Showing posts with label Politics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Politics. Show all posts

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Odd Man Out

I can't really tell where the republicans are coming from anymore. They used to be very pro-business, but their fight against the economic stimulus bill makes me think there must be something else motivating them.

It can't be that they're motivated by a desire to balance the budget, because for the last seven years they let military spending throw the budget as far out of balance as it's ever been. It can't be that they desire a smaller government either because the patriot act certainly grew government in some unusual ways.

I think they're just against domestic spending. They think it's bad for us if anyone gets aid from the government. I can't tell if there's anything to that philosophy or not. Certainly there are scenarios where people take advantage of government aid or get used to relying on it to get by rather than their own initiative, but there are also times when people use it as a stepping stone toward moving themselves into the working or middle class.

Another issue might be that after suffering such a huge electoral defeat, the republicans might feel they lack identity and are doing whatever they can to distinguish themselves from Obama's new democrats. The republicans left in Washington come from very solidly republican districts and might fear how any cooperation with the democrats plays to their home constituency.

As the economy improves, the republican point of view might gain relevance, but for the time being they're just going to have to get used to being the odd man out.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Paul Minor Back in the News

I hate to use a phrase like "liberal media" because it's so cliche', but some folks don't mind the label and some of them have recently published articles about Paul Minor. (see links below) Nominally these stories focus on Karl Rove, but they spend much more ink in an effort to exonerate Minor.

Both articles I list and half a dozen blog posts from around the country paint Minor as an innocent man who became the victim of Karl Rove's shenanigans. Now that a Democrat is president, I'm assuming all of this is in preparation of some effort to get Minor at least out of prison, if not exonerated.

Minor bribed that judge. There's no question of that. They may call it a loan or a contribution or any number of other things, but it was a bribe and everybody involved knows it. So, he is guilty, but he may not have broken any laws.

The state cleaned up these laws a lot over the past forty years, but there are still many ways an interested person can bribe an official from any of the three branches of Mississippi government and not break any laws. Minor's defense, both in court and before the public, admits he threw great bags of money at judges, but insists he did it legally.

So what? If Minor found enough loop-holes in the law to conduct his bribery without breaking the law does that mean he gets a "get out of jail free" card?

Yeah, I guess it does. We live by the rule of law, and even if somebody does something really, really wrong, they still get to walk if they didn't break the law. It's our responsibility as citizens to elect people who will close up these loop-holes before someone exploits them, not afterwards.

I'm deeply concerned about the sheer bulk of money Minor and others gave judges over the years. Our law-makers simply must take the necessary steps to make sure nobody ever manipulates the system like Minor and Scrugs and others did ever again.

How's this for starters? Nobody admitted to the Mississippi bar has any business making loan guarantees to any judge, appointed or elected, under any circumstances. That's just begging for trouble.

Judges and lawyers are far too chummy in Mississippi. Many people would be shocked if they knew just how close they sometimes are. It's time for that to end. They shouldn't socialize and they especially shouldn't pass money back and forth. There should be an imaginary, but impenetrable wall between Mississippi judges and anyone who might practice before their bar.


Pro Minor:
Harpers Magazine
Jackson Free Press
Anti Minor:
Ya'll Politics Blog

There's a lot more about this in the Blogosphere. If I left anybody out, I apologize.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Really Upsetting Video

In case you've been living under a rock, the latest in viral videos features Aston Kutcher and Demi Moore and about two-dozen other celebrities talking about things they promise to do to help the Obama administration achieve their goals.

Most of the stuff they pledge to do is fairly innocuous, but useful stuff, like pledging to buy a more fuel efficient car, but at the end of the video, the tone changes to something really chilling. At the end of the video they pledge "to be a servant to our president."

The entire point of the American presidency is that he is not a king we serve, but a man who serves us. Inverting that relationship is very, very dangerous.

For all the really crazy and really stupid things the Republicans did over the years, they never did anything like this. Can you imagine anyone pledging to be "a servant" to George Bush or Ronald Reagan?

I don't see any indication that the president himself was involved in the making of this video, but you know who was? Oprah Winfrey. At the end of the video you see that her company Harpo Productions owns the copyright to it.

Who the hell puts their name on a thing like this to say she owns it? Is Oprah bucking to be the power behind the throne by making Obama king?

As her popularity grows, Oprah becomes more and more the victim of common hubris. Let's hope our new president has the presence of mind to avoid this for himself.

There's enough going on right now that threatens to move us into fascism, we do not need a Fuhrer as well.

