When Circumstances Treat Obama Unfairly

Via Sam Stein at the Huffington Post, the deal struck Friday night apparently contained $1.5 billion in cuts to Obama's proposed high speed rail budget.

In this situation, people like me and others on the left will criticize Obama for caving on a major priority and cutting from a rail infrastructure budget that was too small to begin with.

People on the right will still make hysterical claims that Obama is a scary, African socialist-Muslim.

The only people that will be pleased by this kind of policy are the bland Washington punditocracy who may take it as a sign of moderation and seriousness.  Unfortunately, the punditocracy has found itself almost comically unwilling to say anything good about any Obama policies.

Liberalism Gone Wild

I have to admit, when I saw this headline about a city attempting to curtail all sugary drinks in municipal offices, my immediate guess was San Francisco.  So congratulations, Boston!  You surprised me.

I support instituting taxes to increase the cost of food products with harmful health impacts.  Taxes on alcohol, cigarettes, gambling and other activities with public safety or public health implications are widely accepted.  Capturing the cost of those societal externalities is good public policy.

But this sort of heavy handed attempt to control people's choices - especially when done by a public employer - is exactly the kind of awful policy that partially validates conservative claims that liberals want to introduce a nanny state.


No, we don't have a health care crisis in our country. Why do you ask?

These stories, this one via Crooks & Liars, about free health care clinics and the terribly long lines that they draw, are really depressing.  How we can have a situation where one half of our political system basically waves its hand at this issue and says, "Nothing to see here," is beyond me.

My State's Incredibly Bloated Legislature

Many, many stories about the amazingly wasteful institution that is the Pennsylvania Legislature.  These stories are focusing on legislative staff, rather than the actual wasteful, expensive legislators themselves.

Allow me to summarize:

The Legislature is huge, with lots of unnecessary members.

Each legislator's staff is huge, with lots of unnecessary employees.

Overall, the thing is big, inefficient and very expensive.

And Right on Schedule

I missed this from earlier today, but apropos of an earlier post, right to work legislation has apparently already been put forward in the Pennsylvania House.

Mitt Romney is Running for President

No surprises, and I don't have much to add.

Nevertheless, it is sad when the one who believes in magic underwear is the "serious" GOP candidate.

Is America Europe's Mexico?

Free Exchange led me to this piece from the LA Times.  To quickly summarize, the story discusses an Ikea manufacturing plant in Danville, Virginia.  Workers there are apparently trying to unionize, claiming they are suffering from relatively low pay, strict work conditions, unpredictable schedules, forced overtime and multiple cases of racial discrimination.  The workers are also taking issue with the fact that employees doing virtually identical jobs at facilities in Sweden enjoy higher pay, better conditions and more paid vacation.

Ikea has a relatively friendly image, both here in the States and in its home country.  It is generally known as a responsible company and allows all of its employees in Sweden to unionize.  According to the article, this has been a much bigger story in Sweden than in the US due to surprise at the companies seemingly incongruent actions.  However, I don't see why anyone should be surprised.  This is what companies do.  Any operation that can be sent to an area with lower wages and weaker labor protections will be sent there.  It just isn't that often that we in the US think of ourselves as a cheap labor substitute for more expensive workers.  Driving home the point, an organizer from Danville, Bill Street said, "It's ironic that Ikea looks on the U.S. and Danville the way that most people in the U.S. look at Mexico."

Unfortunately, Americans had better get used to it.  Already within the country, states compete with one another by weakening environmental and labor laws in order to attract jobs from other states or other countries.  This race to the bottom has set off pushes in many states to pass Right to Work laws to compete with lower wage states.  The Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative think tank here in Pennsylvania, is a strong supporter of such a policy.

I have no doubt that this sort of competition is going to become increasingly common as states desperately try to boost employment.  So more states will be forced to compete with each other like they used to compete with Southeast Asia and Latin America.  And all the while, we'll be even cheaper labor for our new Scandinavian overlords.

Good for Iceland

Via the BBC, Icelandic voters have rejected a deal to reimburse Great Britain and the Netherlands for costs associated with the failure of Landsbanki.  As of right now, Iceland seems to be the only country in the world that has decided to put the will of its citizens ahead of the needs of the private bankers that helped
wreck the economy.

Of course, the British and the Dutch will now take the matter to international courts in an attempt to get the money.  I sincerely hope that the courts will rule that foreign creditors don't have the right to hold a sovereign nation and all of its taxpayers hostage in order to make good on the private debts of irresponsible bankers.


The European Central Bank is Courting Disaster

Via Matt Yglesias, I came across this news.  The ECB has decided that it is time to raise interest rates by a quarter percent to 1.25%.

I can't think of a more irresponsible thing for the ECB to do, especially coming the day after the news that Portugal will become the third country to request financial assistance from the EU.

The sovereign crisis in Europe has slightly different causes and effects in different countries, but the predominant problem for Greece, Ireland, Portugal, etc. is the need to realign their prices and particularly wages with Germany and the Euro core.  Tightening monetary policy and raising rates is one of the easiest ways to exacerbate that type of debt deflation problem, as the US learned during the Great Depression.

It's difficult to imagine what goal the ECB is trying to achieve here.  Bond markets are already demanding prohibitively high yields on the debt of troubled nations.  This will make that problem even worse.  It will make the entire process of price realignment slower and more costly on the local populations of peripheral Euro nations.

This will very possibly have the other perverse consequence  requiring ANOTHER round of bailouts for Irish banks.  Higher rates means slower growth, more defaults and larger balances sheet problems for Irish banks and, ultimately, those banks' French and German creditors.

The combination of financial sector bailouts and austerity budgets has already destabilized the Irish and Portuguese governments.  There is already the chance that new successor governments in these nations may be less willing to play ball with EU authorities.

I suspect that this drives us much, much closer to one or more nations deciding to pull out of the Euro.  However, even if this doesn't undermine the Euro, I'd expect some very negative market reactions over the next week as people digest this change.


