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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

 
The long march to dismantle democracy

by digby

I've been writing about the conservative movement's long term project to disenfranchise Democratic voters since I started this blog. I had hoped that after the debacle of the 2000 election, the Democrats would take this issue seriously and put some weight behind substantial election reform. This was not to be. As usual, nobody wanted to look in the rearview mirror or play the blame game and now the results are possibly catastrophic.

This piece by Ari Berman in Rolling Stone tells the tale of that project finally coming to fruition. And it's chilling;

As the nation gears up for the 2012 presidential election, Republican officials have launched an unprecedented, centrally coordinated campaign to suppress the elements of the Democratic vote that elected Barack Obama in 2008. Just as Dixiecrats once used poll taxes and literacy tests to bar black Southerners from voting, a new crop of GOP governors and state legislators has passed a series of seemingly disconnected measures that could prevent millions of students, minorities, immigrants, ex-convicts and the elderly from casting ballots. "What has happened this year is the most significant setback to voting rights in this country in a century," says Judith Browne-Dianis, who monitors barriers to voting as co-director of the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization based in Washington, D.C.


There are a lot of scary things going on in our political and economic culture right now. The growing police state, the dysfunctional governing structures, the economic failure and corruption. But this one goes right to the heart of our democracy and attacks it head on.

The movement has been leading up to it for decades, but it's picked up speed in the last 12 years. They impeached a Democratic president and stole an election in a two year time span. They fired US Attorneys for failing to rig elections and dismantled the voting rights section of the DOJ. They've packed the courts with anti-democratic judges and filed cases before them to create a sense of systematic voter fraud that doesn't actually exist. And last November they made their move into state houses all over the country and wasted no time in creating laws to disenfranchise as many liberal voters as possible.

Democrats had better hope that the coming elections aren't close. If they are, there's just no way they can win with these laws that are coming on line. And that's the plan.

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Hitting the streets and the roads

by digby

UK austerity hits the streets:

The economic downturn and the government's deep cuts to welfare will drive up homelessness over the next few years, raising the spectre of middle class people living on the streets, a major study warns.

The report by the homelessness charity Crisis, seen by the Guardian, says there is a direct link between the downturn and rising homelessness as cuts to services and draconian changes to benefits shred the traditional welfare safety net.


It's happening here too. And with all the talk about how charities and volunteers will naturally take up the slack at the local level, it doesn't actually work out that way. And it isn't just Republicans turning a cold shoulder:

The Orange County Democratic Executive Committee wants the region’s top Democrat to stop arresting anti-poverty activists who feed the homeless.

The Orange County party’s officers passed a resolution Monday night calling on Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer to stop enforcing a controversial ordinance that’s led to the arrest of nearly 30 people who handed out food to the homeless at Lake Eola Park.

The resolution asks the same of the six members of the Orlando City Council — Phil Diamond, Sam Ings, Daisy Lynum, Tony Ortiz, Patty Sheehan and Robert Stuart — all but one of whom (Ortiz) are Democrats.

“Whereas, the passage of this ordinance and its enforcement involving arrests may reflect badly on Orlando, internationally. Moreover, adverse publicity about these arrests may significantly hurt the economy and reputation of the City Beautiful,” the resolution reads, in part. “Whereas, as Democrats, we stand firm in our belief in anti-poverty policies and expect our elected officials to do the same.”

The city ordinance requires a permit to feed large groups in downtown parks, and groups are limited to two permits per year, per park. Orlando Food Not Bombs members were arrested after defying the ordinance and sharing food at Lake Eola Park. The first few of those arrested face fines and/or 60 days in jail when they go on trial next week.


If you're lucky enough to own a car, or preferably an RV, you could just move on down the road and join the legions of "Workampers" (aka, itinerant workers):

After communicating with Suzann for more than six months and observing the Ellingsworth’s ups and frequent downs, it’s obvious that workamping is not all fun and games, at least for those who hit the road in need of a job to survive.

Most workamper jobs are of the minimum-wage variety. Workampers generally don’t receive unemployment insurance benefits, severance pay or any warning that a job is about to end. Workampers face many of the same job insecurity issues as the millions of Americans who have been downsized due to job outsourcing, financial mismanagement and slow consumer demand for products and services, except workampers are purposely more nimble and have been conditioned to pack up and move to where the jobs are. “We have to be mobile to land a job,” said Suzann. Those who become jobless and live in traditional stationary homes aren’t usually able to move to another city on a moment’s notice.


That's just good old American entrepreneurship and pluck. Kind of like the Grapes of Wrath with carpeting. (I'll bet some of them have cell phones too, the lucky duckies.)In fact, if we can get the whole middle class to sign on to this we could beat the global competition all to hell. And it solves the housing crisis!

This isn't getting better. We are going on for years now in an epic slump, with no end in sight. People are still losing their homes and their futures in this thing. And instead of dealing with it seriously, we've got Democrats in Orlando throwing volunteers in jail for giving food to people forced to live on the street and Republicans presidential candidates telling everyone that Social Security and Medicare are unconstitutional Ponzi Schemes and cutting help for homeless veterans.

Oy vey.

Here's a little much needed Elizabeth Warren, on the middle class:




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The DOJ steps in to stop wireless duopoly
by David Atkins ("thereisnospoon")

It looks like the T-Mobile girl gets to keep her job for now:

The Justice Department filed a lawsuit on Wednesday to block the proposed $39 billion merger between AT&T and T-Mobile USA on antitrust grounds, saying a deal between the nation’s second- and fourth-largest wireless phone carriers would substantially lessen competition, result in higher prices and give consumers fewer innovative products.

The lawsuit sets up the most substantial antitrust battle since the election of President Obama, who campaigned with promises to revitalize the Justice Department’s policing of mergers and their effects on competition, which he said declined significantly under the Bush administration.

AT&T said it would fight the lawsuit. “We plan to ask for an expedited hearing so the enormous benefits of this merger can be fully reviewed,” the company said in a statement. “The D.O.J. has the burden of proving alleged anti-competitive effects and we intend to vigorously contest this matter in court.”


There's a lot of context here to disentangle. Perhaps the most important is that job creators fatcat corporate executives aren't just sitting on their huge piles of cash. Those wads of cash are not going into hiring workers: if people don't have jobs, they have no money; if they have no money, they don't buy things; if they don't buy things, there's no need for companies to hire workers no matter how much cash they're sitting on. Which is totally why we need to cut back on jobs programs and deliver tax cuts to companies so they have more cash to sit on.

So what is that cash being used for? It's going to mergers and acquisitions like the planned T-Mobile/AT&T deal.

The issue of this particular merger has split coalitional divides on the left: AT&T as a union company has a better track record of hiring minorities than other wireless firms. Also, the Economic Policy Institute issued a report claiming that the merger would create 96,000 jobs based on the idea that further wireless infrastructure would be built as a result of the merger. Those facts have led the AFL-CIO and the Communications Workers of America to support the merger.

Critics counter, however, that such development would take place regardless of the merger due to past infrastructure commitments made by AT&T and the fact that AT&T's network is underinvested compared to other wireless. In the meantime, of course, there are near certain job losses that will come with the merger, including the closure of T-Mobile stores (most of which would not actually be converted to AT&T stores due to fears of market cannibalism from proximate locations.) And, of course, part of the fiscal benefits that AT&T is promising to shareholders as a result of the merger will come, as always in such cases, from consolidation of services: i.e., job losses from elimination of so-called redundancies not only in the stores, but throughout the entire corporate chain.

That is why Al Franken, Herb Kohl, and many others within the Democratic and progressive movements are opposing the merger.

Personally, I think the issue is fraught with complexity, but eliminating a competitor from the wireless marketplace is a really bad idea. The potential for price-fixing and rent-seeking between an AT&T and Verizon duopoly would be very high, and dramatically outweigh any frankly dubious claims of job gains from the merger.

This is one decision, I believe, that Holder and the Obama Administration got right, and I hope they stick to their guns on it. If nothing else, it means Jessica Pare Carly Foulkes will keep the residuals coming in.
 
Cheney the fatuous vampire

by digby

I'm sure you recall that the Bush administration used to say that the violence in Iraq after the invasion was the "birth pangs" of democracy all over the Middle East. Well, it looks like Dick Cheney thinks the head is crowning:

KILMEADE: Is it a reach to say Libya’s unrest…all has a lot to do with what happened in Iraq? Letting those people, seeing those people vote, and the Arab community seeing what’s going on?

