Archive for July 2011

And Now, An Update From Reality

July 29, 2011

As we head towards either the completely unforced self-immolation of default, or the almost as self-defeating response of belt tightening amidst a recession, it’s worth taking yet one more swing at the piñata:  does the US have a debt/deficit crisis?

There are lots of ways to say “no.”

Here’s Kthug, debunking yet again the myth of out-of-control federal spending.  DeLong reminds us  (yet again)that the bond market thinks our debt is nothing to write home about.  Karl Smith reminds us that the US is borrowing money at a rate that amounts to a negative real return — which is to say that right now it is cheaper for the US to borrow than to pay cash for what it buys.

Now, via Zachary Karabell writing at Time.com, we learn of a new way to parse the blunt truth:  we have real policy challenges facing us — mostly how to get sufficienthell, any — growth going in the economy that could lead to actually getting our fellow citizens back into paying jobs.  But what we don’t have is an unsustainable debt burden, as revealed by perhaps the most direct metric of all:  how much it costs us as a percentage of GDP to service the supposedly unprecedented, unsustainable flood of red ink in which the United States is (not) drowning:

…what matters about the debt isn’t the dollar amount per se, but how much it costs us to service it. And by that measure, the debt isn’t nearly as big a problem as it’s being made out to be.

Yes, the federal debt has grown by nearly $3 trillion dollars in the past three years. And yes, the dollar amount of that debt is quite large (in excess of $14 trillion and headed toward $15 trillion should the ceiling be raised). But large numbers are not the problem. The U.S. has a large economy (slightly larger than that debt number). And, crucially, we have very low interest rates.

Because of those low rates, the amount the U.S. government pays to service its debt is, relative to the size of the economy, less than it was paying throughout the boom years of the 1980s and 1990s and for most of the last decade. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that net interest on the debt (which is what the government pays to service it) would be $225 billion for fiscal year 2011. The latest figures put that a bit higher, so let’s call it $250 billion. That’s about 1.6% of American output, which is lower than at any point since the 1970s – except for 2003 through 2005, when it was closer to 1.4%.

Under Ronald Reagan, the first George Bush, and Bill Clinton, payments on federal debt often got above 3% of GDP. Under Bush the second, payments were about where they are now. Yet suddenly, we are in a near collective hysteria.

Yup…for a debt burden that in budgetary terms is about half of what Saint Ronnie dealt with, we are now contemplating dismantling the safety net and gutting the investment in education, research and infrastructure that are essential for any future economic security for our country and our kids.

The good news is that this comes from an unequivocally MSM source.  The bad news is that the Village, for the most part, has failed to convey to the American people that what we are seeing is simply the smokescreen the GOP is using to hide its pursuit of policies that it could never sustain in the full light of day.  Too much of our government has fallen into the hands of fools and knaves.  And the press — not enough of it, even now — has left it way too late to confront that fact.

And yes, as Karabell and the others have noted, the Democrats have either gone along with too much of this nonsense, or else mounted ineffective opposition to the folly, avarice and/or pure stupidity of their opponents.  But consider the alternative — and, it seems to me, we gotta work, however resentfully, as hard as it takes to hold what we have and to grab the House back fifteen months from now.  “Not that bad” may be cold comfort…but your modern GOP is terrifyingly worse.

Image:  Jacques de Gheyn (II), Vanitas Still Life, 1603.

Clowns to the Right of Me…

July 26, 2011

This does say it all, doesn’t it:

Exempting war spending — which goes untouched in Boehner’s plan — the legislation would reduce spending by only $5 billion next fiscal year. And its impact on the deficit is even less — a paltry $1 billion.

This provides occasion for yet another penetrating glimpse of the obvious:  the debt ceiling battle is not about the debt.  It’s about the Republican attempt to rob the middle class and the poor to feed the rich.

That the collateral damage will be the long term erosion of America’s capacity to create wealth and wield power is…acceptable, it seems.