Below are Penn Jilette's sometimes rambling comments on this issue from his Video Blog:

I include this video because Penn sums up the situation so precisely when he says "Fuck! To be a servant to our president? Somebody explain it to me, please."

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Mexican 300 Parody

I love the movie 300. (Who doesn't?)

Success breeds imitators, both in the form of parody and rip-offs. There are dozens of 300 Parodies, but my favorite by far is the Latino Comedy Project's version of the 300 trailer.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Banned PETA Commercial

The great criticism of PETA has always been that it's just a money making machine that doesn't really accomplish much other than making nut-jobs feel better about themselves.

Here is a video of the commercial PETA wanted to place during the superbowl. I'm not going to embed it because it is in questionable taste and it was rejected for being too sexual.

The thing is, however much PETA spent making this ad, it was going to cost them three million bucks to place it. If PETA has that kind of money to throw away on that kind of ad, then I'm really wondering why they're not using it to actually do anybody some good, like feed the hungry or clothe the naked.

Keep this commercial in mind if you're ever tempted to give PETA a dime and give it a second thought. If that doesn't work, consider the video below from Pen & Teller's Bullshit:

If the crazy PETA protest lady sounds familiar, it's because she's Pamelyn Ferdin who did the voice for pretty much every animated little girl in the 1970's.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Mississippi Fried Politics

Jere Nash and Andy Taggart follow their earlier more serious book with this fun collection of stories and anecdotes about Mississippi Politicians. Available at Mississippi Fried Politics: Tall Tales from the Back Rooms

Who's that doing the voice-over? It kinna sounds like either John Maxwell or J.C. Patterson

Friday, January 30, 2009

Miss-Matched Presidential Hands

Ok, I feel competent to comment on this story since I'm in it. Believe it or not, Barack Obama has white hands.

Among a lot of other novelty items, I sell Cardboard Standups. They're kooky, they're fun at parties and they come in all your favorite characters: including the new president of the United States, Barack Obama.

A week ago, I get a phone call from what sounds like a young, black woman asking about the Obama standup. That part wasn't all that unusual as I'd been getting calls about it for weeks. She didn't want to buy one though, she wanted me to look at its hands.

At this point, I should admit that I'd long suspected the photograph from the Obama Standup was photoshopped. The grain and focus of the head is pretty different from the body. Other than that, I never gave it much thought.

The caller wants to know if I notice anything unusual about the hands. "Not really" I said. That's when her questions start getting really pointed. "Who is this?" I ask.

She identifies herself as Dayo Olopade, saying she's a reporter for the Washington Post. For people of my generation, the Washington Post has something of a gilded reputation because of their part in Watergate. Needless to say, that caught my attention.

I'd never talked to a reporter from the Washington Post before, and I guess I had really high expectations of Post reporters, because this young woman wasn't at all what I expected one to be like. She didn't seem very professional, especially since we're ten minutes into the conversation and she's just now told me she's a reporter for the Washington Post or anybody else.

First she wants me to look at the hands. "What's he holding?" she asks. I can't really tell, it looks kind of like a blackberry, which I thought would be cool since Obama seems to be a crackberry addict. "Look closer" she says. It's glasses in his hands. "Obama doesn't wear glasses" she says.

"Well, Duh!" I'm thinking. That's because it's not his hands. The body is a stock image. To make a cardboard standup you have to start with a head-to-toe photograph and it's unlikely Advanced Graphics, the maker of the standup could have found one in the early days of the Obama campaign when they came out with the Obama standup, so they improvised, putting Obama's head on a stock image body. Several of their political standups are made the same way.

"Do you think those are white hands?" She asks. "Oh, boy" I'm thinking. This conversation just got serious. There's a young black woman from the Washington Post asking me if a product I'm selling of the first black president, just a few days from his historic inauguration has white hands.

The thing is, I'd been staring at the hands for a few minutes trying to figure out what he's holding, and it never occurs to me that they're white! We'd sold a bunch of these by this time and nobody else had noticed they were white either.

"What was your name again?" I ask. I'd been searching the Washington Post website for any mention of her name, spelling it in several different names and nothing's coming up. "You're with the Washington Post?"

That's when she adds that it's not the Post she works for but a news magazine they own called The Root. She directs me to, and sure enough her name's on there, so I take more questions.

The thing is she's not asking questions, she's making statements and not particularly asking me anything. This lady is mad that Obama has white hands. For some reason, she has it in her head the body belongs to Tom Daschle, because he wears glasses and Obama doesn't.

