Thursday, October 27, 2011

The "No Difference" Argument Part 3

Obama and Progressives.

I'd been working on this for a bit, when I saw this Atrios post. Obama has done some legitimate damage to progressive/liberal/left/Democratic positions in this country.

The short hand on how this works is:

The President of the United States, is certainly the president of the whole of the US, but (s)he is also, in perception and in fact the leader of the party that (s)he is (nominally) a member of. So if the President is a Democrat, then all the President's positions/policies/ideas are Democratic positions/policies/ideas, no matter whether they are left, center, right, whatever. It doesn't matter if Obama decides to coopt every single GOP policy, all those policies become Democratic policies if he does that.

So when Obama pre-negotiates, and pushes hard for compromise positions that are, at best, slightly right of center, then he has made those positions the left-most point for negotiations, and has made them the liberal position to most people in this country. The Republican conceived free market solution to providing everyone with health care is now considered a liberal/socialist health care plan. Not because it is, but because Obama worked so hard for it.

This is bad. It is bad for progressives. It is bad for conservatives. It is bad for the country. A Democratic president needs to stake out an actual left-of-center position, even if (s)he is fine with or even desires a result that is a compromise between left and right. The President of the US must talk policy as the leader of the party (s)he represents, but be willing to sign compromises to that into law. (S)He must be willing and able to represent all of the US to on an international stage, but domestically, the President is the leader of a party more than the country.

There are a couple frustrating elements to this. One is that this seems more true of Democrats than Republicans (though this is not entirely one-way). Another is that it concedes a level of disconnectedness on the part of most people that I find perfectly legitimate but still frustrating.

But no matter how much I would like everyone to pay more attention to reality over perception, I am aware that it won't happen (soon). As such, if given a choice between a moderate Democrat and a moderate Republican, the latter will actually be better for liberal positions, just as the former has done remarkably well for conservative positions these past couple years. Note that having an actual liberal Democrat on the ticket would change things, just as 2000 having a very conservative Republican did. This Republican preference is only valid if both candidates are, in fact, moderates.

Bush the lesser was not a moderate (particularly with Cheney as VP), Obama is. If Romney wins the nomination, all evidence so far is that he is a moderate (a Republican can't be conservative and be governor of Mass), so unless Obama becomes a actual liberal in the next few months, having Romney win will likely mean that the perceived middle ground will shift to the left, making outcomes more liberal friendly.

The caveat to all this, however is going to be the makeup and level of dysfunction in Congress which, as I've said before, has far more sway over legislation than does the president. One thing that strikes me about the Republican controlled Congress is that they seem to understand politics better than the Democrats. As such, with a Republican in the White House they would want economic recovery and so will likely do more to help the economy than what is possible now due to their intransigence.

...assuming that Dems act as they always do: spineless, with a bunch of blue dog tools.

In reality so long as the Democratic party, when in power, are as pathetic as they have been, having a Republican in the White House is not a bad idea. If the Dems ever grow a spine and actually start to represent the people who vote for them, things might change.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Halloween Costumes

Costumes in general are either a "character" costume like Batman, or a "stereotype" costume like an American Indian in headdress (or the every-adult-female costume which can be summed up as sexy-[something]). Costumes that boil cultures down to stereotypes can range from fine, to borderline racist to way over the line. Still, this campaign is a bit off for me. It seems like there are definite lines that can be crossed, but some cultural (inspired) costumes are not inherently stereotypical, and some stereotypical costumes not necessarily cultural (in the same way). Take, for example, a samurai costume.

A samurai is definitely Japanese culture, pretty much in the same way that a cowboy or sheriff is American culture. An American wearing a samurai costume isn't representing the entirety of Japanese society any more than a Japanese person wearing a old west sheriff outfit is representing all of America. (I would argue the same about a geisha costume, which is among the pictures.) In particular, with the increasing popularity of anime and magna, I would expect increasing prevalence of Japanese-culture costumes in coming years. This strikes me as evidence that Japanese culture is becoming more accepted and acceptable...and better understood.