Per Doug J and Krugman (and David Kurtz), you do have to ask:  what would it take to get the VSPs on cable to, you know, look at the actual numbers and who’s proposing what?

Meanwhile, back at the headquarters of the Party That Hates America™, Boehner’s claque of merry pranksters are trying to rewrite the bill to grab back a fig-leaf of deficit cutting respectability.

Which is to say, a bunch of economic illiterates are trying to make fiscal and social policy in hours and minutes that would, if enacted, have ramifications for a generation or more.

We are “governed” (sic-ed.) by feral children.  May the FSM envelop them all in cosmic cappellini.*

*String theory, you know.

Image: Paul Cezanne, Pierrot and Harlequin, 1888

Annals of Stupidity Update–More on the GOP Hates Science beat

July 24, 2011

I didn’t get around to  flagging this on the day, but I’ve just arrived in Shanghai, and the China connection in the folly below reminded me I’d meant to write on this one.

I’m here to take part in a workshop for East Asian journalists on covering climate change, and for science journalism instructors to think about how to teach this odd craft.  This is exactly the kind of exchange IMHO, that might be kind of useful in a world in which a range of issues facing the public demand both knowledge and analytical skill manifest across society, if anything like democratic informed consent is ever to be achieved.

Sadly, this is not a priority for your modern GOP.  In fact, it is something that our empiricism-averse friends on the right actively seem to oppose.

That’s the conclusion I draw from this New York Times article, published just a little over a week ago:

A proposal by Rep. Frank Wolf, a fierce critic of Beijing, would slash by 55 percent the $6.6 million budget of the White House’s science policy office. The measure was endorsed by a congressional committee this week, but faces more legislative hurdles, and its prospects are unclear.

IIRC, this blog (others) have been on aspects of the GOP fear of technical cooperation in any form with China.  Wolf in particular has sought to block US-China exchange of information about their space programs, which the GOP has already banned, despite

….one benefit of basic forms of cooperation, such as sharing data and basic design criteria, could be to learn a little more about China’s opaque space program. Since 1999, the U.S. effectively banned use of its space technology by China. That also has a commercial downside for American producers in an increasingly globalized marketplace.

“Renewing civil and commercial space cooperation with China … is not a blank check and need not provide China with sensitive technologies,” wrote James Clay Moltz of the Naval Postgraduate School in testimony at a congressional hearing on China’s civilian and military space programs in May.

Economic and national security costs don’t seem to bother Wolf, who has already succeeded in attaching a ban on NASA-China Space Agency cooperation to a bill that made its way through committee in the House this month, (which is to say, fortunately, it’s still a long way from becoming law).

But that act against US interests is not sufficient to slake Wolf’s thirst for stupid.

Because of what he alleges to be Science Advisor John Holdren’s violation of the earlier rules on US-China contact on space, he now wants to crash the entire enterprise of providing high-level science advice to the President.  Holdren’s “crime”:

Meeting twice with China’s science minister in Washington during May.

Uhhh.  The top US science advisor meets with the relevant minister from, you know, the world’s most populous nation, one which is developing enormously rapidly, and oh, by the way, holds a gazillion or so in US government debt…and that great sin of conversation Wolf says, means that  “The Office of Science and Technology Policy is in violation of the law,”

Wolf’s remedy? Cut either 55% or all of the OSTP’s budget

Oh FSM!

Anyone who thinks that the Republican Party is actually a political institution capable of governing and suitable to be entrusted with a share of power is not paying attention.  They’re a cult.

That is all.

Image: Quentin Massys, An Allegory of Folly, early 16th century.

I do believe I’ve used this one before.  But I just can’t quit it, because there are some motley characters out there who so fit the image.

 

It’s Too Damn Hot — Unprovoked ‘Orrible Pun Dept.

July 19, 2011

Writing about the follies of his lordship, the Third Viscount of Self-Delusion, brought to mind the terrible pun me old mum* used to relish whenever excessive aristocratic pretension loomed.

It runs like this:

Q:  If a centipede a pint…

…And a millipede a quart,

How much has the philanthropist?