CHENEY: Well, I think there may be some of that going on. [...] But I think that what happened in Iraq, the fact that we brought democracy, if you will, and freedom to Iraq, has had a ripple effect on some of those other countries.


This couldn't be a more fatuous explanation. First, it's belied by the facts, which you can read all about here. But the bigger problem is that one can say this about virtually everything. (Sure, "it will all work out in the long run --- but in the long run we'll all be dead")

The Bush administration and their Iraq apologists made an absolute fetish out of this nonsense, mainly because they fucked up everything they touched so royally that they had no other way to explain themselves. I recalled this one recently, but it's worth recounting again as Cheney does his Mission Accomplished Tour:

David Ignatius from last week called Iraq Can Survive This ... makes the increasingly common rightist argument that someday things will probably work out in Iraq so everything we did will have been right in retrospect:

Pessimists increasingly argue that Iraq may be going the way of Lebanon in the 1970s. I hope that isn't so, and that Iraq avoids civil war. But people should realize that even Lebanonization wouldn't be the end of the story. The Lebanese turned to sectarian militias when their army and police couldn't provide security. But through more than 15 years of civil war, Lebanon continued to have a president, a prime minister, a parliament and an army. The country was on ice, in effect, while the sectarian battles raged. The national identity survived, and it came roaring back this spring in the Cedar Revolution that drove out Syrian troops.


Similar logic would have one believe that because Czechoslovakia is now a thriving democracy, the invasion of Hitler in 1938 was all for the best. And hey what's 30 years of human suffering? Eventually things will probably get better --- as long as the "national identity" survives. Dear God.

This argument reveals something very fundamental about the way that the hawks see war as a game of Risk rather than a catastrophic upheaval in which actual human beings are being killed and maimed and in which the everyday lives of those who live on that piece of land are affected in the most consequential ways possible. Who but the most arrogant, spoiled,pampered, elitist American could write such a thing?


Dick Cheney obviously fits that bill.


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19th Systemic Breakdown

by digby

Yesterday I wondered if there was some epistomological problem with our elites in light of at least two massive failures of government in the past decade --- first, the Iraq invasion based upon wishful thinking and lies, and now the ongoing insistence among the leaders of the industrialized world that we ignore serious but solvable problems in favor of those that are not acute or even real. I suspect there is a systemic breakdown, but Paul Krugman helpfully supplied the specific economic mistake, which turns out to be the result of specialization --- and something a little bit more mystyfying:

The basic IS-LM model, with its possibility of a liquidity trap, has been a very good guide in these troubled times. And there’s a reason for that: as I wrote long ago, in a piece from the 1990s, IS-LM is basic economics applied to a world in which in addition to production of goods there is both money and a bond market. Aside from the assumption of sticky prices — which is overwhelmingly obvious and supported by strong evidence — it’s your basic, minimal, compelling model. It should come as no surprise that it gets at a lot of what’s going on.

Yet people don’t know this model — which is to say, they don’t have any simple framework for thinking about how money, interest rates, and the real economy interact.

Which people am I talking about? Money managers, obviously; they may know a lot about individual markets and companies, they may have lots of experience, but now that we’re talking about macro issues of a kind not seen since the 1930s, those talents are a lot less relevant than usual. Pimco used to have Paul McCulley, who was very good on the macro, but with him gone, they seem to be making up theories on the fly. And whatever model Paulson is using, it’s not IS-LM.

But economists also don’t know this stuff. We’re living in a dark age of macroeconomics, in which much of the profession has turned its back on past knowledge. There’s also a contingent of economists who have read Hicks, or at least claim to have read him, but seem to have come out of the experience with nothing more than misleading catchphrases and the strange conviction that they have transcended something they actually don’t understand. (Brad DeLong takes on some of this stuff).


So, in this case it's a failure of experts, some of whom just don't know what they need to know and others who have inexplicably decided to ignore what they do know and pretend that they've discovered something more relevant. The first is just simply human failure (as Atkins said yesterday --- we should just stop paying attention to them until they acknowledge their mistake and account for it) the second is a little bit less understandable. How does that happen, and why?

Yesterday, my friend Pastordan offered this:

Reinhold Niebuhr suggested two answers:

1. Humans have "limited self-transcendance," which means we basically have the ability to learn from our mistakes--but not the power to see all the mistakes we make. That leads to overconfidence in our own ability, which must be a particular temptation when you're used to being the smartest guy in the room.

2. We like to think of ourselves as rational beings, but our opinions and insights are more determined thank we'd like to admit by our commitments to the needs of our social group. That goes beyond "groupthink" to moral obligation: the more people we represent, the more obliged we are to represent their interests. So if Bond Traders in general think T-Bills are a bad bet, it's terribly difficult and may even feel *wrong* to think outside that conclusion. This is exactly why the Founding Fathers were dubious about establishing a permanent capital: they were afraid of exactly what has come to pass, which is that national leaders feel more beholden to the Village than to their true constituencies, which are far away and not yammering in their ears all day.

It's also while appeals to fear work. When people think their community is threatened, they're liable to go along with ideas they wouldn't otherwise because they perceive them as necessary to protect the community. Hello, invasion of Iraq.

Niebuhr, who was after all a theologian, believed that Christ provided the only true transcendance to these situations. YMMV, but I think his insights are helpful whether or not you buy his ultimate conclusions, or at least I hope they are. I am, after all, a representative of the Christian community. ;-)


I would suggest that the Wall Street/Economist/political elite mistaken consensus could be the result of an appeal to fear as well. If they perceive their "community" to be under attack, circling the wagons makes sense for them too.

I suppose the herd mentality can account for much of this, along with the natural human fear of being out of step with one's social and professional peers. But I thought academia was supposed to be at least a little bit different. Secured by tenure, it is assumed that scholars would be less subject to such social and professional pressures. Apparently not. Indeed, I think the "dark age" of economics described by Krugman might just be the result of the same sustained, well-financed propaganda campaign that has cowed the press into being petrified of saying anything that might raise the ire of the right wing rabble. It takes a certain kind of person to be able to sustain the kind of relentless attacks that Paul Krugman has sustained. Most people just don't have the stomach for it.

One of the mistakes many newly hatched populists seem to make is to presume that money is the only thing that motivates people. It's true that it's creating the primary distortion in our political system at the moment (and it's going to get worse with the Citizens United decision) but humans are more complicated than that. You don't have to see bribes and graft in every corner to explain motivation. Humans are perfectly capable of being conformist, unimaginative, selfish and cruel without money being involved at all.

To understand what's going on, we might do better to add to our reading of The Shock Doctrine (which I think is invaluable) for a time and re-read The Best and the Brightest --- or maybe Lord of the Flies.


Update: Jesus. I'm not suggesting that there wasn't any crime fergawdsake. I'm just wondering why the people who are supposed to do macroeconomics and economic policy in the US and Europe are getting it so wrong and I don't think it's that every last elite in the world is an outright criminal working on behalf of a very elaborate global conspiracy. I don't think they're that smart...

And yes, for the record, the ones that are criminals should be held accountable for their crimes. I'm all for that. I've only written that 7,597 times.

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Independent profits

by digby

Some man on TV keeps telling me that building the tar sands pipeline will create cheap energy for Americans and make us energy independent. Guess what?

In pushing for the Obama Administration’s approval of TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, the North American oil industry and its political patrons argue that the pipeline is necessary for American energy security and its construction will help wean America of dependence on Mideast oil. But a closer look at the new realities of the global oil market and at the companies who will profit from the pipeline reveals a completely different story: Keystone XL will not lessen U.S. dependence on foreign oil, but rather transport Canadian oil to American refineries for export to overseas markets. read on.
Well hell. Whodda thunk it?

If anyone wants to know how this works, they need to get on the cluephone to Alaska:

JUNEAU - Today, Alaska Representatives Pete Petersen and Chris Tuck (both D-Anchorage), and Representative Scott Kawasaki (D-Fairbanks) sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder asking that he investigate Alaskan fuel prices as part of his investigation of nationwide gasoline prices.

“Alaska produces more oil than most countries, but Alaskans still pay more at the pump than anyone else in the U.S. Something’s not right,” said Rep. Petersen. “Any investigation into high fuel prices should certainly include a hard look at the situation in Alaska.”

Last week, Holder announced that he will conduct an investigation of gasoline prices in the United States. Since 2008, Alaska has consistently had the highest gasoline prices in the nation. According to a May 26 report from AAA, the average price for a gallon of gasoline in Alaska is $4.10, excluding state taxes. The next highest state is Hawaii at $4.08, which has no oil production.

