Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A Facebook Group to Join

Apparently Facebook just hired Alberto Gonzalez's Chief of Staff, Ted Ulliyot, as its new general counsel. (via) Follow the link to see some of the reasons that people who add value to a company -- and everyone who uses facebook adds value to it -- should demand that such a person not be employed by that company. I'll just focus on one aspect: torture. Ulliyot was a co-author of the torture memo that gave (psuedo) legal cover for this particular crime against humanity committed by the Bush administration.

Anyone who uses facebook, and who is outraged by the fact that John Yoo is once again employed at UC Berkeley (even if you think academic freedom protects that employment) should be against Ulliyot working for facebook. And here there are no academic freedom issues.

Fortunately, a group demanding Ulliyot's resignation has already been set up. I urge everyone who uses facebook at all to join the group -- and invite all your friends.

(To those who might counter that the logical implication of this stance would be to make Ulliyot unemployable the answer is: yes. Precisely. Ulliyot belongs on trial, to see if his actions rise to the level of a crime against humanity, or if he stayed within the law in aiding and abetting other's crimes. But since that is -- alas -- unlikely to happen, at the very least he should be unemployed and unemployable -- as a minor deterrent to future lawyers who would aid and abet torture. There's no reason that Ulliyot should be doing anything apart from begging for spare change on the street -- unless he's rotting in jail somewhere.)

Monday, September 29, 2008

So Why Not Try a Good Bill Now?

As I quoted this morning, folks who understood this mess were divided on whether this was just terrible or bad but barely good enough to pass. Since it failed, however, the thing to do is obvious -- so obvious that everyone's suggesting it:
Bring Congress Back into Session After the Election... and go for the Swedish plan: nationalize the insolvent large financial institutions: dare Bush to veto that after the election.

- Brad DeLong

For reasons I’ve already explained, I don’t think the Dem leadership was in a position to craft a bill that would have achieved overwhelming Democratic support, so make or break was whether enough GOPers would sign on. They didn’t. I assume Pelosi calls a new vote; but if it fails, then what? I guess write a bill that is actually, you know, a good plan, and try to pass it — though politically it might not make sense to try until after the election.

-- Paul Krugman

Given that the House GOP didn’t deliver the 80 (or whatever) votes that Democrats were making substantive concessions in order to achieve, now I really don’t see why the Democratic leadership doesn’t tear this thing up and start writing a progressive bill.

-- Matt Yglesias
Sounds good to me.

Update: A question from ignorance:

There may well be a good answer to the following question. But I'd like to hear it. It seems that the main problem that caused the bailout bill to fail was a populist feeling against it, that swamped the feeling of the bipartisan political leadership that something needed to be done. So why not go about this by bailing out the homeowners directly (in some fashion -- I have no idea how this would work), as has been suggested? Giving billions of dollars so people can stay in their homes strikes me as far more defensible against populist demagoguery than giving billions of dollars to wall street to buy off their bad investments. So why not try it from that angle? Let people vote for a package they can defend to their constituents?

Yes or No?: Today's Quotes on the Golden Fleece

I don't have any thoughts of my own on the current version of the Golden Fleece, so I'll -- once again -- quote others. More quotes may be added later today.

It passes my test of no equity, no deal; that, plus the danger of financial panic if it doesn’t go through, makes it worth passing, though celebration is not in order.

- Paul Krugman

There is no plausible scenario under which the no bailout scenario gives us a Great Depression. There is a more plausible scenario (but highly unlikely) that the bailout will give us a Great Depression. There is no way that the failure to do a bailout will lead to more than a very brief failure of the financial system. We will not lose our modern system of payments. At this point I cannot identify a single good reason to do the bailout. ...the restrictions on executive pay and the commitment to give the taxpayers equity in banks in exchange for buying bad assets are jokes. These provisions are sops to provide cover. They are not written in ways to be binding... Finally, the bailout absolutely can make things worse. We are going to be in a serious recession because of the collapse of the housing bubble. We will need effective stimulus measures to boost the economy and keep the recession from getting worse. However, the $700 billion outlay on the bailout is likely to be used as an argument against effective stimulus... If the bailout proves to be an obstacle to effective stimulus in future months and years, then the bailout could lead to exactly the sort of prolonged economic downturn that its proponents claim it is intended to prevent. In short, the bailout rewards some of the richest people in the country for their incompetence. It provides little obvious economic benefit and could lead to long-term harm. That looks like a pretty bad deal.

-- Dean Baker

...there’s just no way to get around the fact that the Bush administration will take the lead in implementing this legislation. And while the administration did cave on a couple of key points and allow in language that permits Treasury to take on equity in bailed-out firms and to do some mortgage modification, it seems likely from the differences between Paulson’s proposal and the Dodd-Frank counteroffer that the person who’ll be in charge of implementing this doesn’t really believe in doing that stuff. Under the circumstances, it looks like a bill that’ll be good enough to stave off collapse of the financial system, but probably won’t wind up addressing the full extent of the problem. This subject is going to have to be revisited after the election. But the unfortunate reality is that the current configuration of power in Washington still leaves the conservatives whose policies and ideology is largely responsible for the collapse in command of too many levers of power to simply implement a solution that’s not tainted by their misconception of the problem.

-- Matt Yglesais

It also seems to me to be really important to keep my anger focussed where it should be: partly on the people whose deals got us into this mess, but much more importantly, on the legislators who failed to do their jobs, or who allowed themselves to be seduced by idiotic economic theories which were, as it happened, in the interests of powerful lobbies. We're obviously going to have to pass some serious regulation to prevent this from happening again... We will also have to have some serious deficit spending. Regulation might prevent the next disaster, but it will not help with this one....

- Hilzoy

So is the package worth voting for? It is, in my view, but just barely and only as a stopgap. Congress did add tighter controls, and does not permit Paulson to go out and spend the whole $700 billion at once.... Given the choice of voting this rescue package up or down, the responsible vote is Aye. It's what's for breakfast. And we will have something else for lunch.... So the best outcome is that this bailout buys several weeks or perhaps months, that both parties' fingerprints are on this hasty and flawed package, that Paulson runs through only a hundred billion or two by the time Congress grasps that it's time to go back to the drawing board. And that the incoming president starts thinking now about how to do this right.... Think of this package as a bridge -- not an Alaska-style bridge to nowhere, but as a just-barely-viable bridge to the Obama administration -- which can then begin the arduous task of getting it right.

-- Robert Kuttner

I’m being asked two big questions about this thing: (1) Was it really necessary? (2) Shouldn’t Dems have tossed the whole Paulson approach out the window and done something completely different? On (1), the answer is yes.... On (2), the call is tougher. But putting myself in Barney Frank or Nancy Pelosi’s shoes, I’d look at it this way: the Democrats could start over, with a bailout plan that is, say, centered on purchases of preferred stock and takeovers of failing firms — basically, a plan clearly focused on recapitalizing the financial sector, with nationalization where necessary. That’s what the plan should have looked like. Maybe such a plan would have passed Congress; and maybe, just maybe Bush would have signed on; Paulson is certainly desperate for a deal. But such a plan would have had next to no Republican votes — and the Republicans would have demagogued against it full tilt. And the Democratic leadership cannot, cannot, be seen to have sole ownership of this stuff. So that, I think, is why it had to be done this way. I don’t like it, and I don’t like the plan, but I see the constraints under which Dodd, Frank, Pelosi, and Reid were operating.

- Paul Krugman 2

...if a rescue is really as necessary as informed observers think, then why shouldn’t the GOP’s friends in the business community have forced them to go along?... I think the Democrats had the strongest hand and just blinked at the thought of going “all-in” with it. Arguable that was the responsible thing to do. But on another level, you really can’t ever get anything done in the American legislative process if you’re not willing to engage in a little brinksmanship...

-- Matt Yglesias 2

If something really needs to be done, tell Paulson, the Republicans, and the Bush Dogs to eat shit and pass a bill Democrats can support.... Don't play football with Lucy.

