Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Friday, October 30, 2009


I won't have time to work on this for a couple of days, but the nexus between the New America Foundation and the Atlantic is looking more and more interesting. It looks like a lot of people are creating a new type of journalism, in which journalists are hired out as experts. Think Washington Post and Atlantic Salons, in which all the money-losing aspects of the newspaper business are dumped in favor of targeted "reporting." Google and Lorel Space and Communications seem to be the most important backers right now.

Access to information is being gathered up, packaged, and sold. It always has been, and now it's the internet's turn, I guess. But people usually find a way of spreading information, no matter how much control the elite gains.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Checking Our Gift Register

More Married Megan McArdle: Don't buy me a quesadilla maker for a wedding present. Or an electric cocktail shaker or egg poacher. I want expensive crystal and china, if you please.

Greasing The Skids

Julian Sanchez is indignant about current journalistic standards and our expert on journalism ethics, Megan McArdle, once again echoes his words.
[McArdle]:The Telecoms industry is apparently even more insidious than I thought:
[Sanchez]Via some outfit called VoIP News, I'm intrigued to learn that my insidious paymasters at Cato number among the 15 greatest enemies of net neutrality. Scary! Turns out Cato is a "hired voice of reason" which, along with CEI "seems to draw its funding from a smattering of every major corporation ever to fund lobbyists." Damning stuff! And these guys are Totally Serious Journalists, so they did some kind of due diligence and fact checking, rather than just pulling this stuff out of their asses, right?

Well, hey, no, I mean, I'm sure Cato is totally shady about its funding sources--how could they possibly check this stuff?

What's that? Annual report? Freely available online, you say? Well, and so we get tons of our budget from... Huh? One percent from corporations? None from telecoms in 2008?

Now, obviously serious reporters wouldn't just utterly fail grade-school level fact checking. Clearly, some devious ISP must have blocked them from reaching this easily accessible information! Further demonstrating the need for Net Neutrality!

The fact that all free market, small government efforts are entirely funded by a combination of three scary billionaires, and a bunch of big self-interested corporations, is a sort of stylized fact among a certain portion of the progressive media. Apparently, checking this theory would be like trying to get three separate sourcs to tell you that the sky is blue.

Cato's 2009 funding includes individuals (82%), foundations (10%), corporate (1%) and other (7%).[pdf] The foundation donors gave $612,000. to Cato, and include (in 2006) Verizon, Time Warner, Comcast, National Association of Software and Service Companies, Freedom Communications, and Microsoft. But this information is only the most obvious of obfuscation. There is more.
Last fall, when News Corporation owner Rupert Murdoch joined the board of directors at the Cato Institute, the announcement went unreported in major media. Perhaps it seemed routine for one of the world's most powerful media moguls to take a leadership post at one of the most influential think tanks in Washington.

At future meetings, Murdoch can count on rubbing elbows with his fellow media titan, John C. Malone--president and CEO of Tele-Communications Inc. (TCI), the largest U.S. cable operator--who has been on the Cato board since 1995. The two men are well acquainted, and their companies have long been intertwined in media deals involving satellite television, cable TV, program distribution and other big telecommunications ventures. Now the heads of both firms are formally helping to run a think tank which boasts that it has "actively promoted the deregulation of the television and telephone industries."[my bold]

In recent years, the Cato Institute has neared the top tier of think tanks in the United States—on Capitol Hill and in the nation's news media. In the 1996 book No Mercy: How Conservative Think Tanks and Foundations Changed America's Social Agenda, Jean Stefancic and Richard Delgado write that the Cato Institute "played a key role in forming the ideas and policies of the new Republican majority in Congress." These days, "congressional committee chairmen increasingly look to Cato scholars for testimony."


Broadcasters like Murdoch benefit greatly from federal giveaways. Holding frequency licenses worth fortunes, they're now receiving free slices of a digital spectrum valued at up to $70 billion. Likewise, cable TV conglomerates—with Malone's TCI in the lead—continue to expand under the protection of federal regulations that place severe limits on the power of municipalities to charge franchise fees for the use of public rights-of-way. While lauding the "free market," Murdoch and Malone rely on the federal government's aid in their quest for media monopolization. The contradiction doesn't seem to bother the Cato Institute at all.


Announcing that Murdoch had joined its board, a Cato news release (9/22/97) praised him as "a strong advocate of the free market" and quoted his stirring words: "I start from a simple principle: In every area of economic activity in which competition is attainable, it is much to be preferred to monopoly." (This from someone with 70 percent penetration of the newspaper market in Australia.)

Smoking hired guns


'Funny funding'

Major media outlets have routinely turned a blind eye to the corporate financial backing for Cato and other large think tanks in Washington. Few reporters or pundits focus on the conflicts of interest involved.


In their book No Mercy, University of Colorado Law School scholars Stefancic and Delgado describe a shift in Cato's patron base over the years. Cato's main philanthropic backing has come from the right-wing Koch, Lambe and Sarah Scaife foundations. But today, Cato "receives most of its financial support from entrepreneurs, securities and commodities traders, and corporations such as oil and gas companies, Federal Express and Philip Morris that abhor government regulation."

Financial firms now kicking in big checks to Cato include American Express, Chase Manhattan Bank, Chemical Bank, Citicorp/Citibank, Commonwealth Fund, Prudential Securities and Salomon Brothers. Energy conglomerates include: Chevron Companies, Exxon Company, Shell Oil Company and Tenneco Gas, as well as the American Petroleum Institute, Amoco Foundation and Atlantic Richfield Foundation. Cato's pharmaceutical donors include Eli Lilly & Company, Merck & Company and Pfizer, Inc.

Friends in the media

While serving on Cato's board and making personal donations, TCI's John Malone is among many other media and telecommunications heavies behind Cato. Big donors include Bell Atlantic Network Services, BellSouth Corporation, Digital Equipment Corporation, GTE Corporation, Microsoft Corporation, Netscape Communications Corporation, NYNEX Corporation, Sun Microsystems and Viacom International. It's understandable that Cato's news releases--while constantly urging privatization of the Internet and other communications systems--do not mention where Cato money is coming from. But it's inexcusable that media coverage seldom includes such information.

Even when Malone makes a public appearance for the Cato Institute, reporters seem uninclined to shed light on the array of corporate funding that makes Cato possible. When Malone spoke on "Telecommunications in the 21st Century" at a Cato seminar luncheon in Denver, a pair of articles in the next day's Denver Post (11/15/96) gave extensive coverage to Malone's comments--and identified Cato only as "a libertarian think tank."

Cato's newest board member, Rupert Murdoch, is a global media giant whose U.S. possessions include the Fox television network, TV Guide, the tabloid New York Post, HarperCollins book publishers and the 20th Century Fox movie studios. Along the way, lax federal regulation has swelled the profits of Murdoch's News Corp., now a $28 billion conglomerate. As a 1997 New York Times article noted (3/31/97), his 10-year-old Fox TV network "could never have succeeded if it had not received generous treatment at the Federal Communications Commission."

Naturally, turning such big governmental wheels requires lots of political grease. In 1996, Murdoch donated $1 million to the California Republican Party, while News Corp. gave another $654,700 in "soft money" to the national GOP. In Murdoch's native Australia, News Corp. dominates the mass media. In Britain, Murdoch controls more than a third of daily newspaper circulation along with much of cable and satellite television. While using his media outlets to push for the slashing of government social services, Murdoch was a pioneer in union-busting within the newspaper industry.

Murdoch is likely to have a long and harmonious presence on the Cato Institute's board of directors.

Where did Cato's initial funding come from? Two guesses. No, you'll only need one.
"You know us better than you think," boast the ads of Koch Industries, a conglomerate owned by reclusive billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. And it’s true: Most of us have unknowingly wolfed a burger ground from Koch beef, ridden on tires made from Koch’s Trevira polyester, or escaped the rain beneath a roof covered with Koch asphalt.

But there’s a darker side to the boast. Turn on National Public Radio most any afternoon, leaf through a newspaper or news magazine, watch a congressional hearing, or surf the Internet, and you will likely encounter the thoughts of Charles and David Koch (pronounced "coke"). The views will seem to be coming from an independent think tank–the Cato Institute or Citizens for a Sound Economy, for example. Yet behind these groups stands the brothers’ vast fortune: Koch Industries is the nation’s second-largest privately owned company and the largest privately owned oil company, with annual revenues of more than $30 billion. Charles cofounded Cato in 1977; in 1986 David helped launch CSE. The brothers are following in dad’s footsteps: Fred Koch was a charter member of the ultraconservative John Birch Society in 1958.

Today, Koch money–and cash infusions from corporate allies such as Exxon, Philip Morris, General Motors, and General Electric–funds industry-friendly messages that fill our airwaves and editorial pages, and influence outcomes in the halls of Congress and courtrooms across the country.

Consider, for example, Citizens for a Sound Economy, the Washington, D.C.—based organization bolstered by periodic bursts of funding from both cofounder David Koch and brother Charles. CSE is often described as a "consumer group," but according to internal documents leaked to the Washington Post, 85 percent of CSE’s 1998 revenues of $16.2 million came not from its 250,000 members, but from contributions of $250,000 and up from Koch Industries as well as other corporations, including U.S. West and Philip Morris.