“In Fairbanks, the high cost of heating fuel is crippling,” said Rep. Kawasaki. “We need to get to the bottom of this before Fairbanks families have to face another winter wondering if they’ll be able to afford to heat their homes.”


I have friends who are leaving the state because the cost of heating oil was more than their mortgage last year. "Energy independence" for Alaska hasn't meant low prices. Their oil is shipped to the West Coast and overseas and their gas and heating oil prices are higher than everywhere else in the US. That whole rationale is a crock.


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Tax Revolt
by David Atkins ("thereisnospoon")

This will barely register as a shock these days:
At least 25 top United States companies paid more to their chief executives in 2010 than they did to the federal government in taxes, according to a study released on Wednesday.

The companies — which include household names like eBay, Boeing, General Electric and Verizon — averaged $1.9 billion each in profits, according to the study by the Institute for Policy Studies, a liberal-leaning research group. But a variety of shelters, loopholes and tax reduction strategies allowed the companies to average more than $400 million each in tax benefits — which can be taken as a refund or used as write-off against earnings in future years.

The chief executives of those companies were paid an average of more than $16 million a year, the study found, a figure substantially higher than the $10.8 million average for all companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index...

The authors of the study, which examined the regulatory filings of the 100 companies with the best-paid chief executives, said that their findings suggested that current United States policy was rewarding tax avoidance rather than innovation.

“We have no evidence that C.E.O.’s are fashioning, with their executive leadership, more effective and efficient enterprises,” the study concluded. “On the other hand, ample evidence suggests that C.E.O.’s and their corporations are expending considerably more energy on avoiding taxes than perhaps ever before — at a time when the federal government desperately needs more revenue to maintain basic services for the American people.”


In a sane country with a real media, people who say that we need to lower taxes on "job creators" would be mocked 24/7 on the cable news networks. They would have approximately the same credibility as NAMBLA, and their effect on society would be seen as less salutary.

On a positive note, the New York Times article is pretty good journalism: it tells the truth and lays out the facts without trying too hard at a "balanced" take. There are a few confusing and pointless quotes from the Boeing and Verizon corporate hacks, but by and large it's fairly well done. More like this, please.


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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

 
Hey, sanity!

by digby

Here's a little ray of sunshine:

A federal judge today found that the Texas "sonogram law" violates the First Amendment and blocked enforcement of important provisions of the statute. This law would have forced women seeking to terminate a pregnancy to undergo a medically unnecessary and intrusive transvaginal sonogram. According to the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR), which brought the case, the was certified against the law as a class action, and a preliminary injunction was granted until those areas of the case can be resolved. The Center filed a class action lawsuit against the new ultrasound requirements on June 13 on behalf of Texas medical providers performing abortions and their patients.

Judge Sam Sparks ruled that doctors cannot be penalized if they do not show a woman seeking an abortion the sonogram images, describe those images to her or play the sound of the fetal heart, if the woman declines this information.

In the opinion, according to CRR, he held that “the Act compels physicians to advance an ideological agenda with which they may not agree, regardless of any medical necessity, and irrespective of whether the pregnant women wish to listen.”

It also violates all tenets of common sense. As if women who are seeking an abortion are mental deficients who don't understand what they are doing...

In requesting the preliminary injunction, the Center argued that the ultrasound requirements violate the First Amendment rights of both the doctor and the patient by forcing physicians to deliver politically-motivated communications to a women seeking termination of pregnancy, even if she declines. The Center also argued that the law discriminates against women by subjecting them to paternalistic “protections” not imposed on men.

I'm sure they'll be trying to impeach this judge immediately. The Austin Chronicle reported earlier:

In rejecting the latest attempt to file a friend-of-the-court brief, written by anti-abortion lawyer Allan Parker, with the the Justice Foundation, on "behalf of 317 Texas Women Hurt By Abortion," Sparks did not mince words – especially in responding to Parker's filing of a host of exhibits, including the picture of a "first-trimester aborted child," according to a list of the appendices, which Sparks has placed under seal.

"The Court has already turned down two extremely tempting offers to transform this case from a boring old federal lawsuit into an exciting, politically-charged media circus," he wrote. "As any competent attorney could have predicted, the Court declines this latest invitation as well."

Moreover, Sparks continued that he concludes Parker is not competent: "the Court is forced to conclude Allan E. Parker, Jr., the attorney whose signature appears on this motion, is anything but competent," he wrote. "A competent attorney would not have filed this motion in the first place; if he did, he certainly would not have attached exhibits that are both highly prejudicial and legally irrelevant; and if he foolishly did both things, he surely would not be so unprofessional as to file such exhibits unsealed."

Alas, that's exactly what Parker did.

They sound very foolish, but then these people are playing a very long game. And it's political not legal. They'll get plenty of mileage out of this.

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"Game over for climate"

by digby

Here's an informative debate on the Alberta tar sands issue between lead environmental activist Bill McKibbon and some clone from the Randroid Manhattan Institute:

JEFFREY BROWN: Bill McKibben, why these protests? What are -- what's the key problems you see with this project?

BILL MCKIBBEN,environmental activist/writer: You know, this has turned into the biggest civil disobedience action in the environmental movement in a generation.

And the reason is that this is -- this tar sands in Alberta is a big deal. It's the second largest pool of carbon on Earth, after the oil fields of Saudi Arabia. Jim Hansen of NASA, who was arrested today, really the world's foremost climate scientist, said -- as he was speaking this morning, said, if we go ahead and begin tapping these unconventional energy sources, of which the tar sands are the biggest example, it is -- and here I quote - "essentially game over for the climate."

Since, for once, Obama can stop a project without having Congress in the way, this has become the focal point. And these arrests have -- actually now over 500 people. The numbers are just growing and growing day after day.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we will go into some of the details. But, first, as a general proposition you support this.

ROBERT BRYCE, Manhattan Institute: Sure. I do.

Well, Jeff, I appreciate Bill McKibben passion on the issue. I understand his position. But my position is very simple. I'm for cheap, abundant, reliable energy, particularly now in the U.S., when we have over 45 million Americans on food stamps, we have more than nine million unemployed. The actually unemployed or underemployed is probably twice that number.

We need cheap, abundant, reliable energy. And this project will in particular provide abundant and reliable energy. The tar -- the oil sands in Canada have over 100 billion barrels of oil in them. And we need it no, given -- particularly because we want North American energy production. Better off if it's domestic. But we have been relying on Mexico and Canada for many years.

Over the last decade, Mexico's oil production has fallen by 600,000 barrels and Canada's has risen by more than 600,000 barrels. I would like that -- we need that reliable energy production as close to home as we can. And if we can buy it from friends and allies, that's even better.


First of all, it would be really awesome if members of the Manhattan Institute ever gave a damn about unemployment any time they weren't using it as an excuse to sell some heinous policy. It's like the anti-abortion people who pretend to care about women's mental health as they're forcing them to have children against their will. But that's beside the point. The real issue here is whether these tar sands are going to give the world the excuse to keep burning oil and destroy the planet. The Manhattan Institute seems to think we should burn as much of it as we can, as quickly as possible. And if they have to maintain the fiction that oil isn't a world market, they'll do it.

I suspect that if McKibbon could somehow tap into the only concern conservatives ever have about the future --- debt --- he might get some place. But other than deficit projections for forty years from now, these are the most "live in the now", "love the one you're with", "party like it's 1999" group of short term thinkers on the planet. And that includes teen-agers, who believe they can never die. These gluttons just don't care about anything but how much money they can make or spend right this minute.

The question, of course, is whether or not the administration is going to join them and continue to hypocritically rend its garments over future deficits while ignoring the death of the planet.

As McKibbon rightly pointed out, this problem is upon us:

BILL MCKIBBEN: You know, there's got to be a better way to deal with our food stamp problem, especially when, as we're now beginning to see, after a year of the most violent and extreme weather we have ever recorded around the planet, after the price of food has gone up around the world 80 percent because we're missing harvest after harvest with drought and with flood.

We have got to take global warming completely seriously. I understand the realism that Robert brings to this, but there is a deeper realism at work here. And if we do not get to work on climate change now -- and this has become the proxy fight for climate change in the Obama administration.

This is a guy who when he -- the night he was nominated said, in my presidency, the rise of the oceans will begin to slow and the planet will begin to heal.

Congress has kept him from keeping many of those promises, but, this time, he can.

