Monday, January 30, 2012

The Schmendrick and the Politcs of Personal Destruction


Here's the schmedrick in all his glory

It’s well argued that the current sturm und drang between the two parties is nothing new, that since Jefferson and Hamilton started going at it the nation’s politics has been characterized by exaggeration, vituperation, scandal and coarseness. Yet listen to what members of Congress on both sides of the aisle say about Newt’s politics of personal personal destruction, and its aftermath, and it’s hard to not come away with the impression that something has been lost in the the polity in Washington. They don’t know each other. They don’t talk to each other. They don’t feel responsible to each other. And so they demonize each other.


Money in Politics


We are creeping closer to one of those central questions of democracy that you and I love to chew over, which is the proper role of money in politics, or more precisely, whether any sort of limits ought to be placed on individual spending.  In the Citizens United decision the Supremes clearly waded in on the side of an absolute minimum limitation and we are now seeing the results of that decision play out during the Republican primary  and beyond.

While I was initially appalled by the decision, I have less trouble with it than many on the left, as it becomes obvious that the enormous increases will balance each other out on both sides. Barack Obama certainly isn’t going get outspent. It’s also clear as you and others have argued, that money may be necessary but is never sufficient. See Phil Graham and Steve Forbes in addition to your excellent examples.

But what is essential is sunlight. If the Koch boys, the Adelsons, George Soros  and anybody else want to play in this arena, they will have to accept the exposure it brings. My guess is that exposure will dissuade many.


A simple answer to a simple question.


You ask if I think the Koch Brothers and their allies are spending their money out of some civic-minded dogoodedness? Fair enough. I don't know. Nor do I care. There are a variety of motives why you and I are making our conversation public, and I don't think those motives are particularly relevant either. What we, and the Koch Brothers, say will be evaluated by the public, thrown into the soup of its decision-making process and votes as well as letters to representatives will be cast and written accordingly. That's the way it's supposed to work. As far as throwing around money and not getting a return, you should ask Jon Corzine in his battle against Chris Christie, Linda McMahon in Connecticut, Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman in California and Ross Perot whenever he ran for President. Plenty of contrary examples: Mike Bloomberg, Johnson in Wisconsin. But that's the point. It's a pretty high risk gamble.

Every day I am bombarded with pleas to drink Coke and Bud Light. Every day I manage to avoid those entreaties. From the moment we are born advertising tries to convince us of the efficacy and value of products, services and ideas. I believe we are rather sophisticated at separating the nonsense from the truth. If the Koch Brothers, or you and I, want to spend our time and resources convincing the public of something, I see no problem with that.

A point of clarification please. The schmedrick responsible for the lack of tolerance and respect in our politics is who?


Saturday, January 28, 2012

Speaking of Liver

 The most memorable hepatic literary allusion ever.

Democracy in Action


Had to post this pic as an example of the democracy in action we love so well. This, of course is a scene from the successful campaign to put Wisconsin's Governor recall on the ballot.

While it is true that liberals are a distinct minority within the electorate, many of the ideas they espouse have broad support.

What we have at present is a system that is rigged, on both sides, to protect the entrenched. In my blue state congressional district, the current incumbent has been in place for 20 years, and clearly can serve as long as she wants. Across the country barely 10% of house districts are considered competitive, so it’s no surprise
that the remaining 90% produce members with no incentive to compromise.

In founding this blog together, you and I have agreed to a powerful implicit constraint. We have agreed to express our opinions as articulately and forcefully as we can but  to respect and engage each other enough to tolerate our substantial disagreements. That’s what’s missing from our current politics. Fortunately, the schmedrick responsible for that state of  affairs appears to be trailing badly in Florida

As far as the “latest bogeyman” Koch brothers, let me ask you a simple question. Do you think they and their allies are spending their money  out of some civic minded do goodedness? No, they are spending their money to protect their interests, as our political system gives them every right to do. And given their fabulous business success, it’s a mortal certainty that if throwing around the kind of money that they throwing around didn’t work, they wouldn’t do it. What our democracy also guarantees however is that  they will have to face the opposition that their political views inevitably generate.


Bentley! Whip up a liver and whey shake right away!


