Thursday, December 29, 2011

Guess where those corporate pensions went?

Frankly, I always bought the company line that American corporations had overpromised workers about pensions, and they had to cut them drastically for the companies to survive.

Now along comes a Pulitzer Prize-winning Wall Street Journal financial reporter who spent years digging through SEC filings and contractual fine print...

to discover that the corporations' pension funds vanished because top management stole it for bonuses. And by putting enough weasel language in the fine print of their agreements with employees, and through, um, "friendly" judges, they've managed to make most of this theft legal--and to make the average citizen side with the corporations.

Check out the Amazon listing for "Retirement Heist: How Companies Plunder and Profit from the Nest Eggs of American Workers."

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

When good people do bad political things

The average rank and file Republican and Democrat generally plays fair in his personal life, I believe.

Yet both parties have an element that wants to do whatever it takes to win.

They face a challenge: how do you get people who normally play fair to fight dirty?

One way is the way Bush II justified the vicious things he had his proxies do to John McCain in 2000 when both were vying for the GOP nomination. Bush II said, in effect, that it was a game, and the rules were that there were no rules. You can see this from the way he defended his actions when McCain confronted him over his dirty tactics.

But the most common way is to convince your rank and file that they face an existential threat. That they must circle the wagons and shoot to kill--that they must, as a political metaphor, declare "martial law" for the duration of the emergency.

This is why the Cuban communist regime still speaks in revolutionary language half a century after the revolution ended. And it's why the GOP harps about "gay marriage" and guns and God yada yada, so you'll be distracted while they're picking your pockets, and even if you notice that they are, you'll excuse it as the price of beating back the threat to your tribe.

The Democrats' rabble rousing efforts lack the intensity of the Republicans' but they still give it their darndest. The latest from, summarizing the year's best whoppers, doles out prizes aplenty to both sides. And if you look at those prizes, you'll see the underlying pattern: to get you to feel there's an emergency that requires you to suspend your ordinary sense of fair play.

Look at it and see if that pattern doesn't jump out at you.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Leaving Iraq

Former GOP presidential candidate John McCain said, of our pullout from Iraq this last weekend, "this decision of a complete pullout of United States troops from Iraq, was dictated by politics and not our national security interests. I believe that history will judge this president's leadership with the scorn and disdain that it deserves."

Once again John McCain proves that the Republican Party's last presidential candidate is a hothead lacking the character and the judiciousness needed for the job, as was true of the preceding GOP president, as was even more true of the GOP's last entry for vice president.

And it's an indictment of the GOP's seat-of-the pants, little boy acting tough foreign policy ideals.

The situation in Iraq is the hand President Obama was dealt when he took office, and the outcome was predictable from the moment the Republican administration chose to invade Iraq with a skeleton force--a force fully able to defeat Iraq's large, ramshackle military in combat, but waaay too small to be able to occupy and administer a nation of that size. As General Powell told him.

Senator McCain didn't say which of the two alternatives President Obama faced he would have chosen:
1. Declare war on Iraq's current government, or
2. Put all American soldiers in Iraq under the jurisdiction of Iraq's courts, the nonnegotiable condition for our troops staying that the Iraqi government set at the behest of the current Iraqi goverment's patron, Iran.

I don't find either of those alternatives acceptable. I'd love to know which one McCain wanted.

Iraq was bound to become something of a client state of Iran from the moment we invaded, given the fact that we invaded, and in the way we did--and because President Bush I told Iraq's Shiites to revolt during Desert Storm, then abandoned them to Saddam's tender mercies.

People who've been betrayed tend to remember it. And it means we pushed Iraq's Shiites into Iran's eager arms, even though Iraq's Shiites are Arabs and Iran's are mostly Persians, and thus have genuine tribal differences.

But Iraq's government is quite beholden to Iran under the table--and there isn't a thing we can reasonably do about it now. And it's the cake Bush baked. Obama's just serving the unpalatable slices to us.

And McCain should reserve his wrath for his own party and Chef Bush instead of shooting the maitre d'.

Now's the season when your conservative friends want to tell you Obama-as-Satan stories

From now through the November election, many of your Right Wing friends/relatives/workmates want to tell people like me Obama the Horrible anecdotes they got from the Republican National Committee's paid astroturf websites and pundits and "think" tanks for hire.

Some of these stories are true, others true but taken out of context, some are spun by the GOP's Funhouse Mirror view of reality into a distorted view of the truth, some push guilt by association (usually a false association in the first place), and a lot that are flat out Pants on Fire False.

Okay. If we're going to discuss politics, this sort of thing  is inevitable.

Especially for someone in my position, a Democrat living in a solid Democrat college town who voluntarily associates with the few Republicans who live in this town, who all know I'm a Democrat. I'm a lightning rod for them, frustrated as they are, knowing that their vote for President in the state of California makes no difference and never will.

Yet at some level they all believe that this anecdote they just got from PowerMax or some such is so powerful, so damning, that anyone hearing it will realize Obama is the scum he is. They're just bursting with animus for the guy. At my wife's church's Christmas dinner Saturday, a friend who's a very nice guy told me Obama is "a Communist." I didn't even argue it with him. I just pointed out that as a Democrat I was keen on all the GOP candidates, since each has crucial flaws that should enable Obama to win reelection.

But more (or less) seriously, whenever someone's dying to tell you something you have leverage.

So I propose that you tell your conservative friend that you'll willing to listen to his/her Evil Obama anecdote--if and only if they first tell you something about Obama that they find praiseworthy.

This should be a no-brainer for them. After all, these are the same people who were telling me Character is All when Clinton was the candidate. Why should Character suddenly become irrelevant when the Democratic incumbent happens to be a loyal family man--devoted husband and father.

And after all, this is the guy on whose watch--and with whose politically risky go-ahead--the bad man who was actually responsible for 9/11 was nailed. This is the guy who uses UAVs to kill one Al Quaeda leader after another, regardless of what country they're hiding in. This is the guy who OK'd having a Navy sniper nailing three Somali pirates who were holding an American sea captain hostage.

And this is the guy whose economic policies have been conservative enough that the American Left considers him a crypto-Republican. If he's such a Com-yew-nist, why do actual Com-yew-nists believe he's actually a Conservative?

So it should be easy for your right wing friends/relatives/workmates to meet your challenge that they tell you something they find praiseworthy about Obama before they tell you the Damning Anecdote.


At least 80% of Americans are Aempiricists

Most so-called Atheists are Empiricists--that is, we derive our ideas from reality, not reality from our ideas.

The term "Atheist" was invented by religious people as a pejorative term, and for many of them it's meant as negatively as the N-word.

And it's meaningless. It means "someone who doesn't believe in God." Of course, to doctrinaire religious people, that's all they need to know about you. But why accept the other side's term for us?

We are empiricists. Don't let anyone call you an "'Atheist." Tell them what you are, not what you aren't. When they ask, "Do you believe in God, yes or no" tell them "Sorry, there's a word there that I don't understand. What is a "God?"

See, the word "God" is empirically undefinable. It makes no more sense to say you don't believe in God than to say you don't believe in Blibble, or [make the sound of blowing a raspberry]. Every single attempt to define "God" just produces piles of tautologies--definitions chasing their own tails.

I'm not what i'm not. I'm what I am. And that's an empiricist. I'm not "unchurched," I'm not "not French", I'm not "Not Red-Haired," ad infinitum.

And while we're at it, let's call religious people "Aempiricists." As Blake said, "Dip him in the river who loves water."

Saturday, December 17, 2011

It's not the income disparity--it's the disconnect

You know the scene in the movie when the bad guys unhitch the train from the engine and it chugs away, stranding all the cars in the desert? That's what's happened to America.

Only people keep talking about it as if the huge and growing income disparity between the wealthiest 20% and everyone else is the problem. It's not. It's the symptom of the problem.

What's most wrong with the current disparity is that the fortunes of the very wealthy have become decoupled from the fortunes of the rest of us.

Back in the day the head of a company did better if the company did better, & worse if it didn't.

But if your company's "product" is money manipulation, carried out by a small staff with big computers, instead of providing goods &/or services, there's no real connection to the well-being of the country.

If a manufacturer moves its plants abroad (to countries like China that block our own exports) & bribes government to make that legal & & even give it tax breaks to do so, then the well-being of American factory workers becomes irrelevant.

If a corporate CEO's pay has no relation to how well the company does--as is true for most of the Fortune 500 now--it doesn't even matter how well the company does, & platinum parachutes & conspiring boards of directors make top managements, collectively, a class that looks out for each other & to heck with the companies they helm & their stockholders.

And their kids don't serve in the military.

Unregulated capitalism morphs into crony capitalism where there's little social mobility & the captains of industry use their Croesian wealth to capture the government, which then works for them, not us. Travel in a bunch of 3rd world countries, as I have, & you'll see how this pans out.

Decoupling's the key. See?

Watch what you wish for, GOPers

The GOP faced a challenge in shaping its four year campaign to defeat President Obama in 2012: some of its favorite themes had a poor chance of working.