-- Atrios, aka Duncan Black -- 2nd half from here

Sunday, September 28, 2008

50 Things That Every Comics Collection Truly Needs (Memes to Distract Myself as the World Burns, pt 2)

Today Tom Spurgeon presented his list of The 50 Things That Every Comics Collection Truly Needs. He invites readers to play along by replacing some items with others, but I thought I'd play along in a different way, by trying to turn it into a meme: accepting Spurgeon's categories as a given, how well does your comics collection stack up?

Note this is supposed to be things that you own, not things you have read -- consumption not literacy is the order of the day. I've read a number of items on this list that I don't happen to own copies of (e.g. Binky Brown and the Holy Virgin Mary, Raw, etc.), but those don't count.

Looking at Spurgeon's list, I went through and categorized each entry into one of four categories:

Plain = Things I don't have
Bold = Things I do have
Italics = I have some but probably not enough
Underline = Do collections count as runs? If so yes, if no no

If one is interested in comics primarily as an artistic medium, this is not a list to pay much attention to. But it's a very good list, IMHO, as far as comics as a cultural phenomenon is concerned, with a wide spread of different types, categories, various significant elements from a wide variety of places & times.

Counting "Things I Have" and "Collections", but not "Don't Have" and "Some But Not Enough", I have 28/50 items. Throw in all the "Somes" and it comes to 33/50. Guess I've got some buyin' to do.

My list below. If you have a comics collection and a blog, consider yourself tagged. (If you're missing either, they're both quite fun things to have, methinks.)


1. Something From The ACME Novelty Library
2. A Complete Run Of Arcade
3. Any Number Of Mini-Comics
4. At Least One Pogo Book From The 1950s
5. A Barnaby Collection
6. Binky Brown and the Holy Virgin Mary
7. As Many Issues of RAW as You Can Place Your Hands On
8. A Little Stack of Archie Comics
9. A Suite of Modern Literary Graphic Novels
10. Several Tintin Albums
11. A Smattering Of Treasury Editions Or Similarly Oversized Books
12. Several Significant Runs of Alternative Comic Book Series
13. A Few Early Comic Strip Collections To Your Taste
14. Several "Indy Comics" From Their Heyday
15. At Least One Comic Book From When You First Started Reading Comic Books
16. At Least One Comic That Failed to Finish The Way It Planned To
17. Some Osamu Tezuka
18. The Entire Run Of At Least One Manga Series
19. One Or Two 1970s Doonesbury Collections
20. At Least One Saul Steinberg Hardcover
21. One Run of A Comic Strip That You Yourself Have Clipped
22. A Selection of Comics That Interest You That You Can't Explain To Anyone Else
23. At Least One Woodcut Novel
24. As Much Peanuts As You Can Stand
25. Maus
26. A Significant Sample of R. Crumb's Sketchbooks
27. The original edition of Sick, Sick, Sick.
28. The Smithsonian Collection Of Newspaper Comics
29. Several copies of MAD
30. A stack of Jack Kirby 1970s Comic Books
31. More than a few Stan Lee/Jack Kirby 1960s Marvel Comic Books
32. A You're-Too-High-To-Tell Amount of Underground Comix
33. Some Calvin and Hobbes
34. Some Love and Rockets
35. The Marvel Benefit Issue Of Coober Skeber
36. A Few Comics Not In Your Native Tongue
37. A Nice Stack of Jack Chick Comics
38. A Stack of Comics You Can Hand To Anybody's Kid
39. At Least A Few Alan Moore Comics
40. A Comic You Made Yourself
41. A Few Comics About Comics
42. A Run Of Yummy Fur
43. Some Frank Miller Comics
44. Several Lee/Ditko/Romita Amazing Spider-Man Comic Books
45. A Few Great Comics Short Stories
46. A Tijuana Bible
47. Some Weirdo
48. An Array Of Comics In Various Non-Superhero Genres
49. An Editorial Cartoonist's Collection or Two
50. A Few Collections From New Yorker Cartoonists

Friday, September 26, 2008

Unscripted Debate Reaction

I sort of agree with what I've seen from looking around the net so far, which is that it was a tie -- both did OK, neither did amazingly better than the other. Given that people claim Obama needs to show his stature, and that this is supposedly McCain's strong area, and that Obama is slightly ahead, one could argue that this favors Obama. But personally, given how appallingly bad McCain is, I always find it incredibly grating to watch these things -- wondering at every moment why the candidate I support isn't doing better, attacking more, tearing the other guy to verbal shreds. (Update: Kind of like this. Damn. Now that's some good shredding. Kinda makes me look forward to the VP debate...)

But I guess it was a tie. (...Unless anyone looks to substance. But seriously, folks...)

A few offhand questions: Isn't it just weird to talk about earmarks when you're debating the financial crisis? Is McCain giving us his travel itinerary really worth our time? And I thought that he dropped the whole "experience" talking point when he picked Sarah Palin. Now that's back on?

I haven't gone and checked, but it seems to me that McCain told a reasonable number of lies. Did he just deny his record of voting against alternative energy?

Mainly, though, while I think it was a tie -- and it certainly didn't make me think any better of McCain -- it was, overall, quite disappointing as a picture of Obama. He was far, far more hawkish than I would like to see. (I mean, supporting missile defense? What the hell is that?) And his overall posture towards Iran was far more hostile than I'd like to see; not to mention my serious misgivings about trying to ramp up the war in Afghanistan... So while McCain came across -- to me, I mean, not to the country -- as a blithering idiot, Obama came across as a depressingly centrist, hawkish Democrat.

So while of course I'll vote for him -- I certainly don't want McCain to be president, and like it or not them's the choices -- the whole thing was a bit depressing all around.

Update: A few additional points...

* All the props that the moderator, Jim Lehrer, is getting are deserved: serious questions on serious topics, and he let them talk to each other (which the format called for, but props for letting them run over when appropriate). No hand-raising. It's good to have real questions.

* So far as I can recall (I'm not going to go check the transcript), came pretty much made all 10 of these predicted distortions on his foreign policy record. Some were implications rather than statements, but he certainly came close to all ten points, and directly made a lot of them.

* Everyone's reporting that the insta-polls are giving the debate to Obama. Someone pointed out... frustratingly, I can't find the link... that the pitch here isn't to people like me, but to undecideds: and they don't like direct squabbling as much as partisans do. Mark Scmitt makes a related point here, that while there were lots of things Obama could have called McCain on, it was better overall that he didn't. So my yearning for more shredding of McCain's nonsense was perhaps better left unfulfilled.

* Notwithstanding the former point, I can't help but feeling frustrated that Obama let McCain control the terrain so much -- and on silly or even misleading terrain at that. When McCain starts talking about spending/earmarks in response to the financial crisis, why no point out more forcefully that these issues have no real bearing on it (as opposed to trying to engage McCain on that terrain as Obama did)? And so forth.

* Missile defense?!? A billions-of-dollars-boondoggle that by all reports will never work? WTF?

Let Me See If I Have This Straight

Struggling to understand the complex politics of the moment. As I understand it -- simplifying greatly, of course -- here's the rough series of events:

* There is a serious financial crisis, which could potentially lead to another Great Depression; one of the main causes of this was deregulation.

* Something Needs To Be Done; but the politics of this are quite tough, since Something will necessarily involve funnelling taxpayer money to rich people, giving the taxpayers the sense that they're being screwed (which they are -- but the screwing was the deregulation, not the bail-out... unless the latter is done poorly).

* Since Something Needs To Be Done, a truly appalling plan is proposed by the Bush Administration, one with no oversight, no reregulation, no taxpayer protection, no bones thrown to "Main Street" (in the parlance of our times), and a wholly arbitrary sum of money -- a plan which, on top of everything else, may well not work. (Could even make things worse!) This plan is "sold" by frank lying on the part of its proposed Czar, Paulson.

* Lots of objections are raised to this plan. The objections to the lack of oversight are from all sides. The objections to the huge giveaway to the rich are from people all across the country who are neither in Congress or rich bankers. But the other objections vary, ranging from good to bad, to informed to uninformed, and including a fair amount of the anti-government sentiment that caused the problem in the first place.