A:  Quite a lot, for he’s a very liberal peer.

That’s what I got.  You?

Oh, and BTW:  this is not punishment; it’s an open thread.

*You may infer from the adjective that me mum is also the late Mrs. Levenson. Woe be the miscreant that misdirected the epithet “old” so carelessly…

Image:  Kuniyoshi Utagawa, The Dragon Princess, 1845.

(In this scene, the Dragon Princess rises from the water to bid Hidesato, standing on the shore of lake Biwa with his bow, to rid the lake of the giant centipede Seta.)

 

Who’s Taxing Whom

July 19, 2011

Fair warning: what follows is a bit of a rant and contains nothing particularly new.  But the fiscal follies of our overlords are unhinging me, and as misery loves company, I hope to share my derangement.

———–

I’ve been a little obsessed with light bulbs lately, as regular readers know.  I  continue to be dumbfounded at the depth, passion, and naked-mole-rat-stupidity of the GOP drive to ensure Americans waste money on illumination.  Following a thought from one commenter, I’m bracing for the claim that bans on whaling are really an unconscionable assault on the liberty of the people to light their homes with oil lanterns.

But as I thought about the implications of the Republican House caucus’ relentless drive to undermine America’s energy security, I started to fixate on a penetrating glimpse of the obvious:  the entire GOP approach to the federal government’s fiscal policy is a vast tax hike on most Americans.

That the GOPsters approach to policy will raise the cost of living in America is, I think obvious by this point:  when you privatize public goods, by and large those goods cost more for the individual user to access.  (There is a lot of detail obscured by that blanket statement, and certainly some instances where it might be otherwise, but the health care system (about which more below) is a familiar example of the basic problem, and there are many more.)

Republicans would say, I think, that cost isn’t the issue.  Government shouldn’t pay for much that it does now and that individuals can make better choices about priorities and so on.  They’d add that government musn’t pay for that which it can’t; that, to use a cliche repeated over and over again, that the government must behave like any household would, and not spend money it doesn’t have.

That last is nonsense, of course.  I’m actually working on a next book that tells a grand story of fraud and deceit at the birth of the idea of government debt — and that tale turns on the ways that governments aren’t like households or small businesses.

For now, though, the point is that if you take the Republicans false metaphor at face value, then you see that despite the brave promises of “no new taxes,” the practical, household consequences of their actions add up to a huge stealth tax increase that differentially falls on to working people, the middle class, and the poor.

And yes, as noted above, I know I’m restating the obvious, but bear with me.  Let’s  take my lighting fixation for a spin.  Recall that the energy efficiency standards that so offend the current Republican caucus* are predicted to save each American household $50 a year.

Now back to that bill-paying session over the kitchen table Republicans are so wont to imagine.  Maybe liberty is beyond price.  Whatever it’s called though, this extra hit of four or five bucks a month would feel exactly the same as if the GOP had voted a $50/home surcharge on each of us to subsidize light bulb makers or power generators:   We wouldn’t have that money no more, and it’s by GOP choice that this increase in our burdens would such cash out of our pockets.

A latte a month may in fact be a worthy price to keep the dead hand of statism from our necks.  But what about cost of aging?  Remember the Paul Ryan plan that virtually the entire GOP congressional caucus has endorsed.  That scheme switches the cost of medical care for the elderly to those old, ill people and their families.  Now we’re not talking cups of coffee any more, mere Franklins a year; rather, we’re in the realm of beaucoup  Benjamins.

Again this is surely familiar to all here, but just as a reminder, the gap between the vouchers Ryan’s plan provides and the projected actual cost of senior’s health care is about $12,500,  according to a CBO analysis, $6,000 more than the out-of-pocket charges to be borne were Medicare left unchanged.

And is there any choice here, really, for any household that loves its grandparents (or just folks of an age that in my case is coming up rather sooner than seems plausible)?

No there is not.  We could enact the old Jewish mother light bulb joke,** but our only real options were the GOPsters to achieve their long-cherished goal of killing Medicare is to pay the freight or die faster.