It's not looking promising, but the deed's not done, so anything can still happen.


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Airplane travel improvement is possible

by digby

Yes please!


The only problem with this is that people travelling together wouldn't be able to board together. I don't care about that, but some people might.

Maybe these scientists can put their minds to a better security screening procedure next. Airplane travel is now a major misery. Anything they can do to ease the hell is welcome in my book.

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It's not a conspiracy
by David Atkins ("thereisnospoon")

Digby did a tremendous job earlier today of taking on the notion that the entire financial crisis was dreamed up, foreseen, expertly planned and exploited by a cabal of wealthy conspiracists straight out of a James Bond novel.

Anyone who has read Roubini's Crisis Economics or Michael Lewis' The Big Short will be dispossessed of the illusion of a vastly intelligent criminal cabal fairly quickly. There were a number of people who saw the end coming, but they were mostly ignored and vituperated against as all the "Very Serious People" just "knew" that the good times would keep on rolling. There are so many examples of this in Michael Lewis' book alone it's hard to count them all. A good one follows below:

The credit default swap would solve the single biggest problem with Mike Burry’s big idea: timing. The subprime mortgage loans being made in early 2005 were, he felt, almost certain to go bad. But as their interest rates were set artificially low, and didn’t reset for two years, it would be two years before that happened. Subprime mortgages almost always bore floating interest rates, but most of them came with a fixed, two-year “teaser” rate. A mortgage created in early 2005 might have a two-year “fixed” rate of 6 percent that, in 2007, would jump to 11 percent and provoke a wave of defaults. The faint ticking sound of these loans would grow louder with time, until eventually a lot of people would suspect, as he suspected, that they were bombs. Once that happened, no one would be willing to sell insurance on subprime mortgage bonds. He needed to lay his chips on the table now and wait for the casino to wake up and change the odds of the game. A credit default swap on a thirty-year subprime mortgage bond was a bet designed to last for thirty years, in theory. He figured that it would take only three to pay it off.

The only problem was that there was no such thing as a credit default swap on a subprime mortgage bond, not that he could see. He’d need to prod the big Wall Street firms to create them. But which firms? If he was right and the housing market crashed, these firms in the middle of the market were sure to lose a lot of money. There was no point buying insurance from a bank that went out of business the minute the insurance became valuable. He didn’t even bother calling Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, as they were more exposed to the mortgage bond market than the other firms. Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank, Bank of America, UBS, Merrill Lynch, and Citigroup were, to his mind, the most likely to survive a crash. He called them all. Five of them had no idea what he was talking about; two came back and said that, while the market didn’t exist, it might one day. Inside of three years, credit default swaps on subprime mortgage bonds would become a trillion-dollar market and precipitate hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of losses inside big Wall Street firms. Yet, when Michael Burry pestered the firms in the beginning of 2005, only Deutsche Bank and Goldman Sachs had any real interest in continuing the conversation. No one on Wall Street, as far as he could tell, saw what he was seeing.

No one could see what he was seeing. This is in 2005--fairly late in the bubble game. And still no one could see what he was seeing. Later on in the book Michael Lewis tells of the crucial moments when Wall St. first started to really realize that credit default swaps were going to bring the whole system down and stopped selling them. It was a like a spooked herd of cattle stampeding for the exits all at once. And as the book chronicles, most of Michael Burry's wealthiest clients were furious with his market-shorting investment strategy for years, often pulling their money out of his firm in protest because they all wanted in on the big money mortgage derivative game all the rest of the big boys were playing.

One of the biggest lessons one can learn in life is that no matter how far up one rises or doesn't rise, the world is still populated by the same sort of morons we met in high school. It never gets better. The people at the top of the economic are just as greedy, impulsive, reckless, shortsighted and petty as everyone who annoys us in our everyday lives.

This is part of what being a progressive means: understanding that reality, and understanding that most of our circumstances in life have little to do with our work ethic or skill, but rather a lot more to do with the circumstances of our birth and education, our parents, our social environment, whom we happen to meet and impress, which companies are hiring when we come on the job market, the bosses and clients we get and even just a lot of dumb luck. The financial Masters of the Universe aren't much smarter than the rest of us, and they didn't see the subprime mortgage CDO collapse coming any more than the average schlub who bought bought a subprime mortgage did. The only difference is that the former used the threat of total global economic collapse as leverage to get bailed out, while the latter had no such power.

It's idiots, all the way up the chain. Idiots like Thomas Friedman and Alan Greenspan, neither of whom can prognosticate two feet in front of their noses, but whose words are taken as gospel by all the rest of collective fools who think they're the smartest guys in the room. Which makes it all the more important that the idiots at the highest levels of government, whether they sport a fancy meaningless Ivy League degree or not, start listening to the actual smart people who did see it coming. Accurate prognostication is how policy makers can actually tell the smart people from the idiots.

Thomas Friedman and his ilk are not evil geniuses playing out the next move on a grand conspiratorial chessboard. They're just as dumb as the collective content of their words make them out to be, no matter how erudite or carefully constructed those words may be.

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The Real Victims

by digby

I think Glenn Beck speaks for more Americans than we might imagine when he complains about the fact that he is made to feel bad for calling people by names they consider to be racist and insulting:



Truly, the white person who is publicly embarrassed for perpetuating racism is much more of a victim than the object of said racism could ever be.

Of course Glenn Beck is of the school that says the 3/5th compromise was proof that the founders were all abolitionists, so I wouldn't expect him to think otherwise. In his view, white supremacists have always been unfairly maligned.


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What's wrong with our media?

by digby

Jay Rosen has written an important piece synthesizing his various observations about our broken political press. It comes from a presentation he gave in Australia, where the situation is apparently just as bad:

So this is my theme tonight: how did we get to the point where it seems entirely natural for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to describe political journalists appearing on its air as “the insiders?” Don’t you think that’s a little strange? I do. Promoting journalists as insiders in front of the outsiders, the viewers, the electorate…. this is a clue to what’s broken about political coverage in the U.S. and Australia. Here’s how I would summarize it: Things are out of alignment. Journalists are identifying with the wrong people. Therefore the kind of work they are doing is not as useful as we need it to be.


I think it's even worse. My personal belief is that most high level Washington political reporters and editors are not only incestuous "insiders", they also carry the absurd conceit that they are nonetheless the personification of the average Real American. So they insist that the concerns of the top 1%, which many of them are in (or anticipate being in) must, therefore, be the concerns of the average American. Talk about being out of alignment.

Rosen identifies three specific areas of concern:

1. Politics as an inside game.

2. The cult of savviness.

3. The production of innocence.


As to number one, I'll let Rosen speak for himself. But I would add that the "politics as an inside game" infects the political press in another way as well. Their inside view of the process leads them to believe that politics itself is only a matter of insider maneuvering, as if it all happens in a vacuum with the consent of the governed not even an afterthought. The people are an abstraction and the process is what's real. It leads to fatalism and lack of imagination, as if politics is just a static set of numbers that are accounted for in advance without any possibility that the citizenry or the politicians themselves are human beings with agency.

Number two, I'm sure you're all aware of. I think about it every day --- and battle the temptation to join that cult (or the "reformed" version of it in the blogosphere.)

Number three is a formulation of the he said/she said critique that's very enlightening:

By the production of innocence I mean ways of reporting the news that try to advertise or “prove” to us that the press is neutral in its descriptions, a non-partisan presenter of facts, a non-factor and non-actor in events. Innocence means reporters are mere recorders, without stake or interest in the matter at hand. They aren’t responsible for what happens, only for telling you about it. When you hear, “don’t shoot the messenger” you are hearing a journalist declare his or innocence.

This basic message—we’re innocent because we’re uninvolved—isn’t something to be stated once, in a professional code of conduct or an “about” page. It has to be said many times a day in the course of writing and reporting the news. The genre known as He said, she said journalism is perhaps the most familiar example. But so is horse race journalism, in which the master narrative for covering an election is: who’s ahead? Journalists will tend to favor descriptions of political life that are a.) true, in that verifiable facts support the story; and b.) convenient for the continuous production of their own innocence.


That explains a lot. The vapidity is a result of timidity --- the fear of being biased. I would say that this one is the result of years of hardcore right wing public relations. They spent decades relentlessly attacking the media for being liberally biased and the result has been an aversion to any kind of reporting that might betray a point of view. Liberals have failed to properly combat this and the press is now so thoroughly indoctrinated that it might not work anyway.But this one is, in my view, the consequence of a concerted propaganda effort. Lessons learned.

