Monday, November 26, 2012

Absence of War

Of a commonwealth whose subjects are but hindered by terror from taking up arms, it should be said that it is free from war, rather than that it has peace. For peace is not mere absence of war, but is a virtue that springs from force of character.

-- Baruch SpinozaPolitical Treatise (1676)

This week everybody was talking about Gaza

But an unusual number of commentators couldn’t figure out what to say about it, including me. Since I was making Thanksgiving plans while the latest round of conflict was playing out, I was reminded of those old family arguments that come up year after year. The first year or two, you might be tempted to figure out who’s right and take a side. Then for several years you try to work out a middle position and get the combatants to compromise. And then, finally, everybody just shouts down whichever uncle tries to bring the old conflict up again.

Having passed into that third phase, Hullaballoo’s David Atkins explains why Gaza got so little coverage on progressive blogs:

The fact is that it’s impossible to say anything substantive about the Israel-Palestine conflict without being called a hateful anti-Semite, or a hateful bloodthirsty imperialist … often for the same post.

… There are no good guys here. Bibi Netanyahu is a horrible person, and Likud is filled with horrible people. They’re basically the Israeli version of Dick Cheney and John Bolton, but with a religious belief in their right to steal land that belongs to others.

Hamas, meanwhile, is a murderous organization of cutthroats who refuse to recognize Israel’s right to exist and want to drive every Jew out of the land they believe their God owes them.

I used to run into a lot of people who put forward a partisan timeline: Everything was fine until Deir Yassin Massacre in 1948 or the Hebron Massacre in 1929. Since then, the victimized side (whichever one you think that is) has done a series of perfectly reasonable things to try to defend itself from the greedy or bloodthirsty lunatics on the other side.

People are still making those arguments, but nobody I hang around with or read regularly. I’m also not hearing the legalistic arguments I used to hear all the time: The Balfour Declaration of 1917 or the U.N. partition of 1947 justifies Israel’s claims, or U.N. resolution 242 justifies Palestinian resistance by whatever means necessary. Or the argument that there are already so many Arab countries; why does the world need another one? Why can’t Israel have it’s little strip of land and the Palestinians go to some other Arab country?

Instead, I’m seeing much more of a willingness to look at the lives of individuals on both sides and say, “Life shouldn’t be this way.” Slate’s legal writer Dahlia Lithwick is in Jerusalem to visit her parents and finish a book that isn’t about Israel or Palestine:

You want to hear about what it’s like here? It’s fucking sad. Everyone I know is sad. My kids don’t care who started it and the little boys in Issawiya, the Arab village I see out my window, don’t care much either. I haven’t met a single Israeli who is happy about this. They know this fixes nothing.

Her advice is to stop justifying your side, stop writing those ten-point-plans-to-solve-everything, and just listen.

Counting and photographing and tweeting injured children on each side isn’t dialogue. Scoring your own side’s suffering is a powerful way to avoid fixing the real problems, and trust me when I tell you that everyone—absolutely everyone—is suffering and sad and yet being sad is not fixing the problems either.

One good lesson I am learning this week is to shut up and listen. Because the only way to cut through the mutual agony here is to find people who have solutions and to hear what they have to say. Bombing the other side into oblivion is no more a solution than counting your dead children in public. The best thing about shutting up and listening? You eventually lose the impulse to speak.

Please don’t judge. Work toward solutions. Because everyone on every side of this is desperate. This isn’t a way to live and we all know it.

I know that the-people-I-hang-out-with doesn’t constitute any kind of random sample or significant power bloc. But the shift in attitude seems significant to me, because it’s the only way these things ever eventually resolve: The old wrongs don’t get righted and the old wounds don’t get avenged, but eventually people get tired of hearing about them. The significant question stops being “What were we promised?” or “What do we deserve?” or “What was taken from us?” and instead becomes “What do we need to do to make the present tolerable and the future a place where we will want to live?”

And once you arrive in that tolerable present, with turkey on the table and pies cooling on the counter, you need a consensus that tells the bitter old uncles to shut up. Don’t start that again. Nobody wants to hear it.

… and the fiscal cliff

Back in the 19th century, a trader compared watching the fluctuations of the wheat market to watching a wrestling match that is happening under a blanket – you can see that something is going on, but you can’t tell what.

The fiscal cliff negotiation is like that. I haven’t said anything substantive about it because none of the publicly available information means anything. One day John Boehner sounds conciliatory; a few days later he takes a hard line. Ditto for President Obama.

It’s all posturing. Right now, polls say the public will blame the Republicans if no deal gets reached, and that makes President Obama’s negotiating position stronger. If the Republicans can defuse that by making reasonable noises in public while Obama sounds inflexible, then their position improves. That’s all that’s going on.