* Ignoring various options that would be radically different in focus (e.g. bailing out homeowners not wall street firms, as various people have suggested), Congress comes up with a counter-proposal to the Paulson plan, which fixes some of its more egregious elements, but is still pretty bad... partly because the Congress is full of wimps, partly because they've all been bought off by Wall Street, and partly because a lot of the mistakes were already made (e.g. deregulation) and thus a fair amount of bad is unavoidable even in the best of fixes.

* Congress is, however, afraid to pass the Bad But Not As Bad As Paulson plan without bipartisan support, since the rage in the country means anyone who votes against it could be demagogued against. This fear is both unreasonable and reasonable: it's reasonable because if Congress weren't so damn corrupt and wimpy they could write a much better plan, one that might assuage a great deal of the populist anger in the country, but unreasonable because, again, Something Must Be Done and a lot of the mistakes are already made.

* The Right-wing of the Republican caucus, meanwhile, comes up with a plan that is even worse than the abominable Paulson plan, and departs from reality in a serious way. But it will let them tap into the (combination reasonable/unreasonable) anger over the plan (and generally over the situation... which they were a major cause of, given their backing of the deregulation that was a key factor in this mess).

* At the last minute, however, the Bad But Not As Bad As Paulson is derailed by John McCain, who parachutes in hoping to either A) vote against the Bad But Not As Bad As Paulson (on the grounds that the Even Worse Than Paulson plan should have been chosen), using such a vote to separate himself from Bush and tap into the populist anger about the entire mess (which he and his presumptive Treasury pick Phil Gramm helped enable with deregulation), or, perhaps, B) to vote for the plan and take credit for saving the economy. No one seems to know whether he was going to choose A or B... quite possibly not even McCain himself, who seems to be keeping his options open.

* So: the good news is the abominable Paulson plan and the Bad But Not As Bad As Paulson plan are both scuttled. The bad news is that nothing is going to be done, which could potentially lead to another great depression... since, all the scams and rumors of scams aside, the situation is really serious. (Problably. No one's quite sure.) And while the Bad But Not As Bad As Paulson was, in fact, bad -- compared to a lot of stuff that progressives would have wanted to add (even keeping the same basic structure), let alone the other ideas being floated, it was -- probably; no one's quite sure -- good enough to avert the potential Great Depression 2, while still being a whole lot better than the Abominable & Even Worse plans. (Although God and the Devil are both in the details here, and we don't know the details yet.)

Meanwhile, the fear of the financial collapse is still very present, and the Simultaneously Reasonable and Unreasonable anger throughout the country is still very powerful, and could easily attach to politicians who support good plans, or bad plans, or no plans. Or not. Certainly no one knows who will benefit from all this politically (I was going to add "or financially", but it seems like "rich bankers" is a safe bet on that last one: everybody knows the game is rigged here.)

One of the complexities here is that almost any move towards a good outcome -- in various directions -- moves through far worse outcomes (e.g. to get a good bill, which we need, we need first to scuttle the bad ones... which might mean none, which is worse; but to get a bill, which we need, we need to move towards it... which might well lead to a bill even worse than nothing.) So any given move might be great or terrible, depending on how things turn out later, plus a whole lot of factors that I don't understand (including many that no one understands).

For all that McCain is trying to gimmick this for a quick political advantage, his scuttling of the Bad But Not As Bad As Paulson bill could end up being a good thing... if it leads to a good bill (even though he would himself oppose such a bill, out of principle or politics or both); but it also could kick off GD2: the Empire Blows Back.

And, of course, in theory, even passing a good bill could politically redound to the benefit of those who oppose it -- due to the (reasonable) populist anger here -- therefore, potentially, to those whose ideology of deregulation was a key factor in creating the problem in the first place. On the other hand, passing no bill could lead to GD2... which could politically help... who knows. But in most ways it'd hurt us all. Very, very badly.

So: do I have that roughly correct? (That's actually a real question, not simply a rhetorical one.)

Update: Chris Hayes simplifies the politics of the central bill (Dodd/Frank, aka Bad But Not As Bad As Paulson, which seems to be the chief one on offer at the moment). Briefly:
1) The bailout is unpopular... 2) The crisis is terrifying to lawmakers... if you don't pass this, they're being told, you'll have the blood of another Great Depression on your hands. 3) Ergo: The optimal outcome for all lawmkers is to vote against the bill and still have it pass. That way you get to have your cake and eat it, too. But what we're dealing with is something akin to a massive prisoner's dilemma. Everyone wants to get into the decision quadrant of voting against the bill and having it pass, but of course if everyone rushes for that quadrant, then the bill doesn't pass and therefore, no one ends up in that quadrant....
Unabridged (but still very short) version here.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

iPod Wordle

Depressed and despairing about politics and the world? What to do?

I know... an internet meme!

This one is via Gary Canavan (whose blog I just discovered, but which seems cool). It involves Wordle, a fun internet time-waster which I discovered a while ago. Here are the rules:
1. In iTunes, select View Options under the View menu.
2. Turn off everything but “Artist.”
3. Select all and copy.
4. Search and Replace the word “track” with nothing.
5. Paste the results into the Wordle.net Create page.
Alas, to make it work I had to make a few alterations. First, I keep all my music on my iPod, so this is the iPod, not iTunes. Second, I couldn't get the names of songs to disappear, so those are still there.

Doing this got the following:

Click on that for a larger version (I can't figure out how to make it bigger, sorry...).

But, you may notice, this is dominated by the single biggest thing in my iPod (by number of tracks), namely, the audiobook of the unabridged Lord of the Rings (with tracks every three minutes so there's lots).

So I removed all those words ("Tolkien", "Fellowship", etc.) -- plus "Disc" for good measure -- and did it again (keeping the settings consistent, just 'cause) and got this:

If you have a blog, and an iPod (or an iTunes with music in it, or anything else), consider yourself tagged.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Why $700,000,000,000?

"It's not based on any particular data point," a Treasury spokeswoman told Forbes.com Tuesday. "We just wanted to choose a really large number."

-- Forbes.com (via)
The more I hear about this the more I think it's just a scam.

Update: The buzz on the web is that Congress is close to a deal -- so far as I can tell, a $700,000,000,000 deal. So what Matt Yglesias said:
Doesn’t this seem like a very strong argument for a much smaller appropriation designed to last for another couple of months? There’s nothing to stop congress from appropriating more money in mid-November if the situation seems to warrant it.
Of all the things under negotiation, the amount seems like the first thing to fight on. Given that it was just pulled out of nowhere.

If it's a scam, might as well make it a smaller scam than they want. If nothing else.

While it sounds better than the Monarchy bill that Paulson first approved, the bill that's being described sounds -- if rumor holds true -- far, far, far worse than what the Democrats should hold out for.

But then, if this is class warfare, then ultimately the Democrats and the Republicans are on the same side: that of the rich.

It sounds like the rest of us might be about to get the shaft.

2nd Update: Don't believe me? I don't blame you. So listen to Paul Krugman, someone who actually understands these matters:
My sneaking suspicion is that they started with a determination to throw money at the financial industry, and everything else is just an excuse.
It's just a scam.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Monday, September 22, 2008

Quote of the Day: Golden Fleece Edition

If the bailout were properly structured, firms would not be lining up to get in. It should be a last resort that involves selling most of the firm to the government, as happened with AIG. If banks are lining up to get in, then the people who designed the bailout should be chased out of town.

-- Dean Baker

Update: A series of quotes on a particular angle of the Golden Fleece:

In 2007, Wall Street's five biggest firms-- Bear Stearns, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, and Morgan Stanley - paid a record $39 billion in bonuses to themselves. That's $10 billion more than the $29 billion loan taxpayers are making to J.P. Morgan to save Bear Stearns. Those 2007 bonuses were paid even though the shareholders in those firms last year collectively lost about $74 billion in stock declines --their worst year since 2002. If split equally among the approximately 186,000 workers at the former Big Five Houses, that bonus money means an average of $201,500 per person -- more than four times the $48,201 median household income in the U.S. last year.