I try to explain to her what photoshop is and what stock images are and she's just not getting it. "And who owns this stock image company?" She asks. I don't know! There are dozens and dozens of them, maybe even hundreds. Asking me who owns the stock image company is kind of like asking me where they bought their cameras.

At this point I'm beginning to suspect that my caller isn't who she says she is. She's not a reporter. Reporters ask questions and all this lady wants is to give me a schoolin'. Tom Daschle's hands? Give me a break.

I'd never heard of The Root, but if the Post owns it they must have some sort of professional standards and whoever it is on the phone sounds more like an angry college student than a professional reporter. "Are you sure you're a reporter?" I ask.

She offers to have her editor confirm her identity. "Sure, let me speak to him." He's not available, but he can email me. I agree he should do so.

Finally, she starts asking questions:

"Are these Tom Dashle's hands?" "I doubt it." Why is she obsessed with Daschle?
"Was it just sloppy work?" "Not particularly."
"Am I ashamed the hands aren't black?" "Not particularly."

I try to explain to her that President Obama's skin isn't very dark, and it may have been easier to start with a white model's hands and darken them than to start with a black model's hands and lighten them.

The color of the hands on the standup are a fairly good match to the face, good enough that I'd been looking at the image for months and not noticed and none of the people we sold them to had noticed either. She even admits in her column that she'd taken a photograph of herself kissing the standup before she noticed either. (Not sure a reporter should admit to kissing the photograph of any politician. So much for the media not having a bias, I guess)

By this time, she's getting belligerent and not asking any questions and I'm convinced she's not who she says she is so I end the conversation.

About an hour later, I get email from an editor at confirming that the person who called me does indeed work for them. By this time I'd been able to find out more about the company. It's a black perspective blog with about eight or nine writers. There are a lot of black folks who live in DC so I'm assuming that's the connection with the Washington Post.

I call the telephone number listed on the editor's email. He doesn't answer but, Olopade does. (hmmmm...) At this point, I'm wondering if he sent me the email or if she did. I'm willing to believe she is who she says she is this time though, because her photograph on their website looks like she's in her mid-twenties and her other articles tell me she's not so much of a reporter as she is a commentator.

The editor, who may or may not have sent me the email, (I never got to speak to him) looks from his photograph to be about my age. I'm wondering if he's really going to publish her piece when it's finished because this lady's kinna crazy. Well, he does.

Not surprisingly, Olopade doesn't quote me correctly even once. It never seemed to me like she was taking notes like a reporter might. She's already made up her mind what to write, she's just looking for somebody to pin her assumptions on, other than herself. Fortunately she doesn't say I told her they were Tom Daschle's hands.

Well, that's the end of that, I think. Alexia puts's readership low enough that I don't see many people ever reading the story. That might have been the end of it, but she repeats a truncated version of the story on some sort of weird tag-team blog over at

Two things happen at this point. The websites that repost the Slate's RSS feed reprint the story and NPR picks up the story, doing a short piece on it in their Morning Edition broadcast. Fortunately, I'm not in any of those. They at least manage to get an interview with Steve Hoagland who works for Advanced Graphics and he does a pretty good job at explaining the situation.

While all this is going on, stock levels on the original White-Hands Obama Standup are getting really low. The original standup was made fairly hastily at the beginning of the campaign and Advanced Graphics intends to replace it with two new designs now that Obama won the election.

I try and make the case that they should continue offering the original white-hands version, because with all the press it's now a collector's item and might sell even better than before. They decline.

So, no, you can't get the original white-hands Obama standup from us. If you already have one you got from us, hold on to it because you can probably sell it on ebay for more than what you paid for it. You can get the new design for the Barack Obama Cardboard Standup here, and the second design Obama speaking from the presidential podium here.

As for Olopade, she may be a really good writer one day, but for the moment, not so much. Woodward and Bernstein have nothing to worry about from her.

For a brief moment there, I thought I was really being interviewed by the Washington Post, which wasn't really a life's goal of mine, but would have been pretty cool.

As to whether it was morally wrong to use a white model's hands on a Barack Obama standup, I really don't think so. If his face were much darker then maybe it would have been an issue, but the fact that none of my other customers noticed says something. Race is mostly a social construction. When it gets down to actual skin tone, the differences aren't always as great as you might thing.

I have to wonder if Olopade would have still kissed her Obama standup had she known he had a white man's body. Let's not tell her Obama's momma was white. That might ruin the whole experience for her.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Hope and Fear

In his first inaugural address, Franklin Roosevelt said "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself", which is interesting because fear itself elected Roosevelt, fear kept him in office and fear gave him the political clout he needed to enact his political agenda.

