Sunday, July 31, 2011

How cults work

I once had a friend who joined a cult. That's when I discovered how cults work on people, up close & personal. I mention it now because the Republican Party--and, to a lesser extent, the Democratic Party--has gained some of the features of a cult:

1. Create an alternate reality--a set of plausible, emotionally persuasive, internally consistent (at some level) narratives. Make it simplistic. All your problems and all your society's problems are due to X (something which isn't your fault). The solution is simple: Y (something which will require no sacrifice from you--or which you can be led to believe requires no sacrifice from you--even if the cult orders you to assign all your worldly possessions to the cult, you'll enjoy shared prosperity of some kind which will amply repay that investment).

2. Isolate cult members from anything and everything that might point out that the emperor has no clothes.
    a. Do so by offering alternate information sources that all agree with the cult's alternate reality.
    b. Get cult members to reject all information from any other source.
    c. If possible, get cult member to only socialize with fellow cult members.
    d. If the cult has taken the name of some heterogeneous organization, convince cult members that only the cult's members actually represent that larger organization, and that anyone else is trespassing--and your enemy.
    e. Get cult members to believe that the slightest compromise represents total failure--represents letting the camel's nose in the tent--that anyone who urges compromise is an enemy, even if they say they're fellow cult members.

3. Continuously get cult members to believe they're in danger from the cult's enemies---that is, keep them on  a permanent war footing. Do this even when real danger looms--either discount that real danger or ascribe it to a plot by the cult's enemies.

Who does this? In the Muslim world, the Salafists do this, to the extent of believing anyone who speaks against their Prophet should be killed on the spot--and "speaking against" means "not totally supporting the Salafists' interpretation of Islam.

And as I said, here in the America the Republicans--and the immensely wealthy handful of individuals who fund them--have managed to create something like a cult.


1. The President of the United States, Grover Norquist, elected in 2010 in a landslide (from a GOP perspective), and holding written oaths of fealty from a majority of Congressional Republicans, preaches that all of America's problems comprise The Government, which steals our money via taxes and spends it on People-Who-Aren't-Us (Mexicans, Kneegrows, Welfare Queens (mostly Kneegrows and Mexicans), Liberal Slackers, Foreigners (both here and abroad via foreign aid).

2. Fox News Channel provides a 24x7 propaganda outlet for the explanations of everything authorized by President Norquist and the Republican Party's paymasters, along with the vast majority of radio talk shows. Fox provides a wide spectrum of Right wing viewpoints, including Libertarian (John Strossel), Religious Right (Mike Huckabee), Tea Party (Hannity), faux Independent Doctrinaire Catholic (O'Reilly), Senate Republican (Van Sustern), Corporatist (Neil Cavuto), etc., but the best indicator is the putatively mainstream news programs put on Fox News every weekday morning, plus the Shepherd and Baier programs. Those are where the far right tilt can be seen without the distractions of hosts' charismatic personalities and particular concerns.

All of these programs regularly seek to delegitimize all other sources of news that don't hew to the far right line. They speak of "Mainstream News" with contempt, consistently, with particular emphasis on CNN being --according to them--a left wing operation. They also dump on self-declared nonpartisan factchecking organizations (especially and, as well as polling organizations other than the reliably right wing one, Rasmussen.

The result is that is you seek to bolster a criticism of any right wing assertion by alluding to any putatively nonpartisan source, the average rank and file Republican will tell you that such sources are highly suspect and require you to "prove" your point otherwise. Or they'll just say "I don't believe you."

Also along these lines, they'll frequently refer to "the American People" and "The Constitution" when they actually mean only American citizens who vote Republican (i.e. including the millions of self-declared Independents who just happen to always vote Republican), and only the parts of the Constitution that they like, and as interpreted by far right wingers (who claim of course that they aren't interpreting it at all)--hence the call for a balanced budget amendment. Calling for an amendment means you don't think the Founding Fathers had all the answers; that the Constitution they wrote wasn't the be-all and the end-all, and may even be wrong in places. So much for revering it as a perfect, sacred document.

"Compromise" means "surrender" in Republispeak. When referring to Republicans it means "shameful, totally unacceptable, abject surrender to the Enemy." Hence statements rejecting any and all compromise. Meanwhile, when Republicans claim the Democrats won't compromise, they mean "the Democrats refuse to surrender to us 100% and want 10% of what they'd asked for." So again "compromise" means "abject surrender" here as well, only in the other direction."

