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April 2, 2011

pastor terry jones

This may be a hubbub exclusive to my Twitter feed, but it mystified me.  Yesterday there were enormous protests in Afghanistan over the Koran-burning of Pastor Terry Jones of Florida.  In the course of the protests, a UN building was swarmed and a bunch of UN workers were murdered.

This naturally led to a wide condemnation of Jones.  But oddly, it also led to some strange defenses of Jones, in flavors like, "It was murderous zealots that killed the workers, not Jones," and, "If a pro-choice protest resulting in Afghani riots, would you blame the protesters?"  It was a thing that made me say huh.  (No links in the interest of civility.)

For one, I think we're complex enough people that we don't have to choose only one bad actor in this.  That is to say, the evil of the murders does not absolve the fecklessness of Jones.  So evidence of the extremism of the protesters does not make Jones any less of an asshole.

Also, implying some equivalency between Koran-burning and other protests takes this into a free speech issue, which it is not.  When I say that Jones is an asshole, I am not saying that his free speech rights should be rescinded.  Freedom of speech does not mean freedom of consequences.  Considering that riots had already happened six months ago when Jones was only threatening to burn the Koran, I'd say that the prospect of further riots was a reasonably foreseeable outcome, a predictable outcome.  And to hide from responsibility by invoking freedom of speech is just cowardice.  Maybe the protesters were looking for a reason to erupt, but that is not an excuse to give them one.  Jones has those lives on his head.

Ultimately, it just seems like a strange fight to pick.  Is it an orthodox libertarianism issue?  Is it a manifestation of Islamophobia?  It just seems like an argument for which there is no need.

Posted by mrbrent at 1:30 PM

the banks! stridency!

This is a curious assertion from Kevin Drum, buried in a strong post about the insane things that JPMorganChase CEO Jamie Dimon says, and the tension between the public and private perceptions of Wall Street in general.  Drum is concerned that there is not enough public antipathy against The Banks:
...the fact is that the public was never really all that angry at the financial industry in the first place. Tea party anger toward TARP has been mainly directed at the government, not at the financial industry. And the occasional protest against AIG bonuses aside, there's simply never been any real, concerted attack on the financial industry from either left or right. On a scale of 1 to 10, with the healthcare fight rating a 9, I'd say that anger toward banks rates about a 3. That's why Congress has been able to get away with doing so little about it.

My first instinct was (and I've been thinking about this for a day) that Drum was just wrong, and that there is plenty of leeriness out there directed at The Banks, and the problem is just how to harness it.

But now that I've reread Drum's post, I've changed my mind.  Drum is right, exactly right, and I was mistaking my own personal leeriness (and Drum's) as an actual trend.  I think that I was operating on the assumption that the "Narrative" that is communicated by the media in general is at worst unconnected to reality and at best a month or two behind the actual narrative, and that even though there is no anger at The Banks in our national conversation, it is out there.  I think I'm wrong on that — not about the untethered nature of the "Narrative" but about the presence of actual anger.  For people like me and Drum to be all up in arms does not translate into anything meaningful.

Which is why people like me and Drum and you need to talk more forcefully on this issue.  The Banks predate on us, on a consumer level, on our mortgages, on our retirements.  They have serially found formerly inviolate pools of capital (first personal savings, then state and union pension funds, then commodities, soon Social Security) and extracted value from them, which trillions of dollars they keep for themselves.  Regulation is just the beginning of what should happen to The Banks, and it will not happen without a popular outcry.  Because, sadly, our pooled resources cannot buy as many votes as The Banks.

Posted by mrbrent at 12:51 PM

scientific american is punchy

This right here was the best April Fool's Day gag of 2011, Scientific American admitting that they have been unfairly promulgating science:
Good journalism values balance above all else. We owe it to our readers to present everybody's ideas equally and not to ignore or discredit theories simply because they lack scientifically credible arguments or facts. Nor should we succumb to the easy mistake of thinking that scientists understand their fields better than, say, U.S. senators or best-selling novelists do. Indeed, if politicians or special-interest groups say things that seem untrue or misleading, our duty as journalists is to quote them without comment or contradiction. To do otherwise would be elitist and therefore wrong. In that spirit, we will end the practice of expressing our own views in this space: an editorial page is no place for opinions.