Take that fine old standby, personal character assassination. When Clinton was the target it was a snap. He was quite the hound dog. Best of all, he lied about it under oath, giving the Republicans an excuse to impeach the President, even though what he lied about had exactly nothing to do with his presidential duties. They used personal embarrassment to set a trap, using the power of prosecutors to ask questions under oath that have nothing to do with the case being prosecuted.

But here we have a guy--President Obama with the effrontery to be a model husband and father, never divorced, never unfaithful, devoted to his kids, and raising them in a way any American conservative could be proud of.

Then there's the "soft on war" trope. Every Democratic president has gotten accused of being a peacenik. And then President Obama has the nerve to get Osama, send squadrons of UAVs over Pakistan and Yemen and elsewhere, nailing Al Quaeda honchos left and right. He even OK'd nailing some Somali pirates between the eyes out on the high seas, and upped the ante in Afghanistan. Bummer.

So now personal character is no longer spoken of. And to prove it, that Republican hound dog Newt Gingrich is leading in GOP polls right now. Whether he gets the nomination or not, the fact that he leads shows that Republicans could care less about personal character. They only talk about it when it suits them.

And the same goes for warlike manliness. Bush II had the fighter pilot swagger down, but wasn't competent as Commander in Chief. Not when he went to war with the wrong country. I mean, when the cops bust into the house next to the house they have the warrant to bust into it's bad enough. But when our President busts into the wrong country and costs us a trillion+ dollars and thousand of US lives, and tens of thousands maimed as well, it would really, really, really help if all that blood and treasure were expended on and in the country that had actually attacked us. No Democratic president in the last century has committed such a colossal blunder--especially when he systematically ignored all the info we had at the time proving that it was the wrong country. No wonder Saddam was surprised when we invaded. Just like the people in the wrong house.

There's plenty the GOP can and will use against Obama in the next election. They'll even try to besmirch his personal character. But that at least won't stick.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The prime target of the far right is not Islamofascists; nor is it the far Left; it's the politically active centrists

More and more, the far Right is starting to function like a cult. First job of a cult is to separate you from conflicting ideas and people. After that, the steady stream of cult propaganda weaves members into a coherent narrative that describes the world and everyone's place in it. But cult narratives are always--always--false, whether they're Left, Right, religious, you name it.

So the cult has to silence your BS detector, and that starts with getting you to ignore, dismiss, and/or feel actively hostile towards anyone who dissents from the cult's narrative.

The average right winger isn't influenced by anything Michael Moore says--in fact, if he says anything they assume it's a knowing lie. Ditto Al Gore, Nancy Pelosi, and President Obama. Anyone even slightly left of center--and the center has moved waaay over to the right, though the far Rights believes the exact opposite.

Who's left? Liberal Republicans like Olympia Snowe, for one. And, right in the crosshairs, the two main fact-checking organizations: and Not because they always side with the Left. But because they don't always side with the Right.

That's far more dangerous to keeping cult members in line than self-identified enemies.

So the far Right narrative has to somehow explain all the articles appearing in those two factchecking sites that say Democrats and other left of center organizations and people have lied/spun/told half-truths.

And explain they do: the narrative says that these fact-checking organizations are completely in the tank for Obama and all them Lib-er-ul causes, and only criticize the Left to legitimize their criticism of the Right.

That is, you're either for us or against us, and if you aren't totally for us, you're totally against us.

And--there's no such thing as journalism. Only honest advocacy vs. deceptive advocacy. Thus if a journalist is a Democrat, everything the journalist writes is by definition Leftist propaganda. The idea of someone criticizing their own side is literally un-believable to them.

So if you wonder how people living in a democratic country can become radicalized Jihadi--look at American right wing websites, and in particular look at their coverage of and

The funniest part is when they say they've proven their point if fact checking sites criticize the Right, say, 59% of the time--the same argument they furiously condemn when it's used to "prove" racial/ethnic discrimination.

But also pretty ironic is the fact that the Left thinks these fact-checking organizations lean Right. This is unknown to far Right cultists because they get all their political information from right wing websites and pundits, and such information would clash with the Manichean (black & white) narrative of the cult.

The Congressional Budget Office also gets pilloried if they dare issue reports that conflict with the Republican National Committee's narrative...then cited as Gospel when they agree.

One way to tell whether a self-identified Conservative hasn't become a cultist is to ask them what they think of and I wouldn't expect them to say these organizations never err. But I would expect them to say that both are committed to being nonpartisan and calling 'em as they see 'em, such that their errors, when they occur, are not part of a fiendish plot.

You can do the same with a self-identified Liberal, of course. Both organizations call out the Left frequently. I just read one of their reports on TV political show hosts and was dismayed to see how biased some of my liberal favorites were.

It's tough to commit to truth. It's easy to commit to tribe. Thus saith our DNA.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Our shrinking middle class

In 1970, 65% of Americans lived in middle class neighborhoods.

By 2007, 44% of Americans lived in middle class neighborhoods.

Source: MSNBC citing research by Stanford University and

So Middle Class America has dwindled from 2/3 of our country to 2/5. And even all the serfs our government has condoned coming here from Mexico can't account for more than a drop in this bucket of bad news.

But a falling tide doesn't lower all boats. Over this time period America's millionaries and billionaires have seen their incomes soar, courtesy of their income redistribution scheme made possible by their capture of our government, with Congress passing laws to made many economic crimes now legal, and Republican administrations focusing nearly all their enforcement efforts on middle class tax cheats while leaving the real Players off the hook.

So the next timer a self-styled Conservative starts talking about Class War, ask him or her what diabolical Comyewnist scheme is progressively transferring America's wealth to its richest? And if you catch a bank robber and force him to give back the money he stole, would you oppose that because it's "income redistribution?"

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The real problem with poverty and wealth

Middle class people believe if you work hard and keep your nose clean and show some moxie you'll get ahead--you'll do better than your parents did. But middle class people also know they're dependent on how others do--that is, on how well society as a whole is doing.

Poor people on the dole are not dependent on how well society is doing. They believe working hard won't get them ahead--that good-paying jobs are not available to them--and welfare grants them the necessities regardless of how society as a whole is doing.

Rich people are not dependent on how well society is doing. They have a plush personal safety net that they believe will buoy them up regardless of society's vicissitudes.

So the poor and the rich feel decoupled from society. They don't care about the welfare of others, because it doesn't affect them. As Oscar Wilde said, more or less "I can bear the burdens of others quite well."

And when their welfare is cut off, the poor still feel decoupled from society, because they don't see a way up.

It is possible to couple the rich and the poor to society's welfare as a whole. The rich loathe this idea, and fight it every way they can. And being rich, they have the means to stop most attempts to attach them to society.
The poor loathe this idea if it forces them to work for their welfare--especially if you attach all the conditions to getting welfare that I'd attach. However, the poor don't represent a danger to the middle class, except for a certain amount of street crime (which is far greater in the ghettos of the poor, though). The rich who are decoupled from society do represent a danger to the middle class.

That's why, even though Americans work longer hours than those of any other industrialized society, and their hours have progressively increased over the last decades, they are no better off than their parents were in the 1970s, except for having the Internet and relatively cheap computers. On the other hand, they're far less likely to be able to get out from under their college debt and to buy a home. Our GDP has increased greatly since the 1970s but the rich have kept the increase for themselves, and captured government, so that the people we elect won't do what we want them to do, but instead serve their patrons.

My very right wing Southern father once defined society as where the rich and the poor decide what the middle class will pay to support them.

Was he wrong:?

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Left isn't right, but the Right has left all reason behind

Take the Founders--and the Constitution--and America the Greatest Nation with the Greatest People and the Greatest Armed Forces and anyone who says otherwise isn't an American...

Most self-styled conservatives are Christians. Doesn't the Bible says not to worship idols? Yet they've made the Founders, the Constitution they wrote, and the country we live in into idols to be worshipped.

The Founders would be appalled.

Conservatives keep talking about what the Founders would say if they could see what we've made of their founding document.

That's an easy one to talk about, since the Founders aren't here to contradict you.

But if they were magically brought here and give a year or ten to get up to speed, here's what I think they'd say collectively:

The United States of America in 1790 had a population of under 4 million people, mostly farmers. In today's world such a nation would rank 128 in population, between the Republic of the Congo and Bosnia/Herzegovina. Its level of industrialization would place it near the bottom...maybe with the Malagasy Republic. And trade, except for a few luxury goods, was virtually nonexistent. The Atlantic Crossing took about two months, and a fair number of vessels didn't make it.

Same went for warfare. England found it incredibly difficult and expensive to wage war at such a distance. So the nascent America was protected by General Atlantic quite effectively. On land, stage coaches traveled at around 6 miles per hour over bad roads, such as they were.

Our Constitution was the Founders' second stab at a governing document. Remember the Articles of Confederation? Were those also divinely inspired? They didn't work so well.

It was also a time of turmoil and intellectual and technological ferment--nearly all on the horizon, though. And political parties didn't exist.

So the Founders crafted a document the second time around that did well as framing the needs of a small agricultural country with poor communications and no way to transport bulk goods cheaply, making nearly all commerce local.