Death and taxes — there’s a reason the two are such close kin, after all.

Old news, get over it — I get it.

But the point I want to make, the meme, to use a word I mistrust, or a shove to the Overton window, is that all this talk of the holding the line against taxes and so on is bullsh*t when we’re working at the level of that holy kitchen table.  There, the only thing that matters at the level of individual Americans’ bank accounts is that GOP policies raise the cost of being an American in ways that are indistinguishable from brutal, huge tax increases.

If politics is perception then it’s important to do what the Bush clan was brilliant at — take your opponents’ seeming strength and hang an anvil around its neck.  And here, as we see every day (and many posts here remind us), the GOPsters using the power of government to impose huge new costs on us all that we have in practical terms no way to avoid.  The resulting drain of our dollars is not a tax in law, of course, but the resulting holes in my wallet feel exactly the same as if it were.  And, of course, the bitter last jest is that under the Republican approach, we pay more to get less.

So I’d like to see every Democrat running, and the chattering classes as well, all raging about the GOP stealth tax on the American way of life.  I’d like to see the ads that make that connection with couples in their kitchens talking about this GOP tax assault, how cleverly it’s been disguised, how hard it bites.  I’d like to see sneering and rage and bitter remorse at the thought that any all-American family of voters was taken in by all that no-tax deceit.  I want to make it impossible for any GOP thug to hide behind Grover’s tissue of a pledge when next the polls open.

No new taxes?  Hell and death (and taxes)!  No GOPster should be allowed to say that unchallenged.

*Recall also that the standards were approved with bipartisan support in 2007 (including sponsorship by GOPster Fred Upton, currently  chairman of the  House Energy and Commerce Committee, who now fights the good fight against light bulb efficiency), and signed into law by that notorious state-socialist, George W. Bush.

**Q:  How many Jewish mothers does it take to change a light bulb?

A:  “None!  I’ll just sit here in the dark.”

Images:  Vincent van Gogh, The Potato Eaters, 1885

Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of an Old Jew, 1654

 

Send in the Clowns: Upper Class Twit Edition

July 19, 2011

I cannot tell you with what malicious glee I read this in the Guardian.

That House has taken the unprecedented step of publishing a “cease and desist” letter on its website demanding that Lord Christopher Monckton, a prominent climate sceptic and the UK Independence party’s head of research, should stop claiming to be a member of the upper house.

The letter, sent by David Beamish, clerk of the parliaments, to Monckton last Friday and now published on the Lords’ website, states: “You are not and have never been a member of the House of Lords. Your assertion that you are a member, but without the right to sit or vote, is a contradiction in terms.”

His Lordship, for those of you not up on one of the sillier turns of the very serious business of climate denialism, is a former hack (in the British sense) who worked in Maggie Thatcher’s policy shop.

That experience, like his education fully prepared him for the job of analyzing the various technical disciplines that go into making climate change predictions.  Monckton possesses an MA in Classics from Cambridge (less impressive than it sounds: Cambridge awards MA’s to any BA who survives the completion of their undergraduate studies for for six years after matriculation), which accompanies his diploma in journalism studies from University College, Cardiff.

Undeterred by any possible lack of knowledge or technical training, Monckton has been one of the stars of the denialist circuit, and no wonder.  He’s a snappy dresser, he talks funny — in a good, Peter Wimsey kind of way, and, by gum, he’s a lord.

Of course, no one loves a lord more than the common folk who inhabit the (former) colonies…

…which is why he was the perfect figure for the Republicans on the Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support of the House Committee on Ways and Means to invite as their sole witness  to a hearing in 2009, during which he was slated to “debunk” the threat of anthropogenic climate change.