Conservatives: Facebook is Part of the Obama Plot

Picked up this little tidbit over at The Fox Nation.  Original story here at Yahoo! News.

Apparently, conservatives are now outraged because Facebook intends to hold an online town hall for Obama and is considering hiring Robert Gibbs to be its new communications director.  Apparently this is an outrage that is causing conservative activists to cancel their Facebook accounts in protest.

I wish I could link directly to some of the comments on Fox Nation, but I'll just quote from them instead:

"I really like Facebook because I can keep up with my friends; however, if Gibbs is hired, I'm gone. Then it's only a matter of time before our posts will be monitored."

"My whole family closed the account weeks ago. Did not see the need to help a progressive site along any more."

I can only imagine how exhausting it would be to fit every single event that occurred on a daily basis into your narrative about the massive, evil forces that were aligned against you.  But when I patrol the right wings blogs, new sites, etc. that is exactly what I see people doing.  Every event is suspect.  Every coincidence is proof of the evil plots of shadowy enemies.  I can't imagine expending the much energy on something so absurd.

Of course, I'm sure it's only a coincidence that Fox and its parent News Corp., owner of MySpace, is helping to push this story.


Deficit Reduction by Traffic Ticket

Anecdotal evidence proving that Tom Corbett's master plan to balance the budget consists of issuing massive numbers of speeding tickets.  I have never seen so many state troopers on a round trip from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh on the Turnpike.

Chris Wallace: Whiner

Chris Wallace over at Fox News is super sad today.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made the Sunday talk show rounds this morning, but noticeably skipped out on Fox News.  This prompted Wallace to complain on air, saying that they wanted the interviews but that the White House refused despite the fact that Fox News has the second highest number of viewers out of the four major network shows.

First point: what a cry baby.  I can't believe an alleged journalist is so thin skinned that he felt the need to complain to his entire nationwide audience because he couldn't book the big interview he wanted.

Second: why is he surprised?  Fox News has spent every on air moment since Obama's inauguration making itself an thinly veiled opposition outlet and the official media/propaganda arm of the GOP.  Is he really surprised that the White House isn't keen on giving plum interviews to a "news" station that barely even tries to mask its contempt for him?

Finally, a somewhat unrelated point.

I'm really tired of Fox News acting as if ratings and number of viewers is some measure of the accuracy and veracity of the message they are broadcasting.  When challenged for being a conscious liar and deceiver, O'Reilly will frequently cite his and Fox's ratings as some sort of evidence to the contrary.  By this logic, the number of Big Macs sold is evidence the McDonald's is the best dining in the world, American Idol is the greatest program in the history of television, and crack is an absolutely great thing for people to do.

Michele Bachmann: Revisionist Historian

The right's most famous wide-eyed loon is at it again.

This weekend marked a big event in Iowa that was a veritable parade of GOP presidential hopefuls.  They were all there to woo the conservatives activists that will decide the nation's first primary.  Of course, Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann had to show up to lay some of her usual crazy on the audience.

One thing that she said struck me as so foolishly ignorant that I needed to mention it.  Bachmann claimed that, "The preservation of our nation is too important to entrust it to mere politicians.  The founders recognized that it could only be entrusted to the brain trust, and that's the people of this nation."  Yet again, Bachmann is showing that all of her grandstanding aside, she has no understanding whatsoever of the founding of our country.

The men who wrote the Constitution did not entrust the maintenance of our freedom to the people.  One wonders if Bachmann has ever heard of the Electoral College.  In case she hasn't, let me explain.  The Founders hated the idea that the common man would be in charge of the political process.  They thought that most people were simple, uneducated rubes who basically needed to be governed by their betters, for their own good.  One of the ways they ensured that was to create the Electoral College.  As everyone who has taken a 4th grade history classes knows, the Constitution created a body of "politicians" that would select the president based up on the popular election results from the people.  This is just one example of how the Founders placed barriers in the way of direct rule by the "brain trust" that Bachmann referenced.

Want more examples?  How about the fact that only white, property owning men over a certain age were allowed to vote.  Does that sound like the policy of a group that wanted "the people" to be guarantors of the nation?  How about the fact that Senators were chosen not by the people, but by the politicians in state legislatures.  Anyone who knows American history knows these things and knows that the Founding Fathers did not want the people to have unconstrained control over the country.


On a mostly unrelated note, Bachmann also drew huge applause with a little quip that she had, "...introduced the light bulb freedom of choice act!"  I can't understand the fixation of the movement right on these types of issues.  They apparently don't consider it a violation of our rights and freedoms for the government to impose warrantless wiretaps, rendition, etc.  But they consider it a huge infringement if they can't buy incandescent light bulbs?  Of course, the real issue isn't that they hate CFLs.  The real issue is that they know that phasing out incandescents (a policy introduced by the Bush administration, by the way) is about reducing energy usage and dealing with climate change.  The Tea Party crowd firmly believes that climate change is a hoax and that any action taken to correct it, even if it imposes no burden on them, is a priori a bad idea and an infringement upon their liberties.


Certifiable Conservatism

When I think that my blood pressure is too low, I head over to The Fox Nation in an act of self-flagellation.  This evening, I was rewarded with the type of insane, paranoid delusions that I usually think are reserved for Glenn Beck.

Over at Jewish World Review, Frank Gaffney completely loses his fucking shit.

This column consists of Gaffney going off on a dark, surreal fantasy in which President Obama, advised by his "anti-Israel troika of female advisers" (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, UN Ambassador Susan Rice and National Security Council member Samantha Power) uses the precedent set by our intervention in Libya to declare war on Israel.

This is certifiably loony.  The United States has spent the last several decades vetoing every UN resolution that had anything to do with Israel.  We provide them with enormous amounts of military, financial, logistical and diplomatic support.  Our leaders have to make a clear show of constantly expressing how willing they are to intervene on Israel's behalf.

And yet now we're going to invade them to defend the Palestinians at the behest of the Arab League.

It shows something creepy and dangerous about the mentality of the ultra right wing in American politics.  The conspiratorial, apocalyptic fantasies that they dream up are absolutely beyond comprehension.

