Sunday, January 30, 2011

Strange Interludes, Groucho Marx, and the Second Amendment

The prize for the worst play by an American author undoubtedly goes to Eugene O'Neill's 'Strange Interlude', in which the characters, inspired by Freudian psychology, periodically interrupt the action and dialog, to step to center stage speak their inmost thoughts directly to the audience.  It was assigned to me in a college class and I couldn't read it -- it was too wretched to be borne.

It did however, inspire some amusing parodies, notably by Grouch Marx, in "The Cocoanuts" where he closes one of his interludes with "Ahh...this would be a bettah woild fuh children if da parents hadda eat da Spinach!"

Anyhow, my thought for the day is, "This would be a better country to live in, if the Fourth Amendment were as jealously guarded as is the Second."

Blind Pig Redux

Even the august Washington Post has remarked upon  the thematics of President Obama's state of the union address, noting how the phrase 'winning the future' suggests the unfortunate acronym WTF.  Now this was also rather publicly pounced upon  by none other than our favorite sub-literate political retiree, Ms Sarah Palin.  For the record, Sarah and I don't agree on much, but each of us, for our own separate reasons, disliked the speech...(well, she's actually paid to dislike it, but that's another story.)   I, in any case, couldn't watch it, but managed to read a few snippets here.  It has been ably dissected in several quarters, and notably by Charles Blow in the NY Times, who emphasized the President's failure to mention the nation's poor in his speech:

It was only the second time since Harry S. Truman’s State of the Union address in 1948 that such a speech by a Democratic president did not include a single mention of poverty or the plight of the poor.
The closest Obama got to a mention was his confirmation for “Americans who’ve seen their paychecks dwindle or their jobs disappear” that, indeed, “the world has changed. The competition for jobs is real.” I’m sure they appreciated that.
 I have already mentioned in other posts my theory (50% snark and the rest paranoia) that Obama is in fact a Republican mole, working on Karl Rove's payroll to advance the right-wing agenda and (in the process) destroy the Democratic Party.  Turns out other, more credible, commentators have formed similar notions.

So let us return to our titular motif, and share some WTF moments with Ms. Palin, and thank her again for showing once more that... even a blind pig finds an acorn sometimes.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Franken-foods Resurgent

Terrible news today:  Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack delivered a body blow to organic farmers and consumers, and announced  the approval of genetically modified alfalfa for 'unrestricted commercial cultivation.'   If you habitually buy organic milk, this should concern you, since alfalfa is commonly fed to dairy cattle. The modified alfalfa is implanted with a gene conferring resistance to the powerful herbicide Roundup, and is marketed as 'Roundup ready.'   According to the New York Times,

Mr. Vilsack said Thursday that his department would take other measures, like conducting research and promoting dialogue, to make sure that pure, nonengineered alfalfa seed would remain available.
“We want to expand and preserve choice for farmers,” he told reporters. “We think the decision reached today is a reflection of our commitment to choice and trust.”

This may sound like a pleasant sentiment, but it is disingenuous at best, and bogus at worst.  Once released into the environment in large scale plantings, genetically modified seed cannot be controlled, and in particular cannot be prevented from migrating, or cross-pollinating related plants.  This is most glaringly evident in the recent advent of superweeds, which have arisen over the past few years, likely  through cross-pollination with Roundup-ready grains, (although the process of resistance transfer may be complex,  with other mechanisms also in play; grains are  grasses, in any case, as are many weeds).

What all this  means of course is that farmers (of the non-organic persuasion) are faced with the necessity of slathering their already saturated fields with the next generation of more powerful herbicides, and presumably planting the correspondingly engineered next-generation grains.  It would appear to be a never ending cycle, of applications of ever increasing toxicity, and damn the consequences for worker or consumer safety or purity of ground water, or destruction of soil micro-organisms.  A good review of these consequences (along with a depressing account of how Vilsack was pressured) has been posted over at The Lake, and is highly recommended.

The major player behind all this is Monsanto Corp., which gets my vote for World's Most Evil Corporation -- and believe me, competition they've got.  The story can be found at Democracy Now,  of how they pursue small farmers in court cases, claiming patent violations, when modified genes, due to accidental cross-pollination from neighboring farms, are fortuitously detected in said farmers' crops.  It takes a strong stomach, but go read it.