Your post about Manning's and Brady's visuospatial scores reminded me of one of my favorite movies, "Heaven Can Wait," the Warren Beatty version. Beatty's character is mistakenly taken from his body by an over-eager angel who didn't realize Beatty would have been able to avoid a head-on collision with an oncoming car due to his "fantastic reflexes." Beatty spends the rest of the movie trying to find a permanent body. Hilarity and love ensue.

On ongoing joke is Beatty treating visitors to a liver and whey shake.

Max: What's in this brown stuff?
Joe: That's mainly whipped liver.
Max: Liver?
Joe: I put a little whey in it, then mix it with a little alfalfa sprouts, and some bean curd and spinach. It's nice, isn't it? It's a liver and whey shake.


Tea Party v Occupy


There is a simple reason why the Tea Party has been effective at translating their "rage," as you call it, into power, and the Occupy movement has not. The Tea Party has more support. I know, it's a tautology. The Tea Party has more supporters because there are more people supporting it. And in our democracy that translates quite easily into greater representation at all levels of government.

As obvious as that is, what surprises me is how that escapes most supporters of the Occupy, and I use this term loosely, movement. Instead the supporters of Occupy come up with all sorts of reasons why the Tea Party has been able to translate their beliefs into power. The Koch Brothers (the Left's boogieman du jour), Fox News and Rush Limbaugh are all responsible for duping the ignorant poor whites clinging to their guns and religion, into voting for the Tea Party. It's as if the Left is openly espousing the philosophy that a large swatch of Americans are stupid, evil and racist. Now that may work, but I have the hunch most people will reject that opinion and instead be insulted by it.

What has come from the Occupy movement, in my opinion, is the co-opting of the phrase, "the 1%," by the Democratic Party as a tool to raise taxes. But the taxes they want to raise are on far more than the 1% and I think most people realize this, which is why this phrase will have a short half life. Putting aside the arguments on raising taxes, what is it the Democrats want to spend the money on? It seems to me, at least from the President's State of the Union address, they want to spend it on more corporate and middle-class welfare.

No thanks.


Friday, January 27, 2012

It's About Time


In this case specifically, time to throw the football. Brady needs about 2.1 seconds to execute. My guess is (the other) Eli needs the same. The Giants have shown they are perfectly capable of reducing that interval with their ferocious, relentless front four.

It would be fascinating to do neuropsychology  testing on Messrs Manning and Brady. Their visuospatial scores I wager would be off the charts. That’s what makes great NFL quarterbacks- amazing pattern recognition combined with superb decision making, in very small amounts of time. Any strong armed fellow can throw a football.

I’m still amazed that my beloved Patriots prevailed last Sunday. But I fear the Giants.

I think you’re a bit harsh on the Occupiers. Their genesis and the Tea Partier’s are the same-rage at the elites. It’s just that the Tea Party has been effective at translating that rage into power, and the Occupy movement will never be.

As far as who is a Republican these days, the data speak for themselves.

You’re right to insist that no one wants to live with dirty air It just seems to be OK if someone  else  has to breath it

For now, we’ll agree to disagree  We’ll get to carbon in all its various forms I’m sure.  


Points of Agreement, and not


You touch on a lot of points. I'll touch on them rather than address them fully. Maybe then we can talk about the Patriots v. Giants. Neither looked sharp in the Conference championship games. Brady was particularly uninspiring. 

I don't know what the Occupy movement was. An echo of the "full rapacious fury of the Industrial Revolution," or narcissistic omphaloskepsis?

The core of the Republican party is "working class whites," seeing their dominance withering away? I'm not really sure what you are talking about, nor if it's particularly relevant.

And  I stand fully by my statement that ”the notion that anyone is proposing an elimination of air pollution laws that would result in a Dickensian-like, coal-fired, haze over the US, and that the electorate would stand for such a thing is, frankly, absurd." Note the disclaimer "that the electorate would stand for such a thing." Whenever someone stands up and says, "I'm an environmentalist," I laugh. We are all environmentalists. I have yet to meet anyone who wants to live in a dirty, smelly, unhealthy environment. 

The argument being made today, isn't really about traditional environmental regulation. Rather it's about CO2. And that's a whole other kettle of fish. 