Feisty!  And hopefully just the first salvo in a concerted pushback on behalf of science, who admittedly have been having their lunches eaten by not just the creationists but the global warming doubters and the culture warriors that travel with them.  It's scary to think that science has somehow become politicized, because science is truly just an innocent bystander.

And science is not always right, of course, but on the other hand, science acknowledges the not-being-right as part of the process of scientific inquiry.  Science is happy to correct themselves, if they are wrong.  And if they are not, then no amount of quibbling, ad hominem or insinuation actually makes them wrong.  It might intimidate them, but hopefully, now, that will be a less effective tactic.

(Also, the Hulu gag was pretty funny too.)

Posted by mrbrent at 11:10 AM

April 1, 2011

good morning? 4.1.11

My GOD what a depressing morning newsread.  Off the top of my head, in the A section of the NYT, I read:

•  A story about how Ohio's union-busting law is better at union-busting than Michigan's.

•  A story about how if you're unemployed in Flagler County, Florida, you sell your nine mm not only because you need the cash but you're afraid that you might use it on yourself.

•  A story about how a state senator in Missouri filibustered the state's acceptance of federal funds to extend unemployment benefits on the grounds that, "We're broke," so the broke unemployed people of Missouri will not be receiving checks next week.

•  A story about how a bunch of "Tea Party" politicians spoke before a small soggy rally for cutting the federal budget to the bone, which is somehow patriotic and worth shutting down the government over.

•  And a Krugman column on how the currently popular policies of fiscal austerity will not help anything but hurt more, as evidenced by the UK.  (This is a tough one for Krugman to write, as he writes something like it at least once every two weeks).

I know that links would be customary, but that's just way too much despair.  If you have an excess of cheer that you need to leaven, click over to the NYT, or any actual (i.e., non-cobra) news out there.

When did we become terrible?

Posted by mrbrent at 9:25 AM

March 31, 2011

compassion receivership

This is just a simple lonely paragraph from a NYT story on the slow negotiations between state Attorneys General and mortgage providers:
If the negotiations are being conducted behind the scenes, the banks and their supporters are openly waging a battle for popular sentiment. The banks are presenting themselves as champions of those homeowners who might be hostile to the idea of someone in default getting an undeserved break.

The negotiations are happening, as you know, because The Banks did a terrible job in pursuing foreclosures — arguably terrible things like refusing to negotiate with underwater owners and overtly criminal things like repeatedly forging signatures on foreclosure legal filings — and the individual states are pursuing a collective settlement as opposed to a criminal investigation.  Why?  I don't know.  I guess because they're The Banks and therefore unimpeachable?

But the reason that I wanted to share that paragraph is because it contains one of the saddest truths on the loose out there: Americans are now of such sterling character that they can be motivated by the "undeserved breaks" of others.  The "lobbying effort" is working.  In fact, it's the same sentiment that launched the Tea Party movement, when Rick Santelli rallied a mob of Chicago futures traders over the idea that someone that's not them might get a break.

It's moral smallness, and even on the best of days it feels endemic.  Also, it's despicable.  There's a deep reasonable argument (for another time) about why helping people, i.e., charity, is a good thing for everyone, but there's also one short eloquent one: since when is "asshole" something that people aspire to be?

Posted by mrbrent at 10:00 AM

March 30, 2011

paul b. farrell is leery of a super rich future

This is a strange thing to read on a WSJ website: a column titled "Tax The Super Rich".  It is not the sort of thing that you expect to see associated with the WSJ
Check the stats folks: The last time America’s wealth gap between the Super Rich and the other 99% was this big was just before the 1929 Crash and the Great Depression.

You can’t remember? Or you won’t? America is trapped in “terminal denial,” a setup for failure. Too many still live in the false hope of this Super-Rich Delusion. Do you believe government stats hyping a recovery? Believe Wall Street’s nonsense about a new bull market ahead? Believe Exxon-Mobile’s misleading ads about energy stocks. Believe Bill Gross’ when he says dump Treasurys, and buy his emerging country bonds? Dream on.