Several other factors contribute to Republican success, down on the process level.

One is the fact that Americans are sorting themselves out, moving to communities of like-minded people more and more, making Red and Blue regions Redder and Bluer.

Another is our winner-take all voting system, in which slight majorities confer total victory, making it unnecessary to build heterogeneous coalitions.

And another is our 24 hour news cycle combined with modern imaging technology, enabling newscasts to instill terror in viewers vastly out of proportion to the actual dangers involved, simultaneously blinding them to worse dangers that can't be imaged as successfully.

Thus you can use ultrasounds to make embryos seem sentient, while overpopulation statistics are dry piles of numbers. Every gory crime from anywhere in the nation can get wall to wall coverage for days, terrorizing people, while the rapid depletion of the porous aquifer is invisible and unnoticed (until it's too late).

The result of all this is that it's becoming harder and harder to have a constructive dialog with a Republican.
Often your only hope is to try to get under their umbrella of paranoia--possibly by arguing within the Republiverse to show how their position on something actually runs contrary to their own principles or is too extreme--by their lights--an extension of those principles.

Good luck with that. Trouble, the Republican Ministry of Propaganda is so well-financed voices of reason get drowned out by their giant bullhorn, which makes you look like an oddball outlier compared to what they believe is not just true but axiomatic, and thus not to be questioned.

Starving Somalis

Few show sufficient interest in understanding why a situation exists before they try to "fix" it. In computer science this is called GIGO (Garbage in, garbage out)--that is, when you apply logical processes to a mis-formulated problem, the results will not be useful, no matter how impeccable the logic.

As far as the famine in Somalia goes, pretty much all of the news coverage has failed to show any interest in why so many Somalis are starving, simply attributing it to drought.

Well, "drought" is our name for an area getting less rain than it had gotten previously. Except "previously" gets measured in decades--that is, a human timeframe, not centuries, the real timeframe for most climate cycles.

The plain fact is that Somalia contains more Somalis than Somalia can feed. That's what you get when the world's population quadruples over the last century or so--and even today is increasing by over 140 people EVERY MINUTE, even after deaths are factored in. And since more industrialized nations now have low birthrates, the statistical increase is vastly higher in the third world.

Moreover, the overpopulation itself contributes to climate change, as people chop down every tree for charcoal/firewood/huts, the topsoil washes off, and the herds of cattle and goats eat everything the locals didn't chop down, all resulting in desertification, which makes local climate drier.

No Somalis would be starving if Somalia's population were at a level Somalia could sustain.

But credible estimates now say that for Earth to sustain its current human population, we'd need 1.4 Earths.
So until you can come up with .4 more Earth to accommodate our race's fecundity, Somalia's only real "solution" is war, famine, disease, and starvation. Feeding Somalis with no thought to containing procreation only kicks the can down the road.

Yet humans continue to think at the level of chimpanzees, only reacting to what's under their noses, with no thought to causes or consequences.

Same goes for the conspiracy theorists who attribute the famine to Western sources (manipulating food prices etc.)--if Somalia weren't grotesquely overpopulated it wouldn't be dependent on foreign aid or theorized manipulations.

Now Western countries and NGOs are rushing to try to bring food to starving Somalis. Even if they do get past the paranoid Islamic fanatics who control much of Somalia, all this aid will do is contribute to future starvation and future aid attempts in an endless cycle, unless we address the root causes.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Business needs Predictability

Wait, wasn't it the Republican Party saying every day in every way that the #1 task for government was to provide a stable, predictable environment for business so jobs would be created?

And now the selfsame party has taught businesses here and abroad that America's ascendant party is willing to put welching on our debts on the table? Even if they now agreed to pass a clean debt limit bill good until after the next election, considerable damage has already been done.

In business, what is your word worth? What happens to your business if your customers, suppliers and competitors find out that your word isn't solid?

When your neighbor starts waving a gun around, even if he doesn't shoot it--you're going to treat him very, very differently thereafter.

Especially when this crisis came from the Republicans tying our willingness to pay our bills to our incurring future debts.

But even if we cut up all our national credit cards we still have to pay our debts. Even if you disagree about whether we should have incurred those debts, that has nothing to do with paying our debts.

And if the deficit does matter--unlike what the #2 Republican said from 2000-2008--what the GOP has already done is driving interest rates up on government borrowing, because we're seen as less trustworthy now by foreign lenders.

