Browsing the blog archives for February, 2010.


Congratulations Canada

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entertainment and popular culture

Gold medal, ice hockey. Every sports bar in Canada must be rocking.

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Deranged and Confused

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Obama Administration, Wingnuts Being Wingnuts

Somewhere, I read that stress can be measured as the distance between your expectations and your reality. I thought of this when I read the “manifesto” left behind by Joe Stack, the fellow who flew a plane into an Austin IRS building. My impression is of a man who expected something else entirely from his life than what he got, and he was stressed, and angry, about it.

Stack had issues with taxes going back to the early 1980s. He refers to particular parts of the tax code that were changed then, but he doesn’t make clear what was bad about them. Then in 1994 he and his wife did not file tax returns. The reason for this is murky, but my suspicion is that he came to believe he did not have to pay taxes. About that time there was a small movement of anti-government extremists who, through creative reading of the tax codes, had come to the conclusion that there was no law that actually compelled anyone to pay taxes. These people were active on the old USENET newsgroups, which is how I came in contact with them. Note that several of these same people believed the U.S. had been under martial law since the Civil War, and this was somehow connected to American flags with gold fringe around them.

Apparently Stack’s wife divorced him and filed for bankruptcy to get out from under her tax debt, but Stack seems to have stubbornly refused to acknowledge he had done anything wrong. And it appears this act of defiance wrecked the rest of his life. He had considerable financial problems, but he also owned a couple of small planes, which suggests he was far from destitute. Lots of people are worse off, in other words.

The diatribe Stack left behind doesn’t fit neatly into any one ideological cubbyhole. He was angry with government, politicians of both parties, corporations, unions, health insurance companies, the Catholic church and organized religion generally. We can only guess if the “tea party” movement had any impact on him. My impression is that he had been on a self-destructive course for a great many years.

However, it appears some current anti-government extremists are claiming Stack as a martyr to their cause. Frank Rich writes about this in his column today. Although whatever it is that passes for “leadership” among the tea partiers has not publicly embraced Stack, apparently Facebook and many right-wing sites are bursting with praise for him.

On the other hand, the crew at Free Republic is certain he was a leftie. See, for example, Joe Stack’s “manifesto” ends by bashing Capitalism and quoting Marx! (Comment: “This guy sound like a ‘right-wing extremist’ to you? He sounds more like Obama or one of his many revolutionary-left associates!”) (Note: Stack appears to have been mocking Marx more than approving of him, but again, Stack’s political beliefs seem to have been all over the map. Stack’s real beef with capitalism may have been that he failed at it.)

However, I suspect Rich is right about a connection between the Clinton-era right-wing fringe obsessed with black helicopters, citizen militias, Ruby Ridge, and the destruction of David Koresh’s compound in Waco and the current right-wing fringe who are rallying around “tea parties” and threatening secession.

And I think it’s also true that the Republican Party has little control over the tea partiers. Rich writes,

The distinction between the Tea Party movement and the official G.O.P. is real, and we ignore it at our peril. While Washington is fixated on the natterings of Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Michael Steele and the presumed 2012 Republican presidential front-runner, Mitt Romney, these and the other leaders of the Party of No are anathema or irrelevant to most Tea Partiers. Indeed, McConnell, Romney and company may prove largely irrelevant to the overall political dynamic taking hold in America right now. The old G.O.P. guard has no discernible national constituency beyond the scattered, often impotent remnants of aging country club Republicanism. The passion on the right has migrated almost entirely to the Tea Party’s counterconservatism.

I was also struck by this:

A co-sponsor of CPAC was the John Birch Society, another far-right organization that has re-emerged after years of hibernation. Its views, which William F. Buckley Jr. decried in the 1960s as an “idiotic” and “irrational” threat to true conservatism, remain unchanged. At the conference’s conclusion, a presidential straw poll was won by Congressman Paul, ending a three-year Romney winning streak. No less an establishment conservative observer than the Wall Street Journal editorialist Dorothy Rabinowitz describes Paul’s followers as “conspiracy theorists, anti-government zealots, 9/11 truthers, and assorted other cadres of the obsessed and deranged.”

Interesting that the truthers have migrated to the Right. They used to be associated only with the Left.

Anyway — recent polling suggests that the tea partiers are disproportionately white, but have average income and education. I remember reading recently that they tended to be middle aged or older, but I can’t find a reference to that now.

