Saturday, February 27, 2016

Obama vs. Apple and US

We have been given another little window onto the psychology of this president, a president many have compared to Nixon for his paranoia about leaks, about the truth. New York Times reporter James Risen has said that he thinks Barack Obama hates journalists. Read what the Times reports of Denis McDonough, look at the photo heading the article, and we must ask how many others in the administration share that contempt.

Evidently, the kinds of threats Pres. Obama and his administration have used to coerce agreement (or obedience) — including imprisonment in James Risen's case — didn't work with the CEO of one of the world's most successful businesses. They didn't with James Risen either. So Tim Cook and James Risen become champions of average Americans who for years has been treated with thinly-veiled contempt by an administration that pays little more than lip service to equality or fairness. For years, stories have floated about of Barack Obama's anger when subordinates disagree with him. Yet this is a president who takes without question the demands of authority figures, the petty idols he draws from institutions like Harvard (institutions that have far less to do with "veritas" than with imperium — the empire of belief).

This is an administration that has lied and coerced when it had nothing to gain by doing so. Not surprisingly, we now doubt its word. We need people like Tim Cook to make our case. Pres. Obama is too hostile to democracy to take the word of mere voters.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

My _____ Is Better than Yours!

Neil Irwin at The New York Times has a sad little piece on the pissing matches between economics departments.

Why is a newspaper like the Times concerned in the slightest over which economics department is best? What does that mean? It's clear why Stanford or Harvard or MIT would be concerned -- donor dollars. But nobody would suggest that X being best means that every economist at X is better than any economist at Y, or that all the work emerging from X is better than any work from Y.

And why is it the people that make one better? It's the obsession with star names that leads less wealthy schools to spend fortunes building a handful of superstar departments, spending fortunes on a handful of faculty. Do the students benefit? Do junior faculty? Is there better funding for any but the superstars? Harvard, Stanford and a handful of others can buy almost anyone they please. But NYU or Berkeley -- outstanding schools with outstanding economics departments -- can't. Why not create a better overall climate for students and faculty and worry less about the superstars?

Isn't it the quality of work coming out that matters? Certainly, the work is tied to the people, but if research is the real standard, then economists and the reporters who follow them around like little puppies might do well to consider some history. Twenty five or thirty years ago, many would likely have said that Chicago's was the 'best' department. Now, many would say that much of the work done at Chicago was politically driven hokum. (And who would now deny that political ideology drives an enormous part of economics?)

It's telling that in no natural science would this kind of chest beating take place. There are tempests in teapots over the 'best' physics or biology department and there is something sense to saying one is better than they other, but few worry so much about status because the work is the standard. By contrast, economics (and political science) seem to be little more than personality cults.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Wall Street Bonuses Are Twice the Total Earned by Minimum Wage Workers

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 1.1 million US workers were paid just the federal minimum wage in 2013. The average Wall Street bonus paid at the end of 2013 was about $164,000 with all the bonuses adding up to about $26.7 billion. That $26.7 billion is twice the combined earnings of the 1.1 million people making minimum wage. 

It's important to remember that, once we the taxpayers bailed out Wall Street in 2008, one of the first things the big banks did was pay bonuses. That was a transfer -- redistribution -- from the average American to the wealthiest. Suggest redistribution of wealth from the 1% (or 0.1%) to the average, and Republicans and Democrats go into hysterics. (Pres. Obama has called for equality of opportunity, but not for more just outcomes or redistribution.) 

For 35 years, both parties have repeatedly endorsed policies that have taken from the little held by the average and poorer and redistributed it upward. This is the point made by Joseph Stiglitz, Anthony Atkinson, Thomas Piketty, and many other progressive economists. And it is a point willfully ignored or dismissed by conservative economists who still dominate economic thinking in the US. The economist John Roemer has made the point that so great an indifference to fact by so large a percentage of economists counts heavily against economics being a science.

Roemer has a nice survey essay: The Ideological and Political Roots of American Inequality

Property Rights in the New Glorious Not-Quite-Revolution

My guess is that many glitterati economists and political scientists at places like Stanford and Harvard are couching the TPP in terms of "property protections" (among which intellectual property is currently the most popular). By the same token that the "Glorious Revolution" supposedly marked a milestone in protecting property from the interference of a national leviathan (making possible the English revolutions in finance and industry), now restrictions on international leviathans (or national ones with international influence) will -- if you drink Obama's Kool-Aid -- promote revolutions in international commerce. With the TPP, international players will have further incentives to innovate and trade because they will be more confident of retaining the gains from their effort.... Or something like that. 

John Roemer wrote a nice survey essay in 2011: "The Ideological and Political Roots of American Inequality". He suggests that micro-economic theory has turned from focusing on the coordinating functions of markets to focusing on markets as devices for harnessing incentives (modeled in the theoretical tool of this time -- game theory). So politicians and executives who want to further line their own pockets now have a theoretical justification for opposing policies that might be deemed to interfere with the incentives of market rewards (especially any redistributive policy).

This serves a convenient dual purpose. First, since the middle class and poor are "takers, not makers," the effect on incentives for them is irrelevant, neatly excluded from the 'scientific' program. Second, redistribution effected by markets is okay (it's 'natural'), but redistribution effected by the leviathan is distortionary and depresses incentives. Regulations, environmental protections, loosening intellectual property protections, and so on, all involve government action that will weaken owners' property claims and effectively redistribute down the economic ladder. This also explains why we are seeing an explosion in conservatives and corporations appealing to rights.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Main Currents of Political Science and Economics — Over a Cataract

Duke professor Jedediah Purdy highlights a NY Times essay by Molly Worthen, particularly the following passage:
"The left can’t talk openly about ideology, while the right pretends to ignore its own identity politics. The country’s political conversation is boring and unsatisfying precisely because its unspoken rules forbid politicians from acknowledging what is really going on and encourage them to talk past one another. 
"The right has so thoroughly captured the terms of economic debate that American liberals — uniquely in the Western world — champion cultural issues like same-sex marriage equality while avoiding serious confrontation with the structural sources of socio-economic inequality. Their ideological cowardice has left them turning sensible reform proposals like single-payer health insurance into the Frankenstein’s monster of government-subsidized private enterprise that is the Affordable Care Act."

Before the elections, the Times was running a side by side comparison of several models predicting the outcome of the campaigns. I haven't found an account of how those models actually shaped up in the actual outcome.

One way or another, the "conversation is boring and unsatisfying" also captures something about the state of political science exemplified in those models. It's badly missing something. And I don't think it's any accident that it has bought so completely into the methods of the main current of economics that so badly missed critical trends of the past 35 years (not just the past 7 years).

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Entropy, the Business Cycle, and the New Mediocre

Vanessa Frieden, New York Times fashion critic, has an essay in the paper drawing on comments by Christine Lagarde, director of the IMF, on what Lagarde calls the "new mediocre." I think Frieden doesn't quite get the point.

Thomas Kuhn, the philosopher of science, coined the term "paradigm shift." Later, after it became a buzzterm with many meanings and little force, he regretted that, critically brilliant though it was. I wonder whether Christine Lagarde might feel something like that with the "new mediocre."

Lagarde means something specifically economic (as Vanessa Frieden acknowledges). Still, Friedman may be onto more than she realizes. The "meritocracy" that the privileged rave about (think executive pay, elite universities, charter schools, privatization of government functions, etc.) is mostly a myth. The great people of merit have proved to be stunningly mediocre (even incompetent, even criminal) — Lloyd Blankfein, Jamie Dimon, about 90% of Congress and the executive, even the Supreme Court. Economic theorizing (including about meritocracy) has failed like very few sciences have ever failed. (A whole science — that's impressive.) Meritocracy was a cover story invented after the fact.

But the irony is in what Frieden and Lagarde still buy into: Growth must go on — the old thinking. "No prosperity without growth." People must buy more. Throw out the old — or even the new, useful or not. Buy newer, needed or not. Get a new cell phone each year. New clothing each season. Frieden's real quibble seems to be with the pace, not the irrational cycle.