Finally for me, there's a deeper issue at play here.  I am not a great fan of speculations in the field of pre-history, concerning the rise of civilizations; yet it seems self evident to me that all advanced civilizations owe their existence to the culture of grains.  Specifically, in a tribe of hunter-gatherers, it takes the entire tribe, hunting and gathering, to feed the entire tribe.  Once grain culture is developed, only a fraction of the tribe -- the farmers--  is required to feed themselves and the rest, so that other specialized classes can develop, and devote themselves to the pursuit of such useful arts as wood-work and pottery, or even such nominally frivolous arts as music and sculpture.  That is to say, specialized artisan classes can develop -- including also merchants and politicians.

But my point here is that if grains (and by extension, grasses) are the cornerstone of civilization, it is a form of collective insanity to undertake a huge and essentially uncontrolled experiment in the modification their genetic composition.  Which is what is being done here.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Targets of Opportunity: Government by Spoiled Children

The only thing that keeps this report from degenerating into a schadenfreude-fest is the thought of those less fortunate individuals who will be screwed, as a result of the greed and short-sightedness of a few powerful sphincters.  Well maybe more than a few; after all there was a general election.

So, Long Island's wealthy Nassau County (the location of Scott Fitzgerald's fictional town of West Egg, which was home to the The Great Gatsby) elected a tea party clone as county manager.  The clone rode a wave of tax-payer angst into office, and promised relief.  Only trouble is, he didn't figure out how he was in fact going to manage the county budget.

Result?  Spiraling towards bankruptcy, the county's finances have been taken over by the State of New York.  Go read about it in the NYTimes.  At least there are a few grown-ups left in this country.

But what does this augur for the nation at large?  Nothing but ill, I fear, since there is no convenient political entity to play the role of the fiscally stern Papa, when the errant child is the size of the US of A.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

A Travesty of a Travesty of Justice.

Nowadays people have absorbed the notion of 'travesty' as a generalized pejorative; while in fact this fine old word finds sharper application in the description of the Shakespearean 'travesty plays', i.e. in which one or more characters cross-dress: most often women as men, although be it remembered that in Shakespeare's time, female parts were played by boys -- ergo a travesty of a travesty -- or if you prefer a more modern spin, a transvestite transvestite.

But my subject here is justice -- not drama -- (or perhaps both.)  Recall the prosecution of Alabama Governor Don Siegelman (allegedly for bribery) by the Bush Justice Department (sic).  This was widely viewed at the time as a political hit job engineered by Karl Rove, and the story even attracted the attention of 60 Minutes.  Well might it be called, in the contemporary sense of the word, a travesty of justice.

But now, we have, seemingly a travesty of the travesty.  One of the hopes among Democrats and Political Progressives, was that an incoming Obama administration would review the case against Siegelman and throw it out.  This did not happen.  Instead, the Justice Department let on to be satisfied with the results in place (Siegelman had already done jail time.)

Nonetheless, help has come from a most unexpected quarter.  Citing the Roberts' Court decision in the Citizen's United case, the Eleventh Circuit Court has apparently agreed to a re-hearing of Siegelman's conviction.  Yet the Obama Justice Department (sic) is arguing for the conviction to stand!

I believe these events taken together more than meet the requirements of iterated travesty.   I also believe that actions like this justify my view (expressed in a recent post) of President Obama as a Republican mole; but I don't demand that my readers subscribe to these, my so intemperate opinions.

Credit Where Due -- Or 'Even a Blind Pig Finds an Acorn Sometimes.'

Readers of this sheet must know how strongly I disapprove of the current administration in Washington, which has, in my view, governed so as to ruin the Democratic Brand (or what was left of it.)  I have on occasion gone so far as to entertain the notion that President Obama is in fact a Republican mole, on Karl Rove's secret payroll.  That may sound extreme to some, but I believe the record supports my assertion,

All that said however, let us now praise famous men.  The President's speech at the Tucson Shooting Memorial was reasonably well done -- and the criticism levelled at him (by a panoply of media bigwigs) was justly and hilariously skewered by John Stewart -- a video of whose performance may be viewed here.

This clip provides a cogent summary of the Memorial, as well as a sharply observed response to commentary on same by the media elite.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

And while we're on the subject of R. Reagan ... The Supply Side Claptrap

                                                 "Some crap never ends."  -- Richard Hugo

I take this opportunity to dig up an old column by N. Gregory Mankiw, Professor of Economics at Harvard University.  Sheesh!  Must be a heavy dude....

So back in October of 2009, in the run-up to some form of healthcare reform by the Obama administration, Mankiw sees fit to revive the ghost of supply side economics and the Laughable, uh, check that, Laffer curve, that predicts increased tax revenue with decreased taxes.  (Well maybe not quite like that; I guess it was more like increased tax revenue with decreased tax rates.)  Well, it makes about as much sense my original way.