So far there’s been only one public concession: Republican have backed off the utterly ridiculous position they took in 2011 that tax reform should be revenue-neutral. (In other words: Any money generated by closing loopholes and eliminating deductions should go back to the tax-payers as rate cuts.) They’ve allowed that a fiscal-cliff deal might generate new revenue somehow. How much revenue? From where? Nobody’s saying.

All along, President Obama has allowed that a deal would include some spending cuts. But again, the specifics are a little sketchy. Is Social Security on the table? Medicare?

As soon as there’s something real to report, I’ll be all over it. But I’m not going to get excited about the posturing on either side. All I see is the blanket moving around. Something is happening, but saying any more than that is just speculation.

… and you might find this interesting

Compare two issues: the federal debt and global warming. Both involve predictions of a future apocalypse if we don’t change our ways. In the Debt Apocalypse, trust in the United States’ economy fails, people stop buying our government bonds, interest rates soar, inflation rages, and so on. In the Climate Apocalypse, storms get more violent and more frequent, droughts and heat waves ravage crops, more wildfires break out, glaciers and polar ice caps melt, rising seas inundate coastal cities, and so on.

Here’s the difference: The Climate Apocalypse stuff is starting to happen. The Debt Apocalypse stuff isn’t: Demand for government bonds is high, interest rates and inflation are low. And Paul Krugman points out that a Debt Apocalypse has never happened to a country like the U.S.:

Still, haven’t crises like the one envisioned by deficit scolds happened in the past? Actually, no. As far as I can tell, every example supposedly illustrating the dangers of debt involves either a country that, like Greece today, lacked its own currency, or a country that, like Asian economies in the 1990s, had large debts in foreign currencies.

So which problem is getting front-page coverage and eliciting daily comments from our leaders? The debt. There isn’t even a proposal on the table – from either Party – to do something about the climate.

One problem is that scientists hate to sound like Old Testament prophets, so they let themselves get diverted into detailed explanations and fail to sum up. So David Roberts sums up for them: “Our present course leads to certain catastrophe.”

Occasionally you hear about a “skills gap”. (President Obama has even talked about it.) The idea is that there are actually lots of unfilled jobs in America, but our workers don’t have the skills to fill them.

Adam Davidson looked at this in the NYT Magazine, and wasn’t impressed. Employers say they “can’t fill” jobs, when actually they just aren’t willing to pay the market wage.

The secret behind this skills gap is that it’s not a skills gap at all. I spoke to several other factory managers who also confessed that they had a hard time recruiting in-demand workers for $10-an-hour jobs. … In a recent study, the Boston Consulting Group noted that, outside a few small cities that rely on the oil industry, there weren’t many places where manufacturing wages were going up and employers still couldn’t find enough workers. “Trying to hire high-skilled workers at rock-bottom rates,” the Boston Group study asserted, “is not a skills gap.”

It’s like the “jobs Americans won’t do” that supposedly make it necessary to bring in workers from low-wage countries like Mexico. There jobs Americans won’t do for a Mexican wage.

It’s exactly analogous to the importing-prescription-drugs-from-Canada phenomenon. Nobody says that there are “drugs American companies won’t sell”. Of course they’ll sell them; they just want a higher price.

Interesting bit of data: Even though Android smartphones and tablets have been outselling Apple products by a fairly wide margin for the last two years, Apple-users seem to do a lot more online. Many more Black Friday online purchases came over Apple’s iOS operating system than over Android. And it’s not just purchases: TPM notes that it gets almost four times as much iOS traffic as any other kind of smartphone or tablet traffic. Nobody has offered a compelling explanation yet, but you have to wonder if a bunch of Android devices are sitting in a drawer.

Nicholas Kristof observes that post-Sandy, back-up generators are the newest must-have device for the East Coast elite. And then he makes a very important point:

It would make more sense to invest those resources in the electrical grid so that it wouldn’t fail in the first place.

Public consumption is way more efficient than private consumption. A few rich people can have big yards, or the community can have a park. Everybody can buy their own books, or we can have a public library. A few kids can learn in expensive private schools, or we can fix the public schools for all kids. We can buy bottled water, or we can make the public water system clean and safe. What makes more sense?

But increasingly, we’re opting for private consumption.

Half-a-century of tax cuts focused on the wealthiest Americans leave us with third-rate public services, leading the wealthy to develop inefficient private workarounds. … I’m used to seeing this mind-set in developing countries like Chad or Pakistan, where the feudal rich make do behind high walls topped with shards of glass; increasingly, I see it in our country.

Republicans who don’t want their party to change have been arguing that they just need to turn out the base better. FreedomWorks’ Matt Kibbe wrote this in the NYT:

Possibly the most stunning number coming from the 2012 presidential election is the fact that Mitt Romney actually drew 3,488,911 less votes than John McCain in 2008, and a staggering 5,579,198 less than George W. Bush in 2004. Obviously fiscal conservative voters were not inspired to turn out on Election Day.