Here's another law of physics: Entropy increases. Disorder increases. In time, things fall apart. Irrationality will accelerate that.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Secret Service's Sacred Mission — SACRED!

Here's is the opening paragraph of Carol D. Leonnig's October 1 Washington Post report on Julia Pierson's resignation as head of the Secret Service:
The resignation of Secret Service Director Julia Pierson and the launch of a top-to-bottom review of the agency Wednesday are an acknowledgment by President Obama of what he has long denied: that the force charged with protecting him is in deep turmoil and struggling to fulfill its sacred mission.
Let's highlight that last part:
the force charged with protecting him is struggling to fulfill its sacred mission
It's sacred mission.

Who does Carol Leonnig think the President of the United States is? The Second Coming of the Messiah? Is the year 2014? Is this the United States? Did Carol Leonnig study at least a little history at some level past grade school? . . . Perhaps she studied at Harvard or Yale. With Harvey Mansfield or Gordon Wood. That might explain things. Study with one of the idolaters of America's Golden Cows.

But how did any editor at the Post let that by? Even some dimwitted, groveling money-grubbing lowlife wealth supremacist like Katharine Weymouth....

Feudalism with a Constitution
This is an expression Rutgers professor Joseph Blasi introduced. The idea is one heard more and more widely — that wealth and power is increasingly so great and so concentrated in the hands of so few that it really doesn't matter how robust are the formal guarantees of the Constitution. The law is rendered substantively meaningless given the informal power of the 0.001 percent, the three to five thousand people who really control this country. The people who could commit almost any crime and know that they would not even be investigated (as the Wall Street banksters were not even investigated, as the Bush administration war criminals were not even investigated).

If one does something genuinely insane (kill someone and stick a head on a pike in the front yard) then the odds are high that they will be prosecuted. But as the case of Michael Skakel and Martha Moxley demonstrates, even that is not certain.

Religion Must Step in Where Science Fails
When science and reason are unable to justify absurd nonsense — like the billions spent to protect one war criminal, like Barack Obama — then we must come up with a myth to provide justifcation. Hence the job of the Secret Service becomes a "sacred mission." And the presidency becomes an office with divine status. An imperial presidency is no longer just a executive branch in a superpower with imperial ambitions. It is actually the office of a nascent monarch.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Coase Confusion

A tempest in a teapot over seat reclining on airplanes and nifty little (overpriced) gadgets that allow a passenger to prevent the person in front from reclining.

New York Times pseudo-thinker Josh Barro: Don’t Want Me to Recline My Airline Seat? You Can Pay Me

And a response, Damon Darlin: In Defense of the Knee Defender

Barro appeals to an icon of economics: Ronald Coase. "[A]irline seats are an excellent case study for the Coase Theorem. This is an economic theory holding that it doesn’t matter very much who is initially given a property right; so long as you clearly define it and transaction costs are low, people will trade the right so that it ends up in the hands of whoever values it most."

Coase had plenty of time to clarify what he meant by his 'theorem' (which, as others have noted, was not a theorem anyway). A former student of his, the noted Deirdre McCloskey, has argued that the popular understanding of Coase's 'theorem' is mistaken. I'm not aware that Coase ever chimed in on McCloskey's argument one way or another.

The obvious problem with Josh Barro's (pathetic) line of reasoning lies in confused handwaving over property rights (or 'property' 'rights').

My first thought on reading Barro was: How American. Only an American would whine about rights over being able to shove his seat back into another person's face.

My second thought was: Josh should have paid more attention in his daddy's or Greg Mankiw's courses (not that either Robert Barro or Greg Mankiw have a particularly good track record in economics).

But the real issue is twofold. The practical component is: What rights does a passenger acquire when buying a ticket for a flight? The airline could designs seats in any of a number of ways.

The more general component is: How do we adequately describe or specify property rights to make sense of Coase's 'theorem'? The answer is that we can almost always come up with conundrums in any but the most painfully artificial examples of the kind that right-wing nutjobs like Mankiw and Barro like to advance an utterly disproven body of economic theory.

For example, in the case of the airline seats, why not pose the problem in terms of the air rights of the seat occupant behind the recliner? Philosophers (typically ignored by conservative economists who can't bear any inconvenient facts or thought) will point out that rights conflict. So there will be +no+ well-defined specification of property rights in the sense required by Coase. Logically impossible.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Roger Cohen's False Balance

Roger Cohen's July 24th essay in the New York Times is a masterpiece of deceptive construction and lying by omission. "Hamas establishes a stranglehold over 1.8 million Palestinians squeezed into ... the 'open-air prison' of Gaza" — as if it were Hamas that maintains that prison; as if Palestinians had not chosen Hamas because the grossly corrupt and ineffectual Palestinian Authority had not proved itself more loyal to Likud than to Palestinians.

No mention of attacks on civilians sheltered at UN facilities.

No mention of Palestinian-hating Israelis like Rabbi Dov Lior or Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman ... or Benjamin Netanyahu.

No mention of the support of American anti-Palestinian bigots like Michael Bloomberg or Chuck Schumer. ...Or Barack Obama, who will never dare support the kinds of sanctions against Israel that he has brought against Russia, though by _any_ measure Israel's crimes are far worse.

No mention of how the "Middle East's only democracy" is clamping down on free speech and democracy for Palestinians _and_ for Israelis like those at B'Tselem, which has been barred from airing the names of the children Israel has killed.

Israel is firmly convinced it can win because of American support. And many people who claim to support peace refuse to condemn Israeli crimes or American support for those crimes — people like Roger Cohen.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Feinstanding or Merkeling

Sen. Dianne Feinstein has set out to prove just how blatantly, grossly hypocritical the American elite (government figures, corporate executives, pundits, academics) can be. She loudly supported NSA spying programs and, worse, viciously condemned Edward Snowden, charging that he had committed "an act of treason."

Edward Snowden has rightly charged Feinstein with hypocrisy. So, too, has Norman Solomon.

There is a clear, recent precedent for this. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was silent when news broke that the United States had been spying on Germans (and pretty much everybody else). Then it emerged that the Obama-istas had also been monitoring Merkel's own calls . . . for over 10 years. Merkel, previously sanguine about the American Stasi, was upset.

The US, we now know, has been spying on pretty much anything that can utter a sentence. What threat the G8 and G20 summits presented is anybody's guess. But Canadian PM Stephen Harper allowed that, so maybe he knows.

Internet transparency advocate and computer surveillance expert Jacob Appelbaum has detailed, at length, the many ways in which the US spymasters track us. It is very disturbing. And Sen. Ron Wyden has said, effectively, "We ain't seen nuthin' yet." Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and others who really know what is in the complete body of leaked NSA material have echoed Wyden. Jacob Appelbaum also led a Der Spiegel series on the NSA's spy kit.

Political theorist David Runciman argues that hypocrisy is part of what it is to be human, and especially part of what it is to be a politician. Witness, for example, the American and European hysteria over the Russian invasion ("incursion," in the language of American media) of the Crimean Peninsula. This is an act of "aggression," an "outrage," a "violation of international law." Israel, of course, has done far worse in the West Bank and Gaza for nearly 50 years. (To my knowledge the Russians have not killed tens of thousands of Ukrainians or "ethnically cleansed" hundreds of thousands.) And Russia has used Israel's excuse: It's defending its people. The US could hardly claim that (though it did try) in Iraq (twice) or Grenada or Nicaragua or Chile, or in any of a dozen or more other places that have enjoyed American "generosity" over the past 60 years.

Some resources (to be updated):

Jacob Appelbaum on the frightening array of technologies used by the NSA, CIA and others:

Applebaum on NSA hacking unit and, believe it or not, the NSA's catalog of spy gear.