What kind of exposure can such money buy? In 1995, for instance, CSE’s $17 million budget (made possible that year with grants from the Kochs, Archer Daniels Midland, DaimlerChrysler, and General Electric, among others) was spent producing more than 130 policy papers, delivering them to every single congressional office, sending out thousands of pieces of mail, and getting coverage of its viewpoints in more than 4,000 news articles around the nation. CSE’s representatives have appeared on hundreds of radio and television shows and published 235 op-ed articles. What do they tell us? Among other things, that "environmental conservation requires a commonsense approach that limits the scope of government," acid rain is a "so-called threat [that] is largely nonexistent," and global warming is "a verdict in search of evidence."

These opinions were echoed on MSNBC, C-SPAN, PBS’s NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, and elsewhere by representatives from the libertarian Cato Institute. Cato "experts" are working hard to pound home a variety of anti-environmental points. They have argued that the global ban on chlorofluoro-carbons–the chemicals that destroy stratospheric ozone–is a case of science being "distorted, even subverted." They’ve suggested that concerns over lead paint, asbestos, radon, and similar in-home poisons amount to "hysteria." And they’ve maintained that federally funded research at Harvard and other universities–used, for example, in the regulation of air pollution–"has frequently been tainted by poor methodology . . . and even borderline cases of fraud."

Fashioning themselves after the very university research centers they deplore (or old-style "think tanks" that are only a step removed from universities), these groups have neither the neutrality nor the expertise of their academic counterparts. They are simply self-described as "libertarian" or "market liberals," as if this explains why their conclusions differ so sharply from those of academic or government researchers. No mention is made of the corporate money that is lavished on them–or the corporate agenda, which is, at heart, their raison d’ĂȘtre.

Indeed, if the voices denying the existence of global warming or decrying tighter fuel-economy standards were obviously those of the oil, coal, auto, and similar industries, the messages would be seen for what they are–half-truths at best, and outright lies at worst–and ignored. But when the voices appear to be those of disinterested, public-spirited organizations advocating "economic freedom" or "sound science," the messages are often accepted uncritically by journalists–and then by the public at large.


Cato and CSE are only 2 of roughly 300 industry-funded groups that are helping businesses and the wealthy convert their vast economic and market power into political might. Their messages are invariably the same: Government regulation–most especially environmental protection–is bad, and any science that justifies it is "junk." Usually these messages are reinforced by money deployed to campaign coffers.


Corporate think-tank influence extends even into the branch of government designed to be immune to it: the judiciary. Some of that influence is exerted by intervention in lawsuits to make arguments that favor industry. In 1999, for example, the Citizens for a Sound Economy Foundation, the funding arm of CSE, paid for "friend of the court" briefs that sought to declare the Clean Air Act unconstitutional. Where might a nonprofit charity like CSEF come up on short notice with the money required to pay lawyers who can charge $5,000 an hour? Answer: the Claude Lambe Foundation, also controlled by the Kochs, which gave CSEF $600,000 for "general operating support"; the DaimlerChrysler Corporation Fund, which kicked in another $250,000; and General Electric, which matched the DaimlerChrysler Fund’s donation. There’s no way of knowing whether that $1.1 million paid for the legal briefs, but that amount buys a lot of lawyers, even at Washington prices.


Central to the functioning of American democracy is a judicial system that dispenses justice with an even hand. Yet CSEF, FREE, and other like-minded groups seem intent on reshaping the judiciary in their own image. Chief among these groups is the shadowy but powerful Federalist Society. Another regular recipient of Koch largesse, the Federalist Society is described by the Washington Monthly as "the best-organized, best-funded, and most effective legal network operating in this country." (See "Lay of the Land," March/April 2002.) Lawyers who belong to or are active in the society include at least two Supreme Court justices–Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas–as well as dozens of other federal judges, Attorney General John Ashcroft, Solicitor General Ted Olson, and Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham. The society boasts a total membership of "20,000 legal professionals [and] active chapters in 60 cities." Yet, according to its 1998 federal tax return (which was provided to me when researching this story and which mistakenly included its list of donors), the Federalist Society’s income that year included $4,934,325 in grants from the Kochs’ and other such foundations but zero–yes, zero–in membership dues.

The full extent of industry funding for these myriad front groups is impossible to determine with certainty. Although information on donors is provided to the Internal Revenue Service, this is not (for the most part) available to the public. However, bits and pieces gleaned from searching a variety of databases–the Foundation Directory Online, for example–can be stitched together to provide a rough idea of the scope of special-interest spending. According to one such tally, the Kochs gave more than $21 million to the Cato Institute alone between 1977 and 1994. And in 1999, at least $1.4 million came to CSEF from just two of the several foundations controlled by the Kochs.

For Koch Industries, the amounts of money it can save by sabotaging environmental rules make the sums diverted to the think tanks that do the dirty work pale in comparison. The year 2000 was particularly rough for the Kochs. In January, Koch Industries agreed to pay about $35 million for violations of the Clean Water Act related to 310 oil spills in six states. Two months later, Koch admitted to environmental violations at its oil refinery in Rosemount, Minnesota, and was forced to cough up another $8 million in penalties. Then in July, it agreed not only to spend about $80 million to cut emissions from its Rosemount facility and from two other refineries in Texas, but also to pay a $1 million fine for air-pollution violations.

The Koch brothers’ fortune is generated a dollar at a time from its complex web of industries. Like drops of water falling from a swollen cloud, the profit stream forms trickles, rivulets, then rivers, finally flowing to industrial impoundments, where a small fraction is released in controlled, coordinated flows. Some of that money goes to pay fines and operate machinery. But a nice pool of it is directed toward Cato, Citizens for a Sound Economy, and CSEF and other foundations. All so you can know them better.

When oil companies itch, libertarian think tanks scratch. The Koch billions came from oil and gas and refining. They are the second largest privately owned company in the US and had annual sales of $100 billion in 2008.
David [Koch, son of founder Fred Koch] has always been the most politically active member of the Koch family, and ran as the Libertarian Party vice presidential candidate in 1980. Along with brother Charles, in the late 1970s David Koch created groups that matched his stong libertarian ideology. Charles cofounded the Cato Institute in 1978 with Paul Crane. The brothers provided the seed money to Citizens for a Sound Economy and the Institute for Justice. Other Koch projects include the Center for the Study of Market Processes and the Institute for Humane Studies. The brothers continue to fund their projects and others that match their ideology through the David H. Koch Charitable Foundation, the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, and the Claude R. Lambe Charitable Foundation.

Would libertarianism have any influence at all if it were not for the Kochs' oil and gas money? An energy conglomerate wants deregulation of its myriad interests and therefore funds libertarian think tanks that put out supposedly impartial studies and funds supposedly impartial journalists that advocate for deregulation. And schmucks like McArdle pat themselves on the back for their lofty ideological principles and journalistic integrity. They are a curious mixture of calculated whoring and innocent pride and self-respect, and while I understand that it is easy for them to compartmentalize their repressed emotions, I'm still amazed at it every time.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

More Altruistic Megan

More Megan McArdle: "It's true that I don't find any of the arguments about the coercive effects of money on peoples' decisions particularly compelling," therefore we should encourage people to donate bone marrow by paying them money. To coerce them to change their decision.

You can't have it both ways. McArdle wants to show that the poor won't be coerced into making decisions that will harm them if they are offered money for organs. But she also wants to say that money will persuade people to donate organs and therefore payment for organs should be legal. That's like saying that prostitution should be legal because money won't coerce desperate women to have sex with potentially dangerous strangers. It will merely compensate them for their expenses while having sex.

(I don't disagree about bone marrow, but McArdle is still wrong about organ donation.)

UPDATE: McArdle declares herself a big fan of the Institute for Justice, which is the law firm suing to allow purchasing of bone marrow. It was founded by a school privatization advocate and an anti-eminent domain advocate. "The initial funding for the Institute came from the Koch Family Foundations which also fund the libertarian Cato Institute and Citizens for a Sound Economy." It's amazing how much respect McArdle has for the Koch family, which has supported P. Suderman, boy fiance, in so many endeavors--from tea-bagging to Reason magazine. Not to mention the fact that one of the trustees of the Aspen Institute is David H. Koch.

I have read nothing but horrifying news today, so much so that I couldn't even recap it without sounding crazy. Watching McArdle and Suderman feed from that noxious trough makes me sick.

Bankers Are Your Friends!

Megan McArdle just loves her some big banks. She has all kinds of reasons to praise them in The Atlantic. Let's take a look.
Why Don't Customers Leave Big Banks?
Andrew has been exploring the question. For us, the answer is simple: location, location, location.

For McArdle, many answers are simple because anything complicated is ignored. We all do this, all the time. Life is complicated and time is limited. The problem arises when we refuse to admit we are making choices because we don't want to question our biases or deal with consequences and repercussions. Which leads us back to McArdle.
I bank in two places: Navy Federal Credit Union, and Citibank.

