Saturday, April 02, 2011

The free market case against capitalism

By Carl 

Theoretically, laissez-faire capitalism predicts that the actions of self-interested individuals, on the whole, will benefit society. The balancing act any society has to commit to is to ensure that the community standards are upheld while people pursue their greed (itself a moral value that is antithetical to any society).

There are very few political systems that allow for the existence of capitalism. Certainly, democracy's attempt to "form a more perfect union" is diametrically opposite of the goals of capitalism, which is to destabilize and unbalance society as much as possible.

Still, capitalism does work in the framework of a society if it is kept reined in. Democracy can exist with capitalism, even thrive if, as with religion, the two are kept separate.

That crucial distinction is starting to fray.

Now, we may find capitalism itself has come unglued. Comes Rana Foroohar of Time magazine:

A new study from the Kauffman Foundation, a Kansas City, Mo.–based nonprofit that researches and funds entrepreneurship, has found that over the past several decades, the growth in size and importance of the financial sector has run in tandem with lower — not higher — rates of new-business formation. In the 1980s, when Wall Street really took off, the number of new firms created fell, and in the 1990s, it plateaued and has been stagnant ever since. Basically, the facts show the opposite of what Wall Street would have us believe. A number of factors explain that, but one of the most important, argue the study's authors, is that the financial sector is sucking talent and entrepreneurial energy from more socially beneficial sectors of the economy.

You can see it in the graduating classes of the country's top universities. Harvard graduates, for example, enter financial occupations at a far higher rate now than they did in the 1970s. It's a trend that accelerated markedly in the past decade, as the computerization of finance made the profession both more lucrative and more intellectually stimulating (one can now think about the 12th dimension rather than just golf). The proportion of graduates from MIT, for example, who went to Wall Street rose from 18% in 2003 to 25% in 2006.

The problem is that these are the types of people most likely to start the sort of dynamic, job-creating new companies that we need. No wonder economists like Nobel laureate Edmund Phelps speculate that the financialization of the U.S. and subsequent dampening of entrepreneurship may be at the heart of our long-term productivity slowdown (average productivity rates have been lower in the decades since the 1970s than in those before).

Whatever the corporate titans lobbying in Washington say, statistics show that it's new companies, not old, that grow the economy. Some 40% of U.S. GDP this year will come from firms that didn't exist in the 1980s. And nearly all the new jobs in the U.S. are created by firms less than five years old. "The political emphasis shouldn't be on making big firms work," says Kauffman Foundation head Carl Schramm, "but on helping new ones take root."

In other words, distilling these paragraphs to their essence, it's not the poor economy that's responsible for the slow creation of jobs.

It is, ironically, the excellent economy that's hampering job creation. The excellent economy in terms of Wall Street.

There's no getting around the fact that any rational person is going to engage in behavior that provides them with the best opportunity to create the most comfortable life for themselves. It's why Alex Rodriguez makes almost as much as a player for the Yankees than the entire Kansas City Royals baseball team.

It's why every kid on the farms of Indiana or the streets of the inner city plays basketball, for that one shot to make it to the NBA and earn bookoo bucks.

And it's why its ridiculous to whine about athletes when quants (those mathematicians who create these complex instruments that no one can explain without using higher mathematics), who do even less for Main Street America than any high-priced athlete, make fortunes while not creating a single job.

I mean, at least A-Rod puts fannies in the seats and that means you need a stadium and ushers and peanut vendors and security guards and ticket takers, all jobs for people like you and me.

Indeed, one could make the case that the job of a quant is to destroy jobs by betting on inefficiencies in the markets that hurt individual companies as well as individual investors. They suck money out of the economy and hide it in complicated financial instrument that can lose value faster than a banana can rot.

You'll notice that the free market still works for the community as a whole but the community itself has changed. Wall Street has wholly divorced itself from America, just as the rise of multinational corporations have guaranteed that "American" companies are no long American.

Wall Street has about as much fealty to Main Street as you have to the colony of mosquitoes forming on a puddle in your backyard. You come to view them as at best a nuisance and at worst an enemy.

I worry about the future of this country. Can you blame a kid who's really good at math for going in and making as much money as he can without risking a dime out of his pocket?

(Cross-posted to Simply Left Behind.)

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Friday, April 01, 2011

Elephant Dung #24: Rand Paul slams Gingrich and Fox News over Libya

Tracking the GOP Civil War

By Michael J.W. Stickings

(For an explanation of this ongoing series, see here. For previous entries, see here.)

Via Think Progress, the radical libertarian senator from Kentucky took swipes at both Newt Gingrich and Fox News at Wednesday's Congressional Correspondents Dinner: 

I was happy to see that Newt Gingrich has staked out a position on the war, a position, or two, or maybe three. I don't know. I think he has more war positions than he's had wives.


There's a big debate over there. Fox News can't decide, what do they love more, bombing the Middle East or bashing the president? It's like I was over there and there was an anchor going, they were pleading, can't we do both? Can't we bomb the Middle East and bash the president at the same time? How are we going to make this work?