The Intercept. The new online journalism project of Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, Jeremy Scahill, and others.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Wealth Supremacism: The Real Reason the Harvard Study on Mobility is a 'Landmark' in the Eyes of American Media

The amount of hype the Chetty study has gotten is quite astonishing, but not surprising. First, we have to remember the lengths to which Harvard goes to present anything and everything that happens at Harvard as more earth-shattering than anything and everything that happens anywhere else. It is easy to roll ones eyes at this point of mine, but it is part of the politics and economics of academia. We see much the same in the lobbying of universities for Nobel Prizes — one of the reasons why some, like physicist N. David Mermin, have so strongly criticized prizes generally: "[Mermin] maintains that the prize system has run amok, absorbing far too much of scientists' time and effort." (It is also, in my opinion, a reason for the public ownership of all universities.) Check out the ancillary materials Harvard has released in connection with this study. There has clearly been an effort to market the work for popular consumption.

The more important reason this is a 'landmark' study in the eyes of NPR or New York Times or Post pundits and editors is that it fits very nicely into the outcomes that they find tolerable. It fits into the prevailing attitude of wealth supremacism. The Bill Kellers or Robert Samuelsons or Cokie Robertses embrace inequality. That want more inequality. They firmly believe that the privileged are innately superior. They absolutely will not tolerate scientific findings that clearly support a case for redistribution of wealth. This cannot be overemphasized. How many mainstream observers of President Obama's State of the Union address obsessed over any possible redistributive implications of his statements:
  • The Economist; "Obamacare and inequality — A healthy dose of redistribution";
  • Conservative, Clinton-style Democrat William Galston at Brookings;
  • Britain's Telegraph newspaper: "Barack Obama calls for more redistribution of wealth";
Consider this from an op/ed at Forbes: "[I]ncome inequality is unrelentingly beautiful." This is a common view among Americans, who overwhelmingly share the conviction, take as an article of faith, that they will soon win the lottery, that they are just about to become fabulously wealthy. But, crucially, Americans also overwhelmingly adhere to a conviction that the wealthy deserve to be so.

Here is 'noted' Harvard economist Gregory Mankiw: "Smart parents make more money and pass those good genes on to their offspring."

This is the thinking underlying eugenics, and it is a pervasive and growing conviction among American conservatives, moderates, and no small percentage of progressives. (And not just among Americans.) It is reflected in the cultish adoration of evolutionary psychology and evolutionary economics, and the gross misunderstandings of genetics and biology common among people generally, social scientists, and even many biologists. Stephen Jay Gould was an outstanding thinker on these issues. Richard Lewontin and others still write on these matters.

I highly recommend Dean Baker's writing on the Chetty mobility study:

Friday, September 27, 2013

More Wealth Supremacy — the Divine Right of Billionaires

Paul Krugman has a nice essay today on sociopathy among America's wealthiest citizens. He begins:
"Robert Benmosche, the chief executive of the American International Group, said something stupid the other day. And we should be glad, because his comments help highlight an important but rarely discussed cost of extreme income inequality — namely, the rise of a small but powerful group of what can only be called sociopaths."
Billionaire Stephen Schwarzman of the Blackstone Group (who through a $3 million birthday party for himself in 2007) said, "It’s a war; it’s like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939." Krugman left out Lloyd Blankfein's "We are doing God's work".

Berkeley scientists published a 2012 paper: "Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior." Inequality promotes rule-breaking, indifference to others, etc., in those who are better off.

Is it any surprise that greater inequality causes greater immorality? In the course of their money-grubbing, the Benmosches and Schwarzmans and Blankfeins must realize that there is no real justification for anyone making billions while huge numbers struggle at minimum wage. People like Michael Bloomberg (whose wealth grew by about $4 billion in just one year) must either admit that they are leaches or they must invent some 'justification'.

Psychologists call it "cognitive dissonance". Orwell called it "doublethink".

In a different time, monarchs invoked a "divine right of kings". Blankfein, Benmosche, et al., think likewise, that they are divinely entitled. Right-wing economists like Gregory Mankiw appeal instead to innate superiority deriving from genetics. This is a familiar phenomenon in the US. Horrific American behavior in Iraq or Afghanistan is excusable because "Americans aren't really like that". Americans are "exceptional" — citizens of, as Christiane Amanpour put it, the world's "most moral country" or as Madeleine Albright said, "the world's only indispensable nation".

Whatever it's called, the outcome is the same — a wonderland in which gross misdeeds aren't simply justified, they're moral.

When American 'Moderates' Try to Sound Moderate

"[D]ecades of perceived humiliation by the West." Thus Roger Cohen characterizes Iran's many complaints against the US (and a handful of other nations, most notably Britain).

Inability to place blame where blame is due when doing so would undermine American jingoist mythology — an essential requirement for any American pundit.

Perceived humiliation?

The 1953 overthrow of Mossadegh. Years of of support for the brutal Shah. The 1988 attack on Iran Air Flight 655, killing 290 (after which the Vincennes Capt. Rogers was rewarded). Years of increasingly brutal sanctions whose only substantive impact is on average Iranians. Overflights by American drones. Likely US support for military incursions into Iran (as reported by Seymour Hersh), which are acts of war under the international law the US demands Iran obey. The placement of US forces in nearly every country bordering Iran. The Stuxnet attack concocted by the US and Israel. A constant stream of invective and bigotry from Americans against Iranians and Islam. US support for and training of the MEK and blind eye turned toward express violations by prominent Americans (like Rudolf Giuliani) of US laws against support for terrorism.

And Mr. Cohen's most glaring omission: The slavish obedience of American politicians (and pundits) to Israel's Likudniks, including AIPAC.

What about this is just perceived? What about it would given any Iranian, even the most liberal, any reason to trust the US?

The real question is what humiliations remain unperceived, still secret.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Jay Rosen on "The Toobin Principle"

Jay Rosen of NYU has a nice essay on the inability of pundits like Jeffrey Toobin to tolerate support for Edward Snowden. Here are some of my thoughts:

Despite the appearance of contradiction (and while there is a tension), one can be consistent in thinking that the debate resulting from Snowden's leaks is good although Snowden's actions themselves are bad.

Jeffrey Toobin seems conservative to me. He certainly falls within the spectrum of standard American thinking where actions are justified instrumentally — by virtue of the good outcomes those actions produce. (The most dogmatically held example of this in the US is the conviction that enormous inequality is justified by the 'trickle down' effect.) So if the debate resulting from Snowden's actions is a good thing, Toobin must believe there is some overriding negative outcome that makes Snowden's actions bad. This could be a coherent argument, but neither Toobin nor others attacking Snowden make it because there is little real argument nor any wish for such in the mainstream about Snowden.

My suspicion regarding Toobin's (and others') distress over Snowden's leaks is threefold:

  1. Toobin and many journalists, scholars, observers like him (e.g., Matt Yglesias, Chris Hayes, David Gregory, etc.) deeply, personally identify with power, especially Washington ("This Town", as Mark Leibovich has described). They have powerful incentives to do so; their wellbeing as pilot fish depends on that of the sharks.
  2. They therefore see criticism of Obama or the US government as criticism of themselves.
  3. They are profoundly unable to conceive of the possibility that American leaders, in government or business, might be guilty of really awful wrongdoing. This is why years ago, for example, Toobin could casually attack OJ Simpson before the facts were in, but cannot criticize any American leader, like Obama, as a plausible candidate for war crimes charges.

Snowden or Wikileaks generate cognitive dissonance for the Toobins in America. They resolve the dissonance with just-so stories that exonerate American power. If they actually thought about it, they could construct a coherent argument. They are unaccustomed to doing so because the US culture is one that bitterly rejects challenges to power, fashion, wealth, fame.

"[D]emocracy here at home must be balanced against the requirements of security." What would be the response to: "Security here at home must be balanced against the requirements of democracy"? The notion that democracy brings demands seems to have been lost.

How would Obama or Sen. Feinstein or any of those who endlessly defend government abuses react if there were a broad, deep public demand for democracy, defense of rights, and an end to massive surveillance? If we have not already reached the point of no return, we are rapidly approaching one where a surge in public opposition would provoke a constitutional crisis worse than that seen in the Civil War. The crisis will likely never arise because the public is so misinformed, so deceived, and so dogmatic in its faithful attachment to American power that the demand will never be made.