Fear for the environment (the dust bowl), fear for the economy (the depression) and ultimately, fear of foreigners (WWII) were key elements of Roosevelt's popularity.

Historians almost unanimously credit Roosevelt's New Deal with resolving the Great Depression. Economists are less generous. The numbers by themselves support the economists' view, but, at the very least, Roosevelt did with the New Deal what any competent physician would do, which is to treat the symptoms until they can find a cure for the disease.

Although the catchphrase of the Barack Obama campaign was "hope", since his election, all of his speeches featured fear prominently, falling just short of the old action hero line "follow me if you want to live!"

I favor big chunks of Obama's recovery plan, but his rhetoric is beginning to bother me. Certainly he faces an uphill political battle on a lot of it, but one of the "changes" he promised us was more sincerity, honesty and responsibility in leadership and trying to energize his legislative agenda by frightening the public won't cut it.

So Mr. President, what we want is more hope and less fear.

Protecting Steel from Foreigners

Last week I made an argument that there were some circumstances where protectionism might be logical and needed. Apparently the president agrees, because it's part of his economic stimulus package, particularly in regards to steel.

Almost immediately, representatives from the EU began calling for the removal of any protectionist elements from the bill, particularly with regards to steel. European steel isn't the problem. European steelmakers operate on a fairly level playing field with US steelmakers because Europe requires their factories to meet standards similar to those in the US with regards to pollution, product and worker safety. The problem is Asian countries who don't have these safeguards and can produce steel much cheaper because they don't.

There's a diplomatic problem though, with singling out Asia or particular Asian countries from the stimulus bill, which is probably why they chose to word it so that it covers all foreign-produced steel. The other possible problem is that I suspect this aspect of the bill comes from the United Steelworkers Union and invoking protectionism for the sake of unions can be problematic.

It may also be that we have WTO, EU and other treaties that prevent this element of Obama's stimulus package. If that happens, then we have the choice of either passing them as is and trying to change the treaties after the fact, or we can remove the provision until such time that we can secure changes in these treaties, or we can just pass it as is and let the chips fall where they may with regards to any trade treaties.

I can't recommend the third option, but I can't rule it out either. The answer here has to be a policy of not entering into international trade agreements with countries who use a lax legal environment with regards to pollution, worker and product safety to cut costs and make their products cheaper than ours. If we can get the EU to agree with us on this, then the move would have even more clout. Moves like this might even make agreements like the Kyoto document redundant and unnecessary.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Barack Obama Chia Pet

When I first saw these I thought it was a joke, but this is real!

In what has to be the worst presidential novelty item ever, Joseph Enterprises, maker of the world famous Chia Pet, now offers this stately bust that (sort of) looks like the 44'th President Of the United States, Barack Obama.

Chia Pets were first introduced in the 1980's and feature a terracotta statue that you can slather with Chia seeds to grow into a green pelt on the sculpture. Historically, the most popular Chia Pet has always been the sheep, but I'm thinking the Obama Chia Pet is gonna' kick its ass.

Chia is a plant of the salvia family, related to mint. It's entirely edible, although I have no idea what it tastes like. What I do know is that the Obama Chia Pet is in such horrible taste that it's almost irresistible.

Not satisfied with offering just one version of the Barak Obama Chia Pet, Joseph enterprises offers two versions! The "Happy" Obama Chia Pet which is kinna goofy looking and the "Determined" Obama Chia Pet which is just kinna creepy. Both feature a commemorative box with an American Flag. YES WE CAN!

Available at Amazon.Com Buy it NOW before people start to think you have taste! Chia Obama Handmade Decorative Planter

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Deepening The River of Our Economy

Right now, everyone is focusing on the crisis in banking as the cause of our economic problems, but I wonder if this is an effect and not a cause.

The financial sector certainly made some really stupid mistakes, but they actually were doing fairly well until something set them off.

When that happened, they realized they had, over the years, removed a lot of the safeguards we installed to protect them. That was the stupid part.

For thirty years, maybe more, maybe twice as long, our economy has been a shallow river. The water moved very fast, but it wasn't very deep.

Two years ago, we found ourselves in a situation where growth in the the world's economy was outstripping the resources we built to fuel it. The problem was fuel itself. We were too reliant on fossil fuels and when demand outpaced supply, we saw fuel prices more than double.

Energy costs are a fundamental building block of any economy, and you can't double the cost of energy without having serious repercussions throughout the rest of the system. Fuel prices doubled and the economy stalled. When the economy stalled, it created a major back flow in the banking system so the banking system broke.