Which will drive the deficit up as even more government income--i.e. the taxes we all pay--is diverted from actually doing things to debt service.

So the Republicans preach economic stability, then sabotage it; they preach deficit reduction, then raise our deficit wholly unnecessarily; they preach conservatism, then act like whirley-eyed bomb-throwing anarchists.

Should I just assume that when the Republican leadership says anything they actually mean its exact opposite?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

taxing for the wealthy

America has a $400B/yr. wealth budget where we give tax breaks for things deemed to be good social policy, including the home mortgage interest deduction; the second is money we don't pay on taxes for retirement money that's been set aside. The top 1% of taxpayers receive 45% of the wealth budget of the USA; the bottom 60% receives 3% of that.
--according to Dr. Thomas Shapiro, professor of law & social policy at
Brandeis University

If we'd had a balanced budget amendment in the 1860s...

...the South would have won the Civil War. Lincoln went deep into the red to win the war. He also instituted the federal income tax to help pay for the war BTW. So the federal income tax is a Republican idea.

The nation's finances are exactly like your personal finances. Really?

Let's say for the sake of argument that Republicans are right to equate the finances of the United States of America with those of a private citzen's household.

And that's the rationale for trying to amend the Constitution of the United States to force government to balance its budget--because households have to balance their budgets.

If conservatives raise this issue with you, ask them if they're homeowners--and if so, how long it took them to raise enough cash to buy their home for cash.

Because if they bought the home on time, using a mortgage or two, that makes them hypocrites.

Yes, we should generally live within our means. But we also need the leeway to make exceptions--to buy a house, to meet an emergency, to take a second mortgage to finance starting a small business--things like that. To deny the federal government the leeway nearly all of us expect for our own personal finances simply expresses hatred of the government.

That hatred is felt by many white Southerners, still angry over the racial integration forced on them in the 1970s. It's felt by the 5,000 or so American citizens who own the bulk of America's wealth, because as a group they feel entitled to every cent of their income and no obligation to help the poor (this has been shown in polls of the very rich)--and they hate the federal government for trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to regulate their business activities in any way (particularly their penchant for corporate welfare, which is much more lucrative than actually producing and selling goods and services).

And this hatred for the federal government is also felt by many millions of voters who have been successfully propagandized by the Republican Ministry of Propaganda, such that they believe those who prey on them are actually their benefactors, and vice versa. This is easy to do because humans are easy to manipulate about such things. We want to identify with rich people. We don't want to identify with anyone who anyone might think of as a Loser.

So a balanced budget amendment has nothing--zero--to do with forcing government to observe the same rules that your own family or a business has to observe.

It has to do with hating goverment--a hatred the Republican Party leadership has been promoting ever since FDR's New Deal, which gave us Social Security among other things.

Let's call a spade a spade.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Abe speaks truth to power/$$$

“The money powers prey upon the nation in times of peace and conspire against it in times of adversity. It is more despotic than a monarchy, more insolent than autocracy, and more selfish than bureaucracy. It denounces as public enemies, all who question its methods or throw light upon its crimes…. corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money powers of the country will endeavor to prolong it’s reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed."

– Abraham Lincoln

from a comment on a Krugman column, from

John Farrish
Lafayette, LA
July 22nd, 2011
12:53 am

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

School testing

To be sure, we need testing. I think we should have a voluntary federal high school graduation exam that produces a federal high school diploma--that states your grade level of achievement in English, math, social studies, biology, and so forth. High schools can give diplomas based on attendance and grades. Then the graduate would be providing two diplomas to colleges and prospective employers. If there's a big disparity between them, and that disparity is statistically significant--that is, across lots of students--it will certainly draw attention to the teacher/school/district that has such a disparity.

Schools that don't buy into the voluntary federal test would be marked, even without financial sanctions from the feds.

That is, what really bothers me is former students with high school diplomas who can't really read or do arithmetic, or figure out a contract or a ballot. This cheats both the student and the college/employer.

Suppose the federal and state government do nothing about teachers/schools/districts where there is a big disparity. I bet the voters in that district will--especially when colleges and employers start telling them their kids' high school diplomas are worthless. That is, the world will revoke those schools' credentials even if the credentialing authorities don't.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant.