Thursday, January 26, 2012

On Dickens Redux


You’re calling me out on my rhetorical Dickensian flourish is fair. But is it not also fair to worry that  ….”the notion that anyone is proposing an elimination of air pollution laws that would result in a Dickensian-like, coal-fired, haze over the US, and that the electorate would stand for such a thing is, frankly, absurd” is a bit optimistic?
 After all, the current front runner for the Republican nomination for the presidency has publicly called for the elimination of the EPA. Should I not take Mr. Gingrich at his word, not to mention the analogous sentiments uttered  by the constituency he represents? Or the governor of the 3th largest state in the Union, whose contempt for environmental regulation produces the US city with the worst air pollution in the country?
What I find so unsettling about current Republican politics is that the moderate wing (comprised largely of the wealthy and more highly educated elite) seems to still think that they can control events, that in their end, their guy, Romney, will get in and that he’ll govern like a moderate despite his endlessly flexible campaign rhetoric. But each passing day on the campaign trail undercuts that notion. The people who now comprise the core of the Republican party, working class whites, are enraged, enraged that their way of life is eroding, their values challenged on all fronts, and their dominant place in the culture is withering away. I find their vision no less apocalyptic than the mullahs in Tehran.

While I agree substantially with the argument that growth raises the overall economic status of everyone, and I don’t mind that it does so unequally, I suspect it’s more complicated than that. Somewhat annoyingly, I raise the specter of Dickens again as an extreme but instructive example of where unregulated capitalism can lead. Do we believe that those experiencing the full rapacious fury of the Industrial Revolution were better off? Aren’t those the conditions that laid the groundwork for Marxism, a misguided anti-human political philosophy that led to the deaths of more than 50 million people before it finally was discredited? Aren’t we seeing an echo of that displacement in the Occupy movement? Of course we don’t have conditionws like that in America anymore. But we did not so long ago. You argue that the miraculously rising American tide has lifted boats both large and small. Fair enough. I argue that government has played  an irreducible, critical role in guaranteeing economic and environmental protections for all, even those who insist they don’t want them.
 Still, I am also increasingly appreciating that regulation is a double edge sword, with potential to produce harm as well as good

Tuesday, January 24, 2012


There have been a couple of times you have conjured up images of Dickensian London as a counter-argument to my admiration for the power of markets. I ignored the comments at the time but always wanted to come back to what you imply is an example of markets run amok.
First, relative to today, nothing I propose, and little of what I hear proposed by others, is going to take us back to Dickensian London. The notion that anyone is proposing an elimination of air pollution laws that would result in a Dickensian-like, coal-fired, haze over the US, and that the electorate would stand for such a thing is, frankly, absurd. Unfortunately, President Obama keeps warning us of a time when there was a “free license to take whatever you want from whoever you can” and “when everyone is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules.” (Both of these from his Osawatomie speech). My (Democratic) Congressman and many others constantly remind me they are the only defense against a Republican party that wants to do away with the EPA. It’s all a little overwrought.
I was reminded of your comments by a passage from “Monsoon,” by Robert Kaplan. The book is part travelogue, part history, part geo-political analysis. Kaplan is somewhat skeptical of a claim that the poor in Kolkata (Calcutta) are mobile. That is, skeptical of the assertion that their station in life, and the station of their descendants, is not fixed for all all times. He is skeptical there is great mobility as the people build up their stock of capital (human and monetary) which affords them a better life.
Some time ago I read “Rebirth of a Nation,” by Jackson Lears and he too sneers at the notion of growth and mobility. Lears, in one passage grudgingly admits that growth in the American economy in the latter half of the 19th century led to a better life for most. His denigration of growth, took me aback. Growth means an easier, longer, happier life for the overwhelming majority of people. And the group it helps most, I maintain, is the poor. Think of the life we have versus the life our parents and grand-parents had. We have better housing, better food, better health care, greater ability to modulate our environment with heating and air conditioning. We have greater access to entertainment, transportation and leisure. It is remarkable to me. And it came about because of growth.
What bothers me then, about your suggestion that our choice is between some Dickensian-like nightmare or the valhalla of  Obama (Obamahalla?) is one, that it is a completely false choice and two, that it places way too little weight on the power of growth to lift everyone, particularly the poor.
Finally, “Monsoon” was a Christmas gift from my youngest. She chose it based entirely on the appeal of its cover. Who says you can’t judge a book by its cover.