So Mankiw puts forth the notion that health reform might lower the cost of health insurance to individuals, but at the cost of raising top marginal tax rates.  This is a bad thing, he argues, since high marginal rates cause people to work less hard than they otherwise might, since the extra salary will just be taken in taxes.  To support this theory, he calls upon an anecdote of Ronald Reagan, which I quote from his column.

The starting point for Ronald Reagan was the idea that people respond to incentives. The incentives that he most worried about were those provided by the tax system. According to his budget director, David A. Stockman, Mr. Reagan would regale the staff with stories of how he, as an actor, used to alter his work schedule in response to the tax code.
“You could only make four pictures, and then you were in the top bracket,” Mr. Reagan would say. “So we all quit working after four pictures and went off to the country.”

Well, I dunno; maybe.  I mean the Gipper had a reputation for reliable recollection -- like when he reportedly told Yitzhak Shamir he served in the Signal Corps during WW II, and witnessed the liberation of concentration camps.  (This is controversial; not surprisingly, right wing commentators have spilled much ink to debunk the story; but I stand by it.)  What is a matter of record is that Reagan spent the entire war stateside.

Anyhow, the Reagan tax rate story has evidently become accepted economic theory, since Mankiw finishes his column by noting:

But we should not forget the cost of translating that noble aspiration into practical policy. As a matter of economic logic, President Obama’s goal of universal health insurance cannot help but undermine former President Reagan’s goal of lower marginal tax rates. Future generations of Americans may find health insurance more affordable, but they will also find hard work less financially rewarding.

Wow.  Just wow.  Of course Mankiw is careful with his words, to divorce the fact of lost income (for upper bracket taxpayers) from the macroeconomic consequences of same,  -- namely reduced productivity -- as reportedly put forth by R. Reagan.

Anecdotally the notion that people work less if taxed more does not apply to anyone in my personal circle of acquaintance, but then again I don't hang with the big banksters.  As far as that goes, it would probably do the country some good if those roosters took a few days off.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A Brief, Belated Assessment of the Reagan Legacy

Dear Reader:  This post, originally written as an obituary notice in 2004,  is devoted to a brief appreciation of our departed fortieth President, Ronald Reagan.  Given the massive publicity machine still at work buffing his image, we feel that the countervailing view cannot be too often stated.
He was an important president, but not a great one, as his major accomplishments were all negative: He destroyed our social contract.  He bankrupted the national treasury. He replaced fact with fantasy in the national discourse. He ended twenty years of progress in civil rights and race relations. He was an ardent union-buster. He gave us homelessness and tuberculosis resurgent.  He promulgated the pipe dream of space-based missile defense. He supported the Afghani Mujahadeen, who later became the Taliban and al-Qaida.  He traded arms for hostages, and used the proceeds of arms sales to Iran to illegally fund the Contra War in Nicaragua.  There is credible evidence that his agents negotiated with Iran during the 1980 presidential campaign, to insure that the American embassy  hostages in Teheran were not released prior to the election. This, if proved, would constitute (I believe) the sole instance of treason by an American president, although not precisely during his term of office.  
In lesser matters, he used then President Carter's own briefing book (stolen from the White House) to prepare for a campaign debate. He had the White House redecorated at the expense of private donors,  which elicited the comment by William Proxmire that he had never in public life seen so egregious a conflict of interest.  Reagan also claimed to have been present (as a member of Army signal corps)  at the liberation of Dachau, when in fact he spent the entire Second World War stateside,  making propaganda films in Hollywood. He committed perhaps the most notorious gaffe of the Cold War era, joking in front of a live microphone that bombing of the Soviet Union was to about to begin.  As early as  1986, he suffered prolonged episodes of mental black-out,  as recorded contemporaneously (but never much publicized)  in the memoirs of journalist Leslie Stahl.
He is said by his supporters to have held strong beliefs; but  the question of belief must remain moot in a man of such limited intellect.  Nonetheless, I will admit that he governed by two tightly-held principals: that he would act always to increase the wealth and power of those already wealthy and powerful, and that policy to this end must always  play well as theatre, must indeed  obey a dramatic logic, if no other.  (Witness the firing the air-traffic controllers.) He was, after all, an actor playing the role of president, and he understood this part of his professional responsibility quite well enough.  In this light, the example of his letters, cited as evidence of his broad intellectual engagement in policy questions, is not convincing.  As an actor, he understood the importance of good lines, and was a good enough wordsmith to string together sonorous platitudes in a convincing manner.  The act of writing probably served as a form of rehearsal as well, a means saturating himself in the role.    
In the end his most important achievement was the creation of the modern conservative movement -an unlikely alliance of populists and elitists, proletarians and plutocrats, fundamentalist Christians and intellectual Jews - a collection of disparate parties sharing little save the capacity for hatred, which was to be much exercised during the Clinton Presidency.
Beyond that, his most important contribution to American politics was to show that the truth in any situation can be made to matter less than people's perceptions - a lesson certainly put into practice by George Bush, in the run-up to the Iraq war, but which (lest we forget) was also the leitmotif of the entire Republican party in their assault upon the presidency of Bill Clinton.  
In the end Reagan embodied a model of governance in which a plausible (but essentially hollow)  front man serves as a puppet for hidden interests.  George Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger are the latest examples.  They are, in that sense, the true heirs of his mantle.  
Moving on: it is fashionable to credit Reagan with winning the cold war, and to cite the testimony of Mikhail Gorbachev, who has  certainly been kind in assigning credit to his former negotiating partner.  But two points should be borne in mind:  first, that Gorbachev was smart enough to see that  the Soviet model had become untenable,  and that the Soviet empire was collapsing;  and second that Reagan's impulsive offer -- essentially  to eliminate all nuclear weapons -- was so devoid of sense and calculation as to be laughable.   What it accomplished was to tip Gorbachev that Reagan was sufficiently malleable to be led in a productive direction, which Gorbachev succeeded in doing.  I believe it is as a matter of form that he credits Reagan (most recently on the op-ed page of the New York Times) as a peacemaker. Reagan's record is indeed unimpressive when compared to those of his Cold War predecessors.  
In sum: far from being a great president, I would argue that he will eventually be assigned the place of worst president in the history of our Republic.  He will outpace George W. Bush for that title by virtue of his having essentially enabled the latter's ascent.  In broader historical terms, the political polarization that we now experience nationally  appears to me as a belated skirmish in the American Civil War: those old wounds had been healing for over a century, but Reagan succeeded  in re-opening them.  It is up to us to re-commence the healing, if indeed that be possible.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords Shot at Outdoor Town Hall Event