Lest this seem like conspiracy theorizing or just handwaving, recall that in the Nixon years, calls by some within the administration for more troops in Vietnam were opposed because it was thought those troops might be needed in the US to quell domestic unrest. Recall also that both Bush and Obama made legal moves that would, in principle, undermine posse comitatus and allow use of US troops within the US.

Finally, despite racist hostility to Obama or malicious GOP opposition to anything Democratic, Americans are still overwhelmingly of the view that we owe obedience to political leaders. Americans identify the powerful in America with America itself. And they suffer under the delusion that they, any day now, will win the lottery and join the powerful.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Richard III Finally Wins

Skeletal remains found under a parking lot in the British city of Leicester have apparently been confirmed to be those of King Richard III, who was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. Most who have any association at all with the expression "Richard III" will think of Shakespeare's play and the lines "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York." Or "My kingdom for a horse!" My favorite has always been Richard's response to Lady Anne:
Lady Anne
... No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity. 
Gloucester (Richard)
But I know none, and therefore am no beast.
Charlotte Higgins, writing in the UK's Guardian newspaper, raises some doubts about the science and a far more important point about popular science.

Skepticism regarding the validity of the claim that the remains are indeed those of Richard III has nothing at all to do with the more important, genuine issue of what discoveries like this have to do with broader scientific efforts.

I couldn't help noticing that the de facto spokesperson among the scientists on this project just happens to be the most attractive female, Jo Appleby. This is a symptom of a poisonous trend in the sciences — that to be worthy of public support, they must be popular and 'relevant'. The New York Times and the BBC both have pet, pretty scientists who write or host pieces from time to time. What a coincidence that they are so photogenic. Stephen Hawking is also a creature of this phenomenon. How good a scientist he is has less to do with his popularity than the freak-show factor, which brings an audience.

The standard for science today is the American Standard. It must have the potential to drum up millions in funding. We expect private corporations to lust after money and nothing more (though once upon a time, many leading firms had great pure research arms, like Bell Labs decades ago).

The same standard is applied to the arts and more or less every other human effort where once non-profit meant non-profit. Thus we see the absurd success of (con-)artists like Damien Hirst. Or Marc Quinn's gold (22 pounds of gold) statue of Kate Moss first shown at the British Museum. Important museum shows take a back seat to yet another round of Impressionists who will pull in hordes of ticket buyers. University presses like Oxford's or Harvard's, once specializing in books that might no more than five thousand readers, increasingly demand that a book be able to sell at least tens of thousands of copies to be 'worth' publishing.

Everything must be 'monetized' because contemporary culture values money above all things, even money as the only thing.

Monday, January 28, 2013

More on Wealth Supremacism

Paul Krugman writes again today on the intellectual bubble conservatives continue to inhabit while trying to pretend otherwise to win votes. Not only do Republican politicians live in an intellectual bubble (joined by conservative and pseudo-moderate Democrats), so too do journalists and scholars who claim to find 'evidence' supporting right-wing GOP economic policies. Conservative politicians may be grossly ill-informed or just weak-minded. But what accounts for undeniably very-intelligent researchers like Gregory Mankiw or Glenn Hubbard? Economics is dominated by conservative thinking.

The question is not whether the intellectual bubble exists, but, firast, how it is kept inflated despite all the evidence that should burst it and, second, what cherished belief is at its center.

I think the answer is profoundly troubling. A significant body of conservatives and pseudo-moderates (e.g., Cass Sunstein) are wealth supremacists. They believe that the wealthy are naturally superior — even biologically so. Gregory Mankiw stated this explicitly in his blog in August, 2009. He asserted that children of the wealthy perform better in school because they've inherited their wealthy parents' superior genes.

Conservatives (and pseudo-moderates) aren't all so extreme. But American culture is thick with evidence that many people, perhaps most, view the wealthy or famous as simply better people. It is quite amazing and disturbing that Americans have effectively reinstituted a divine right of wealth that many would have said we abolished two centuries ago.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Obama Inaugurated for Second Term — Big, Fat, Hairy Deal

Economist and New York Times essayist Paul Krugman today suggests that progressives take a break from our "anxiety" and take some solace in the few, modest accomplishments of the Obama administration.


I'm unclear whether Paul Krugman thinks Obama's 'accomplishments' are a "Big (so what!) Deal" or a "Big (wow . . . almost) Deal." And "anxiety" is an interesting choice of words — just that little bit demeaning, disparaging. 

As for the substance of Krugman's claims:

Nobody disputes that inequality in the US will continue to grow (with Obama and most Democrats seeming to embrace that, modest palaver to the contrary notwithstanding), and social mobility will continue to decline. 

We'll see whether health care in the US improves. Massachusetts is more of a mixed story than Obama-supporters will admit. Insurers got everything they demanded from Obama. 

As for financial reform, Wall Street is just as petulant as the NRA — and more powerful. Ninety-nine percent of American revile Wall Street, yet the oligarchs still get most of what they demanded. But they are spoilt brats. Unless they get 110 percent of their demands they whine about how hard-done-to they are.

Unmentioned are any international issues. The world has learned that Obama is as bad or worse than Bush: drone strikes; assassinations (including of American citizens); uninterrupted funding for Israeli occupation; denial of due process for all accused to terrorism; a different and poorer standard of justice for Muslims and Arabs; vicious and unprecedented abuse of whistleblowers and activists for openness (most recently, Aaron Swartz). And nothing at all on climate change

Sorry, I'm not going to take a break. And it's not anxiety. It's fury.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Bloomberg's Blind Spot and the Blindness of Wealth

Joe Nocera has an essay in the November 6th New York Times noting something that many have long noted about Mayor Michael Bloomberg — his unwillingness to admit error, his pig-headedness or blindness, his conviction that he is always right. I do not share another of Joe Nocera's views about Bloomberg — that he is a great mayor, though I do think that Nocera's observations about Bloomberg's blindness are correct. Indeed, I believe the problem is worse than Nocera does and is indicative of a more serious problem.

Consider some of the other instances of Bloomberg's indifference to 'lesser' New Yorkers — stop and frisk, spying on Muslims, indifference to accidental electrocutions of pedestrians, construction accidents, flying to one of his several estates during a huge snow storm.

Bloomberg, like a huge percentage of American politicians and business elite, does indeed think he knows what's best for us. More so than many, and like a large percentage of the 0.1 percent, he also thinks he is just better than us. He believes that we owe him obedience, loyalty, and appreciation. This is a point made regarding many of the wealthiest Americans by Chrystia Freeland in her book "Plutocrats."

In direct opposition to many, I have always thought that Bloomberg should be disqualified from high elected office precisely because he is so wealthy. I do not believe, as many apparently do of Bloomberg, Romney and others, that a person is qualified because he is 'successful' in business (or that being wealthy is evidence of success in business; consider Wall Street post-crisis).

People were outraged by resources diverted to marathoners. How many could be housed in Bloomberg's five or six mansions?

How can a person worth many billions in any way grasp the circumstances of an average resident, even if he "came up from nothing" (something that is not true about Bloomberg anyway)? Some evidently do — perhaps Andrew Carnegie, George Soros. But we must ask what kind of person seeks to accumulate wealth on the scale of a Bloomberg. Can such a person be well-suited to hold office? What kind of indifference to others is required to hold such wealth when so many are so needy?

This is not an endorsement of strict egalitarianism, or even rough egalitarianism. It is a condemnation of radical inequality. Isn't it interesting that egalitarians are condemned as extremists but not those who embrace extreme inequality?

The mayor whom Joe Nocera considers one of New York's greatest has endorsed massive development projects, but has done remarkably little to address ongoing problems of the city's infrastructure or housing. Could someone who had ridden the city's subways for years allowed so little substantive improvement? Or someone who went to public schools spend so much time vilifying teachers? The answer, of course, is actually yes, but my contention is that someone of such long-standing, extreme privilege is too my removed from the live of the average to be able to govern well.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Friday, October 5th, saw Bureau of Labor Statistics reports on the employment numbers for the US. It was good news for Obama, with the overall unemployment rate dropping below 8 percent. Strikingly, a large number of conservatives suggested that the numbers had been fudged to suit the Obama campaign. Most notable among these was former GE titan Jack Welch.

