Archive for category Media

The Far Right is Driven by Fear!


And that’s just one of the many tweets and posts of racist outrage over a Coca-Cola commercial celebrating diversity.   If you want to see a series of screen shots of equally or even more offensive bizarre-ness, click .here

So what did Coca-cola do to offend America’s brownshirts?  Seems they had a commercial where “America the Beautiful” was sung in a number of different languages.   The song reflects a sense of love for the splendor and diversity of this land.  To me it was the perfect song for Coca Cola to use to celebrate America’s rich and diverse cultural heritage.

Here’s the ad:

Reactions from the right have been swift and harsh.   Besides the neo-nazi vomit one can find on the link above, pundits put their feet in their mouths reacting.    In a surreal statement, Fox’s Allen West said that the commercial showed that Americans are not “proud enough” and that this commercial was truly disturbing.  More from West:

 If we cannot be proud enough as a country to sing “American the Beautiful” in English in a commercial during the Super Bowl, by a company as American as they come — doggone we are on the road to perdition. This was a truly disturbing commercial for me, what say you?

The irony.   If you are scared, defensive and weak, you will fear that an ad showing diversity somehow threatens ones own status.  Fear of other languages singing “America the Beautiful” is the response of a coward, of someone who doesn’t understand or accept the reality of American diversity and change.

Over at Breitbart Patrick Leahy whines about an “openly gay couple” being in the ad (how dare they do that in America!) and claims:

As far as the executives at Coca Cola are concerned, however, the United States of America is no longer a nation ruled by the Constitution and American traditions in which English is the language of government. It is not a nation governed in the Anglo-American tradition of liberty. It is instead a nation governed by some all inclusive multi-cultural synthesis of the various forms of government in the world, as expressed by the multiple languages used in the Super Bowl ad to sing a uniquely American hymn that celebrates our heritage.

Besides the fact that Katherine Lee Bates, who wrote the lyrics for the song, was a lesbian, what on earth in that commercial opposes the Constitution?   And really – liberty is only an Anglo-American tradition?   Are the only free people those who speak English?

It’s fear.  They fear diversity, they fear a country in which soon over half the population will not be white, and an ever growing hispanic minority gains political and cultural clout.  The fear globalization, they fear change, they fear the inevitable.  They are scared little children, grasping at something that is already slipping away.

Fear drives the worst in our nature.   People afraid lash out angrily.   They hurt others, thinking that the damage is justified.  They rationalize heinous acts, believing them defensive.  They lose the capacity to see just how absurd and bizarre their claims are.  Rational thought is the first victim of fear.

Do they forget that America is made up of immigrants - about 80% come from families who originally did not speak English!

Do they forget that America is made up of immigrants – about 80% come from families who originally did not speak English!

Glenn Beck demonstrates this by being unable to separate homage to American diversity from everyday politics:

“It’s an in your face — and if you don’t like, if you’re offended by it, then you’re a racist. If you do like it, you’re for immigration, you’re for progress. That’s all this is, is to divide people.”

Uh, no.  It doesn’t say a thing about immigration.  And why on earth would one be offended by it?  Oh wait, I know!  FEAR.  Glenn Beck is very scared man – he recently thought that Kenmore was in a liberal plot to change America because it calls some of its dishwashers and vacuum cleaners “progressive.”

Sigh.   They are right on one thing – America is changing, and they can’t stop it.   Just as America in 1985 was fundamentally different than America in 1935, so it will be profoundly different in 2035.   Change is the American way, and increases in diversity and the impact of globalization can’t be stopped.  It is inevitable that they will lose the strange “English only” fantasy of what they think America should be.    They are fearing the inevitable.

Yet it floors me that they don’t realize how pathetic and whiny their reactions sound.   They are humiliating themselves, making themselves laughingstocks, and they don’t even know it!



The Ones that Saw it Coming


Although Wall Street got away with creating the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, there were some who saw it coming, sniffed out the true nature of the mortgage backed bonds and the craziness of an out of control under-regulated housing market.    Those people are the subject of the Michael Lewis book The Big Short mentioned in the previous post.

They cover a range of character traits.  There is the self-promoting Greg Lippmann whose desire to spread the news in bombastic fashion helped convince a number of people that the housing market was a bubble and the securities backed by those mortgages were toxic.  Then there is Steve Eisman, a blunt, honest hard nosed investor who would offend just about everyone he met.   He started as a conservative Republican but realized as he learned about the game on Wall Street that the real mantra was “fuck the poor.”

Mike Burry of Scion Capital was the first to really understand the scope of coming crisis

Mike Burry of Scion Capital was the first to really understand the scope of coming crisis

The first one who really sniffed out what was happening was a one eyed doctor turned stock blogger turned investor, Michael Burry.  He read through the material with an almost superhuman patience and attention to detail.  He realized that the investments were crap, especially the bonds backed by subprime mortgages.   When his son was diagnosed with Aspergers syndrome he realized he had it too.  That had given him the focus to figure out what everyone else was missing as early as 2003 – and also explained the lack of social skills that alienated his investors who were planning to sue him before suddenly his bets paid off.  They never thanked him.

Ultimately they figured out that not only were the big banks creating mortgage backed bonds that seemed to pass off risk, but when they didn’t have enough of those they packaged the bonds into CDOs that, thanks to rating agency incompetence, would magically turn BBB mortage backed bonds into AAA investments.   Then they took it a step further with synthetic CDOs.   To Burry, Eisman, Lippmann and a few other characters Lewis describes, this was blatant fraud.  For Eisman it was a moral cause – the big banks were pulling in billions, earning their traders bonuses in the tens of millions – because they were able to create bonds so complex that the rating agencies didn’t realize they were crap.  Investors thinking they were getting very low risk bonds were being fleeced.