At the same time, a given teacher's students could do well or poorly for reasons outside the teacher's control. The real solution is principals who can and will get rid of poor teachers, based on the teacher's in-person knowledge--and holding principals responsible for their teachers' performance, since, unlike the teachers, they would be able to choose their teachers, while teachers can't choose their students.

This would mean treating schools by business standards--no tenure for anyone, and using the personal knowledge of your managers onsite to determine who's doing a good job. Teachers are not managers of their students, so the analogy applies to principals where you don't have tenure, but not to teachers.

With or without abolishing tenure, though, my federal voluntary system has the advantages of being relatively cheap and relatively doable. State and local rights are in no way infringed, especially since the testing wouldn't be tied to federal aid.

sealed fate

Clever cult leaders' first priority is to isolate their followers from anyone and anything that might contradict what the cult leader says.

This goes beyond neutralizing active foes of your cult. It must include neutral parties as well, and even friends who don't toe the line 100%. "If you aren't for us you're against us."

Thus the GOP's efforts to rid itself of anyone who's a "RINO"--that is, any Republican who talks to a Democrat, cooperates with a Democrat, compromises with a Democrat, or advocates raising any taxes under any circumstances--especially including tax loopholes for the rich.

And thus the GOP's efforts to smear fact-checking sites like and

Ironic, since both sites frequently ding Democrats from Congressmen to the President. But that doesn't count because they also ding Republicans.

The lesson for GOP rank and file is you must get all your news and analysis from approved sources--anyone outside the circled wagons is suspect..probably a spy.

On the subliminal level the GOP propaganda machine cultivates personal animosity towards anyone who might contradict the party line, so that GOP tribesmen simply can't stand to hear the targeted person's voice. Paul Krugman & Rachel Maddow come to mind.This animosity then prevents them from taking in anything they say.

As part of this tribalism it cultivates black & white thinking. Thus, since Paul Krugman isn't factually correct 100% of the time there's no reason to listen to him any time.

Which brings me back to I've studied immigration issues for a long time and I believe doesn't always deal from the top of the deck on this issue. Yet elsewhere they seem to be solid, and they certainly criticize both Democrats and Republicans.

Yet I've seen GOP rank and file simply dismiss out of hand because of some gotcha.

At the same time the national propaganda machine--and many conservative sites--quote when it suits them. It's as if they put a filter over the site's output that clears away anything criticizing Republicans while delivering everything that criticizes Democrats.

That's consistent with tribalism, where tribal emotions wrap around every factual or logical consideration like a strangler fig around a giant rainforest tree.

Of course there is a Democratic propaganda machine and it does shade the truth, demonize the opposition, and try to encourage tribalism. They're just kind of half-hearted about it, while the GOP hasn't the slightest qualms.

And there is a reality out there. Thus the Lefties hated on Bush, the Righties hate on Obama. But the last nationwide survey of presidential historians showed a solid consensus putting Obama in 15th place among US presidents--and Bush II 6th from the bottom (above more than one crummy Democratic prez, to be sure).

My point is that despising one of the worst presidents in the nation's history--who needlessly sent thousands of servicemen to their deaths--is a very different kettle of fish from despising a president who, while not in the top bracket, shares a respectable high-middle ground (a few places higher than Reagan).

One represents a response to reality; the other a response to tribal dancing around a bonfire. Those are not equivalent.

Friday, July 15, 2011

"Tax hikes destroy jobs" --Speaker of the House John Boehner

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the richest 10% of Americans pay half of all taxes.

Republicans cite this all the time.

They don't add this fact from the same source:

The richest 10% of Americans get 40% of all American income.

Which means that they only pay a little more on their income than do the other 90%. So we have nearly a flat tax, in effect.

And it means the constant harping on that 10% pay 50% is true but it's a lie when you say it and imply that everyone else is getting a free ride. We aren't. We're just getting soaked by the unquenchable greed of the richest.

Oh, and if "tax hikes destroy jobs," then tax cuts create jobs, right? One can't be true without the other.
Well, the Bush Era was historically lousy in jobs creation as corporate America closed our plants and shipped the jobs to China etc., even as taxes on the rich sank to historic lows.

But watch the face of a self-styled conservative when you tell them this. Momentary consternation, followed by challenging your facts, then discounting the source, whatever it is--even, as in this case, the nonpartisan CBO that Republicans cite constantly when a report favors their side--or can be cherrypicked to seem so.

