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October 26, 2013

maria bustillos, russell brand, oh my

I like everyone else posted up a link to Russell Brand being interviewed by Jeremy Paxman on British television, the one in which Brand is calling for revolution!, and the response from my friends was pretty universal: I totally loved it, except for the Don't Vote part.

And to take that a step further, my pal Maria Bustillos wrote a couple of hundred words for The Awl taking the position that the thoughts of Brand are not so admirable after all:

Brand is very far from being the first person ever to become utterly exasperated with the horrible condition of Western Civ.—so much so that he's ready go all "we don't need no water, let the motherfucker burn." Moving and sincere as he is in the Paxman interview, it is a little boggling, the way he appears almost to believe he's the bringer of some kind of revelation. In any case, this Burn It Down mentality has never worked, not ever, to secure a fair and just society. And it's been tried!

I absolutely agree.  Where I would differ with Maria is that I think she is (and Paxman was as well) taking Brand too literally.  I mean, there is the bit where Paxman asks what the post-revolution utopia would look like, and Brand responds that perhaps a quick interview in a posh hotel room is not the place to so devise one.  There's a certain ambiguity in what Brand is saying: on the one hand, he is calling for an actual (Velvet) revolution, and on the other hand, he's just pointing out the problem, which he voices quite nicely:

Paxman: I'm not having a go at you because you want a revolution, many people want a revolution, but I'm asking you what it would be like."

Brand: Well I think what it won't be like is a huge disparity between rich and poor where 300 Americans have the same amount of wealth as the 85 million poorest Americans, where there is an exploited and underserved underclass that are being continually ignored, where welfare is slashed while Cameron and Osbourne go to court to defend the rights of bankers to continue receiving their bonuses. That's all I'm saying.

I think that if you strictly hold Brand to his call for revolution, then Maria is right: its a well-intended but ultimately harmful bit of rabble-rousing.  Me, I think that the totality of what Brand said actually has some value, and that this is not a case where you have to pick sides, pro-Russell or anti-Russell.  Calling for an open revolution can be problematic, though, to be fair, Brand does qualify that: "I'm calling for change. I'm calling for genuine alternatives."  But to have a well-spoken celebrity type verbalize the systemic problems facing humanity at this point (an intractable ruling overclass, heedlessly destroying the environment, bent only on protecting their own interests) is a good thing.  It is useful to have someone screaming about it, and people reposting it all over Facebook, etc.  Well, I guess it's a good thing if you can get past the Revolution/Don't Vote parts.

Speaking of which, I am not ready to weigh in on one side or the other of the necessity of voting issue.  Up until recently I was definitely an Always Vote type, and the examples of the utility of voting are quite valid.  But I'm starting to wonder.  I guess I'd like to hear more arguments from the Don't Vote side.

Ultimately, I'd nightcap the Brand interview with this bit of opinion from very prominent capitalist John Carney:

Capitalism has been the most successful program of the modern era. It has improved the lives of millions. If [Tyler] Cowen is right and it's next phase is widespread lowering of the standards of living for most Americans, its days are numbered.

I think that's an aspect of what Brand is trying to get at, and that it's not just an American problem.

Definitely read Maria's piece though, as she is a lot more focused on How To Get There than Brand is.

Posted by mrbrent at 11:01 AM

October 25, 2013

kochs caught circumventing election law

Good Lord the National section of the paper was full of news that I could not just skim.  But as I don't get to spend all day writing about these things, let's pick one, in which the Attorney General of California obtains a settlement from Koch brothers-related political groups for skirting state disclosure rules.

Ooh, that sounds dry, doesn't it?  It is!  Even looking at the chart that the NYT helpfully put together you start to doze off a little.  It's all very complicated and difficult to encapsulate accurately, but what happened is that certain political entities are subject to disclosure of donors in the State of California, and others aren't, so the network of conservative groups (including Koch brothers funded entities) got caught trying to move money back and forth so as to work around the disclosure issue.

Who cares?  You do, and here's why: money is going to be in politics for the foreseeable future (in fact, yet another contribution-limit law was turned over just yesterday).  Even if Citizens United were to be somehow overturned, that's gonna be a decade down the road.  We're stuck with rich people buying elections.  But!  One aspect of this that we can chip away at is the issue of anonymity.  If there's going to be no limit on political spending, then it is in the public interest to know exactly where that money is coming from, and currently there are certain IRS tax classifications that do not mandate disclosure.