As painful as this recession is, it may have come not a moment too soon. Without a slow down in the world's economy we were facing the serious problem of literally running out of energy. This recession may give us just enough time to correct the problem before it's too late.

The river of our economy overflowed its banks and threatened the villages in the valley below.

Alternative forms of energy have been a part of our economy for more than seventy years, but they were only a small part. Instead we supplied our demand for energy with fossil fuels as a commodity. It was more profitable in the short-run, but lead to two major problems: global warming and dwindling supply.

Renewable forms of energy are part of the infrastructure, not a commodity. Wind, solar, tidal, thermal, hydroelectric, even nuclear energies cost more to build on the front end, but then they are free from the fluctuations of the commodity market as they are self-supplying to a large extent.

Our energy has always come from a mix of infrastructure sources like hydroelectric and commodity sources like natural gas and oil, but in the past the ratio of that mix was something like 10% infrastructure and 90% commodity, leaving us incredibly vulnerable to the fluctuations of commodity markets.

Suppose we change that ratio, to say 60% renewable infrastructure sources and 40% non-renewable commodity sources. We need to retain that 40% from commodity sources because they're more flexible and can respond to fluctuations in demand, but it's unlikely demand will ever fall below the 60% provided by infrastructure sources.

To do this will require a genuine increase in both leadership and responsibility in the public and corporate sector. Some will say we can never expect that kind of performance in people, people are too greedy and too stupid, but I say we can. We can accomplish anything we want to.

Hell, we went to the moon strapped to the tip of an over-glorified bottle rocket. We can do anything.

By changing the mix of where we get our energy, by investing in our energy infrastructure, we deepen the river of our economy. The water won't move as fast, but more will flow past us and our future will be more secure.

Image: Hoover Dam from the air; Source Wikipedia

Monday, January 19, 2009

Sins of the Father

The worst mistakes of the Bush presidency were trying to correct the mistakes his father made.

Lots of people are saying the presidency of George W Bush was the worst in American history. I think it's way too soon to say such a thing, but he certainly didn't have an easy eight years either.

After serving as Vice President, George H Bush ran for President and uttered this phrase "read my lips, no new taxes." He was elected, and as president he chose not to veto a democratic backed bill that raised taxes.

It actually was a pretty good bill and was a direct contributor to the budget surplus of the Clinton administration. The republicans hated it though and saw it as a betrayal of their Republican ideals, which many think was a significant factor leading to his unsuccessful run against Bill Clinton.

When George W Bush became president, he saw this as indicating he should never cooperate with the Democrats in congress. Although he ran for president as a "uniter", once in office, Bush almost never reached out to the Democrats unless he knew they were already on their backs. This policy of not crossing party lines made Bush one of the more divisive presidents in the last hundred years, which is ironic because his predecessor, Bill Clinton, was most successful when he crossed party lines.

The other time Bush tried to correct what he saw as his father's mistakes was with Iraq. Republicans had long criticised George H Bush for not ousting Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf War. Bush said he did not have a UN mandate for ousting Hussein and they had achieved the primary objectives of the war to push Iraq back within their own borders, so he brought the troops home.

When George W Bush became president, he was overly eager to oust Hussein at the first sign of trouble in the middle east. After 9/11 Bush had overwhelming public support for pretty much anything he wanted to do in the middle east so he chose to invade Iraq based on some pretty shaky intelligence.

Once in Iraq, he learned that ousting Hussein was fairly easy, but rebuilding a stable country out of Iraq afterwards was very, very difficult.

One of the benefits of putting term limits on the U.S. President is that they can't go back and amend what they see as their earlier mistakes. Each new president starts with a fresh slate to make his own unique mistakes.

The term limit legislation didn't foresee a son following his father as president, though, or that the son might want to revisit his father's decisions. This may not be a situation that comes up very often, but it's worth remembering when it does.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Mecca and Israel

People say there's no precedent for the Jews returning to Israel. Indeed, nobody has ever repatriated their land after nearly two thousand years in exile the way the Jews did. That doesn't mean there's no precedent though, there's another historical incident in the region that's worth mentioning here.

Image: The Kaba in 1880; Source Wikipedia

Mohamed began his ministry in the city of Mecca where he was born. The existing powers in Mecca saw Mohamed and his followers as a threat, so the newly formed Muslims escaped to Yathrib (later called Medina). When they were strong enough and made the right alliances, the Muslims returned to Mecca, conquering it and the rest of the Arab Peninsula.