Friday, January 13, 2012

I Want A Cadillac


The Bain attacks are an interesting phenomenon, the meaning of which remains unclear. Are they simply the consequence  of the unleashing of money upon the electoral process produced by the Citizen's United decision? Do they say something important about the instability of the Republican coalition? Time will tell. As far their fairness and accuracy I am, in contrast to yourself, agnostic. I certainly don't feel that capitalism (an economic system that I endorse heartily) is under attack. It's Romney's character that is under attack, absurdly, by opponents with far less character than he. It seems that one of the requisites for entry into political life is an absolute absence of shame. The other requisite seems to be the absence of a sense of irony.

Sounds like you don't like the President very much. You have a lot of company there. Fitness I suppose is in the eye of the beholder. Given who politicians are at their core, I can accept Romney's breathtaking willingness to say anything to be President. But are you certain of what you'll get if he ascends? Does one know with any degree of confidence where he stands, on anything, except in his own belief in himself? One thing I am certain of is that we'll get a man who doesn't have a clue about the lives of ordinary people. Not that I think I have much either given the fabulously fortunate life that I've lead. But that matters to me, maybe even more than competence. And it matters to most Americans, which is why Romney is hardly a shoe in, despite Obama's current dismal approval rating 

The complaint you lodge against the government's role in picking winners and losers is well placed. But our government has been poking its nose into the nation's economic life since the beginning, with often spectacularly positive results One of the interesting lessons I've learned reading the Time's Disunion blog, was that Lincoln, while trying to put the  country back together, also managed to promulgate a series of long term government-interference-in-the-economy policies that had long-lasting, profound, salutatory effects. The Homestead Act, Railroad Acts etc.  So I certainly believe that there's role to play-it just depends on what and how much and how often. It also helps when you no opposition as Lincoln did

What the government ought not be doing is encouraging, or even allowing rent-seeking, a term that I just learned from David Brooks this week. What we both lament is that both political parties allow and even encourage it. Rent seekers, also known as lobbyists are after all what keep campaign coffers full. Maybe that's what I'll relearn from Cadillac Desert, next on my list after I finish In the Garden of Beasts.

If President Romney
1) Revamps the tax code to eliminate all the special breaks
2) Endorses some form of Simpson Boles to fix the deficit
3) Moves toward some form of the Ryan Widen Health care pan (his own is similar I believe)
4) Continues Obama's innovative efforts at education reform
4)Keeps the Persians from getting the bomb
5) Nudges the Israelis and Palestinians toward a comprehensive peace.

He'll have my support. He'll also amaze me.

To return once more to GM and the concept of risk. The bankruptcy could only unfold once. No mulligans here. One cannot say with certainty that an ordinary bankruptcy would not have severely damaged an already crippled economy. Lots of folks have opined that it in fact would have. And though I have no formal experience with economics, my reading suggests to me that the events that worsened the Great Depression were exactly the kinds of unmodified crumblings that you argue do no harm. That's why Bernanke, a lifelong student of the Depression, took the steps he did, and why he has been so vilified for it

What did happen was that GM recovered, the government investment is being repaid, and I'm going to buy a Cadillac next year:

As for the minimum wage, hasn' that experiment been tried already? One can find an entertaining description of the kind of world that produces in any Dickens novel. America in the 19th century was a vibrant bullish place, with plenty of constant and collateral damage that is no longer allowed. That's why we have basic protections for workers like the minimum wage, 40 hour work week, and child labor prohibition. I  respectfully disagree with your assertion  "that the vast majority of the time they are hurting the groups they purportedly are helping."

Risk avoidance and cost in the medical world are correlated. We will go to great lengths and spend a lot of time and money to avoid rare events.

As ever


Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Screed Against Industrial Policy


5) I want the Broncos to win the Super Bowl, but if they can't I want the Patriots. So I approach the game with a certain amount of equanimity. And fear. The Patriots are very good.

4) It was indeed a pleasure seeing you over the weekend. Thanks for the invite.

