Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Here's the steaming pile of thought I left on's doorstep. Then I set fire to it, rang the doorbell, and bolted.

Thought #1: I like filling out web forms.

Thought #2: It seems like the health care discussion usually revolves around the problem of health insurance reform. I know that lack of health insurance is a huge concern. But I believe we should be broadening this into a discussion about "health reform." Such a discussion would go beyond affordable health insurance, or even driving down the costs of running our health care system,

Such a discussion would involve every aspect of society that touched on the health and happiness of the American people.

There are a few subjects that this discussion would encompass. We need to talk about the American diet, how that diet leads to skyrocketing health care needs, and how government policies like the current agricultural subsidy system have gotten us to that state.

I'm not sure how I feel about the choice of Tom Vilsack to lead the Agriculture department. He feels like a very "stay the course" nominee, which wasn't what I expected from someone who seemed to "get" Michael Pollan's article for the NYTimes.

But mainly I wanted to discuss some thoughts I had while reading a book called "Brain Rules" by John Medina. He's a molecular biologist who is fascinated by how we learn and think, and his book gives handy, everyday advice for getting the most out of our craniums (crania?).

The first thought is just for Mr. Obama and his staff: get plenty of sleep and exercise. Tired brains make bad decisions, brains with good blood flow make better decisions. We need good decisions from you folks. Moving on.

The second thought is that very little of this new research has trickled down into our everyday lives. This lack seems especially severe in our educational system. Teachers and parents need a better understanding of how learning happens, and how things like sleep, exercise, and (most important) stress can affect how children learn.

Stress is especially important, because too much stress in a child's home life can destroy his or her ability to learn in school, setting them up for a lifetime of failure.

I'm not alone in my thinking. I saw Geoffery Canada, founder of the Harlem project, on the Colbert Report a while back. One of his many inspiring missions is to get the knowledge of child development and learning into the minds of the impoverished parents whose children he serves.

I would guess that you're already familiar with the Harlem Project. Nonetheless:

Medina understands that there is a lot that we still don't know about the brain, and a lot more that we don't know about structuring our schools and workplaces to take advantage of this new understanding. But I think that research and pilot programs should begin as quickly as possible. The payoff is a smarter, healthier, better educated American citizenry.

Thought #3: This box I'm typing into is far too small. If you want to elicit big thoughts from people, you have to give them a big canvas.

I'm not sure how effective the whole site is. Right now the comment section seems to be "all Rick Warren, all the time," which is disheartening.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Mob rule comes to Salt Lake City

That's what you'd think, given the reaction to the reaction to the passage of Proposition 8 in California. There have been excesses, like the mailing of white powder to Church headquarters. There have been absurdities, like the flaming Book of Mormon left outside a ward building.

Though these acts should be condemned by anybody with a conscience, the bulk of the anger from defenders of traditional marriage* seems directed not at such anti-democratic bullying, but to the organized protests that are not only pro-democratic, but the funnest part of living in a democracy.

I went to the second protest yesterday, held outside the City-County building, across from the main library. The protest was well attended, 100% peaceful, and 90% civil. The remaining 10% was out at the crosswalk connecting City-County to Library Square. That's where the two counter-protests clashed with the pro-gay forces who were itching for a confrontation.

Smartassery ensues. People, is this the sort of public discourse Thomas Jefferson had in mind? Really, if he'd seen this video before sitting down to pin the Declaration of Independence, he could have saved a lot of parchment.

King George,

We've decided to make George Washington supreme dictator for life.


TJ & Crew

P.S.: kthxbai

What frustrated me more than anything was the basic premise of the counterprotest, which boiled down to a few salient points, which I'd like to engage here. I'm sorry if I misrepresent these positions, but hey, I tried to get some more nuanced explanations from the lady in the Youtube video, and got only a splitting headache for my efforts.

The people voted, you're just being sore losers.

Now, as someone who believes gay marriage is in fact a civil rights issue, and agrees with the California Supreme Court's ruling that "civil unions" are not an acceptable substitute, I reject the notion that civil rights are subject to a vote. Alabama shouldn't be allowed to decide whether the Book of Mormon should be offered in public libraries. Massachusetts** shouldn't ask the voters whether they think Republicans should be given the vote. The Constitution sets firm limits on how much respect should be given to "the will of the people".

But the impression I got from the counterprotest was that they thought our protest was an anti-democratic attempt to overturn the vote. That's one of the things I couldn't get Loud Angry Woman to address: how exactly would that work? Nothing I saw at the protest could have or should have coerced a single person to vote against their conscience the next time arount.

One of the contras did express the sentiment that he would have been perfectly happy had the vote gone the other way, and that he wouldn't have raised a word in protest. Which is almost certainly false, though he may have believed it. People invariably believe themselves to be more fair-minded and principled than they actually are. Uhhh, except me?

The LDS Church is being unfairly singled out.

So why is the LDS Church being "singled out"? After all, other religious organizations supported Proposition 8 as well, and Mormons themselves make up a small fraction of California's population (less than 2%, the actual margin of victory).

The New York Times gives a few reasons. According to Prop. 8 proponents themselves, Mormons contributed about half the total "yes" money. Alan Ashton (grandson of David O. McKay and cofounder of WordPerfect) alone donated $1M to the Yes campagin. To be fair, another cofounder sent a million dollars to the No campaign. LDS members also constituted an amazing 80-90% of the early volunteers for the campaign.

So for those who ask why the first protest was held outside Temple Square, rather than the Catholic church three blocks east, well, there's your answer. It may be -- as some argue -- a political miscalculation. But the argument that the LDS Church did nothing to paint a target on their own backs is hogwash.

One man, one woman.

Marriage is a sacred covenant between a man and a woman with a multi-millennial track record for societal stability, they say. What we actually have is a multi-thousand year history that includes concubines, harems, mistresses, underaged marriage, forced and arranged marriages, homosexual affairs, moratoriums on interracial marriage, divorces, ritualized non-monogamy, and Britney Spears. See the Daily Show clip below.