CDO's were a method by which banks could take low rated bonds and package them to create a AAA rated toxic bond

CDO’s were a method by which banks could take low rated bonds and package them to create a AAA rated toxic bond

The thing that shocked them, however, is that when the inevitable collapse hit, the big banks themselves were exposed.  They had rigged the game, but played the sucker anyway.   Corporate leadership didn’t understand the way this new derivative bond market operated, and individuals looking only to maximize their bonuses didn’t care about the long term.  At some point they had to keep playing because that was the only way to keep the game alive.   But it was unsustainable.

What I find intriguing is the personality characteristics of those who figured it out.   They share a few traits.  First, they were honest and not afraid of what others thought of them.  In a world where most people seek approval from others and want to be liked/appreciated, these guys didn’t care.  Eisman would blurt out comments offending powerful CEOs giving a talk, not care what he wore to the golf course, and genuinely didn’t seem to mind what others thought of him.

Second, they were remarkably self-confident.   If it were me figuring out the insanity of the derivative market and how the big banks were setting the entire world economy up for disaster, I’d say “wait, these are the most intelligent big institutional investors on Wall Street – they must know something I don’t.”   And while the thought crossed their minds now and then, they had confidence in their analysis and conclusions.  They were willing to place multi-million dollar bets on an outcome the media, Wall Street and government dismissed as impossible.

Some of most entertaining moments in Lewis' book are the ways in which Steve Eisman would confront the big players on Wall Street and tell them their products were crap

Some of most entertaining moments in Lewis’ book are the ways in which Steve Eisman would confront the big players on Wall Street and tell them their products were crap.  Eisman’s latest crusade is against for-profit on line universities

Finally, they were oddly moral.   For Eisman it was righteous indignation at how big money was not only screwing the small investor but also putting democratic capitalism at risk.  For Burry it was a strong sense that the truth mattered, and he needed to follow it.  Lippmann was grandiose and self-promoting, but was up front trying to help others see what was happening.   In fact, they all tried to shout out warnings only to find that the rich and powerful either responded like deer in a headlight or laughed them off.

Jamie Mai, Charlie Ledley and Ben Hockett, who created Cornwall Capital and discovered first that even the AAA rated CDOs were certain to fail, were pre-occupied by what this meant for society as a whole.   The system was sick, could it potentially fall apart?

Those traits:  honesty, lack of concern for what others think (as long as you’re being honest), self-confidence and a strong moral streak gave them the capacity to truly comprehend what was happening.  They were not intimidated by the big names in media and on Wall Street who dismissed such concerns, did not feel like “I must be wrong because the big guys all say differently,” and stoked a sense of moral outrage and purpose.

Once considered an economic guru, Greenspan's cheap credit and anti-regulatory stance now make him a villain in this story

Once considered an economic guru, Alan Greenspan’s cheap credit and anti-regulatory stance now make him a villain in this story

There is something to learn from this example.   These traits gave them the capacity to avoid the hypnotic effect that culture, media and “conventional wisdom” can have on people.   All around experts repeated the mantra that “the bonds are safe, housing prices won’t fall, this is real, the money will keep growing…”  They did not fall victim to the power of those suggestions; instead, they saw through the facade and ended up turning a huge profit.

They not only saw through it, but it was obvious to them.   Now whether one reads the book by Micheal Lewis or one of the others out there dissecting the crisis (The End of Wall Street by Roger Lowenstein, All the Devils are Here by McLean and Nocera, House of Cards by Cohan about the end of Bear Stearns, etc.), it is so obvious in hindsight that one has to ask “how could they have been so stupid?  How did more people not see it coming?”

The answer: groupthink and a kind of cultural hypnosis due to the power of pervasive suggestion.   The only way to keep one immune from falling into such a trap is to foster true honesty, not worry what others think if acting honestly, be self-confident, and have a moral core.   Not only might one see through scams and thus make money (or avoid losing it), but one will also live a life less controlled by the hypnotic suggestions permeating our culture and media, and instead develop the capacity to be true to oneself.


Arm Chair Jurors

If the glove doesn't fit, you must acquit

The nation is engrossed by the 1995 OJ Simpson trial

I started teaching at UMF in the Fall of 1995, and one memory from my first year was letting my class talk me into going to the student center to watch the October verdict of the OJ Simpson trial.    When the “not guilty” verdict was announced, the student snack bar erupted.   Some students showed raw anger, enraged by what they saw as an unfair verdict.   A few were crying.   Most were shaking their head, looking disgusted.  A smaller number cheered.    I was bemused – there are murders and trials every day, it’s a bit bizarre that people would emotionally invest in one celebrity judicial process.

I have no clue if OJ Simpson killed anyone.   Clearly the media portrayed it in a way that caused most people to think he did, and if I had to bet I’d say I suspect he actually was the murderer.   He did lose a civil case, after all.   But the burden of proof is lower for a civil case; it’s not supposed to be easy to convict someone of murder.    As the old saying goes, better that 10 guilty escape punishment than one innocent suffer.

But I don’t know.  I didn’t have access to all the documents, deliberations and information the Jury had.  I didn’t have to determine if there was enough doubt to spare him from severe punishment.   In short, I don’t want to be an arm chair juror.   We have a process in the US that plays itself out, I respect that process.

It could be that the process is flawed – the wealthy can hire the best lawyers.  Simpson could get guys like Johnnie Cochran, Alan Dershowitz and F. Lee Bailey, while the poor may get a half hearted effort from a court appointed attorney.   But if that’s the case, then fix the process, don’t question the results of a given trial.   So to me, Simpson is not guilty – that was the result of our judicial process.

Fast forward to 2013 and the trial of George Zimmerman:


Zimmerman was acquitted of both murder and manslaughter in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a case that made the national headlines as a supposed race based murder.   As with the Simpson trial nearly two decades ago, there is no way I can know whether or not a guilty plea would have been proper.  I am far less informed than the jurors.   Even people who have followed this case lack detailed knowledge.

So then, as now, I choose to simply accept that the jury of Zimmerman’s peers looked at the evidence and concluded there was not enough to convict him of a crime.  We have a nation of laws, and trial by jury is a foundation of our legal system.    That doesn’t mean we should not look for flaws and try to legally address them.  But it does mean that regardless of our personal interpretation of the media coverage of an event, we don’t know.