It's a tepid little settlement, and a million dollar fine to people like that is not even enough to muster the energy to laugh at.  But at least the attempt to circumvent is now a matter of public record, a crack in the wall: big money interests are actively trying to abrogate disclosure of their spending.  Let's strengthen disclosure rules.

Posted by mrbrent at 9:47 AM

October 24, 2013

one hundred contractors and darryl issa walk into a bar

It's that time when I confirm that "interminable" means what I think it does, as Rep. Darryl Issa's House Committee for Oversight and Government Reform has scheduled this week to drag anyone and everyone to answer to the failures of the Affordable Care Act website, HealthCare.gov.

A point that I think is being missed, and take this is a back-of-the-napkin note, is that the difficulties of the rollout of the website and the software behind it is indicative in the efficiency of government, but in a roundabout way — namely, that the government didn't do this.  The government contracted a whole bunch of private companies to do this.  This may seem like the logical way to do things now, as who could expect the government to learn something hard, like code? but it's not the way that the government has attacked things like this historically.

I have not reported this out (tho, hmmm), but the idea that the federal government would pay someone else to do something that the government could do itself is relatively recent (past forty years?), and has nothing at all to do with efficiency.  Oh, efficiency is the banner waved to rah-rah this practice, but all it is about is taking federal budgets and applying them to parties that have an actual profit motive.

In the case of the ACA rollout, which cost a little shy of $400 million, imagine two scenarios.  In the first, what actually happened, take that money and hire a hundred contractors.  Now, each contractor has to make a profit, and let's just throw a dart and say that the profit margin is 20%.  And these contractors also hire subcontractors, similarly with the 20% vig, and sometimes even sub-sub-contractors.  So let's say that of that $400 million, 70% of it is actually applied to labor/production, meaning that the remaining $120 million is basically a direct grant to a bunch of wealthy developers.

In the second case, the government actually runs to project itself, hires and fires the entire org chart.  That way, you're actually getting your $400 million worth.  I know, crazy talk!  But doesn't it seem a little bit more efficient?

The free market doesn't want to be more efficient.  The free market wants to make more money, and sometimes being inefficient is the surest way to big bucks.

But, back to the House Oversight Committee's smugly desperate pre-ordained outcome: If you can't win a war, win a battle.  If you can't win a battle, win a fistfight.  When you can't win a fistfight, call them names and declare victory.

Posted by mrbrent at 9:52 AM

October 23, 2013

sen. ted mccarthy, r-tx

I've spent a bunch of words over the past six months yakkin' about Sen. Ted Cruz.  In fact, in the past month or so, I've been quite insistent on reminding strangers on social media that Ted Cruz has an uncanny resemblance to Sen. Joe McCarthy.  (You may remember that McCarthy was the megalomaniacal raging alcoholic who bluffed his way into the Red Scare and the attendant momentary national prominence and foregone-conclusion fiery descent.)

Now I've been doing so for two reasons: One, it's mean.  No matter how hard Movement Conservatives try to untarnish McCarthy's reputation, he really set the bar for political loathsomeness, and I think that Cruz is equally loathsome.  And two, Cruz actually does look like him.

But I've never really gone into the parallels of their careers, and partly because I think Cruz is a lot smarter and a lot less cunning than McCarthy was.  But now I don't have to, as John G. Taft has done it for us.

And instead of the usual pullquote, let me just add that Taft is from that Taft family, and he cites his family's 170-year legacy of public service for the Republican Party right before he lights into Cruz's lack of "decency."


Posted by mrbrent at 9:25 AM

October 21, 2013

the ocean is broken

Ugh.  I hate to be the constant bearer of bad news, but this story has me so sick to my stomach that it would be a crime not to try to get it out everywhere.  An Australian traverses the Pacific, a trip that he'd taken ten years ago as well:
"There was not one of the 28 days on that portion of the trip when we didn't catch a good-sized fish to cook up and eat with some rice," Macfadyen recalled.

But this time, on that whole long leg of sea journey, the total catch was two.

No fish. No birds. Hardly a sign of life at all.

"In years gone by I'd gotten used to all the birds and their noises," he said.

"They'd be following the boat, sometimes resting on the mast before taking off again. You'd see flocks of them wheeling over the surface of the sea in the distance, feeding on pilchards."

But in March and April this year, only silence and desolation surrounded his boat, Funnel Web, as it sped across the surface of a haunted ocean.

It's a bit thinly written, but the title is "The Ocean Is Broken," and that's overwhelmingly frightening.

Posted by mrbrent at 2:20 PM