In the article, when Professor Jelani Cobb notes:
While Italian-Americans can be stereotyped as gangsters and Irish-Americans as hard drinkers, there are no pervasive stereotypes for whites on the same level that allow for them to be caricatured as a Halloween costume, Cobb said.
It is a pretty inside-American view of things that belies a surprising misunderstanding of costuming and stereotyping. Aside from a cowboy (rough equivalent of samurai or Mongol warrior or a nomad from the Middle East or North Africa) a fat-cat, or a gangster (Mob or Ghetto), or a hippie would be an American stereotype outside this country far more than a sub-cultural stereotype that the are in this country. And would he really be upset about someone in China dressed up as a cowboy? Would any thinking person?

I think that it comes down to, not whether a costume is cultural or stereotypical, but whether the spirit behind that stereotype is good or bad is the real issue. A white midwesterner in blackface and bling talking about "slappin' da hoes" is being a jackass at the very least. A white guy in Alabama who spent a year living in Barrow AK dressing as an Inuit in a traditional parka is probably not. And yes, there would likely be people who found that offensive. There are also probably Americans who would find Russians stereotyping us as cowboys offensive. Tough shit.

Stereotypes are often our first introduction to new cultures, in large part because they are distinctive. As such they can be useful and help people start to learn about a new culture, and, frankly, people that see a geisha and think that all Japanese (or worse all Asian) women are like that are morons.

PA Liquor Stores

My general experience is that selection is pretty good (one of the commenters complains about not finding Appleton Estate Rum...which I have purchased from the PA wine and spirits near me).

Wine is too expensive here, but, were it not for taxes, liquor is a good buy, and even with taxes it isn't too bad. But those taxes won't go away with privatization (unless the government wants waaaay less revenue) so the most likely result is that liquor will be more expensive, DE and NJ will be an even bigger bargain, and the state will have given up a profitable if flawed business for a one time pay out and less money down the road.

The thing is, PA is a big state that sells lots of liquor. If PA sells 10k gallons of Grey Goose Vodka (I've no idea how much really gets sold here), then they get to buy all that and have a bigger discount. Dividing that up among 1500 individual retailers means higher wholesale prices and either lower margins or even higher retail prices. Even if a handful of big groups buy out most of those it will still divide the total purchased and make for higher prices. This problem gets worse as the sales volume goes down, which will make it no longer worthwhile to stock things that are currently stocked only because the better pricing allows it.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The 99% Wants a Fair Country

It's remarkable how stupid the financial industry defenders are, but Matt Taibbi, once again, hammers on how remarkably unfair the beneficial treatment of Wall Street and bankers has been while normal people suffer for these financial "wizards" misguided, and likely criminal, actions.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The "No Difference" Argument Part 2

Mitt "Mittens" Romney.

Mitt Romney is a politician and a Republican. As such he has spent the past 2+ years positioning himself as a credible conservative and counterpoint to Obama so he could secure the GOP nomination this time round. Many Republicans do not like him because he is 1. a Mormon and 2. moderate.

The first thing that must be stated about Romney is that his positions have changed so much that one can find evidence on many issues showing that Romney both supports and opposes them. That said...

He has been on the record in support of gay rights and abortion. His big accomplishment as governor was a universal health care bill that looks (almost exactly) like Obama's, and which he used to suggest as a national model until that position became untenable in the present GOP/tea party atmosphere. He supports and believes in science (at least he used to), including evolution and anthropogenic climate change. He has supported cap and trade as a mechanism to deal with greenhouse gasses. He has supported a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

As far as foreign policy it is more difficult since he never had to deal with it as governor, but he seems to be somewhat less militant than Bush was, but that would put him slightly to the left of Obama, so meh.

Romney's economic policy positions are what most distinguish him from Obama. Even in this, however, the most meaningful is that Romney--himself a rich person living on capital gains from his wealth--doesn't want to tax himself and other rich people more heavily. This would be a more dangerous position if it wasn't for Obama's completely stupid "pledge" to not raise taxes on people making under $250k/year which he seems to consider extremely important (I suppose because he remembers how hard it was to get by on the $173k/year US Senator salary).

The other Romney position that would make a difference is the GOP "all regulations are the work of the devil" position that has little basis in fact. Mostly this is a talking point, since the only regs that they actually seem intent on eliminating are those for the financial industry and polluters. If they were to roll the former back, it would be bad, but the regs that got put in place are so weak that eliminating them won't be disastrous. Wall Street is plenty capable of destroying our economy again as things stand now. Making it slightly easier can only help push Republicans out of favor faster. Eliminating the EPA is a bigger problem, but, again, there really isn't anything in Romney's past that would indicate this is a real possibility.*

*Of course there was nothing in Obama's past that indicated he would be as oppressive of civil rights as Bush was so hmm...