This isn't to object to marriage or the people who use it. But the myth of stability is just that, a myth. There is no one thing that "marriage" has ever signified. It doesn't mean that you're in love. It doesn't mean that you're raising children, or trying to have them. It doesn't mean that you're monogamous, or even that society expects you to be. The French love their mistresses. The ancient Greeks considered dude-on-dude sex a normal part of social life. In some Native American and Pacific Islander tribes, extramarital sex hardly raises an eyebrow, even if that brow belongs to the other partner.

The question is not, will same-sex marriage destroy or degrade society. It won't, and those who claim so have to avert their gaze from the litany of ways in which marriage has already been modified by society. The real question is, are homosexuals part of the human condition? Is Adam's love for Steve as deeply felt and as worthy of respect as the marriages we already validate? I say, absolutely, and to deny marriage to same-sex couples shows profound disrespect for their basic human dignity.

Civil unions are enough

I don't agree, but I think I'm persuadable on that point. But if civil unions are in every way the equal of marriage, if the difference is about the labeling rather than the product, then why all the sound and fury? The question is mostly directed to opponents of same-sex marriage, because they're the ones most likely to offer it. If I can name a laundry list of rights that marriage confers -- from hospital visitation, to inheritance rights, to the right to make medical decisions, to protections in the event of the dissolution of the relationship, and on and on -- and in every case you say, "Yes, they should have that," then who cares what it's called?

Final thought: Same-sex marriage is inevitable. The repeal of Proposition 8 is inevitable, and I would bet a good sum of money that it won't last beyond the 2012 election. I base this on a couple of factors. First, in the 2000 election, a similar repudiation of same-sex marriage passed in California by 60%, not 52%. Younger voters are replacing older voters and people are getting more used to the idea of civil unions (which California still offers), so the electorate is slowly getting on board with the idea. Yes on 8 was headed for defeat before a well-funded misinformation campaign got it back on track.

Once it's repealed, and once gay marriages have been a part of everyday life for a few years, and once the states offering it fail to catch fire or get struck by meteors, I think the fear that drove the Yes on 8 campaign will dissolve away. Other states will begin offering it, and similarly fail to feel the brunt of God's wrath. I figure by 2020, something will happen on the federal level, at least to the extent of forcing states to recognize marriages from other states.


It's all good, but the "definition of marriage" starts around 2:30.

** Man, I can never spell that one right.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Why I love FOX News

About 6:30PM MST, Brit Hume described the Alaska Senate race by saying that Ted Stevens was convicted of seven counts of "failing to file proper disclosure forms."

Monday, November 3, 2008

Reason #17: For America

Tomorrow is the election. In a few hours, polls will open, Americans will get up, cut themselves shaving, shove burnt pop-tarts into their faces as they rush out the door, and -- while hopefully wondering why we insist on doing this ritual on a Tuesday -- hit the polls. So while I wanted to make some narrower points, this seems like a good time to get all expansive and reflective.

I like to think of myself as an idealistic curmudgeon. Just ask me; I can give you a dozen highly plausible ways that our society as we know it could achieve catastrophic failure. This brings me no small measure of discomfort, and not just because several of those scenarios lead to my own horrible mutilation. The sadness comes from thinking about the unimaginable loss, not just of lives, but of hopes and possibilities.

Things feel dark right now. I can say, without feeling like I'm exaggerating in the slightest, that the next generation is about to inherit a nation in decline.

Our physical infrastructure is eroding away, as is our sense of pride. In short, America needs a revival, maybe even a resurrection. I believe Barack Obama could bring that about.

We need concerted action right now. A McCain presidency would almost certainly preside over a congress with an even stronger Democratic majority than it has now. It's a recipe for gridlock, and four more years of inaction on some very critical problems. We can't wait another four years to tackle global warming, or to start revitalizing our energy grid, or to get health care to the uninsured.

Obama, if elected, can move much more aggressively. Not just because he has the numbers in Congress, but because he's run a much more positive, unifying campaign than his opponent. He's been selling hope while McCain has been selling mostly Obamaphobia, and destroying his bipartisan cred in the process. So McCain will have a tougher time convincing those who didn't vote for him to follow his plans.

To put it more bluntly, Obama will be able to lead this country, to bring us together in a common cause, in a way that McCain cannot.

Well, I've run out of steam, before I could build up to a decent finale. had a much better idea: a reprint of Henry V's St. Crispin's Day speech. Talk about uniting in a common cause.

We few, we happy few. Vote Obama.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Reason #7-16!


I assumed that nobody would notice if I stopped. I was getting busier, and my interest in the project was waning. But I got an actual complaint. Perhaps I should be flattered.

So, to catch me up, I need nine more reasons to vote for Obama. Here we go.

#7: Health care. Obama's plan is simply better. McCain's ideas appear to be nothing but warmed-over Bushonomics. The primary effect of his tax credits will be to push millions of people out of employer-based coverage and into the individual markets. Now, employer-based coverage is a weird artifact of World War II price controls, and is by definition not portable between employers. In the long term, that system has to go. But the individual market has much higher administrative costs (19% as opposed to 10% for employer-based coverage (or Medicare's 3%)).

#8: Tax policy. Yes, I know that the Right is talking about Obama and his "economy-killing tax increases." Poppycock and hornswaggle, I say. Clinton raised taxes, and the economy did fine under him. Bush cut taxes, and the economy tanked. Economists can bicker and argue over how taxes affect the broader economy, but the correlation is muddier than the screaming punditry dares to acknowledge. Obama's current plan does nothing more than reverse a narrow subset of the Bush tax cuts, returning them to a level that suited the economy justfinethankyouverymuch a decade ago.