You can get stunning numbers when you compare one election’s partial returns to the final returns of the previous election. But as we get closer to having all the votes counted, that talking point dissolves. Romney has at least 350,000 more votes than McCain got. But he still lost to Obama by about 4.2 million votes.

That, BTW, is significantly bigger than President Bush’s 3 million vote margin in his 2004 re-election bid, the one that led him to say: “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.”

The guy whose “un-skewed polls” predicted a 3% Romney victory has found a new way to avoid reality: Obama won Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia by fraud. His evidence? Inner-city precincts in Cleveland and Philadelphia where Romney got zero votes. So it should be easy to go there, find some Romney voters, and get them to testify that they voted for Mitt, right? So why hasn’t anybody done that?

And I just can’t give President Obama a pass on this: Defending Israel’s bombing of Gaza, he said: “There’s no country on Earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders.”

As if he weren’t launching drone attacks on Pakistan or Yemen. Of all the meanings of “American exceptionalism” that I explored back in 2011, this is the one I deplore: We’re morally exceptional. Things that would be evil for other nations to do are OK for us.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Symptoms and Causes

The beating heart of modern conservatism is its visceral appeal to anxieties and fears of white Christians. ... Once you understand this, you can see that the Republican Party's problems are deeper than, say, opposition to comprehensive immigration reform. ... Policy opposition is a symptom of the problem, not the cause. The deeper issue is that for conservative politicians and conservative networks and conservative web sites, there is simply too much to be gained by feeding the sense of persecution and siege that many white Christians feel down to their toes.

-- Chris Hayes,
Up with Chris Hayes, November 10

This week everybody was talking about the election aftermath

Democrats were happy with the election, but mostly we just got what the polls had promised us (plus toss-up senate races in North Dakota and Montana). Republicans, on the other hand, were shocked, because they had convinced themselves that the polls were biased (just like they've convinced themselves that climate scientists are part of some global leftist conspiracy).

So the really interesting thing to watch this week was how Republicans started dealing with this world they unexpectedly find themselves thrust into. That's the subject of this week's main article "W(h)ither the Republicans?".

This week's other article asks "Why Didn't Money Talk?". Citizens United was supposed to unleash an avalanche of money that would bury Democrats. It sort of did unleash that money, but Democrats won anyway. Does that mean it's not a problem, or that Republicans just haven't figured out how to take advantage yet?

One question lots of people have been asking: How did the Republicans hang onto the House? Answer: Gerrymandering. Democratic House candidates received more total votes than Republican House candidates, but the Republican state-legislature victories in 2010 allowed them to redraw the congressional districts to their advantage.

Incidentally, that points out how complicated it would be to make the Electoral College more fair. On the surface the Maine/Nebraska system of awarding each congressional district one electoral vote looks fairer than winner-take-all state elections. But that would raise the stakes on gerrymandering even higher. Romney might have won under such a system, even as he lost the popular vote by more than 3 million.

If you missed Karl Rove's election-night craziness, watch Jon Stewart's coverage of it. And if you missed President Obama's thanks to his volunteers, watch it now.

All in all, I'm pleased with my hour-by-hour election guide. It anticipated states like Pennsylvania coming in faster than they did, but the overall story it told -- Romney jumping out to an early electoral lead, but Obama pulling even around ten and winning by midnight -- played out pretty well.

... and the fiscal cliff

Obama and Boehner fired their opening shots, but I'm not paying too much attention yet, because this is bound to stay unsettled for a month or more. Both sides want to sound reasonable while using codewords to reassure their supporters that they really aren't compromising. It's hard to tell what it all means or where it's headed.

The liberal pundits and blogs are urging President Obama to call the Republicans' bluff and let January 1 pass without a deal.

The Republican spin is that raising taxes for those making more than $250K will affect half of small business income. But on Face the Nation John Boehner had to admit that this comes from only 3% of "small" businessmen. In other words, they've miscategorized some big businessmen as small businessmen, and their income swamps the statistics. Your local florist or barber shop is not making its owner $250K.

Whenever conservatives defend low taxes for rich people, they always invoke the icon of small business, even though the real beneficiaries of their policies are the very, very wealthy.

I'm waiting for liberals to counter: The dire threat to small business isn't government, it's big business. It's WalMart and Amazon crushing the shops on Main Street. It's the giant seed corporations putting the squeeze on family farmers. It's monopolized supply chains that give small businesses take-it-or-leave-it prices. It's Apple and Microsoft defining a marketplace that funnels most of the profits on software to them. It's a venture capital system that ends up owning 90% of any new idea before it gets to market.

To the extent that government is the problem, it's government as manipulated by big business. I don't care what their PR says, big business loves complicated regulations that you need a team of lawyers to understand. They already have a team of lawyers; small businesses don't.