Greg Sargent Tells Us Everything We Need To Know About Mitt Romney

Take it away Greg:

"Call it the Dingbat Doctrine: If you think the world is a complicated place; if you think that navigating the most powerful military in human history through treacherous and ever-shifting geopolitical cross-currents involves difficult moral choices; if you think America can gain anything at all by recognizing that we have common interests with other nations; well, then you’re too weak to be president."

Greg also directed everyone to Steve Benen at Washington Monthly:

"Obama is “nuanced”? Yes, but can someone explain why that’s a bad thing? It’s a complex, “turbulent,” and ever-changing world. Having a chief executive who appreciates and is aware of “nuance” strikes me as positive."

These criticisms came in response to this little gem from Mitt Romney:

“I believe that it flows from his fundamental disbelief in American exceptionalism. In the President’s world, all nations have ‘common interests,’ the lines between good and evil are blurred, America’s history merits apology. And without a compass to guide him in our increasingly turbulent world, he’s tentative, indecisive, timid and nuanced.”

Barack Obama: Imperial President

Glenn Greenwald provides a perfect takedown of the Obama Administration over its decision to engage in combat operation in Libya without the approval of Congress.  In the process, he also attacks both Democrats and Republicans for having identical positions on the unilateral ability of the President to essentially start wars with consulting Congress despite the Constitution's clear delegation of war-making authority to Congress.  That position of course, is that it is totally unacceptable and unconstitutional for a president of the opposite party to unilaterally start wars, but it is totally within the authority of a president from their own party.

This is yet one more manifestation of Barack Obama's complete agreement with many of the national security policies of George W. Bush.  When it comes to supporting portions of FISA, extending the Patriot Act, and now engaging in military strikes without consulting Congress, Barack Obama obviously has the same conception of the imperial presidency that has been universal to almost every president since World War Two.

I find this incredibly unsurprising.  The history of US foreign and national security policy is so remarkably consistent no matter which party is in control that it is difficult to imagine the president acting in any other way.  However, I do have some pity for Obama voters who believed that we were going to get a serious break from the heavy handed views on national security policy that we endured during the aughts.

Wisconsin Comes to the Commonwealth

I exaggerate slightly, but students and professors at Shippensburg were out protesting the higher education cuts in Gov. Corbett's budget.  I would not be surprised if this spreads to other universities and to at least some K-12 schools.  I don't foresee Pennsylvania experiencing the mass protests seen in Wisconsin, at least  not until Corbett decides that he wants to try permanently crippling unions too.

Reality TV: Scourge of Mankind

Cracked.com points to some studies which prove what we've all suspected all along: reality TV ruins everything.

In other news, dog bites man.

Yes, Conservation is a Good Thing

David Roberts at Grist goes after Democrats for being too cowardly to state publicly that they have the correct policy for dealing with high gas prices.  He points to the following chart and notes that part of what changed in 2007 was the passage of new conservation and efficiency standards.  He also points out that the savings between the original projections and the actual trend is larger than America's proven oil reserves.

In an update to the article, he points out that the spike in oil prices, the financial crisis and the recession were also largely responsible for the drop in oil consumption.  Those are major factors that could potentially be more responsible than the referenced legislation.

Nevertheless, it is impossible to ignore that conservation and efficiency are almost always the cheapest and most cost effective to deal with any energy issue.  Unfortunately, Democrats are often too afraid to tell the public that such policies work.

Grover Norquist: Deficit Hypocrite (Updated)

Bruce Bartlett points to an article in The Hill and makes his own point about Grover Norquist's demands of the Congressional GOP.  Apparently, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell have both pledged to Norquist and his nonsensical organization, Americans for Tax Reform, that they will not agree to any legislation that increases any taxes.  This shows two things very clearly.  First, no matter what they may say now or at any point in the future, the GOP absolutely, positively does not care about and cannot be trusted deal with our budget deficit.  Second, the Republicans are absolutely negotiating in bad faith and have no intention of compromising with the Democrats at all.

I really had hoped that tax reform could be done on a bipartisan basis in the near future.  Revenue neutral reform that eliminated many of the corporate and individual tax breaks, deductions, etc. while lowering the headline tax rates would be a great policy move.  It would make paying and filing taxes easier; it would make our economy much more efficient; and it would reduce the number of people like accountants and attorneys that have made a living off of the tax code.  Such a policy would have given both liberals and conservatives a number of things that they want.  Liberals would have gotten an end to corporate tax breaks for companies like Exxon.  Conservatives would get lower rates and a smaller IRS.

But the demands from Americans for Tax Reform don't just stipulate that legislators should vote against any net increase in tax revenue.  It demands that they not vote for any tax increases.  Full stop.  And, typical of GOP thinking, the elimination of any existing tax break or credit is considered a tax increase.  Therefore, any Republican who signed on, including the GOP leaders in both houses, is absolutely lying if they suggest they want to work on tax reform or compromise with Democrats.

The Hill's article makes an interesting reference to something Mitch McConnell said while on MSNBC.  He apparently mentioned that given the people's message in the last election, there will be no tax increases.  I have trouble not laughing at McConnell making a statement like that after the people did not make him the Senate Majority Leader.


Matt Yglesias agrees with me.  There is no point in hoping for bipartisan solutions when one party is coming to the table in bad faith and with no intention of actually compromising.


America Needs Nuclear Power

I generally agree with Bob Cesca, but I really disagree with his most recent article on the Huffington Post.  He argues that relying on fossil fuels and nuclear energy is the way of the past and that the real path forward for America should be to a new, totally clean and renewable energy paradigm.

In the long run, I think it is possible to think of an America that receives all or almost all of its energy from a combination of biomass, solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, wave and tidal power.  But over the course of the next several decades, that just isn't possible.