It is an extraordinary idea to think that a document for governing such a nation at such a time would be, without modification, perfectly appropriate for a nation with 78 times as many people, vastly more territory, enmeshed in vast worldwide trade networks (including shipping in about half the oil we use from abroad), linked nearly instantly to a global communications network, dealing with a nation now embracing a multitude of religions (and nonreligions) and races and cultures.

Honestly, it's amazing that the Constitution works at all. But anyone who studies current events should realize that much of it is obsolete.

I believe that's exactly what any transplanted Founders would say today. They'd see our clinging to it as being as anachronistic as if they themselves had clung to the Magna Carta--another brilliant document for its day. And its deification is part and parcel of the tribalization of the GOP. If you don't fall down before these idols (Founders/Constitution/America the Perfect) or even say this document needs revision, they can denounce you as a tribal traitor and thus sidestep an actual debate over political positions they can't defend on their merits.

All of which reinforces my belief that conservatives are indulging en masse in a kind of illusionary nostalgia, while liberals are jonesing for gleaming utopian visions that are equally delusional.

Friday, November 25, 2011

A key goal in politics is to prevent debate

Watch political campaigns closely and you'll see that party leaderships (and their patrons) want people to feel such hostility towards the opposition--people, party, platforms--that they won't even consider anything or anyone in the opposition.

Both party's ideologues always feel this way. The trick is getting people in the middle to feel that way too--enough to get 51% of the voters to vote reflexively.

The GOP has gotten much of the way there with President Obama. Just recently I had a Republican friend with a BA in Political Science tell me that President Obama is a Fascist, citing his "interference" in General Motors "on behalf of the unions" as proof. Another went out of his way to tell me how much he did not like Obama. "At all." I took him to mean that he disapproved of Obama not just as a president but as a person. Yet another--a devout Christian--told me that Obama is not a Christian, despite him saying so explicitly, because of Obama attending the Reverend Wright's church (the one one damned America in one of his speeches).

And then we have the recent spectacle of Michelle Obama and Joe Biden getting booed lustily when they attended a NASCAR race recently.

When President Obama debates Mitt Romney--or whoever-- next year prior to the election, none of these people are going to consider what the President says. They're already made up their minds that everything he says is either a mistake or a lie.

I plan to test my hypothesis by asking all the Republicans I know to tell me something praiseworthy about the President. If they're philosophical Republicans they should start by praising him as a family man, and laud him for his aggressive prosecution of military action against Islamofascists, including killing Bin Ladin. As well as his having appointed a few Republicans in his branch of government (former Secretary of Defense Gates, most notably)--something he's been doing since he was Editor of the Harvard Law Review. They would also laud his giving up smoking.

But if my hypothesis is correct most of them won't be able to think of a thing--despite the fact that when these people were voting for Poppy Bush against Bill Clinton, some of them were telling me that personal character was the key thing to consider, giving Clinton's hound dawg ways.

But now that we have a Democratic President who has been utterly faithful to his first and only wife and a devoted father to his two daughters, personal character has magically become irrelevant.

Which is why debates don't matter much. Not by the time both parties have a candidate at least. Remember, Al Gore won all his debates with Bush II.

The two most dishonest words in politics

When you start a sentence with either "Honestly" or "Frankly," it means you're going to follow up with something not so great about yourself--a confession of some shortcoming or misunderstanding or prediction that turned out to be wrong.

But at least 90% of the time when politicians start a sentence with either word, they're about to "confess" about some shortcoming of their opposition--not themselves. They're bragging or bashing. Never confessing.

Meaning it's not the words "Frankly" or "Honestly" that are so dishonest, but the way politicians misuse them to attack others.

As a Democrat I'd love to believe that mainly Republicans commit this moral and syntactical error.

But frankly I'm not sure.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The real Republican candidate

The Republicans you see in the campaign ads and in the debates don't include the one who will actually become President of the United States if any of these Republican candidates win the election. If any of them do so, the President of the United States will become Grover Norquist. He's the one who makes virtually every Republican member of Congress snap to attention when he enters the room. Not one of these putative candidates commands the devoted attention and slavish obedience that Mr. Norquist commands.

So if a Republican wins, whether it's Romney or Gingrich or Perry or whoever, he'll be the figurehead. Look behind the throne and you'll see Mr. Norquist.


Saturday, November 12, 2011

Can a store clerk shoot and kill a fleeing thief legally?

According to this week's "Dan Rather Reports" on HDNet, 27 states have enacted "Castle Laws" that enable home residents and store clerks to use deadly force to defend themselves. The law was also cited by a Texan who shot two fleeing burglars in the back, killing them. They were unarmed illegal immigrants robbing the man's neighbor's house. No one questions the fact that the police would not have arrived there in time to stop them.

In another case a man stole a 6-pack of beer from a convenience store. The clerk chased him out of the store and shot him to death. The thief we unarmed. The clerk was charged by the DA (because the thief was committing a misdemeanor, not a felony) but acquitted by a jury.

To liberals and conservatives, cases like these are unambiguous.

Liberals would say life is worth more than property, therefore you should only be allowed to use deadly force to defend yourself against certain deadly attack.

Conservatives would say a thief doesn't steal only from his victim--he steals from us all. There is a sociological basis for this thinking, embodied in big cities' "broken windows" policies. That is, the appearance of a breakdown of law and order propagates such a breakdown.

The 6-pack stealing thief was a habitual thief, as even his family admitted. Last July 4 at Lake Tahoe, I was waiting in a long line to use the Port-A-Potties when a couple of young men walked up, used the potties, and strode away, showing their contempt for the rest of us. No cops were there to stop them.

Bus services talk about large numbers of young men who habitually use the buses without paying, daring anyone to object.

Such infractions are even more minor than stealing a 6-pack from a convenience store.

But they engender helpless fury in everyone present who's obeying the rules. And our society isn't about to pay for a cop on every corner.

Most people strongly desire to live in a society where nobody cuts in lines, gets gas then speeds off without paying, and generally treat the rest of us as if the rules we live by don't apply to them.

I'm inclined to agree with the conservatives on this issue. I think minor theft of property and services, like broken windows in big cities, has a disproportionate effect on society.

And to be honest, I don't believe that every single person's life is worth more than someone's property. Every thing people own is generally something they worked for and which has meaning for them beyond its fungible worth. Suppose you had a scrapbook of pictures of your dead parents and no copies (yes, you should have made copies, but you didn't), and someone stole the bag it was in and you never saw it again.

Was that a felony? Nope. But if you cared about your parents, it would have felt like it, and the loss would have echoed around in your head for the rest of your life.

The six pack the clerk shot the guy for stealing was the third such theft in the space of a few weeks. You can't even get cops to come to your store and get a report, or, say, check for fingerprints.

So society as a whole faces the choices of (1) taxing people much more heavily and providing for that policeman on every corner; (2) telling people to suck it up and just endure the decay of our society; (3) enact Castle Laws and thus support vigilantism in the absence of comprehensive policing--also meaning that innocent people will get killed now and then.

For example, a few years ago an old coot shot off his shotgun through his front door because he feared the hooligans outside trying to break in. Turns out it was October 31--Halloween--and they were just trick or treaters that he killed. Not to mention the various times people (mostly old men) have shot their spouses  in the middle of the night when the spouse got up to go to the bathroom and the one in bed mistook the returning mate for a burglar.

So if you support Castle Laws--and I do--you also must accept the fact that there will be tragic incidents like these. And that such laws must be written--and explained to citizens--very clearly, so people don't think the legislator declared open season on anyone passing by that you don't take a shine to.

Note that the first Castle law was in part a response to a previous law in some state that criminalized defending yourself with lethal force unless you could prove that it was as a last resort against a definitive existential threat to your existence.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

states' rights

States' rights is a misnomer. It's really Republican rights--the rights of the minority of Americans who are conservatives to not have their rights swamped by the populous, Democratic-dominated, urban areas.

Yet people continue to talk about this issue as if it has anything to do with states per se. You can see the falsity of this when Republicans get control of Washington, as during the Bush Era. Then they run roughshod over states' rights in their efforts to enact their social agenda.

Which is why we never get anywhere with states' rights issues--because we aren't talking about it honestly. It invites hypocrisy on both sides.

So when urban types say we should abolish the electoral college, rural types naturally bristle. The kind of society they prefer would indeed get dented by liberals' opposed social agenda.

What no one discusses is compromises that would give urban areas somewhat more voting power, yet without removing the imbalance completely.

Thus the real problem with the electoral college is its being coupled with our Winner Take All system, which disenfranchises all conservatives in liberal states and all liberals in conservative states.

Thus if all the states agreed to adopt proportional electoral college representation instead of today's winner take all system, it would preserve today's small state advantage--which they'll never vote to lose, frankly--but would empower the minority conservatives and liberals in all the states, and force the two parties to take them seriously--which they don't today. And it could conceivably happen, because it's truly a nonpartisan structural reform that empowers huge numbers of both conservatives and liberals.