And that is from one of the calmer sections of the column, which comes with explicit warnings of a third market meltdown of the 21st Century and resulting Very Big Depression.  It may be more alarmist than I am accustomed to.

But his larger point, that we are being pushed to this point by the "Super Rich" sucking equity out of everything useful and keeping it for themselves while our parents are forced to greet shoppers at Walmarts is one that I'm pretty much convinced of.  So, yes, worth a read!  (And there's stock tickers in the header, so you can check on your portfolio!)

Posted by mrbrent at 4:19 PM

kashkari on tarp

I may well be the only person to raise an eyebrow to this, but if you click over to the Op-Ed section of the New York Times, you will see a tiny amount of news being made.  Neel Kaskari, who was the "special inspector general" of the Troubled Assets Relief Program, contributes an essay entitled "Where The Bailout Went Wrong".  As SIG, he had oversight but no control over the bailout efforts, a sheriff with a badge but no gun.  And in his opinion, well, I guess you get that from the title.  But in which way?
Though there is no question that the country benefited by avoiding a meltdown of the financial system, this cannot be the only yardstick by which TARP’s legacy is measured. The legislation that created TARP, the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act, had far broader goals, including protecting home values and preserving homeownership.

These Main Street-oriented goals were not, as the Treasury Department is now suggesting, mere window dressing that needed only to be taken “into account.” Rather, they were a central part of the compromise with reluctant members of Congress to cast a vote that in many cases proved to be political suicide.

And, as Kashkari alleges with what one would hope is the knowledge of the insider, TARP has done damn diddly for anyone but the financial system — it did not help out underwater homeowners, it did not loosen lending.  All it did in fact was save then bolster the financial services industry that is the author of this entire misfortune.

Let's also note, for curiosity's sake, that Mr Kashkari is a former whiz kid of Goldman Sachs, which would mean that his pro-Main Street Op-Ed will not be winning him many dinner party invitations.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the NYT also has a compelling many-thousand-word feature on how foreclosure aid enacted by the Obama administration (unrelated to TARP) just never made it out of the gate, and is now being chased after by the House GOP with a hatchet.

Posted by mrbrent at 9:37 AM

March 29, 2011

the cia regrets to inform you...

Buried in a Threat Level story of how the executive branch of Australia got pwned is this even more alarming fact:
Several thousand e-mails were accessed by the intruders beginning in February before Australian authorities were tipped off to the breach by U.S. intelligence officials at the CIA and FBI, according to the Daily Telegraph.

It is one thing to have hackers spear-phish high-level politicos and then root around in some email servers.  It is another thing to have the CIA tell you that someone is rooting around in your email servers.  Because how would the CIA know?

Also duly noted: alleged perps are the Chinese.  So then the narrative is that the Chinese are being naughty with head-of-state computer systems, which naughtiness is in turn being monitored by the CIA, who we would assume are white hats in this situation?

Is as good as a novel.

Posted by mrbrent at 4:45 PM

'job provider'

Here's a Chamber of Commerce neologism that is making the rounds — referring to industry, or employers in general, as "job-providers".  I'm first noticing it in the story how the Michigan GOP slipped in a cut in state unemployment benefits in a bill intended to address joblessness.

The odiousness of the Michigan GOP aside, contextualizing the assorted industries that give us all our paychecks as "job providers" is not entirely inaccurate.  After all, they technically provide jobs.  But the insinuation that We're All Together In This! is incorrect.  They may be providing us jobs — which is great, everyone wants a job — but they are also employing us.  The jobs are not gifts.  They are exchanges, labor for cash, productivity for security.

So to shroud the slow assault against organized labor and any kind of legal employment protection in general as "good for job-providers" is just carved from pure Orwell.  Do you know what would be really good for job providers?  If everyone would work for a dollar a day.

So if you encounter "job provider" in the course of your day, please step on its neck before it spawns.