Likewise, the Jews were born in Palestine (then called Judea), but the existing power (Rome) saw them as a threat so they were exiled to Europe. Although it took nearly two thousand years, when the Jews were strong enough and made the right alliances, they returned to Judea (then called Palestine) to reclaim their land and re-establish the nation of Israel.

To be fair, the Muslims took control of Mecca in 630 c.e. and the Jews claimed their independence in Israel in 1948 c.e. One would hope that in thirteen-hundred years, human beings would have grown in civility, and indeed I think they have in many ways, but the moral implications and similarities of both events remain applicable.

I'm not wise enough to say whether or not the Jews had a right to take their land back, but I can say that morally it's not all that different from the Muslims taking Mecca. Both were done for the same reasons and both either displaced other people or forced them to convert.

I would like to point out one difference though. For the Jews there is no site more holy than the temple mount, yet when they returned to power they allowed Islam to maintain a mosque on the site, completely under muslim control, but when the Muslims returned to Mecca, they immediately took control of the Kaaba, destroying any non-muslim statue or reference in it or near it, including statues of Jesus and Mary.

I'm a believer in the two-state-solution in Palestine, but for it to work, Islam has to agree that the Jews have a right to establish their own state. One step toward that might be pointing out that what the Jews did in 1948 wasn't really that different from what the Muslims did in 630.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Law and Disorder

Mississippi can't ever get in the swing of things. Just when the Democratic party is on the rise nationally, here in Mississippi it's in the crapper, due almost entirely on the fallout from the Dickie Scruggs web of intrigue.

While most of us focused on the executive and legislative branches of state government, the real power was in the judicial all along and since it wasn't as well noticed as the other two, hijinks ensued.

I think it's time to admit that the Republican party, in Mississippi and nationwide, was far too influenced by big business and big finance, but the Democratic party was likewise far too influenced by big law and big labor.

Since Mississippi doesn't offer much by way of big business or big finance, big law stepped in to fill the gap and we're only now discovering the full extent of their influence and their corruption.

How big was it? Let's put it this way: they could afford to pay Ed Peters a million bucks just to be the bag man, and that was just the tip on the tip of the iceburg. I really hate it too, because Peters was a guy I admired in a lot of ways, but a million bucks can do a lot to lure a guy to the dark side.

Looking on the bright side, it may be a good sign that any Mississippi scandal could involve so much money. Maybe that there was so much money to be had is an indication of how far Mississippi has come and how much potential there is out there for somebody willing to do things the right way.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Economic Stimulus

For twenty years now we've been adjusting the Fed Funds Rate as a panacea for all our economic woes. Hey, it worked for Reagan so why not, right?

Adjusting the Fed can provide a short-term stimulus or regulation for the economy, but it's useless for dealing with more systemic problems. The way we've been using the Fed for the last fifteen to twenty years is sort of like treating chronic fatigue syndrome with caffeine.

I'm encouraged by Obama's plan to invest in our infrastructure as a means of economic stimulus. Working on our infrastructure, building roads and bridges, can provide real long term economic stimulus that no quick-fix can.

We need to invest in and develop the means of producing our economy rather than relying on mathematical tricks.

We must develop the means and the discipline of controlling our economy rather than just letting the free market take us wherever the hell it wants to go, because where it wants to go isn't always where we want to go.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

On Dogs and Free Markets

I want to talk about free market economies, but first I want to talk about dogs.

Dogs in the City
Dog-owners who live in cities and don't have yards know that they have to walk their dog once, sometimes twice a day.

Dogs are remarkable creatures. They're highly intelligent and blessed with sharp natural instincts as well. Their senses are far superior to ours and pound-per-pound, they are much stronger and faster than us, but, the city isn't their natural environment.

Owning a dog in the city means using a leash. The leash prevents the dog from walking in front of a moving bus, going into a sewer drain, after another dog, into a garbage can or humping a cop's leg. It keeps the dog safe and healthy and keeps the owner out of trouble.

The leash needs to be long enough to allow the dog some natural freedom of movement, but short enough to keep the dog out of dangerous situations and keep the owner out of trouble.

Dog owners will tell you that, at first, dogs hate the leash, but pretty soon they grow to love just the sight of it because it means they get to go outside.

Markets are like Dogs.
Markets are like dogs. They're remarkable creatures, but stable societies aren't their natural environment. Markets are made up of human beings, but they, themselves are not human and they require human supervision and control to keep them out of trouble.

Think of government regulation as a leash for markets. They prevent the market from wandering in front of a bus, chasing after squirrels or humping a cop's leg.