For example, in my state--California--we always vote Blue for the President, representing the vast majority of the state's population. But a third of the state is conservative, and occupy a majority of the eastern 2/3 of the state, away from the coast. This conservative minority simply has no say in who becomes president. The liberal minority of Texas--about a third, I think-is similarly voiceless.

Proportional electoral college representation doesn't advantage either party, yet gives a huge number of Americans much more of a say in national politics.

It's the kind of reform fair-minded liberals, conservatives and moderates should go for. And if we propose things like this we also start to make the political dialog less polarized, which helps with other issues as well.

Nonpartisan redistricting is another. Today redistricting is seen by both parties as a tool for partisan advantage, ruthlessly wielded. Nonpartisan redistricting moves power away from both parties' Washington leadership and back towards the people. That's another nonpartisan reform we should be arguing for--perhaps ahead of more divisive issues.

a constitutional question

Our Constitution is touted as a sacred document that must not be questioned--by those who profit from its current form.

Likewise, those who say anything not explicitly stated by the Constitution is un-constitutional are those who profit (ideologically or financially) from having this be the case. Not because they really think its current formulation is, literally and divnely, perfect.

Consider this: not one word of the Constitution says anything about political parties or corporations--neither of which existed when it was written.

Does this mean both should be banned? Or allowed to exist completely outside our Constitution's framework?

More reasonably, one would think we could use an amendment that explicitly accounts for and regulates the two forces that utterly dominate American politics today.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

China cheats

So now our government has made it official--China's primary source of technology is what it either forces American businesses to give them as a prerequisite for doing business with them--or steals it outright, through a massive, covert, ceaseless cyberwar conducted against us.

As many have known for a long, long time. The real question is what should we do about it? We're in an interesting position since the Republicans financed two wars and huge giveaways to the richest Americans by borrowing from the Chinese (and others--but the Chinese have a huge share).

We could mount a cyberwar to steal technology from the Chinese, but the reason they're stealing so much of ours is that theirs sucks. Of course we should invest massively in countermeasures, but should we do anything besides trying to build higher, better walls?

And if we do, what would be proportionate?

A start might be to revisit the treaty with Taiwan that Nixon abrogated in his efforts to suck up to the People's Republic.Of course at that time Chiang Kai Shek's government claimed sovereignty over mainland China, basically saying everyone had to choose between recognizing the PRC or Taiwan. Well, that was idiotic to be sure. But now Taiwan claims no such thing. At the same time its government is playing footsy with China and Chinese and Taiwanese business interests have become entwined, so it's not a simple situation. But just restoring our formerly close relationship with Taiwan would be a tiny start at reigning in China's imperial ambitions and rampant theft of American intellectual property.

Note that the second biggest cyberthief of American IP is Russia. No surprise there either. Here again the trick is a proportionate response. After all, we can't even get an astronaut into space without going to the Russians hat in hand, due to our Republican government of 2000-2008 tossing our manned space program under the bus.

But I wonder if a covert op would be possible that ground Russian Internet access to a crawl as long as Russia's rulers continue behaving like a crime family posing as a government?

One principle I am sure of: governments should never complain about anything they aren't prepared to do something about. I look forward to seeing what the current administration does about these two thieving countries.

Republican politicians don't believe in up or down votes

Both parties have been known to block legislation and appointments by preventing bills and nominations from coming to the floor for a vote. This is perfectly legal in our primitive system of government--and by "primitive" I mean the same thing as was true of American TV signals before we adopted digital transmission: as the first TV country we had the best signal available at the time--but the PAL standard adopted by other countries later was much higher resolution (ditto France's SECAM).

Likewise, our democracy has the lower resolution of early TV, with a lot of mechanisms well suited to a rural economy in the horse and buggy days, but unable to act decisively when the minority party chooses to gum up the works.

The Republicans have gone so far as to say "majority" means "60%"--something that would dumbfound the Founding Father, since the need for minority consent to do anything is simply minority rule.

And they have blocked so many pieces of legislation and nominations as to make it the default now.

To the extent that both major parties keep legislation and nominations from coming to a vote they oppose democracy and seek to impose their will on the American people when the ballot box doesn't support them.

Minorities have important rights in any real democracy. But control of government shouldn't be one of them.

Bali says Hi!

Want to visit a foreign land that welcomes Americans--and not just for our $$$? Visit Bali, which, having had its economy also damaged (far more than ours) by Islamofascist mass murderers, regards Americans as brothers in arms. They also appreciate the fact that, unlike so many Europeans and Chinese, we don't talk down to them.

This was our 6th visit to Bali, and it was wonderful--apart from the nearly empty mosque nearby blaring out its harangues at astonishing volumes from before dawn to late at night. The Balinese Muslims who've been there for a while have been as friendly as the Hindu majority. But the outsiders from Java buying up land, building mosques, then using them to dominate the acoustic landscape at all hours are something else.

And they're typical of Islamic authorities in my experience traveling abroad. It was especially interesting because while there are increasing numbers of Javanese Muslims streaming into Bali in hopes of cashing in on Bali's tourist trade, the local mosque really was an empty shell with giant loudspeakers.

I don't think American mosques are hotbeds of terrorism. Most Muslims who immigrate to America are better educated and we assimilate them more than the Europeans do. But I know all of them would mount the giant loudspeakers given half a chance--a practice not mentioned in the Koran BTW.

That's what we need--strict enforcement of noise ordinances. I'd feel the same way about church bells if they started before dawn and were amplified like the mosques' harangues are. But they don't and they aren't.

So when mosques come up, be sure to raise the noise issue. Anyone who's traveled in Muslim lands will know what I mean.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

What the Amanda Knox case reveals

Bigotry is part of every culture--America of course, and, as the Amanda Knox case confirms, Italy. Along with the way in which power corrupts, sexism, the human failing of confirmation bias, and the way in which institutions formed to serve noble goals gradually morph into self-serving institutions.

It's not just that Amanda Knox is innocent. It's that she should never have been accused, much less tried, much less convicted, much less imprisoned for four years. The murderer was Rudy Guede, an African-Italian drifter. He cut a deal with the Italian prosecutor to get his sentence reduced from 30 years to 16 in exchange for fingering Knox and her boyfriend.

This benefited the prosecutor, giving him the fame that a simple murder by a rapist from Africa wouldn't have given him. The prosecutor got to exploit anti-American sentiment, as well as Italian madonna/whore misogyny, combining to let him exploit the prurient vilifying of an American woman having sex with an Italian man outside the sacred circle of marriage.

American prosecutors in the 1980s did the same thing with all those satanic child rape & murder cults using daycare centers as a front, sending dozens of men and women to prison for decades--and every single one of which turned out to be, like Amanda Knox's case, not just false but heinous abuses of power by the State, in the form of prosecutors looking for re-election as being tough on crime + as a stepping-stone to higher office.

American prosecutors have almost unanimously fought DNA testing for inmates they'd prosecuted. And in Amanda Knox's case, the prosecutor is of course not admitting his perversions of justice, but is instead appealing Knox's reversal of conviction to Italy's supreme court.

And if I'd written this in Italy, he would almost certainly prosecute me for the felony of defaming his character--law in many countries (and routinely used in putative democracies like Turkey to suppress criticism of government).

Meanwhile the Kerchner family (parents/siblings of the murder victim) continue to imply that Knox done it--and continue to not revile the Italian prosecutor for cutting Kerchner's murderer's sentence almost in half, instead of demanding that Guede be tried now for perjury. They should have been standing shoulder to shoulder with the Knox family as soon as the DNA research (done at the instigation of the Knox family, not the Italians) made it clear that Knox couldn't have done it, despite her coerced confession.

But here we have confirmation bias at work, in which you magnify everything that supports your foregone conclusion, while minifying/dismissing anything that contradicts it. Of course it's not just the Kerchners. It's also how eye witnesses so frequently finger the wrong person; why doctors misdiagnose patients; why cops jump to conclusions and then ignore everyone/everything else.

Finally, confirmation bias colludes with another human foible--self-confidence that vastly exceeds the certainly that the real evidence allows us to have, because we like to be certain and we like to be right.

Italy has a long way to go to redeem itself. Firing this prosecutor for incompetence would be a start.

What do you think are the odds?

Friday, September 30, 2011

How to tell how decisive a leader any American president is

American presidents are, legally, America's COO (Chief Operating Officer). That is, someone empowered with carrying out the laws--particularly on spending--enacted by Congress. He can't even put legislation in front of Congress--a Congressman has to do that. He can veto legislation, but it can be overcome by a supemajority of Congressmen.

And the rules of Congress are designed currently so that a minority of the Senate can block legislation and nominations, and even a majority of Senators could easily represent a minority of Americans.

Thus the Republicans' 109th Congress (2005-2007) had a Senate Republican majority of 55%, yet it represented only around 48% of Americans--a minority majority, due to the Republicans' domination of the more backward, small, rural states.

So it's hard to judge the leadership of an American president by his domestic accomplishments, while his more unfettered international scope shows us what he could do domestically under a parliamentary system--the form of government of all the countries with a AAA rating from all three American economic rating agencies.