As to the claim that increasing taxes on the wealthy is "redistributionist," so what? As Warren Buffet once said, "There's class warfare, all right, but it's my class, the rich class, that's making war, and we're winning." The last eight years have seen stagnant or declining wages for most of us, and vast rewards reaped for the wealthiest. That picture is real, and it's an affront to any definition of fairness.

#9: McCain's campaign has gone 100% negative. It's true that Obama and McCain are spending about the same amount on negative campaigning. But Obama, thanks to vast sums of money from ordinary Americans, has about three times as much to spend on advertising. On a related note, because individual contributions under $200 aren't reported, McCain's campaign ominously refers to them as "undisclosed contributions", as though to insinuate that Obama is being financed entirely by bin Laden himself.

More startling are the things McCain has been *saying* in his negative ads. When a program to teach young children to protect themselves against pedophiles -- a program supported by the Illinois PTA -- gets twisted into "comprehensive sex ed for kindergarteners," a very disturbing line has been crossed.

I was horrified when I read about the "McCain fathered an illegitimate black child" rumor Karl Rove used against McCain in the 2000 primaries. It gave me a deep sympathy for McCain, and I thought such an experience would make him averse to those sorts of tactics. I was wrong, and that sympathy is now entirely used up.

#10: First Muslim president! Wooo!!!

#11: The environment. The environment is inextricably tied up with energy policy, and as I mentioned earlier, Obama wins hands down there as well.

#12: Foreign policy is supposed to be John McCain's strong suit, and the polls indicate that voters believe that. I think that will not be the case. Watching the debates, I didn't get the impression that Obama had any sort of foreign policy deficit against McCain. Also, McCain has made some pretty famous and repeated gaffes that make me wonder how well he actually understands the situation in Iraq.

The differences aren't a matter of competence so much as attitude. Obama has made it clear that he will rely more on skillful use of diplomacy. McCain derides Obama for this, trying to convince us that simply sitting down with other parties and listening to their positions should be a reward for good behavior, rather than just something we ought to do because it's in our own best interests.

Frankly, I've had enough of "tough foreign policy," and of its proponents. There is nothing more cowardly to me than someone who refuses to do the simplest, common-sense things for fear of looking weak

But there is another reason why I think Obama will have the better foreign policy. The world has been shocked and awed by our behavior on the world stage these last eight years. To the rest of the world, McCain appears to be a vote by the American public for a continuation of Bush's policies, an idea they find repulsive. Obama, by contrast, represents a sharp turn towards sanity, cooperation, and multilateralism. We can argue over whether this is in fact true, but when it comes to winning countries and influencing populations, Obama has a built-in advantage.

#13.0: Headsplosions!

#13.1: Rush Limbaugh's head will explode.

#13.2: Charles Krauthammer's head will explode.

#13.3: Ann Coulter's head will explode.

#13.4: Sean Hannity's head will explode.

#13.5: Headsplosions will stimulate the carpet cleaning business, and to a lesser extent the broader economy. We have to stimulate the economy.

#14: The return of regulation. The Bush administration has undermined the effectiveness of government at every turn, and for the most part they've done it without making even minor changes in the actual laws that the executive branch is supposed to, well, execute. Often, the administration has simply installed people as the heads of departments who don't believe in the missions of those departments. So we've ended up with (among others) an EPA that doesn't want to protect the environment, an ambassador to the U.N. who disagreed with the very premise of the institution, and a National Labor Relations Board that considers labor unions illegitimate organizations.

More often, the Bush administration has simply cut the budgets of the regulators to the point that they cannot effectively enforce the regulations. If McCain institutes his proposed "spending freeze," it will freeze the budgets of government programs like OSHA and the EPA at unacceptably low levels. But taking a broader view, I just don't see that McCain has enough faith in government, or its ability to act for the public good. The regulatory infrastructure that our country depends on has been degraded over the last several years, and is in desperate need of restoration. Barack Obama is the better candidate for that job.

#15: Obama is a rock star. He gives great speeches. He draws huge crowds. If you listen to the McCain campaign, these things are negatives. They're downright mockable, in fact -- though I don't see them criticizing Sarah Palin's ability to draw crowds in the tens of thousands. Governor Schwarzenegger and Ronald Reagan were actual actors before they turned their attention to politics. Having a president who can connect with people doesn't just make State of the Union speeches more engaging. Charisma can spur people to action, rally support, and lift hopes.

The first time I actually sat down and listened to Obama was when he was giving his speech on race, after the Jeremiah Wright thing. He blew me away, not just because he was eloquent, but because he used his eloquence not in the service of demagoguery, but to flesh out some very deep thoughts on race in a way that inspired and united, without ever losing sight of the complexities of the problems. He was so thoughtful, so averse to glittering generalities or simple solutions, that I thought there was no way in hell that he could win the nomination, much less the presidency. I assumed that people would go with the candidate who told them exactly what they wanted to hear.

I've never gotten the impression from Senator Obama that he has any intention of using words as a substitute for action, or that he's going to use his eloquence to pander to our conceits when we really need to hear hard truths. Obama has a knack for inspiring and moving people. Or, in a word, Leadership.

#16: Obama has a secret plan for getting us out of Vietnam. Or Iraq. Some country we shouldn't be in. There are several reasons for getting out of Iraq. First and foremost, we just cannot afford to stay. We've already spent $600 billion, and according to Nobel-prizewinning-yet-lefty-economist Joseph Stiglitz, the eventual total will be about $3 trillion. That would buy a heckuvalotta distressed mortgages. While that's mostly money already spent, the sooner we stop the hemorrhaging the better.

The other big reason for leaving: the Iraqi people want us to leave. Polls of Iraqi citizens indicate that Get Out beats Stay by about 4 to 1. Further, the Iraqi government has asked us to commit to timetables for withdrawl. McCain's claim that he'll stay "until the job is done" is not just misguided, but a slap at the sovereignty of Iraq.

Good enough, Jonathon? Well? WELL????

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Reason #6: I don't like him all that much

Barack is a little more centrist than I'd like.  Position-wise, I was more aligned with Dennis Kucinitch.