Is it a good idea to announce this on the internet? Couldn't she have thought up a pseudonym, like Galt's Gulch Credit Union or Taggart Bank?
NFCU is better in all ways except one: they don't have a branch in DC. That means that every time I want to make a deposit, I have to drive out to Virginia. So I tend to go there once every few months and put a bunch of cash in the bank for our regular or big expenses: car loan, wedding stuff, rent and utilities. But it is not a convenient place to do my every day banking.

It's "everyday." Unless McArdle goes to the bank every day, which she just said she does not. Did I ever mention she has an Ivy League English degree? Because she does. I've said it too many times before, but it never fails to awe and amaze me. McArdle managed to buy her way into a hell of a job, where you do not even have to care about the fundamentals. If she were a bricklayer she'd leave out the mortar. If she were a doctor she'd ignore symptoms and prescribe whatever samples happened to be in her pocket. If she were a cook she'd use two and a half pounds of fat in her dishes.
Indeed, the whole reason I'm at Citibank in the first place is that they're all over the country, and I've spent the last ten years moving a bunch of times. Even now that I've committed to DC, I'm in a rental, and I don't know what neighborhood I'm likely to end up in next, so there's no point in opening a new bank account that might turn out to be inconvenient one move later.

I'll assume that she is talking about credit--loans taken out, relationships with loan officers, credit history with her bank. Credit availability affects many, many decisions in life.
Then there's business travel--most places I go, if I lose my ATM card, there's a Citibank branch that can help e out in the area.

Evidently losing items, sometimes to theft, also affects many of McArdle's decisions.
I realize that's not the entire story--most people are much less mobile than young urban professionals. But America does have high rates of labor mobility, and a lot of people travel for work. That's going to favor national banks--which in turn, lets them offer less favorable terms to their customers. I'm paying for convenience. But frankly, it's worth it.

Why make such a silly post supporting Big Banks?
At the Stamp Lecture, London School of Economics, London, England, Bernanke Urges ‘Strong Measures’ to Stabilize Banks
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke warned that a fiscal stimulus won’t be enough to spur an economic recovery and that the government may need to buy or guarantee banks’ tainted assets to revive growth.
“Fiscal actions are unlikely to promote a lasting recovery unless they are accompanied by strong measures to further stabilize and strengthen the financial system,” Bernanke said in a speech today at the London School of Economics. “More capital injections and guarantees may become necessary to ensure stability and the normalization of credit markets.”

My Translation: "Banks are in much worse shape than we have admitted previously. More taxpayer money is needed to prop up these failing banks."

The US economy is likely to be in worse shape a year from now and will require aggressive government spending and intervention to stem the damage, economist Martin Feldstein told CNBC.

Despite conservative leanings when it comes to government intervention in the financial markets, Feldstein said the current economic downturn is the worst since the end of World War II and mandates a different approach that even goes beyond the hundreds of billions the government already has poured into the system.

"I think we'll be lucky if by this time next year we see the economy having hit the bottom and starting up, and that's still going to leave us at a very low level of economic activity even if the turn has come at that point," Feldstein said during a live interview. "But there's no guarantee that all of this put together is going to achieve that."

Nobel Laureate economist Joe Stiglitz says the banking industry is in worse shape than it was pre-Lehman.
Bloomberg: “In the U.S. and many other countries, the too-big-to-fail banks have become even bigger,” Stiglitz said in an interview yesterday in Paris. “The problems are worse than they were in 2007 before the crisis.”


Stiglitz said the U.S. government is wary of challenging the financial industry because it is politically difficult, and that he hopes the Group of 20 leaders will cajole the U.S. into tougher action.

“We aren’t doing anything significant so far, and the banks are pushing back,” said Stiglitz, a Columbia University professor. “The leaders of the G-20 will make some small steps forward, given the power of the banks” and “any step forward is a move in the right direction.”

So when he says that the problems are worse than they were in 2007, he's not actually talking about stuff like toxic assets and leverage and risk taking. He's essentially describing the too-big-to-fail problem, and the ability of large banks to loot the system know they'll be backed up.

And on this point he's basically right. The bailouts solidifed too-big-to-fail as a notion, which is why, try as we might, we can't honestly talk about removing financial system safeguards, since everybody knows they'll be put back in again once things get rough. That's why a key part of the solution, and Stiglitz identifies this, has to be breaking up the true zombies, like Citigroup (C), so that it's not constantly posing a threat to the entire banking sytem.

In the month of June, a roaring rally took place in US financial stocks on the hope that recovery was well underway in most of these institutions. Yesterday seems to have been a reality check when stocks of companies like Bank of America, American Express and Citigroup fell between 5% and 10% while Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae and AIG fell between 10% and 20% in a single trading day.

More bank failures ahead?

Wilbur Ross, Chairman and CEO of Wilbur Ross & Co, said he was not surprised that the bank problem was continuing to grow. Ross, in an interview to CNBC, made an alarming statement: “I think there will be at least 500 more banks fail between now and the end of next year.”

Ross said that regional banks were now more vulnerable compared to big banks. “The fundamental problem now is the commercial real estate as opposed to residential [during the earlier part of the crisis],” Ross said.

“The first wave of the big banks was the securitisation. The regional banks are the ones, which are now going down,” he said, adding that since the regional banks did not have much securitisation and had construction and development loans, they may fail ahead.

While Ross may have rung an alarm bell, other experts remain sharply divided over the scope of the US’ economic recovery with Nouriel Roubini saying the recession will end by December this year while BlackRock saying recovery may extend into the next.

McArdle reflexively supports the financial industry, but it's also her job. The banks will need more government money--and all our bright and shiny New Libertarians (Our Motto: Socialism for Me, Capitalism For You) will urge us to give tax-payer dollars to private corporations so they will not fail. Little Miss McArdle is merely greasing the wheels, to make it easier for the banks to run over us.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Less Economical Megan

A few notes from the oeuvre of Miss Megan McArdle:

Sarah Palin Levi Jonhson Playgirl, Oh, my! (If you name-drop Bauhaus on a post about Levi Johnson, they cancel each other out.)

I need more money and I can't change jobs. Or: I feel sorry for my younger competition. (Take your pick.)

If I don't get rent-controlled, you don't get rent controlled. (I wonder if she would argue the opposite if she inherited a rent-controlled apartment? Alas, we'll never know.)

See? I was right and everyone else in the entire planet was wrong. There were no villains in the financial crash.

Pity the Manhattan landlords, who were forced to follow the rules.

Yap yap yap Obama dropping in the polls yap yap yap national fit of pique.

Here is my entry for the Dr. Thomas Sowell Competition For Boring Repetition of Boiler-Plate Talking Point. Topic: Boycotts Don't Work

The government and Rush Limbaugh are creepy. Please don't hurt me.

There's more on taxes and the deficit, but it's just killing time until the next order comes down from Corporate.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Failure Is A Conservative Value

In their continuing effort to prove their legitimacy and validity, conservatives are grabbing anything popular to claim as their own. Movies, songs, books--it doesn't matter. Wide scale failure makes one desperate. The Corner's John Miller scares up a post:
Halloween is my favorite time of year for literature. For the last week, I've been reading horror stories to my kids before bedtime: "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" by Richard Matheson (made into a Twilight Zone episode starring William Shatner), "The Statement of Randolph Carter" by H. P. Lovecraft, etc.

That's just child abuse, depending on the age of the kids, and they are probably small if he's reading to them.
Over the years, I've written quite a bit about the literature of horror (go here for a quick compendium). I've also wondered why I like the genre so much. It may be as simple as what Edith Wharton called "the fun of the shudder." But there may be something else at work as well: Horror is a fundamentally conservative genre.

True, I know I'm horrified whenever I read about conservatism.
It's of course a huge and diverse field, so it's a little silly to slap it with a label.

But he'll do it anyway, because he's just silly like that.
Yet so many of its stories involve a rupture in the social order and conclude with its restoration.

War involves a rupture in the social order--morals always relax during a war--but that doesn't stop them from loving mass killing.
They are also full of warnings about not messing with things you can't understand, which is a sublte plea for respecting tradition.

I suppose Miller would have been far happier if medical science never dabbled in things it didn't understand, like cures for illnesses.
Finally, this is the one genre that aggressively questions the assumptions of materialism and gets away with it. Russell Kirk's fondness for ghost stories — as a reader as well as a writer of them — was no coincidence.

You know you're conservative when you believe in ghosts, because ghosts are supernatural and God is supernatural. QED! But do our believers really believe in the supernatural? Do ghosts haunt the scene of crimes? How many people have died throughout history, under horrible circumstances? Millions upon millions. Yet nobody's ever been able to demonstrate proof of the existence of ghosts. If ghosts were real we'd be elbowing them aside every time we went to visit Granny at the cemetery.

Do they believe demons haunt the land, looking for souls to steal? If so, why don't they use charms and blessed items to protect themselves, as our ancestors did? Do conservatives believe in angels? If so, why do they pay for police and soldiers and bodyguards, when they have a guardian angel looking over their shoulder at all times? And are these guardian angels thwarting God's gift of free will?

Gosh, it's fun to pretend to believe so you can hit everyone over the head with your Jesus stick, while actually living a life that is based on scientific achievement. You can both have your cake and pretend you didn't eat it.

Can't We All Just Get Along?