Their commitment is to their ideology, not the truth.

I should add that Democrats have their sacred cows too of course. They just aren't trying to wreck our country quite as vigorously as the GOP is right now.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

NPR should register as a foreign agent

Right now I'm listening to a segment on NPR narrated by the legal daughter of illegal immigrants. She starts crying as she talks about her parents being "undocumented." 16 year old Alicia Martinez is the narrator.

When you listen to it you want to give her parents citizenship. She sounds like a great kid. They sound like great parents.

But this is argument by anecdote, and NPR does it constantly, along with our local PBS TV station.

My problem with this is that it's lying with the truth.

Because they never, ever run anything about illegal immigration that presents them as anything but saints walking on this Earth.

So each anecdote is true, but the accumulated weight of all these anecdotal accounts is wildly distorted.

Not one American has ever had a love one killed by an illegal immigration, or had their car totaled by an illegal immigrant drunk driver, or been unable to get unskilled work because it had been given to illegals, or discovered that the teenaged girls being trafficked had illegal alien pimps.

Either none of those things happen--and there an no illegal immigrants in the prison system--or NPR and PBS is lying with truth, using their repertorial chops to manufacture one-sided propaganda.

This is because Liberal America believes that if anyone's "rights" aren't honored, a police state will ensue, leading to Nazi death camps. This is so powerful a belief that it overrides any concerns about the consequences of such indiscriminate tub-thumping on behalf of anyone--anyone--who really, really, wants American citizenship.

Hello, at least two billion of Earth's population want American citizenship. And most of them would excite your sympathy if you looked at their individual case.

But we are different from Chimpanzees in that we're capable of thinking about long-term consequence; of understanding arithmatic; of realizing that short-term kindness can lead to long-term evil.

The fact that racists oppose illegal immigration of non-Anglos does mean that everyone who opposes illegal immigration is a racist. This is guilt by association, something liberals abhor--except when they do it....

Turns out corporate CEOs don't make 431 times the average worker's pay assessed a Leftie bumper sticker making that claim. In their article they determined that it was an exaggeration.  They said it was the product of a liberal think tank comparing S&P 500 CEO wages with average American workers' wages--not average S&P 500 peons' wages. So it's comparing apples and oranges.

I did some back-of-envelope calculations and came up with 100--corporate CEOs make about 100 times what their own peons make. Which means that these CEOs get in less than four days what their grunt workers get in a year.

What is undisputed is the between WWII and the Reagan Revolution, CEOs made about 20 times what their peons made.  Which is still what CEOs make in other industrialized countries. Our current ration has diverged so much from other industrialized countries that it now resembles that of Russia and Mexico.

Put another way, these CEOs have appropriated virtually all the rise in America's GDP over the past 40 years.

But as per my last entry, Republicans treat this as simply the Hand of Fate at work. Especially since this is the answer to the "fact" right wing commentators state hourly over Republican Radio and Republican Television: the statistic that a few percent of Americans pay the bulk of the taxes, and half of Americans pay no taxes.

First, that's a lie. Half of Americans pay plenty of taxes--just not income taxes. So many regressive taxes are built into our overall tax structure that they get soaked disproportionately. Second, the hyper-rich pay more taxes because they're appropriated virtually all of America's increase in GDP for forty years.

So when your conservative friends mention this trope about the rich paying most taxes, ask them what explanation do they have for the fact that they now get 100 times what their peons make instead of 20. Making 20 times as much isn't sufficient incentive? It is in other countries. It was in the 50s, 60s and 70s, which were full of economic increase and job creation.

Even at 20 times what the average worker makes, it means that CEO gets a year's worth of peon salary every 18 days.

Hard to believe that at such a ratio these CEO types would be just too depressed about their poverty to build companies and "create jobs."

One last thing: I was comparing CEO pay to American worker pay at comparable companies. But the average American S&P 500 companies has many of its employees abroad, mostly in third world countries.

So if you add that to figuring the ratio of CEO may find that the original figure of 431 is way too modest. It may be more like 1,000 times or more.

Democrats and Republicans agree on one thing: the Hand of Fate

Democrats and Republicans may seem at loggerheads, but they agree that some things are just inevitable; nobody's fault; nobody's cause. Our only task is to adapt to these things.

They just disagree on how to apply this fatalistic principle.