Even with the best energy storage systems and a really well designed and well managed electric grid, intermittent renewable resources can't provide all of the energy we need.  The wind doesn't always blow and the sun doesn't always shine.  With good technology and a wide enough geographical dispersion of interconnected generation resources, you can mitigate a lot of that variability in order to keep the grid stable.  But it's impossible for me to imagine any time in the next 15-20 years when that is an achievable goal.  We should certainly strive for it, but nobody should be holding his or her breath.

So where does that leave us?  It leaves us still requiring significant base load resources, which is to say large plants that operate at a high capacity with consistent output for long periods of time.  What does that mean?  It means hydro, biomass, oil, coal, gas or nuclear.  Hydro power and biomass are important parts of our energy supply mix and should be expanded.  But they still aren't enough to get us over the hump.  In other words, if we want to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and the corresponding greenhouse gas emissions, nuclear has to remain in the mix.  Full stop.

We obviously have to do everything imaginable to make nuclear as safe as it can be.  That means tight regulations and extremely well-trained staff, both of which we mostly have already.  Additionally, we need to find a viable long term solution for storing nuclear waste.  If we can get over the parochial NIMBYism of a lot of people, that can be relatively easily resolved.  Unless we want to continue burning massive amounts of fossil fuels to supply our energy, nukes should be here to stay.


Slow Motion Train Wrecks

I've already noted that Governor Corbett's new budget makes enormous cuts to education.  Now, it turns out that those cuts are going to fall disproportionately on poorer school districts as compared to wealthier districts.

I have a really hard time understanding how state and national politicians can justify these types of cuts, even to themselves.  I have to assume that part of the appeal is that the real negative consequences of education cuts won't be felt for a long, long time.  Of course there are immediate negative consequences.  There are teacher layoffs.  Class sizes go up.  Some programs, advanced placement classes, etc. will have to be eliminated.  All of this immediately visible damage is bad.  Where we'll really feel the pain, however, is many years down the line when we're attempting to support an increasingly elderly population with a smaller workforce that is less skilled and less prepared.

In a way, this is the root of almost all of our problems at both the state and federal levels.  Pain delayed is pain denied.  For example, look at the state of many of our nations dams.  If the government pulls back on infrastructure spending, the fiscal savings are immediate, but the damage is not.  The consequences of those spending cuts won't be felt for many years until one of our decrepit dams fails.  Politicians from both parties are equally guilty of this sort of IBG, YBG (I'll Be Gone, You'll Be Gone) thinking.

So Governor Corbett will trumpet his sacrifice to the gods of fiscal responsibility.  Meanwhile, the next generation of workers, innovators, business owners, etc. will be receiving a poorer education and fewer skills for the future.  To make the situation even more egregious, it will be the already disadvantaged students and districts that absorb the brunt of the cuts.


Democrats Behaving Badly

Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri has had an ethics violation filed against her, Politico reports.  As with all such cases, I presume that she is guilty and I hope some official action is taken.  I'm sure that won't be the case.  Even in terms of really minor league ethics violations, this one isn't a big deal.  She returned $88,000 of taxpayer money to the Treasury.  The money had been used for reimbursements for flights on a private jet partially owned by her and her husband.  One of those flights, worth $1,220.44, was for a completely political trip, which violates ethics rules.

While this incident is totally de minimis in the grand scheme of the orgy of corruption that is the United States Congress, it still warrants concern.  It is a symptom of the arrogance and sense of entitlement that is completely endemic in America's political class.

Just Like Goebbels...

The chief oil and gas geologist for Pennsylvania's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources suggested, when asked by an audience member at a speaking engagement with insurance company officials, that Josh Fox's Gasland was, "...a beautiful piece of propaganda."


Fox News Is Despicable

I just watched Sean Hannity do an interview with some religious dupe.  I believe he said that he was from a Franklin Graham affiliated organization.  According to every report I've been reading, the disaster response in Japan has been about as good as you could reasonably expect given the scale of the damage.  But based on one video that Hannity had playing in the background, he asked about the lack of response personnel.  This was the perfect setup for previously mentioned religious dupe to tout his own organization's contribution to the rescue effort while disparaging the efforts of the Japanese responders by saying that they didn't know what to do.  (I don't have a transcript, so I'm only paraphrasing.)

He then said they were providing physical, emotional and spiritual comfort to the afflicted.  Forgive me, but given the state of the country and the ongoing disaster, I suspect that the Japanese people might prefer if you just provide the physical comfort and keep the criticism of their soldiers and leaders and the "spiritual comfort" to yourselves.

Michele Bachmann: Conservative Victim

Apropos of my last post, America's favorite crazy-eyed, batshit conservative is also a victim.

Remember that time when Michele Bachmann, who has made her recent political career based on her supreme knowledge and understanding of ABSOLUTELY everything about the American Revolution, the Founding Fathers and the Constitution appeared not to know where the first battles of the Revolutionary War occurred?  (Hint: they were in Massachusetts, not New Hampshire)

Then remember when she tried to recover from her gaffe by slandering the patriotism of the entire state of Massachusetts?

Now there is brand new reason for Michele Bachmann and her hapless fans to not blame her at all for her apparent inability to properly explain anything about the American Revolution.  She is the victim of a double standard imposed by, you guessed it, the liberal media.  Which party likes victimhood and identity politics again?

Pundits Attack: Palin Addition

Politico posted an article in which several pundits, including bow tie wearing prick George Will, criticized reality TV star, wolf huntress and one time VP candidate Sarah Palin.  There were so many irritating things about the article that I find it difficult to distill them all down, but I'll try.

One of the main themes of the criticisms was that Sarah Palin uses the politics of identity and victimhood as a predominate part of her platform.  According to conservatives, those are liberal strategies.  Therefore, Palin's willingness to utilize them is a betrayal of some deeply held conservative principle.  That's complete and total nonsense.  The politics of identity and victimhood are consistently used by politicians across the board because it's cheap, it's easy and it works.  According to conservative mythology, their personal responsibility ethic doesn't allow for that sort of thing.  In the real world, all you need to do is listen to a white conservative discussing affirmative action to hear the whining tones of the self-appointed victim.