Shorter Ross Douthat: Kill the brown infidels.

How dare he bluster that Islamic people can't practice their religion? Who the hell does he think he is? If religion is so dangerous that it can't be permitted to continue, why should Christianity be exempt? Their body count is pretty damn high too.

We really don't need gods and goddesses. We can't handle them. We're like children with matches. Sure, matches can do good--light fires to cook, light candles to see--but they can also burn the whole house down.
What’s being interpreted, for now, as an intra-Christian skirmish may eventually be remembered as the first step toward a united Anglican-Catholic front — not against liberalism or atheism, but against Christianity’s most enduring and impressive foe.

Go to hell.

I don't need and want enemies like Mr. Douthat. Mr. Douthat sees a global struggle for existence, which he chooses to fight without actually doing any fighting. And make no mistake, nobody is going to talk an ancient civilization into simply changing religion or giving theirs up. Sure, he'll call others to arms, but instead of taking up the sword and killing his enemies himself, he'll sit comfortably and exhort others to do the killing and dying for him. He's only 30; he can join up to fight his Holy War today. He won't, of course, because although he feels he's in a fight to the death, he won't actually, you know, fight to the death. A stiff missive to the Times as far as this armchair warrior will go. It doesn't hurt that they pay well for it, either.

Religion is just an excuse to kill, not the reason. People don't reason, they strike out and kill for personal reasons. Most Muslims don't kill, just like most Christians don't kill. I don't want to kill anyone, no matter how dumb and destructive his religion is. Atheists are extremely accustomed to tolerating others' religious beliefs--we're forced to do it every day of our lives, from saying the Pledge to the Flag to listening to History Channel programs treat religious fables as fact, with respectful and endless examination. If someone wants to believe in magic, I really don't care. I don't see everything in black and white, good and evil, right and wrong. That way of thinking is for very small children, and I have set aside childish things.

Except for comic books, of course. Some of them have a lot more wisdom than Mr. Douthat.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Fools' Gold

Arthur Silber:

I point you again to Chris Floyd's wonderfully brief and entirely accurate summary of what is going on in the health care reform debate. It's no debate at all: whatever happens, certain already immensely powerful and wealthy corporations closely allied with the State will become still more powerful and wealthy. Given the nature of the corporatist system that now throttles every aspect of life in the U.S., that is how the system works. That's how it's set up, and that's its purpose. The fact that insurance companies will reap huge rewards on the backs of "ordinary" taxpaying Americans is not a regrettable byproduct of an allegedly good but imperfect effort at reform, or a flaw that will be fixed at some unspecified future date. And as already powerful and wealthy interests become more powerful and wealthy, the State will also increase its already massive power over all our lives still more. None of that is incidental: it's the point.
The powerful will do whatever they want unless someone stops them. Political leaders will not act because almost all of them have the equivalent of a bar code tattooed on their collective ass. When the corporations need a law passed or not passed they just swipe the politician like a credit card. Payment, meet law. (Or no law.)

How about the people? The last time the people forced the government to act against corporations, foreign peasants were taking over governments, grabbing assets and killing political leaders. That is not going to happen here.

Religious leaders happily grabbed the power and money offered by politicians, modifying their fundamental messages to accommodate corporate desires.

18A certain ruler asked him, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
19"Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good—except God alone. 20You know the commandments: 'Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.'[b]"

21"All these I have kept since I was a boy," he said.

22When Jesus heard this, he said to him, "You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."

23When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth. 24Jesus looked at him and said, "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 25Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

26Those who heard this asked, "Who then can be saved?"

27Jesus replied, "What is impossible with men is possible with God."

28Peter said to him, "We have left all we had to follow you!"

29"I tell you the truth," Jesus said to them, "no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God 30will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life."
We have failed to curb the power of the elite and will continue to fail until we realize the fundamental truth behind this message. We have to be willing to give up what we have to get what we want. We have to give ourselves and everything we have to the poor, metaphorically speaking, to achieve our goals. We have to let go of the desire to ape the rich and be prepared to live like the despised poor to be free of the corporate elite. We have to refuse to work for immoral corporations. Refuse to feed the financial industry while banks bleed us with credit card fees and interest fees. (Usury is forbidden by the Bible, by the way.) Obviously we won't do this, so we have no power--against organizations that depend on the consumer for survival! Without money they are nothing, but we want what they offer, so we submit to their rules. We want 2500 sq. feet houses in the suburbs, not 1200 sq. feet. We want to travel like the rich, eat like the rich, dress like the rich. Why? Because they tell us we do.

We have created a culture of endless spending funded by debt, and therefore must follow corporate rules or lose access to debt. We have to get into debt when we are teenagers to get an education, assume more debt to buy a house for our family, and spend the rest of our lives harnessing ourselves to corporations or live with their all-pervasive influence and control, the only way to afford health care, housing and the "normal" life the corporate advertising has convinced people to consider necessary. The middle class is smoke and mirrors. Without debt many of us would be clinging to survival, crushed by insurance premiums and taxes and inflation. And then we delude ourselves into thinking we are acting freely.

Everything indicates that a public option is the smart move politically and substantively. The Village thought it was dead because they assumed that because a bunch of insane wingnuts disguised as normal, white Real Americans were shrieking at the top of their lungs, that "the people" had spoken. But the people have always been for a public option and the numbers aren't going down.


Now, it's not always that easy, of course. Politicians also answer to the wealthy owners of America, which means that the people's wishes are only one small factor. (The democracy thing sure is adorable.) But in this case, the owners of America are all over the place and the costs associated with both keeping the status quo and passing a plan that will fail are very, very high for them as well as the people. The economy is terrible and people are suffering and desperately looking for some sign of relief. The Republicans made themselves irrelevant. Therefore, this calculation is not so simple and the opportunity is greater.

I have always held out quite a bit of hope that the public plan could be included in the bill and still do. But I can't tell the future and neither can anyone else --- I can't say if it's going to be adequate to stave off failure and I don't know if the subsidies are going to be enough to make any plan affordable to the vast majority of the uninsured. But the political calculation has always favored putting it in because reform will almost definitely fail if they don't. The fact that liberals stayed focused and relentless on the issue required the media to keep asking the question in public opinion polling and keeping the issue on the forefront of the agenda long after the establishment just wanted it to go away. It's been a demonstration of a good progressive strategy.

That doesn't guarantee that it's going to happen. There are egos and sell-outs and traitors galore in the congress and the White House and I think it's clear that these things don't always take a logical path. But the fact that it's still alive at this stage is a hopeful sign. If the liberals stay together it's going to be a gut check for the conservative Dems instead of them -- which "centrist" Democrats are willing to tank the country's best chance to reform the health care system in decades?

It's not 1994, and the Republicans are a mess. There is no political upside to doing their dirty work for them like there was back then. There's nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.
Digby seems to think that this is a struggle between Republicans and Democrats. That the people pressure their lawmakers and then the lawmakers do what the people want if the politicians want to be in office. Digby does not seem to realize that things don't just happen. People make things happen. People make plans and carry them out, if nobody stops them. Any health care debate is completely and utterly fake, just like the completely and utterly fake debate about invading Iraq. Just look at Megan McArdle. Nobody is waiting to be convinced or studying the facts. They're keeping the masses busy while the real elite get what they want.

That is why we don't have health care. Digby says there is no political upside to withholding health care from the country, as if Republicans are the ones withholding care from Democrats, not the elite that picked the candidates that ran for office, paid for their campaigns, and kept them in mistresses and pork during their "public service." She states the words but does not hear them, does not believe them. Our politicians are bought. We are too weak to fight back unless we are willing to risk corporate punishment. We are not, so we will fail and continue to sink further into corporate bondage. No wonder our tvs and granite counter tops are so important to us. Cages are ugly things.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


Tristero takes Rachel Maddow to task for classism, but he makes a slight mistake that invalidates his premise. He assumes that he and Maddow are in a different class than the tea-baggers and self-help marks. They (we) are all in the same class, the one without power, the one that is a few paychecks away from poverty, that must take out loans to have shelter and education. We are not the elite and they never forget it, even if we do.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Company We Keep

Fake libertarian Megan McArdle is now quoting Glenn Beck, taking his word as gospel and dredging up self-righteous indignation just like every other Fox-News-watching tea-bagger. It seems that extended proximity to P. Suderman, boy astro-turfer, is moving her closer and closer to her true ideology--a closet conservative who wouldn't be caught dead in public with honest conservatives.

Outside the sheltering arms of The Atlantic a might struggle is raging, as the core conservatives--devout, ignorant and stubborn--fight the intellectual conservatives for control over their party. The conservative leadership and media have dragged the Republicans so far right in the hunt for votes that the intellectuals have been utterly left behind. They are unnecessary now, replaced by the likes of Jonah Goldberg and Andy McCarthy, who have long ago abandoned reality for self-flattering lies and endless complaints of victimization. The next group of Republican leaders will be Palins and other show ponies such as the idiot sons of rich and powerful Republicans. The intellectuals will have to satisfy themselves with becoming libertarians and developing policies based on Robert Heinlein adventure stories.