Republicans believe that the Wall Street Crisis just happened. Movement Republicans believe it was entirely caused by Congressmen Barney [HE"S A HOMO BUT WE WON'T MENTION IT!!!] Frank, Nancy "Daughter of Satan" Pelosi, and the former head of Fannie Mae [WHO'S BLACK BUT WE WON'T MENTION IT!!!][unfortunately he's also a crook, to be honest]. But even relatively rational Republicans talk about it as just a cycle. Cycles happen. Part of nature, really. The same way they rationalize away human-caused climate change. Cycles.

Meanwhile, Democrats looks blandly at the transformation of America's demographics from 90% white to, soon, minority white (already achieved in California's publis school system BTW). As if white people has suddenly started having black, Latino, and Asian kids. As if who immigrates to this country is entirely some kind of force of nature--not the product of intentional policies planned and carried out with great determination by the leaderships of both parties, though for different reasons.

And don't you dare complain, because if you do it means you're exactly like Hitler.

What the Wall Street meltdown and the slow-mo extermination of Anglo America have in common is that their perpetrators and political allies don't want these events examined. They want you to shut up and not complain--just deal.

Because otherwise there'd be bankers in jail and the reinstitution of quotas for immigration from different countries--and a moratorium on immigration by unskilled laborers from anywhere and anybody from Latin Ameirca, since both greatly overlapping categories have already fulfilled any kind of rational quota for the next couple of centuries.

Can't have that. So instead we have the Hand of Fate, conveniently invoked by both parties whenever they want to pull something on the American People they always talk about as if they're on our side.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The debt ceiling gives a blank check to the ever-growing Federal government!

Wrong. The debt ceiling is for our debts we've already incurred. That's why it's called the debt ceiling. At this instant our government's debts exceed revenues and fungible resources--as was also true, spectacularly, at the instant President Obama took office in 2008. This would remain true even if our federal government stopped spending anything it wasn't legally required to spend right now.

If you as an individual welch on your debts, you lose whatever assets your debtors can lay their hands on and your credit rating tanks. Then when you want to borrow money later on, you're going to pay the rates people with bad credit ratings pay--if you can borrow at all.

When a nation welches on its debts it can hang onto its assets unless it still has to borrow. But when and if it does, Whoa Nellie. And nations that welch on their debts always have to borrow. And the new higher rates ripple through the economy, affecting all but the very rich.

The time to question the need for a higher debt limit was when the deb were being incurred--when we went to war in two countries and gave the richest of the rich a sweet tax break, and put it all on the national credit card, passing the bill on to the next President, along with the reckless fiscal policies that the nation had to bail out when that bubble popped.

And the Republican Congress did vote to raise the debt limit--seven times during the Bush era. It appears that deficits don't count unless a Democrat is in the White House. Then suddenly it becomes the biggest crisis in American history. And jobs? Turns out that's not important at all. Which is logical. All the members of congress have jobs themselves, after all.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

It turns out the goverment does have death panels!

Well, we have one death panel: the Republican majority in the House of Representatives. They radical cuts they want to apply to Medicare and Social Security amount to a national death panel that says to America's seniors "If you were so foolish and immoral as to get old without getting rich--you are of no further use to society. Please board the nearest ice flow and float away. Stop trying to burden the wealthiest Americans' quest to become even wealthier with your whining."

It's time to spend, spend, spend

No, I'm not kidding. All across America our infrastructure is crumbling. It absolutely will be repaired--we're not about to let our interstate highway system and bridges and dams and levees and sewer pipes and plants and water pipes and power lines go away. And deferred maintenance is usually tripled maintenance--meaning that its costs vastly less to fix things before they're totally broke.

My alcoholic grandmother is a perfect example of the Republican Congress. She bought a new Chevrolet in 1956 and never added oil or got it changed. And back then engines leaked oil--you always had some drip on the garage floor.

Eventually--after about 16,000 miles as I recall--the oil level dropped to the point that the engine seized.

Now compare the cost of a new engine vs. a couple of oil changes and a few quarts in between. Not to mention the experience of driving the car at the moment the engine seizes.

That's what's going on with our infrastructure. Remember reading about that bridge collapsing in the Midwest and killing a bunch of people? That was the poster child for the cost of deferred maintenance.

And it doesn't have to be quite that dramatic. A few years ago I hit a huge pothole while driving our camper van on a local freeway. The awning above the sliding door popped open and deployed at 65mph, costing us time and money that will never be counted as part of the cost of not repairing that pothole.

