seeking knowledge and laughter, putting a bullseye on inaccuracy


Keep Fighting, Mac

A bunch of Mac alums are making videos to offer some hope to Mac students, many of whom represent groups that the Trump Administration is likely to target in harming their civil rights and perhaps even more scary - could be targets of the many white supremacist, anti-LGBT, misogynist groups that feel newly emboldened.

Creating Blind Spots

From David Frum, a Republican reflecting on the ongoing destruction of the Republican party in "The Great Republican Revolt."

Against all evidence, both groups interpreted the Tea Party as a mass movement in favor of the agenda of the Wall Street Journal editorial page. One of the more dangerous pleasures of great wealth is that you never have to hear anyone tell you that you are completely wrong.

Unfortunately this also appears to be a blindspot of the Clintons - they surround themselves with people that either are afraid to tell them when they are wrong or simply see the world the same way. As I have built a staff, one of my goals is that those around me are not afraid to tell me when I am wrong. And I encourage them not to take it personally when I disagree. And time will tell who is right.

Our Tribal Politics

Reason is a hard thing, perhaps because so many of us fool ourselves into thinking we have weighed the pros and cons of decisions, of our political choices. But most don't and odds are we are at least some of them.

This article from The Atlantic called "The War on Reason" explores just how rational we are. Consider -

Most of us know nothing about constitutional law, so it’s hardly surprising that we take sides in the Obamacare debate the way we root for the Red Sox or the Yankees. Loyalty to the team is what matters. A set of experiments run by the Stanford psychologist Geoffrey Cohen illustrates this principle perfectly. Subjects were told about a proposed welfare program, which was described as being endorsed by either Republicans or Democrats, and were asked whether they approved of it. Some subjects were told about an extremely generous program, others about an extremely stingy program, but this made little difference. What mattered was party: Democrats approved of the Democratic program, and Republicans, the Republican program.

We are tribal - a quality that served us well as an evolutionary strategy over hundreds of thousands of years. But now we have to work to overcome that if we actually want to live in a pluralistic, democratic society. Thus far, the evidence seems to suggest most people don't want to go to that effort or simply don't understand that they have to if we are going to call our form of government a republic.

A Failure of Our Republic

This video is worth watching through the end. It describes a problem that is all but ignored but nearly everyone, most especially policymakers.

This is a failure of our republic, which has been captured by massive corporations and shapes policies to further enrich a few at the expense of many.

Two books that address aspects of this that I recommend are Republic, Lost, and The Fine Print. Please buy them from a local bookstore if you can - supporting massive companies like Amazon or Walmart are a big part of the reason our economy is in the state it is.

An interview with David Kay Johnston about his book, The Fine Print, is below:

We can fix this, but first we have to recognize the source of the problem -- our government is not working for us, it is working for those who can cut it checks with 5, 6, 7, or more zeros at then end of them.

Our Dumb Selves and Letting Wall Street Off Without Even a Warning

In a few years ... maybe even 10 or more if we are lucky, the economy will crater again. Wall Street will have screwed us again, but we can only blame ourselves.

We are supposed to be in charge of this country but we are not. We're too busy watching "unscripted" television and ignoring very real threats to our well-being because that is inconvenient. Michael Lewis reviewing a supposed exposé of Goldman Sachs:

Stop and think once more about what has just happened on Wall Street: its most admired firm conspired to flood the financial system with worthless securities, then set itself up to profit from betting against those very same securities, and in the bargain helped to precipitate a world historic financial crisis that cost millions of people their jobs and convulsed our political system. In other places, or at other times, the firm would be put out of business, and its leaders shamed and jailed and strung from lampposts. (I am not advocating the latter.) Instead Goldman Sachs, like the other too-big-to-fail firms, has been handed tens of billions in government subsidies, on the theory that we cannot live without them. They were then permitted to pay politicians to prevent laws being passed to change their business, and bribe public officials (with the implicit promise of future employment) to neuter the laws that were passed—so that they might continue to behave in more or less the same way that brought ruin on us all.

Stealing Elections

We have seen many Republican-dominated state legislatures passing laws to make it harder to vote -- justified by the claim from Republicans that there is a real threat to the legitimacy of elections by sinister people who may vote multiple times under false identities.

The claim is ludicrous and backed by no real evidence. Given that the punishment for illegally voting is significant and the gain from casting a few extra ballots is minimal, only profoundly stupid people would try to tilt an election by having people vote multiple times.

The real threat to elections comes not from people lacking ID, but rather people that make big donations. Even though we have a system of what amounts to legalized bribery in the form of campaign contributions, some find that those lax rules are still too restricting for their tastes.

Consider a profile of one of the biggest Republican donors, Harold Simmons. What is his punishment for willfully breaking law after law to gain legislative favors? The occasional slap on the wrist.

The saga also unexpectedly brought to light the full scope of Simmons’s political activities. His personal contributions were well-known: Several years earlier, the FEC had fined him for donating more than twice the legal limit in the 1988 election cycle to the campaigns of George H.W. Bush and congressional candidates in positions to influence looming legislation concerning the business tactics favored by corporate raiders. In court filings, however, Patigian alleged that Simmons had contributed far more, “[giving] away millions of dollars of trust assets to right-wing political causes, politicians, and criminal defense funds, some of which contributions were illegal and many of which were designed to avoid federal election laws.” (The FEC did not take action on these allegations.)

The trust controlled three political action committees (PACs) and supplied most of the funding for a fourth. Though corporations were barred from donating to political candidates, Simmons had transferred money regularly between his companies and the trust, while also drawing money out of the trust for contributions to individual politicians. When he had hit his own legal limits, Simmons had donated money in his daughters’ names; in court, he admitted to forging their signatures to authorize some of the contributions.