That's gotta make somebody feel a bit better.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Reason #5: Obama has the better energy policy

The two energy plans compared.

There are actually several points of agreement. Both favor a cap-and-trade system for regulating CO2. Though Obama sets a slightly more ambitious target, both put that target way out at 2050, making progress difficult to gauge. Neither candidate is currently proposing to open ANWR to drilling (though I'm convinced that if McCain dies in office, Palin will have it sucked dry before he's buried). Both are eager to develop alternatives to our coal-fired energy system, with McCain being far more ready to go nuclear.*

I like most of McCain's energy plan, but I think Obama's is broader and more comprehensive. There are two things I'd like to address from McCain's plan.

The first is the summer gas tax holiday. I think it's a bad idea; so bad, in fact, that I was really surprised that McCain hadn't pulled it from the plan. The government would be passing on $10 billion in lost revenues, but the money will probably go to the oil companies, not to drivers. Dropping the price would only increase demand, which would shoot the price back up to its previous levels. End result, bigger profit margins for the oil companies, same price at the pump.

The second thing is nuclear energy. McCain points to France as a model -- which has to be a Republican first. But look at the drawbacks from a right-wing perspective. France's energy infrastructure is almost entirely nationalized. I think that's an almost unavoidable consequence of choosing nuclear energy. From the enormous capital investment to the inherent danger in the fuel and byproducts, nuclear energy demands big government intervention.

Or, to put it another way, a move to deregulate the nuclear industry would be about as popular as giving Enron nuclear warheads.

So, here are the things I like about Obama's plan. He's talking about weatherizing 1 million energy-inefficient homes a year. This will reduce energy consumption, while giving purpose and direction to idle construction workers. Old manufacturing centers will be revitalized and retooled to build green tech. Obama's plan calls for ramping up fuel economy standards, while providing tax incentives for advanced technologies. That should ease Detroit's concerns that higher fuel standards will destroy their business.

In fairness, McCain proposes a slightly smaller tax incentive, though for a smaller range of vehicles.

But I have to ask. Candidates, where is my electric bicycle subsidy?

Obama's plans seem to focus more on promoting the technologies of the future, and making the United States the center of a technological revival. McCain, with his focus on expanded drilling and nuclear power, along with his "Drill, baby, drill" running mate, seem to be trying to eke out the last drops of a dirty and unsustainable technology. He won't place any more tax burden on oil companies, for fear of underfunding the next wave of oil exploration and expansion, which seems to indicate which activities a McCain administration would encourage.

* Pun intended.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Reason #4: A bunch of reasons

All eloquently explained by Colin Powell.

Yeah, I was going to do energy policy today. But the news cycle demands that we talk about this instead.

Update: Reason #4.5 is actually a reason to vote for whoever you think will do worse by the economy. The glass is half full.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Reason #3: (and why not?) Because he's black

Is that to say that race should be a deciding factor when choosing your candidate. If it were, then Palin's womanity would be nearly as relevant. Still, as a firmly decided voter, I think that pulling the lever for Obama is going to feel, well, historic.

We haven't had that many presidential firsts, come to think of it. Kennedy was the first Catholic. Bill Clinton was the first honorary black president. Aside from that, it's really a long, unbroken string of white males of varying ages.

There's something compelling about a role model on the national stage. Hillary Clinton helped young women dream of becoming president. Sarah Palin let middle-aged Republican women dream of field dressing a moose. I can't exactly claim expertise on the experiences of any minority group, and I know that (despite Obama's impressive ability to speak on racial issues) an Obama presidency isn't going to heal the racial divides or unite the nations in peace and harmony. That's Bono's job.

But I can imagine that an Obama presidency might give some young African-American kid permission to dream of what he or she can accomplish in this society. That's no small thing, and something I'm glad for.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Reason #2: Also the economy

I promised to talk about "trickle up economics." Ideally, it means that money is put in the hands of poor and middle-class people, the money is used to buy things, and that helps the wealthy to flourish.

For a long while now, the other sort of trickle-up has been at work. We've cut social spending and indebted our grandkids in order to finance tax cuts for those who have the most. The incomes of the wealthiest have skyrocketed, while the median income is actually falling (adjusted for inflation). The folks on Forbes' list of the 400 wealthiest Americans have amassed more wealth than the bottom 20% combined.

Wealth inequalities of this scale don't just incite envy. They degrade society, by giving the privileged the power to rewrite the rules in their favor, to control the discourse that is vital to a democracy, and to increase their advantage by dipping directly into the public trough.

All this might be an acceptable trade-off, if lavishing such rewards on the few really drove the economy. But I don't find the claim credible. Talent and work ethic are far more equitably distributed than that. Moreover, the people who are the best at their jobs are usually the ones who are doing what they love, and couldn't be lured away from their profession for a small pay raise. If anything, outrageous pay would lure the greediest to try and trample over more effective leaders and more intelligent decision-makers.

That seems to be happening now. I've seen an amazing graph, which I can't seem to find right now. It plots worker productivity and median income over time. In the decades after World War II, the two rose in lockstep. As individuals were better able to create wealth, they reaped some of the reward for their own wealth creation.

But for the last, oh let's say eight years, a different picture has emerged. Productivity still increases, but median income goes flat, perhaps even trending down a bit. Does this mean that only the upper crust were doing more and better work, which only they were rewarded for? Or did the owners of businesses simply decide to redirect more wealth into their own wallets?

Just as Democratic presidencies create more jobs (see Reason #1), they also raise the median income nearly twice as fast as Republican administrations do. Only the truly wealthy see their lot improve under Republican presidencies.

So reason #2: vote for Obama, cuz I'd really love to buy me a dune buggy.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Reason #1: The economy

Welcome to my blog, gentle readers. I've gathered you here today to answer a challenge given by certain beloved parties: Give me reasons to vote for Obama. In keeping with a time-honored, downright hokey format, I'll attempt to put up one reason each day between now and the election. Think of me as an advent calendar for the Democratic messiah, but without the fun toy surprises.