As arm chair jurors people can insist “he was guilty,” just like arm chair quarterbacks can yell “you should have passed the ball” when the quarterback runs.  Ultimately, though, I’d rather have trial by jury with legal protections than to have guilt determined by public opinion.   George Zimmerman, like O J Simpson, was acquitted of a crime by a jury of his peers.  I respect that result.



The NRA has jumped the shark


The National Rifle Association’s response to the Sandy Hook school shootings may be remembered as the point in which they ceased to be taken seriously and started to lose clout .    The responses to President Obama’s proposals and executive orders are over the top.   Here’s a sampling:

Tennessee legislators want to make it a felony for federal agents to enforce federal laws involving guns.

Rand Paul wants Congress to ‘nullify’ executive orders.   Good luck with that Rand – note that Obama has issued fewer executive orders than any Republican President in the last century, but hey, don’t let facts get in the way of your impotent rage.

Impeachment is on the agenda of a few Congressmen who apparently want to cause the Republican party to self-destruct.

In Texas one representative wants to “ban gun laws.”

In Wyoming there is also a move to make enforcement of these laws a felony.

Then you get the usual caterwauling of people claiming Obama is a Hitler, they’re coming after your guns, the country is going to cease being “free” (eyes rolling).

So, all that said, you must think I’m a radical gun control advocate, right?   Hardly.   I don’t own a gun nor do I want one, and I think that people who need a gun to feel secure are saying more about their own internal state than they are about their actual safety.    People who think they need guns so they can rise up against the government some day are simply delusional (remember Timothy McVeigh)?   But in general most people who own guns do so responsibly, hunters take safety seriously, and guns are a part of American culture.

US murder rates are higher than almost all industrialized states - but not by so much that there is a compelling argument that gun control would make a statistical difference

US murder rates are higher than almost all industrialized states – but not by so much that there is a compelling argument that gun control would make a statistical difference

I do think the reaction by the extremists is rooted in delusion.  Rather than rationally accepting that gun violence is a problem and that in the rest of the industrialized world gun deaths are very low (and total deaths are much lower to – people aren’t just finding other ways to kill), they fall into a weird narrative about tyranny and Obama’s goons coming to get their guns.

There are rational reasons to be skeptical of gun control.   A lot of our murders come in places where the causes are socio-economic.   Poverty, gang activity, and a lack of effort by the rest of the society to address those problems creates sub cultures where violence, drug use, and crime is the norm.    In places like Maine where gun ownership is among the highest levels in the country we are very safe.  Not because of guns, but we have a stable and relatively peaceful culture.   There are problems of rural poverty – spousal abuse, substance abuse, petty crime, etc.  It’s just that the kind of gun violence associated with inner cities doesn’t reach here.

Cars kill as many people each years as guns -- but that's why they're heavily regulated

Cars kill as many people each years as guns — but that’s why they’re heavily regulated

So what we need is a sensible discussion.   The executive orders people going crazy about are bland.  You can read the list here.   No gun grabbing, no huge federal intervention on Congressional powers.   Many have nothing to do with guns, but with school safety.   Some focus on building a dialogue or making cooperation between federal agencies easier.  A couple deal with mental health issues.

That is why the NRA, now up with an ad that uses President Obama’s daughters to label him a hypocrite (their “logic”: if the President’s family gets Secret Service protection it’s hypocritical not want armed guards in every school) has to be ridiculed and belittled as much as possible.    They have jumped the shark.   They’re making dubious claims about their membership going way up, and launching threats and attacks against any politician that dares question their extremist orthodoxy.   They don’t want dialogue, they don’t want to admit that gun availability might cause more gun related crimes and deaths, they’re taking an ideological stand and trying to pretend it’s about liberty.

Gun owners, don’t fall for this!   Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that people wanting reasonable gun control legislation are would be Nazis ready to grab full power.    Even if the President’s legislative proposal were adopted as is (which is not going to happen – if something passes it will be a compromise) the US would still have the loosest gun control laws of the industrialized world.   Most gun owners would not be affected one iota.

The problems mentally ill people have getting access to care are immense; that needs to be addressed

The problems mentally ill people have getting access to care are immense; that needs to be addressed

And maybe gun control legislation isn’t a good idea.   Maybe we need to approach the problem from a different direction.   I don’t know.   But we need dialogue.  We need to be reasonable.   We need to accept that there are sound arguments on each side, and that most people are neither gun nuts nor gun haters.   Dump the hyperbole, reject the delusion that the US government is turning into a tyranny or that Obama is somehow a would be Hitler.  Replace emotion and fear with logic and evidence.

Yet if the NRA and other extremists continue their over the top hyperbolic rants and tirades, it’s no use reasoning with them.   Mock them as ridiculous and absurd.   Weaken their public image.   Then find people on both sides who are willing to talk and listen to each other.


Time for Pragmatism


Notice anything interesting about this map?   The US is in a lighter shade of blue then New England, which is off colored and unlabeled.   This map is from a Republican guide to finding one’s Senators and representatives.   To the GOP New England appears to be persona non grata.

Indeed, with a few exceptions (Senators from Maine and New Hampshire) the region has become very Democratic.  New England along with the upper Northwest were the only regions where white males supported Obama in the election.

Not only that, but New England Republicans are distrusted in their own party.  They are often pro-choice, moderate and labeled RINOs (Republican in name only) by ideological conservatives.   Maine Senators Collins and Snowe voted to acquit President Clinton after his impeachment, breaking with their party.   Senator Snowe’s retirement this year was in part a reaction to all the anger and partisanship that has overtaken the Senate.   Yes, Maine has a tea party governor, but that’s only because of a three way race in which 39% could win.