Conservative Housing Ideas (Good ones)

Well, mostly good ones...and a snide comment about OWS that should have been left out.

There are 3 ideas listed from conservative economists. The first idea--principle write down split between government and banks with resulting mortgage being recourse--is pretty good, with the recourse issue being a little odd (I'll address in a bit). The second--also principle write down but with sale "profits" split 50-50 between the lender and homeowner--is a good idea, particularly for investment/second properties. The third--give everyone a 4.2% mortgage interest--is an ok idea, but not really a good one.

Essentially there are probably 4 groups of homeowners in this country to be concerned with: 1. owners with equity, but high interest rates 2. underwater owner occupied who plan on staying 3. underwater owner occupied who may want to move 4. underwater second/investment property owners.

Owners with equity can move/sell/rent and really aren't a problem, but lowering their payments through low interest refinancing would help the economy...especially if their equity is < 20%. So lower interest is fine here, but not a solution for the bigger problem of underwater mortgages. (Also, for those not under water, it is possible to get an interest rate below 4.2% now.)

The other three groups are the ones dragging the housing market down. Some principle write down is necessary if we want the housing problem to go away in any reasonable period of time. So some combination of the other two ideas would probably be best.

The recourse option is interesting, though it only affects people with non-recourse loans, many of whom would be better off foreclosing than they would taking this deal. However, there is an exception for group 2 above. Owner-occupiers planning on staying for a while would get the benefit of write down and the recourse option would be of less consequence since they would most likely be in the house long enough to have positive equity when selling.

Second homes, and owner-occupied homes where the owners want to move and sell or plan on moving within a few years would not be interested in switching to a recourse loan. They might, however be willing to accept the other write down deal.

Counter the snide comment about Occupy Wall Street, I think that these are solutions that many OWS supporters would get behind.

The "No Difference" Argument Part 1

I like(d) Ralph Nader. I support many of his policy ideals and goals. I think we need more people like him in public office. In 2000 when he was running, I agreed with many of the things he said, and many of the reasons he ran. Then he said something terrible. He claimed that there was no meaningful difference between Al Gore and George Bush Inferior.

Even understanding the corporate ownership of both the Democrats and Republicans at a party level, I was floored that he would say that the capable, thoughtful Al Gore and the dim hack that was Dubbya were equivalent. I would even go so far as to say that his argument could have successfully been used in the two elections preceding that one (Clinton-Dole, and Clinton-Bush Superior).

Neverminding McCain's own mental ineptitude, it wasn't until he selected the worst VP candidate ever that the argument really disappeared in the 2008 elections. The fact is that the Democrats we have had on the ballots for the past couple decades have all positioned themselves slightly right of center. Obama has gone even further in that regard by essentially adopting the Bush's terrorism policy whole cloth (maybe without torturing, but with assassination to offset).

So long as the Republicans nominate a competent individual (which is not a given) Nader's argument will be true enough in 2012. That doesn't mean they are identical and it doesn't mean that things won't be better with one or another, but congress is far more important in determining this than the president alone. Bush would not have been the colossal disaster he was had Democrats either grown a spine or had meaningful control of at least one body of congress for the duration of his presidency.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

But No One Will Listen

Matt Taibbi is right that OWS and Tea Partiers (at least as they were initially conceived) are natural allies against the too big to fail, big government dependent financial industry. But that is complicated and hard, and too many Democrats (and allies) and Republicans (and allies) are scrambling to work OWS into the same divide that they fit everything else into.

It also neglects the fact that while when the Tea Party started a couple years ago they were very much anti-TARP and anti-bailout, they have morphed into ultra-conservative Republicans. It wasn't long before tea party events were being sponsored by pro-corporate pseudo-Libertarians, and that anger was quickly redirected to being against taxes (on the wealthy) and against regulation (a very pro-corporate stance).

OWS seems, in no small part, a reaction to the Tea Partyification of the GOP.