I rarely (i.e., never) do this, but allow me to put my hands together for Sen. Paul. Those are some truly biting comments. The one about Gingrich is not just on the mark but hilarious. And the one about Fox News gets it exactly right, the tension not just at Fox News but among Republicans generally (with some exceptions).

Was he just trying to be funny? Maybe. (You can see a wry smile after the Gingrich line.) But he knew what he was doing, and he knew just how to twist the knife.

Nicely done.

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Craziest Republican of the Day: Louis Gohmert

Republicans love their anti-Obama conspiracy theories, but Rep. Louis "terror babies" Gohmert (R-Tex.), one of the craziest around, was able to kick it up a notch on Wednesday by linking health-care reform to the current intervention in Libya:

It's a bad bill. And then when you find out that the prior Congress not only passed that 2,800 page bill with all kinds of things in it, including a new president's commissioned officer corps and non-commissioned officer corps. Do we really need that? I wondered when I read that in the bill. But then when you find out we're being sent to Libya to use our treasure and American lives there, maybe there's intention to so deplete the military that we're going to need that presidential reserve officer commissioned corps and non-commissioned corps that the president can call up on a moment's notice involuntarily, according to the Obamacare bill.

Umm... what? I realize that Republicans aren't quite sure what to do about Libya -- they generally support military intervention of any kind but also oppose anything Obama does, making it tricky -- but this is stupid even by their standards.

Suggesting that Obama is using Libya to unleash some private presidential army on America? That's insane. As Media Matters explains (you know, because it has the facts at hand):

Despite the claims in right-wing chain emails, the health care law did not give Obama some sort of "private army." The legislation did create the Ready Reserve Corps, a new component of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, but there was nothing nefarious about it. The purpose of the Ready Reserve Corps is simply to make the Public Health Service -- which previously "did not have a reserve component to call upon" in times of crisis -- better prepared to respond to emergencies.

As noted after the bill passed, "The truth about the new Ready Reserve Corps is a lot less interesting than the conspiracy theories." But of course, Gohmert has always been more interested in conspiracy theories than the truth.

Gohmert and so many others in the Republican Party, which continues its descent into madness without so much as a glimmer of hope.

(image -- along with more craziness from Gohmert)

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Marco Rubio, perfect Republican?

I've described Haley Barbour as the perfect Republican, given his corpulence (he's got the right Republican look), his racism, his anti-abortion extremism, his fealty to corporate profiteering, his corporate lobbying (and even his lobbying for Mexico, more proof that like a good Republican he puts money before all else, including nativist xenophobia), his reality-denying corporatism, his pro-Confederacy views, and his white Southern roots.

But, you know, he's only the perfect Republican in reality.

And, let's face it, Republicans don't really live in reality but rather in a world of their own self-aggrandizing delusions.

And in that world, the perfect Republican may well be Marco Rubio, who in a Wall Street Journal op-ed the other day wrote this drivel:

Whether they admit it or not, everyone in Washington knows how to solve these [fiscal] problems. What is missing is the political will to do it. I ran for the U.S. Senate because I want my children to inherit what I inherited: the greatest nation in human history. It's not too late. The 21st century can also be the American Century. Our people are ready. Now it's time for their leaders to join them.

As Jon Chait wonders:

Do you get the feeling that "Marco Rubio" is not an actual human being at all but some kind of computer program designed by the Republican Party? Imagine they had the technical know-how to create a candidate like this. What would they come up with? They'd come up with Marco Rubio, a cinematically handsome Latino from Florida who hews to the Tea Party line while spitting out patriotic cliches that sound as if they were programmed like a computer.

Yes, I suspect they would, which is why Rubio has already been tagged as their primary up-and-coming star, a certain presidential candidate (if not president) of the future.

Republicans apparently hope they can pull a fast one on the American people, putting before them a guy who doesn't look Republican (i.e., like Haley Barbour) but who is ideologically in line with the new right-wing mainstream of the GOP, that is, who is ideologically the perfect Republican.

Don't let them fool you.

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In "defense" of the Koch Brothers

By Carl

What's really interesting about this piece by United Steelworkers President Jon Geenen is how it's being spun by the low-normals of the right wing as a defense of the Koch brothers. It's not. It's a devastating attack on them tempered only by the warning that a boycott against them would shoot union members in the foot.

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Attacks on evolution again -- some things never get old

Think Progress had a piece yesterday on pending legislation in Tennessee that would open the door to curtailing the teaching of evolution by prohibiting administrators, according to the bill's summary, from:

prohibiting any teacher in a public school system of this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught, such as evolution and global warming.

It will also apparently allow teaching religious and pseudo-scientific ideas -- such as creationism or intelligent design -- as legitimate scientific theories comparable to evolution.

In essence, this means that teachers are to be allowed to help students question the scientific validity of evolution while presenting creationism as a legitimate alternative theory.

Of course, there is no question among scientists that evolution is one of the most widely accepted principles of modern science. But this is the approach of the pro-creationist types who like to suggest that one theory is as good as the next, and what is science anyway? Just a bunch of people addicted to facts.

