Archive for May 2011

And In Other News…WASF

May 29, 2011

Just got round to Richard Wolff’s Friday column at Guardian.com, and he paints a macrocosmic view of why the US is in such deep trouble — and why it matters in a two party system when (a) both parties draw from essentially similar financial bases of support, and (b) one of those two parties decides to crash the ability of government to govern.

Here are a couple of excerpts:

…At the same time, the housing market remains deeply depressed as 1.5-2m home foreclosures are scheduled for 2011, separating more millions from their homes. After a short upturn, housing prices nationally have resumed their fall: one of those feared “double dips” downward is thus already under way in the economically vital housing market.

The combination of high unemployment and high home foreclosures assures a deeply depressed economy. The mass of US citizens cannot work more hours – the US already is No 1 in the world in the average number of hours of paid labour done per year per worker. The mass of US citizens cannot borrow much more because of debt levels already teetering on the edge of unsustainability for most consumers. Real wages are going nowhere because of high unemployment enabling employers everywhere to refuse significant wage increases. Job-related benefits (pensions, medical insurance, holidays, etc) are being pared back.

There is thus no discernible basis for a substantial recovery for the mass of Americans.

Wolff actually says nothing that will seem new to this blog’s readers.  But still, the juxtaposition of economic and political futility in one relatively brief essay makes the message potent:

Republicans are now celebrating “American exceptionalism”, the unique greatness of living conditions in the US. Yet again, their politics stress vanishing social conditions whose disappearance frightens Americans who counted on them. In reality, the US is fast becoming more and more like so many countries where a rich, cosmopolitan elite occupies major cities with a vast hinterland of people struggling to make ends meet. The vaunted US “middle class” – so celebrated after the second world war even as it slowly shrank – is now fast evaporating, as the economic crisis and the government’s “austerity” response both favour the top 10% of the population at the expense of everyone else….

I disagree with Wolff’s claim in the piece that Democrats are trying to deal with deficits in company with the GOPers by slamming Medicare and Social Security — that bit reads more to me like easy across-the-water equivalence-mongering.  More generally  Wolff’s politics seem to make it hard for him to distinguish any meaningful distance between the two parties…which, as we have bitter cause to know, is not actually true.

Still, go read the whole thing.  Wolff ends on a utopian note, but the hard core of the piece paints a picture of an economy in long term stasis that is unlikely to shift as long as our politics remain so bollixed by corporate influence and GOP delusions.

Oh…and have a great weekend!

Update: Paul Krugman takes a victory lap (bemusedly) on the fate of his year-ago fears of prolonged economic troubles.  Did I happen to mention WASF?

Image: Georges Emile Lebacq, Ruins at Reninghe (Flanders), 1917

 

 

How About A Little xkcd Haute Snark?

May 28, 2011

Honi soit qui mal y pense:

I got the heads up to this from John Sundman, a Twitter buddy, (@jsundmanus) who complains that it “is factually wrong; an astoundingly rare occurrence.”  Guess why.  (Sundman’s answer after the jump.)

“discussants are not holding beers.”

The Beast In Me*

May 28, 2011

I’m still enjoying that special lassitude that comes from trying to persuade my bone marrow to pump out enough red blood cells to deal with the oxygen pressure at 2,600 meters — Hello Bogota!….

…but I’ve been watching this blog go ape over the last few days (in a good way) and feel the need to see if I can’t contribute something to the show.

So here’s a bit of meta-media snark I worked on a bit ago, only to see it vanish into the end-of term swamp:

I know that the party-strewn resume of Tina Brown is of little moment (very little) compared with all the examples of GOP folly and malice chronicled there, everywhere, and here, today and everyday.   Even so I just can’t quite get past the astonishingly inadvertant MSM self-revelation in the Times Sunday Magazine profile of Brown — that once and present editor, now running both her upper-middle-brow web project, The Daily Beast, and that moss-covered perpetual second sister, Newsweek.

This paragraph was the first to set me off:

The Beast, as Brown calls it, is a long way from profitability, it’s an impressive achievement whose relatively few visitors (just under four million uniques per month) belie its cultural influence.