Today's reason: Democrats are better for the economy.

Now, there are many ways to judge the overall health of the economy, from the total economic activity, to the ever-jittery numbers of the stock market, to the number of people employed. Each of these measures may say something different. Stocks often go up because a company announces plans to lay off workers. But as I've written before, I don't find the first two to be particularly useful as measures of "how we're doing."

Not so with employment numbers. As happiness researchers have discovered, short of the death of a loved one, almost nothing is as injurious to a person's happiness as losing his or her job. My personal experience confirms this. Being unemployed just sucks.

So we get to the meat of reason #1. Democratic presidents have an astonishing history of creating more jobs than Republican ones. Here's a recent article from the LA Progressive: Who creates jobs? Democratic presidents do. The figures show that even the worst-performing Democratic job creator (Kennedy) quite evenly matched with the best Republican job creators (Nixon and Reagan).

Toward the bottom of the article, the author points out that, on occasions where the Democratic party controlled the Presidency and both houses of Congress, job growth has been a rocking 3.8%, compared to Reagan's 2.3%. He also indicates that, while the correlation is less clear for Congress, Democratic congresses have tended to outperform Republican congresses.

Let's call this the trickle-up theory of economics. When you do things to improve the lives of the impoverished and the middle class, the economy improves. When you expand access to health care, you create jobs in the health care industry to feed that demand. When you raise the minimum wage, you make employment more desirable, and put money in the hands of people who will use it to buy goods and services, rather than sending it chasing across the globe in search of some unsustainable 20% return on investment. When you invest in public infrastructure, you create jobs today, and build the things which will support the economic activity of tomorrow. When you invest in public education, you do the same.

For the last eight years, the Republicans in Washington have been fighting for their own form of "trickle-up economics." Only now it's become a torrent, which has led to many of the problems we see today. More on that tomorrow.

Final note: this blog has often been written without accounting for possible consumption by my family. I usually write angry, and I sometimes express worrying opinions, and use bad words to do so. Go ahead and explore, but be warned.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Blame Freddie Mac and ACORN for everything

There is an emerging mythos among the Right, pinning the whole of our current financial crisis on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. As the tale is told, these two institutions, under pressure from the government to make more loans to the poor and minorities, forced banks to lend to unqualified applicants, and those bad loans eventually drove the market into free-fall.

Daniel Grossman of Slate vehemently disagrees. So does ummm.... I guess his name is Barry Ritholtz. And also some guy named Robert Gordon. Who cares who they are. They're saying what I want to hear.

More to the point, they say it very convincingly. No regulation anywhere required anybody to make loans without vetting an applicant's credit or verifying his or her income. In 2004, Bush weakened the Community Reinvestment Act, weakening the supposed government pressure to lend to minorities. Yet subprime activity accelerated. Finally, most of the subprime loans were made by institutions that weren't under government pressure at all.

The fact is, these are loans that the financial industry wanted to make, no government coercion necessary. Why? Because even the riskiest loan could be packaged up into a AAA-certified package. Thanks to skyrocketing housing prices, even if a loan went bad, the mortgage owner would simply foreclose on a property that was now worth far more than they'd loaned out. Complex mortgage insurance schemes meant that the financial world could delude itself into believing that there was absolutely zero risk.

The two causes I see are 1) Greenspan's super-low interest rates, which made lending cheap, and stupid lending enticing. 2) Government deregulation, especially as it applies to the regulation of the sort of "innovative" financial schemes that allowed lenders to take $150,000 loaned to a paranoid schitzophrenic named Wilbur, package it up with a hundred other risky loans, and sell the whole rickety package in what amounts to a risk-laundering scheme.

The second part of the myth involves John McCain "sounding the alarm". How did McCain actually act on his prescience? According to a random source, McCain launched into action. He gave one speech on the senate floor, which basically regurgitated the contents of a recent investigation, and added his name to a bill that subsequently died in committee. That's a pretty weak response, if you truly believe that McCain had the foresight to see all this coming two years ago. At least with Obama's overblown claims of foresight, he chose the more appropriate target (subprime lending itself).

Reading the news coverage back then, it sounds like the problems with Fannie Mae had more to do with massaged earnings reports than risky lending practices. In other words, it's not the same poison that is rattling the economy today.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

In this time of deepest national crisis...

...McCain's campaign decides to go crazy negative. For the good of the country, of course.

Let's start with this attempt to smear Obama using guilt by association. Obama did work with William Ayers, though the very New York Times article Palin is bragging about having read discounts the extent of their association. That work entailed serving as a board member for the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, which helped create local school councils to give parents more influence over their kids' schools. Real sick, dangerous, revolutionary stuff, let me tell you.

William Ayers is

Let's turn now to Sarah Palin's own unsavory associations. Her husband, Todd, was a member of the Alaska Independence Party from 1995 to 2002 (at which point he went all wishy-washy, putting himself down as "undeclared"). The party (a subset of the Constitution Party, whom I find absolutely reprehensible), believes that Alaska is not legitimately a U.S. state*. They believe Alaska has full right of secession, along with the right to nullify any federal laws they don't like.

Sound familiar? The U.S. fought a civil war over those last two principles.

Of course, Todd Palin never killed anyone in pursuit of those principles. But, Obama didn't marry William Ayers and have five kids with him. I humbly suggest that Todd Palin's warped political principles have a stronger influence on his wife than Ayers' had on Obama.

Now on to Palin's other scandalous association:

In a televised interview last spring, Senator John McCain, Mr. Obama’s Republican rival, asked, “How can you countenance someone who was engaged in bombings that could have or did kill innocent people?”

Given the source of the question, the irony here is unbearable.

1) Did John McCain engage in bombings? Of course. He probably detonated more explosives in one bombing run than The Weathermen did in the entire history of their organization.