Even when a president has majorities in both houses of Congress, he can still be hamstrung by an obstructionist minority in the Senate--something that doesn't happen in countries with parliamentary systems, where the head of government is by definition the head of whatever party dominates the legislature, and our quaint rules don't apply. There they need 51% of the votes. Here we need at least 61%--nearly impossible to achieve in a country as evenly divided as we are, and only approachable when one party's gross malfeasance comes to light and is rejected.

And in foreign policy President Obama has been surehanded and decisive--and a coalition-builder instead of a cowboy. The killing of Al-Aliki in Yemen today is just the latest example.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

It costs more to have private sector employees do government work--even though they make less

Federal employees make an average of 20% more than comparable private sector employees. Yet it costs more to have those private sector employees do work for the government. The reason: the government hires those lower-wage workers via middlemen--contractors--and when you add in the middleman's cut, it's almost always a lot more expensive.

This is a perfect example of how pols can lie with the truth--by omitting the context that proves the opposite.

At the same time this isn't a justification for government workers making more than private sector workers. In fact they should make less, to compensate for their higher security. Except now with rampant government worker layoffs mandated by Republinomics, the old "less pay for more security" equation is breaking down.

So if we do bring government worker compensation down we have to restore public sector job security--which makes sense to me. Both parts.

Meanwhile at the state and local level, the pension time bombs tick away, threatening to bankrupt cities and counties. It's a pity the GOP has a valid issue here--and that their real reason for pursuing this is to kill off a prime source of Democratic party funding-- but nobody should ever have believed that all goodness (or badness) reposes on either side of the fence.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

How to hide big government spending

Both parties--but especially the Republicans--have discovered a surefire way to hide humongous amounts of taxing and spending (if they're Democrats) or borrowing and spending (if they're Republicans): use contractors; and make it Secret.

Private contractors cost taxpayers 2 to 3 times as much as government employees doing the same thing, and once the ball's rolling, the private contractors can and will lure away the government employees who are left doing what they do, then flood Congress with lobbyists to divert even more tax dollars away from cheap public employees to expensive private ones.

Which is fine if all public employees are slackers and all private employees are hardworking and talented and devoted to doing a good job.You've always gotten great products and services from for-profit companies...right?

Plus if the work is classified secret, who's to know whether the contractors (and subcontractors and sub-subcontracotrs) are doing a good job? In which case the proper profit motive is served by getting as much for as little as possible (once you've made sure oversight is either suborned or missing).

Because the profit motive is amoral--something a lot of Bible-thumping Republicans seem to have forgotten. Not immoral, as some Leftists believe. Just amoral. Meaning that without effective oversight, capitalism naturally morphs into crony capitalism. Just as unchecked socialism morphs into...well, pretty much the same thing, doesn't it?

Thursday, September 15, 2011


The cleverest liars tell the truth--they just tell it in such as way as to get listeners to believe the lie they want you to believe.

This gives them "plausible deniability."

They do it by
1. removing context--omitting other truths--facts, reason--that would lead listeners to a different conclusion
2. trying to trigger powerful tribal fears and anger that lead listeners to an embattled "circle the wagons" mentality
3. exploiting people's inability to understand statistics (also known as innumeracy)

Examples are innumerable. A good way to find them is by going to or and see where the liar didn't so much lie as pull the shenanigans I've described here.

You can't stop with simply checking the factuality of what is said. That the bottom line. You also have to make sure that the facts being cited are true in context, and aren't coupled with emotionally compelling narratives that lead listeners down the rabbit hole.

"Context disambiguates."

Perfect example this week. FOX TV saturated its coverage this week with a clip of President Obama saying "If you love me, pass this bill."

Well. What an egomaniac, huh?

Only problem is all those Fox viewers didn't get the context: Obama was giving an unscripted answer to someone in the town hall audience he was addressing, who shouted out "I love you!"

See? Without context: egomaniac; with context: clever off-the-cuff answer.

It's all about context. And the fact that clever propagandists don't hesistate to lie with the truth.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Debt and infrastructure

It's conservative to avoid debt and to pay any debts you do have. It's liberal to finance one's goals with debt. And it's foolish to finance optional luxuries with debt. Maybe.

Of course if this is true, every family that purchased a home with a mortgage is liberal. If they were truly conservative they'd save until they had the cash for the price.

Precious few do, making them conservatives when it suits them, but not conservative as a hard and fast principle.

Likewise, the average corporate CEO is aggressively conservative. Yet what large, successful business hasn't financed growth with debt? What do you think stocks and bonds are? What do you think the Wall Street Stock Exchange is?

What I observed over 20 years of reporting on Silicon Valley companies is that the successful startups didn't use their venture capital borrowing to pay for fabulous offices, cars and perks for the management suite. They used that debt to buy company infrastructure, marketing, R&D.

But even when it comes to luxuries, suppose you discover your spouse has an incurable, mortal illness but is currently well enough to travel. Would you take out a second mortgage to take your spouse on his or her dream vacation? Or would you refuse, proudly citing conservative principles?

And how do you know your spouse doesn't have an undiagnosed cancer that, when you discover it, it will be too late for that vacation? This actually happened to our next door neighbors, such that their lifetime of scrimping and saving for world-traveling retirement years came to nothing. The husband spent the last year of his life in a hospital bed, waiting for a heart transplant that never came.

The fact is that reasonable people--and corporations--see debt as a tool that can be used or misused. Not as something that's automatically bad or good.

And one form of debt businesses and government incur that's not so obvious is infrastructure maintenance and repair.

In general this is a form of debt that can be hidden--yet failure to deal with it on a timely basis creates a balloon payment at the end.

Maintenance deferred is debt compounded.

For example, suppose a condo complex doesn['t meet current earthquake retrofit standards--it's built over garages and needs reinforcing that will cost $9,000 per unit. If this isn't done, after a significant earthquake doing the repairs at that point will cost six times as much--possible a lot more--perhaps accompanied by loss of life and irreplaceable possessions that can't be priced.

Our nation's infrastructure has maintenance needs that have been sacrificed for decades to the insistence on low taxes and the ballooning outlays for public employee pension plans that were implemented without being funded.

So that unmaintained bridge collapses in rush hour traffic, killing half a dozen people and maiming others, and must be rebuilt from scratch instead of being repaired. The dam fails. The potholed streets and freeways damage car and truck undercarriages and/or just wears them out prematurely, which individuals and companies have to pay for, thus passing the expense of those saved taxes to consumers and businesses on the downlow.

 It's called being penny wise and pount foolish.

So when the President calls on the legislature to fund infrastructure maintenance, he's not calling to increase our debt--he's calling on us to pay debts we incurred when we built that infrastructure--and he's calling on the legislature to pay that debt with borrowing and/or taxing instead of incurring vastly higher debt by waiting for damaging deterioration and collapse to take place.

It is conservative to pay what you owe. And unless we're willing to do without those roads and bridges and dams and more, we owe the nation the maintenance of its infrastructure.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Why both the Left and Right are Wrong about Obama--and in the same Way

Opinion polls for President Obama are down--down enough to make his re-election seem unlikely.

But when the polls just ask whether people are satisfied with his actions, they conflate people who are dissatisfied because he's a Socialist with people who are dissatisfied because he's a Corporatist.

That is, the Left in general are unhappy because he isn't opposing the Republican Party enough,
while the Right is unhappy because he isn't surrendering to the Republican Party totally.

Lumping those two kind of unhappiness together leads to a severe misunderstanding of what the polls point towards in the next election, and to what the electorate is thinking now.

And the unhappiness with President Obama from both Left and Right stems--at least in part--from the unconscious belief that President = Ruler.

And though he has the bully pulpit to be sure, but in terms of actual power he's more like the chief administrator of the country. He can't pass legislation. He can't even initiate legislation. He can't overrule judges. And in our particular country, even if all congressional Democrats always do everything he asks of them, Senate rules in particular make it possible for a Republican minority there to make the Federal government incapable of sending any legislation to President Obama's desk, and incapable of confirming any presidential appointees, producing a hogtied government that lives down to Republican claims that government can't do anything.

An American president only wields the kind of power people think he had when his party isn't just in a majority in both houses, but which has 61 votes in the Senate that can always be relied on (difficult to maintain with senators in battleground states whose seats are vulnerable), and which has a Supreme Court majority that can generally be relied on. Bush II pretty much had that for most of his disastrous reign. Obama never did, and even during the four months he had a nominally filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, he was being forced to deal with the economic crisis the Republicans handed him (and then tried to blame him for), and with the fact that they proved willing to cripple the country through routine obstructionism for political gain.

It was like seeing two boxers fighting but each under different rules, one willing to hit below the belt and bite and kick, the other not.

These are all process observations which you can evaluate regardless of the actual policies involved.

The bottom line is that ideologues don't think about policy, they think about personality. Right wing ideologues call Obama a Socialist, which is beyond ridiculous, but they don't really mean they think he really wants a Soviet States of America. They clearly don't understand what the word means, or that every single person in America who does say he's a Socialist also says Obama is not remotely one of them. Mainly they use the word because they associate it with opprobrium, making it more like a junior high school schoolyard taunt than a serious political statement.