As for myself, the matter was settled years ago by Spencer Tracy in Inherit the Wind, the famous movie about the Scopes Trial. You can access a wonderful clip from the movie here.

Spencer Tracy said it; I believe it; and that settles it (for me). 

(Cross-posted at Lippmann's Ghost.)

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Elephant Dung #23: The Tea Party threatens John Boehner

Tracking the GOP Civil War

By Michael J.W. Stickings

(For an explanation of this ongoing series, see here. For previous entries, see here.)

Jon Chait had a post the other day arguing that John Boehner has no choice, if he knows what's good for him, but to shut down the government.

Basically, Boehner is in a tough spot. (No, don't feel sorry for him. It's what he gets for being where he is.) He has to try to appeal to independents and moderates if he wants to maintain/maximize the GOP's electoral prospects for 2012, which means compromising with Democrats on the budget, but he also has to try to appeal to the Tea Party wing of the GOP, a significant part of its right-wing base, if he wants to avoid a full-scale rebellion against his leadership (which could also harm the party's electoral prospects), which means refusing to compromise and allowing for a government shutdown:

What is the downside to a shutdown? Republicans get less popular, have a lower chance to win the presidency in 2012, and maybe a higher chance of losing the House as well. What is the downside to cutting a deal? GOP backbenchers revolt against Boehner and depose him as Speaker of the House.

If I'm Boehner, I'm more worried about the guns pointed at my back then the guns pointed at my face. A shutdown increases the small chance that he goes from Speaker to Minority Leader in 2013, but a deal increases the chance that he goes from Speaker to (R-OH) in 2011. The right-wingers do not trust Boehner, and he has very little slack. He also lived through a series of purges and attempted purges in the late 1990s, always taking the form of purists complaining that the leadership had gone soft.

Boehner's top priority is probably staving off internal revolt. That means shutting down the government.

In other words, if he puts his own personal/political self-interest first, he'll appease the Tea Party. That may be so, and he may well do that, but the question isn't just what Boehner will do but what the Tea Party will do to him. And it may not matter what he does -- or, at least, what he does just may not be good enough. The Tea Party already has a bull's-eye on his head:

The tea partyers who helped drive GOP gains in the last election are rallying in the city they love to hate Thursday, urging Republican House leaders – Speaker John Boehner above all – to resist the drive toward compromise in the protracted fight over the federal budget. Even, they say, if that means Congress fails to do its most important job: pay for the government.

And if Boehner opts instead to agree to a deal with President Barack Obama?

"You're going to see massive amounts of (GOP) primaries" in next year's election, said Mark Meckler of the Tea Party Patriots. If the Ohio Republican strikes a budget deal that doesn't cut spending enough, Meckler said Wednesday, "he is going to face a primary challenge."

Boehner, like the rest of the party leadership, has been appeasing the Tea Party all along. But he's also, to his credit, something of a realist in terms of what is and is not doable in Congress:

"We control one half of one third of the government here in Washington," Boehner told reporters at his weekly briefing. "We can't impose our will on the Senate. All we can do is to fight for all of the spending cuts that we can get an agreement to."

He's right, but that isn't going to cut it with the Tea Party. The threats may be enough to keep Boehner from compromising too easily, but compromise he must if he is to avoid a repeat of the Gingrich fiasco of the '90s, when Republicans shut down the government, took most of the blame, and paid for it at the polls. All of this proves once again that the purists in the Tea Party have no clue about governance and are holding the GOP, and its leaders, to impossible standards. And, ultimately, the party will pay for it.

What the Teabaggers think they can gain from this isn't clear, but it seems that they'd rather be "right" (in their own minds) than win. So far, since the emergence of the Tea Party as a major force, Republicans have been more than willing to kowtow to its demands. Indeed, the GOP has fully embraced the Tea Party, and the two have more or less merged into one (though, of course, the Tea Party has always been heavily Republican and decidedly right-wing in its ideology). But how long will that last? At what point will Republicans, who, after all, have elections to win if they actually want to accomplish anything significant, shed this albatross that is clearly bringing them down? 

It may not happen soon, not with all the mutual co-opting that has taken place so far and will the enormous enthusiasm the Teabaggers have brought to the GOP, stirring up a party that seemed catatonic after the '08 election. The Tea Party is just too influential a part of the GOP right now, and that isn't about to change. But I'm just not sure the relationship is tenable, not with the Tea Party threatening any Republican who deviates even slightly from its right-wing orthodoxy, even solid conservatives like Orrin Hatch and successful leaders like John Boehner.

It would probably take another massive defeat or two for Republicans to get the message and run the other way, but, with the party purging itself of insufficiently conservative members and the Tea Party leading primary challenges against those who deviate from its extremism, it is likely that the GOP will nominate more and more unelectable candidates, increasing the likelihood of just such a defeat.

Not that I object to the GOP nominating unelectable candidates. I'm all for it! So let's all enjoy this while we can.

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Thursday, March 31, 2011

The end is nigh!