Of course, hilarity ensued.  Now Monckton has a famously thin skin — when you question his questionable “science” he threatens to sue.  And if you doubt his qualifications, why, he’s a member of the House of Lords.  A Peer. One born to rule.  Hemce  this exchange:

When asked by ABC Sydney’s Adam Spencer if he was a member, he said: “Yes, but without the right to sit or vote … [The Lords] have not yet repealed by act of parliament the letters patent creating the peerage and until they do I am a member of the house, as my passport records. It says I am the Right Honourable Viscount Monckton of Brenchley. So get used to it.”

Or not.  As the letter Mr. Beamish sent to the Second Viscount of Cloud-Cuckoo Land went on to say:

“I must therefore again ask that you desist from claiming to be a member of the House of Lords, either directly or by implication, and also that you desist from claiming to be a member ‘without the right to sit or vote’. I am publishing this letter on the parliamentary website so that anybody who wishes to check whether you are a member of the House of Lords can view this official confirmation that you are not.”

Monckton at this point can fairly be viewed as pathetic.  It’s reached the point where Monckton’s use of a thinly modified version of the emblem of the House of Lords is being examined to see if it is a breach of Britain’s trade mark protections — for which offense penalties can extend to six months in jail.

No sympathy here, or rather bucket-loads of vicious pleasure.  This, after all, is someone whose contempt for the hard work of actually mastering a complex technical field has lead him to advance positions that display reckless disregard for the health and wealth of billions.

Not to mention he’s the kind of asshole who would juxtapose the image of a climate scientist with whom he disagrees with that of a swastika.

So raise a glass to jeer at yet one more poster-child for the ills of a heriditary aristocracy.

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Image:  Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of Thomas Bruce Brudenell-Bruce, later 1st Earl of Ailesbury, in Peer’s Robes, 1776

Yes, They Really Are That Dumb

July 15, 2011

So, despite the withering sprays of snark dispensed by both John Cole and myself, the GOPers in the House went off and advanced their defense of crab-bucket environmental destruction.

Yup, the liberty train rolled into town today in the form of a voice vote in the House to block funding for the enforcement of the formerly bipartisan, Bush-signed, light bulb efficiency standards passed in 2007.

Money quote:

Representative Michael Burgess, Republican of Texas, offered the measure as an amendment to a 2012 energy and water spending bill.

….

“The federal government has no right to tell me or any other citizen what type of light bulb to use at home,” Mr. Burgess said Friday on the House floor. “Consumers want the 100-watt light bulb, and some consumers need the 100-watt light bulb.”

I’ll get back to the GOP in a moment, but to digress, I could wish for just a bit more meticulousness from the Newspaper of Record.

In his report today, reporter Sean Collins Walsh writes

Although the regulations do not specify what types of bulbs are allowed, the standards would have the effect of eliminating the traditional 100-watt incandescent bulb by Jan. 1, 2012.

But just three days ago, Walsh wrote this:

When Congress acted in 2007, many people assumed the incandescent bulb was on its way out. But electric companies have since invested in new technologies that increase bulb efficiency.

Adding that:

Many industry groups, including the National Electrical Manufacturers Association and General Electric, have come out in opposition to the repeal.

Walsh notes in the earlier piece that Republicans contend that despite any technological advances the law in effect bans incandenscent bulbs — but in today’s dispatch he simply states that as a fact.

So, (a) really?  Actual data, or reporting from the companies involved would help….

…. leads to (b): What happened to all that R & Danyway — did it evaporate between Tuesday and now?…which takes us to the final question:

(c) Iz anyone still copy-editing over there at the Great Grey Lady (formerly of) 43rd St.?

But all this is secondary to the core stupidity.  Once again, the Republicans would rather weaken our energy security, and hence our national security, with all that that implies for our men and women in harm’s way, rather than screw in a (new) lightbulb.

To heck with it, I say. Let’s get rid of constraints on choice in wiring.  Who needs circuit breakers — or sheathing for that matter!  Give me my cloth wrapped wires, and all those knobs and tubes dammit,and what’s more, bare wire tips and alligator clips make the whole damn thing so much more flexible.  Right.  Right?

We are governed  by feral children.

Image:  Géza Faragó, Poster for Tungsram Light Bulbs, 1910


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