Indeed, the most telling development regarding the employment numbers was in the responses of many Republicans and conservatives. Some were surprising, like the idiotic blather of Welch who sounds more like a Tea Party lunatic now. Others, like those of Fox News, were just boringly predictable. They are of a piece with the birthed delusions still entertained by the likes of Donald Trump.

These responses have in common one thing — dangerous, malicious indifference to scientific fact, an indifference also seen on climate change, evolutionary theory, etc. All people show a capacity to 'massage' facts when trying to reconcile emotional responses with observation. But the comments of conservative 'leaders' like Welch or of many right-wing voters interviewed in the past 24 hours show something worse — an absolute determination to disregard all facts to preserve a dogmatic adherence to right-wing articles of faith.

The economics profession itself is not immune. Consider the right-wing economists who still tout the thoroughly debunked notion that lowering taxes invariably increases revenue (though over 35 years of Reaganite tax policy has failed to produce any evidence to support this).

The conservative fanaticism is so great that they'll destroy respected government institutions, like the Bureau of Labor Statistics, to further their agenda. Liberals have shown no comparable inclination.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Reason for Hope

Sara Fishko, of WNYC, on the Back Chaconne:

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

When Necessary, Manufacture a War

"[C]risis initiation is really tough." 

Washington Institute for Near East Peace (de facto 'think tank' arm of AIPAC) is pushing for war with Iran. Patrick Clawson, director of 'research', made that remarkable statement, reported by Mondoweiss.

What a striking comment. Of course, the US has done a lot of crisis initiation. The Bush administration initiated the post-9/11 crisis with Iraq. I've often thought that the cruel sanctions regimes, previously imposed on Iraq and now on Iran, are calculated to provoke the victim.

When I saw the headline here, I thought that "covert attack" war's idolaters might have in mind would be more in the vein of old-fashioned US covert ops. During the Reagan years, the US would dress up its "advisers" and Contra terrorists in the uniforms of the Nicaraguan Sandanista soldiers, then have them commit atrocities while so outfitted. The idea, of course, was to bring down blame on the Sandanistas.

The IDF and Mossad are known to have their operatives dress up as Palestinians. Reports have noted that they are so well-trained that their accents can match regional Palestinian ones.

The caveat here is that such reports are easily misstated (over or under) and even more easily dismissed as "conspiracy theory." Past charges by Americans (especially African Americans and Native Americans) that FBI or local police forces were infiltrating protester ranks to sow discord or provoke violence have invariably been dismissed by the likes of Man's Greatest Newspaper, the Times. The catch is that such charges have repeatedly been shown to be true. For example, we now know that the NYPD infiltrated protester groups during the 2004 RNC and continues to do spy on Muslims and Arabs, including through planted NYPD operatives.

Seymour Hersh and others have reported on US/Israeli covert operations already underway in Iran. If these have failed to provoke the overt Iranian response that Clawson would like to see, one has to wonder why he thinks a sabotaged submarine would. My guess is he has something more drastic in mind — something like the 1988 US destruction of the Iranian Airbus, killing 290 innocents.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Some Lies Are More Equal Than Others

Another tempest in a tiny, tiny teacup. In the past 18 hours (it's 4 pm on the East Coast), a fake Bill Keller op-ed has made the rounds. Within a few hours it was exposed as fake. The real giveaway was that it was better than any actual Bill Keller writing. The first I heard of the Bill Keller op-ed was as a fraud this morning, so it never even got to me as possibly genuine. I feel I missed out.

As for The New York Times and 'truth'. It's no coincidence that the traditional media trumpeted by the Times and by Glenn Greenwald's soon-to-be colleague at The Guardian are so much more expensive. The sheer cost of print or television serves as a gate-keeping device to keep out us proles who haven't gone through the brain-washing at the Columbia School of Journalism or the Kennedy School of Government.

Consider the largely-forgotten epitome of Times fraud — Judith Miller. People were pointing out her lies and fabrications about the Middle East, especially about Israel and Palestine, for nearly 20 years before she was finally ditched by the paper and editors that loved her.

The traditional media is just upset that the frauds being swallowed now aren't always theirs. Or worse — that the frauds exposed are theirs. John Burns, Bill Keller, Thomas Friedman, Walter Isaacson, and their ilk hate being caught out in lies. It's embarrassing when they go to the parties in the Hamptons or on Martha's Vineyard thrown by the people who paid for the lying.

More in the Lifestyles of the Wealth Supremacists

There's been a recent tempest (a very small one) over suggestions that New York City develop "micro-apartments" — very small apartments catering to people who want to live in the big city at low cost. NYC mayor (emperor) Michael Bloomberg supports this proposal. There's been speculation over the real reason for his support, given that he owns five or six palaces around and about (a couple of adjacent townhouses in Manhattan, a place in Westchester County, his shorefront mansion in Bermuda,  a mansion in London, and a place in Colorado, I think).

The economics behind developing smaller spaces is solid. But there is another rationale behind Bloomberg's push for microflats, one based on his conviction that the wealthier are just better.

There is an obvious way to provide more space for more people — build up. It wouldn't take a city of endless high-rises, the fifty-story, engineer-designed monstrosities that developers love. Going from 3 or 4 story standards to 5 or 6 would provide an enormous increase in space while still keeping many neighborhoods "cozy." But it costs more to go higher than it does to subdivide smaller.

More important, developers think in terms of dollars per square foot, and in their view, they are entitled to a minimum rent for a unit, based on its size. It can be a roach-ridden, bed bug-infested, rundown as you like. Square footage means money. And Bloomberg is a real-estate Keynesian (to adapt Paul Krugman's "military Keynesian" expression for right-wingers who endorse big government for military purposes). Bloomberg is a strong believer in government intervention to keep real-estate prices ridiculous.

Floor area is the most 'objective' (watch as real estate agents come up with an argument for why that 300 square foot hole is really 500 square feel) and tangible factor in valuing living spaces. A quick coat of paint, a cleaning, and air freshener and most people will over look the real problems in a 5 minute look at a place. (And most New York landlords will still gripe about doing even a minimal cleaning.) Smaller size is the most cheapest way to cram low-budget proles into otherwise pricey neighborhoods.

That brings us to part 2 of Bloomberg's thinking. He and his rich buddies will play loco parentis for us, but they sure as hell aren't going to have anybody telling them what to do. They want they're Manhattan MacMansions. But they still need their servants. But living costs are soaring and rippling outwards, so that places 50 or 60 miles from New York are seeing prices typical for Brooklyn (and Brooklyn sees Manhattan prices).

How are Bloomberg-style wealth supremacists to keep their servants within reasonable distance so they can get to servitude on time? Have to get those living costs down in town. And, as noted in part 1, the best way to do that is smaller area. Bloomberg and Co. do want Manhattan (and parts of Brooklyn — maybe) to be a gated community for Wall Street, but the last thing they want to do is anything resembling work — laundry, cleaning, cooking. They need their servants close enough so that they can be at hand at a moments notice (since, for now, the days when servants lived on-site, in the mansion, are still gone by — for now).

Monday, July 9, 2012

Wealth Supremacists

A story is making the rounds of a particularly snotty-nosed Romney donor throwing her weight around in the Hamptons during the Mitt Romney fundraising this past weekend of July 7th (which happened also be one of the hottest on record in the US). Arriving at the gate to the estate, according to the Times, this woman "yelled to an aide to Mitt Romney. 'Is there a V.I.P. entrance? We are V.I.P.' " No doubt all the other millionaires and billionaires attending appreciated her distinction.

This election is highlighting the full commitment of many Americans (almost all of the super-rich and, I suspect, a majority of everyone else) to the divine rights (plural) of wealth. This is the firm conviction of Michael Bloomberg, Bill Gates, the Koch brothers, and of course, Mitt Romney. But it is also an article of faith among many Democrats, including Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. 