Its cultural influence?  I mean, I know I’m out of it, but except for some mild fun at Meghan McCain’s expense, and a kind of genteel averting of eyes at some of the more vacuously embarrassing conventional wisdom retreads that showed up there early on, I can’t recall any real engagement with yon wee beastie.

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Rather, what it actually seems to be, as the Times can’t quite avoid saying, is an expensive but mediocre performer by the metric that matters in the infotainment business:  people ain’t coming and the dollars aren’t following its diminuitive audience.  Losses last year, according to the article, reached a cool ten million.

Now I know that both Brown and her Boswell are trying to suggest that the place is still somehow influential, a shaper of minds and ideas.  But again, unless I’ve just completely missed it, no.

Hell, just to do due diligence I’ve been and come back to this post in the last five minutes to see what’s up there. [This visit took place more than a week ago.  Too lazy to repeat.]  Retreads of info about Bin Laden that is everywhere else on the web, including much more straight-news branded sites, a review of advice from Mika Brzezinski about how to ask for a raise, (Mika Brzinski!), complete with a description of the book party at which Morning Joe folks told the author how wonderful Mika is (scoop!…up to a point, Lady Evans) , a piece I refused to click on Osama Bin Laden and Michael Douglas as Viagra brothers…and you get the idea.

What a huge, holy hillock of who cares.

And then there is the searing instinct for the new, the zeitgeist of modern media and those who can bend it into new forms of making meaning.  As old friend Hendrick Hertzberg says, “Tina’s a revolutionary leader,” Hertzberg says.  Or not:

Brown’s early issues have been strewn with standbys from her Rolodex: Hillary Clinton, Harvey Weinstein, Judith Regan, James Carville, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Yup, when I think of media revolutionaries, Ahhhnold and Regan (she of the O. J. Simpson “confession“) are names that pop right to top of mind.

And then there are her plans to remake Newsweek. I can’t say I have had any interest in the magazine for decades, which is a symptom of the problem Brown was hired to address, of course.  But I’m not sure this is going to help:

A new section called Omnivore: Want has featured $2,100 Chanel shoes, a $6,500 Audi bicycle and a $10,000 Burberry “Python” trench, items that would not be within reach of your average newsmagazine reader but that would feel right at home in, say, Vanity Fair.

So the salvation of the newsweekly business is to turn them into smaller, more cheaply produced versions of the aspirational titles? Apparently yes:

“There’s a great kind of high-low, newsy, sexy thing that the European newsmagazines have,” Brown said. “They have this great sort of slightly freewheeling pagination, where they go from a great sexy picture of an expensive watch to Libya or something. So I’d like to have more of that feeling in Newsweek. I think that’s a great thing for a magazine, because that’s where we all sort of are now, we’re all multiplatformed, everything’s messed up with everything else.”

Ahh, the smell of word salad in the morning.  It’s not just that I have no desire to go from pictures of a fancy watch, say, or even of the good Bruni — Carla, of course — to the sight of wrecked lives…it’s that there are already folks who do this better, and Brown seems to be putting Newsweek into a familiar second banana kind of place:  chasing somebody else’s editorial vision and formula.


The multiplatform blather at the end of the quote is a subject for another day; here I’ll just say that the fact that this sounds exactly like traditional media spouting of about a decade ago, when the great idea was to dump print onto a web page and call it multimedia.

OK — that’s enough sideswipes at Tina Brown.  There’s a bigger (to me) point here: All of this appeared in the Times Magazine.

The real howlers here are not Brown’s — for all of the crass money-as-pheramone, Sully-chasing inanity attending this merger, she’s pursuing a recognizable strategy to pull a lazarus on Newsweek.  I’m not sure Dr. House himself could save that patient, but full marks for trying.

No, what really got me about this piece was what it confirms (again) about how the Village sees itself.  What does it say that a writer could write and an editor could pass with straight faces all that heavy breathing about the cultural significance of a place that provides a soft-landing for Judy Regan?