McArdle managed to whip herself up into a pretty little state of agitation over nothing.
I thought that this must be some kind of grotesque conservative exaggeration, but no, White House Communications Director Anita Dunn really did tell a graduating high school class to emulate Mao Tse-Tung's bold and imaginative attitude during his takeover of China. Most of us look at the tens of millions who died and maybe think twice about trying to imitate the late Chairman, but hey, think different!

Oh, Megan. Didn't your $38,000-a-year prep school teach you about checking sources when you wrote an English paper? Even if we accept the word of Glenn "The Crying Game" Beck, we need to at least read the entire quote. Here, let's get a liberal to do the thinking for you. David Neiwert at Crooks and Liars:
Glenn Beck continued his jihad against White House Communications Director Anita Dunn yesterday on his Fox News program, focusing his rage on remarks she made earlier this year at a D.C.-area high-school graduation ceremony. Here's what he played of her remarks:
"[T]wo of my favorite political philosophers, Mao Tse-Tung and Mother Teresa, not often coupled with each other, but the two people that I turn to most ..."

Not content to do it once, he ran the same snippet again, exactly like that. Twice he described Dunn as saying that Mao was one of the philosophers "she turns to most".

In other words, by running the quote thus, he's making it clear that Dunn admires Mao as one of her favorite political philosophers that she turns to most.

He ran this truncated quote, incidentally, in response to Dunn's earlier explanation for the remarks:
"The Mao quote is one I picked up from the late Republican strategist Lee Atwater from something I read in the late 1980s, so I hope I don't get my progressive friends mad at me," Dunn told CNN.

As for Beck's criticism: "The use of the phrase 'favorite political philosophers' was intended as irony, but clearly the effort fell flat -- at least with a certain Fox commentator whose sense of irony may be missing."

Beck thought that by playing the truncated quote, he could prove that Dunn's characterization didn't add up -- after all, she said Mao was someone she "turned to most"!

Except, of course, that wasn't what she said. You have to hear the rest of the sentence after Beck clips it off.

Here's the full original quote, which you can see at the original full video:
"The third lesson and tip actually comes from two of my favorite political philosophers: Mao Tse-tung and Mother Theresa -- not often coupled with each other, but the two people I turn to most to basically deliver a simple point which is 'you're going to make choices; you're going to challenge; you're going to say why not; you're going to figure out how to do things that have never been done before."

In other words, she found their words handy to make a universal and fairly banal point about being true to one's self. That's all. No Mao-worship.

You also can hear laughter from the audience when Dunn couples Mao and Mother Teresa, so at least it's clear that some in the audience got the joke. Glenn Beck didn't.

Most of all, he doesn't get that crude and hamhanded dishonesty like this only proves Anita Dunn's point, in spades.

Poor McArdle didn't get the point either. We could blame Glenn Becks's dishonesty, but it wasn't very bright of McArdle to trust him in the first place.

Monday, October 19, 2009

You Have Blackmail

Megan McArdle is discussing journalism ethics again. That's always fun.
I was at a conference on free speech this weekend, and thus missed the excitement of balloon boy and other assorted tempests in a teapot. I did, however, catch bits of Obama's speech, in which he joins Congress in threatening to remove the insurance company's anti-trust exemption, as a not-so-hidden payback for their report on insurance premiums.

She means their threat to jack up insurance prices to unbearable levels, thus depriving many people of insurance, if the government tries to reform their excesses.
Why should I worry about this so much? Isn't this just libertarian hysteria?

I don't think it is. I think this is fundamentally about freedom of the press.

That's ludicrous. It's a report/press release from insurance company lobbyists. It has nothing to do with journalism.
I know, I know--it's just an industry-funded study! How can I elevate that to "the press"?

Because you're a hack who's basically a corporation-funded lackey who issues reports/press releases from the health industry?
Because the idea we have about journalists being some sacred, special group that has "freedom of the press" is, like the idea that militias=national guard, pretty ahistorical.

We're not talking about the press.
Freedom of the press was not a right accorded to the profession of journalism, on the grounds of their sacred and responsible conduct, because there was no profession of journalism.

We're still not talking about the press.
Presses were owned by individuals, who engaged in all manner of speech, commercial and non.

Again, not the press.
Freedom of the press was not the freedom to own a newspaper or magazine, and say what you wanted therein.

It was the freedom to disseminate written speech.

That statement explains everything about the Villagers and their wanna-bes. The freedom of the press is the freedom to pass out the written speech of your corporate masters. Unbelievable!
I know that at least some of my readers are gearing up to point out that we do regulate commercial speech. But this wasn't commercial speech. It wasn't even speech by a corporation. AHIP is a legal trade association.

So if I, a corporation, hire an advertising firm or lobbyist I am exempt from regulation? Cool!
Threatening to strip their anti-trust exemption as a quid-pro-quo is the kind of thing that sounds cute until someone thinks up a way to do it to people on your side. Would it be okay for a Republican administration to threaten Democratic groups that say unpleasing things by promising to pass laws--however sound--that would decimate the fortunes of George Soros and other big backers? Or openly declare that if unions didn't stop issuing reports in favor of a higher minimum wage, the administration would have to revisit Taft-Hartley?

I have two words for the unfortunate amnesiac Miss McArdle: Karl Rove.
Though I'm fairly sure that the PWC report is right about the ultimate direction of the change in premiums due to health care reform, the methodology by which they arrive at that conclusion is not sound enough for me to rely on any of their conclusions.

And I've been burned one time too many to take the risk of lying again.
And I don't see much reason to defend the anti-trust exemption as a general matter--though the argument that this helps small insurers set rates correctly doesn't sound entirely crazy, either. But I am very sure that changes in the laws should never be wielded as weapons to punish speech that politicians don't like. If publishing reports with questionable assumptions were actually a crime, most of the people complaining about AHIP would be in jail right now.

It's interesting that she thinks this tactic is effective. She is assuming that everyone else has no morality and therefore has committed immoral acts, so she's warning them that they'll be exposed if they try to expose others. No wonder she was asking if blackmail should be illegal.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

God's Waiting Room

It's all Roy's fault that I was sucked into reading Rod Dreher. Dreher is so eager for Judgement that he has skipped living and gone straight to Purgatory, where he impatiently waits for the real suffering to begin.

Dreher waits for a financial Apocalypse. That'll teach the sinners. He does not mention how he and his fellow fundamentalists cheered Bush's every move, including the ones that set this apocalypse into motion.

Dreher is always concerned that everyone else isn't religious enough, so he can't rejoice that the US is more religious than Europeans without fretting that it isn't as religious as he is.
I mentioned in an earlier blog post how little I really know about megachurch Christianity, which is huge where I live, North Texas. If you don't live in Dallas or its environs, that's probably your stereotypical idea of what religion is like here. But unlike every other place I've lived, the Protestant mainline churches are still pretty vigorous, and well-attended. The gay MCC church is big. The largest mosque in Texas is here. And so on. Going to religious services is mainstream in the Dallas area in a way I've never seen elsewhere in America. Mind you, Dallas isn't representative of America, but I wonder if, on religious matters, it's true that Dallas is to America as America is to Europe.

Moving along, I think there may be less to this Godly America/Godless Europe thing. If it's true that the religion of America's tomorrow is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, how much better off are we, anyway?


Oh, we're all super-Jesus-y in the Dallas area, but the impression one is left with is that despite the megachurch religiosity regnant in the 'burbs, there's a deep hole people keep trying to fill with stuff, and with the manic pursuit of success.

Question: From a Christian point of view, is it better to live in a society where Christianity is virtually dead, replaced by secular materialism, or in a society where Christianity has been hollowed out by an emotionally satisfying but largely counterfeit version of the faith? Is it better to have nominal Christianity, or no Christianity at all? I don't think this is an easy question to answer. On the one hand, I was deeply impressed by Kierkegaard's "Attack Upon Christendom," in which he denounced the state Lutheran church as antithetical to real Christianity. His point, more or less, was that insofar as institutionalized Christianity leads people to believe that by going through the motions of a social Christianity, they have become true Christians, the experience of Christianity inoculates the individual against the real thing. On the other hand, the thought of raising my children in a place in which the Christian faith, or any religious faith, is largely alien to the community is troubling to me.

I'm utterly astonished that people like Dreher who use the Church to fill up the hole in their lives still feel a hole in their lives. You'd think that they were using the church to gain God's imaginary unconditional love, love they should have received from their parents but didn't. Or that imaginary unconditional love is not satisfying, and people come up with strange and bizarre (and deadly) ways to prove their own love in the hopes of getting love back. Such as finding ever-more restrictive religious practices and spending your life in a froth of fear that God will smite you dead any second for your sins, while haranguing everyone else for fear their sins will slop over onto you and you'll get killed in one of God's merciful acts of mass murder.

Then Dreher quotes Camile Paglia, which is two horrors in one paragraph.
You'll want to read Paglia's response, which ends with the line: "We're in a horrendous cultural vacuum because our status-besotted education industry is geared toward producing not original thinkers but docile creatures of the system."

This reminds me of something two childhood friends who went to the Ivies, but who spent a semester at LSU with me to qualify for a cheaper year-abroad program, said about going to the state school versus their Ivy (from which both graduated): that they got a lot more out of class at LSU because you actually got to interact with professors, and because the students didn't seem to have a sense of entitlement about being there.