Now multiple my own little example by millions, and add that to official estimates of the multiplying factors of the costs of deferred maintanance.

Right now we are firing the people needed to do all this maintenance locally, regionally, and nationally, in the name of deficit reduction. This is exactly the same as a company balancing its books by refusing to pay its bills. It is exactly the same as calling Social Security an entitlement when most of it is our money, withdrawn from our paychecks throughout our working lives, then "borrowed" by Congress to spend on other things--and now telling us they don't want to pay back the money they "borrowed" from us--and that it's really not our money anyway--that we're living too long and there aren't enough young workers to support retirees.

Well, not as long as the hedge fund manager who got $4.7B for his labors last year paid 15% on his income, like all his fellow hedge fund managers and most of Wall Street's Masters of the Universe. What tax rate did you pay on your income?

I can't see how a party can call itself "conservative" and at the same time advocate welching on debts and stepping over dollars to pick up nickels via deferred maintenance. That's not how you economize. Our infrastructure is not a luxury. It's the core of what a government provides its people--and it's going to be paid, either now for X dollars or a few years for now for 3X or even 5X dollars (plus lives lost here and there).

The time for government to economize and lay off staff is when the economy is booming and the private sector can absorb laid-off government workers. The time for government to spend--yes, deficit spend--is when the private sector isn't hiring (or in the current case, hiring plenty of workers in China and Sri Lanka etc. but not in America) and the workers are needed to do maintenance projects that have to be done anyway.

Unless the Republican Party's vision of our future is for us to once more become hunters and gatherers in the forest in bands of warring tribes of a few dozen each. Is that what they really mean when they champion a "traditional lifestyle" ?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Antonio Vargas--hardworkin hero deserving citizenship, or illegal who needs to go home?

It is obviously not Antonio Vargas' fault that he came here from the Philippines illegally at age 12. I believe him when he says that he didn't even know he was here illegally until he was 16. I also believe that as a juvenile he wasn't fully responsible for his actions until he turned 18.

But I wasn't responsible for his actions either.

Say I buy stolen property without knowing it was stolen. Suppose the seller shows me a certificate of ownership that looks legal to any but an expert's scrutiny. Then suppose the real owner shows up to claim his property.

I have to hand it over without compensation, despite my absence of ill intent, even if handing it over is a great hardship for me. Because whatever I did or paid or need, the property isn't mine to keep,.

Vargas is a perfectly legal citizen. Of the Philippines. I've been in the Philippines. If I tried to overstay my visa there I can assure you I'd be deported promptly. I also saw the opportunities there for someone who speaks fluent Tagalog and fluent, unaccented American English. Vargas would do fine there.

But even if his life there were going to be wretched--life "there" is wretched in many places around the Earth. It doesn't obligate America to take in everyone who has it tough in his own country, just as no other country is obligated to give citizenship to any American who doesn't like it here. One billion humans are starving at any given time, according to UN figures. Not poor. Starving. There situation is vastly worse than anything Vargas will face if, with his American college education, he's deported back to the country he's a citizen of.

So if need trumps all, we need to take in those billion starving people.

Or if ability to contribute to America trumps all, Vargas' journalistic training is trumped by all the doctors and engineers and physicists and wealthy businesspeople and established artists who'd like to move here.

But there's also the issue of laws. Pro-illegal immigration folks say we're a nation of immigrants. Anti-illegal immigration people say 80% of Americans are neither immigrants nor the children of immigrants. So we are not for the most part a nation of immigrants. Of course everyone is descended from immigrants. But then so is everyone everywhere except for some in East Africa.

On the other hand we are a nation of laws, and those apply to all of us. Now few want a totally rigid, blind application of the law. Otherwise judges would have no discretion. But even fewer want a nation without laws, where justice is a purchasable product, like a car, or where the law is applied differently depending on whether you belong to a favored group or not.

In this case, Vargas is a journalist. You know that this field has been shrinking dramatically, with many actual American journalists forced out of their chosen profession, or out of work altogether. What can you say to a skilled, creative, out of work journalist to justify giving Vargas a place at the table while he only gets to look in the window?