There has not been a place in politics for populism in the past maybe 30 years. "What's the Matter with Kansas" does a pretty good job of explaining how the GOP has managed to use wedge issues to get lots of people to vote against their own best interest. Democrats have, in response, pushed further to the right themselves on some notion of capturing that elusive "moderate" "middle of the road" voter that doesn't really exist. Most people in this country are very poorly served by both parties. Companies are, on the other hand, very well served by both parties.

Money has so much power that when the Tea Party started to rise up against the GOP's horrible anti-American policies, they were gobbled up whole by the party that they wanted to change. The few wacko candidates that they worked into the GOP have been even more pro-corporate pro-wealth, anti-regular American, than those already there. Now OWS has arisen, purportedly from the left, but really from a slightly different anti-politics-as-usual popular front in this nation. So far they have been more successful than was the Tea Party at keeping "above the fray" of politics, but I wonder how long it can last.

People are not happy. The rich are doing fine and the rest are suffering. The financial industry wrecked the economy and not only got off scot-free but were bailed out by the rest of us, who have gotten nothing back. OWS is the response.

Most of the media has some interest in placing OWS into a camp, either to attack, or to co-opt, or to simplify...mostly to simplify. While the populist movement has a rather simple reason for being, the specifics for what can/should/must be done and in what order and how are myriad and become complex when trying to figure out. Moreover, even for the policy savvy (like Matt Taibbi) there isn't really a simple solution, and politically there isn't really a possible solution.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Good Picture, Great Graphs

First the picture:which is fun. Below that in the article, however is the meat: graph after graph showing how skewed to the rich this country has become and how much worse it has gotten, not only for the poor but for all middle class. Those charts are why Occupy Wall Street and "We are 99 percent" are still going and building. Meanwhile, the GOP controlled house is wasting time and taxpayer money on their continued attack on women which has no chance of even getting through the Senate.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

5 Demands

Matt Taibbi has a great list of demands. The whole article can be found here but the demands are:

1. Break up the monopolies. The so-called "Too Big to Fail" financial companies – now sometimes called by the more accurate term "Systemically Dangerous Institutions" – are a direct threat to national security. They are above the law and above market consequence, making them more dangerous and unaccountable than a thousand mafias combined. There are about 20 such firms in America, and they need to be dismantled; a good start would be to repeal the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act and mandate the separation of insurance companies, investment banks and commercial banks.

2. Pay for your own bailouts. A tax of 0.1 percent on all trades of stocks and bonds and a 0.01 percent tax on all trades of derivatives would generate enough revenue to pay us back for the bailouts, and still have plenty left over to fight the deficits the banks claim to be so worried about. It would also deter the endless chase for instant profits through computerized insider-trading schemes like High Frequency Trading, and force Wall Street to go back to the job it's supposed to be doing, i.e., making sober investments in job-creating businesses and watching them grow.

3. No public money for private lobbying. A company that receives a public bailout should not be allowed to use the taxpayer's own money to lobby against him. You can either suck on the public teat or influence the next presidential race, but you can't do both. Butt out for once and let the people choose the next president and Congress.

4. Tax hedge-fund gamblers. For starters, we need an immediate repeal of the preposterous and indefensible carried-interest tax break, which allows hedge-fund titans like Stevie Cohen and John Paulson to pay taxes of only 15 percent on their billions in gambling income, while ordinary Americans pay twice that for teaching kids and putting out fires. I defy any politician to stand up and defend that loophole during an election year.

5. Change the way bankers get paid. We need new laws preventing Wall Street executives from getting bonuses upfront for deals that might blow up in all of our faces later. It should be: You make a deal today, you get company stock you can redeem two or three years from now. That forces everyone to be invested in his own company's long-term health – no more Joe Cassanos pocketing multimillion-dollar bonuses for destroying the AIGs of the world.

I like all these.

Friday, October 07, 2011

I am 34 years old.

I have a good job, but with the bleak economic outlook I am putting off work on the house, saving and paying off student loans instead. I may have things better than many but unlike multi-millionaire bankers, I can't expect a government bailout if problems arise.

We are the 99 percent.

Nobel Peace Prize

Well, Obama won and he has a nice secretive panel create a kill or capture list for citizens of the country he governs. So I assume that the ladies that just won are big fans of female circumcision and breast ironing or something equally awful.