-- ABC News

Bush Backs Unlimited Compensation For Disgraced CEOs

-- Think Progress Headline

Having punitive measures would provide a disincentive for firms to participate, and that would make the program much less likely to succeed.

-- George W. Bush

By law, managers are fiduciaries for shareholders. Any manager of a financial institution who refused to sell assets to the Garbage Pail Agency because doing so would cap his salary would be personally liable for any resulting losses.

-- Mark Kleinman

If the bailout were properly structured, firms would not be lining up to get in. It should be a last resort that involves selling most of the firm to the government, as happened with AIG. If banks are lining up to get in, then the people who designed the bailout should be chased out of town.

-- Op. Cit.

Up to 10,000 staff at the New York office of the bankrupt investment bank Lehman Brothers will share a bonus pool set aside for them that is worth $2.5 billion... the $2.5bn bonus pool in New York had been set aside before Lehman Brothers filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy...

-- UK Independent

...punitive measures are essential. The normal punishment for failed business leadership is that your company goes bankrupt. But the crux of the current situation is that everyone agrees that it would be unwise to simply let these financial firms fail. The spillover damage to the rest of the economy would be too great. So one way or another, they need to be saved. But rescuing companies in these kind of situations creates a “moral hazard” problem. You want to prevent the firms from folding, without creating an incentive for future executives to engage in irresponsible behavior.

-- Matt Yglesias

This isn’t a natural disaster like the Gustav hurricane. This is a man-made, avoidable, preventable problem — and a lack of oversight and accountability was one of the problems.

-- Chris Dodd

...must be held to account. There must be a consequence... We're making good progress in terms of the implementation of our accountability systems... embracing a new level of accountability... a culture of achievement, a culture of results over process. In this new culture, accountability plans are driving reform.

-- George W. Bush, 2003, talking about something effecting poor rather than rich people

"Do we really want to signal that risks are public and rewards are private?" I think it depends who "we" are. James and I and most ordinary people make up a "we" who don’t want to signal any such thing. The people actually making policy are a whole other "we." I suspect they do want to signal "that risks are public and rewards are private" if you are rich and influential.

-- Jim Henley

Conservatism is the domination of society by an aristocracy... People who believe that the aristocracy rightfully dominates society because of its intrinsic superiority are conservatives; democrats, by contrast, believe that they are of equal social worth. Conservatism is the antithesis of democracy.... Conservatism in every place and time is founded on deception. The deceptions of conservatism today are especially sophisticated, simply because culture today is sufficiently democratic that the myths of earlier times will no longer suffice.

-- Philip Agre, "What is Conservatism and What is Wrong With It?" (2004)

Then I'll get on my knees and pray
We don't get fooled again

-- The Who

Just Asking

The bailout plan says that
Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency.
Does this mean that if Paulson decides to simply give himself, say, $1 billion of the $700 billion as a fee for his services that he couldn't be challenged in any way on that?

I'm not saying he'd do this. I'm just saying that if the law is written so that there was nothing to do if he did do this, then it must be rewritten with some real oversight in it.

I called my Senators; had trouble getting through to one. I hope that's because their phones are tied up with citizens angry about this. And I encourage my readers in the strongest possible terms to all call their Congress critters and oppose this travesty.

Update: Incidentally, responsible left voices are already warning that the Republicans will use this bill to run against the Democrats -- and right voices are cackling in anticipation of doing so. If Pelosi et al have an ounce of sense or self-preservation, they'd make sure that a near-unanimous vote from both sides was a part of the deal -- hardly an important part, given the large number of changes that need to be made, but it should be a simple one. Of course, they've amply demonstrated over the past two years that they have neither any sense nor even any self-preservation that's worth the paper a Diebold vote is printed on, so I fear they may well let themselves get played on this, too. Update to the Update: More on this important angle here from Digby. (via)

Sunday, September 21, 2008

New Deal Or No Deal

Obama's statement lays out good principles.

Now he's got to !@#$%ing fight for them.

This is one to go to the mat for.

The slogan: NEW DEAL OR NO DEAL.

(Plus, what to avoid vis-à-vis the on-offer swindle: "We must do something; this is something; therefore, we must do this.")

NEW DEAL OR NO DEAL. Pass it on.

I Feel So Much Better Now

"It turns out that there's a lot of interlinks through the financial system."

-- George W. Bush, yesterday
Jeeze this would be a good time not to be ruled by incompetent halfwits. But hey, at least he'd be fun to have a beer with, right?

(PS: I just tried to phone my Senators, Clinton & Schumer, to see if I could register an opinion on the $700,000,000,000 strings-free giveaway... but no one answered the phone in either office. Well, it's Sunday. And it's not like the economy's melting down or anything, right?)

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Quotes from the Edge of a Cliff

It's not a topic I know about, but what I'm reading from people who do know about it is scaring me half to death. It sounds like we're about to make a mistake of Iraq-war proportions or worse.

Here's some of what I've been reading (the first half are people who know a lot more about this than I; the second are people who don't, but have read stuff similar to the first half and are angry in an articulate way). I may add more as I see 'em, but for now:
"...looking at the plan as leaked, I have to say no deal."

-- Paul Krugman

The decisions that will be made this weekend matter not just to the prospects of the U.S. economy in the year to come; they will shape the type of capitalism we will live in for the next fifty years. Do we want to live in a system where profits are private, but losses are socialized? Where taxpayer money is used to prop up failed firms? Or do we want to live in a system where people are held responsible for their decisions, where imprudent behavior is penalized and prudent behavior rewarded? For somebody like me who believes strongly in the free market system, the most serious risk of the current situation is that the interest of few financiers will undermine the fundamental workings of the capitalist system. The time has come to save capitalism from the capitalists.

-- Brad DeLong Brad DeLong quoting (with misleading formatting) Luigi Zingales [PDF Link]

The scheme has gone from invisibility to inevitability in the blink of an eye. This is extremely dangerous.... The plan is being marketed under false pretenses.... The Treasury plan outlined on Friday involves vast risks to taxpayers, huge complexity and no guarantee of success. There are better ways forward.

-- Sebastian Mallaby, "A Bad Bank Rescue"

If Wall Street gets away with this, it will represent an historic swindle of the American public--all sugar for the villains, lasting pain and damage for the victims.... The scandal is not that government is acting. The scandal is that government is not acting forcefully enough...

-- William Grieder

Congress, the Fed, and the Administration shouldn't be giving more help to Wall Street. Policymakers should focus instead on people who really need a safety net right now -- workers who have lost or are about to lose their jobs, who need extended unemployment insurance and health insurance for themselves and their families; homeowners who have lost or are likely to lose their homes, who need additional help meeting mortgage payments and reorganizing their debts; and people who have lost or are in danger of losing their savings or pensions, who need better insurance against possible loss.

-- Robert Reich

Any member of Congress who looks at the plan to give Hank unchecked power to transfer $700 billion from the Treasury to his friends' companies and has any reaction other than "You've got to be fucking kidding me" does not deserve to hold office.

-- Atrios (a.k.a. Duncan Black, Ph.D. in economics, just btw)

This is the domestic equivalent of the Iraq war authorization. The threat of financial collapse is analogous to the weapons of mass destruction. The markets will wait. Congress can give a proposal with real conditions and then it will be Bush's call if he wants to be responsible for collapsing the U.S. economy. Congress can't be taken yet again.

-- Dean Baker (link added)

... any business that markets itself as "too big to fail" is also too big to be unregulated. Free Marketeers forever quote Adam Smith's famed "invisible hand" metaphor. They interpret Smith to be saying that the sum of everyone acting selfishly will be the public good. If we have learned anything from the mess in which we find ourselves now, it is the untruth of that belief. To achieve a thriving economy - to build a society of which we can be proud - we have to use the brains God gave us. That means positive, active, assertive, informed governmental action. For decades, one political party has told us that government is the problem, not the solution. They certainly aren't acting that way now.