Republican Olympia Snowe personified pragmatic conservatism

Former Republican Senator Olympia Snowe personifies pragmatic conservatism, she wants to solve problems and focus on the people, not a set of rules or an ideology

This is interesting because New England does not fit the usual left-right demographic patterns.   Maine is the most white and least diverse state in the union.    New Englanders are pragmatic and rather conservative.   But there is one thing that sets the region apart: ideology is distrusted.  Here in Maine the tea party governor couldn’t get his fellow Republicans to impose a true conservative agenda when they had control of both houses.  Instead they continued the tradition of trying to build consensus, often angering Governor LePage.    I supported President Obama, but voted for many Maine Republicans – it’s not good vs. evil here!

It’s a part of the pragmatism – a sense that the difficult problems we face can’t be addressed by looking to fancy theories and ideologies, but by compromising with a goal of solving problems.   In that New Englanders are more conservative than many Republicans who have a radical ideological world view – to implement ‘true capitalism’ or some other ideologically motivated “solution” to our problems.

Ideologies are seductive.  The present truths in simple terms and make seem like all you have to do to solve our problems is follow the ideological precepts.   People who want to be right, who don’t want to deal with complexity and uncertainty, often find ideologies very comforting.  They are a kind of secular religion, you can interpret the world through an ideology and avoid cognitive dissonance.    As Communism demonstrated, people can cling to ideologies even when it’s absolutely crystal clear that the evidence proves them wrong.

An example of that taken to the extreme can be seen in this over the top interview of Alex Jones by Piers Morgan:

Ideologues can ignore reality because its so complex that you can always find some other reason to explain what went wrong.   Communist ideologues blamed the West or others for making the ‘path to socialism’ more difficult.    Capitalist ideologues embrace the market, and find reasons to dismiss evidence that shows markets can be inhumane and corrupted when not regulated.

I don’t think Republicans or Democrats outside New England are all ideologues.  Rather, media plays a role to socialize people to embrace ideological thinking by creating a narrative that makes it seem natural.  Powerful corporate actors like the “Club for Growth” use money to manipulate the process and create an ideological political climate.

The classic example of media narrative is the last election.   On the right there was a widespread belief that Romney would easily beat Obama this year, a belief held by even people high up in the Romney campaign.   The narrative seemed logical: the polls over sample Democrats, Obama’s supporters aren’t as enthused, Republicans are angry and want Obama gone, the 2010 spirit still exists, the media is overstating Obama’s chances because they like him, etc.

If you looked at the evidence it was pretty clear that those arguments were weak – that the expectation had to be that Obama would win.  However, FOX news, talk radio, conservative blogs, and media outlets on the right stated that case over and over like it was a fact, and then added that the mainstream media was untrustworthy, in the pocket of Obama and even trying to demoralize the right.   In other words, rather than rationally analyze the narrative, they found excuses on why not to take the counter arguments seriously.

This happens on many issues – climate change, taxes, the economy,  guns, terrorism, the debt ceiling.   There is an ideology-driven understanding of reality that is spread by talk radio, FOX, and a host of blogs and pundits that is designed not to analyze a perspective but to promote and defend it because it is deemed true – the ideology is unquestioned.

This penchant for ideology-based understandings of reality is destroying the Republican party.    I do not believe John Boehner or Mitch McConnell are ideologues, but they are held captive by the fringes of their party.   Moreover, there are signs many on the left want to emulate the ideologues on the right by embracing partisan war.   That has to stop.  It is time for pragmatism,  pragmatism is the enemy of ideology.

Ideologues claim they are embracing principle, but that’s an illusion.  They are embracing simple rules.  Reality is complex and simple principles don’t work.   Context matters, it changes the meaning of every act.   Ideologues left and right will use terms like freedom, social justice, equality and even peace to give their causes the air of moral authority.  But beware any theory-driven understanding of a complex reality, and beware of those who interpret everything through their ideological lens rather than comparing and contrasting different perspectives.

Pragmatism is messy, but it’s the only way forward in difficult times.


Conservative Cultists

Some conservatives are getting rich off impotent rage, according to Maddow

Some conservatives are getting rich off impotent rage, according to Maddow

Rachel Maddow of MSNBC said that many on the far right are getting rich on “impotent rage,” firing up their listeners to be angry about Obama’s re-election but unable to do anything about it.   Well, you might say, that’s Maddow, she always chastises conservatives.   Yet conservatives William Kristol and Joe Scarborough have also decried the way some on the right — talk radio, especially — are getting rich off a style that pushes for an uncompromising and unrealistic stand on absolutist “principles.”

The problem in the GOP is that the reasonable people of the party are having to deal with a large, media savvy group of conservatives who have fostered a cult like thinking.

That is not only un-American, it is also un-Conservative and irrational.

Conservatives such as Joe Scarborough are starting to speak out against the damage being down to the GOP

Conservatives such as Joe Scarborough are starting to speak out against the damage being down to the GOP

It is un-American because our system is based on the idea that no individual or group has an absolute claim on truth. Democracy is a way to get people to debate, learn from each other, and try to figure out the best compromise.    We learn as we go based on what works and what does not.   The idea that we should focus simply on ideology or principle would be foreign to the founders.  Their principles were broad based and open to diverse ideas.

It is un-Conservative because conservatives value tradition, social stability and a sense of community.    Conservatives have adopted a strong free market perspective but have always recognized that markets have limits and that the good of the country trumps any ideological stand point.   And, given that tradition involves compromise and deliberation, the extremism of Neil Boortz and Rush Limbaugh is distinctly anti-conservative.

It is irrational because it focuses on pushing a party line with the vehemence of a religious extremist.   The “true” conservative values are XY and Z.   Those who seek compromise and moderation are “RINOs”  (Republicans in name only).    This desire for conservative purity has cost them the Senate.    Ideology-based thinking leads them to embrace clearly false claims – that there is no human caused climate change, the earth is 9000 years old, women’s vaginas magically shut down the possibility of pregnancy when they are raped and other such non-sense.   Truth is not based on science and evidence, but on what would be true if their ideology was infallible.