Shorter NPR on Obama

NPR talking Obama/Bush terror policy this morning:
Obama's just like Bush when it comes to terrorism, so why isn't he getting love from the pro-bombing of Muslim countries people?
I guess being the secret Muslim socialist that he is most right wing warmongers just don't believe that his "targeted assassination of American Muslim abroad" program is sincere.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Political Ads

Ezra posts with little commentary that political ads [may] just waste money, particularly early on.

That seems an overly simplistic look at things. In the same way that a slight nudge over lots of time can shift an asteroid's path, a string of ads over a long period of time could well produce a meaningful shift in perception, but one that, in the wildly varying political world, is difficult to tease out from other background shifts.

This can be compounded if, say, an ad is released and a poll is taken during the high impact time that shows a shift that is then broadcast by news media, which makes others believe that perception/favor is shifting from one candidate to another.

Finally, the fact is that advertising really can't overcome a landslide either way. It only matters in cases where the election is very close. If 1% of the vote either way can make a difference you don't want your image dictated by your opponent for 5-12 months leading up to the final push. Especially since you know he/she is going to be spending extra that last week.

Kind of Scary

Two big articles on CNN. Two comment threads full of hatred and bile. One is on a Muslim comic book, that was initially banned in Saudi Arabia, and is now, effectively, banned in the US, land speech? The other is about an Hispanic family displaced by the xenophobic Alabama law.

Both articles themselves are depressing examples of how much hatred, bigotry and xenophobia have permeated much of US society (yes, particularly older, whiter, more male parts of US society). The comments are a predictable and pretty fucking horrible demonstration of that same bigotry combined with a huge helping of stupid:
...there is no such thing as a Christian terrorist.. because to be one would go against Christian doctrine and there you would not be a Christian. The odd thing is.. to commit acts of violence in Islam, actually goes right along with their doctrine.. I mean look at what happened when Mohamed entered in Medina...
After someone pointed out that Timothy McVeigh was, in fact, a Christian terrorist. The "No true Christian..." syndrome. That followed by the historical reference that seems to ignore similar heinous historical events that were undertaken by Christians in the name of Christ. The level of idiot that it would take to write that is mind boggling.

Most Americans Actually Government Moochers

And they don't even know it. Really, though, even people who don't benefit from these specific programs benefit from roads and police and military. The fact is our society doesn't exist without a lot of government effort, from law and order to infrastructure to social welfare. Do the wealthy really think that they would have a more cushy life if it weren't for things like food stamps that help make sure everyone in the US has food to eat?

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

The Upward Spiral

So CEOs of major corporations seem to act/think like college students at premiere universities. No one should get a C because everyone is above average!

Nevermind that a C for CEO's (around $5M/yr) is much better than an A+ for the rest of us. They always want to be and think they are better than their average peer which, in so many cases, is clearly untrue.

What I find worse is this delusional perception that many super-rich have that they couldn't be replaced, at the drop of a hat and for a quarter their salary, by someone as good or better. If all the redicuwealthy in this country went Galt pretty much nothing would change, except salaries at the top would (at least temporarily) drop. Of course the upward spiral would just be resetting, not going away.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

More Money Than They Think

As frustrating as it is to hear about people bringing in $250k/yr who are sooooo not rich at all (in their own minds), what frustrates me more is how much this lets off the hook people (families) bringing in only, say, $120k/yr. My largest personal frustration with people in these categories are how they consider certain, de facto luxury spending as a necessity.

A family spending $1000/mo on eating out is clearly enjoying a luxury of sorts. A family that drops $10 grand on a vacation without batting an eye is also clearly got some wealth. What is less clearly wealth is savings and excess debt reduction.

A family that puts 10-20% of its income toward savings/investment for retirement or education* is enjoying a luxury that many cannot afford. A family that puts their children into private schools is enjoying a luxury. A family that pays an extra $10-20k toward debt reduction (over and above minimum payments) is enjoying a luxury. Now, it may not really feel like it, but it is.

Have a look at median family incomes/expenses here. People earning double that are doing very, very well. They can pay a little more in taxes too. (So can I for that mater.)

*Yes, it is true that we have a very fucked up educational system in this country that costs way too much, but that is a different problem.