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Photo of the Day

By Carl

(Courtesy of Bad Astronomy.)

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The decline of the Tea Party and the return to sanity (let's hope)

Well, this is interesting. It seems support for the Tea Party isn't what it used to be:

A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey released Wednesday indicates that 32 percent of the public has a favorable view of the two year old anti-tax movement, which also calls for less government spending and a more limited role for the federal government in our lives. The 32 percent favorable rating is down five points from December. 

47 percent of people questioned say they have an unfavorable view of the tea party, up four points from December and an increase of 21 points from January 2010.

So the Tea Party movement may be losing steam, or, what is more likely, as Nate Silver cautions:

It’s not clear, on the other hand, that favorable views are decreasing; they’ve never been much higher than the low 30s, and that’s roughly where they remain today. Instead, this is almost certainly a case of Americans who had ambivalent views about the tea party before now coming to a more negative impression.

But what I find most interesting is the profile of those who may be going from an ambivalent to a more critical view. As CNN reports:

The tea party movement's unfavorable rating rose 15 points since October among lower-income Americans, compared to only five points among those making more than $50,000.

As the pollster postulates:

It's possible the drop among lower income Americans is a reaction to the tea party's push for large cuts in government programs that help lower-income Americans, although there are certainly other factors at work.

I’m afraid this is one of the oldest political dynamics in the book. If you ask people a general question about whether government should be smaller or taxes should be lowered, a large number will certainly agree.

If you start to put content into that abstract concept, a surprising number will start to reconsider, reasoning that they didn’t mean that programs that directly benefit them should be cut or that taxes should be lowered if it adversely impacts delivery of programs on which they depend.

Republican candidates in the last campaign knew this would happen which is why they almost comically refused to provide details about what they would cut to make government smaller. They knew their support was based on keeping the concept of reducing the size of the public sector as abstract as possible.

It’s a common sleight of hand by conservatives and too many voters fall for it. Convince them you can get it done by cutting unnecessary spending and creating efficiencies and punishing fat cat public employees. Convince them that you can cut government programs that only benefit “other people,” people not as deserving. And then when they realize that the only way to cut budgets to promised levels is to gut important public services that they rely on, many unsuspecting folks may come to understand that they have been duped.

They seem to be figuring this out in Wisconsin and Ohio and Michigan and Florida if a tad too late.

As I infer from Nate Silver’s comments, much of the support for Republicans in 2010 may have come from those who were ambivalent but decided to give them a shot. 

Let’s hope these latest numbers suggest that many are indeed waking up and that the metaphorical coffee is in fact being smelled. 

(Cross-posted from Lippmann's Ghost.)

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Your call has been disconnected

By Carl 

Well, this is good news, right?

Fewer Americans filed applications for unemployment benefits last week, a sign the labor market is firming heading into the second quarter.

Jobless claims fell by 6,000 to 388,000 in the week ended March 26, Labor Department figures showed today in Washington. The government also issued its annual revisions to the seasonal- adjustment factors, which caused a “mild upward shift” in the number of applications, an agency spokesman said as the figures were released to reporters.

A slowdown in firings and growing payrolls may bolster further gains in consumer spending, which accounts for about 70 percent of the world’s largest economy. Companies added 210,000 jobs in March, while the unemployment rate held at 8.9 percent, economists project a Labor Department report to show tomorrow. 

A sidenote: there is some reason for concern for the Obama camp, in that high unemployment is usually a harbinger of defeat in an election. The latest number, 8.9%, is notably down from the near-10% of this time last year, but more has to be done. Fortunately, these things have a way of gaining momentum.

Employment is like Sisyphus' boulder: once it starts up the hill, it becomes easier and faster, but when it falls, it plummets.

Americans getting jobs. Sounds like a sign of a healthy economy. 

As  I write this, the markets have just opened for the day. Mind you, nearly every index is up for the year at or near record paces not seen since the tech bubble of 1998, but today, when finally it looks good for an American middle class worker, the toilet lid flies up and the markets sink. The Dow is off 13 points, and S&P 500 and NASDAQ are both struggling to stay even.

What is it with corporate America that they can't sync up with Main Street Americans?

In a nutshell, there is no more Corporate America any more than there are American cars. So many companies have become multinational conglomerates that their fortunes no longer rise or fall along with those of you and I here in the USA.

It used to be "what was good for GM was good for America," but that's no longer the case. GM got bailed out. Americans got HAMPered, the plug having been pulled on the only sensible bailout program in the recession, the one that helped Americans keep their homes.

But I forgot. That program wasn't going to turn a profit for the US. Or a bigger one for the banks. My error.

Just like full employment means the banks can't hold your feet to the fire in interest and late payment charges.

(Cross-posted to Simply Left Behind.)

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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

An open letter to Newt Gingrich

"Dear" Newt:

How exactly could you have "a secular atheist country... dominated by radical Islamists"?

Do you not see the contradiction? Or are you just so deranged that you can't see anything clearly anymore, if you ever could?