I also found this point annoying because it seems as if the quoted critics in the article only just noticed Palin's tendency to blame others for her flaws and cast herself as the target of discrimination or mistreatment.  We've heard Palin claim to be the victim of sexism, classism and elitism, just to name a few. It isn't that she's stupid, a quitter, willfully ignorant and narrow minded.  It's that the mainstream media, the liberal elite, the good ole' boys and the hoity toity rich people are conspiring to destroy Sarah Palin.  This has been her modus operandi since the moment her absurd personage was thrust unwillingly onto the American public by John McCain.

Deterioration in Bahrain

From the NY Times.  The decision by the Gulf Cooperation Council, and Saudi Arabia specifically, to send troops into Bahrain to help the government deal with predominately Shiite dissidents is extremely disconcerting.  Violence in the country has already increased.

I see several problems with this move by the Saudis.  First and foremost, I dislike the notion of the region's monarchies banding together to suppress dissent.  I believe that this strategy is doomed to failure in the long run, and perhaps even in the shorter term.  Democratic forces are on the move in the region and I'm not sure that even the heavily armed and US supported monarchies of the Gulf can permanently suppress their people.

Second, there is a very significant chance that this could cause broader conflict between the Shiite and Sunni communities in the region at large.  Iran has already made some threatening noises about the intervention.  It seems likely that Iran will attempt to support the Shiite in Bahrain with arms, cash, etc.   Additionally, there is the chance the results will be exactly the opposite of what the Saudis are hoping for.  The immediate Saudi goal is to suppress the Shiite protestors in order to discourage their own Shiite minority from following in the Bahraini's footsteps.  I see it as at least possible, however, that the Shiite in the eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia may increase their own activities in solidarity.

Finally, I have a nagging concern about what this could mean in Iraq.  There is a possibility that this could develop into a full-fledged proxy war between the region's dominant Shiite and Sunni powers: Iran and Saudi Arabia.  Both have provided a great deal of financing and arms to proxies in Iraq over the years.  I think people have to be concerned that if this incident doesn't stop in Bahrain, the conflict may spill over into Iraq and undo the progress that has been made there.


"China noses back ahead as top goods producer to halt 110-year US run"

That's a headline from today's Financial Times that includes much gnashing of teeth over the decline of US manufacturing. I'm a bit more sanguine about this development than some of the experts quoted in the article.

I understand the concern of people who view manufacturing output one of the key measures of economic prestige. Nonetheless, it leads me to ask some simple questions. Now, granted that with 9% unemployment, there are plenty of people in the US who who would gladly take any job they could get. However, does anyone really believe that the US economy would be in better shape if we were employing hundreds of thousands or millions of people to manufacture sneakers and bluejeans?

While I'm not a "true believer" in the neoliberal consensus on globalization and world trade, I do agree that it is the natural tendency of advanced economies to spend more resources providing services to people and less resources making things. Keep in mind, I'm sure one can find experts from the past expressing similar concerns about agricultural goods and commodities. But as agriculture has become a relatively less central part of the economy, resources were shifted to higher productivity sectors.

Also, while manufacturing jobs are often seen as more important to the national economy than service jobs, keep in mind that restaurants, barber shops, retail, etc. will never be outsourced. As long as we ensure good wages and saltiness for service providers, it will actually improve job security to shift resources to those areas.


From Bad To Worse

Unit 3 at Fukushima has suffered a hydrogen explosion like the one that earlier destroyed the building surrounding unit 1.  As with the first explosion, officials are suggesting that the steal containment vessel protecting the reactor wasn't breached by the explosion.

I have to express my concern that Japanese officials are being less than forthright about the goings on at Fukushima.  As others have reported, the fact that they decided to use seawater to cool these reactors is a definite sign that things were desperate.  Using saltwater on that equipment virtually guarantees that it will have to be decommissioned.  I can only assume that it was a last resort.

Hopefully that radiation leakage from the damaged reactors is containable before things get really bad.

Satellite Images of Tsunami Damage

From the New York Times.


The Kids Are Not Alright

It's fairly well known at this point, but there is a significant demographic problem facing the autocratic rulers of many Arab nations.  The following numbers, taken from the CIA World Factbook, are the proportion of each state's population that is below the age of 15:

Jordan - 35.3%
Libya - 32.8%
Morocco - 27.8%
Saudi Arabia - 29.4%
Syria - 35.2%
Oman - 31.2%
Yemen - 43%

To compare, here are the numbers for some Western nations:

Canada - 15.7%
France - 18.5%
Germany - 13.3%
Spain - 15.1%
United States - 20.1%

In most of these countries, the youth population is male majority.  In most of these countries, unemployment is extremely high.  Having a lot of young, restless, unemployed men hanging around doesn't make it easy to run an authoritarian government.

A Modest Proposal

Crooks and Liars picks up a story that I first saw mentioned by Rachel Maddow.  There is a bill in Michigan that would allow the governor to declare financial emergencies in municipalities and school districts.  This would allow him to appoint managers to resolve the issue by cutting services, abrogating contracts, selling assets, kick out elected officials or even eliminate or merge the municipalities and districts in question.  The bill, as currently written, provides for no public input and very little transparency.  Citizens could be left with no remedy and very little idea what the appointed managers were doing to govern their communities.  Clearly, this a very bad bill.  It is contemptuous of the democratic process and is completely with conservative political philosophy, which favors devolution of authority to the local level.

Having said what an awful power grab this is, I also have to say that the idea behind it, namely that many municipalities and school districts need to be eliminated or merged, is a valid one.  Look at Pennsylvania.  We have 501 school districts, 67 counties, and over 2,500 cities, townships and boroughs.  Think of the duplication of administrative functions that entails.  Each of these entities has staff and many of these people are doing identical things.  Are we really well served by having 501 superintendents for our school districts, thousands of mayors and council members and commissioners, etc.  Think of how many new teachers could be hired by redistributing the salaries and benefits of redundant administrators.