I urge you to read the whole thing. Rosen's thesis is very well developed and an important tool with which to evaluate the political press --- and, by extension, the proper operation of our democracy. At this moment, it's not looking good.


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Epistomological Crapshoot

by digby

I keep coming back to the Iraq war and how it played out in American politics over the course of several years. That sense of surreality, the helplessness, the fact that there were people out there telling the truth and expressing their reservations and nobody listened. The blogospheric trope Very Serious People was born from this odd phenomenon of a large number of the smartest people in the world getting everything so very wrong --- while systematically marginalizing those who got it right. I wouldn't have believed it if someone had said it would happen again in just a few years, but it did.

Today, John Aravosis is featuring an interesting interview he did with Joseph Stiglitz that is relevant to this topic:

"The way I would put it is, the hopes of the 'green shoots' that were expressed in March, 2009 that then turned to brown later in that year, and again woke up earlier this year, have again been dashed. So that the administration's, and the Fed's, constant referral to the economy 'on the road to recovery' is another demonstration of their inability to make economic judgments. Just like the Fed totally misjudged the economy in the period leading up to the recession, totally -- even after the bubble broke, they said the crisis was contained. Once again the Fed has shown that its ability to make judgments about the economy leaves something to be desired."


Now there are many (among them myself on odd numbered days)who think this is less an issue of competence and more an issue of intent. It's hard to believe that such smart people can be so wrong --- perhaps they simply have another agenda. Certainly, there is plenty of evidence of corruption, regulatory capture and all the rest to merit the suspicion. But then I see something like this Bill Gross apologia, and think there is something more mysterious going on.

Bill Gross, who runs the biggest bond trading firm in the world, is considered by many to be the smartest financial mind on the planet. In fact, among financial types, the bond traders of his caliber are often thought of as the Mandarins,as opposed to the cowboys in the stock market or the egomaniacs in the hedge fund world. This is supposed to be where the really smart guys go. And yet Bill Gross made a huge bet this past year --- the same bet the Obama administration did --- that went very wrong:

PIMCO's Bill Gross admitted his mistake over US bond call

In January 2011, Gross told CNBC that US Treasurys were "the most overvalued bond in the universe," arguing one should stay away from it, but not necessary from all kind of bonds.

"Don't stay out of bonds… stay out of Treasury bonds," he said then.

A few months later, he was the first to admit that his predictions did not come true.

"When you’re underperforming the index, you go home at night and cry in your beer,” Gross said, according to the FT, adding: “It’s not fun, but who said this business should be fun. We’re too well paid to hang our heads and say boo hoo.”

Reactions were soon to follow.

"Obviously, it's a bit of a mistake," Guy Lebas, chief fixed income strategist at Janney Montgomery Scott, told CNBC on Tuesday. "Treasurys make up roughly a quarter of the US bond markets, so saying we're going to completely abandon them in a fund as large as the one Bill Gross runs is a huge bet, and it's a huge bullish bet on the credit market, it's a huge bearish bet on the bonds," he said.

Gross's expectations have clearly not gone through, Lebas added, "but economic conditions have deteriorated far faster than PIMCO, or even we ever anticipated."


Gross wasn't a politico making some kind of ideological point. He lost a lot of money for his rich clients on that bet. And it was a bet that a fair number of people said at the time (including dumb old me, who has the financial savvy of a spider mite)was inexplicable. But he believed the hype, and in doing so, he convinced a whole bunch of other people that it must be right. After all, he's one of the oracles --- a Very Serious Person of the highest order.

So, I'm not convinced that this phenomenon is all about corruption. Sure, there's a lot of it. The government and Wall Street is a revolving door and the dependence on big donors is corrupting in and of itself. But I don't believe Bill Gross made that bet in some corrupt bargain to weaken the American political system at the behest of his fellow elites. There was just too much money involved. He screwed up. And he screwed up because he believed something that wasn't true despite a whole lot of evidence that it wasn't.

Gamblers make bad bets. Nobody wins every hand. But this one had huge ramifications to government policy because the person who was making it is such a revered person in the field. And because there has been so much of this over the past few years, among so many different members of our elite world leadership, I've finally concluded that it must have as much to do with epistemology as psychology or character. There is a systemic flaw in the way our elites are processing information and understanding the world around them. They may be hampered by their cramped social caste and worldview, and corruption is not a negligible factor, but the problem is obviously bigger than that. And I haven't got a clue about what it is.

Here's hoping that it's self-correcting, because one thing is clear --- the people in charge don't know how to fix anything and refuse to listen to those who do.

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Our post-racial society
by David Atkins ("thereisnospoon")

Rush Limbaugh, de facto leader of the Republican Party:

When it comes down to it, the "titular head of the Republican party, the ideal model Republican" will vote for the Democrat, says Limbaugh, because "melanin is thicker than water, folks. And that's what'll happen."




Of course, it's not about race with Republicans. Herman Cain is totally one of their best friends.


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Monday, August 29, 2011

 
It's a dirty job

by digby

... and nobody should have to do it:

Reporter Gives Update Covered In Sea Foam: MyFoxNY.com



Tucker Barnes of the Fox affiliate in Washington, D.C. made what is destined to be one of the most famous live shots in history Saturday standing in Ocean, Md. as Hurricane Irene covered him what he thought was "plankton or something."


"I don't know what it is, it has a sort of sandy consistency," Barnes told Fox's New York viewers, covered head to tow in what looked like frothy pancake batter.

"It doesn't taste great," he said.

Back in his warm and dry station, the MyFoxNY anchor mused, "We've never seen anything like it."

Barnes, struggling to hold onto a boardwalk bench, said he hadn't either.

"Our chief meterologist back at the station said that it's some sort of organic matter. I guess it's plankton or something mixed in with sand and salt," he said.

"I can tell you first hand that it doesn't smell great. It feels kind of soapy."

"Be careful with that weird stuff, okay?" the anchor told him as the WTTG-TV reporter signed off. "That is a bizarre wild substance that is about to bury you."

MyFoxNY reported later that the mystery foam was raw sewage pouring into the sea and being whipped into a froth by the hurricane's winds.


Oh dear lord.

 
Ponzi Schemer

by digby




I find it very hard to believe that Rick Perry can get elected president with this crude of a message on Social Security and Medicare. It's bad enough that it's derisive toward the older people who are in the room and depend on the program.(Bunch 'o swindlers!) There's just nobody but wingnut extremists that don't support the program. Certainly, not the young people he says he's "protecting."

It’s not surprising that Americans over age 65 are virtually unanimous in seeing Social Security as an important government program. As a group, they rely on it as the single greatest source of income in retirement.

But a poll commissioned by AARP to mark Social Security’s 75th anniversary (President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the transformational legislation on August 14, 1935) has found something even more interesting: young people line up solidly behind Social Security, too.

In a national phone survey of 1,200 adults by the GfK Roper consulting firm (margin of error: plus or minus 3 percent), 90 percent of those ages 18 to 29 deemed Social Security important. In fact, almost half of them agreed with the statement that it is “one of the very most important government programs,” an opinion held by nearly 80 percent of those over 65.

And nearly three-quarters of these youngest respondents strongly agreed that while they may not need the program when they retire, a time that probably seems infinitely far away, “I definitely want to know that it’s there, just in case I do.” Sixty-two percent said they will rely on Social Security payments in some way. By a wide margin, they opposed cutting benefits to reduce the federal deficit.


George W. Bush was not the brightest light the GOP ever produced. But he wasn't dumb enough to attack the most popular program in history as a con job. This guy is just an aggressive thug. I'm beginning to think they let him in there to make Mitt Romney look better.

Update: Mojo has a nice piece up about the differences between Social Security and a Ponzi scheme. Let's put it this way: is Social Security turns out have been a decades long Ponzi scheme, it means that the US Government will no longer be in existence when these young people get old. In which case, I think they might have bigger problems.

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Ride the Real Estate Roller Coaster
by David Atkins ("thereisnospoon")

Remember all the pundits who said back in 2006 that we were in a different kind of economy, one where housing prices might continue to rise indefinitely, or at least never fall? Many of you will already have seen this, but below is a graphical depiction of the Case-Shiller index of home prices from 1890-2006, plotted as a rollercoaster:



See that death drop at the end? The one that never comes? Someone will have to explain why anyone in public policy listens to the morons who insisted that the inevitable would never happen. Back in 2005, I told anyone who would listen that real estate was coming down, but most people around me trusted the financial experts who said it wasn't. And yet the same fools who inflated the bubble and then maintained the bubble didn't exist, still run our economic policy no matter whether Democrats or Republicans get elected.