And yet it's hardly surprising that you continue to sink into the morass of anti-Muslim bigotry. You were there fearmongering over the Park51 community center, and, like many in your party (e.g., Peter King) you choose to scapegoat Muslims as the dangerous anti-American Other.

But this isn't just anti-Muslim bigotry that you're tapping into. You said this at John Hagee's church in Texas. Back in 2008, John McCain refused Hagee's endorsement because of ugly remarks the extremist evangelist made about God sending Hitler to hunt the Jews.

"Obviously, I find these remarks and others deeply offensive and indefensible, and I repudiate them," McCain said at the time. And yet you, Newt, happily appear at Hagee's side, praising him profusely for his inspiration and "dedication to serve."

Did you, do you, find Hagee's remarks offensive? What about Hagee's many other similar remarks? Or has your bigotry, directed mostly at Muslims, overtaken you?

Just wondering -- you know, because you may be running for president and are widely considered, including by the media, to be a leading Republican.

Rather insincerely,

Michael Stickings

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Libya is not Iraq. Liberal interventionism is not neoconservatism.

One of our former contributors, Jim Arkedis, has an excellent piece up at Foreign Policy responding to the assertion, notably by Stephen Walt, that neoconservatism and liberal interventionism are essentially the same, and that the intervention in Libya is essentially the same as the invasion of Iraq.

If you've read this blog recently, you'll know that I side with Jim on this -- and that I'm a liberal interventionist who supports the intervention in Libya (albeit with reservations). Indeed, I argued yesterday that the "war" in Libya is decidedly not a neocon war.

I encourage you to read Jim's piece. (Instead of calling them (or us) liberal interventionists or liberal hawks, he uses "progressive internationalists." My sense is that "internationalism" is too broad, but it suggests that war is an option but not the preferred option, as it would seem to be for the neocons, so it's not a bad term to use.) Here's a taste:

Progressive internationalists recognize that U.S. foreign policy is now a holistic enterprise that must first summon all sources of national power to deal with what goes on within states as well as between them -- direct and multilateral diplomacy, development aid to build infrastructure and civil society, trade to promote growth, intelligence collection, and law enforcement, to name a few -- and only then turn to force as the final guarantor of peace and stability.

Neocons, however, disdain multilateral diplomacy and overestimate the efficacy of military force. Their lopsided preoccupation with "hard power" creates an imposing facade of strength, but in fact saps the economic, political, and moral sources of American influence. By overspending on the military and allowing the other levers of American power to atrophy, neocons misallocate precious U.S. national resources in two ways -- leaving the United States with too little of the "smart power" capacities desperately needed in war zones like Afghanistan and an overabundance of "hard power" capacities it will never use. The trick is to carefully cultivate both, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen have championed since Obama took power.

I think that's right, and I said much the same thing, if less elaborately, yesterday:

Libya isn't a neocon war. It isn't about American hegemony, American unilateral aggression, or American national self-interest (say, in terms of oil). It's a "war," or whatever you want to call it, sanctioned by the U.N. and the Arab League, that is, a war not waged by a U.S.-led "coalition of the willing" alienating even close allies but a war effectively waged by the international community. And it is largely a humanitarian war, a war to protect innocent civilians from being slaughtered and to provide cover to rebels seeking to bring down one of the must ruthless dictators in the world.

[Bill] Kristol may be cheering it on, but it isn't his war, and in fact it is a war that is decidedly the antithesis of what he generally purports to support. It's up to him to support it or not, of course, but the success of this war, and he does think "we will" win, would only mean a further defeat for neocon ideology, the refutation of all that he stands for.

It is essential, I think, that we not let all military intervention be understood in neocon terms and that those of us who support intervention, usually as a last resort in extreme cases, defend the principles that guide us from the attacks of those who would lump all intervention, and all war, together. 

Instead of being driven by the reckless pursuit of global American hegemony, after all, nor even by a purely realist sense of national self-interest, we are motivated by internationalism and humanitarianism. And, to me, there's something fundamentally noble about that.

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Boy, talk about a rock and a hard place

By Carl

Reason Magazine tries to argue that America will be either an Islamofascist or Christofascist nation soon.

Just not sure which, but don't worry! One of them will prevail!

There's a phrase here... what is it?... oh right! Epic Fail, Reason.


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Donald Trump joins the Birther cult

So Donald Trump has jumped onto the birther bandwagon. Yes, he too is questioning the fact that President Obama was born in America. If you haven't seen his latest, which I would find hard to believe, you can get a sense of his idiocy from the clip below from his appearance on The View.

Typically I pay no attention to this blowhard, but it is getting a lot of coverage so I suppose we have a responsibility to think a little about what it all means.

One possibility is that in America we seem to pay way too much attention to what rich people think simply because they are rich. We assume that because they found a way to make themselves a lot of money, what they think about any number of topics unrelated to their particular expertise must be of value. I don't know why Americans think this, but they do. Perhaps the simplest reason is that because there is no commonly accepted standard of judgment that can be used to gauge the intrinsic worth of human beings, we use money as a proxy. I find this sad, but it does seem to be true.