Anyway, I liked this letter because what the letter-writer says is true, and because it also explains why so many people identify with Sarah Palin, despite everything. Understand me clearly: I think Sarah Palin is a fatally flawed vessel, and would be a terrible national leader. But please separate your thoughts and feelings about Palin long enough to understand why someone like Dave Livingston would identify with her, and come to loathe at least some of her critics. The Palin populist discerns, probably correctly, that much of the Palin hate is not only spite towards Palin herself, but spite towards a certain kind of American, and his tastes, his dreams, and his experiences. It is too bad, and maybe even a kind of tragedy, that Palin is personally not capable of sustaining the hope ordinary people put in her. Anyway, I know people can't talk about Palin anymore without going crazy, but Dave Livingston is worth listening to. I know a lot of people like him. He's why I wanted Sarah Palin so badly to be good, and was so disappointed when she wasn't.
Palin is stupid, greedy and superstitious. That is the basis of her tastes, dreams and experiences. Those who value superstition naturally want a leader like themselves, and unconsciously find reasons to ignore the stupid and greedy part of the equation. It's spite and elitist vanity that make liberals claim Palin is stupid and greedy, therefore conservatives can ignore everything they don't want to hear. (If they can't find a reason to ignore reality they just invent one, like socialism.)

The inevitable future of conservatism post is just funny. First Dreher sighs that he's been left out of the loop of a panel discussion on conservatism at Princeton. The panel worries that the rifts in conservatism have weakened it past repair. By "rifts" they mean that racism and religious fervor won't work anymore as demographics change, and conservative policy is no longer trusted. Dreher points to a "screed" by Freddie De Boer (is that Megan's Freddie?) that points out these inconvenient facts:
Everyone laments the Republican party's various failures, electoral or otherwise; no one is responsible for the Republican party. Everyone delights in the rank, unfocused and violent anger of the Tea Parties; no one will claim them as their own. What you have, ladies and gentlemen, is an ideology in a decaying orbit, an ideology that prides itself on insisting on personal responsibility as so many, thanks to their well-polished, phony individualisms, refuse to take any responsibility for the whole. Conservatism is drowning because so many say (as Conor Friedersdorf insists when I criticize him) "Hey, it's the OTHER conservatives who do THAT."

Dreher responds:
I have the sense that Freddie is kind of sort of onto something here, but I find it hard to say what, exactly, it is.

What a surprise. Dreher has a vague sense that there's a flaw in his own thinking, but can't quite pinpoint it.
I have said many times before that I was wrong about the Iraq War, and that I do feel responsible in some way for the failures of Republican governance, which I advocated for and voted for. Taking stock of those failures, and my failure of judgment, has made a big difference in my own politics. The extent to which I feel alienated from the conservative party in this country is the extent to which I don't believe its leaders and its mainstream have absorbed those lessons. But what does Freddie want from us? The mainstream GOP isn't interested in what conservative dissenters have to say; we're RINOs to them. We can't be liberals, because in the main, we don't believe what liberals do. What is "phony" about that? As someone who publicly broke with Bush over Katrina and Harriet Miers, I'm genuinely asking. Would Freddie have dissenting conservatives who backed Bush and the Bush-era GOP, but who now see the error of their (our) ways, spend the next few years doing nothing but atoning for our sins?

A devout Christian like Dreher will naturally think in terms of sin, confession and punishment. People like George Bush and Palin are sinners who failed Dreher and conservatism. Religion and conservatism didn't fail Dreher. He will not rethink any of his positions or assumptions and he immediately casts about for an excuse to change the subject.
Do liberals spend much time taking responsibility for the bad things that liberalism has wrought? I don't see it. If Freddie is saying that conservative writing and analysis today has to be done with the failures of conservative governance in front of mind, I've got no problem with that. Awareness of limitations and frailties makes for a more prudent and realistic politics. But surely he would expect the same thing from the left. On, for example, the gay marriage issue...[blah blah blah I'll spare you the rest].

He has confessed so what do you want, perpetual atonement? Don't be ridiculous. The matter is settled and over, the sin confessed and dismissed.
One of the things that finally got through to me, and turned me to the right, was realizing that the liberal ideals I prized had proved rather less successful in actuality, because liberals misunderstood human nature. I had to confront the unpleasant truth that actual human beings putting into practice what I believed to be true had not worked out so well.

Human nature is bad, people sin and fail, and God is necessary to maintain order and provide guard duty, punishment and reward. All Dreher needs to do is find another human who will never sin and fail him. And then another, and another, and another. It never even occurs to him that he could find what he's looking for within himself.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The McArdle Files: I Want You To Believe (Whatever I Say)

Megan McArdle has been busy being wrong, but not even she can get away with it forever. So far she has floated on a winsome smile, prodigious networking skills, and a Coulteresque love of insulting her "enemies," but all good things come to an end.

Megan McArdle says that New York's calorie labeling program may be a bust, although she notes the caveats from the study. The study says that while calorie labeling might not be sufficient to change behavior yet, it could be part of a solution in time. In other words, the study itself says McArdle's title is wrong. McArdle, as the world's tallest economics blogger, knows readers often don't get past the headline, so mission accomplished anyway.

McArdle speculates on the Congressional Budget Office's review of health care reform. She corrects her wrong speculation here: "So, the CBO report is out, and my estimate of the contents is totally wrong."

McArdle explains a report issued by the health insurance industry. She says:
This plan doesn't have any mechanism to keep their premiums down, or control the costs that accrue to their employees; any cost savings there are occur in Medicare or the non-group market. What it offers them is . . . an excise tax on high cost plans. Yes, yes . . . healthy workforce! Preventative care! All I can say is, these marvelous savings do not seem to be accruing to employers in Massachusetts--or for that matter, people on the exchange, whose premiums are apparently increasing even faster this year than they did before reform.

Ezra Klein corrects her mistakes here. The commenters correct her mistakes regarding Massachusetts and Medicare at great length (to the utter confusion of her poor fanboys) when she repeats her claim that health care costs can't be controlled.. McArdle's gracious acknowledgement of her error and Klein's correction:
Update: I have more insight into the CBO/JCT calculation of the excise tax that gives the criticisms more bite . . . but also raises some questions about the revenue predictions.
McArdle writes a post to cover up her excise tax error here, snidely noting Klein's correction.

And here, McArdle brags about fiance P. Suderman's health care work. He will have to find his own debunkers--we're too busy. McArdle is very high maintenance.

McArdle relates her hopes that health care reform will fail, because she can't imagine a world in which she isn't prosperous and protected. Hopefully life will correcct her wrong assumptions.

Finally, Megan posts again on the CBO study, and helpfully provides the inevitable and utterly necessary correction herself. I guess she's learning that the longer you ignore your errors, the louder the laughter becomes.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Personal History Lesson

This is a segment of Glenn Beck's January 15, 2008 interview with Jonah Goldberg.

GOLDBERG: Well, at first the phrase Liberal Fascism as you know, H.G. Wells was arguably the most popular liberal/Progressive intellectual and English speaking language in the first half of this 20th century, hugely influential socialist, founding member -- or member of the Fabian socialists, met with FDR in the Oval Office --

GLENN: Hang on. Jonah, I have to tell you. I feel like the dumbest guy in the world. I really do. What's so amazing, this shows us how our educational system has failed us. While I was on vacation over the holiday, I found out about the Fabian movement. I had never even heard of it. You want to talk about something that is unbelievably frightening in today's world. It describes what we're doing now, who our politicians are now.

GOLDBERG: These global elites, H2L is a global fascism where we seceded our sovereignty, our global control to what he called a world brain and that's what you see in things like the UN, all these places where, you know, the Supreme Court today is, you know, the liberals in the Supreme Court are invoking foreign laws to figure out what our Constitution means, and it is this sort of elitist, aristocratic, nondemocratic, bureaucratic management by the chosen sort of master brains of the globe that, you know, Bill Clinton, this global Clinton initiative and all these sort of things, it's a big part of what they are trying to do.

GLENN: When Hillary Clinton first said -- and it was in one of the debates. They said, are you a liberal? She said, no, because that means big government, et cetera, et cetera. She said, I like to refer to myself as a Progressive in the early -- because it invokes a real American feel, the Progressives of the early 20th century. That made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

GOLDBERG: That was great and that was a classic Clintonism because what she did there was -- it's like when she talks about her family values, upbringing in Illinois and being a conservative girl. She wants credit for the things she used to believe even though she doesn't believe them anymore. And the same thing with this Progressive thing. She says, oh, well, liberal means big government and I'm not for that; that's why I call myself a Progressive. Well, the Progressives were the original big government people.

GLENN: Right. They were the ones who brought us prohibition and the income tax and everything else.