It tells me that it’s same-old, same-old over there.  There is an information cartel at the center of our national media, struggling to maintain its hold on the bytestream.  And, just to connect all this to the themes of this blog over the last few days, I’d say that the fact that the Times could produce such hagiography over the fact that Tina Brown is ruling a new roost for conventional, right-leaning hacktitutde tells us all a lot about why the mainstream media has found it so hard to cover even the basics about things that might actually interest the broad middle class audience the newsweeklies used to own.

*Couldn’t resist the title, not least because this title lets me post this:

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Images:  Poster for the Adam Forepaugh & Sells Brothers Great Shows Combined c. 1897.

Eduoard Manet, Running at Longchamp, 1864

2 Black 2 B Prez: Palin Hears, Retransmits Dog Whistle

May 19, 2011

Sometimes, the quote simply speaks for itself:

“Well, talk about racism, that was a racist tinged question from David Gregory,” she said. “He made it sound like if you’re black, you are on food stamps and the President is referring to you as being on food stamps. I think that’s racist.” [Sarah Palin speaking to Sean Hannity, via TPM]

Victim politics demands that the real suffering of others must be made invisible.  In its place comes the claim of precisely the injury actually done to those others, but now alleged to be suffered by the speaker.

Everyone reading here knows this dance, of course. But still, it’s important to keep calling this out.

To do so:  let me just say as clearly as possible what, again, we all know:  that when Palin calls David Gregory racists because Mr. Gregory had the temerity to ask Gingrich a question about his use of racist signalling — why then you  have as perfect a measure as can be imagined of how much the modern Republican Party sees refighting the Civil War** (on the wrong side) as its only remaining path to power.

Bluntly:  Palin and Gingrich and a Republican Party that tolerates them trade on race fear and race hatred for political gain.  Evil is not, I think, too strong a word to describe either the sincere or cynical wielding of this particular cudgel.

It could work.  It has in the past.  And hence the obligation:  every time a Palin or a Gingrich — or any of them — plays to that voter on the margin they think they can capture with a coded appeal to racism, it’s time to name and shame.  It isn’t much, I know, but the goal is to raise the psychic cost of actually pulling the lever for and against the color of the candidates’ skin that much higher.

To put it another way:  anyone who thinks that the next election is going to be even the least bit easy isn’t paying attention.

*A false dichotomy, I know.

**Really, restaging the post-reconstruction assertion of white supremacy following Hayes-Tilden fiasco, but that’s not nearly iconic enough to put over my meaning.

Image:  J. W. M. Turner, The Slave Ship, 1840. (And yes, I know I’ve posted this one before, but I love it and it works here.  Plus, I get to look at it whenever I head over to the MFA.)

cross posted at Balloon Juice.

Attack of the Mutant Ninja Fiscal Conservatives

May 16, 2011

Oh Noes!

Via TPM:  the GOP-led budget insurrection over the six-month spending bill in March actually boosted spending over that period by $3 billion, according to the latest CBO analysis:

“Total discretionary outlays in 2011 will be $3.2 billion higher as a result of the legislation, CBO estimates–an increase of $7.5 billion for defense programs, partially offset by a net reduction of $4.4 billion in other spending,” reads a just-released report from the Congressional Budget Office — Congress’ non-partisan scorekeeper. Analysts there conclude that increase is due in large part to the fact that the six month spending bill shifted defense spending to more immediate activities, which means the bills will come due sooner than later.

It is true that the bill will, if unchanged in any future budget, lead to about $122 billion in spending reductions…(wait for it)….over the next ten years.

That’s barely more than what the Republicans road into office swearing they’d cut this year alone…not to mention that $122 billion out of a truly unrealistically conservative estimate* of ten year expenditure of $25.4 trillion dollars amounts to a rounding error — a reduction of on the order .5% over a decade.

Way to go!

The initial reports of $38 billion in cuts, by the way, were Teabagger bait, which means that the Republican party has some ‘splainin to do to its base, and the rest of us should help tell that story as much as we can.

Here’s how the scam worked:

the approximately $38 billion in advertised cuts spanned the entire federal budget, including locked-in “mandatory” spending programs, and it reflected reductions in “budget authority” — how much the government is allowed to spend — as opposed to projected “outlays” — how much the government truly will spend.