Another sad but true fact is that fame is also a currency we use to determine the worth of people and the value of the things they say.

Lucky him, Donald Trump is both rich and famous, so we pay attention. Charlie Sheen is also rich and famous. Gee, I wonder where he thinks Obama was born?

(Cross-posted at Lippmann's Ghost.)

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The Squirmish in Libya

You might have seen Jon Stewart make fun of this last night. It certainly belongs among Sarah Palin's "greatest" hits.

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What If He's Right?

By Carl
Now, I'm not suggesting that this is anything but the ravings of a delusional tyrant trying to put on a brave face for his people and the rest of the Arab world, but, what if Assad's charges are true?
"There is a plot to break Syria apart," Assad claimed. "It began with incitement on the internet and on Facebook, and moved on to the media and the street. We were able to stop the American-Israeli plot."

"Whoever is part of the Syrian nation always stands tall," Assad added. "Our enemies act every day in an organized and public matter in order to harm Syria."

Assaid said the protesters are "smart in their timing, but stupid by choosing a country that will not be defeated by any step."
You see what I mean about a "brave front". Kind of like Bush in the days of Osama: Dead Or Alive. But I digress...
Is this that far-fetched a charge? I don't think it is. After all, Obama has struck me as the kind of man who plays his cards close to the vest, and wouldn't hesitate to proffer a back-door way of deconstructing tyranny that does not involve violence unless it's absolutely necessary.
It sure would explain his curious "hands off" approaches to Tanzania and Egypt, as well as his wisely delayed decision to attack Libya and only with UN support (however you may feel about the attacks, and I oppose violence flat out, the delay is what I'm focused on here.)
And it really can't be denied that there's a certain apparent orchestration to events as they've unfolded across the Middle East and North Africa: first Tanzania, then Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and soon perhaps, Iran.
Too, it's not the sort of strategy you'd want to telegraph, whether Israel is involved or not. And they may or may not be, that's not the point. The point is they benefit from these changes, assuming the regimes and governments that rise in these nations are democratic and populist.
I say "populist," because I think the Arab street is just tired of fighting Israel's existence and are willing, however grudgingly, to leave them be.
Meanwhile, Israel has been preparing what Ehud Barak calls a "diplomatic tsunami" behind the scenes. Break Syria, and you break the attacks from Lebanon and Hamas. Mostly. There's still Iran to deal with but without a strong Syria to partner with, they'd have to expose their hand in attacking Israel. That's something I think the Iranian people would be upset about. A lot of rhetoric against Israel comes from Ahmadinejad and the Ayatollahs, not a lot from the people, who have stirred the pot in the past against their regime.
It's possible Obama may have earned his Nobel after all.
(crossposted to Simply Left Behind)

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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

American acceptionalism

By Carl 

(Pun intended.) 

So here's President Obama, talking about America's role in the world last night:

For generations, the United States of America has played a unique role as an anchor of global security and advocate for human freedom. To allow a slaughter in Benghazi would have been to "brush aside America's responsibility as a leader and... would have been a betrayal of who we are.

For ten years, we've been endlessly reminded of America's "special" place in world affairs. America is the world's biggest economy, has the world's biggest armed forces, is the policeman to the world... yet can't hunt down one skinny sick Saudi in a small region that straddles the border of two of the most desolate regions in the world.

Even the strongest have limitations.

Now, none of this is to say that America shouldn't throw its weight around when necessary, and Obama alluded to this last night in the negative:

We must always measure our interests against the need for action.

Again, fair enough. When our interests are at stake, we ought to be prepared to take measures to protect ourselves.

But what threat does Qaddafi pose to us? After all, he voluntarily shut down his nuclear program (although given the level of interest the Bush administration had in him, and their effectiveness in addressing terrorism, one has to wonder if indeed this ever happened) and cozied up to the previous administration. No one has claimed that he has had aspirations against us, and if anything, he's presented a face of reconciliation for Africa, offering his aid to the situations in Somalia, Darfur, and Zimbabwe.

Again, there's no judging his sincerity on these, either.

The slaughter in Benghazi is certainly a legitimate concern of Obama's, and the world's, and it was nice that Obama put on the veneer of legitimacy by asking for the U.N.'s blessings on this mission, and did so without sending his secretary of state in to do a snake-oil presentation complete with vials of white powder. Too, Qaddafi suffers from his own world image, one that seemingly did not endear him to any of the Security Council who could have vetoed the action (China and Russia abstained).

Of particular interest to me, however, was the curious lack of invitation to powers-to-be to assist in patrolling the world now. Nations like China, Brazil, and India, with their steaming-hot economies and massive expansion of trade and influence, are living off our military dime. It's about time they started ponying up. China has a strongly vested interest in North and Central Africa. Brazil certainly by dint of its location will look to Africa as a trade partner, and India with its billions of people must have some eye on Africa and its enormous resources and access to Europe and the Americas.