-- Richard Tedlow (Prof., Harvard Business School)

I know very little about... the high-wire financial mess we're currently in... But I know enough to be troubled that we appear ready to give upwards of a trillion dollars in unfettered and unreviewable spending authority to the ... let's face it, the Bush administration, the folks who did such a bang up job in Iraq and New Orleans. This morning a friend told me it's like the Iraq War all over again -- Shock & Awe, followed by an occupation of Wall Street, and all with no exit plan.

-- Josh Marshall

...the fact that Democrats are on board with this scheme means absolutely nothing. When it comes to things the Bush administration wants, Congressional Democrats don't say "no" to anything. ... They say "yes" regardless of whether they understand what they're endorsing.... an injustice so grave and extreme that it defies words is taking place; that the greatest beneficiaries are those who are most culpable; and that the same hopelessly broken and deeply rotted institutions and elite class that gave rise to all of this (and so much more) are the very ones that are -- yet again -- being blindly entrusted to solve this.

-- Glenn Greenwald

I do not ever want to hear another damned word about the free market. I don’t want to hear another thing about letting the market regulate itself. I don’t want to hear about the free flow of capital. I don’t want to hear about government getting out of our lives. None of it. From superfunds to super-bailouts, I am tired of other people getting rich being irresponsible and then being told I have to pay to clean it up. I didn’t read one punitive aspect of this new plan. Not one punishment for the people who did this.

-- John Cole

Hank Paulson is asking for $700,000,000,000. That's $2,333 from every man, woman, and child in the United States. In exchange for that money, Paulson is unwilling to accept any demands to make markets more transparent, limit executive compensation, or assist homeowners fighting foreclosure. The sole purpose of that $700,000,000,000 is to bail out Wall Street and only Wall Street, but not to fix it, or our larger economy. He is asking to be absolutely unbound by any law when he spends that money. Hank Paulson--one of the CEOs who got us into this mess--is asking each and every American to give him $2,333 to do with as he sees fit, with absolutely no strings attached.

-- Emptywheel at Firedoglake
As for what would be a good idea, Dean Baker has some suggestions.

Time to call your congresscritters, folks. Even if, like me, you don't know much about the details, it seems that telling them to slow down and look at other options before jumping and make sure there is some accountability here seems very important. This looks like it could get really, really, really ugly.

Update, 9/21: Still more quotes:
There is more information on the back of a box of Froot Loops than on what they've presented...

-- Austan Goolsbee

Paulsen and congressional Republicans... have said that there can't be any "add ons," or addition provisions. Fuck that. I don't really want to trigger a world wide depression (that's not hyperbole, that's a distinct possibility), but I'm not voting for a blank check for $700 billion for those mother fuckers.

Nancy [Pelosi] said she wanted to include the second "stimulus" package that the Bush Administration and congressional Republicans have blocked. I don't want to trade a $700 billion dollar giveaway to the most unsympathetic human beings on the planet for a few fucking bridges. I want reforms of the industry, and I want it to be as punitive as possible.

-- Anonymous member of Congress

But thus far, the Administration has only offered a concept with a staggering price tag, not a plan.... The bottom line is that we must change the economic policies that led us down this dangerous path in the first place. For the last eight years, we’ve had an “on your own-anything goes” philosophy in Washington and on Wall Street that lavished tax cuts on the wealthy and big corporations; that viewed even common-sense regulation and oversight as unwise and unnecessary; and that shredded consumer protections and loosened the rules of the road. Ordinary Americans are now paying the price. The events of this week have rendered a final verdict on that failed philosophy, and it is a philosophy I will end as President of the United States.

-- Barack Obama

Obama's people are making the right noises, but there's a difference between being on record as being kinda-maybe against and actually, you know, opposing... Basically, you'd have to be insane to give Paulson a $700 billion blank check with no strings attached. The fact that this is what Paulson has asked Congress to do is enough reason to tell him to fuck off and come up with something better, with him utterly out of the loop.

The Dems sucked as a minority party, and they suck harder as the majority.

-- Atrios

The only defense for the play is for a significant group of Democrats to say they won't vote for any proposal that isn't unpalatable to industry, and mean it. It's a pretty high stakes game of chicken, but otherwise we come out of this with nothing but a $700 billion giveaway to a crooked industry.

-- A (different) anonymous member of Congress

Backstory on the Financial Meltdown

I just listened to this episode of This American Life from back in May, and found it very illuminating. (via)

Update: Another piece of backstory, from a summary of this news story reporting an interview with former SEC official Lee Pickard (via):
The current excess leverage now unwinding was the result of a purposeful SEC exemption given to five firms. You read that right -- the events of the past year are not a mere accident, but are the results of a conscious and willful SEC decision to allow these firms to legally violate existing net capital rules that, in the past 30 years, had limited broker dealers debt-to-net capital ratio to 12-to-1.

Instead, the 2004 exemption -- given only to 5 firms -- allowed them to lever up 30 and even 40 to 1.

Who were the five that received this special exemption? You won't be surprised to learn that they were Goldman, Merrill, Lehman, Bear Stearns, and Morgan Stanley.

As Mr. Pickard points out that "The proof is in the pudding — three of the five broker-dealers have blown up."

Friday, September 19, 2008

Our Politics Today

It seems to me like our politics today is like trying to figure out good strategies for teaching science while creationists are beating at the doors.

There are good science teachers and bad ones; there are different schools of thoughts on how to teach science; and so forth. But none of these things can be hashed out when people are demanding that science teachers teach unscientific falsehoods. Rather, you close ranks -- which elides the (very serious, if you take science education seriously!) problem of how to teach, and who can do it well -- and focus making sure that science is taught at all.

You can't figure out how to do it well until everyone involved in the conversation is at least trying to do it.

You might have noticed: we have an enormous number of problems in the world. We're in two wars that aren't going well; our country's economy is swirling down the toilet (and while I don't know enough to say for sure, it may well be that the result will be a huge bill for the taxpayers and an inability for the government to do any of the positive things that need doing); our constitution has been shredded by the current administration; we now torture as official policy, and lots of people are OK with that; we have a terrible health care system; and so on.

But we can't really deal with -- can't begin to deal with -- any of these problems as long as the crazies are in the room.

The sheer level of insanity -- lack of actual attachment to reality -- represented by the present-day Republicans is such that it's not so much that they have bad ideas: they have mediocre PR masquerading as ideas. Mainly what they have is a favor towards war-mongering, culture-war and giving lots of money to the rich -- but quite frankly they don't even do any of that very well.

It's not that Obama will fix everything. He may not fix anything much. His ideas on health care may be bad ones; his administration may die an inglorious death in the mountains of a guerrilla war in Afghanistan; he may not be able to do more for the economy than keep it collapsing. And so forth.

Obama may not fix everything, or really anything -- but he'll let us start having rational conversations again.

Once you kick the creationists out, you may be left with a bad science teacher, using a terrible pedagogical method. But gorram it, at least science will be being taught -- not falsehoods.

Defeating McCain will solve little; Obama has lots of flaws. But electing him is the first step towards righting our politics.

Unfortunately, winning this election won't sufficiently change the debate. We need to root out the insanity -- the willingness to do anything, no matter how crazy, how detached from reality, how vile or immoral or destructive -- that has become the mainstay of Republican politics. We need to make it so that those voices are no longer causing us all to go deaf from their screaming.

Then we can talk about how to dig our way out of the hole we're in.

Which is to say: even defeating McCain won't solve this problem. It's like winning one creationist argument -- they're still there, arguing for nonsense to be taught. And that will still make it difficult for us to move towards getting good science teachers and good science pedagogy, being too busy make sure we have someone teaching science at all.

But it's the first step. The necessary first step.

I don't know how we're going to dig our way out of the disastrous mess we are in (that, let's be clear, Bush has put us in). I don't know if we can.

But we can't figure that out until the lunatics leave the building.

That, my friends, is step one.

After that, we'll see.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Some Religious Ideas Are Subject to Scientific Investigation

Musings prompted by, but only tangentially related to, the Michael Reiss affair.