Here are some questions.   Answer yes to any of them, and you just might be a conservative cultist:

1.  Do you believe Obama has a secret agenda to push the US towards socialism and away from a market economy?
2.  Do you believe that Obama hates America and wants to give our sovereignty to the UN?
3.  Do you know who Alinsky is, and do you think somehow Obama is following some kind of plot of his making?
4.  Are you convinced that the Democrats simply try to buy votes by giving people stuff?
5.  Do you secretly (or even openly) wish women couldn’t vote because they aren’t truly rational?
6.  Do you think votes should be weighted by wealth, since the poor have ‘no skin’ in the game?
7.  Do you believe that Obama is an incompetent narcissist who has no leadership capacity?
8.  Do you believe there is a nefarious “agenda” out there that gays, internationalists, liberals and other types are following, which would stab America in the back and move us away from our core values?
9.   Do you think the country is on the road to collapse, and figure the GOP should just let Obama have his way so the Republicans aren’t co-responsible – the “let it burn” argument?

If you said yes to more than one of these, you just might be a member of a cult!

Glenn Beck has started his own "news" website to give the conservative view, and before the election expressed certainty that God would make Romney win

Glenn Beck has started his own “news” website to give the conservative view, and before the election expressed certainty that God would make Romney win

I’ve even read blogs where someone seriously posts that people should keep any pledge they have made (meaning the Norquist pledge) no matter what, because you never break a pledge.   However, what if they decide that under current conditions the Norquist pledge would lead them to actions that do harm to the country?   Should our elected representatives really be more concerned about keeping a pledge than doing what’s right?    Or is Peter Parker aka Spiderman right – sometimes the best promises are those we are willing to break?   After all, many German soldiers didn’t turn on Hitler even when they saw what was happening  because they took an oath to Hitler.   I think its simple minded blindness to keep an oath just because you took it, no matter what.

True conservatives won’t play that game.   They recognize that they have something to bring to the table and they can force Obama to compromise (and Obama has shown a willingness to compromise).   They don’t demand strict adherence to “principles.”  An uncompromising devotion to absolute principles is for the narrow minded.   Principles are simplified general ideals, but in the real world those simplification break down.   Blind adherence to principle is the mark of someone unwilling to embrace real world complexity – a cultist, in other words.

You see it on blogs and talk radio especially.   I’ve been in many debates, sometimes heated, with conservatives.   But usually we don’t take it personally, nor do we ridicule each other and say the other person is somehow evil or bad.  In fact in most cases we find we agree on core values — Americans are more united than divided.    Go to a cultist blog and try going against their party line and they respond with ridicule and personal abuse (and yes there are cultists on the left too).   That’s how cultists protect their message, they don’t allow it to be questioned, especially not by people who may have good arguments.

Republicans have tolerated the cultists because they brought energy and a solid voting block to the party.   As long as party leaders (whom cultists deride as the hated “Republican establishment”) could control the real policy actions of the party, the cultists were an asset.   But in 2010 they crossed that line.

The most recent example – rejection of the UN People with Disabilities treaty even as John McCain gave his support and Bob Dole was on hand to persuade skeptics to vote for it.   Senators who recently supported it voted no, fearful that the cultists would put up hard core conservative primary opposition.

"The world is a cage for your impotent rage, but don't let it get to you" - Rush (Neil Peart) , "Neurotica," from Roll the Bones (1991)

“The world is a cage for your impotent rage, but don’t let it get to you” – Rush (Neil Peart) , “Neurotica,” from Roll the Bones (1991)

Republicans need to purge the cultists from their ranks, or at least render them ineffective.  They inspire rage, but a rage that cannot win – you’ll never have a pure Demint style conservative government any more than you’ll ever have a pure Kucinich style liberal government.  Or if we do it’ll only be a gradual change reflecting the whole culture.   Our system is designed to avoid sudden lurches to such extremes.   It’s designed for compromise and loyal opposition.


A Far Right Freak Out

“We lost America” according to Limbaugh

The re-election of President Obama was not unexpected.   In fact, having followed the polls and Nate Silver’s modeling of the election it played out almost as if scripted, with no surprises.    In my predictions I got only two races wrong, and I knew each was a long shot (NC for Obama, Carmona for AZ Senate).    Usually elections hold surprises, this one did not.

At least, not for those of us who believed that the pollsters knew their business and someone with Nate Silver’s track record should be taken seriously.    On the far right there was shock, indignation and collective anger and dismay.   How could this happen?   (Note: I use the term “far right” to differentiate them from average, reasonable Republicans and Romney supporters.)

Many bemoaned the fact that the country “is no longer center-right,” and talked openly about the inevitable decline of the United States.   A few on the fringes hoped for a quick decline, with talk about “going Galt” and stocking up on ammo and supplies.  Glenn Beck urged people to buy farm land, get as far from the East coast as they could so they can be around “like minded” people and keep the kids away from public schools!   The country cannot survive an Obama victory, Beck prophesied.     After the heady high of 2010 many found the results of the 2012 election simply impossible to accept.

Many on the right took these “predictions” seriously!

Two things are happening.   Some on the far right are stuck in their own parallel universe.    They read each other’s blogs, watch FOX news and listen to talk radio, creating a sense that their own view is far more widespread than it is.   Groupthink of this sort isn’t rational, it’s more like a feeling, something “in the air.”

Moreover part of groupthink is to see your opponents as less intelligent, moral or rational than yourself.   That the left is “falling for Nate Silver’s statistical mumbo jumbo” or “believing obviously skewed state polls” becomes viewed as self-evidently true.   They reinforced each other’s certainty that the left was deluded.   Some even fantasized that the left would riot and burn cities if Obama wasn’t re-elected!

Liberalism is not about dependency but opportunity

That brings me to their second error : a caricatured and completely over the top misguided view of the left.    To them the left loves big government  and has a victim mentality that rationalizes taking from the rich.    The right, in this odd perspective, represents hard working Americans who take responsibility for their success and want personal initiative rewarded.   The right is steadfast, rational, ethical, and responsible.   The left is wobbly, emotional, greedy and jealous of success.