A year ago, someone uploaded another real estate rollercoaster video, but this time updated to mid-2010:



You'll notice how much farther it still has to come down to reach pre-bubble levels. That decline has happened somewhat in the year since the video was made, but the fact is that housing is still overvalued.

Trying to force this rollercoaster to move higher again in this context is a fool's errand, and bad public policy anyway. And yet that's exactly what the Administration is trying to do by giving the banks indemnification for mortgage underwriting fraud. Crazy.

These days it's not the real estate rollercoaster that scares me anymore. It's the public policy insanity coaster. Let me know when it stops and we can get off, because I'm going to be sick.


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Conservationist Conservatism

by digby

Huh?

"The United States needs to be less dependent on foreign sources of energy and more dependent upon American resourcefulness. Whether that is in the Everglades, or whether that is in the eastern Gulf region, or whether that's in North Dakota, we need to go where the energy is," she said. "Of course it needs to be done responsibly. If we can't responsibly access energy in the Everglades then we shouldn't do it."

In 2002, the federal government at the urging of President George W. Bush bought back oil and gas drilling rights in the Everglades for $120 million. Bachmann, who wants to get rid of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, said she would rely on experts to determine whether drilling can be done without harming the environment.

"No one wants to hurt or contaminate the earth. ... We don't want to harm our water, our ecosystems or the air. That is a minimum bar," she said.

"From there, though, that doesn't mean that the two have to be mutually exclusive. We can protect the environment and do so responsibly, but we can also protect the environment and not kill jobs in America and not deny ourselves access to the energy resources that America's been so blessed with."

The Minnesota congresswoman, who is seeking the GOP nomination to challenge President Barack Obama in 2012, is on a four-day swing through Florida, ending Monday in Miami.

"We do have EPA's in each of the 50 states and I think that it's up to the states," she said. "The states have the right to develop their own environmental protections and regulations, as they all have."

She said she recognizes there is a federal role when environmental issues cross borders, but she added that a big problem with the EPA now is that it does not consider job creation or job losses as part of its role in enforcing regulations. She said the regulations it does have prevent businesses from being able to reasonably create a profit.

"If we create a new department that is focused on conservation and get rid of the EPA, that would send a strong signal about what our priorities are. We believe in conservation, but I also believe at the same time that the EPA has overstepped its bounds," Bachmann said.


Well ok then. Does anyone think that Bachman has a clue about, much less an interest in, this issue? I'm guessing she was told that Floridians quite value the Everglades and that she needs to be sensitive to that when she's campaigning down there. Unfortunately, she doesn't really value environmentalism and so can't make a coherent case for it. No Republicans can (and most Democrats just lie about it.)

If there is a way to drill that guarantees there is no danger to these sensitive environments, I suppose a lot of people might be persuaded. The problem is, there isn't. But then I'm quite sure that Bachman can dig up many "experts" who say there is. In fact, there are a bunch of them working for BP and the government right now, who guaranteed that there was no danger to the gulf if they were unable to cap a well for months on end. In fact, they said that couldn't ever happen. But it did.

And look what's happening in the gulf today:

The fear is palpable on the docks from Galveston to Panama City. Commercial fishermen working the waters hardest hit by the BP oil spill are worried sick about their future. It keeps them up at night. Many are convinced the 200 million gallons of crude that spewed into the Gulf last year have done irreparable damage to the fragile fisheries that provide their livelihood. According to a new CBS News segment, Gulf fishermen “have started catching fish with sores, fin rot, and infections at a greater frequency than ever before.”

It would seem BP’s oil is coming home to roost in an epidemic of sick fish and devastated lives. An Aug. 15 CBS News video – that’s going viral as we speak – captures the uncertainty of tens of thousands of commercial Gulf fishermen: “I don’t think we’ll be fishing in five years,” says Lucky Russell. “My opinion. …Everybody is worried.”

Everybody includes LSU oceanography Professor Jim Cowan, who has been studying the Gulf ecosystem for years:

“When one of these things comes on deck, it’s sort of horrifying,” Cowan said. “I mean, there these large dark lesions and eroded fins and areas on the body where scales have been removed. I’d imagine I’ve seen 30 or 40,000 red snapper in my career, and I’ve never seen anything like this. At all. Ever.”




I'm sure that the new GOP "conservation" department, along with the EPAs in 50 states will ensure that doesn't happen again, right?

But then maybe it doesn't really matter who's in charge:

The State Department gave a crucial green light on Friday to a proposed 1,711-mile pipeline that would carry heavy oil from oil sands in Canada across the Great Plains to terminals in Oklahoma and the Gulf Coast.

The project, which would be the longest oil pipeline outside of Russia and China, has become a potent symbol in a growing fight that pits energy security against environmental risk, a struggle highlighted by last year’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

By concluding that the $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline would have minimal effect on the environment, President Obama would risk alienating environmental activists, who gave him important support in the 2008 election and were already upset by his recent decisions to expand domestic oil drilling and delay clean air rules. Pipeline opponents have protested in front of the White House for a week, resulting in nearly 400 arrests.

At the same time, rising concerns about the weak economy and high gas prices have made it difficult for the administration to oppose a project that would greatly expand the nation’s access to oil from a friendly neighbor and create tens of thousands of jobs.


If I were a cynic, I'd be inclined to think that certain interests were happy to keep unemployment high so as to ensure that this sort of reckless project passes muster.

But, hey, nothing to worry about. We'll have a new and improved GOP "conservation" department that will factor in the fact that 10 years after the big oil pipeline is built, many of the same people will be called back to work to clean up whatever horrific environmental disaster happens as a result. That's how it worked in Alaska, anyway. It's win-win.


h/t to iamdave
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Public public

by digby

Hey, the good guys win one:

A court ruled Friday that the 2007 arrest of a Boston lawyer for recording police officers with his cellphone violated the man’s First and Fourth Amendment rights. The ruling by the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston allows Simon Glik to continue his lawsuit against the city and the police officers who arrested him. He was charged with violating a state law that bars audio recordings without the consent of both parties. The court affirmed that Glik’s actions had been legal and denied the officers’ claim that they had “qualified immunity’’ because they were doing their jobs as public officials.


The idea that police officers cannot be filmed or taped in the course of their public duties is so bizarre to me that I can't even follow the logic. But it's happening in many jurisdictions, with many different legal theories being used to support it. In fact, this notion of removing citizens from public forums for questioning their political representatives works along the same lines.

There is a truly pernicious meme beginning to bubble up in American public life that says the government has the right to operate in secret in virtually any way it chooses. It's not a free country if you are not allowed to document the activities of the police in the course of their duties. It just isn't. And if you can't question your representatives it's not a real democracy either.


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Shaky foundation

by digby

New AP poll:

Whites and women are a re-election problem for President Barack Obama. Younger voters and liberals, too, but to a lesser extent.

All are important Democratic constituencies that helped him win the White House in 2008 and whose support he'll need to keep it next year.


I'd say so. It's his base. Unless the Democratic Party is composed of older, non-white moderate and conservative males these days, he's going to need a whole lot of those voters.

The Dems have had problems with a majority of white voters for some time. But they desperately need to keep women, especially young single women, on board as well as keep the enthusiasm of the young and liberal of all races and ethnicities.

In the latest AP-GfK survey, less than half of all women and less than half of all men approve of the job Obama is doing. Just 50 percent of women said Obama deserves re-election.

Still, women are more likely than men to see Obama as empathetic or a strong leader, and they give him sharply higher positive ratings on his handling of the economy. Forty-three percent of women approve, compared with 29 percent of men.

-Younger voters and liberals are showing doubts about him, too.

Obama won younger voters in 2008 by a bigger margin than Democrat Bill Clinton in his victories in 1992 and 1996. But younger Democrats are no more apt to say the president deserves re-election than are older Democrats.


The Satan Sandwich really hurt him with the base:

Twenty-seven percent of Democrats under age 45 say Obama is not a strong leader, compared with 11 percent in June.

While a majority of liberals continue to say they view Obama as a strong leader, the strength of those opinions dropped sharply this summer. The share of liberals who say "strong leader" describes Obama "very well" has fallen from 53 percent to 29 percent in the aftermath of the debt-ceiling debate.