Ah, that old problem for the GOP and its voters — the difference between what the tooth fairy promises, and what actually happens in the real world:

When viewed more narrowly — how many fewer dollars will the government spend this year as a result of this bill — the results flip.

Which is to say, the GOP rookie congresscritturs and the Tea Party electorate were promised one thing, and got…played.

The moral, dear faux Minutemen:  the GOP’s central command has exactly no interest in actual lower-case “c” conservatism.  They serve different masters…or to put it another way:

If you can’t tell who the patsy is at the table, it’s you.

*That number comes from the simple-minded multiplying the (pre-stimulus) 2008 numbers — an arithmetical gesture of maximal kindness to our GOP arithmetic-challenge friends.

Image:  Follower of Hieronymous Bosch,  The Battle Between Carnival and Lent, (A subject sometimes titled The Dance of Fools, Carnival.), c 1600-1620.

One More Quick Word Before I Go

May 9, 2011

I dropped the ball on the debate in the middle of the week on the idea of torture “working” raised by my response to Josh Marshall’s brief post over at TPM. Despite my promises to engage, I learned once again the eternal truth: the last week or so of the school year is, how shall we say it, interesting to students, and hence a touch crowded for their teachers. So, apologies, all.

Many of the commenters and then mistermix argued that I seriously misread Josh’s point. That would be that torture as a policy is always and everywhere wrong, even if one can imagine that an incident of torture might every now and then provide a bit of timely, useful information. To those folks, Josh was making (somewhat clumsily) a strong case against torture, and not a rhetorical concession to the monsters in our polity who have already done such damage to our country.

Because this has been chewed on pretty good around here, I’m not going to do my usual 4,000 word logorrhea game here, so I’ll just make two quick points.

1: I believe I am in violent agreement with mistermix et al: torture is a disastrous policy, and Josh concurs with that claim. But I do think that it is a real problem to make even rhetorical gestures to the wrong side of this argument. Once you say that it is conceivable that torture “works” — even in the limited sense that Josh may mean it here, as a (very) occasional source of bits of actionable intelligence, then IMHO you have tiptoed onto that often invoked, much more rarely encountered political sasquatch, the slippery slope.

That is: I think the concession allows the bad guys to return to scenario mongering, talking 24 nonsense and muttering about bombs in Times Square…and adding zombie lies about how sustained torture got something good out of Khalid Sheikh Muhammed or whatever, ramping up until the “vanishingly rare” of Marshall’s implied formulation becomes so critically important that it becomes (again!) unpatriotic not to perform the water torture on every detainee, just in case.

2: That leads to my larger point, and it is again one upon which, I think, both sides of the Balloon Juice discussants at least basically agree.

And that is that the use of the word “works” here obscures the reality that torture, in fact does not do so for any reasonable definition of the word “works.”

This is important because if you don’t get that, then in fact you can come up with a formally coherent (even if BS) argument that torture is morally acceptable. That’s the problem with slippery slopes, after all. Eventually you slide to the point of some ham-fisted utilitarian argument, where the harm done to a few people is outweighed by some hypothetical good.

Yes — obviously — there are lots and lots of logical as well as practical flaws in that cartoon of reasoning. But it illustrates the problem with making good faith concessions to bad faith argument.

The real argument that Josh was trying to make (assuming, as I’m willing to, that those who read him kindly are correct) is that it doesn’t matter whether acts of torture work, because summed over the policy, torturing does much more harm than good.

That’s true. Torture throws tons of bad info into the system; it puts our own people at risk, it utterly wrecks hearts-and-minds attempts; and so on. All this we know. It’s wrong, because it does more damage to the individuals who practice it and the societies that adopt it than any conceivable gain — I’m not trying to diminish the moral argument. But, again, to the question of how to conduct the campaign against the pro-torture thugs, we cannot, IMHO, allow them to define, even partially, the frame of the argument. It never is, or should be, about what happens in the dungeon where one luckless victim is being broken — except as illustration of the fact that the use of the vomit-in-the-mouth Orwellianism (really anti-Orwellianism…) “enhanced interrogation technique” is itself sin against any attempt to imagine a moral regime.