That explains the level of intense emotion and anger on the right. They have constructed a straw man adversary who represents the worst character traits humans have:  greedy, lazy, wanting to steal from others, irrational, unethical, and jealous of success.   To them the left is a group of slack jawed moochers relying government to rob from the job creators to give them their flat screen TVs, dependent on a sinister government who trades this ‘free stuff’ for votes.   If they truly believe all that it’s understandable how righteous rage, indignation and even resignation come from this election.

The reality is that virtually no one on the  left believes people should see themselves as victims.  Indeed the key to success in life is personal initiative, a willingness to work hard, and an acceptance that each individual is responsible for their own success in life.    The only sense of entitlement  is that military service entitles veterans to basic support when they come back, and that after a life of work the elderly are entitled to a basic standard of living and health care.

Moreover, the views of the left are rooted in a sense of liberty that can be traced back to thinkers like John Stuart Mill in Great Britain.    Mill noted in mid-19th Century Great Britain leaving the market to its own devices had led to horrific results.   The economy was growing, but the workers lived in squalor, working class children weren’t educated, health care depended on wealth, and that social status at birth determined life success, not hard work and personal initiative.

John Stuart Mill is in many ways the father of modern liberalism, recognizing the positive role the state needs to take to expand liberty

Capitalism and markets are good, but we can use the state to assure that all people have true opportunity.   In trying to make sure that people aren’t condemned by status at birth to a life of grueling labor and poverty, the goal is to expand liberty.    Create real opportunities for everyone to succeed.   Make sure that hard work and initiative determine success, not simply status at birth or how much you inherit.

The left in the US embraces the notion of wealth as a reward for success.   Why are so many millionaires Democrats?   They don’t hate success or think being wealthy is bad.   Rather, the goal is to make sure that if you’re poor you still have the opportunity to become wealthy –  that the deck isn’t stacked against you.   Again, that’s an expanse of liberty, in line with American values.

The debate should be about how to work towards real opportunity without stifling economic growth and development.   What role should government programs play, and are they effective?   How do we prioritize dealing with the debt and deficit, how do we restructure our economy to fit the changes of the 21st Century?

So with all due respect to those on the far right freaking out:  chill.   It’s OK.   Democrats don’t want to overturn capitalism, create a country of dependent moochers, or punish success.   Indeed no Democratic plan would even raise tax rates close to the levels they were under Reagan.   Democrats are open to making reforms of what isn’t working, they want government programs to create opportunity for people to help themselves, not build a dependent class.

While the media covered the anti-Obama riot at the University of Mississippi, more telling was the much larger “peace rally” held to counter the anti-Obama protest

It’s emotionally satisfying to imagine the other side as more menacing and less rational than they are — the left does that to the right as well.   But ultimately Americans come together and solve problems.   Americans recognize that disagreement is an essential aspect of our system — we learn by debating differences and exploring compromise.

Ideology can be comforting – many use it as a way to try to find certainty in an uncertain world – but it’s based on delusion.   No simplified model of reality can really capture the complexity of the economic and political realities we face; rather, we have to work to solve problems and be practical and patient.    As the President noted, what unites us is far stronger than what divides us.   As Governor Romney noted in his gracious acceptance speech, it’s time to put the partisan bitterness and division behind us.   Time to get to work!


Blaming the Media

To the Romney campaign there is one reason their candidate is doing poorly: the media.

Perhaps the worst sign for Mitt Romney supporters is the obsession conservative pundits have with blaming the media for their candidate’s lack of popularity.  Blaming the media is always the last recourse of a campaign in distress, and on the right it’s been a kind of security blanket, helping them avoid confronting hard realities.  Rather than question whether or not their message resonates with American voters, they say it would if only the media would frame it correctly.

There’s a kind of disconnect when people who watch Fox news and listen to talk radio complain about media bias — indeed, what they’re really complaining about is that the media doesn’t share the Fox news bias!

Consider:  Mitt Romney’s leaked tape was a big story – one of the biggest in the campaign, coming just over six weeks before the election.   The attack in Libya was also big news, a small but deadly terror attack on the 11th anniversary of 9-11.   Both got play.   Tough questions were asked.

To the right: the media should be focused like a laser on Obama’s “crumbling narrative” about what happened in Libya.   At least that’s claim Mona Charen makes is an especially whiney and vapid article attacking the press as being pro-Obama.   So what is the “crumbling narrative?”   Well, to find that you have to read a right wing interpretation of the news, since it doesn’t come from the White House.

President Obama calls the attack in Libya a terrorist attack that was coordinated, and not a spontaneous response to a movie.    Beyond that they so far refuse to say more until they finish their investigation.    The White House has been pretty consistent on that, even if they did criticize the intolerance and dishonesty of a video which sparked protests in other parts of the Mideast.

But the right wants a crumbling narrative, so they construct it through a patchwork of quotes taken out of context, building an artificial narrative they then can ridicule.    Take a few quotes from the UN Ambassador, take another quote here or there from minor officials, ignore all the statements from the President and Secretary of State, and then claim that Obama says the attacks were purely in response to the video and weren’t terror attacks.

Huh?    Oh, it gets better.   They then take the President’s claim that overall this is a bump in the road in the process of change for the region and say Obama is heartlessly calling the death of a diplomat “a bump.”

To get the GOP narrative, you need The Onion!   Yet, Charen claims, that’s how the press should be focused.    Anything else is a pro-Obama conspiracy.

That’s it?   That’s proof the press is supporting Obama?   Oh, Charen says, there’s more – Obama made a gaffe in Poland a year or so ago by mistakenly saying “Polish death camps” on a visit.   I remember that, the press and conservatives skewered Obama for days.   But now, Charen whines, the press should be praising Romney for getting what was “basically” an endorsement from Lech Walesa, who stood up to Communism.   Instead, she complains, the press covered an outburst from a Romney aide.

If this is a vast conspiracy, why does she have to reach way back to July to find evidence?   And is she saying the press shouldn’t have covered the outburst?   Earth to Charen, you swear at reporters it’ll get covered regardless of who does it! But the press did cover Walesa’s comments.    She fails to mention that Walesa (who has some of his own scandals) did not have the support of his own party, whose leadership rejected Romney for his anti-labor stance.    That doesn’t fit the narrative Charen believes the press should follow.