I could be wrong, but I'm guessing that if he goes out on the trail with more of this Grand Bargain bullshit, this state of affairs is going to get worse. Democrats aren't buying it --- and they aren't impressed with the excuse that the President of the United States has no power and must accede to whatever the looniest teabagger decides is his bottom line. It's just not the way Americans have experienced their government up until now and unless somebody is able to adequately explain what's happened, this framing of "not a strong leader" is the only way they have of understanding it.

As Rick Perlstein puts it so well --- people don't really care about everyone getting along when times are tough. It unites people if politicians pick the right fight. They want leaders who will "lay down on the tracks for them." They'll wait to bind up the nation's wounds after the battle is done.

Moreover, it's important for the politicians to recognize tjhat Democrats are suffering right along with everyone else --- more so considering that the Democrats represent poor people. Blind loyalty only gets you so far when the country is in this much trouble. All you have to do is look at this to know that this economic downturn is shaking the political foundations of both parties in ways that are very unpredictable. Unless things magically get better before November 2012 (the apparent Democratic strategy) there's no telling how this might go. These aren't normal political times and counting on the old "where are the gonna go" strategy is pretty risky.

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Meanwhile, in China...
by David Atkins ("thereisnospoon")

The problem hasn't received as much press attention as the domestic or Eurozone troubles, but China is in its own world of hurt right now, too. The Chinese economy has grown too much, too fast and is currently suffering both from a real estate bubble and from having purchased too many foreign treasuries and having allowed its currency to depreciate too far to aid its manufacturing sector. The result? Massive inflation:

In the first seven months, the CPI gained 5.5 percent from a year earlier, well above the government's target ceiling of 4 percent for this year.

In July, CPI even jumped 6.5 percent year-on-year, reaching its highest level in 37 months, placing the government in a tough position with worsening global liquidity in sight.

The Producer Price Index, which is used to calculate inflation at the wholesale level, jumped 7.5 percent year-on-year in July.

The stubbornly high inflation rate has been driven by rising food costs, which jumped by 14.8 percent in July from a year ago.

The price of pork, a staple food in China, soared by nearly 57 percent in July.

Addressing a Forum on China's Macroeconomic Conditions and Macro Policies in Singapore, Zhang Liqun, an economist from the Development Research Center, said he expected the inflation pressure resulting from surging food prices to start easing as supply increases.

It's not just food. Cab drivers in China are striking nationwide despite fears of retribution from the supposedly Communist government:

Woe is the taxi driver in China.

The roads are clogged with about 40,000 new cars a day, the price of gasoline has doubled in the last five years and passenger fares have barely budged even though everything else in the country is getting more expensive.

Fed up with their shrinking profit margins, 1,500 cabbies in the eastern city of Hangzhou went on strike this month demanding higher fares.

“Ten years ago, taxi drivers belonged to the high income group. Now we have become part of the low income group,” a Hangzhou cab driver told the Oriental Daily, explaining how his pay after expenses had dropped from about $730 a month six years ago to $470 today.

It’s no wonder then that taxi drivers have become the poster children of China’s nagging inflation, which grew 6.5% in July from a year ago to reach a 37-month high.

Their struggle to make ends meet underscores the pressure on China’s broader working class population who are most vulnerable to consumer price increases. And when they strike, they remind the central government how inflation can trigger social unrest...

Guo said there have been 60 taxi strikes since 2004, including a violent demonstration by 9,000 drivers in the western city of Chongqing in 2008.

In an article published Thursday in the official Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily, cab drivers in Beijing said they had to work up to 18 hours a day and give half their earnings to lease their cars.


This sort of thing cannot continue. So China may finally allow appreciation of their currency in order to curb inflation and reduce the risk incurred from owning so many foreign currency bonds. The only problem for China is that this will hurt their domestic manufacturing economy at a time when the economy is already slowing worldwide:

China's government may be about to let the yuan-dollar exchange rate rise more rapidly in the coming months than it did during the past year. The exchange rate was frozen during the financial crisis, but has been allowed to increase since the summer of last year. In the past 12 months, the yuan strengthened by 6 per cent against the dollar, its reference currency.

A more rapid increase of the exchange rate would shrink China's exports and increase its imports. It would also allow other Asian countries to let their currencies rise or expand their exports at the expense of Chinese producers. That might please China's neighbours, but it would not appeal to Chinese producers. Why then might the Chinese authorities deliberately allow the yuan to rise more rapidly?

There are two fundamental reasons: reducing the portfolio risk and containing domestic inflation.

Consider first the authorities' concern about the risks implied by its portfolio of foreign securities. China's existing portfolio of some US$3 trillion (Dh11.01tn) worth of dollar bonds and other foreign securities exposes it to two distinct risks: inflation in the US and Europe, and a rapid devaluation of the dollar relative to the euro and other currencies.

Inflation in the US or Europe would reduce the purchasing value of the dollar bonds or euro bonds. The Chinese would still have as many dollars or euros, but those dollars and euros would buy fewer goods on the world market.

Even if there were no increase in inflation rates, a sharp fall in the dollar's value relative to the euro and other foreign currencies would reduce its purchasing value in buying European and other products. The Chinese can reasonably worry about that after seeing the dollar fall 10 per cent relative to the euro in the past year - and substantially more against other currencies.

With the Eurozone in crisis and the future of the Euro itself in question, there is no telling what may befall treasuries and the U.S. dollar. In any case, China would be wise to strengthen the yuan and acquire a little more financial independence--except for the fact that the Chinese economy still depends mostly on its manufacturing sector, which can only be hurt by a stronger yuan.

The other thing a stronger yuan would mean is higher prices for Chinese goods overseas (that's why it would hurt Chinese manufacturing.) It's a dirty secret that one of the reasons Americans haven't complained too badly about a lack of rising domestic wages is that there has been price deflation in cheap manufactured goods from China at the local Target or WalMart. Increase the prices of those goods, and it will have social and economic ripple effects in the American economy as well.

This is all part of why no single nation can truly control its own financial destiny. The world is now a globally interconnected system: one that is far too dependent on elite financial institutions and the rapacious greedheads who run them, and far too little interested in the general welfare of the real people who toil every day to put food on the table all across the planet.

Sooner or later, the sovereign nations of the world will need to come together in a spirit of mutual cooperation, understanding that a slowly rising tide lifts all boats, that massive income inequality is to be avoided, that bubbles need to be popped through government intervention before they grow too big, and that allowing financial institutions to control our collective destinies is a very bad idea.


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Sunday, August 28, 2011

 
From the "if you build it, they will use it" files

by digby

The LA Times reports:

A decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, federal and state governments are spending about $75 billion a year on domestic security, setting up sophisticated radio networks, upgrading emergency medical response equipment, installing surveillance cameras and bomb-proof walls, and outfitting airport screeners to detect an ever-evolving list of mobile explosives.
[...]
One effect is certain: Homeland Security spending has been a primer-pump for local governments starved by the recession, and has dramatically improved emergency response networks across the country.

An entire industry has sprung up to sell an array of products, including high-tech motion sensors and fully outfitted emergency operations trailers. The market is expected to grow to $31 billion by 2014.

Like the military-industrial complex that became a permanent and powerful part of the American landscape during the Cold War, the vast network of Homeland Security spyware, concrete barricades and high-tech identity screening is here to stay. The Department of Homeland Security, a collection of agencies ranging from border control to airport security sewn quickly together after Sept. 11, is the third-largest Cabinet department and — with almost no lawmaker willing to render the U.S. less prepared for a terrorist attack — one of those least to fall victim to budget cuts.


I guess you can call it government stimulus. And improving emergency response is one positive result, for sure. Still, I don't about you but I'd much rather that most of this money be spent fixing our crumbling infrastructure and teaching our young than creating a massive security state.

I've been worried about this since they first named this monstrous new police bureaucracy "Homeland Security." Nothing good could possible come from that. And we had a clue when stuff like this began to appear in the newspapers:

From Anchorage it takes 90 minutes on a propeller plane to reach this fishing village on the state's southwestern edge, a place where some people still make raincoats out of walrus intestine.

This is the Alaskan bush at its most remote. Here, tundra meets sea, and sea turns to ice for half the year. Scattered, almost hidden, in the terrain are some of the most isolated communities on American soil. People choose to live in outposts like Dillingham (pop. 2,400) for that reason: to be left alone.

So eyebrows were raised in January when the first surveillance cameras went up on Main Street. Each camera is a shiny white metallic box with two lenses like eyes. The camera's shape and design resemble a robot's head.