There's a longstanding notion that religious ideas are simply in another domain than those of science (whether in the narrowest sense of the physical sciences or the broadest sense of any evidence-and-reason based knowledge). One well-known popularization of this belief is Stephen Jay Gould's NOMA ("nonoverlapping magisteria"") argument, which holds that, in regards to the "supposed 'conflict' or 'warfare' between science and religion" that
No such conflict should exist because each subject has a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority—and these magisteria do not overlap (the principle that I would like to designate as NOMA, or "nonoverlapping magisteria"). The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for starters, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). To cite the arch clichés, we get the age of rocks, and religion retains the rock of ages; we study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven.

This notion, and all the variants of it, is beloved by both science teachers (since it gives them a way out of the Reiss dilemma by simply responding to tricky questions with a swift "that's not my department") and by serious religious thinkers (since it gives their subject a safe haven from any possible challenges by the relentless advance of science). It is a very neat out to the challenges posed by religious faith in a secular society.*

The problem is that, as a description of the actual beliefs of many (I'd guess most) religious believers, it is simply false. Many religions** do, in fact, make claims that are well within the bounds of science -- certainly broadly construed, but even if narrowly construed. Worse, many of those claims are, so far as one can tell from the current state of human knowledge, simply false.

Thus the notion that the Earth is under 10,000 years old is both an idea integral to the religious beliefs of many Americans (in regards to which the state is ideally neutral), and a scientifically testable idea which has been conclusively demonstrated to be false.

This makes church/state issues -- both legally and socially -- far more complex than many people want to admit. A great many people -- more sophisticated religious thinkers and proponents of scientific education in particular -- cling to the NOMA idea as a liferaft: evolution is a scientific idea, and science has nothing to say about the existence of God.

The latter is true, however, only for some conceptions of God;*** or, more accurately, it may be true for the narrow question of God's existence, but it is decidedly not true for a great many other ideas and propositions which are as (or nearly as) integral to the beliefs of most believers as God's existence is. Both sides have a tendency in these debates to act as if whether or not God exists is the only important issue for religion; but it isn't, and the others are where the real trouble starts.

Thus a great many Americans believe that everything in the bible is entirely and literally true. If one is willing to interpret "entirely and literally" to include notions of metaphor, poetic language, phrasings appropriate to the time, and so forth, then this idea can probably be safely pulled onto the religious side of a NOMA divide. But for many (most?) of those who proclaim an adherence to biblical literalism, this is precisely what they don't mean. And biblical literalism in their sense is a testable idea: indeed, it has been tested, and found false.

Which is the end of the story -- for those for whom evidence (an overwhelming amount of it) and logic (as strong as any scientific logic we have) trump their preexisting ideological commitments. (This, incidentally, is what I was trying to get at when I proposed a distinction between reality-based and reality-defiant theists: the former are willing to let evidence and reason hold sway on any issue, while the latter will hold to their articles of faith regardless of what the progress of secular knowledge shows.****)

Now, most mainstream religions are willing to cede the matter of the age of the earth. But if we are willing to broaden out "science" to include "archeology" -- which basically means, if we are willing to take seriously the evidence and arguments of archeology rather than shut our ears to them while humming real loud -- then, for instance, whether the exodus from Egypt as described in the second book of the bible ever happened is also a question on the scientific side of NOMA. (An issue which some would claim is determinative for the existence of the Jewish religion.)

Of course, the historical facts about the exodus from Egypt are never likely to be settled as solidly as those about the age of the Earth -- the amount and nature of the evidence (as well as the nature of the question) simply doesn't lend itself to such solid settling. But the way that science works, and the way that a minimal adherence to the reality of evidence and argument works, isn't to hold a completely open mind on issues until they are definitively proven one way or another. So I think that the argument that archeology could be wrong here shouldn't be nearly as comforting for believers in the exodus as they assume it will be. In any event, the key point here is that the issue is one upon which empirical evidence comes to bear -- and thus one which doesn't fall neatly into the NOMA divide.

Now, some believers evade this by pointing out that old religious claims can always be reinterpreted in ways consistent with the science. And this is certainly true: one can imagine the exodus simply as a moral fable,§ and one can understand the opening of Genesis as implying something-or-other about the nature of existence that doesn't have to do with anything studied by science. In fact, millions of believers do precisely that.

But it seems worth noting that this doesn't solve so much as divide the problem. Instead of one religious claim -- e.g. that hundreds of thousands of Jews were slaves in Egypt, left, and then settled in present-day Israel -- we now have two: one, a moral claim that this is a useful story regardless of its historical truth, and two, a historical claim that this story is, in fact, historically accurate. And while the first may not be subject to scientific investigation, the latter remains so -- and this fact remains important since a lot of believers will not see the former as an adequate substitute for the latter.

(It is also somewhat disingenuous to note that there aren't two§§ different claims here -- as if the moral fable version is the only version, and thus the religious claim is entirely unaffected by science. It is particularly disingenuous to fall back on the moral fable version of the claim when considering the science, while, in most other contexts, to continue to talk about the issue as if the historical claim were true.)

I don't have any great solution to this problem. But it seems to me that a frank recognition that some religious claims are subject to investigation by secular science -- and that some have been flatly disproved by it -- is essential to any discussion of these issues.

Post Script: In addition to the issues which are clearly subject to scientific investigation, and those which are clearly not, there are a number of intermediate categories, of course. One important such category is the claim of a one-time departure from the laws of nature by God, of a sort that would (in the course of things) leave no remaining evidence one way or another. Both the claims of the virgin birth and the resurrection fall into this category: neither are thought to be anything other than a departure from the ordinary course of nature, and neither would (if true) leave evidence that could be examined by science at this point (in contrast to, say, Noah's flood, which would leave such evidence (and didn't, and thus clearly didn't happen.)) Some people will argue that our scientific understanding of the world shows that such events don't happen, but this seems to me to entirely beg the question, since the whole point is that they're supposed to be departures from observable reality. By my lights, therefore, these questions are safely exempted from scientific (or historical) investigation in a strict sense. However, any claimed evidence for them -- e.g. testimony -- can certainly be evaluated by historical standards (under which it doesn't stand up at all); so anyone who claims they have any historical basis for such beliefs is leaving the safe harbor of the religious magisterium and entering the historical one. As long as your claimed grounds are purely non-empirical, however (e.g. faith, or a burning in the bosom, or whatever), they fall on the safe side of NOMA.

* To be fair, Gould goes on to note that "two magisteria bump right up against each other, interdigitating in wondrously complex ways along their joint border." I think the situation is even worse for the principle than this implies, but Gould was not as naive as the quote above, out of context, may sound to some.

** Not all religions, since certainly some of the faithful restrict themselves to claims that are safely on the religious side of NOMA. But I suspect that most religions make such claims -- certainly as interpreted by most believers.

*** Richard Dawkins has argued that pretty much any concept of God is a claim upon which science has purchase; without wanting to hash it out right now, I think he's wrong; but I wanted to note that this line, too, is contested and arguable.

**** As I note in the original piece, the distinction is complex: where the line should be drawn will be a contested issue, and some theists might well be reality-based on most issues but reality-defiant on others.

§ With, for instance, the moral message that "if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him. But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt".

§§ Well, there are a lot more than two, really. But certainly more than one.

Questions Answered

A few quick links to answer a few questions relating to the politics of the day.

Who would a principled conservative vote for in the November election?

The former publisher of the National Review makes an argument. (via)

What do you need to do in our country to gain a reputation for credibility on the issue of national security?

Matthew Yglesias explains.

Why might Sarah Palin try to save a negligable amount of money by forcing rape victims to pay for the kits used to collect evidence, thereby reducing the likelihood that rapists will be convicted of their crimes?

Hekebolos puts forward a theory -- a very logical answer I'd never thought of. (via)

What are the seven deregulations that helped create the current crisis, and what are three directions that regulations to fix the crisis (and prevent the next) should go in?

Robert Kuttner has some lists.

What can we do to try to restore our constitutional structure after the extraordinary damage inflicted upon it by the Bush administration?

Marty Lederman offers some ideas. (via)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Button-Wearers for Obama

BoingBoing (via) links to this "Thereminists for Obama" button. (What's a Thereminist?) But looking around, the page of special interest buttons has some -- to me -- vastly more amusing buttons than that.