And what can you say to, say, an Austrian journalist who's been waiting patiently for a visa to come here for longer than Vargas has been here illegally? Do you tell the Austrian, "Look, dude, you're a chump. Here we give preference to those who realize the rules are for fools. You shoulda just come here illegally, then said it would be inconvenient for you if we sent you home. Because the needs of a Philippino who wants to enjoy life here are more important than the needs of people who want to come here legally, and those were born here.

Nor can Vargas apply for asylum because he's homosexual. Homosexuality is legal and tolerated socially in the Philippines, along with homosexual adoption, and serving in the military while openly homosexual.

Nor can Vargas claim that opposition to his immigration is racist. Legal immigration to America hasn't recognized race as a factor for many decades, and our huge level of legal immigration includes numerous people of all races and ethnicities.

I'm OK with Vargas applying for a visa--from the Philippines--and waiting his turn, and his application being considered along with all the others.

At the end of the day Vargas' arguments amount to special pleading--"Give me what I want because I want it. Break the rules for me. And stiff many others for my sake, because...well...because I really, really want it."

People fall for such arguments because so many people don't think much better than chimpanzees: they look at what's under their noses and don't think about the others that they aren't looking at at the moment, or at the consequences of misplaced kindness. But it isn't socially acceptable to call such people chimpanzee-brains, even as they routinely call people who oppose illegal immigration racists, Nazis etc.

Our unelected President

Many Republican legislators act as if our actual President is Grover Norquist, head of the so-called Americans for Tax Reform organization that has gotten most Republican (and some Democratic) Party legislators to sing a "no new/higher taxes under any circumstances whatsoever" pledge.

So the Republican Party has sworn allegiance to this unelected guy, following his dictates slavishly. Making him their Jefe Supremo--not us voters--not the elected President.


One of the non-negotiable tax reforms is the one that would tax the income of hedge fund managers and their ilk the same as that of hotel bus boys (for the details, read Nicholas Kristoff's New York Times column "Taxes and billionaires." 

Whenever you bring this stuff up, Republicans will say something like "10% of Americans pay 60% of taxes." Well, that's because they're appropriated most of America's gross domestic product for themselves. Meanwhile the other Americans pay plenty of taxes--just not income taxes. Those other taxes--including many withholdings on their W2s--are highly regressive BTW.

Proper tax reform and other structural reforms would put an end to the quiet class war America's billionaires have been waging against the middle class for decades, such that CEOs once again just made twenty times the income of their entry-level employees, instead of up to 180,000 times that (which is what one hedge fund manager makes, while being taxed like a taxi driver).

Friday, July 1, 2011

Raising the debt limit: there there the big spenders go again--or jeapordizing our economic standing for political gain?

NYTimes columnist Paul Krugman wote an editorial about raising the federal debt limit, titled

To the Limit:It isn’t at all unthinkable that the battle to raise the federal debt ceiling could end in failure.

In the editorial, Prof. Krugman detailed the contest between the Democratic and Republican leaderships, faulting President Obama for not standing up to GOP extortion, as he saw it. My answer (which the NYTimes apparently rejected):

The question isn't what the billionaires' serviceable villains are up to. It's how they manage to keep getting elected by the very people they have most betrayed. After all, rank and file Republicans aren't profiting from their party's perfidy. They're losing. Big time. Then blaming that loss on the very people who are trying to save them.

H.L.Mencken said “There is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.”

Put that message through a thousand well-financed bullhorns every day for decades, and many will ignore what little activity goes on across their cerebral cortices in favor of the chimpanzee brain always lurking below. There, where tribe trumps reason, the GOP has convinced half the country that the Democrats are not in the American tribe. They're alien occupiers not to be believed--actually not even to be listened to in the first place.

And when you try to counter slick, well-financed, utterly internally consistent (at the emotional level) propaganda with reason, you have to realize that what they hear bears very little resemblance to what you said. They will hear what their leaders have taught them to "hear" when Democrats speak: what they perceive as the enemy tribe trying to trick Real Americans into surrendering their precious body fluids.

Good luck with that.

FDR was able to win because he could match them at their own game. What I fear our president doesn't understand is that it is irrational to treat people as if they are rational.

It wouldn't hurt, of course, if the Democratic Party stopped telling blue-collar Anglos that they must make whatever sacrifices needed to accommodate the needs of our Latin neighbors to solve their overpopulation crisis by exporting it here, to either take their jobs or drive wages down to starvation levels, by people whose jobs are neither endangered nor diminished by the illegals.

That's how we play into the GOP's hands.