Completely free markets are like dogs in a city without a leash. They're free to run around and have a great time, but there's a really high risk they'll end up as road kill, getting lost, or getting the owner in some sort of trouble, so responsible owners invest in a leash.

Regulation isn't necessarily anti-capitalism. Its a recognition that, unlike ants, human beings clearly aren't more intelligent when they act in groups than they are individually and need some sort of guidance to prevent them from doing something really stupid.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Turning the Other Cheek to Terrorists

Some men asked Jesus, "teacher, what should we do if a man hits us across the cheek?"

They asked because this is something people are afraid of. Afraid, not of being hit the first time; that's already happened. They're afraid, for whatever reason, their attacker will hit them a second time or a third time or keep on hitting them until they just can't take it any more--or worse encourage others to hit them as well.

We have two natural responses to this situation. We can retreat and hide so that our attacker can't find us to hit us a second time, or we can go on the offensive and beat our attacker to the point where they either cannot hit us a second time, or are afraid to try. Scientists call this "fight or flight".

Jesus offers a pretty remarkable third option. "Turn and offer your other cheek". At first it sounds crazy. Nobody wants to get hit a second time, but Jesus recognizes there's something else at work here. Being afraid is worse than getting hit. If we turn the other cheek, then we take from our attacker his ability to make us live in fear and that makes us much stronger than he.

Turning the other cheek, we will get hit again, and perhaps a third or even a fourth time. Taking the hits, but not moving, our attacker soon sees he is powerless against us and has no choice but to withdraw.

Everyone has heard this story and knows this lesson but it is incredibly difficult to practice in our lives.

Seven years ago, terrorists hit us brutally in New York city. For fear that it might happen again, we attacked both Afghanistan and Iraq. Although highly criticized now, people forget the enormously high approval rating George Bush had at the time. Without question, this was the path most Americans wanted.

Suppose we had taken another path. Suppose we had turned the other cheek. What if the president had gone and TV and said "We cannot respond to this violent act with violence without bringing more suffering for the innocent" and chosen not to attack our attacker.

Following 9/11 people were afraid to leave their homes or engage the world in any way. They would have hated George Bush for choosing nonviolence and he probably would have lost his bid for re-election, if not outright impeachment. But, would he have been right?

Our attackers wanted to make us afraid. A military response was a pretty good indicator that we were indeed afraid, perhaps more so than if we had responded by hiding or retreating.

To turn the other cheek, we would have had to stand our ground firmly, without attacking offensively. It would have been difficult and required remarkable bravery on the part of millions of ordinary citizens and I'm not at all sure we would have been up to the task, but what if we were?

Without fear, terrorism is impotent. Our enemies would have lost the only weapon they had against us. They would have created a great deal of pain and suffering, but accomplished nothing and we would have been immediately triumphant.

Imagine how powerful a nation would be if it could take a hit like 9/11 and not responded, not changed our path in any way. Our enemies would have been astounded and pitiful for their lack of any weapon to use against us.

In 2001 we weren't strong enough to do this. We responded in fear as humans always have. We can learn though. Knowing that our counterattacks didn't accomplish what we'd hoped they might and taking the lessons from Jesus and Ghandi, we can respond differently next time. It will hurt, deeply hurt, to stand and turn the other cheek, but imagine the possibilities if we do.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Go to the ant, thou sluggard

Go to the ant, thou sluggard (proverbs 6:6)

An ant has thousands of sisters, one mother, no husband and no children. It's not the best comparison, but you get the idea.

We forget sometimes that the point of our economic system is to provide for the public good. Making money is just a side-benefit. If making money were the sole objective we'd allow the most profitable ventures like theft, extortion, prostitution and the like.

Like the ant colony, the vast majority of Americans need a daily task to provide for themselves and for the greater good of the colony. We've chosen capitalism as the model for our economy because, unlike the ant, we're fearful creatures, and we feel safest when we have at least the opportunity to have a little more than our neighbor.

Left to its own devices, a completely free market would resolve all the problems in our current economy, but it would cause untold havoc in the process. We put restraints on the free market because people need stability and security and those are things a completely unfettered economy can't provide.

In our efforts to free the markets over the last thirty years, the top ten percent of us have seen unprecedented gains in income while the middle class have been losing ground when adjusted for inflation. When the overseers make more and more money while the workers make less and less, that's a recipe for slavery, which is where we were headed.