Now, to be sure, while I was amused, I also felt a large "DEAR GOD WE'RE BEHIND IN THE POLLS AND THIS IS WHAT SOMEONE IS DOING?!?!" reaction. But, on the theory that humor is a good in and of itself, I thought I'd share some of my favorites with you.

First, there are the ones that sell themselves on the specific images used:

Then there are the ones that sell themselves on the elegance or humor of their design:

There are ones that work because of specific images of Obama and how they're used:

There are the ones that aim at political humor:

And the ones that play off recent political rhetoric:

There are the ones that are geek-oriented (some of my favorites, obviously):

And there are a surprising number that involve hair:

There are the ones that are simply funny (at least to me):

There are the ones that use Obama's biography to good effect:

There are the ones that are fun simply because it's fun to imagine those groups for Obama:

There are the ones that I like because I have, do or will fall into the categories involved, i.e. for essentially personal reasons:

But some of my very favorites are the ones that are simply so wonderfully, gloriously random:

And then there are the ones I like for diverse reasons:

And, y'know, just a lot more:

See them all here. Hard as it may be to believe, this is really only a sampling -- and so far as I can tell, the numbers of buttons grow every time I reload the page.

Oh, and the title of this post would make a fun one, I think -- I'm picturing an infinite regress: a picture of a button, which has on it a picture of a button, and on it the same, etc. So if anyone feels like doing that, please do.

Now, let's all do what we can to go out and win the election for Obama. Because the humor here will taste like ashes if he looses.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Politics, Opinions and Lies

"You can't talk to the ignorant about lies, since they have no criteria"

-- Attributed to Ezra Pound*

"A lie ain't a side of a story. It's just a lie."

-- Terry Hanning, The Wire, Season 5, episode 8

"Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts."

-- Daniel Patrick Moynihan

I just returned from a visit (a very lovely one) with some relatives. One of those relatives is a die-hard Republican, and we had, as is our wont, a number of political conversations over the weekend. These have led me to a few thoughts about the politics of the moment, which, this being my blog and all, I thought I would share.

(I should emphasize that what I am presenting here are my interpretations and recollections of what my republican relative said; given the drastic difference in our worldviews, I have to assume that he would remember things differently. Further, we were just talking, in a family setting which lends itself to hyperbole (e.g. on some occasions there may have been wine). So anyone who knows whom I'm referring to should take care in attributing these views to him; and anyone who doesn't should take into account that this is all filtered through my own biases and originated in an informal context. Since I speak at great length here about the importance of objective facts, it seems appropriate to note that my presentation of my relative's statements and views are not necessarily accurate (although they are as accurate to the best of my knowledge.))

We spoke about a lot of things, some of which I may return to in a future post -- I was particularly interested in, and discomfited by, his views on torture and the Iraq war -- but what struck me most was the underlying epistemology of what he believed and how he saw the world.

Our conversations became most heated when I referred to the McCain campaign's recent blizzard of lies. (Heated to the extent that we couldn't talk about it as much as I'd like, since others there kept stopping us, feeling like things were getting too genuinely angry -- although, so far as I can tell, we both basically enjoyed our arguments and never forgot the genuine love that persists beneath political disputes among relatives.) My relative reacted extremely strongly to this charge, and his response was, I think, quite illuminating.

The first element of his response was, I think, a tribal one. It's hardly a new observation to say that American politics is deeply tribal; certain social, ethnic, cultural groups always vote one way, others vote the other. Many liberals decry the Republicans' ability to appeal to the tribal affiliations of voters (e.g. poor whites) whose economic interests would be far better served by Democrats; occasionally you'll see the opposite complaint about, for instance, African American voters' lack of receptivity to Republican cultural values arguments, despite many of them being fairly conservative on those issues.

But for my relative, this issue of tribalism was slightly different. He's not (e.g.) an evangelical Christian, who thinks that Republicans respect his tribe while Democrats don't. Rather, for my relative -- near as I could tell -- the tribe in question was his identification of the Republican party. The tribe which he felt was being disrespected was the Republican tribe -- one which he has long felt an allegiance to.

This meant that the basic pitch I tried to use (a little bit; I didn't really get much chance to push it) -- not that he should become a liberal, but that he should see that the current Republican party has disgraced the tradition of conservative beliefs that originally drew him to them -- fell entirely on deaf ears. He not only didn't agree with, but, so far as I could tell, didn't even hear the argument that the nature of the Republican party has changed. (Call this the "Andrew Sullivan" argument.) He simply heard these claims as yet another in the long series of liberal-conservative arguments.

(Of course, as a self-identified liberal (who would probably be called a "socialist" by my relative), I am a terrible messenger for this view, since, after all, I would have tried to talk him out of supporting conservative views even if the party purporting to advocate them was doing so in a remotely honest and consistent fashion. For that matter, I suspect my relative would say that I am as tribal about Democrats as he is about Republicans; and while I don't think he's right, I also don't have a great deal of confidence in that judgment. At any rate, he wasn't going to hear this from me. If my relative were to be convinced of this, another disaffected republican would have to do it; although even then I doubt that he would be persuadable.)

Thus, when he expressed outrage about the charge of "lying" against McCain, he heard it not as an argument about the facts, but as an insult towards a group he identified with. It was like the reaction a believer might have to Richard Dawkins's saying that faith is a delusion: the feeling of insult overcame any possible consideration of the argument.

Nor did it help that the facts about McCain's lies (yes, facts: I am as opposed to epistemological relativism as I am to anything, and I shan't agree that this is an issue of point of view) are beginning to get real traction in the mainstream media. The New York Times article which the left side of the blogosphere decried as infused with balance at the expense of accuracy and excessive delicacy about calling a lie a lie was, to him, a ludicrous insult. Worse: it was further proof that the "mainstream" media was liberal, biased against his views and his party. All those commentators who are turning against McCain will convince my relative of nothing -- it doesn't matter if Richard Coen accurately describes himself as having been "in the tank" for McCain; he is a (self-described and editorially-presented) liberal, and what he says won't mean anything.

So instead of exposing McCain, the recent eruption of articles about McCain's mendacity have instead, for my relative, confirmed his view of the media as biased against him.

(This raises the question of what his response would be to Fox News calling McCain a liar, or Karl Rove doing so (Dday considers the question on how these things will effect conservatives in an interesting post here). Unfortunately we didn't get a chance to talk about that. My guess would be that the calling would have to be far more frequent, far more blatant, far less hedged than the two examples to date to have any effect.)

Now, I'm not saying that all this means that calling McCain's lies what they are is not worth doing. That (accurate) description is intended for people who are either undecided or persuadable; my relative is neither (no more than I am in the other direction, as he would, correctly, point out). My relative is going to vote Republican regardless.** What interests me here is not the specific issue of how to appeal to voters in a climate of unprecedented deception -- that's the problem facing the Obama campaign, and I hope they're on it, but I don't have any particular insight into how best to accomplish it -- but rather the broader issue of the politicization of epistemology.

So how does my relative view the barrage of lies from McCain?

First and foremost, he saw what McCain was doing in other terms -- "exaggeration", "distortion", or, in other cases, his simply being misinformed (that was his response in particular to McCain's lie about Palin having accepted no earmarks as governor). In the former cases, he saw -- as nearly all neutral observers have not -- the supposed hook upon which McCain has hung his various lies (that Obama called Palin a pig, called Iran tiny, etc) as sufficient to make the lies simply exaggerations. In the latter cases, he dismissed the false statements as, essentially, errors and not deceptions.***

Then, with those understandings in place, the next step is to see what the McCain campaign is doing as equivalent to what Obama is doing, and to what all campaigns do. Every politician, my relative suggested, lies; and this is no different. (Call this the "Ross Douthat defense" of mendacity.) All politicians distort; McCain is simply distorting. The fact that people are suggesting otherwise shows that they are biased against his side.