2) Could those bombings have killed innocent people? Of course.

But, McCain never went out and targeted civilians. But then, The Weathermen generally avoided civilian targets as well. So we're left with two major distinctions between Ayers and McCain: social approval, and funding. Ayers had neither, McCain had both.

Am I knocking McCain's military service, or military service in general? I suppose, though not as harshly as reader(s?) might suspect. The desire to protect your country from threats is honorable. I served in the Army, so I understand the emotion on a gut level. But I also see the pervasive U.S. military presence around the world as a destabilizing influence that makes it more difficult to achieve our objectives peacefully.

But that's a long, long tangent. The main point is, that desire to protect is honorable. But sometimes that desire to protect, or to right some grave injustice, simply doesn't have a socially approved vehicle to convey it. The early abolitionists sometimes resorted to violence and mayhem. Anti-abortion activists have killed doctors, the ELF has torched houses, and animal-rights activists have vandalized businesses, all in the name of that same desire to protect the innocent and stop atrocities.

Sometimes this emotion goes horribly wrong. Sometimes we disagree over whether it has gone wrong. Lefties see it subverted when someone joins the Marines to "fight the terrorists" and ends up invading a country where no terrorists reside, or when they kill human beings in defense of a fetus which has only the potential for humanity. Righties consider anti-war and pro-nature violence illegitimate in much the same way. But at least when we're being reasonable, we can accept that these ill actions flow from healthy motives.

That's what bugs me about the clip. Governor Palin seems to be trying to shove Ayers into a box marked "EVIL", then shoving Obama in the same box for having associated with him. I guess Obama should have cut all ties to Ayers, just like he ought to cut ties with Iran, Syria, North Korea, Venezuela, Spain, and Finland until they become not-evil.**

This is unlike Joe Biden, who claimed in the debate that he made friends in the Senate by not questioning the motives of his opponents, Palin clearly has no compunctions about attacking the basic decency of her opponents, and her supporters (at least the ones at that rally) clearly love that fact.

The crowd is clearly acting on behalf of the same instinct, the desire to protect the U.S., the beacon of hope and democracy, from its' enemies. But in this case, those "enemies" are the New York Times, the Obama campaign, and -- let's face it -- the half of the country that doesn't ascribe to their worldview. After eight years of an incredibly divisive presidency that successfully pit us against each other, we should reject four more years of this sort of leadership.

Bah. Have a funny:

* This is based, if my understanding of their site is correct, on their assertion that the U.S. violated U.N. laws governing self-determination. Funny, this is the first time I've heard of such a group treating U.N. declarations as anything but toilet paper.

** Yeah, Finland. They know what they did.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Palin reflects McCain's judgment and character

Which is to say, that he may not have either anymore.

It showed a certain character when he went with Sarah Palin -- the veep who could help him win -- rather than Joseph Lieberman -- the one he thought would best serve the country. Whether McCain thought that winning was more important than choosing the best person for the job*, or he is just so weak within his own party that her nomination was forced upon him, neither supports his "principled maverick" mythos.

The principles McCain claims to represent are at odds with both Palin's views and his choice to nominate her. McCain and Obama have both been echoing the mantra that Washington needs to change. While nominating a female candidate and Beltway outsider might superficially appear to support McCain's "change" agenda, look deeper and the illusion disappears.

Sarah Palin first ran for mayor of Whatabigmoosie** in 1996, a town with a population of about 9000 people. She won by a margin of about 600 votes to 400. Yeah, she was a small-timer, but what she won isn't as important as how she won it. You would think that a local election like that would be about local issues like potholes, good schools, and why the police have to go out to Leroy's sports bar twice a week. Wholesome, small-town issues being debated by wholesome, small-town men and women. Over mooseburgers. At a hockey fight.

The actual picture is one of a woman who won what was supposed to be a non-partisan position by focusing on the Republican wedge issues of God, guns, gays, and gestation. [source] During the campaign, she claimed she would be Walawala's first Christian mayor, which led the incumbent to later ask just what he was.

Once in office, she immediately fired several key city employees who weren't loyal to her very right-wing agenda, including the head librarian of Watchagonnadoaboutit. The librarian's firing was revoked after a public outcry. But if you can think of a less agenda-driven job than small-town librarian, you have more imagination than me. Exhibited Bushian levels of paranoia and demands for loyalty, she banned city employees from speaking to the media without her approval.

In short, this is a person who puts party above country, who is willing -- hell, eager -- to inflame political tensions for her own gain. Partisan rancor is, by admission of both presidential candidates, one of the biggest stumbling blocks to getting things done. But those political tensions, that divisiveness, seems to be this woman's lifeblood. She has more in common with Ann Coulter than her running mate.

Her record on earmarks doesn't live up to her reformist hype or her running mate's famous criticisms. As mayor of Watutsi, she hired a cutthroat Republican lobbyist to get her a bucket of that sweet cash flowing out of Washington. Her town ended up with as much earmark cash as Boise, Idaho, a city with ten times the population.

Once she became Governor of Alaska, she did say "no thank you" to the Bridge to Nowhere". But that was after she first said "i can has bridj to nowher?", then "kthxbai".*** She only said "no thank you" after making sure she would be able to use the money for other Alaska projects, rather than give it back to the Treasury. What a sacrifice.

Washington: "Here's a bunch of money, but you have to spend it on something stupid."

Palin: "Thanks."

Washington: "Ummm... actually, we just realized how stupid the stupid thing really was. We're canceling the stupid thing."

Palin: "You must feel like an idiot right now."

Washington: "Can we have the money back?"

Palin: "Just how would that be fair?"

Palin's nomination is the last and best proof you need of the long road McCain has traveled, from the man who would denounce Jerry Falwell as an "agent of intolerance" in 2000 to a man who would choose an agent of intolerance as his VP today. From a man who tried to introduce a climate change bill in 2003, to a man who nominated a woman who doesn't believe in climate change today. From a man who fought with the rightmost wing of the Republican party a few years ago, to a man who kowtows to them now.