The next time you hear someone claiming that our elections are threatened by allowing people to vote without specific forms of ID, remember the true threat to our democracy -- the rich people and corporations who buy politicians. Buying votes is so 20th century.

From Those Who Take Much, Little Will Be Returned

After reading Richard White's Railroaded history of the railroad barons in the late 1800's, I realized that if one had left Earth in 1900 and returned in 2000, they would be quite at home.

The rise of regulations that limited the destruction wrought by supposedly smart financiers and established a middle class following the excesses of the Gilded Age had largely been gutted by 2000 and the middle class was once again in danger of being listed on the Endangered Species list.

After smart regulations prevented any major financial crises for decades, elected officials began dismantling them. After each financial crisis (e.g., Savings & Loan), we deregulated further.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the agencies responsible for the 30 year fixed rate mortgage that allows millions of us to afford homes, had been largely privatized but still retained a public guarantee, the worst of both worlds but all part of the Republican big-business strategy of privatizing gains and socializing loss.

And the response of tens of millions of Americans? More deregulation! Let's run back into the age where we cannot breathe the air, swim in our waterways, or trust that the food we buy is not going to poison us.

There are those who say the government cannot grow forever and cannot forever raise taxes. Those people are EVERYBODY. No one is proposing such a ludicrous approach. What many have proposed instead is returning to the tax rates of 15 years ago... because the government cannot lower taxes forever.

There are good reasons to have government programs. Roads are one. Keeping illiterate orphans from overrunning the streets are another. A military designed only to provide jobs to well-connected firms with massive lobbying budgets is not one.

But back to the middle class - I recommend "Can the Middle Class Be Saved?" from The Atlantic.

For those who have forgotten that taxes are in fact at historic lows, this passage toward the end of the article is an accurate reminder:

Over time, the United States has expected less and less of its elite, even as society has oriented itself in a way that is most likely to maximize their income. The top income-tax rate was 91 percent in 1960, 70 percent in 1980, 50 percent in 1986, and 39.6 percent in 2000, and is now 35 percent. Income from investments is taxed at a rate of 15 percent. The estate tax has been gutted.

Government policies are overwhelmingly designed by interest groups with powerful lobbyists... and those lobbyists promote the interests of the powerful. Duh - who else can hire them??

What’s more, some of the policies that have most benefited the rich have little to do with greater competition or economic efficiency. Fortunes on Wall Street have grown so large in part because of implicit government protection against catastrophic losses, combined with the steady elimination of government measures to limit excessive risk-taking, from the 1980s right on through the crash of 2008.

Our failure is not a general failure of government, it is a specific failure of a government that governs in the interest of a few. It should be no surprise that those few are doing very well.

The Struggle Within Islam

Following up on my recent post, "Muslim Terrorists are Rare... and Stupid," I just read a good article in the September Smithsonian. The "Struggle Within Islam" explores how most Muslims react to the actions of the minority that commit acts of horrible terror.

“Today, Al Qaeda is as significant to the Islamic world as the Ku Klux Klan is to the Americans—not much at all,” Ghada Shahbender, an Egyptian poet and activist, told me recently. “They’re violent, ugly, operate underground and are unacceptable to the majority of Muslims. They exist, but they’re freaks.

“Do I look at the Ku Klux Klan and draw conclusions about America from their behavior? Of course not,” she went on. “The KKK hasn’t been a story for many years for Americans. Al Qaeda is still a story, but it is headed in the same direction as the Klan.”

How Not to Help Africa, Haiti, et al

I was still a student at Macalester when I met an economics student from Kenya who made a very compelling case for the US to help Africa by rapidly scaling back the "help" it was offering to Africa. The concept is well explained in the aptly-named "Haiti Doesn't Need Your T-Shirt" article.

It kills me when I hear Americans say that the first US government programs that should be cut are foreign aid (the budget for which they almost over estimate by many orders of magnitude). The reality is that the US foreign assistance budget primarily exists to benefit Americans. American banks, farmers, arms manufacturers, etc. We take stuff we cannot use but still want to produce (often because of the strong lobbying arm of a related interest group) and ship it off to other countries, often at the expense of destroying their economies.

Want to be a farmer in Africa or manufacture clothes? Good luck! You'll be competing against shitty free stuff from the U.S. And it is very hard to compete with free.

Muslim Terrorists Are Rare... and Stupid

Fantastic article in Foreign Policy - "Why is it so hard to find a Suicide Bomber These Days?"

I have been making this point in arguments for years. To those who argue that all Muslims support terrorists or want to kill us (due to our freedom, no doubt), I have asked why there are so few terrorist attacks then. With over a billion Muslims, one would think we would see more than the occasional attempt (often blundered).

The reality is that just as most Christians really don't want to lift a finger to do anything Jesus actually encouraged them to do, most Muslims don't believe the scary passages in the Qu'ran that give license to kill the infidels. Everyone reads what they want to read and ignores the inconvenient parts (though for many, the inconvenient parts are the ones encouraging peace, love, and hippy stuff).

At any rate, Kurzman's article is first rate and fun to read. A sample where he offers five answers to the question posed by the title:

The first and most obvious answer is that most Muslims oppose terrorist violence. According to surveys by Gallup and the Pew Global Attitudes Project, support for attacks on civilians is a minority position in almost every Muslim community. (By way of comparison, a 2006 survey found that 24 percent of Americans consider attacks on civilians to be justified.) But even if only 10 percent of the world's billion Muslims supported terrorism, we would still expect to see far more terrorist activity than we do.

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