The notion that what McCain is doing was in fact different -- in scale and in kind -- that he is lying more blatantly and more frequently than even most Republican campaigns (which tend to be very dirty -- yes, dirtier than Democratic ones, to the despair of a fair number of Democrats -- but not quite so baldly mendacious as McCain is being) was simply not one he could or would hear. Any ill-doing was -- almost by definition -- equally shared by both sides.

(Note that I am committed, in contrast, to there being a fact of the matter as to whether or not McCain's various statements and ads are true or false; and whether or not these lies are more prominent and blatant than the lies of past campaigns. And, as is true of anyone who is committed to their being a fact of the matter apart from our perceptions, I am open to new evidence about these issues. But so far as the record shows so far, the question seems quite clear.)

Now, all of this might be a temporary issue -- McCain is conducting a campaign of unprecedented dishonesty, but it's a time-limited phenomenon that will end, one way or another, in early November -- save for the other indications that this is indicative of a broader pattern of politicized epistemology.

First, at one point my relative declared all sources untrustworthy -- The New York Times is crap from one point of view, The Wall Street Journal from another, he said. Which may even be true as far as it goes: but the reasonable response to this is not to give up, but rather to say that one needs to dig deeper -- go to the studies and the experts and the facts and the statistics that both sources present, and find out the truth for oneself. Or find people who you can trust to do so and report honestly.

But my relative, as he spoke of it, saw this as a reason to give up. Reality was how we interpreted it. End of story.

But second, and far more disturbing to me, was a brief conversation we had about global warming.

My relative admitted that global warming was happening, but denied -- like Palin before her recent post-nomination conversion -- that it was due to human activity. This denial was attached to a few things -- suggestions about possible global cooling that he'd picked up somewhere, and those few scientists who have been paid by oil companies to dissent from the overwhelming consensus. But for the most part, the denial seemed to be due to the claim's political implications.****

When I pointed out the overwhelming nature of the scientific consensus about the human-driven causes of global warming, he said -- and this is close to an exact quote -- that it was a conspiracy by European socialists, and American socialists, to regulate the economy and institute socialism.

And this is where we lose sight of the ordinary back-and-forth of politics, and reach a level of epistemological relativism that is truly dangerous and disturbing.

My relative is a well-educated man -- he holds a law degree from Harvard, and is quite cultured, being a long-time lover of art and music and having a particular love for architecture. But he has become so suspicious of science that he sees a basic, nearly-unanimous scientific finding as a socialist conspiracy. Because the findings support liberal policies.

If all understanding and knowledge is thus interpreted in political terms, there is little that can save us from disaster.

But this is not a quirk of my relative. This is, rather, a fundamental piece of the contemporary conservative movement (one of the aspects in which the professed ideals of conservatism have been abandoned by actually existing conservatism, to the dismay of Andrew Sullivan conservatives). Kevin Drum describes a recent study which suggests that being exposed to the debunking of standard conservative claims makes many conservatives believe them more, not less. See his post for the study's author's interpretation of these findings; but here is Drum's own take:
Reifler suggests it's because conservatives are more rigid than liberals. Maybe so. If I had to guess, though, I'd say it's because right-wing talkers have spent so many years deriding "so-called experts" that they now have negative credibility with many conservatives. The very fact that an expert says a conservative claim is wrong is taken as a good reason to believe the claim.
We have reached a point where one of the two major American political parties is committed in principle to a denial of objectivity -- a denial of science, a denial of knowledge, a denial of expertise. And while proponents of Andrew Sullivan conservatism might claim that conservatives have respect for facts, actually existing conservatism is the driving force behind this denial.

Why? How did we get here?

That is probably the subject for another blog post, if not for a large bookcase full of scholarly monographs. But I think the key can be found in Stephen Colbert's telling joke that "reality has a well-known liberal bias". On too many issues reality simply goes against conservative beliefs and principles. Rather than abandon their beliefs, conservatives have chosen to abandon reality. (I should note that I think that this development was evolutionary, not conspiratorial: I think they were led to do that position by a combination of memetic and social pressures, rather than adopting it out of malevolence. But whatever the path, the result is equally damaging.)

In fact, it's worse than that: on most (although not all) issues, the liberal position is not only in better accord with the facts, but with most Americans' policy preferences. Not only does reality have a liberal bias, but so does the American people.

It's been noted that Bush ran in 2000 as a different sort of Republican, a reformer -- in other words, with an implicit acknowledgement that the old-style Republicans were politically unpopular. And he presented himself as a moderate, one who would seek conservative solutions to problems long identified with liberal politics. The reason he did so is that if he'd run as the hard-right reactionary he is, he'd have lost. So he ran on distortions and lies.

Now, eight years later, the results of Bush's reign have been clearly shown, to almost the entire citizenry, to be disastrous. So McCain has to run as a different sort of Republican, a reformer. It's harder to do now, though, since instead of running against the incumbent party, he has to run as the new representative of the incumbent party. Thus the distortions and lies are of a whole new order of magnitude. Necessarily.

McCain can't run on reality, he can't run on his real politics or his real record, because he'd lose in a landslide.

So he's lying. It's all he has left.

The disturbing thing is that my relative is representative of far too many conservatives: rather than abandon false beliefs, they're abandoning any genuine adherence to the real. And the media, ever-diligent in its presentation of both sides of every story, the true and the false, will continue to equivocate. And even if they don't, it may not matter.

Unless we can recommit, as a culture, to the objectivity of facts regardless of bias -- unless we can call a lie a lie, unless we can see science as reflecting our best understanding of the world, unless we hold people to the reality of their records -- there is no way we can dig ourselves out of the hole we find ourselves in.

And we can't do that unless we confront the fact that there is a deep strain of denial of reality in half of our political debate (one abetted by the way that debate is presented by the media).

But who can tell them that that they'll believe?

How can we show them, if the very presentation of evidence will persuade them to the contrary?

How can we speak to them of lies, if they have no criteria?

I could be bounded in a nut shell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.

-- Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2

Post Scriptum: Somehow I managed to get through this whole post without working in a link to this post by Teresa Nielsen Hayden, so I'm linking to it now. Read it; it's good. She answers the question my relative asked, of why it's important to call these statements lies and not simply misrepresentations or deceptions.

* I don't have the time to track this down right now, but a quick google search on this quote indicates that it has (what looks like to me) all the signs of it being erroneously attributed, and possibly wholly spurious. And, incidentally, I don't mean there to be any suggestion that my relative is ignorant in my use of the quote; after all, he isn't. Rather, what interests me is the point that one needs criteria to talk about lies -- and that my relative (for reasons wholly different than ignorance) lacks that.

Update to footnote 1: Nope, the quote is real. It's from the beginning of Pound's essay "The Constant Preaching to the Mob" (from the June, 1916 issue of Poetry). See here. Thanks to commentator Steven, who left the link.

** The parallel here with the Dawkins's claims of believer's delusion are perhaps worth pointing out. Dawkins isn't trying (at least I hope he isn't) to convince fully-committed believers that they're wrong. What he's trying to do is to put things in a way that will move the uncommitted, or further damage the faith of those who are weakening. He is trying, in other words, to reach those who are in some sense ready. For Dawkins, I would guess, the outrage of the faithful is, at best, collateral damage.

*** The difference, in case anyone needs me to spell this out, is that in cases where (e.g.) Obama has made an error, his campaign has rapidly corrected the matter, and Obama hasn't repeated the claim. The McCain campaign has not corrected his lie about Palin's earmarks, now many days later. And (in other cases, although not to my knowledge this one) the McCain has repeated widely-debunked claims. These are the marks of liars, not people who are simply ignorant of the facts.

**** Another key point about this conversation is that my relative constantly portrayed the two possible responses as doing nothing and "going back to a stone age economy". He was frankly incredulous when I suggested that there was a great deal we could do that would have comparably minimal economic effects. This framing -- that any action would require a complete renunciation of any technological progress post-10,000 BCE -- was obviously an important one in his response: if the solution is quite so terrible, easier to disbelieve the problem. Which is one reason that liberals need to keep hammering home that what we're calling for will have some effects, but that they'll be minor -- certainly compared to the disruptions caused by global warming.