What does this tell us? The “tea partiers” on the whole are not the most oppressed and downtrodden among us, just the most pissed off. They’ve got more distance between their expectations and their reality than most of the rest of us.

What are their expectations? What are they pissed off about, really? Because for all their screaming about taxes, most of ’em are not paying more taxes now than they were last year or five years ago. Certainly racism is a factor in much of their animosity to President Obama, but that’s far from the whole story.

According to the “Tea Party Patriots” website, their core values are “Fiscal Responsibility, Constitutionally Limited Government, Free Markets.” On the surface, not the stuff of angry mobs.

But I don’t think you have to be a psychologist to understand that the anger is being fueled by something else entirely, some horrific chasm between their expectations and their reality. Essentially, you’ve got a lump of middle-class white people who have hit mid-life or older, and their lives haven’t worked out the way they expected. In that way, at least, Joe Stack was one of them. And hey, folks, join the club.

The problem is that when they look for the cause of their problems, they see black helicopters and Big Gubmint, whereas the rest of us see financial sector oligarchy and disaster capitalism. I think I’ve used this analogy before, but they make me think of panicked horses who run back into the burning barn. We laugh at their weird conspiracy theories, but the truth is that the real “conspiracy” is so much bigger and so much scarier than what they imagine.

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Why We’re Better

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big picture stuff

An evolutionary psychologist at the the London School of Economics and Political Science crunched a whole lot of data from a large U.S. sample and found that people who identified as liberal and atheist had higher IQs. Also, high-IQ men were also more likely to be sexually exclusive than lower IQ men, but the same correlation was not found in women.

“The IQ differences, while statistically significant, are not stunning — on the order of 6 to 11 points,” the article says. It would be interesting to me if the same correlations are to be found in other populations, as the U.S. seems to have an abnormally high proportion of, um, cognitively challenged religious conservatives.

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Good Read

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Obama Administration

Uwe Reinhardt (seriously?), “A ‘Government Takeover’ of Health Care?

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Is It Television?

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Obama Administration

I’m told the health care summit turned out to be mostly political theater, as expected. Sometimes I wonder if mass media itself is part of the problem. If politics were an ecosystem, it would seem the introduction of mass media into the environment has given us a species of politicians who can’t do anything else but political theater.

There has always been plenty of corruption and bamboozling in Washington, but in generations past the corrupt bamboozlers were capable of running a government and passing legislation that made a real difference in people’s lives. Now I look at people like John Boehner and Eric Cantor, and wonder, what the hell do you do, exactly? Because it seems their only real function is going through the motions for the cameras; they aren’t real senators, but just play the role on TeeVee.

The question is, is this new species the wave of the future, or have congressional Republicans (and some conservative Democrats) marched into an evolutionary cul de sac, too over-specialized to adapt to changing conditions? And I do think the way to defeat them is not to attack them individually and directly, but to change the conditions that sustain them. Maybe I’ll address that some other time.

At Slate, Timothy Noah has an interesting observation — the ruling class doesn’t fear the peasants enough.

Starting late in the 19th century and ending late in the 20th, a hugely important engine of social progress was fear on the part of the nation’s leaders that economic inequality, if it were allowed to become too severe, would lead to class warfare and maybe the radical overthrow of the U.S. government. That’s why Andrew Carnegie founded his libraries; it’s why the states ratified the 16th Amendment to the Constitution, creating the modern progressive income tax; it’s why Franklin Roosevelt created the New Deal (“The failure of Republican leaders to solve our troubles,” Roosevelt said when he accepted the Democratic nomination in 1932, “may degenerate into unreasoning radicalism”); it’s why Harvard President James Bryant Conant moved Harvard to a merit-based system of admissions subsequently adopted by other universities; and it’s why every Republican president from Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan pursued domestic economic and social policies only somewhat less liberal than those favored by Democrats.

Of course, it was Reagan who stopped that trend, and beginning in the 1980s income inequality has grown.

But instead of fearing radicalism fueled by income inequality, today’s “conservatives” thrive on it. Instead of dealing with the issues that are causing people to be angry, conservatives just fan the flames to make people more angry, hoping to harness that anger into political power. And it’s worked for them pretty well, so far. But is it sustainable, or will it all flame back into their faces someday?