GOLDBERG: You know, look. When people say, oh, when I argue that Progressives were specific -- and one of the reasons I do that is because the Progressives were in large numbers openly pro Mussolini in the 1920s. This is before Naziism. They liked what Mussolini was doing. But when I say this, you know, a lot of liberals will say, how can you say that? You know, fascism means racism. Well, in fact, it doesn't. Naziism means racism. Fascism doesn't mean racism. But if you want to define it by racism, the Progressives were unrelentingly racist. You know, Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, her whole agenda was to keep the inferior races from overbreeding. She spoke to a rally at the KKK in the late 1920s. All of the Progressives were deep seated believers in one form or another of eugenics. Oliver Wendell Holmes, the liberal saint of the Supreme Court, he considered the first and primary goal of public policy to build a race, not a state, not a nation. A race. He was a huge believer in eugenics. The New Republic which openly supported Mussolini in the 1920s also bought entirely into the eugenics movement. And all of this stuff remains like the crazy aunts in your attic no one talks about, it informs the spirit of Progressivism today which is now liberalism.

GLENN: Okay. So Jonah, because my eyes are starting to be opened, I look at this stuff and honestly when I first read over the holiday about Fabianism, I had to get to the Internet right away because I thought, there is no way this stuff is true because there's no way I didn't learn this. There's no way I haven't heard this. This has got to be fringe, this has to be -- this is not what I'm reading. Because I was reading a fringe book. And then I go to the Internet and I look it up and I see H. G. Wells, I see all these people. The stuff that George Bernard Shaw has said is phenomenal.

GOLDBERG: I've argued this for years, I've never heard a good rebuttal. I think he was the most evil intellectual in the English speaking world.

GLENN: Have you seen the phrase that he said where you don't have a right to be -- you must be a useful member of society and you must eat and if we can't force you to eat and we can't force you to be a useful member of society, then we can gently and humanely kill you?

GOLDBERG: Oh, yeah. George Bernard Shaw like many of the Fabian socialists was very keen on gas chambers. The idea that this was something the Nazis thought of is simply not true. There are a huge number of socialist intellectuals who want to send the inferior stocks, the lower classes and the rest of the undesirables off to gas chambers, hang them from the nearest lamp post, all of that kind of stuff.

GLENN: But it's all friendly. It's all because it's for the good of society. It's for the good of all of us. It is fascism with a happy face.

GOLDBERG: That's right. Here's my favorite quote -- sorry to interrupt but I mean, I think you'll get it. Hillary Clinton said in a speech in 1996, a major address, you know, that was written in advance. She used this line and similar circumstances elsewhere. But she says we as a country need to move beyond the idea that there's anything, there's any such thing as someone else's child. Now, I'm sorry. My child is my child and my wife's child, maybe her child and my child, but it is not the State's child, it is not the collective child, it is not the community's child. I'm glad for their help sometimes when necessary, but the idea that our children aren't our own is the fundamental driving impulse of all of the isms of the left, progressivism, fascism, Naziism, communism. All of them sought to crack the outer shell of the nuclear family and get control of the children. Woodrow Wilson says the chief job of an educator is to make -- and he says this to parents -- your children as little like you as possible. That is the agenda and that is still the agenda that we have today.

GLENN: Jonah, I haven't gotten to the end of the book where you do talk a little bit about Hillary Clinton and everybody else. Do you go into Barack Obama or anybody else on the left? Do you --

GOLDBERG: I'm sorry. No, I'm sorry. I've been locked in a basement for four years working on this. So I get a little hyper. I mention Barack Obama briefly because he has the same influence as Hillary, a very radical guy who can get over the fact that he is a hero of the left and calls himself a man of the left, speaks about the need for violence, the confrontation and destroying the classes and all that kind of stuff. So I mention that briefly. But you see some of this in Barack Obama as well. And I think Barack Obama is a decent guy, he is not an evil person, I'm not using fascist the way the left does to simply say evil, evil, evil. Barack Obama I think is an honorable and decent guy, but he subscribes to this cult of unity, this idea of that if we just all join hands and march toward the sunny uplands of history and buy each other a Coke, everything will be solved. And that was the same with Hitler, that was the idea of leaders of men in Woodrow Wilson, this idea that we just rally around the spiritual fresh of one man of the nation, all our problems will be redeemed.

GLENN: Jonah Goldberg, I would like to talk to you off the air because I would like to develop a series for the television show and we can break this up, your book up in several different pieces over several different days. Every America needs to read your book. It is absolutely phenomenal. You will understand where we are, who is leading us, where it has come from. It is just a fantastic book and I can't thank you enough for writing it.
[my bold]

GOLDBERG: Glenn, I can't thank you enough for the support. Books need friends and you are great friend to have. GLENN: Thanks very much. Jonah Goldberg. The name of the book is Liberal Fascism. Please, please pick it up.

(Evidently Jonah has been reading Michael Crichton.)

It is the authoritarian struggle for control over others, beginning with your children. The liberals say that we have choices, while the conservatives demand that their children be like themselves. Authoritarians don't fear a cult of unity; that is their goal. They fear choices and change. They fear rejection and pain for disobeying their authorities--God, the priest, Mom and Dad.

A child can't live with rejection from his parents. He closes off his emotions, destroying any empathy that would otherwise develop. But he still has the same emotional needs for love and acceptance so he looks elsewhere for them. However nothing can replace his parents' love, so he is forced to either act out to make them to love him, cling even harder to the substitutes he has, or restlessly moving from one authority to another, looking for someone or something that will give him what he needs. He never questions the source of his patriotism or religious devotion or obsessive relationships and cannot tolerate anyone else doing so.

For a lot of people, 9/11 provided something that was missing from their lives. They finally had a reason for their vague feelings of persecution, mistreatment, neglect, isolation, fear and pain. They gained a sense of belonging, an identity and purpose. It was a godsend and they long for more attacks. It's not about the terrorists and the fascists and the eugenicists. It's about them.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Tiny Bubbles

The economics blogger at the Atlantic continues to discuss Obama's Nobel Peace Prize, because criticizing and whining is the equivalent of a cheap high for Miss Megan McArdle. (She dearly loves a good round of What's Wrong With Everyone Else.)
Hmm. Well. Call me crazy, but I think that maybe to earn the Nobel prize, a million dollars, and all the associated prestige, you ought to have made efforts somewhat more heroic than chairing a meeting in which you said that you thought we ought to have fewer nuclear arms--even one in which you said that the US also thought we ought to have fewer nuclear arms. You should, I don't know, deliver a deal or something.
The strange thing is that instead of discussing why Obama does not merit the Nobel Peace Prize, McArdle addresses Mark Kleiman's reasons why he does deserve the Nobel instead. It's as if she would rather get into a back-and-forth with another blogger than address and refute the facts.
As for the notion that this strengthens our hand when dealing with Iran and North Korea, I'm really skeptical that this does anything at all. The leaders of Iran and North Korea do not, to put it mildly, look up to us. They don't want us to think that they're nice, moral people. They want us to think that they are terrifying military forces whose desires must be assuaged. The people of North Korea and Iran don't like us either, but even if you thought that this was likely to have a big impact on their opinion, this would be purely hypothetical, because both countries have very tightly controlled media which will report whatever the leaders want them to think.
Let's take a look at the facts. Iran spends about 6 billion on defense. North Korea spends about 5.5 billion. The US spends about 663 billion. Iran does not have much chance of terrifying the US with its military might, nor does North Korea. The latter does have a nuclear weapon, but even their meglomanical, crazy leader has not lost his head enough to actually use it.

Do the people of Iran hate us? Every news report that I have seen that interviews Iranians on the street shows people explaining that they have nothing against America and Americans. With so much conflicting evidence it's not possible to simply state "they hate us" and expect us to accept this answer. Either way, the issue has little to do with the real issues that shape Middle East policy, most of which center around oil.

Do Iranians know about Obama's Nobel? They do have censorship, but look at this list of Iranian satellite channels. There are channels from the US, Canada, Great Britain, Germany, and Turkey. It's possible that the information was reported on Iranian television.

How about the internet, the bane of a closed society?
Blogging in Iran operates under special circumstances because the government restricts certain views. Blogs in general tend to be unregulated compared to other forms of expression in Iranian society. This characteristic can account for the huge popularity of blogs especially among Iranian youths. As of October 2005, there are estimated to be about 700,000 Iranian blogs (out of an estimated total of 100 million worldwide, of which about 40,000-110,000 are active, mostly written in Persian, the Iranian language).

There are also many weblogs written by Iranians in English and other languages. Most of them, though, belong to expatriates who live in North America, Europe, Japan, etc. Iran is the third largest country of bloggers.[citation needed]
Again, it's very possible the information did spread. But Megan McArdle wanted to pooh-pooh Obama's Nobel so she just assumed that facts fit her preconceived notions and did not do any research to check her theory. She thought up a reason or two which sounded good and reinforced what she wanted to say, so she avoided checking her work. And McArdle is able to remain in her little bubble without any further thought.

Stupid mistakes corrected.

Thought Process

John Hussman has written an especially interesting column this week, which explores the decision-making process he uses on his fund.

the practice of tending to the present moment – responding to prevailing conditions rather than relying on forecasts – is central to our investment discipline.

Focusing on the present moment doesn't imply ignoring the past or failing to consider the future. It's clear, for example, that we put a great deal of attention on estimating future cash flows and discounting them appropriately in order to evaluate whether various investments are priced to deliver satisfactory long-term returns. We certainly devote our attention to macroeconomic pressures and latent risks that threaten to become full-blown crises later. Still, we rarely make near term forecasts.... The reason we avoid forecasts, very simply, is that they are not required, and that they can be a hindrance.