If Democrats come up with a program that favors real small businesses over big business, Republicans will block it.

... and General Petraeus

But I don't know any more than you do about that.

... and you might find this interesting

So, Senate Republicans doing Wall Street's bidding, you kept Elizabeth Warren from running the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. How'd that work out for you?

Voter suppression hasn't worked for Republicans, so it must be time for the Supreme Court to undo the Voting Rights Act.

National Organization for Marriage on its four losses: "We are not defeated." Yes, you are. I stand by my long-term prediction.

Best web site I found this week: We Occupy Jesus.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Tomorrow Night

Everyone's a libertarian until their state is under 10 feet of water.

-- Top Conservative Cat

This week everyone was talking about the weather, but no one was doing anything about it

Maybe Hurricane Sandy will finally blow all the climate-change deniers to Crankland, and we can start talking seriously about what to do. In this election, Democrats found the courage to talk about abortion, but climate change has still been off the agenda.

It's one of those focus-group feedback loops: If neither party pushes an issue, the public either loses interest in it or thinks that nothing can be done. Then focus groups don't react to it, so candidates are afraid to mention it. But nobody knows whether the issue would catch fire if somebody fanned it.

This never happens to conservatives. There's always one billionaire or corporation ready to push an issue even if the voters seem not to care.

Remember how the Republican Convention laughed when Mitt Romney reminded them that Obama wanted to do something about rising oceans? That's just hilarious now if you're from Atlantic City or Staten Island.

And we've all been fixated on tomorrow's election

Up until now, I've been trying (sometimes unsuccessfully) to focus on issues and themes, and to avoid letting the pure horserace aspect of the election overwhelm its content. The mainstream media already offers way too much coverage like: "Scores of people are dead in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. How do you think this affects President Obama's chances?"

But the election is tomorrow. You can't ignore it any more than you can avert your eyes from the boxes under the tree on Christmas Eve. Are we going to get that cool RC helicopter, lumps of coal, or a very practical package of socks?

I did so well forecasting the 2008 election that I ought to quit while I'm ahead. I had three advantages then: I was one of the early people to realize how good Nate Silver is at analyzing polls, the message Nate divined from the polls was clear, and I discounted my fear that whites might make a voting-booth decision to screw the black guy. So when the Pacific-coast states put Obama over the top at precisely 11 p.m. eastern time, I looked like Nostradamus.

This year everybody reads Nate in the NYT and the message of the polls is far less clear. Last time, the states that teetered on the knife-edge were long-time red states like Indiana and North Carolina, which only affected the magnitude of the Obama landslide.

This year, the polls say Obama kinda-sorta. If Romney wins, well, stranger things have happened. Ditto for Congress: Probably Democrats keep the Senate and Republicans keep the House, but neither is a sure thing. As for when we can go to bed tomorrow night, who knows? I'm guessing it's not going to cliff-hang on one too-close-to-call state, which probably means it'll be decided by, say, midnight.

As in 2008, I'm splitting my election-night predictions into two parts: the result (for the Senate as well as the presidency), and how it's going to play out hour-by-hour as the night rolls on.

... and you might also find this interesting

In addition to the races for office, there are also some important ballot initiatives. Same-sex marriage is on the ballot in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington. In Maryland and Washington, the legislature has already approved same-sex marriage, but the initiative would veto the law before it takes effect. A similar veto-initiative passed in Maine in 2009, and this vote would reverse that one. The Minnesota proposal would codify opposite-sex-only marriage in the constitution.

Polls are close, but generally favor same-sex marriage -- which has never won at the ballot-box before. Recent polls have same-sex marriage proposals ahead 52%-42% in Washington, 57%-36% in Maine, and 52%-43% in Maryland. The Minnesota constitutional amendment is too close to call.

Ballot proposals in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington would legalize recreational marijuana use. That gives a whole new meaning to "high turnout".

The amazing Rick Perlstein (of Nixonland fame) describes a little-explored region: The relationship between the content of conservative publications and the ads that sustain them. Liberals often refer to right-wing liars as "snake-oil salemen". But the goldbugs and multi-level marketers and direct-mail advertisers that prey on the conservative rank-and-file are real snake-oil salesmen.
the con selling 23-cent miracle cures for heart disease inches inexorably into the one selling miniscule marginal tax rates as the miracle cure for the nation itself

Have trouble believing that tax cuts create jobs? Well, the Congressional Research Service doesn't believe it either. So Republicans pressured them to withdraw their report.

Some parodies are so good that they ought to be true. Here, Brad Hicks explains that Atlas Shrugged is just the first volume in a trilogy that would have ended with Anthem, if Ayn had just gotten around to writing the middle volume.

If you vote for Obama, Mike Huckabee says you won't get to spend eternity where he's going. You know, I might agree with that.

There's got to be a Romney: The Musical coming.