So the question I want to ask Mr. Obama is, Why not China? Why not India? Why not Brazil? I accept that it had to be us in the past, but why now? Have we gotten so locked into the old Cold War thinking that, if America doesn't do it, this will not hold? That it will turn socialist/Islamist/terrorist without American intervention?

It's a new century. You're a new-age man. Surely it's time to think outside of the box.

(Cross-posted to Simply Left Behind.)

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Things Republicans say about job creation that aren't true

By R.K. Barry 

Yesterday I wrote that no matter how tired progressives get saying the same things over and over again, no matter how tired they get refuting the lies of Republicans, they should carry on and fight the good fight because many people, who perhaps don't always pay enough attention, need to hear the the truth as often as possible.

Recently I have become a big fan of former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who has a teaching gig at UC Berkeley these days and also blogs on political and economic issues. I find Reich the consummate teacher in the way he lays out his arguments and exposes nonsense for what it is.

One of the greater challenges in politics, I find, is that economic theory is so hard for most people to understand, and some theories that seem to make sense are flat out wrong, things like, if we just slash taxes on corporations, that will necessarily create more jobs. Yeah, well, not so much. Not if there isn't enough demand out there because people don't have sufficient income to buy stuff. Anyway, I'll let the good professor explain.

Here are a few untruths Republicans like to trot out, with rejoinders supplied by Professor Reich:
  • "Cutting taxes on the rich creates jobs." Nope. Trickle-down economics has been tried for thirty years and hasn't worked. After George W. Bush cut taxes on the rich, far fewer jobs were created than after Bill Clinton raised them in the 1990s.
  • "Cutting corporate income taxes creates jobs." Baloney. American corporations don't need tax cuts. They're sitting on over $1.5 trillion of cash right now. They won't invest it in additional capacity or jobs because they don't see enough customers out there with enough money in their pockets to buy what the additional capacity would produce.
  • "Cuts in wages and benefits create jobs." Congressional Republicans and their state counterparts repeat this lie incessantly. It also lies behind corporate America's incessant demand for wage and benefit concessions – and corporate and state battles against unions. But it's dead wrong. Meager wages and benefits are reducing the spending power of tens of millions of American workers, which is prolonging the jobs recession.
  • "Regulations kill job." Congressional Republicans are using this whopper to justify their attempts to defund regulatory agencies. Regulations whose costs to business exceed their benefits to the public are unwarranted, of course, but reasonable regulation is necessary to avoid everything from nuclear meltdowns to oil spills to mine disasters to food contamination – all of which we've sadly witnessed. Here again, we're hearing little from the President or Democratic leaders.
If cutting taxes on rich people, cutting corporate income taxes, cutting wages and benefits, and deregulation don't create jobs, then a lot of middle class people are probably going to be voting against their own best interests come 2012 and in the interests of others who don't really need the help. Just sayin'.

(Cross-posted at Lippmann's Ghost.)

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Killing in Afghanistan

Our must-read of the day is "The Kill Team" by Mark Boal, posted the other day at Rolling Stone. What's it about?

How U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan murdered innocent civilians and mutilated their corpses – and how their officers failed to stop them.

It's disturbing, but it's important. Take the time.

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Obama, Kristol, Libya: The new American military doctrine

It troubles me greatly that I'm on the same side as Bill Kristol with respect to the Libyan intervention, as I've generally come around to supporting it (with severe reservations). As Kristol writes:

The president was unapologetic, freedom-agenda-embracing, and didn't shrink from defending the use of force or from appealing to American values and interests. Furthermore, the president seems to understand we have to win in Libya.

But of course Libya isn't a neocon war. It isn't about American hegemony, American unilateral aggression, or American national self-interest (say, in terms of oil). It's a "war," or whatever you want to call it, sanctioned by the U.N. and the Arab League, that is, a war not waged by a U.S.-led "coalition of the willing" alienating even close allies but a war effectively waged by the international community. And it is largely a humanitarian war, a war to protect innocent civilians from being slaughtered and to provide cover to rebels seeking to bring down one of the must ruthless dictators in the world.

Kristol may be cheering it on, but it isn't his war, and in fact it is a war that is decidedly the antithesis of what he generally purports to support. It's up to him to support it or not, of course, but the success of this war, and he does think "we will" win, would only mean a further defeat for neocon ideology, the refutation of all that he stands for.

Yes, okay, he supposedly stands for "freedom," but does he really? Yes, to a point, but what he really stands for is American imperial univeralism, for the imposition of American values or more specifically neocon values on the rest of world at the point of a sword.

For all the reservations we may have about the intervention in Libya, this is not that -- Libya is not Iraq, nor is it what the neocons want generally, which is for the U.S. to act according to its narrow interests even in direct opposition to the international community. Thankfully, Obama thinks differently:

"We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi, a city nearly the size of Charlotte, could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world," Obama said in a speech at the National Defense University in Washington.

"It was not in our national interest to let that happen. I refused to let that happen."

Obama articulated a broader – if not easily explained — vision of U.S. involvement in future actions, reserving the right to act in the nation's "interests and values" and arguing that Americans "should not be afraid to act." But he also cautioned against unilateral action that would result in bloody, protracted conflict and pronounced the country's days as the world's police force to be over.