See also: Paul Krugman, “
Afflicting the Afflicted.”

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The Big Lie: Insurance Premium Costs

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Obama Administration

In case anyone is interested, here is the CBO analysis everyone is claiming says premium costs will go up or go down. You can see for yourself who is lying and who isn’t. Or, who is maybe not lying but instead is reporting the numbers in a way that seems to favor the lie.

For example, The Note claims the CBO analysis says “The net effect of those three factors: Premiums would be 10 to 13 percent higher for the average policyholders.”

This is deceptive The 10 to 13 percent figure applies only to non-group policies. Since the overwhelming majority of people are in group plans, the “average policyholder” is in a group policy. The same analysis shows group policy costs to remain about the same, give or take one percentage point.

Someone not reading carefully, such as Jammie Wearing Fool, might easily take away from the Note that the cost of most people’s insurance policy’s will go up. Not so.

Further, the increase for non-group policy costs comes from the assumption that people will choose to purchase more comprehensive policies. As Ezra explains,

CBO expects prices in the individual market to rise by 10 or 12 percent, an expectation driven entirely by predictions that individuals will purchase policies that are much more comprehensive, and thus somewhat more expensive, then the insurance they can afford now. … as the CBO explains on page five, part of the increase in the type of insurance being purchased is the result of “people’s decisions to purchase more extensive coverage in response to the structure of subsidies.” In other words, the change is driven by the subsidies, not offset by them.

However, if you keep the non-group policy you already have, the premium cost should go down.

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I’m Not Sure I Can Watch This

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Health Care, Obama Administration

Sen. Lamar Alexander is delivering the Republicans’ opening remarks, and I already want to hurl big, heavy objects at the TeeVee screen. Here are his basic themes:

  • What’s really important is controlling cost.
  • The Democratic bill cost too much.
  • The People have said they don’t like the Democratic bill, so the Dems should scrap it.
  • Reconciliation is bad.
  • Beware of the “tyranny of the majority,” which I take it means that the party that the people elected into the majority in Congress should not be allowed to pass bills.

Update: The lies are beginning already, and I turned off the TeeVee because, frankly, I’ve got work to do and I won’t get it done if I’ve got that nonsense droning on in front of me.

Lamar Alexander said in his opening remarks that the Congressional Budget Office had said the Democratic plan would raise premiums. I believe I know what he’s talking about. Some versions of the bills (notably without the public option) would cause some individual insurance premiums to go up, mostly because the insurance industry would no longer be able to sell junk policies to individuals but would have to sell them policies that actually cover their health care needs. So in some states individual policies would become more expensive, but they would also be real insurance policies and not ripoffs.

However (as I remember) the same CBO analysis said that the same plan would cause the cost of employee-benefit insurance to go down a bit.

Update: Daily Kos is liveblogging. See also the TPM Health Care Summit Wire.

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Health Care Summit Today

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Obama Administration

The much anticipated health care summit is today, from 10 am to 4 pm EST. I don’t plan to live blog the whole thing but will be monitoring it on the TeeVee and may post if something strikes me as significant — like, releasing tigers.

I haven’t seen it, but Ben Dimiero of Media Matters says rightie media is furiously promoting a Breitbart TV video that shows Democrats in 2005 criticizing the “nuclear option.” Well, I’ll let him explain it

The “nuclear option” was a term coined by Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS) in reference to his proposed change to Senate rules that would have banned use of the filibuster for judicial nominations.

Reconciliation, on the other hand, requires no change to Senate rules since it has been used repeatedly over the years to pass major legislation – notably to pass major pieces of health care reform legislation. Republicans themselves weren’t quite so uncomfortable with the supposedly “dirty” process when they used it to pass President Bush’s tax cuts. Multiple times. …

…In a jaw-dropping display of audacity, the video runs several examples of Democrats railing against the “nuclear option” in 2005. The video attempts to juxtapose this with their current support for reconciliation to show their supposed hypocrisy.

This is absurd.

The Democrats in the video are railing against the “nuclear option” as defined by Lott, not the new definition conservatives have decided to bestow upon the phrase. On his radio show, Beck called the video “laughable” and “unbelievable.” I agree with those characterizations, but for slightly different reasons.

To prove a point, I propose we change the definition of “deficits” to mean “freedom,” then put together a reel of conservatives attacking “freedom.”