3) They are doing Romney a favor: Preparing him for the accusations he will bear when the real contest comes and they are forcing him to defend capitalism which will endear him more to those, like myself, who feel it is under attack. They are also showing they are unqualified for the office. Just as the current occupant will show the same when he makes the same accusation.

2) I have no specific knowledge of how the bond-holders were treated. I read they were treated illegally, but the accusations come from the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, which I don't regard as a completely reliable source. 

What rankles me is the blatant unfairness of it. When you save an inefficient enterprise the group hurt the most is the consumer. No one speaks for the consumer. Prices go up, choice goes down. It's a dead weight loss to our society. Full Stop. But it's worse. Because the group of consumers that are hurt the most are the poor. Because a car for the poor is a much greater share of their income. But its worse. Because it hurts the auto worker who works for the company you didn't bail out. In this case that's Ford, Honda, BMW, Mercedes, Toyota etc who employ hundred of thousands of AMERICAN workers, in AMERICA. It hurts them because the American consumer has said, with their wallets, over many years, "We prefer cars from Toyota, Honda, Ford etc." and the government has responded, "Too bad. You should buy from GM." And its worse. Because the current Administration justifies this by saying something that on the surface, is wrong. "We saved the auto industry by keeping it out of bankruptcy." Sometimes they'll use the euphemism for bankruptcy, "we kept it from going under." Horse hockey. They saved GM and Chrysler, and they put both into bankruptcy. There is so much more to object to than how the bondholders were treated.

The philosophy of government picking winners, think Solyndra, ethanol, wind power, is bad for consumers. Year after year, decade after decade, century after century, the evidence is overwhelming the Government is awful at picking winners. The evidence is overwhelming it hurts consumers, the evidence is overwhelming it hurts the poor most. Yet Republican or Democrat, we keep doing it. If the definition of crazy is indeed doing the same thing and expecting a different result, then this is crazy.

And here's how they sell it. "We are protecting (fill in the blank)." Workers, women, blacks, children, elderly, disabled. I would posit, that the vast majority of the time they are hurting the groups they purportedly are helping. Minimum wage laws hurt young workers, particularly young black workers. We should be ashamed of ourselves that over the course of the minimum wage laws we have denied the opportunity for young, less-educated, less-skilled workers the opportunity to gain experience. We have created a semi-permanent underclass bound to the government. Horrifying. 

And its worse. Because who does it help? The well connected. The rich, the powerful. Read Cadillac Desert and tell me I'm wrong.

1) Fascinating. I'm pretty sure I've heard you say, more than once, medical costs in the US are egregiously high because of unnecessary tests and procedures. I'm trying to square that with your statement on risk.

But the other issue is, we have centuries of experience with bankruptcies in the economy. I can't think of one that resulted in "unacceptable" damage. The need for action was manufactured. And yes, I say the same things about the bankers and the banking industry. Big bankers are no friend of mine.


Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Broncos, The Pats and GM


1) In my world (and your sister's) we look at risk in a very specific way that I believe is quite different than the business world. The risk of generalized damage to the US economy of a standard GM bankruptcy even if it were very small (say 10%) would be unacceptable because the potential extent of damage would be unknowable. It's like sending a patient home from the emergency room with chest pain. Even if the chances of impending heart attack are small, we admit the patient overnight and test them, because the price of being wrong is too high

2) I suspect what really rankles in the larger business community is that the bondholders got hammered (to put it mildly), in favor of the workers. If I had been a bondholder I wouldn't be happy either.

3) It will be fascinating to see how the frontal assualt on Romney's "creative destruction" model of capitalism plays out in South Carolina over the next 11 days. Who'd have thunk it? Conservatives attacking capitalism at it's core.

4) It was a pleasure seeing you on Sat

5) Looking forward to watching your Broncos in Foxborough Sat night. These 2 teams have put together a pretty spirited rivalry over years (with Denver mostly getting the better of it). 


Romney and Obama: Private Equity Honchos


Romney's tenure at Bain capital is coming under scrutiny, as it should, but Obama's partisans should tread cautiously since the behavior they despise in Bain is the exact same behavior of Obama. And remember, the "saving of the auto industry" is touted as one of his great accomplishments.

Here is a CNN story on the GM bankruptcy from June 1, 2009