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March 8, 2013

david brooks: for dietary laws

It's weird to talk about this, considering that I live on the edges of a neighborhood that has one of the highest concentrations of Orthodox Jews in the United States, but I did not know what a Jew was until I was eight years old.  This was not by design, and it was definitely the product of any kind of malice.

I was born in West Virginia, which was a pretty homogeneous place at the time.  So in my kindergarten class of about forty kids, there like thirty-seven little white kids and three little black kids, and we were uniformly, unavoidably, Protestant Christian.  Like, we talked about Jesus.  All the time.  In class.  And both sides of my family go back centuries without leaving the Ohio Valley and/or the mountains, so there wasn't a lot of diversity in the aunts and uncles either. 

It was when we moved to Pittsburgh that I was finally confronted with Judaism.  Mom invited a woman she knew from the faculty to bring her sons over to trim the Christmas tree.  Why?  Because they were Jewish and thus HAD NO CHRISTMAS.  This of course led to my interrogation of the kids concerning their beliefs, rituals, etc.  "God makes you wear a beanie?  And he won't let you eat bacon?"  That level of discourse.

But there I was, eight years old, finally knowing that there were Jews.

I only bring this up because, apparently, it took David Brooks a lot longer than it took me.

Posted by mrbrent at 10:06 AM

March 7, 2013

mr potter goes to washington

I'm sure we all enjoyed Senator Rand Paul's filibuster yesterday.  I'm not sure anyone out there understood why he was filibustering, but it sure made for some good television.  And Twitter too, as every writer on the national security beat at some point during the day got to Tweet, "Hey, Paul Rand just said my name."  But he actually stood there and talked, so a nation stared at him like he was a rotary phone.

(FWIW the reason for the filibuster was that Sen. Paul was holding his breath until AG Holder would answer the question whether drone strikes against American citizens on American soil was constitutional.  Which is a ridiculous question on the face of it, but underneath it all a pretty discrete legal question that shouldn't be reduced to an ANSWER ME!  But Rand got to read from a phonebook, so whee.)

The filibuster yesterday that did not get so much attention was the normal kind, i.e. the kind where the senators don't have to do anything but vote, was the one in which Senate Republicans again blocked the nomination of Caitlin J. Halligan to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.  That specific Court of Appeals is pretty important, as it hears matters pertinent to the federal government, the Constitution, those sorts of things.  The D.C. Circuit currently has four vacancies.

And the judicial activism that Halligan is guilty of?  When she was Solicitor for the State of New York, she argued (and lost) a case to hold gun manufacturers liable for damage caused by guns.  She did that not because it was her idea, but because she was employed as Solicitor by the State of New York and she was doing her fucking job.

Let me repeat that there's no footage of Rand Paul wagging his finger on the Senate floor over this one.

Posted by mrbrent at 9:42 AM

March 6, 2013

the two hugo chavezes

Here's why I've always been fascinated by Hugo Chavez.  And this is not to talk smack, no.  Nor to venerate him, either, really.  I've never been south of Naples, Florida, and it's just bad luck to speak ill of the dead.

Chavez was two people.  On the one hand, and this is the version popular in DC and America in general, he was a dictator, a strongman, corrupt and evil.  He was a one-man state, wrote laws capriciously, corrupt as sin.  He harassed the good and successful people of Venezuela into leaving, seized their wealth, and killed cute little puppies just for fun.  And on top of that, he befriended dudes in the Evil Hall of Fame, like Ahmadinejad and Gaddafi purely out of the pure attraction of evil.

Then you have the other version of Chavez, as the scourge of neoliberalism.  Before Chavez Venezuela was an actual banana republic laboratory-created by the University of Chicago School of Economics — state resources being auctioned off to foreign interests wholesale, wage and price protections thrown out the window, etc, institutionalized poverty, etc.  In comes Chavez, nationalizing the gas companies, keeping the gas profits in the country and going a long way to eradicate poverty.  And all along thumbing his nose at the Yankee Imperialists who care nothing for the people of Venezuela, only about the petrodollars that they can swindle from them.

You know, I had an America public school education, so that first version is pretty ingrained.  But then again I've read my Howard Zinn and (specifically relevant) Naomi Klein, so the older jaded pinko in me favors the second.

The trick of it is that he was both and neither.  The good acts that could be ascribed to him by socialists are the very crimes that he is accused of by free-marketeers.  He resdistributed wealth (again, virtue/crime), but he also redistributed big chunks of that wealth into his own pocket.

Basically, he was not a very good hero, and not entirely perfect at being the Bad Guy either.  It's a case study in why isms get squishy in practice.

Posted by mrbrent at 9:28 AM

March 5, 2013

securities, second time as farce

A story ran in the Wall Street Journal yesterday, lodged sadly behind the paywall, but cited by Hamilton Nolan for Gawker:
Just when the stock market recovers and public optimism returns and you start to lose faith in the power of American capitalism to constantly repeat its past mistakes in the form of foreseeable boom-and-bust cycles that always end in massive losses, the system steps up to reinforce your belief in humanity's fundamental unwillingness to learn from past mistakes, ever. Hello, looming student loan meltdown!

Nolan point out that, in an eerie coincidence, student loan debt is being securitized and sold off in exotic financial instruments.  That coincidence, of course, is with the mortgage derivatives that went belly-up, nearly bringing the entire economy with it, indirectly causing the Great Recession.

Here's a bit of the WSJ story, as excerpted by Nolan.

SLM Corp., the largest U.S. student lender, last week sold $1.1 billion of securities backed by private student loans. Demand for the riskiest bunch—those that will lose money first if the loans go bad—was 15 times greater than the supply, people familiar with the deal said.

The source of the demand is the thirst for returns, as we are in a period of historically low insurance rates.  Investors want to be able to get more than a point or two off of whatever amount they're investing, so if these student loan securities pay out, then demand swarms risk.  Just like with mortgage securities.

After all, what's the worst that can happen?  (And as if students holding this debt weren't imperiled enough.)

Posted by mrbrent at 10:13 AM

March 4, 2013

mitt romney and bribery

I only caught the Fox News interview with Mitt Romney glancingly (a portion of it on the radio while doin' the dishes).  You know, I caught the part where Ann Romney claims that she's sad for herself, of course, but sadder for America, and I laughed out loud and turned the station.  Because that pity-party/feigned patriotism is the kind of shit that turns you from an irrelevancy to a radioactive irrelevancy but quick.

But now I come to find out that Romney (Mitt) revived the complaint that Obama won because his social safety net policies bought votes:

Romney brought up health care reform a second time during the interview, his first since losing the election, saying it's appeal to minority and low-income Americans was another reason Obama won.

"I think the 'Obamacare' attractiveness and feature was something we underestimated, particularly among lower incomes," Romney said.

This can only mean that, inside the mind of Mitt Romney, his tax-lowering, business-friendly policies were an attempt to buy the votes of the business class, and that elections are nothing but inducing a majority to vote by offering a quo to their quid in the form of friendly legislation.

I hope to God this is not an accurate description of Romney's belief system (and the actual system, fer Chrissakes), but then the next place it takes us is whether Romney thinks he lost because his bribes were too small, or that he tried to bribe the wrong people.

But whatever.  That dude's a monster, and thank all the gods he's not president.

Posted by mrbrent at 10:19 AM