It would be about as honest.

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Is It teh Guns, or teh Crazy?

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Obama Administration

It may be a sign of the times that news of a new school shooting in Littleton, Colorado, seems to be making no splash at all on the blogosphere. No one was killed, fortunately, but still, you’d think some blogger would mention it. I haven’t even seen any rightie bloggers try to claim the shooter was a liberal.

Anyway, guns are in the news. Ian Urbina reports for the New York Times that states are tossing out what’s left of firearm regulations in anticipation of the Great Obama Gun Grab that’s supposed to begin any minute now.

President Obama has never indicated he intends to try to confiscate firearms, and last year he signed bills that allows firearms to be carried in national parks and on Amtrak trains. But that just shows how diabolically clever he is. As soon as gun owners relax their guard, agents from ACORN will show up at their doors to confiscate their firearms.

Some states have passed laws saying that firearms manufactured, purchased and used entirely within their states are not subject to any federal regulation. Which is to say, if you think the U.S. Congress is a waste of protoplasm, you probably don’t want to look at your state legislature real hard.

I read this week that the Indiana legislature is debating a bill that would deny employers the right to ban firearms from their property. Gun owners want to be able to store their guns in their cars while parked in the company parking lot.

Employers complain that the bill interferes with their property rights. The National Rifle Association says that the right to self-defense trumps property rights. I guess if there’s a hold-up in your workplace, you could tell the bandit to wait until you fetch the rifle from your car.

It’s crazy out there, people.

Just in case this post attracts some firearm, um, enthusiasts, let me say that I do not oppose personal firearm ownership per se. I have never owned a gun, but if I lived in a remote mountain cabin in Montana, I might keep a loaded shotgun on the wall. I don’t even oppose hunting, even though I am a Buddhist. I wouldn’t go hunting myself, but I wouldn’t stop other people from hunting as long as they know what they’re doing and follow state laws and hunting safety rules and, most of all, stay sober.

I also think there’s some truth in the slogan “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” As Michael Moore pointed out in Bowling for Columbine, there are other nations, notably Canada, in which lots of people own guns and which don’t have anywhere near the level of gun violence you find in America.

The cause of gun violence is not guns alone, but a combination of guns plus people who are (a) paranoid, (b) angry, (c) paranoid and angry, (d) criminal, (e) psychotic, or (e) all of the above. Unfortunately, that list describes a large portion of the American public.

And, unfortunately, the people who are most hysterical about keeping their right to bear arms are the same people you’d least likely trust to use a firearm responsibly. (See list in previous paragraph.) The NY Times article pretty much backs me up on that.

The current stampede to reverse state firearms regulations is part of an ongoing trend. Although it hasn’t been updated since 2006, this animated graphic shows changes in right-to-carry laws nationwide. This is supposed to make us safer from criminals carrying guns, a claim demolished pretty well on this website.

And Steve M. has data showing how Virginia’s gun laws impact crime in New York City. New York City? Virginia is the primary supplier of guns used in crimes in NYC. Years ago criminals could drive down to Virginia, legally purchase a carload of firearms, and drive them back to NYC. In 1993, Virginia passed a law restricting citizens to one firearm purchase a month, which contributed to a dramatic drop in violent crime in NYC.

Well, guess what, folks? Virginia just voted to repeal the law. Because, you know, purchasing one gun per month isn’t good enough to keep law-abiding citizens self-protected.

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It’s All About Freedom

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Health Care

George Lakoff makes a good point here —

Health means life. If you get a major illness or injury and cannot get it treated adequately, you could die. And tens of thousands do.

Health means freedom. If you have a serious illness or injury and cannot get it treated, your freedom will be limited in many ways. Your physical freedom: you may no longer have the freedom to move around. Your economic freedom: you may not be able to work or your medical bills may impoverish you. Your emotional freedom: you will not be free to live a happy life.

Too many of us have, to one extent or another, bought into the libertarian fallacy that only government interferes with “freedom.” Probably nothing (next to being dead) reduces personal freedom more than an impaired brain or body. After that comes poverty, which reduces your choices and dictates you spend your time doing whatever you have to do to survive.

The most egregious example of non-freedom in American history, the institution of slavery, was not conducted by government. It was protected by government, but only because slave-owning citizens demanded that their “property rights” be protected.

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