Workers on motorized lifts installed seven cameras in a 360-degree cluster on top of City Hall. They put up groups of six atop two light poles at the loading dock, and more at the fire hall and boat harbor.

By mid-February, more than 60 cameras watched over the town, and the Dillingham Police Department plans to install 20 more — all purchased through a $202,000 Homeland Security grant meant primarily to defend against a terrorist attack.


The LA Times piece is worth reading as it puts into perspective the real risks out there in comparison to cost. It's substantial and it should be part of any discussions we have going forward about budgets. (Not that we will --- anything in a uniform is sacrosanct in our free society nowadays.) But for me, the primary concern is that the US had built a monolithic federal, state and local police apparatus that must constantly seek to justify its existence. And I think we know where that sort of thing ends up don't we?


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The Thomas Friedman Problem
by David Atkins ("thereisnospoon")

Dean Baker has a fantastic smackdown today of Thomas Friedman's latest offensive bowel movement:

Okay, let’s get to specifics. We leave out the Arab world, skip China for a moment, and jump to the European Union. Friedman tells us:

“Farther north, it was a nice idea, this European Union and euro-zone: Let’s have a monetary union and a common currency but let everyone run their own fiscal policy, as long as they swear to work and save like Germans. Alas, it was too good to be true. Large government welfare programs in some European countries, without the revenue to finance them from local production, eventually led to a piling up of sovereign debt — mostly owed to European banks — and then a lender revolt. The producer-savers in northern Europe are now drawing up a new deal with the overspenders — the PIIGS: Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain.”


There is lots of good stuff here. First, the European Union and the euro-zone are not the same thing. There are countries with names like the United Kingdom, Denmark, and Sweden that have been longstanding members of the European Union that are not members of the euro-zone. While there have been some suggestions that heavily indebted countries consider leaving the euro, one would be hard-pressed to find anyone suggesting they leave the European Union.

This is not the only complete invention in Friedman’s story. The story of the heavily indebted countries as serious overspenders spits in the face of reality. Spain and Ireland were actually running budget surpluses in the years preceding the recession. Italy and Portugal had relatively modest deficits. Only Greece had a clearly unsustainable budget path.

The story of the debt crisis of these countries is primarily the story of the inept monetary and financial policy run by the European Central Bank (ECB) in the years leading up to the crisis. They opted to ignore the imbalances created by housing bubbles across much of the euro zone and the rest of the world. Rather than taking steps to rein in these bubbles, they patted themselves on the back for hitting their 2.0 percent inflation targets. Remarkably, none of these central bankers lost their jobs and the 2.0 percent cult still reins at the ECB.

If there is a crisis in the euro zone it is that a dogmatic cult has seized control of the euro zone monetary and financial policy to the enormous detriment of its economy and its people. And, there is no obvious mechanism through which they can be dislodged. Friedman might have devoted his column to this problem, but it requires far more knowledge of the economy than he seems to possess.

Baker also takes the time to correct the record of Friedman's willful ignorance when it comes to China and the U.S. as well. It's well worth reading the whole thing.

Thomas Friedman and his friends are wrong. Dreadfully wrong. And they're proven to be wrong time and time again. But that doesn't stop them from dictating conventional wisdom that makes it way into Washington Consensus "centrist" policy, no matter how wrong it is.

This is why so many Americans become extremist in their politics, or descend into apathy. Tea Party crazies and progressives--i.e., the real people in the real economy who spend the most time obsessing over and paying attention to politics, as opposed to those encased in the D.C. or Manhattan bubbles--know that Thomas Friedman and friends are horribly out of touch. Tea Partiers and progressives have radically different theories of politics and governance, and radically different explanations for why Friedman and friends are wrong, but each camp definitely agrees that the demise of this sort of sophomoric neoliberal commentary would be a great thing for democracy. Both Tea Partiers and progressives can see the economic destruction of the American way of life, and agree that it's being destroyed on behalf of elites. The two camps differ greatly in who they believe those elites to be, but both camps know this: Thomas Friedman and friends lie to serve the interests of the elites, not of ordinary working people.

The op-ed pages of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal are supposed to be the places where the greatest writers and intellectuals on each side of the aisle hash out ideas based on a common set of facts. When the facts are consistently wrong and the ideas are gibberish, who can blame politically interested citizens for retreating into ideological silos that at least have some sort of explanatory power?

This, ultimately, is one of the biggest reasons why the Obama Administration's approach to public policy and communications cannot and will not work: the Administration is attempting match its policies to a conventional wisdom that is clearly and demonstrably wrong, and to bring together partisans on both sides who know good and well that it's wrong. Any policy maker who attempts to set their policy and communication compass by the sorts of ideas espoused by Thomas Friedman and the late David Broder is doomed to fail. The task Obama has set himself to "renew our politics" is not only misguided; it's simply impossible.

The national partisan divide will only be healed by throwing the Thomas Friedman acolytes overboard, and concentrating on pursuing a politics that respects the opinions of those who are consistently proven correct in their prognostications, and establishes a baseline set of facts that each ideological faction has to grapple with in an adult way. Most of those facts will have a liberal bias, and that's just too bad. That's why progressives are right and teabaggers are wrong, and why Krugman is the most accurate pundit and Cal Thomas is the least accurate. But some facts may have a conservative bias, too, and that's fine. But they should be judged on their merits, rather than on their post-partisan acceptability to the conventional wisdom of the D.C. and Manhattan bubbles.


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Bugging Panchito

by digby


Boy blogging has really gone downhill lately. Evidently the new breed doesn't understand the rule about drinking and posting (or smoking and posting.) At the very least don't hit "publish" until you've slept it off:

DID insects hire a new publicist for the summer of 2011? Or have I scrambled the question, and should I be asking if they lost the publicist who had shielded them until now?

Either way, seemingly everywhere I turned, I was being told to eat them. An article in the New Yorker floated the notion, framed as easy on the budget and good for the overstressed environment. So did a piece in the newspaper you’re reading now. Before this odd, disquieting season, cicada banana bread wasn’t in my vocabulary. Time magazine put it there with a story dated, fittingly, the very first day of summer.

I begin with bugs partly because some levity is in order, given the gloom to come. But more than that, mealworm pilaf as an answer to our dwindling resources strikes me as a reasonably apt metaphor for these last few months. It suggests a decline in our lots, a reckoning with our limits, a grasping for solutions and a humility in the absence of truly palatable ones. And that’s what the summer of 2011 has been all about.

Bugs and mealworms as a metaphor for our times. Wow.

You do realize that this is the new New York Times op-ed columnist, right?

Eric Alterman had a good time with this fellow a while back:

Bush knew a good thing when he saw it. As a candidate, he put his arms around Bruni, whom he nicknamed “Panchito” Bruni, and cooed, “You know we love you.” Later, Bush looked across a crowded room at Bruni and mouthed, “I love you, man.” Bruni did not mention whether he told Bush that he loved him back, but in relationships as in literature, it is always better to show than to tell. Either way, Bush sure knew his man. Bruni went over to the Gore camp one day and found out, to his apparent horror, that Al Gore not only did not love him; he did not even bother to come up with a nonsensical nickname for the writer.

Gore, Bruni complained, “made no effort. His energies were channeled into his campaign trail remarks, so dense with knowledge, so showy with digressions. He sweated the big stuff and muffed the small stuff.” To Bruni this was unforgiveable—the idea that a potential president thought it worthwhile to focus on issues rather than declaring his love for reporters—and Bruni more than made him pay for it.

Once the U.S. Supreme Court decided to hand the election to Bush, “Panchito” Bruni continued to treat the presidency as a sitcom he happened to enjoy, like “Friends” or “The Cosby Show.” On a presidential trip to Mexico, for instance, Bruni professed to spy Bush's boots “peek[ing] out mischievously” from beneath his trousers. How do boots “peek” and why would such peeking imply mischievousness? Bruni did not bother to explain. But he sure liked the word. Upon meeting Tony Blair, Bush, Bruni wrote, “indulged a mischievous impulse” when he shouted out “Hello, Landslide!” to the British prime minister. Despite the fact that Blair had actually won his election in a landslide, Bruni explained Bush's comment as “an irreverent, towel-snapping one at that-to Mr. Blair's recent re-election, and it recalled the playful dynamic ... when he cracked during a news conference that he and Mr. Blair liked the same brand of toothpaste.”


It was a low point. Which they are, apparently, working hard to beat.


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