In some ways, this current economic crisis was a needed thing. It's caused us to take a much needed sober look at what we were doing and gives us the chance to make corrections. America, and all it's ideals and convictions, works best when the middle class is the strongest. We have an opportunity now to re-dedicate ourselves to this objective. I say we take it.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Hiding Behind States' Rights

People tend to hide a multitude of sins under the banner of "states rights".

There actually are states' rights issues involving property and taxes and other mundane things but nobody knows about those so they could hardly get upset if they lost them. No, it's only issues involving basic civil rights where people really cling to their states rights.

Occasionally a state may invoke states rights because they're ahead of the curve on some issue, but usually, it's a matter of a state or a collection of states desperately holding on to something the rest of the nation moved away from a long time ago.

The problem with this is that the most basic model of this country is the premise that all people are created equal, therefore they all have equal civil rights and you can't say we all have equal rights if they fluctuate from state to state. You can't have "equal protection under the law", if a person has a civil right in Wyoming but doesn't have it in Mississippi.

The first of these issues we had to deal with was slavery. Resolving it took the most bitter and brutal of all courses in a horrible war. You can tell yourself all sorts of bed-time stories about how the Civil War wasn't over slavery, but it doesn't change history.

The next two issues over the right of women to vote and the right of all people to drink were settled the most civilly of all, by voting on amendments to the constitution. This is how the founding fathers designed for us to handle these issues.

The next big issues was the dismantling of the Jim Crow laws in the South. Those were fought in the supreme court and settled by executive order. That may have been the best way to handle those issues because they weren't actually new rights, but reinterpretation of existing rights. It was still far more painful than it needed to be though.

Currently there are three issues on this field: abortion, the separation of church and state and gay rights. There is at least one side with each of these issues trying to make them an issue of states rights. That's simply not going to work with any of these issues.

You can't allow abortion in one state, but not its neighbor. Likewise, we can't have gay marriages recognized in some states but not in others and we can't have different standards for separating church and states across the nation.

Using the civil rights movement as a model, people have been trying to resolve these issues in the court. With the possible exception of separation of church and state, that model is inadequate in these circumstances.

For one thing, it has lead to a fight to manipulate the composition of the Supreme Court one way or another to try and make their decisions come out whichever way partisan groups want.

We need to face up to our responsibility with these issues and settle them, not in the courts, but with amendments.

Amendments can be difficult. Sometimes to get the necessary votes, compromises must be made, but, it is the way our government was designed and it's the most logical and peaceful path we have available to us.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Fixing the Economy--Efficiency Vs Security

So, what the heck went wrong with our economy?

In business school you're taught that the purpose of a business is to increase shareholder wealth by maximizing efficiency. Efficiency here is defined as the difference between your income and your costs. In other words: profit.

The flaw of this definition is that your costs are also your neighbors income, so the short-term benefit you get by cutting costs may come around to bite you in the end when you're able to sell less to your neighbor.

Henry Ford showed a remarkable understanding of this reciprocal nature of business when he decided to raise his employees pay to the point where they could afford to buy a car. His peers cursed him because they had to raise wages as well, but Ford's decision remains as a real watershed moment in the history of American Business--and he sold a heck of a lot more cars.

The second point to consider is that any engineer will tell you, the most efficient structure can also be the least secure and often the only way to increase security is to increase redundancy. In this way, a bridge made of six regular steel beams is more secure and more easily repaired than a bridge made of two mega steel beams.

American business has been on a thirty year efficiency binge. Down-sizing and mergers and out-sourcing became the rule of thumb. Profits rose for a while, but now we find ourselves in a heck of a lot of trouble.

Nowhere is this lack of security more evident than in the financial sector. Ronald Reagan assumed that interest rates would go down if banks became more efficient and more competitive, but what good is low interest rates if banks are so unstable nobody can get a loan?

With a new president and a new understanding of our economic problems my advice is to think small and think local. If we work to foster and promote and protect more smaller, local businesses then we introduce redundancy into the system. This will decrease profits for a while, but it will also increase security.

With many banks having to reduce their scope in the wake of the credit/mortgage crisis, this may be the perfect opportunity to rebuild the concept of local banks. There will always be room for interstate and regional banks, but local banks have to be the backbone of the system if we're ever to regain the stability we once had.

Should an era of financial instability hit again, it's a heck of a lot easier to deal with if you have more smaller banks than fewer giant banks.

I'm not saying we should abandon the idea of efficiency all together, but for us to prosper in the long run, we must find a balance between efficiency and security. For thirty years we pushed and pushed and pushed for efficiency, now, unless you want to lose everything, we have to push and push and push for security until we find ourselves back in balance.

Official Ted Lasso