The picture is complicated, but it is coherent and explains the social and economic development of the US over the past 35 years. It explains why even many poor Americans vote to deprive themselves and further enrich the wealthy. It explains the cult of testing in public schools, coupled with the vilification of teachers by people who send their own kids to private schools. It explains a criminal justice system that allows the systematic crimes of wealth to go unpunished while sending poor law-breakers to prison for years for even the most minor offenses. It explains why Obama, with an easy line of attack against Romney, instead pussy-foots about. 

A wide array of public figures endorse wealth supremacism. And many more quietly endorse it while publicly paying lip-service to issues of justice. These quiet idolaters of wealth include people like Bill Keller, former Editor-in-Chief of The New York Times and son of Chevron CEO George Keller. They include Thomas Friedman, himself a billionaire by marriage. Numerous corporate executives, sports figures, and Hollywood stars are also among this number. Again, they may say all the right things, but actually doing something to counteract the trend is beyond their imagining.

The cult of wealth, the divine rights of wealth, are reinforced in popular entertainment, in schooling (both grade school and so-called "higher-education", in the criminal justice system, in housing — everywhere. Crucially, the notion of superiority the wealthy embrace today is not accompanied by notions of noblesse oblige endorsed by past aristocrats. I'll explore this further in forthcoming posts. 

To begin:

The first and most important of the divine rights of wealth is the right to wealth itself. Why do the rich have a right to wealth? Well, they are superior to the rest of us. They merit wealth. Why do they merit wealth? They are better — harder working, more intelligent, more honest, more virtuous. 

This view was expressly endorsed by Harvard economists and Romney adviser Gregory Mankiw in a 2009 blog post entitled "The Least Surprising Correlation of All Time:" 

"Smart parents make more money and
pass those good genes on to their offspring."

This is the crux of the position held by an enormous percentage of the wealthy and by, as I said I suspect, most Americans. 

In this simple statement we see a confluence of several seemingly disparate strains of thought. In this statement are elements of the reductionist thinking that plagues psychology (especially evolutionary psychology) today. We see also the tacit assumptions of virtue attached to wealth. We see elements of what is called "meritocracy." And we see the air of superiority embraced by those who are better off.

To all this and more, I will return soon.

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Smell of the Book

Terrific lecture by Matija Strlic at University College London's Centre for Sustainable Heritage.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

We the People Should Just Mind Our Manners!

Essayist and rights advocate Glenn Greenwald today responds to a comical, revolting essay by ESPN something LZ Granderson. Granderson normally writes on sports issue, but he's a reporter at a major news outlet, so he must be an expert on anything for CNN. Now he's an expert on issues of American government secrecy and popular demands of openness, demands once aired but now violently opposed by Barack Obama.

The obvious test — one which the LZ Grandersons and George Wills (and George Packer and Bill Kellers ignore) — is revealed in the double standard. Do citizenry of other nations have obligations to resist nosiness? Iranians? Iraqis? Venezuaelans? Granderson's — sports expert and therefore expert on government — assertions (there is no argument or reason there) is brutally absurd.

The most obvious point is that government is exactly a creature of peoples' creation. Even dictatorships are. Governments are not sports or movie stars victimized by paparazzi pawing through garbage or hovering near bedroom windows. Governments have exactly and only those rights We the People give them.

 To the extent that there might be something remotely substantive in Granderson's confusion it might be that somethings are necessary that are unsavory. At least the revolting Alan Dershowitz gets that those things still need to be public, hence his call for "torture warrants." If the people decided to make public all the top secrets of American nuclear weaponry, for example, it might indeed by unwise, might give guidance to 'enemies' up to no good, but it would not be a problem of "nosiness."

I think Granderson's is another example of class-blame. What he is really endorsing is what some endorse in Citizens United or endless protection of the wealthy against redistributive policy. We the People are getting too uppity. He's expressly rejecting the notion that government can be too nosy in its spying on American citizens (or worse — in its assassination of American citizens). It's we lesser Americans — the 90 or 95 percent — who should just accept our station in life.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Why Tax the Poor More? They "Deserve" It.

James Kwak offers some comments on the determination of conservatives to increase taxes on the poor while reducing those on the rich. My overwhelming impression is that conservatives see the poor and less fortunate as inferior in deep sense. This was betrayed in a Gregory Mankiw blog post that should have gotten far greater attention than it did. That it didn't suggests, I think, the extent to which essentially conservative thinking pervades even many liberal arenas. Mankiw is an economist at Harvard and is now among those advising Mitt Romney.

In a 2009 post, Mankiw offered a social-Darwinist account for children's school performance, including an allusion to reductionist genetic explanations of a kind very popular these days among conservatives and liberals (like, for example, Barbara Ehrenreich). The post is here.

Mankiw clearly thinks that different outcomes are in significant measure a result of fundamental, intrinsic, biological differences between individuals. The rich are more successful because they are just better — better workers, better thinkers, better innovators.

This thinking is very widespread in the anglophone, industrial democracies — Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and of course the US. Moreover, it closely tided to a kind of supremacist thinking (and I do mean supremacist) found among the wealthy. Scan the comments of Michael Bloomberg or the Koch brothers or Bill Gates, and you will see a pervasive contempt for the less fortunate that is coupled with a conviction that these less fortunate are just less well-endowed with the natural talents enjoyed by the better-off. Centuries ago, this was overtly embraced as the divine right of nobility. Today it is far more subtle.

More importantly, it reflects a close intwining of tacit assumptions about social status, native talent, education, culture, heritage — many things. For example, Mike Bloomberg simply has no substantive interaction with those who are markedly less well-off; so, predictably, he views the less-fortunate as "Other." This view is reinforced by the socio-biological, reductionist account that says that behavioral differences are outcomes of genetic differences. It is further reinforced by the need all people share to view their own good fortune as something more than plain good luck. If Bloomberg is just lucky, then what justification is there for his holding the staggering fortune he does. He must "deserve" that wealth because he's better than the rest of us.

Why raise taxes on the poor then? Well, they "deserve it." In the view of the Michael Bloombergs — and, crucially, also in the view of the Arne Duncans and (I suspect) the Barack Obamas — the poor aren't just poor in a socio-economic sense; they are "poor specimens of humanity."

How do we test such contention as mine? Probably not in the neatly numerical way that economists and political scientists today demand. That, in turn, raises yet another issue of how our very methods of inquiry tend to promote some conclusions over others.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Good Dog Fido

Maybe the story is far more simple than anyone has supposed. Maybe the reason we see supposedly "liberal" thinkers constantly kowtowing to Obama is that the brand of Obama-obedient liberal asks not what "politicians owe us" but what "we owe them." Maybe what conservatives are getting right is that they do indeed ask "what politicians owe us."

Certainly, the balance of sycophantic go-along-to-get-along thinking seems to be found among safe, obedient liberals. They whine when conservatives are in power. Then when Obama-style liberals do exactly the same thing the conservatives did, they scream bloody murder at any progressives' objections to the crimes.

At least conservatives express their dissatisfaction when they feel it. The Obama-obedient liberal brigade seems to think that as long as you're sufficiently obedient, you'll be rewarded — like a good dog.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Transit of Venus

It gives me great comfort to think that no matter how grossly the revolting barbarian war-mongers like Barack Obama or Angela Merkel or Hu Jintao mess things up here on Earth, the planets orbit, stars shine, life thrives (despite all human efforts to annihilate the living planet).

Here, then, is my thrill today, Tuesday, 5 June 2012. The Transit of Venus, taken at about 7:30 pm, Eastern time.

You can see Venus in the upper right quadrant of the sun. Through the clouds and roughly about the middle of the Sun, you can see some sunspots.

Monday, June 4, 2012

This Republican (and Democratic) Economy

Paul Krugman writes this Monday of "This Republican Economy" and Barack Obama's and the media's unwillingness or inability to state the obvious regarding GOP obstructionism. I think Paul Krugman fails to grasp the nettle (to paraphrase the great left political philosopher G. A. Cohen speaking on John Rawls).