Rather than treating the next week, month, quarter or year as a horizon that demands a specific “forecast,” we simply treat each realization as part of a “repeated game,” and rely on the law of large numbers – that is, the idea that if we follow our discipline period after period after period, over time our inevitable errors will average out, and our long-term results will be largely what we expect. The best way to take good care of the future is to take good care of the present moment.

We must see the world as it is at the present time, and deal with those conditions.

Even if we could assume that the recent crisis was a standard post-war downturn, and that we are now in a standard post-war recovery, valuations would still concern us because at these levels, stocks are not priced to deliver satisfactory long-term returns in any event. However, we would have a greater willingness to take a moderate speculative exposure based on market action and prospects for sustained economic improvement. On the other hand, when we include other post-crash periods into our data set, and allow for the possibility that those instances better describe present conditions, the case for accepting speculative exposure is much more limited. Of specific concern is the tendency in those periods for strong advances (as we've seen in recent months) to be followed by spectacular failures.

It is absolutely necessary to look for flaws and contradictory evidence in one's theories. You must see all the facts or you do not see clearly.

As Thay says, “We practice not to be influenced by the name, because when we are caught in the name, we can't see reality.” The picture in our head can be very influenced by the words we attach to it.

Imagine that you see the word "green," but it is printed in red ink. Your mind will have to shift from the word it expects to see--red--to the word actually printed--green. (The Stroop Effect.) The mind fills in the gaps with what we expect to see when we don't look beyond the surface.

In Zen, there is a teaching tool known as a “koan” – a question that serves as the object of meditation, and is intended to reveal something about teachings like mindfulness and interconnectedness. Western observers sometimes mistake these for riddles, non-sequiturs, or nonsensical statements, but if you look at them carefully, they are questions or stories intended to prompt the listener to see things as they really are.


When we think about events, either in our daily lives, or in the market or the economy, it is important that we don't think of them as simply existing or coming out of nowhere. This is, because that is. This is not, because that is not. We cannot create or remove a condition, expect it to emerge or expect it to disappear, without understanding the seed that produces it, and the causes and conditions that allow it to spring up.


Many of my concerns about the markets in recent years have emerged because too often, financial market participants and policy makers focus on manifestations rather than causes and conditions. This is why investors produced the dot-com bubble, the tech bubble, the mortgage bubble, the debt-financed private equity bubble and the commodity bubble without thinking of the seeds of crisis that were latently emerging, or how violently they would manifest. Our policy makers have bailed out poorly run financials by creating massive federal deficits, and think they've solved the problem in the same way as someone who runs over a weed with the lawnmower. The roots have simply grown deeper, because the seeds are still there, but we've applied a few conditions in the opposing direction. Those of you who have read these missives for a long time know that my geopolitical views are largely the same. This is, because that is. This is not, because that is not.

We can have an overvalued market and the seeds of a bear market, but if we apply opposing conditions in the form of easy money in order to prop up the market and prevent the consequences of bad behavior, the seed will simply grow stronger, and its ultimate manifestation will be more powerful. We can have a mortgage market that is setting new records for delinquencies and foreclosures every month, combined with increasing unemployment and a heavy reset schedule on Alt-A's and option-ARMs that is just now picking up. But we lower the bar on financial reporting, fail to restructure debt, and ignore the strengthening seed because we're single-mindedly enthusiastic about the thin-rooted green shoots of stabilization – born solely of a burst of fiscal profligacy – then we'll predictably be blindsided when the problems re-emerge.

Predictably blindsided. That's happened again and again in recent years. And it happens when we fail to think about the seeds we are watering. If we look only for fruit and ignore the seeds of crisis, then every bit of fruit will be followed by crisis, and nobody will understand why.
People make mistakes in reasoning because they don't realize they are unconsciously avoiding information they don't want to hear or see. They avoid this information because it upsets them and they are accustomed to repressing their emotions to avoid emotional pain. They will say that black is white and become enraged when you disagree with them, for you are forcing them to face something they are trying to avoid. And it applies to all areas of life.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Bullet Points

Megan McArdle has given us a handy list of her reasons why America cannot do what every other major nation manages to achieve: provide health care for its citizens. Let's take a look!
More wage inequality means doctors need to make more.
Because when society is unequal, we need to give the elite more money to make up for it. In other words, we're selfish, greedy and heartless, not to mention un-Judeo-Christian.
The American political system is especially easy to lobby
We're crooked too.
American public services culture is, in general, less effective than the Nordic countries, and no, this is not simply an artifact of Republicans criticizing government bureaucrats; the government bureaucrats do a great deal that is worthy of criticism

Our lower class is inferior to Nordic countries' lower class. It must be their ethnic-osity.
Path dependence: it's a lot easier not to give people a new drug or treatment than to take one away.
We're indolent and greedy.
Intolerance of tradeoffs: we do not even do the very obvious things to control costs in the system, like rethinking extraordinary measures at the end of life. The harder tradeoffs are simply non-starters.

We're really greedy.
American attitudes toward government: when told they can't have something they want, Americans do not say, oh, okay. They go on the news and call their congressman.
We're incredibly greedy.
Federalist and non-parliamentary democracy: in most other systems, the head of the government tells the government what to do. In our system, you need 220 congressmen and 50-60 senators. There's no way to implement the sort of technocratic change that reformers envision; the politicians will keep sticking their fingers in the pie.
We elect greedy representatives.
Conservatism: the American public is considerably to the right of any European electorate, and no, this isn't just an artifact of Republicans lying to them. They have different attitudes about how much they want the government to do, and how much they are willing to pay to do it. Many of the reforms that hold costs down in Europe are simply non-starters because they smack too much of socialism.
We're also stupid.

Well, that's quite the list. We're too greedy, stupid and "ethnic" to have national health care. And by "we" McArdle obviously means people without elite jobs and Cadillac health care plans. I can understand now why McArdle called herself Jane Galt. When you're surrounded by greedy, lazy, crooked non-Nordic people, you have to protect yourself at all times from everyone's attempts to take advantage of you.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Ratings Agencies and Unspoken Goals

Let's start with Megan McArdle's follow-up post to her rumination about the ratings agencies.
Yesterday, I asked what we should do about the fact that ratings agencies were so drastically underestimating tail risk of the securities they rated. Today, Joe Wiesenthal at Clusterstock offers a possible solution....
For some reason McArdle doesn't cut-and-paste most of Wiesenthal's solution. Maybe the reason is that he is simply trying to find a way to avoid regulating something that must be regulated or it will get out of control, as the ratings agencies have. They gave good ratings to junk securities because it was profitable and nobody stopped them. Regulation would be a start to end the ratings problems, but regulation is evil to good little free-market Fairy followers. Here's the rest:
If a debt issuer isn't happy with who they got, then, well, too bad. Over time, you'd give companies that showed a good track record a heavier weight in the pool, so that they're selected more often. Their only goal would be to increase market share by being accurate.Pandering to either buyers or sellers would be 100% impossible.

Now granted, it wouldn't be perfect. Performance measures would be backwards looking, and you'd probably end up with companies that had gotten lazy, and stuck to old ideas about how to rate debt, but that's just life. They'd lose their weighting in the pool, and eventually you could even put companies on probation if they got bad enough.

Nothing's going to change the fact that incumbents grow dumb and slow--but at least they'd have an incentive to avoid that, whereas currently they don't (have the top raters lost any market share? No.)

There's your solution.
[my bold]

In other words, a market that is regulated. My understanding of economics is limited, but if we had regulated the ratings market properly in the first place we wouldn't be in so much trouble now. So I went back and read about six articles on ratings agencies also published on Business Insider, a magazine that tries very hard to live up to its name. The overall goal of the magazine seems to be to discourage any regulation of ratings agencies. From "Don't Blame The Ratings Agencies" by John Carney (a big defender of McArdle):
In a competitive market place, different companies structure their enterprises according to different ideas. In a counter-factual world of openly competing credit advisors, each rating agency would have had to experiment with different theories about credit risk and adjust their theories according the market’s reaction. The process of competition would have worked to produce better ratings by putting the bad credit advisors out of business.

Now it’s very possible that errors in ratings would still happen, and bad ratings companies may even come to dominate for a time because the market mistakenly preferred the wrong rating theory. But a competitive market for ratings would have at least had a chance of producing a better result, and likely would have over the long term.

Isolated from the feedback of the market, the ratings agencies lacked an exogenous indicator about the quality of their ratings. They were left to guess whether or not they were employing the right system, like the socialist shoe maker who just has to guess how many shoes he makes because there’s no price system. Arguments about how to rate mortgage bonds were reduced to just that—arguments that could only be cognitively evaluated rather than tested in the marketplace.

In short, the very laws that protected the ratings agencies marketshare and guaranteed them business, also destroyed the competitive process that could have led to the discovery of better ways to evaluate bond risk. The agencies were victims of the regulatory framework, rendered blind to their own errors.

You see, it was government interference that caused all the problems, not the rampant greed and dishonesty of the Bush Business Philosophy: Give me your money because I deserve it.