He added:

It is true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what's right.

In this particular country – Libya; at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale... To brush aside America's responsibility as a leader and – more profoundly – our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different.

As president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.

I would disagree with one point: The U.S. is not as exceptional as Obama suggests. A lot of countries do not "turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries," and not intervening in Libya does not mean approving of such atrocities.

Otherwise, though, I think he's right -- and was right to act. And is right to be ushering in a new era of military intervention that rejects neocon unilateralism in the pursuit of global hegemony on the one side and pacifism on the other.

War is not a desirable option, but it is unfortunately a necessary one in some circumstances. And, in this case, it has been redefined and taken away from those on the right who have used it to advance their own interests, and who have destroyed America's standing in the world as a force for good.

Maybe this is the Obama Doctrine: a careful balance of self-interest and capacity on one side and the need to act for humanitarian reasons on the other. Whatever it is, it's certainly an improvement on what came before it, and, in Libya, where there has been significant success so far, it would appear to be taking shape.

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Monday, March 28, 2011

Are conservatives really this stupid? (Bill Ayers sarcastically claims authorship of Obama book and the right goes nuts.)

A whole whack of 'em, yes.

Here's what happened:

Ex-radical Bill Ayers (of Weather Underground fame/infamy) spoke last week at Montclair State University and claimed -- gasp! -- that he wrote President Obama's bestseller, Dreams from My Father.

For conservative conspiracy-mongers... jackpot! (It might as well have been the State of Hawaii stating with all the documentation at its disposal that, no, Obama was not born there.)

The clip appeared at various right-wing websites, including today at American Thinker (apparently the most ironic name in the blogosphere). The blogger there, one Jack Cashill, took Ayers's claim at face value, saying that he was not just telling the truth but that he "retaliating" against Obama over Libya.

Don't believe me? Well, let me quote Cashill himself:

Barack Obama knows what I know and what the people who have read my book, "Deconstructing Obama," know: Bill Ayers is the principal craftsman behind Dreams. The evidence is overwhelming.

Ayers also established, as I have contended from the beginning, that he is not the author of Audacity of Hope. Although Obama claims unique authorship of this book too, it was, as Ayers suggests, a disingenuous feint to the center written by committee.

Worse for Obama still, Ayers knows that the story he and Obama contrived in Dreams is false in many key details. The fact that Donald Trump has proved willing to challenge that story has got to make the White House even more apprehensive.

As was obvious in his speech at Montclair, Ayers does not like the application of force in Libya, and this may have been his own way of retaliating. Consider it a shot across Obama's bow. The White House will.

Need I even mention that Ayers was being... sarcastic? That he was making fun of the conspiracy-mongers? Apparently that possibility escaped not just Cashill but many others on the right. The clip went viral, sparking mouth-frothing excitement across the conservative blogosphere.

I'm not even sure how to describe such abject stupidity. It's willful ignorance combined with wish fulfillment fantasies and ideological derangement. Or something like that.

It was so stupid, in fact, that conservative blogger Rick Moran, the blog editor at American Thinker, took to his blog Right Wing Nut House to explain the situation:

What is perhaps even more bothersome than the wholesale acceptance of this theme by so many on the right is the embrace of the video linked in the AT blog post above by many who appear to have suspended critical analysis in lieu of wishful thinking. Ayers does indeed admit to writing Dreams but in such an obviously sarcastic manner that the question isn't whether Ayers was serious but how in God's name so many conservative bloggers failed to see the taunting sarcasm used in his "confession."

But even that wasn't enough to quell the delusional enthusiasm (among bloggers and commenters alike). Nor was a similar dose of reality from another leading conservative blogger, John Hawkins:

Not only is Ayers making a joke, he's making a joke at the expense of the people who claim he wrote the book. Granted, interpretations may differ, especially since Ayers' delivery was very dry, but it's a mistake to take that as some sort of confession.

Oh, but this has nothing to do with interpretation. Yes, Ayers delivered the joke very well -- see the clip for yourselves, below -- but you have to be pretty far gone, way over on the insane fringe of right-wing politics, to think that he was actually being serious.

The problem, of course, is that the insane fringe appears to be very much the mainstream nowadays. Indeed, this whole ridiculous episode tells you a great deal about the state not just of the conservative blogosphere -- which is, to put it mildly, an embarrassment to humanity -- but of conservatism more generally, which has lost its bearings, whatever bearings it may once have had, in a sea of extremism, delusion, ignorance, and stupidity beyond even what one might usually expect from the right.

For more sensible reaction to this madness, see Balloon Juice, The Daily Dish, Lawyers, Guns & Money, and No More Mister Nice Blog -- the last noting that the story was picked up by Fox News, which only added a question mark (as if to suggest that it might be true), as well as NewsBusters, a major right-wing site, and Gateway Pundit, a popular right-wing blog, among many others, both of which accept without question that Ayers was being serious.

Yes, conservatives -- a lot of 'em -- really are that stupid.

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