The most obvious liberal-progressive response to Mr. Krugman is that Obama and the media have failed to highlight know-nothing Republican obstructionism because they largely agree with it. On healthcare, foreign policy, education, Social Security, domestic security and a raft of other issues, Obama is conservative. The media in the US is likewise conservative. News organizations like the Times have supported war almost without qualification. They have raised only the most tepid challenges to Obama attacks on American civil liberties. They have largely supported talk of privatizing Social Security, even after the crimes of Wall Street. The list goes on.

If Paul Krugman's question for Obama is "Why the weak response," a question for Mr. Krugman is, "Why not take your own reasoning to the conclusion evidence supports?" This country, not just GOP fanatics, is largely conservative and anti-Keynesian. Obama is anti-Keynesian, just not as extreme as the GOP (on economics; he's more extreme on foreign policy and domestic security). When he had the choice, the opportunity, and the swell of opinion with him, Obama nevertheless surrounded himself with substantially anti-Keynesian economic thinkers (the exception being Christina Romer, who was soon forced out). Keynesians like Paul Krugman or Joseph Stiglitz were pointedly excluded.

Media elites (with some like Bill Keller related to industry executives, some like Cokie Roberts related to government elites, or some like Thomas Friedman being actual economic elites) identify with wealth, not with common Americans. Many academic elites do also.

As John Kenneth Galbraith noted decades ago, these people's interests align with wealth. Moreover, the perceptions of self among media and government elite align with wealth. Elite interests and ideas — to borrow a phrase economist Dani Rodrik has recently used — are highly homogeneous. The contempt Mike Bloomberg shows average Americans is widely shared among Democrats, not just Republicans.

Friday, June 1, 2012

The Wealthy, the Powerful — They're Just Better than Us

Again, some thoughts motivated by Glenn Greenwald's observations of the revolting hypocrisy of Barack Obama on whistleblowing, leaks, terrorism, acts of aggression and war.

Let's suppose that all 'leaders' in positions of power are inclined to abuse that power. What is changing? Is it that Obama knows he can get away with it? Does he know that neither the GOP nor any in Congress or in the court system will oppose him?

Or is there a new sense of divine right that overrides prudential considerations? Do Obama and Bush and others now think that they are just so much better than the rest of us that they have the right to do whatever they please? This seems to be the attitude of supremacists like Mike Bloomberg and Lloyd Blankfein. I think it is the attitude that underlies the glaring advocacy of a two-tiered educational system — well-funded and private for the wealthy, and poor and public for the rest of us. So, too, for health care.

This, I think, is the New Feudalism — the attitude of those in power that they are just better than us.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Glenn Greenwald writes today of the impending extradition of Julian Assange to Sweden and the likely rendition to the United States, where he will be persecuted by the Obama organized crime syndicate. I have some thoughts on the motivation of politicians and journalists who evidently feel deeply threatened, and certainly deeply angered, by Assange.

There are two issues, tangential to Glenn Greenwald's points, that deserve attention. Both revolve about the problem of perception and reality.

Greenwald notes that the New York Times's Bill Keller is the son of former Chevron CEO George Keller. So Keller is very unlikely to identify at all with poorer or middle class Americans. Increasingly, this is true of elite American journalists generally. They come out of elite universities, often having entered those schools out of elite backgrounds. They identify with the elite. This identification is bolstered by careful management by politicians and business titans. Andrew Ross Sorkin's close ties to Wall Street executives is a perfect example of this. Cokie Roberts, John Burns, Anderson Cooper, and many others, are excellent examples of this. They are very nearly diametrically opposed to a past generation of journalists who came up from nothing — people like Walter Cronkite or Bill Moyers. We see similar patterns in the Supreme Court, now proudly Harvard Law grads (but for one or two members, I think). Congress isn't quite so homogeneous, but it's going that way.

When the revelations of Wikileaks or others challenge the lies of government or industry, these elite journalists themselves feel challenged. What is Keller's whining about an unkempt Julian Assange if not a tacit assertion that Assange is 'beneath' Keller and those with whom Keller associates.

Comments like Glenn Greenwald's or revelations like those of Wikileaks threaten to make bare the reality of a media system that sees itself as part of the power structure, not investigating it. Nevertheless, Keller or Roberts or Burns want to believe their own lies, so they confront cognitive dissonance as they try to find reason to condemn Wikileaks.

There is a comparable, more specific, problem of perception and reality for Obama. He is a servile wannabe, but he wants to see himself as an outsider, a challenger — the challenger that many thought they were voting for in 2008. Why is Obama so determined to destroy whistleblowers? Because, more than most politicians in recent times, his public identity, and possible his personal one, rests on deception. He is not what he represents himself to be. He sees those who challenge that representation as threatening him personally. So he lashes out. Obama takes the Wikileaks revelations and other whistleblowing personally.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Romney, Obama and the Cult of Divine Right of Wealth

Paul Krugman today writes that Romney's defense of Jamie Dimon and JPMorgan Chase suggests cluelessness.

Romney isn't clueless — he's malicious. Huge difference. Like all of the advocates of Wall Street, including Timothy Geithner and Barack Obama most of the time, there is a deep, profound, dangerous streak of maliciousness at work. These are people who want to transfer wealth from the average to the rich, from labor to capital. These are people who firmly, devoutly believe in the divine right, the divine of superiority of wealth.

As conservative economist and Romney adviser Gregory Mankiw made clear in his blog a few years ago, conservatives (including most Democrats, like Obama) believe that the wealthy are genetically superior. These statements are made explicitly so there is no point pretending that this is a misinterpretation.

It is commonplace now to hear assertions of the genetic coding of morality, or every aspect of human behavior. The cult of reductionism to genetic, pseudo-Darwinian explanations is fully embedded in the popular discourse. Obama, Geithner, Romney, Mankiw, Dimon, Blankfein, Bloomberg all hold the absolute conviction that the wealthy are genetically superior. This is a profoundly dangerous state of mind. We have seen i it before. We know where it leads.


Krugman also has a blog post commenting on the blind, mindless ignorance of economist Edward Lazear (at Stanford and that right-wing haven of war criminals, the Hoover Institution).

As in his op-ed essay today (May 21), Paul Krugman is very generous to conservatives (and the many Democrats who follow their lead, as Obama does). Mitt Romney, Edward Lazear, Gregory Mankiw, David Brooks, Jamie Dimon, Lloyd Blankfein, and others like them are malicious, mean-spirited advocates of the transfer of wealth from labor to capital, from average and poor to rich. Worse, they are convinced of the genetic superiority of the wealth, convinced that the poor are genetically pre-disposed to stay poor.

It cannot be overstated how dangerous their thinking is.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

More Lies from Mike Bloomberg and the NYPD

Recent news on racist policy in Mike Bloomberg's NYPD reveals an under-addressed issue of the New American State of Permanent War. Americans, especially academics, pundits, journalists, and politicians, obediently, mindlessly nod in assent to drone attacks abroad, the violation of every kind of right a person might have (as long as that person is Arab or Muslim). What are police here in the US to make of their international brethren? Do American cops itch to do what the US military does in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Iran . . . ? American abuses abroad incentivize abuses domestically. Bloomberg's NYPD is a case in point.

The New York Civil Liberties Union has caught the NYPD in one of its more glaring lies. And the NYPD has many many lies to its credit — about the 2004 GOP National Convention, Occupy Wall Street, spying on Muslims, spying on all of us. The newly-released NYCLU report betrays the racism behind Ray Kelly and Mike Bloomberg's stop and frisk policy. The cop claim is that stop and frisks deter crime.

The NYCLU shows convincingly that crime rates have been declining (if you believe the NYPD) while police stops have gone up. That much might — on the face of things — seem perfectly plausible. What is really striking is the sheer racial skewing of the search policy. In Bloomberg's first year in office (which came after many years of Giuliani touting his great successes in reducing crime), the NYPD stopped 97,296 people. In 2011, that number was up to 685,724. Did crime decline by that much? Was there a marked increase from Giuliani years when — if you believe the Giulianistas — crime was declining?