And left wing ideologues call him a Corporatist because, just like their right wing brothers in thought, they see things in black & white. So for them centrists like Obama are seen either as one thing or another, or as confused.

They're shades of gray-blind.

Friday, September 2, 2011

How is India a more advanced nation than America?

India is busily implementing a biometric universal ID, and we aren't even thinking about it.

From Wikipedia:

"Aadhaar is a 12-digit unique number which the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) will issue for all residents in India. The number will be stored in a centralized database and linked to the basic demographics and biometric information – photograph, ten fingerprints and iris – of each individual.It is easily verifiable in an online, cost-effective way. So also, it is unique and robust enough to eliminate the large number of duplicate and fake identities in government and private databases The random number generated will be devoid of any classification based on caste, creed, religion and geography."

Upon completion it will cost, by varying estimates, $6-34B.

We need this even more than India. But it's being blocked by both leftists and rightists, who are certain that a universal ID will be immediately followed by the black UN helicopters swooping down to castrate our men and impregnate our wimmen.

It's ironic, really. The exact same people who claim that illegal immigration is a huge, huge problem are the ones who oppose a universal biometric ID the most.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

10 years after 9/11

On 9/11 the NYPD and Fire Dept couldn't communicate with each other. Today, all over America, we still don't have full communications interoperability at federal/state/local levels. The Republican Congress handed out the 9/11 largesse to the states with no strings attached, as a tribute to states' rights. So a dirty nuke in a van goes off in Washington  DC and affects five states--and we'll get the same lack of coordination.

So they made sure the Federal Gummint stayed out of the way. And it's still out of the way. Why do people think this is a good thing?

Who loves overpopulation? Liberals...and Conservatives.

Here's a summary of both sides' discussion of overpopulation in the last 10 or so national elections:


So it's not a problem, right? There's plenty of room for everyone! Come on down!

After all, if you fly over America, you see gobs of open space. Food is plentiful and relatively cheap, ditto water. What's the problem?

The alternative explanation is that it is a problem but it's not one that can be exploited for partisan advantage, because both sides have so much to lose from admitting what a problem it is.

Liberals used to say overpopulation was a big problem, but in the 1970s racialists told liberals they were racists if they complained about overpopulation, so that was the end of liberal opposition to overpopulation..

Moreover, a growing population is good for business--for union members in the building trades especially.

And Catholics and members of most other religions (regardless of party affiliation) believe in placing no restrictions on population growth. Hence the constant complaints by the American government--regardless of which party's in power--to China about its One Child policy.

Which leads to conservative opposition to even admitting that any country anywhere has an overpopulation problem.

First, it's religious. Second, it's business. The developers those union tradesmen work for love more population. And if anyone who opposes conservatives raises the issue, they love to brand that person a racist, since it gives cover to the racism that persists in the hearts of so many conservatives.

Recently the economic conservative publication The Economist editorialized in favor of population growth at a means of coping with the graying of advanced nation populations--without even considering the cataststrophic consequences of human overpopulation.

Overpopulation denial isn't just a national policy problem. Here in California the state legislature is firmly in the New Urbanist camp. New Urbanism is a movement that ostensibly seeks to remediate urban sprawl and energy-intensive long commutes by building up housing in urban areas and guaranteeing low income housing by requiring developers to include same in their projects as an unfunded mandate.

And the New Urbanism takes rapid, continual, unlimited population growth not just as a given, but as a Good Thing, since it adds jobs for unskilled laborers.

Consequently my state's legislature has created a regional organization called ABAG (Association of Bay Area Governments) dedicated to achieving the goals of New Urbanism.

It has found the college town I live in guilty of providing too many jobs--a terrible crime in the New Urbanism bible, apparently, because we provide more jobs than housing. So we're being required to cram more and more housing into the town, mainly through eliminated the kind of retail and office space that provided those extra jobs in the first place, and replacing them with high density housing, which then loads our streets with more traffic than they were designed for, and can't be widened, because the town it totally built up already.

It's also loading up our schools with more kids than they can accommodate, and our sewer systems, and power systems, and overburdening road repair schedules.

Plus our town, like most American cities, is having to pay out more and more money for lavish city worker pensions, causing it to skimp on infrastructure maintenance, even though that greatly increases the cost of maintenance when it's finally done.

All because no one in either party will even say the "O" word, much less admit the drastic steps that should be taken to deal with it.

Here, instead of adding housing, we should impose a moratorium on additional housing by denying water permits for it.

Nothing in the Constitution mandates accommodating limitless population growth by states, counties, or cities.

But the real problem is that dealing with overpopulation realistically goes against our instincts, which formed when the human race numbered a few thousand people, and the urge to procreate needed to be overwhelming. And we also have an instinct to trust our other instincts--that is, to be uncritical about them and highly suspicious of anyone who says things that go against them.

So it's easy for demagogues to use our instincts to further their goals, even though many of our instincts don't match our current circumstances.

Try bringing up overpopulation with people you know, and you'll see how their Procreate! Procreate! instincts kick in the moment you bring up the issue. 


Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Why are people so scientifically illiterate?

We may be so scientifically illiterate in part because we're not as smart as we used to be.

I read an article recently--in Scientific American I think--summarizing paleontology research that discovered that our brain size has actually shrunk since we adopted agriculture around 10,000 years ago.

No one knows why exactly but my hypothesis is that we needed to be smarter as hunters & gatherers than we needed to be as farmers, and our large brain size kills women, so it's actually advantageous to have our brains as small as possible (and yet maintain the advantages a human brain confers).

It kills women because if it were any larger women wouldn't be able to walk using inverse brachiation (the way gibbons swing through trees, only upside down), but it can't be any smaller without losing brain capacity, since it has to be developed in utero (which is, incidentially, why marsupials are, as a group, as dumb as a box o' rocks).

Also, since the invention of birth control and women's rights (not really possible until we developed the technology needed to let them have fewer kids and not die in childbirth when they did), the smarter the parents, the fewer the children overall.

For one case in point, look at people's frequently simple-minded reactions to America's current economic situation.

It's not their fault, however. We didn't evolve to deal with such numerically complex problems, and a number of brain heuristics (detailed in several books by cognitive psychologists) actively skew our understanding, just to make things even worse.

For one example, take Baye's Law (named after the Reverend Bayes who first formulated it), whose mathematics I certainly don't understand, except that it lets scientists and engineers evaluate probability when two different probabilities apply. Instead of merging the probabilities proportionately, most people just throw one out, in a form of target fixation.

To really understand current economics and how national policy has to juggle issues like debt, unemployment, immigration, public health, city planning, military spending/technology/deployment, fisheries management, agricultural subsidies and more, most people go into what programmers might call a stack overflow condition. So they just focus on one or two things.

Currently the Republican mantra is debt--as if that's the most important problem we face (it's not, huge as it is--unemployment is bigger, and overpopulation/permanent natural resource degradation even worse). It's easy to describe in bumper sticker slogans, and it helps with the real agenda of the GOP's paymasters: to stop government regulation in every way possible, thus by focusing exclusively on debt/spending, they can defund government agencies that try to limit corporate rapacity. But that's not what's said. What's said tries to pretend that the federal government of the biggest economy in the history of the planet can be governed by the same principles and platitudes used by individual familes.

This really reflects not just the scientific illiteracy of the citizenry, but the inability of most citizens to admit that they don't understand it. Instead they turn to bumper sticker slogans used like tribal chants (and I have seen the Democrats go tribal on us as well--particularly with illegal immigration), because it's emasculating to admit that you don't, can't, and never will understand how the U.S. federal government manages its spending and priorities.

And the unwillingness to admit one is over one's head leads to mental shortcuts and not doing the hard work needed to get anything like a handle on the situation. It also leads to anti-intellectualism, since intellectuals/scientists keep saying complicated things. Better to deny such people's worth than to accept their conclusions, which are so unpalatable, and getting moreso every day.

Cassandra was cursed by a god to always predict correctly--and never to be believed.

Scientists can relate.

For example, I live in a condo complex with most buildings built over garages. It doesn't meet modern earthquake retrofit standards. Yet we just lost a vote to spend about $9K a unit to apply a proper retrofit.

The retrofit was opposed fiercely by a group of Russian immigrant families who believed it was all a scam--that our Board was in cahoots with the engineering firm. Some of them are even engineers (though not in structural engineering or earthquake retrofits). But they still opposed it. We're 10 miles from the Hayward Fault, which has generated a 6.8+ earthquake every 140 years or so for many thousands of years. It's now been 143 years since the last one.

And they voted in a bloc against the retrofit, and went door to door around the complex lobbying people, telling their conspiracy theories and being 100% certain that their layman's understanding of the probabilities and dangers was far more valid than a bunch structural engineers with decades of experience in earthquake retrofits.

So we're not just up against scientific illiteracy. We're up against the average person's belief that their know better than the experts.

Same goes for the insanity of parents preventing their kids from being vaccinated, even though the claim that it leads to autism is complete nonsense. And these parents--some with liberal arts BAs--will sit there and say, smugly, "I know what I know."