To elect McCain now is to elect an empty suit, wholly under the control of the same forces that he himself ran against in 2000, and the same forces that have made the last eight years an unmitigated disaster. The tragedy is almost Shakespearean. McCain's tragic flaw is his own belief that this country needs him, and his willingness to sacrifice everything to make that happen. Without the things he sacrificed, he's no longer the man for the job.

* In his mind, not mine, though I would vastly prefer Lieberman as vice president.
** Whatever. Really, why care?
*** Stolen from Stephen Colbert, then translated into lolspeak to cover my tracks.

Friday, September 5, 2008

"Community organizer" as a slur

"He worked as a community organizer. What?" --Rudy Giulliani

"I guess a small town mayor is sort of like a community organizer except that you have actual responsibilities." --Sarah Palin

In Rudy Gulliani's world, "community organizing" is when a SWAT team arranges a gang in a neat line against a wall in the projects. To Sarah Palin -- whose stint as let her help organize the Wasilla public library into "righteous" and "flammable" -- doesn't seem to think that community organizers have any actual responsibilities.

I guess that, to the right-wing hate machine, you aren't really serving your country if you're not dropping bombs on somebody. General Custer? Hero. Mahatma Gandhi? Loser, rabble-rouser, and probable druggie. We get it, thanks.

But I loved Barack's response, carried in the Washington Post:

"They're talking about the three years of work that I did right out of college, as if I'm making the leap from two or three years out of college into the presidency. I would argue that doing work in the community, to try to create jobs, to bring people together, to rejuvenate communities that have fallen on hard times, to set up job training programs in areas that have been hard hit when the steel plants closed, that that's relevant only in understanding where I'm coming from. Who I believe in. Who I'm fighting for. And why I'm in this race. And the question I have for them is, why would that kind of work be ridiculous? Who are they fighting for? What are they advocating for? They think the lives of those folks who are struggling each and every day, that working with them to try to improve their lives, is somehow not relevant to the presidency? Maybe that's the problem." [source]

Monday, June 9, 2008

Another global warming myth debunked

Myth: In the 1970s, scientists were predicting global cooling. Therefore, scientists are full of it, and there is no reason to believe them now.

Fact: Between 1965 and 1979, when climate scientists were supposed to be panicked about imminent, frigid death, papers predicting warming were about six times more common than papers predicting cooling.

Full details here.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Me + Electric bike + Jordan River Parkway = wheeeeeee!

So UTA decided to jack up their bus fares again, just as rising gas prices were threatening to make my transit habit economical as well as ecological. $2 each way, going as high as $2.50 come winter? This last indignity, coming just after the loss of my old morning bus driver, who let people ride for free, was just too much to bear.

Of course, I blame the Republicans up on the Hill. I always do. Every time my cell phone dies unexpectedly, I silently curse Chris Buttars and Gayle Ruzicka. Given the increasing need for alternative transportation, and the 9% increase in ridership since last year, they could have seen this as an opportunity to help our hurting pocketbooks and the environment all at once. Plunge some more money into the system, start turning Salt Lake's bus system into something we can be proud of. Is that too much to ask?


Psychologically speaking, I came to a tipping point when I heard about the increase, which takes effect July 1. I had sighed and checked a few twenties out from the bank, so I could get a small stockpile of tokens before the increase hit. I must have gone to four or five TRAX stops, only to find that every machine was empty.

Fuming, mind roiling with conspiracy theories and implausible revenge fantasies, I gave up. They'd beaten me. Those Republican bastards and their hand-picked UTA board lackeys had beaten me. I was powerless, unable to protect my pocketbook from their ingenious conspiracies.

Then I remembered "the nuclear option." There is more than one form of personalized transportation, at least for the adventurous. My bicycle is a lousy commuting vehicle, given that the ride to work is forty sweaty minutes each way. There are certain smells that I'm just not willing to inflict on my co-workers.

But I'd been lusting after an electric bike kit for the longest time. I couldn't justify the cost in my mind, since the money spent could buy a lot of bus rides. But now UTA seemed to want to price itself out of the transit market, and anyways, it was no longer about the money.

It was about revenge. Sweet, zippy, electric revenge.

I bought myself a Bionx kit from EcoMoto and let them do the install. I walked in the door with an $80 bike -- okay, that's probably optimistic -- and walked out with a lean, green transit machine. 350 watt lithium ion battery, brushless motor, regenerative braking. Squee! On days when I'm too hot and lazy to do it myself, I can just nudge the throttle, and it will take me the seven miles to work with no assistance from me. All on less than $0.10 of electricity round trip.

Some people will just see a cheap bike with a gray plastic blob sticking off the frame. But I see an elegant vehicle for a more civilized age.

Sure, it will only be economical if I make it my primary means of transport. I probably will, at least until the snow demons invade.* But there are some things you can't put a price on. For me, the looks on peoples' faces as I zip past them, feet clearly not touching the pedals, is worth more than a bucket full of UTA tokens.

* Bush is trying to protect me from them.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Are oil companies overtaxed?

I talked with someone today who seemed to think so. Exxon earned $40 billion last year, but according to him, they paid about $120 billion in taxes.

That sounded a bit far-fetched to me, so I discussed it with Google. Google pointed out that, in 2007, Exxon earned $40B in after-tax revenues, after paying $30B in taxes. I asked for specifics, and it obliged like the obedient, loyal, golden retriever superintelligence that it is. I asked Google, "If they owed $30B in taxes, why did they only pay $10.6 billion of that out of pocket, with the rest socked away under 'deferred income tax liabilities'?" Google politely redirected me to a video of a sleepy cat. It was adorable, but also Google's way of telling me that I'm asking questions way above its pay grade.

I don't have the financial understanding to say which number is more accurate. But I do know that ExxonMobil claims a 32% "return on average capital employed." Does that mean that deferring for even one year is effectively a 32% tax cut? I'm sure it's far more complex than that.