Doing this sort of thing unilaterally and without public input is wrong, but one has to face the reality that this sort of thing may be somewhat necessary given the fiscal state of the country and many of its political subdivisions.  I suspect that most people would react very negatively to the idea of voting their town, borough, school district, etc. out of existence, but the idea at least needs to be considered.

But it was cold this winter!

According to Scientific American, polar ice sheets are melting much faster than scientists previously thought.  Predictably, they have also increased estimates of the amount and the speed of expected rises in sea level.

The position of American conservatives with respect to climate change is totally disgraceful.  More important than this specific position is the larger problem of which it is merely a symptom.  One half of our country's political leadership is either: a) so scientifically illiterate or so distrustful of science generally, or b) so cynical that they're willing to govern in completely bad faith.

Either way, it makes me extremely pessimistic about our chances of resolving many of the problems that we face as a nation and as human beings.  Fixing Social Security and, much more importantly, Medicare, will require the country to make important decisions and set policy priorities over a very long period of time.  That isn't necessarily easy.  It requires leaders and citizens who are willing to do unpopular things and agree to make some shared sacrifices.  It also requires both the people and our leaders to closely examine these issues and have a solid understanding of them.

Dealing with climate change will require the same level of knowledge, understanding and commitment.  So how exactly do you accomplish anything when one political party has set out, as its more or less official position, that climate change is a vast conspiracy perpetrated by scientists and global elitists to take control of the economy.

Wikipedia is Awesome

Wikipedia.  Have you ever Wikipedia-ed Wikipedia?  It has its own very lengthy entry.  After publishing a couple of links to Wikipedia, I felt compelled to post on exactly how great it is and why.

I think that free access to information is an absolute prerequisite for democracy and freedom.  I also believe that the more information and intellectual property that is out in the public domain, the better.  On both of these fronts, Wikipedia is providing a tremendously valuable service.

Keep in mind that if it weren't for the apparent altruism of the founders, Wikipedia could be a very profitable enterprise.

Westboro Comes to Pennsylvania

The Westboro Baptist Church, America's favorite hate organization, is coming to central Pennsylvania to stage one of their protests at the funeral of seven children tragically killed in a fire in Perry County.  I think this is a good opportunity to talk about freedom of speech.

First, all the necessary caveats.  These people are crazy, cruel publicity whores.  The things they say are awful, and the venues they choose for their protests make it even more despicable.

Nonetheless, this seems akin to the Skokie Affair.  If you believe in free speech, you have to support the right of these people to have their protests.  Following on my post about gun rights, this is exactly the kind of thing you have to be okay with if you want to interpret the Bill of Rights in the widest, most all encompassing way.  The Supreme Court agrees with me, with the notable exception of sole dissenter Justice Alito, who apparently hates freedom.

I was extremely pleased with the Court's decision in Snyder v. Phelps.  I view this as one more case limiting the "fighting words" exception to the First Amendment that was immortalized by the Supreme Court in 1942 in Chapinsky v. New Hampshire.  I'll reiterate a point that is made all the time by advocates of free speech.  People saying popular things don't need the protection of the First Amendment.  Nobody tries to restrict popular speech.  The people saying controversial, unpopular or offensive things are the people most in need of protection.

Keep in mind, any time you allow yourself to believe that some things are so offensive that they don't warrant protection, you are implicitly accepting the right of other people to decide that you aren't protected by the First Amendment if you say something that people don't like.  The censorious impulse must be limited.


Yes, Sarah Palin is America's biggest hypocrite. Why do you ask?

Via Huffington Post, Sarah Palin thinks that the "union thugs" in Wisconsin really need to watch their rhetoric before somebody gets hurt.

But wait! You may remember that time when Sarah Palin claimed that you can't hold anyone responsible for the actions of another person, no matter what crazy, violent things may have been said.  Or what members of Congress may have been targeted by cross hairs, for that matter.


The Wisconsin GOP is Full of Disingenuous Liars

Via Crooks and Liars, a Wisconsin GOP legislator admitted what everyone knew all along: the union busting bill proposed by Scott Walker was never about the state budget and was always about dismantling unions as a way to attack the electoral prospects of the Democratic Party.

On Guns and Rights

Matt Taibbi has a humorous take on gun control legislation.  I have to confess that I find the right wing concerns over impending gun control as crazy as Taibbi does.  No high-powered Democrat has even come CLOSE to introducing or supporting significant gun control laws in a long time.  Sure, a few people made some gun control-ish noises after the Tucson shooting, but nothing serious came of it.  The paranoia about gun control is just one more whacked out element of conservative craziness, as far as I can tell.

Having said all of that, I'll also confess that the issue of control is one that leads me to part ways with a lot of my liberal friends.  I'm very much against the idea of gun control.  Taibbi raised an interesting point, which is that gun control makes other encroaching laws (he specifically cites sodomy bans) more tolerable to the public.  That is a line of reasoning I hadn't really thought of, but it makes some sense.

My reason for being against gun control if very simple.  I believe very firmly in the Bill of Rights.  More than that, I think that the rights and protections detailed in the first ten amendments should be interpreted in the broadest way possible.  If there is ever any question whether a government policy violates the 4th Amendment protection against unlawful searches and seizures (FISA and the USA PATRIOT Act, anyone?), I think the policy should be thrown out.  If there is the slightest suspicion that a law may violate any of the clauses of the 1st Amendment, I say repeal it (I include the "fire in a crowded theater" rule on limiting free speech in this category, Justice Holmes' overdone reputation not withstanding.).  Given my view that these rights should be read in the way most protective of liberty and freedom, I could never convince myself that the 2nd Amendment is the one exception.

I believe that liberals do themselves a disservice on this point.  It's a lot harder to convince people that you're serious about your defense of the other amendments when you suggest that the 2nd can be restricted, if not completely ignored.  You're for the Bill of Rights, or you're not.

So as not to beat up on my fellow liberals too much, I'll conclude by pointing out that the right wing is WAY guiltier of selective defense of the Bill of Rights.  The left has one amendment they don't want to enforce.  The right frequently seem to have only has one amendment that they DO want to enforce.