This is quite clearly a political shooting of a Democratic politician.  Sheriff Clarence Dupnik of Pima County says what needs to be heard in the video here.   In particular he calls out Right Wing hate radio for spreading the eliminationist rhetoric which, he believes, led to the shooting.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Industrial Policy for the US of A?

What got me riled recently was this item on China's push to become the dominant supplier to America of equipment and infrastructure for generation of wind power.  The article raises the question of whether or not China's subsidies to its own manufacturers are in violation of WTO rules.  What was clear in any case was that Beijing was bent on dominating the American market in this industry.

A related story was the recent imposition by China of export quotas on rare earth metals -- important ingredients in many manufactures, but notably in that of small magnets used for green electrical generation.

What all of this adds up to of course is not so much Chinese economic predation (although there is a component of that) as the existence of a coherent Chinese industrial policy.  Beijing targets certain industries, and pushes them forward, through subsidies and regulations, on both the national and international stages.

Jeez, what a novel idea.  Why can't we do that?  Well to some extent we do.  The great successes of the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries in the US are due entirely to the infrastructure created by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which funds the underlying academic research, and concurrently subsidizes the training of the small army of Ph. D.'s who will move largely into careers in industrial R & D.

But, no one wants to call this an 'Industrial Policy.'  The NIH has become over time another inside the beltway political constituency (and Saints be praised for that!) which has enjoyed strong Congressional support for generations, and is of a piece with Mom and Apple Pie.

But in a larger sense, we totally lack industrial policy.  Or rather what we have is anti-industrial policy.  The apparent goals (to judge by the outcomes over 30 years) are to send American manufacturing jobs off shore, and destroy American labor unions.  Where off-shoring is the norm, labor has no bargaining power.  What is the underlying motivation?  My own cynical view is that the weakening of the labor movement was the major domestic policy goal of the Reagan administration, and what better way to accomplish same than to get rid of manufacturing jobs, which have historically been heavily unionized.

But to return to our titular theme, an excellent post up at Daily Kos makes the case for industrial policy by (among other things)  comparing the manufacture of Steinway pianos in Germany and the U.S.  German Steinways get the palm.   The point is that German governmental policy actively supports the training and nurture of workers who will become industrial craftsmen whose metier is the creation of high-end manufactured products -- just think of German automobiles.

There is also some excellent (although depressing) discussion from Yves Smith on the issue of structural unemployment and (tangentially) industrial policy.  This was originally up at Angry Bear .

And since industrial policy costs money and we are in the process of de-funding the Federal Government, it's also worth remembering that high top marginal rates have on the whole not hurt GDP, and low rates have not helped in the U. S. of A., from 1913 to the present.