It’s not just the right – critics on the left deride the media corporate shills

Either one of two things are happening.   If you’re a Romney supporter,  you better hope it’s the first.

1.   The Romney campaign knows things are going poorly so they’re trying to pressure the press to give them good coverage.   They want to get the press to tell things the way the Romney camp wants it told.

That’s fine, though Charen’s article makes a pretty poor case.   But if the perception gets created that the press is unfair, they might go more gently on Romney.   Can’t blame them for trying that – Kerry’s campaign made similar complaints in 2004.

2.   Romneyworld is so locked into its view of reality that it truly believes they are victims of a media conspiracy and don’t understand that their campaign is the problem.

If that’s happening, Romney is toast.    They’re getting poor coverage because they are running a bad campaign.   This is not controversial, pundit after pundit on the right has been saying the same thing.     They’re doing poorly because Romney is not a good candidate.   People don’t like him, he let himself get defined by the Obama team last summer and hasn’t done much of anything to define himself.

It’s a close race, but Obama has the lead.   If Romney’s going to turn it around he has to turn around his campaign.   A first move is to stop whining.   When you whine it reinforces the image that you’re losing.     More importantly, he has to show he’s a leader.   Right now Romney appears to be a follower – a moderate who has veered to the right because that’s what his campaign wants.   People don’t think he believes in anything or has clear principles.   He is, in essence, the anti-Reagan.

“Stop it. This is hard work. Do you want to try it?” Ann Romney’s words could also be said to defend the replacement refs in the NFL. It is hard. But right now the Romney campaign team is operating with the same quality of work that the replacement refs provide to the NFL.

Consider Romney’s own words:  “And I realize that there will be some in the Fourth Estate, or whichever estate, who are far more interested in finding something to write about that is unrelated to the economy, to geopolitics, to the threat of war, to the reality of conflict in Afghanistan today, to a nuclearization of Iran. They’ll instead try and find anything else to divert from the fact that these last four years have been tough years for our country.”

(Whichever estate?)

Get it – the media should ONLY write about the economy, geopolitics, the threat of war, or Iran.   Covering the campaign or what the candidates say, do or plan is a distraction.   It doesn’t work that way, Mitt – it never has.  The media cover a myriad of topics, and when an embarrassing tape is leaked, they’ll cover it.    They covered Obama’s and Biden’s gaffes too.  Remember all the play the Biden “in chains” comment got?   These same critics and the Romney campaign were all over Biden for a week on that!  And who made an out of context “you didn’t build that” quote the center point of their convention?

No matter how the right pushes the “media conspiracy” line, it’s a sure loser.    It’s the Romney campaign’s fault that they’re in the position they are in.   Only they can change it.


The GOP’s Epic Fail

Since the Republicans took the majority in 2011 House Oversight Committee Chair Darrell Issa has been investigating everything he could, hoping to find corruption or a scandal in the Obama Administration.    So far, they have found little to nothing.

However, they’ve been seduced by wishful thinking about a botched Justice Department investigation called “Fast and Furious.”    Programs to track guns (so called gun walking) started back during the Bush Administration and were designed to generate information about Mexican drug cartels.     It ended when it became clear that some of the guns had found their way into criminal hands and had been used in crimes against innocents, perhaps even a US border guard.

That’s it.   Fortune magazine has investigated this extensively and concluded there was never any intent to have the guns fall into the wrong hands.   The Justice Department is conducting a thorough internal investigation.  Congress has also found no evidence of wrong doing.   But conspiracy theories on the far right came up with truly absurd claims — that this was an attempt to promote gun control by increasing violent crime, or that somehow the Justice Department was in collusion with Mexican drug cartels.

There is no evidence for any of those claims.   When the problems in the program came to light it was ended and ultimately thousands of documents were given the House Oversight committee.    It should have been enough; in fact, when the Committee Chair Darrell Issa said he wanted more, Attorney General Eric Holder obliged.   When it became clear that Issa was simply fishing, Holder refused to give over documents that deal with internal White House discussions, likely between Obama and Holder.  As President Bush (and all recent Presidents) have done in similar circumstances, President Obama declared executive privilege.

So why hold Holder in contempt – President Obama is the one declaring executive privilege?    It’s pure political theater.   The NRA and others who want a conspiracy theory to be true kept putting pressure on Issa to dig more, even though nothing, absolutely nothing, had been found to indicate deeper problems.   Beyond that, the GOP’s political wing hopes to at least create the illusion of scandal to help diminish President Obama’s reputation and increase their chances of defeating him.    The NRA even announced they would be “scoring” the contempt vote, pressuring a small number of moderate Democrats in conservative districts to join in the contempt vote.

I believe this was part of a clear GOP strategy to use Thursday as the start of a major assault on President Obama, with the ambitious goal of completely redefining his Presidency.   Consider the tiing:

At 10:00 Thursday the Supreme Court was set to rule on the Affordable Care Act.   Intrade gave it a 75% chance of being overturned, and pundits left and right seemed resigned to or energized by the fact it seemed almost certain that the court would reject the law.   It became entrenched conventional wisdom that the law was all but dead.  Rush Limbaugh said that Republicans should “spike the football” when it’s overturned, and a lot of conservatives were eager to hear the ruling.

Here’s how the GOP plan was supposed to operate:

1.  The Court would announce that the individual mandate was unconstitutional, thereby dooming the entire law because without the mandate it could not be funded.   They’d quickly seize on this as a failure of the President on his keystone issue, arguing that Obama can now claim no lasting accomplishment and making his first term a failure.

2.   The House would then hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt, the first time ever that the House and an Attorney General could not negotiate to settle an issue like this.    On top of the health care ruling, it would appear as if the Obama Administration was imploding.   This double whammy would be a stepping stone to an all out attack on the President, heaping ridicule, scorn and faux pity on Obama who would be painted as having not been up to the task of being leading the country.