Only they don't. And they can't learn what they don't know because they deny that they don't know it.

People love science and scientists until they hear things they don't want to hear. Then we get self-confident dim bulbs like Governor Perry ascribing the 98% agreement of climate scientists on human-caused global warming to a vast international conspiracy of those scientists to get grant money.

And a majority of Americans appear to believe Perry...

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

How are Tea Party types like the Japanese military in WWII??

I've been reading comment threads on op-ed pieces in the Washington Post. Many comments, coming from  the far right wing of the right wing, remind me of something I read in John Toland's "The Rising Sun," the definitive account of the Japanese in WWII.

After Hiroshima got nuked, a majority of the high command rationalized it away and refused to surrender. And then, even after Nagasaki got nuked as well, when they realized the jig was up, not only did many stiff oppose surrendering--a group of junior officers led a coup attempt to prevent the Emperor's surrender message from being broadcast.

All of these people considered themselves the truest of the true patriots....people who loved their country and their Emperor more than life itself (when the coup failed, a number of them committed hara-kiri).

Yet this group of people betrayed Japan when they led it down the warpath, betrayed it when they attacked America, betrayed it when they tried to prevent Japan from surrendering--and came horrifyingly close to preventing Japan from surrendering (i.e. compromising in any way), even after Nagasaki.

Nations can be betrayed by intentional traitors, selling our their country for money or an ideology that leads them to hate their own country. I have known left wingers like that, to be honest.

But nations can also be betrayed by people who would never dream of intentionally betraying their country...who see themselves as patriotic to their bones...and who see all who disagree with them as traitors.

And one of the great ironies of history is how often such people have brought their nations to ruin.

During the Vietnam war, there were Americans who watched and read the forced confessions of POWs and told the North Vietnamese when the POWs included coded messages Americans would recognize but North Vietnamese would not.

Those were intentional traitors, and they were responsible for suffering and even deaths of Americans.

Then you have JFK, Johnson, Nixon and McNamara--patriots all. Yet in the scathing military analysis of the Vietnam war conducted at the behest of the American College of War by Col. Harry G. Summers, "On Strategy," Summers shows how profoundly those patriotic leaders harmed America--and killed vastly more Americans--than the handful of intentional leftist traitors accomplished.

So yes, there are leftists who really, truly hate America, and who do what they can to harm it. There are also people who may or may not hate America, but who certainly place their ethnic group's advancement far over that of our nation.

But when it comes to harming America, they're pikers compared to today's equivalent of Johnson/Nixon/McNamara; namely Bush II, Cheney, Rumsfeld et al.

The judgment of history is already coming in. America's hundreds of presidential historians are polled every few years on how they'd rank America's presidents. The last one, conducted in 2010, ranked Bush II 6th from the bottom (Obama ranked 15, well below Eisenhower & FDR, but 2 up from Reagan).

Friday, August 26, 2011

[fill in name of Democratic president/candidate] is weak, indecisive, phony

The Washington Post's "Right Turn" columnist Jennifer Rubin wrote an entry comparing President Obama invidiously with Steve Jobs. I wrote this:

Assume, for the sake of argument, that Jennifer Rubin's regurgitation of Republican National Committee talking points is entirely correct. And that, with the benefit of the RNC's hindsight, we got to vote in the 2008 presidential election again.

I'd still have voted for Barack Obama.

Because in an American presidential election, you aren't voting for or against someone. You're choosing between 2 pairs of people.

And that choice was & still is far from difficult, since 1 of 1 of the pairs was Sarah Palin, AKA Governor Quitter--since, to be fair, I'd have hindsight about all 4 of them, right? To have 1 of the oldest presidents in American history with Palin a heartbeat away dwarfs the RNC/Rubin's talking points.

You don't have to a liberal to reach that conclusion. Palin is, was, & always will be, intellectually, temperamentally, and experientially unqualified to be President. Biden is. Obama is. And McCain was, I thought, until he chose Palin as his running mate.

American presidential historians--100s of them, both liberal & conservative--are polled periodically on how they'd rank the presidents. Last time was last year, & in it President Obama ranked 15, Reagan 17, & Bush II was 6th from the bottom. There were both Republican & Democratic presidents who ranked higher than Obama & lower than Bush II.

And if the historians were the cabal of Libruls that the Republicans would have us believe, Obama would have ranked higher & Reagan lower.

What this article shows is yet another example of how Republicans respect leaders with self confidence--as Bush II, McCain, Palin & current lead contender Rick Perry all have in spades.

But I thought it was Republicans who decried the Self Esteem movement--who said self esteem should be the product of achievement, not esteem for its own sake.

Frankly, I'd rather have a weak leader who understands the job than a bold, decisive halfwit. Naming no names...

BTW have you noticed that the Republicans ALWAYS describe every Democratic presidential candidate as weak & indecisive? And then they trot out their Man on a Horse, Perry being the latest--a man with the rugged good looks & breadth of intellect of Warren G. Harding.

Obama the weak & indecisive...the only president to achieve any kind of healthcare reform, no matter how mild, in 100 years. The man on whose watch we nailed the guy Bush II lets slip through his fingers. The guy who authorized the Navy to take out the trio of Somali pirates who were holding an American ship captain hostage. The man who has authorized vastly more UAV attacks--& successful ones--on our enemies than Bush dreamed of. The man who deported far more illegals than Bush did. And who helped take down Qaddafi without any American casualties.

The Left's main complaint is that he's too conservative. Takes chutzpah for Rubin to diss that.

He's not the best prez I could imagine. Just head and shoulders above his Republican alternatives, past and present. 


I should add that he showed effective leadership in the Libyan actions, which no Republican pol will give him credit for.

You can't prove humans change climate if you can't measure it

One prong of the Republican war on science was the Bush administration drastically reducing the budget for Earth-watching satellites. The ones up now are living on borrowed time and not being replaced, except for a minimal complement, which won't be watching climate change--just here-and-now weather.

So even if we put up new ones, say, a decade from now, the continuity of observation will be broken.

It may happen that the late 20th century was in some ways the pinnacle of human scientific observation.

Think about this the next time you hear the science deniers ranting.

Thursday, August 25, 2011


December 2010 Gallup poll, accurate to plus/minus 4%:

God created humans in present form             40%
Humans evolved with God guiding                  38%
     subtotal: 78%
Humans evolved, no involvement by God   16%
     subtotal going the other way: 54%

This came up yesterday after leading GOP presidential contender Rick Perry told Christian Fundamentalists he was one of them, using the coded language fundamentalists employ to communicate in public without everyone else quite realizing what's going on.

President Bush II did the same thing BTW. The difference being that Bush II probably didn't mean it as sincerely as Governor Perry does.

 Egypt's nascent democracy is threatened by the Muslim Brotherhood. Our established democracy is threatened by people who are working just as hard here to turn back the clock.

But the use of coded language gives the fundamentalist politicians "plausible deniability." So we have to hope reporters nail down Governor Perry and don't let him get away with communicating in code.

Here the code is saying that "evolution has problems" and is "just a theory" and Creationism is another theory, so both should be taught in science classes, enabling students to think for themselves.

Exactly as modern astronomy is just a theory, and the terracentric universe with Ptolomeian epicycles should be taught alongside it.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Obama has failed!....Really?

One Republican leitmotif, hammered on day in, day out, is that President Obama's policies have failed.

This ploy uses the assumed comparison.

That is, "failed" compared to what? Compared to the boom years of the Roaring 90s, sure, OK.

But that wasn't a possibility. The fact is that unless you state what you think a politician has failed compared to, you're blowin' smoke.

It's possible that Obama has failed to make America an economic paradise. However, it's also possible that despite our persistent unemployment, America is doing vastly better than it would have otherwise. What critiques of Obama's handling of the economy never prove is just what the alternative that he's being compared to, and how it would have been better.

Here's one way of looking at it: what is considered the safest place to put your cash today, worldwide?

US. Treasury bonds, that's what. S&P notwithstanding.

But also, it's not like Obama is our reigning monarch, or even prime minister. Even when he presided over a Democratic House and Senate, he still couldn't get his way without severe compromises, because Senate rules let a tiny minority stop everything unless your side can muster not a majority but a supermajority, and even if you have a nominal supermajority, one or two defections of senators in opposite-color states may well vote to save their hides instead of supporting their side.

And if Obama doesn't have full control of the levers of American government, he has even less control over the world economy we're inextricably bound to. So economic tumult abroad--such as the Arab spring sending gas prices soaring, sending ripples through the American economy every whichway--is entirely out of the American president's control.

This is why NYtimes columnist Tom Friendman is now arguing for a prime minister form of government for America--because ruthless exploitation of our system of checks and balances, starting with exquisite gerrymandering of congressional districts, has meant that neither party can be held fully responsible for what happens on its watch. It can always claim obstructionism by the other side, and it's often right. Both ways.

In a PM system one side can take us down the wrong direction rapidly, but at least you will know who did it--there's no evading the buck when it stops at the PM's desk. And if we don't like it we voters can then throw the bums out,.

Now both sides always have plausible deniability.