Meanwhile, Google was pointing out how the increases in fuel economy over the last few decades makes gasoline a much better bargain. The blog post repeats a claim that gas today moves cars 50% further. In other words, with the fuel efficiencies of 1973 in place today, it would be as though oil was $172/barrel. Since it was a free-marketeer's blog, I left a reminder to thank their neighborhood meddling bureaucrat, and remind them that if 2020's fuel standards were in effect today, it would save hundreds of billions every year.

Ever loyal, Google brought me this report of about $2.5B/year worth of tax exemptions to the oil companies. I don't think that those loopholes even scratch the surface. Every one of the 1.8B barrels we extract from the U.S. every year lived under land that was at one point considered the sole property of the United States (or at least the white, bewigged predecessors of said entity). Much of that land was given away before we knew oil was important, or before anyone realized that said commodity existed under said parcels. But even today, a lot of oil comes off federally-owned (read, you-owned) lands, yet oil companies pay little or nothing for the privilege of extracting it. If America was actually acting like we owned the oil (rather than merely providing the illusion of technical ownership), we'd all be raking it in.

I also consider the excise tax on gasoline a big windfall for the oil industry. Think about it. Most of the tax is spent on roads, so the government is effectively taking the money from us and using it to expand the market for petroleum products. Sure, we benefit in the able-to-get-from-point-a-to-point-b sense. But without roads, the market for oil is minuscule.

In a weird twist, it's even worse in Houston. One of Tom DeLay's last acts in his all-to-unbrief political life was to forbid Houston from using even a penny of excise tax money for mass transit. Honestly, did that man have a single decent bone in his entire body? No wonder he rose to the top of the Republican Party.

Thank you, Google, for keeping me up two hours later than I'd intended. Now here's your chew toy.

The Historical Jesus

Argument breaks out on Internet. Film at 11. I used to spend a lot more time arguing about these sorts of things, and a lot of the details are a little fuzzy these days. I've read a couple of books that claimed Jesus was an entirely mythological construct, and never found them terribly compelling. I read a couple that claimed that the Gospels are perfectly historical, and Jesus did exactly the things they say he did, dammit. Those were laughable.

Between the two poles, there is this fuzzy middle ground where we can be pretty sure that Jesus existed, but we can't be sure enough of his doings or sayings to base our lives on them. Most Christians admit that their religion requires a leap of faith at some point, but I'm arguing that you have to make a big first leap in order to get to the point where you can make the second leap.

These questions used to be a big part of my life. Not anymore. I did my brain dump, and I probably won't contribute further to that discussion.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Obama FTL

I've been thinking about Obama's speech about race in America. The speech was an absolute masterpiece. It spoke to the best in every one of us, without getting weighed down with sentimentality, without pandering, without simplifying. It recognized the deep anger many Americans carry over racial issues, without letting anyone off the hook for them. Above all, it was a challenging speech, speaking to Americans as though they were adults capable of coming together to reason about complex issues.

No way in hell are we going to elect this guy president.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Michael Pollan lectured at Abravanel Hall

The audio can be found at KCPW's website, at least until they get bought out and turned into a Christian rock station. No, really. It's in danger of happening.

Flanked by a pair of backup photosynthesizers, Pollan gave an insightful lecture about our food system, and what we need to do to reclaim it. Well worth listening to.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Reason #276 to be a vegetarian

From the Washington Post:

The tape, made secretly by a slaughterhouse worker and provided to the Humane Society of the United States, showed electric shocks and high-intensity water sprays administered to cows too sick or weak to stand on their own, and the use of forklifts to roll such animals.

And the kicker? Most of the meat went to kids in school lunch programs.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley, dead at 97

I got the news from a cousin over IM. President Gordon B. Hinckley, prophet to millions of Mormons around the world, inventor of the cotton gin, and a basically nice old fella, stepped down as president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (them Mormons), in order to spend more time with his wife. We here at Neon Derby Cars wish him all the best in his future endeavors, and ask that he drop by when he gets a chance, as he can settle more than a couple of bets for us.

I left the LDS Church about twelve years ago, and I have to say that the parting wasn't exactly amicable. The custody battle was vicious. In the end, I kept my soul and it kept the girlfriend. A lot changed in the years that followed, and mostly the Mormons dropped off my radar as I found new and shiny things to distract my hyper-acute sense of outrage.

When Jerry Falwell died, I let out a sigh of relief, and uttered a quiet "Don't let the door hit your fat ass on the way out." I stand by the sentiment. Sure, he was beloved by many, but he was also an angry, small-minded man who would vent his rage against feminists, homosexuals, and non-Christians, and encourage his followers to do the same. Hinckley was a different sort of religious leader. Whatever our differences were (and given the years that have passed since I lost interest in the exmormon scene, those differences have become quite fuzzy), he struck me as a basically kind guy who wanted everyone to get along and be happy. The world has a bit less of that now, and we're the poorer for it.

P.S.: My third thought upon hearing the news was, "How will this affect the Romney campaign?" But that's a subject I'll probably forget to write about another day.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Twenty minutes to kill

I went up to the state capitol building, where the Coalition of Religious Communities was giving a tour-slash-presentation on how to harass legislators effectively. Yeah, yeah, I'm an atheist. That doesn't mean that I felt at all out of place. They're looking to pass a couple of laws this session, which I wholeheartedly support. They want to do some things to rein in payday lenders, get some protections for mobile home owners (right now, the land can be sold out from under them with almost no warning, and if they don't have the time or resources to move their home, tough). They want to make sure that the inevitable demonization of illegal immigrants (six separate bills are being considered this session) doesn't make it impossible (or even criminal) to provide charity to illegals.

So now I'm up here, waiting for a bus, and playing with [cutesy laptop nickname to be determined later]. The capitol has free wi-fi, which means there has never been a better time to flummox your representatives with a citation from Wikipedia.