Rather, the argument over torture has to be about what happens summed up over the full range of consequences of a decision to ask the CIA to do what we hung Germans and Japanese for perpetrating. You can’t capture the moral catastrophe without demonstrating that the logic of torture evokes more torture to “remedy” the inability to extract “useful” knowledge from each prior attempt — and all the other evils that flow once it becomes possible to think of torture as an occasionally valuable practice. Whenever we allow the Cheneys and Yoos of the world to bullshit their way into a “debate” over whether water boarding KSM did or didn’t help lead to Osama, we’ve already conceded much more than we should, or is safe.

[Quick update: Commenter J argues that it’s important not to be absolutist on torture never working in the small sense — which tells me that I still wasn’t clear about my argument. I’m saying it’s meaningless to assert that torture can work on that scale. Look at it this way. On Monday, you torture ten people. Nine of them give you no or bad intel. One gives you a piece of valid data. You act on the results of all ten interrogations. Did the one valid one work? No, IMHO.]

That Josh may have been making this argument, I concede. That he did so in a way that opens the door for the wrong interpretation is a problem. I ended my last post on this asking for eternal vigilance; it is too damn easy to fall into habits of speech and arguments that concede much more than we intend to people who have already done immeasurable harm to our country and its security.

And with that belaboring of what was already hashed out in a few hundred comments. I’ll deliver my promised extra treat on 17th century English torture and the law as soon as I can, perhaps in 2011. Happy Mother’s Day, y’all.

Image: El Greco, Portrait of a Cardinal c. 1600. This is a portrait of one of two cardinals, each head of the Spanish Inquisition.

Did Anyone Actually See David Broder’s Body?

May 4, 2011

[This is a cross post from Balloon Juice, where it prompted quite a discussion and, this morning, this response from mistermix.  I’m going to tag back later in the day, (promises, promises) but for now, here’s where all this started.  (P.S.  Sorry for not getting this up here at the same time as over at BJ, as is my usual custom.  As happenes, work intervened.]

David Broder is dead, or so they say.

I’m telling you he’s undead, and like the Jack the Ripper figure in that Star Trek episode, seems to be infecting the previously sane.

Exhibit A:

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Here’s Josh Marshall, Josh Freaking Marshall, earlier today:

As a more general matter it’s important to recognize that torture could easily have produced the key information. It just seems not to have in this case. You can be doctrinaire in opposing torture without being doctrinaire in assuming that it can’t produce any good intelligence, which would be foolish.

Here’s Senator Feinstein, speaking to the particular, as reported in Josh’s own Talking Points Memo:

“To the best of our knowledge, based on a look, none of it came as a result of harsh interrogation practices,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee in a wide-ranging press conference.

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Moreover, Feinstein added, nothing about the sequence of events that culminated in Sunday’s raid vindicates the Bush-era techniques, nor their use of black sites — secret prisons, operated by the CIA.

“Absolutely not, I do not,” Feinstein said. “I happen to know a good deal about how those interrogations were conducted, and in my view nothing justifies the kind of procedures that were used.”

And as for the general claim, that “torture could easily have produced the key information,” here’s the lede to that very story, written by Brian Beutler:

More and more evidence suggests a key piece of intelligence — the first link in the chain of information that led U.S. intelligence officials to Osama bin Laden — wasn’t tortured out of its source. And, indeed, that torture actually failed to produce it.

If Marshall wants to argue that torture is a valuable tool for intelligence gather, let him make the case.  I don’t actually think he does, of course.  But his bland suggestion that it might be so reeks of both-sides-now-ism.

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Combine that with the hippy-bashing use of the word “doctrinaire” — as in hide-bound, close-minded, and inflexible — to describe the properties of opposition to torture, and you have a bit of even handed applause for the right’s conventional wisdom that Mr. Broder himself would have admired.

Marshall is better than this bit of overly fast punditry…but in some sense that’s the point.  It shows how easy it is to slip into Broderism, into the habits of sloppy thinking, or simple refusal to think, even for people who’ve made a career of bullshit detection.

Eternal vigilance, peeps.

Image:  Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime, 1808


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