Just as the Second Amendment made sense for muskets but not for shoulder-mounted stingers and AK-47s, it may be that the beautiful mechanisms the Founding Fathers constructed don't work as intended any more, and will have to be drastically modified.

The irony is that it's the people who claim to be following the Founding Fathers' words and intentions most strictly who have brought us to this pass--who have done the most to break the very system they say they revere, not by the specifics of the policies they advocate, but by their unrestrained exploitation of every trick in the rulebook to effectively overturn the results of the last election.

And the measure of a democracy is what the side that loses the election  does after that loss. Obama is the president, not Grover Norquist. Not until 2012 at least.

Let's get immigrants who actually like this country. Just a thought.

[based on reportage in the LA times]

...and then there's the June soccer match at the Rose Bowl, between the US and Mexico. Both teams played with good sportsmanship. But the 80% Mexican (many with American citizenship, surely) spectators loudly booed the playing of the American national anthem, loudly booed the American team whenever it had the ball, and chanted obscenities at the American point guard. And then the award ceremony--at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena--was conducted in Spanish, just to complete the picture.

This was no fluke. A large Mexican crowd was even more boorish at the 2005 World Cup qualifier with America. In fact, there they even threw containers filled with urine at the American players.

I just wish all the enthusiastic advocates for illegal immigration had been there. Though no doubt they'd have figured out a way to blame America and Americans for it, now that I think about it.

It's hard to imagine how American attendees at these matches would have left with more warmth in their hearts for our southern neighbors. 

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Jobs and immigration

Right now at least 14 million Americans are out of work, and at least half of them have been looking for over a year without landing anything. Countless more are underemployed--working below their training or at part time jobs when they want full time ones.

So in this environment, why are we allowing any immigration at all, except in job categories where we can't find enough Americans--mostly in areas requiring high levels of training/talent? I can see allowing such people to immigrate, and bring with them spouses and children they're willing to support. But why are we allowing any other kind of immigration until those 14 million Americans are employed (minus the ones who are total loo-hoosers)?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Can he get reelected?

President Obama's like the guy who goes camping in Alaska with another guy, and one night a grizzly bear sticks his head in the tent, roaring, and Obama starts putting on his tennies, and the other say sez "Why are you putting your shoes on? You can't outrun a grizzly." And Obama replies "I don't have to outrun the grizzly..."

In polls, Obama loses to a generic Republican opponent. But he wins compared to every actual candidate.

And remember the propensity of Americans who are independent (36& of the electorate) to vote for a candidate of the opposite party to whichever one controls the legislature.

Honestly, at this point none of President Obama's initiatives matter, because we all know the Republicans will nix every single one of them. All he can do is stop the Republicans from handing us the fiscal and national disaster that they inflicted on us last time around.

So what matters is his veto pen. And even if he wields that half-heartedly, it will beat a GOP president's rubber stamp of anything a GOP legislature does.

And the president during the next term will almost certainly be nominating one or more Supreme Court justices, replacing one of the remaining aging liberals. The conservatives are mostly younger and healthier.
And given the one-sidedly corporatist tilt of the court, that will matter to independents.

Lastly, the association of American presidential scholars rated Obama #15 of all presidents--below Republicans like Eisenhower, Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt, but vastly above Bush II (6th from the absolute bottom) and slightly above Reagan (#17). So we could do a lot worse--like Governor Perry, whose handsome, presidential facade and interaural vacuum remind one of Warren G. Harding...or Governor Romney, who never met a principle he wouldn't abandon for electoral advantage....

Why no bankers in jail?

In the savings & loan industry crisis there were around 1,000 felony convictions. In the mortgage/banking meltdown--40 times the size of the S&L crisis--there have been 10 felony convictions.

After 9/11, much of the FBI was diverted into terrorist pursuit--but the white collar crime resources weren't replaced, gutting the agency's white collar crime enforcement.

And then the Republicans replaced the staff of the regulatory agencies with antiregulation people.

Apparently they're still there.

--William Black, associate professor of law, Kansas U. or some such.

Bank robbers like business certainty--the certainty that no cops will be around to bother them as they're robbing banks. And when the bank robbers are the banks' executives? They crave the certainty of knowing no pesky regulators will be coming after them.

Might makes right (wing).


BOTH parties lie constantly about immigration--especially illegal--for electoral advantage. Republicans exaggerate crimes in the Southwest to fire up their Anglo working class base; Democrats accuse anyone who objects to unlimited immigration and amnesty as racists on behalf of American voters whose primary self-identification is still as Mexican, to get them to see all Republicans as The Enemy.

Neither party has the best interests of America at heart--at least where immigration is concerned.

If they did they'd approve the following measures:

1. Reform legal immigration laws so instead of "family reunification" of whole clans being the source of 2/3 of all legal immigration, only immediate family members are considered--and when someone applies for a visa, he/she has to list everyone he/she plans to apply to bring over eventually/ then consider the applicant according to how much they can contribute to the US--and require them to prove that they can care entirely for any dependents they want to bring over.

2. Make it easy for people with highly desirable skills to immigrate here (especially people just graduating from American universities), regardless of race/ethicity.

3. Close immigration to people whose work category has higher than 8% unemployment of citizens. That means closing immigration to all unskilled laborers / people without the equivalent of an American high school diploma, since unemployment in that category is probably over 25% right now.

4. Don't grant citizenship to anyone who can't understand a ballot written in English; and print ballots only in English, because polyglot ballots foster Balkanization and ethnocentric demagoguery, and anyone who can't understand ballot-level English isn't qualified to vote in an American election, since all their information will then only come from non-mainstream sources--mostly ethnic demagogues.

5. Require all immigrants to demonstrate an understanding of the differences between their home country's values and ours, and to explicitly accept adopting our values--ruling out, for example, things like honor kiling and female genital mutilation, or murdering people who insult your culture's religious figures.

6. Mandate e-Verity nationally, so only people who are here legally can work legally.

7. Develop a biometric ID database system to catch those who are working here illegally. We now have the technology to implement this at the level of all social services providers and should do so.

8. Make illegal re-entry after 1 expulsion a felony.

9. Finance a system of free Planned Parenthood clinics throughout Latin America, including abortion on demand without questions wherever abortion is legal, and predicate immigration from any country on that country implementing effective population control measures (Mexico's population exploded from 20 million in 1940 to over 100 million in 2000--providing the primary cause of illegal immigration here).

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Hit's the rich wot gits the grayvy, hit's the powr wat gits the blayme...

If you tell hardcore Republicans that America has about the same income distribution as China, even though most Americans--Republicans included--wrongly believe it's much more evenly distributed (show them a pie chart of Sweden and they'll say that's ours), many Republicans will still say say it's a good thing. That the extraordinarily low taxes on the most extraordinarily wealthy make America a business innovation magnet.

The irony is that while most Republicans see themselves as supremely solid, feet-on-the-ground people, this belief is so idealistic it borders on believing in the Easter Bunny.

True, it isn't fair to say "Behind every great fortune lies a great crime." Google looks like it got its money the right way as far as I can tell. Many other got there through utter ruthlessness--Microsoft comes to mind--but at least Microsoft makes goods and services, and they mostly work, and the world has arguably benefited from having a common small computing standard, even if it's far from ideal.

But many American fortunes came from chicanery--from insourcing profit and outsourcing environmental costs; from subverting Wall Street, whose purpose had been providing financing for makers of goods and services, whose purpose is now money manipulation; from the capture of government, such that not one banker is now in jail for systematically defrauding both their own stockholders & innumerable home buyers (even though Republicans put the entire blame on home buyers), and such that corporate lobbyists have actually written many of the bills passed by Republican legislatures; by many businesses getting much or most of their profit from corporate welfare, from amazing subsidies for certain crops to tricking local voters to pay for sports stadiums while the sports franchise pockets the profits--profits that only appeared because of the heavy subsidization; from phony offshoring of corporate headquarters to a mailbox in Switzerland; from, as Warren Buffet has complained, multibillionaires like him paying far lower taxes than most wage earners; from vast military boondoggles for useless weapons systems while soldiers in the field lack body armor and properly armored vehicles--with consequent loss of life and limb.

I could go on. There are innumerable ways for clever, well-financed tricksters to pick the public's pocket.

Yet all the average Republican can see is the penny-ante frauds of black welfare queens getting thousands of dollars of public money while the billionaires steal billions. And heaven help you if your tax return is off by $10, while literally hundreds of billions are lost every year to complex tax avoidance schemes, such that some corporations don't even pay taxes.

But welfare queens don't look like Republicans, while the representatives of the ultrarich (otherwise known as Republican politicians) do. Except when they're soliciting congressional pages, or other guys in bathrooms, etc. etc. (not that a fair number of Democrats haven't also been caught with their pants down--but at least they don't brag constantly about their superior personal morality).

So I get the impression that the average Republican voter isn't voting his principles, which rarely involve supporting the kind of chicanery few of them are themselves guilty of. They're voting their tribe--and not looking behind the nice suits and red ties. Trusting to the point of gullibility of their own leaders, which holding every Democratic politician to the standards they ought to also be applying to their own pols--and don't.