressional districts are gerrymandered, a Democratic Presidential candidate could gain a majority of the state’s popular votes, while the Republican candidate got a majority of the electoral votes.

If it were up to me, I would have each state direct its electors to vote for the Presidential candidate who won a majority of the national popular vote.  But there is a certain rough balance in the present system.  Each state gets a vote in the Electoral College equal to its members of the House of Representaives and the Senate; that is, a number based on population plus two more.  Small states have more representation that their population warrants, but the winner-take-all system makes the large states more influential because a larger bloc of votes is in play.

If Pennsylvania gets rid of winner-take-all, this might be good for the Republican Party nationwide, but it would reduce the influence of Pennsylvania in national elections.  For this reason I don’t think the change is likely to happen.


Who is “more beholden” to Wall Street?

September 16, 2011

My fellow blogger Ben Hoffman made this comment to an earlier post.

Republicans appear to be more “beholden to Wall Street” than the Democrats since they’ve fought all efforts to rein in the abuses.

I think that’s a good way to put it.  The Democrats are beholden to Wall Street, but the Republicans may be more beholden to Wall Street.  But on questions of interest to Wall Street the parties are more alike than they are different.

Barack Obama and Joe Biden signed on to President Bush’s TARP bailout plan, as did John McCain and Sarah Palin.  Once in office, President Obama continued with President Bush’s economic team, reappointing Ben Bernanke as chair of the Federal Reserve Board, and moving Timothy Geither from the White House to Secretary of the Treasury.

Congressional Democrats did not consider legislation to break up the “too big to fail” banks.  They did not consider legislation to control risky speculation with federally-insured deposits, to restore the barriers between savings and investment banks, to put a minor tax on stock market transactions or to set requirements of bank reserves—any of which would have reined in the Wall Street speculators.

Instead they supported the Dodd-Frank bill, introduced by Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, a center of the insurance industry, and Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, a financial center, which creates a new layer of financial regulation under rules to be determined.

This could be good, if the regulators are wise and firm, and are not thwarted by Congress or the incumbent President.  How likely is that?  How likely is good policy to last from one administration to the next?  In the years prior to the financial crisis of 2007, the government did not use the regulatory authority it had.  A simple statement by Fed chairman Alan Greenspan that real estate prices and stock prices were overvalued might have burst the bubble before it grew too great.  Will a new regulatory body be any different?

The influence of Wall Street banks goes beyond Wall banking regulation.  The bi-partisan priority of financial austerity over fighting unemployment reflects the influence of bankers and financiers, which insists of financial probity in everyone except themselves.

It is true enough that there is a difference between the leadership of the two parties.  The Republican leadership is actively hostile to labor unions, minorities and the working poor; the Democratic leadership merely puts the interests of the big financial institutions first.


The 9-11 Decade: Crusaders and Jihadists

September 15, 2011

This is the last of three interesting documentaries by the Al Jazeera network on the consequences of the 9-11 attacks.

It shows that the goal of Al Qaeda was to instigate a war between the United States and the whole civilization of Islam.  Al Qaeda discredited itself through indiscriminate killing of innocent people, but it remains to be seen whether it has failed to achieve its goal.


Business, not public, driving nation rightward

September 15, 2011

 The political realignment of the Reagan years was a realignment of business interests and not of voter sentiment.  So argued Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers, in their 1986 book, Right Turn: the Decline of the Democrats and the Future of American Politics, a book as enlightening now as it was when it was published 25 years ago, because the situation they describe has not changed.

Public opinion polls in the 1980s showed that a majority of voters favored Social Security and Medicare, gave full employment a higher priority than balanced budgets or lower taxes, believed workers have a right to join labor unions, and had no enthusiasm for getting bogged down in foreign wars—as they still do.

How, then, did Ferguson and Rogers explain Ronald Reagan’s landslide victories in 1980 and 1984?  They said this was a reflection of the unpopularity of the Democrats than allegiance to the Republicans.  Jimmy Carter was rejected because he was unable to deal with stagflation and rising oil prices, and because he supported the tight-money program of Federal Reserve chair Paul Volcker, which brought inflation under control by measure Volcker knew would casue a recession.  Walter Mondale was rejected because his only substantive campaign promise was to raise taxes.

If voter sentiment did not change, what caused the Reagan revolution?  Ferguson and Rogers said business interests realigned as a result of rising oil prices and increased international economic competition in the 1970s.

One consequence was a conflict of interest between the oil industry and manufacturing industry, leading to a majority of oil men shifting their allegiance from the Democratic to the Republican party.  Another was a slowing of U.S. economic growth, resulting in a hardening of corporate attitudes toward taxes, labor unions, environmental and health regulation.  In an era when U.S. economic supremacy was unquestioned, these costs could be passed on to consumers; in an era of intensified global competition, this was not possible.  The result of the Reagan revolution and the pro-corporate movement that followed was that the corporate elite received almost all the benefits of what economic growth there was.

Ferguson and Rogers dismiss the idea that the Reagan administration reflected a change in economic philosophy.  If you examine the Reagan policies in detail, they wrote, they consist of payoffs to constituencies, not implementation of a philosophy.  The Star Wars defense plan was a payoff to the aerospace and computer-electionics industries.

The Democrats were unable to challenge this because their party was (as it still is) beholden to Wall Street.  Bankers and financiers fear inflation above all else, because it reduces the value of their assets, and so favor balanced budgets and spending restraint.  This is why Carter supported Volcker and Mondale advocated a tax increase to balance the federal budget, and why Clinton and Obama gave priority to fiscal probity, and why Democrats have a better overall record than Republicans as budget balancers.


How to focus in an age of distraction

September 14, 2011

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Click on Developing Razor Sharp Focus With Leo Babauta for an explanation of the chart.

Hat tip to The Big Picture.