Posted by mrbrent at 10:16 AM

March 28, 2011

laurie penny: trafalgar

Laurie Penny in the New Statesman on Great Britain's New Austerity:
It starts when a handful of police officers moved through the quiet crowd, past circles of young people sharing snacks, smoking, playing guitars and chatting. They move in to grab the young man, but his friends scrambled to prevent the arrest being made, dragging him away from the police by his legs. Batons are drawn; a scuffle breaks out, and that scuffle becomes a fight, and then suddenly hundreds of armoured riot police are swarming in, seemingly from nowhere, sweeping up the steps of the National Gallery, beating back protesters as they go.

Well, OK, actually she's writing about Saturday in London, which saw a massive protest against the cuts to services implemented by David Cameron's government in the interest of "fiscal responsibility", which is not only enraging a generation of British not yet born when Margaret Thatcher lived at 10 Downing, but also dragging the UK economy into a dismal dark place.

Penny's column is an eyewitness account of the entire day, which saw successful non-violent protest by UK UnCut, and some skirmishes between skittish cops prodded by bands of roving bust-shit-up kids.

It is a bigger story than the amount of coverage you're seeing about it, and it certainly won't be the last street action in London.

Posted by mrbrent at 8:31 PM

March 27, 2011

scholar as citizen

This story has been splashed all over the usual suspects, but it's a story that you should be familiar with if you care about what exactly is at stake in the state of Wisconsin.

And this is not exactly about the legislative machinations of Gov. Walker and the state Republican Party (which is scary enough, but rather the lengths to which the GOP will go to push this conflict forward.

A professor at a Wisconsin state university, William Cronon, published an op-ed in the NYT comparing (rightly so) Gov. Walker to Wisconsin politician Joe McCarthy.  It got some play.  Stung, the GOP requested Prof. Cronon's email correspondence.  You see, Wisconsin has an open-records law, meaning that the correspondence of any state employee is available to state citizens by request.  The GOP alleges that the spirit of this open-records law is to intimidate speech that makes the GOP look bad.  That is an unsupportable position.

But, like I said, the story is not a quiet one, and it is gaining attention.  But the best place to keep up with it is Prof. Cronon's own recently-started site.  He is a smart guy who writes like he's never had a blog before — that is to say, extremely well-reasoned and cogent, and long.

Suffice it to say, open-records requests on a public-school professor for a damning editorial are nothing but attempts at intimidation, clothed in the language of progressives.  In other words, reprehensible.  In other words, par for the course.

Posted by mrbrent at 2:27 PM

shop rite

Ever since we moved into the neighborhood known as "Ditmas Park" back in 2007, I'd heard whispers from the neighbors about a Shop Rite supermarket, lurking over near Borough Park.  "Well then," I'd think, "all that fuss over a supermarket."  No stranger to supermarkets, I'm the designated shopper for the family unit, and had all the various supermarkets pegged for what they were good for — where the vegetables were good, who had the most extensive selection of dry goods, which place carried the brand of cat food our cat likes, etc.  I actually spend a lot of time in supermarkets, all kinds of different ones, arrayed between here and the neighborhood in which I work.

So yesterday I was out running errands, and found myself under the elevated F tracks — near this Shop Rite I'd heard so much about.  I located it and hopped in.  The outside of it looks basically like an armory, with a monolithic facade, a simple sign, "parking in the rear".

But the inside of that place, it's some kind of nirvana.  It's enormous.  It's larger than some of the suburban superstores we sneak to when we're out of town.  More aisles than I could count, each about a quarter mile long, thirty or forty check-outs.  A little shabby, sure, but now if Dortios rolls out an exciting new family of flavors, I will now exactly where to find them.  I was slobberknocked.  It's a total game-changer and it just elevated the imagined fair-market value of my apartment.

Checking out, the cashier (who was a nice guy!) was all like, "You think this is big?  You should check the BJs out in Sheepshead Bay."  Sorry but no, nice checkout dude: this place is a half-mile from my apartment.  This place is mine.

Saturday made.

OK, I'm done now.  Back to being outraged about something.

Posted by mrbrent at 11:12 AM