3.   This day would mark the beginning of a redefinition of the Obama Presidency from being an historic activist one to a failed and incompetent one, setting up a victory for Mitt Romney and the GOP in the fall.

Since January 20, 2009 the goal of the GOP has been, as Senator Mitch McConnell said, to deny President Obama re-election.   They’ve refused to cooperate on major issues, pushed the country to the brink over a debt ceiling increase, and have increased the scope of partisanship in Washington.    This isn’t to say the Democrats weren’t often doing the sae thing, but compare how often the Democrats had been willing to work with President Bush to the way the GOP has dealt with Obama.    The difference is striking.  The Republicans in Washington had power and they lost it.   They want it back.    They can taste it.

McConnell explicitly stated that the number one goal of the GOP was to deny Obama re-election. Rather than work with him, they hoped to deny him accomplishments and then defeat him.

No doubt the talking points had been handed out; the assault on the President was about to begin.    Then incredibly one conservative Washington insider proved above politics: Chief Justice John Roberts.   Suddenly the joy on the right turned to anger, depression and shock as so-called Obamacare was ruled constitutional.    Obama emerged triumphant.

The contempt vote against Holder took place in this context but it was nothing like they had imagined it would be.   The Democrats staged a major walk out, and pundits decried the politicization of the issue and the grandstanding of Chairman Issa, who achieves nothing real by this vote.   At best it could make it to the courts and take months to get resolved, but most likely it just goes nowhere.   Rather than make the Obama administration look incompetent, the result was self-inflicted damage to the GOP.

Democrats walk out rather than vote on the contempt charges against Holder, reinforcing the idea it was a purely political vote.

The events of June 28th represent a defeat for the GOP.   Their efforts to paint Obama as a failed or ineffective President have so far fallen short.   Obama remains the favorite, is ahead in the polls, and has solid leads in important swing states.    This was to be their shot at seriously wounding the President before the campaign starts in earnest.     Few think Mitt Romney can win by enticing people to vote for Romney; they hope to convince people to vote against Obama.

The election is still months away and much can happen.    But the way events Thursday played themselves out had to be very depressing for Romney camp insiders and gives the President a tailwind going into July.


Angry about gas prices?

In April the GOP theme was clear: blame Obama for high gasoline prices!

Probably not.   If you’re like me, you’ve been watching them fall daily, from a high of $4.00 per gallon in early May to $3.55 in Farmington today (down from $3.59 yesterday).    Yet it wasn’t that long ago that Republicans from Mitt Romney to John Boehner eviscerated President Obama on high gas prices.   They rose because of his policies towards oil companies, his foreign policy, or the lack of domestic drilling.

But, Democrats complained, the President doesn’t control gasoline prices?   Hogwash, was the reply – Obama’s policies are one of the main reasons that they are high — and look for them to get higher this summer!

So what happened?

To be sure, some media sources blamed Obama more than others!

Remember back in 2008 when the economic crisis hit energy prices went way down.    Within less than a year we fluctuated from $160 a barrel to $35 a barrel.   The reason is simple:  oil supplies are pretty stable in the short term, and demand is generally price inelastic.    This means that if demand exceeds supply at a particular price, large price increases are necessary to reach a new equilibrium point.   In the booming economy of 2006-07 oil demand world wide went up, while supplies could not increase.   The result – a spike in oil prices.

To be sure, speculation did accentuate that, but that speculation was based on a belief that demand would continue to exceed supply and oil prices would continue to rise.    Of course, if demand falls dramatically, the opposite happens — oil prices go way down.   Unless supplies are cut, a drop in demand can mean a steep drop in price to reach a new equilibrium.

This graph was from March – from a guy named Andrew Butter on the investment website ‘seeking alpha’ – predicting the oil bubble would pop

Perhaps what we saw earlier this year was an increase in oil prices due to a belief that economies were starting to move out of the recession and that oil demand would again increase.   Add fear of a war with Iran (fears which have seemed to subside since then) and its not surprising that oil again went above $110 a barrel.

However, now it’s down to $85, and seems to be settling in at that price.   Yet all the people who were blaming Obama for price increases are not crediting him with bringing the price down.   Clearly that was an opportunity attack – if something goes wrong, anything, blame the President.   If it starts going right, look the other way.

To me the question becomes: are we in a cycle whereby every time the economy starts to show life, oil prices will rise, ultimately stifling the economic progress?   With lower oil prices we might get another burst of economic growth in the second half of 2012 — perhaps leading to another jump in oil prices which thwarts the recovery.

If so, we’re in a conundrum that requires either increased oil supplies or an increase in the use of alternative energy sources.   Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like oil supplies with increase soon.

Despite a slow economy, oil demand appears certain to keep rising, while new discoveries decline.

In Europe, there has been an intense effort to invest in wind turbines, solar panels, and a variety of other sources.  The Europeans say the future is with electricity, and they are bent on discovering how to efficiently generate electricity without fossil fuels.   They’ve made a lot of progress, which is why they were able to meet the Kyoto accord goals.

Some might point to natural gas and oil shale development in the US and Canada.   Those sources could potentially add to the oil supply, but on a time frame out that is too long to help in the near term.

This means that as we work through the financial problems, the debt crises in Europe and the US, and all the concerns about infrastructure and economic rebalancing, energy is a main barrier to change.   The last century was the century of cheap oil, our lifestyle, our global population boom, our expectation for easy access to goods from all over the world was built on cheap oil.   We’ve electrified and powered every aspect of our lives, from our homes to our appliances, lawn mowers and tools.

If the era of cheap energy is ending, our economy will never get to what one would have in the past called “normal.”    We’re destined to years of economic malaise, only to end when we both work through the debt crises, get banks back under control, and find a way to keep energy costs down.    We should be investing in all sorts of alternatives, like the Europeans are, but instead our stagnating, with Congress unwilling to act, and politicians enamored with a failed “free market” fantasy that markets can magically take care of everything.

Indeed the future might be won by whoever develops sustainable alternatives first and adapts their economy to use them.   In that, we’re already way behind.