Ann Coulter, the favorite horse-faced debutante of the conservative movement, is at it again.  Among the many completely crazy and inane things she says in this video, the real gem comes 2:28 in when Coulter drops this line:

"Where in the Constitution does it say the United States Congress can fund things to help culture and education?  It's unconstitutional."

First, keep in mind that Coulter has a JD from the University of Michigan Law School.  As an attorney, she is supposed to have some idea what the Constitution says and what it means.  Now, let's think about that statement of hers for a moment.  She seems to be suggesting that anything not specifically listed in the Constitution is inherently out of bounds for our elected leaders.

You don't even have to read the whole damn Constitution to see how wrong Coulter is.  In fact, you only have to read the preamble, which a majority of 6th graders could probably recite for you:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The Constitution was designed in such a way as to provide a HUGE amount of flexibility for the duly elected representatives of the people to craft policies to meet the needs of the public.  If a majority of the people's representatives decide that the general welfare is best promoted by helping culture and education, then yes, it is ABSOLUTELY Constitutional.


Yes, my new governor is very bad. How about yours?

Philly Inquirer.

Wisconsin GOP Admits Its Anti-union Bill Had Nothing To Do With Balancing the Budget

Via Huffington Post, the Wisconsin Senate used a procedural maneuver to pass the bill stripping some public sector unions of most of their collective bargaining rights.  The measure, originally included in Gov. Walker's budget and touted as a necessary part of closing the state's budget deficit, passed 18-1.  Fiscal bills require a 3/5 quorum before they can be considered, according to Wisconsin law.  That stipulation is what allowed the state's Democratic Senators to leave the state and delay passage.

In an unexpected move, however, the state GOP decided to split the anti-union portion of the bill out from the budget bill.  In that case, the quorum was unnecessary and the bill was passed.  This is a complete admission that this was not a bill about fiscal responsibility or fixing the budget.  This was a move meant to attack an important Democratic constituency and soften up the middle class to be pillaged by the Koch brothers and their unsavory ilk.

Bank of America Breaks Itself Up?

Big story about a partial reorganization at BoA.  Many people have commented today, Felix Salmon among them.  There are a lot of different elements to this story, but I find one of them particularly interesting.

Yves Smith raised this point.  Namely, it almost appears as if BoA is preparing itself for resolution.  When people were debating how to deal with our criminal, oligopolistic Too Big To Fail banks in early 2009, many people (myself included, although not online) were calling for a good bank/bad bank approach as was used in the US during the S&L crisis and in Sweden during its financial crisis.  The depository portions of the bank and the remaining performing assets would be carved off by a trustee and sold back to the private sector.  The bad assets would either be termed out or discounted steeply enough to find buyers.  This approach, which would have been a temporary nationalization of much of our financial sector, would have been the fastest and most absolute way to deal with the mountains of toxic assets accumulated by our criminally irresponsible banks.  Now, BoA is going to split off large portions of their non-performing assets into a different internal division.  That certainly would make it easy if BoA were eventually going to be resolved under Dodd-Frank.  Yves' analysis is worth reading in its entirety; she raises some other interesting points.

America's Most Odious Congressman

Representative Peter King, Republican of New York, has decided that we need to investigate the Muslims.  All of them.  Now.

I'm exaggerating a bit.  Prepared testimony suggests that the hearings aren't going to be the inflammatory, blame all Muslims spectacle that people like myself had at first feared.  Either way, I find the exact content of the hearings to be somewhat secondary.  If done responsibly, this could potentially be a somewhat useful exercise, although I don't really expect any useful result.  It is true that there are elements in our country that will try to radicalize parts of the Muslim community.  Unfortunately, there are also elements in our country that will try to radicalize the Christian, Jewish, white, black and every other community in the country.  That's just the way things are.

The main issue from where I sit is what King is trying to accomplish politically with this little stunt.  King is dipping into that oldest and most popular well of animus in American politics: lets scare the white people by demonizing some Brown people.  From the Southern Strategy right on down to now, it is the most tired play in the GOP playbook.  This is just the most recent manifestation.  I find it difficult to believe that King has anything in mind but pandering to the baser elements of the conservative movement.

Pandering to Rural Americans

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was apparently upset by a blog post written last weekend by Ezra Klein.  Klein wrote about the very obvious fact that cities are vastly more productive than rural areas and the government policy subsidizes rural middle America at the expense of cities on the coasts.  It should be pointed out that this is not news.  Consider the following:

More urbanized states on the coasts and in the upper midwest (aka blue states) are compelled to provide enormous subsidies to the rural states in the south and the Great Plains (aka red states).  The government (all levels) spent $180 billion on agricultural studies in 2009, according to one analysis.  They calculated that a staggering $62 out of every $100 earned by farmers came from the government.  Rural areas are home to more military bases, which provide another huge economic boost to those communities.

The irony of these rural recipients of government largesse voting Republican, complaining about freeloaders living off of the government and screaming for reduced government spending is usually lost on the Sarah Palin, mouth-breathing set.

The situation was also lost on Sec. Vilsack, apparently.  If you read through the transcript of his discussion with Ezra Klein, you'll see that his stance basically boils down to the following: these are good people, they grow your food, they're patriotic and decent and you shouldn't be so mean to them.

I'm sorry, but what the fuck is that supposed to mean?  I'm know that all of those things are very true of rural Americans.  Those are also all very true about urban, suburban and exurban Americans.  None of that provides any intrinsic justification for compelling our wealthier, more productive cities to pick up the tab for the less productive regions of the country.  As it happens, I don't necessarily have a huge problem with subsidizing rural areas.  I believe in policies that result in some redistribution of national resources.

What I don't believe in is acting as if the beneficiaries of such policies are entitled to those resources due to their upstanding character.  If we have an honest national discussion and conclude that we should have a policy of subsidizing the middle of the country, fine.  But until everyone is willing to be honest about the reality of who benefits from government redistribution, ignorant conservatives like Sarah Palin need shut the hell up about the "real Americans" in middle America and how they're better than the immoral liberals who pay their goddamn bills.