Here's the kicker: 87 percent — almost 9 in 10 — of those stopped were black or Latino men. And 90 percent of those stopped were guilty of nothing; they weren't even ticketed. Those stopped most often account for 4.7 percent of the city's population, but account 41.6 percent of stops. "The number of stops of young black men exceeded the entire city population of young black men (168,126 as compared to 158,406)." So some are being stopped repeatedly.

But Bloomberg has more lies to cover up the first round of lies.

First, they claim that the policy is justified because it works to reduce crime. Crime rates are down! But we know they were declining before the policy was begun.

Second, and even better, NYPD mouthpiece Paul Browne claims that the reason the cops are finding so little on their searches is that the baddies are leaving their guns at home! What evidence the NYPD has to support this is anybody's guess. Perhaps their spying extends even further than we've yet found reason to suspect.

So here is Mike Bloomberg's NYPD causal chain:
  • Bad guy uses gun against victim.
  • Victim describes crime to cops.
  • Cops go in search of black or Latino guy with gun (because that's what the victim described).
  • Bad guy has gone home to leave gun just in case he gets stopped and frisked. Did he ask momma to hide it in the cookie jar?
  • Cops stop and frisk every young black man in the city and find . . .  pretty much nothing.
Does anybody see the glaring inconsistency? But in the National Surveillance State of Barack Obama and Mike Bloomberg, what police say must be true.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Plague of Prizes

This week there has been a tempest in a teapot over the Pulitzer (henceforth PUlitzer) committee's failure to award a prize to a novel this year. The website Mondoweiss has an interesting story about Karl Shapiro's winning for poetry in 1945 though the documentary record shows that the committee thought that W. H. Auden was a better candidate. . . . Auden was deemed a dangerous lefty. Little has changed. Such prizes are still highly politicized. Witness the vile Barack Obama's winning of the Nobel Peace Prize (following in the footsteps of great monsters like Henry Kissinger and Menachem Begin).

With regard to the PUlitzer this year, I have to admit I've never heard of Shapiro, and I don't think I'm poorly read. One thing we can say with confidence: Auden has stood the test of time better, and a PUlitzer in 1945 didn't have any effect one way or another on that.

My own view is that prizes of the PUlitzer sort (or Nobel or MacArthur or take your pick) are really quite damaging. Some become obsessed with winning the prize. I knew a chemistry prof years ago who had been passed over while his colleague won for work they had collaborated on. The man was bitter beyond the telling of it. The joke among physicists was that it was called the "No-Bell" because the actual discoverer of pulsars — Jocelyn Bell — was ignored by the prize committee while her thesis adviser shared the prize (the physicist who had theoretically predicted the existence of pulsars, Thomas Gold, of Cornell, was also passed over).

Others, having won, can't get past it. And then there's the history of terrible recipients, not least the long list of real monsters who've won the Nobel Peace Prize.

A small handful of people have taken a stand against such prizes. The one who comes immediately to mind is N. David Mermin, physicist at Cornell. His public opposition to a Nobel Prize of any kind cost a stellar Cornell physics department at least a couple of Nobel Prizes in physics. Now, how could that be if the committee were saintly, impartial arbiters of genius that they would like us to believe they are? It's well-known that Graham Greene, though nominated more than any other for the Nobel in literature, never won because there was one person on the committee who swore up and down that no Catholic would ever win as long as he had anything to do with it.

It may be difficult to say whether the PUlitzer in poetry or fiction is politically tainted by short-sighted, narrow-minded bigots on a committee, but the prizes for journalism, history, etc., certainly are. An Eric Hobsbawm or Tony Judt or Edward Said is a wildly unlikely recipient (albeit, not impossible) compared with nice, safe candidates. I was astonished that AP reporters won this year for revealing the gross misconduct of the NYPD. (Giuliani would have called for closing Columbia University.)

Friday, January 13, 2012

Scrooge MittRomney vs. The Gingrinch!

Newt Gingrich is going back to his roots with a cannibalistic attack on the Great and Powerful Capitalism! Not clear to me who did this thirty minute video, but the production values are substantial — a very professional job. But what astonishes me is the lusty assault on the Profit-├╝ber-alles article of faith. Time and again I've been impressed by the recent willingness of diehard conservatives to lay into their precious darlings of money-making.

If you watch the video, note the repeated of clip of Romney asserting that corporations are people and his sardonic assertion that the profits go to "people." Once again, average Americans reveal far greater insight and awareness of the truth than the oligarchs — someone in the audience hurls back Romney's insult: "In your pocket . . . your pocket!"

The Romney willingness to be combative with people is very reminiscent of Michael Bloomberg's style. It is the style of someone who is unaccustomed to being challenged — a business boss surround by sycophantic yes-men hopeful that sufficient groveling will win them promotion. It is the style of wealthy oligarchs who do not believe in democratic practice. Yet it is these extraordinarily wealthy oligarchs whom Republicans and Democrats alike repeatedly champion for high political office on the grounds that public organizations "should be run like businesses."

Romney champions his role as a "job-creator" at Bain. And how did Romney run things? How did Bain create those jobs (if indeed it did)? What business style did Bain exemplify? What did it produce? It produced not-particularly innovative or inventive financial techniques for squeezing dollars out of firms until there was nothing left, juggling around dollars to enable extraordinary profiteering for managers at the expense of everyone else.

This is the knowledge economy that so many have been bleating about for twenty-some years now. The knowledge found in education, the knowledge found, for example, in American universities (increasingly funded) is indeed a product the US exports, with many thousands of students coming from around the world to attend US schools. But this is not the knowledge economy trumpeted by conservatives. The knowledge they have in mind is financial, the knowledge of a very elaborate shell game or ponzi scheme, the kind that blew apart in 2008 and was promptly restored by our elected officials entirely at our expense — the greatest transfer of wealth from labor to capital. Ever. That is the knowledge economy of Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, except for rhetorical purposes when the game of power is afoot.

The game is power. Power comes first. If the dogmas of capitalism conflict with the lust for power, then the dogmas must go. The attacks on Romney are superficial. Ultimately, there is no real conflict. It is a game of which oligarchs will be best represented after November, 2012.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Transitioning Out of Democracy

I'm trying to remember what Simon Johnson saw as the time to the next financial crisis in a discussion with Bill Moyers two or three years ago (in what might have been one of the last editions of the Bill Moyers Journal before Moyers retired). Certainly, Johnson predicted no more than ten years to the next crisis, but my recollection is that he said something like three to seven years. That's just my recollection, but we can be sure of one thing — Barack Obama, Democrats and Republicans, despite weak public protestations to the contrary, have sent very clear substantive signals. Wall Street and megabank risk-taking, misconduct, and even criminality will be thoroughly underwritten by the United States government and, by extension, a willfully ignorant American populace.

This all fits into what a growing number (including Paul Krugman and Nouriel Roubini . . . I don't know about Messrs. Johnson and Kwak) have described as a large, perhaps the largest, transfer of wealth from labor to capital ever.

My own few is that the phenomenon is even broader than that, encompassing economic and legal, even constitutional, features. A transfer of wealth and economic and political power from the general population to an increasingly rapacious class of American oligarchs is underway. My view unifies developments across the economic and political spectrum:
  • the Supreme Court's creeping grant of the status of personhood to corporations,
  • the gross disparities in wealth and income (and all concomitant benefits, like health, education, longevity, etc.),
  • Bush and Obama attacks on civil liberties (including Habeus Corpus, Posse Comitatus, whistleblower protections, protections for journalists — the few who actually investigate US government misconduct),
  • the Democratic-Republican assault economic protections for elderly Americans.
  • the effective criminalization of poverty,
  • the cultural glorification of the New American Virtues — wealth, fame, good looks, longevity, fashion, etc.
I do not like the "tipping point" terminology, but the trends that accelerated in the Reagan years (having arguably begun in the Carter years) and that have continued through every president since may now have crossed some threshold, an increasingly formal grant of power to a tiny percentage of elite Americans. Any new bailouts will only be part of larger developments.