We don't need no stinking passports!

I saw the following posted on the Huffington Post:

I suppose it isn't very surprising.  Closed-minded, xenophobic people from the southern and central parts of the country have no interest in traveling abroad.  I was quickly reminded of another map:

Look familiar?

On Bradley Manning

Glenn Greenwald is upset with the military's treatment of the Wikileaks leaker Bradley Manning.  He hackles seem to be raised about two distinct issues.  The first is the treatment itself, which he identifies, correctly I think, as reprehensible.  The second is hypocrisy on the part of Democrats, including the Administration, who would surely have leapt upon this issue with criticism if it had occurred during the Bush years.

Taking the second point first, I completely agree.  I have zero respect for the nonsensical partisans who are willing to excuse Obama for torture, the continued operation of Guantanamo Bay, the continuation of the USA PATRIOT Act, etc. after 8 years of incessant criticism of W. when it suited their political needs.

On the treatment itself, I have two thoughts.  The first is that I certainly believe that the punishments being doled out to Manning are cruel and unusual and should be stopped.  I find them morally repugnant.  However, I must confess that I haven't been as outraged over this issue as I might otherwise be.  One reason is that the volunteer members of our military have signed up for a position that deprives them of certain rights and protections that other citizens enjoy.  Look into restrictions on freedom of speech for active duty soldiers if you disagree.  I believe that someone who signed up for the military and then proceeded to leak confidential information should have had some reasonable expectation that there could be serious adverse consequences in the event he or she was caught.

Having said that, I would still prefer that our government stop using tactics that amount to torture, whether our cowardly society with its antiseptic euphemisms wants to call it that or not.


Copper/Oil Spread Blowout

Via Paul Krugman, prices of copper and oil have started to diverge sharply.  Paul provides his usual accurate and succinct analysis.  Way back in 2008, when a number of commodity prices were still scraping along the bottom, copper was one of the first to rally.  As an extremely important industrial raw material, copper therefore makes for a pretty good indicator of market expectations for the real economy's performance (although stockpiling always exists, as the Chinese pig farmers made clear a couple of years ago).

Oil should be a good indicator for the direction of the real economy and should, arguably, move in tandem with copper (as they have done up until very recently).  Although Professor Krugman would disagree with me, as he has done publicly with Yves Smith, I believe that speculation and potential market manipulation play to large a role in oil markets to make it a truly accurate indicator.  All that aside, oil reflects one other thing that copper does not: geopolitical instability.  With supplies highly concentrated in some of the world's more volatile regions, oil is always subject to large price swings brought on by any Middle Eastern dustups.

Nevertheless, the movement in this price relationship seems like something to watch closely.  Instability and high oil prices will start to drag on the global recovery pretty quickly.  Some research shows that a permanent, or at least semipermanent, $10 increase in the price of oil shaves 0.2% off of GDP.  Not huge, but not totally insignificant either.  For the time being, the disruptions in the oil market have been fairly minor.  Libya was producing about 1.6 million barrels of oil a day before the uprising against batshit crazy dictator Muammar Qaddafi.  In fact, all of the uprisings in the Middle East so far have been in relatively minor oil producing states with the exception of Qatar, where the crackdown on dissent seems to be having more success.

I'm hardly the first to speculate on it, but the real concern if you're worried about the global economy is that this unrest may spread to Saudi Arabia, which has for now been pumping more to make up for Libya's lost output.  It isn't hard to imagine prices well in excess of the 2008 peak if Saudi's long-suffering Shia minority gets the same idea as the folks in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

The Catholic Church Continues to Drag Its Feet on Sex Abuse

Twenty-one priests accused of sex abuse were placed on administrative leave by the Philly archdiocese.  At some point, someone in the United States is going to need to stand up for the idea that this is a severe criminal matter, not an internal affair to be handled in a manner chosen by the frocked virgins who run Western Civilization's most archaic institution.

On Libya

I'm very torn when it comes to the idea of US intervention in Libya.  On the one hand, as an unabashed supporter of democracy all over the world, I'm willing to support the idea of a No Fly Zone to prevent pro-Qaddafi forces from dropping bombs on Benghazi.  On the other hand, my natural skepticism with respect to the ability of the US security and foreign policy apparatus to successfully manage any such intervention makes me cautious.

GOP Congressman Shouted Down at Town Hall

I wasn't a fan of this kind of thing when the Tea Partiers did it during the health care debate and I'm not really a fan of it now when the roles are reversed.  I will admit that part of me cheers to see liberals getting upset and getting involved in the ground game in these fights.  On the other hand, I remain convinced that civil and rational discussion of the issues is the only way we'll make any real progress.  On the other hand, I'm not naive enough to think that both sides are equally capable of that type of discourse.

Furthermore, I really understand the anger and frustration of the people on the ground in states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio.  Nevertheless, I prefer civility in these cases.

Corbett's Cuts

New Governor Tom Corbett has finally released his first budget, aptly summarized by the Philly Inquirer.  Nothing unexpected.  A quick initial reading revealed some of the usual gimmickry, such as combining special funds into the general fund in order to close the deficit.  The Marcellus Shale was unsurprisingly left untaxed, our radioactive water notwithstanding (to be fair, the Department of Environmental Protection has weighed in to exonerate itself).  Basic education and higher education took the largest hits, as had already been expected.

While it is easy for me to get tangled in weeds of my own state's policies, it is important not to lose sight of the larger national context.  What we are witnessing in every state that saw drastic GOP takeovers in the last election is a total assault on liberal interests, liberal policies and liberal constituencies.  More importantly, we're watching what I would call an unprecedented assault, at least in recent times, on the middle class.  Whether it is Governor Snyder of Michigan proposing a new tax on retiree pensions to fund a business tax cut or the fact that GOP governors everywhere are suggesting deep cuts to education and medical programs while refusing to increase any taxes, it is clear that the priority of the ascendant Republican party is politics, not budget deficits.