Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Good Fun

This is a real joy to watch. It is all one take - the 30th one apparently.

Nyle "Let The Beat Build" from Nyle on Vimeo.

Dick Cheney is a Coward. And so is Obama?

“I…believe that – too often – our government made decisions based upon fear rather than foresight.” -Barack Obama, Thursday at the National Archives

The above quote gets to the heart of the torture issue. Dick Cheney, in his speech at the American Enterprise Institute on Thursday, made some rather provocative claims that reveal the paranoid mindset that has been driving policy for the past eight year. Cheney implied that putting Guantanamo inmates in maximum security prisons in the U.S. will somehow endanger our communities. He claimed that disavowing torture will somehow show us up as weak and give terrorists renewed opportunity to strike us. He suggested that all other concerns must be secondary to making the country even just a little bit “safer.”

All of Cheney’s ideas flow from a distinctly American kind of paranoia and cowardice. The Brits know how to respond to terrorists—with a stiff upper lip, recognition that it will probably happen again, and steely determination to try to prevent that next attack. Why must Americans resort to mad hysteria at the thought of terrorists residing in “supermax” prisons in their community? Why must we empty the shelves of ammunition all across the country when the threat level is raised to yellow? Why must we, in the wake of 9-11, resort to torture and invade countries that have nothing to do with terrorism when these drastic actions, at best, only make us marginally safer? It’s because we have been governed by a bunch of cowards—foremost among them is Dick Cheney.

Going back thirty years, Cheney has shown a remarkable ability to conjure up threats to the United States that don’t exist. He opposed detante with the Soviet Union because he imaged the Russians to be militarily much stronger than they actually were. His support for increased presidential powers (“imperial presidency”) stems from a fear that only a strong executive can act decisively and speedily to protect the country from our many (non-existent) threats. Post 9-11, Cheney convinced himself that the terrorists posed an “existential” threat to the United States. He began traveling with a full biohazard suit, convinced that a biological weapons attack was imminent. He recommended that the entire population get vaccinated for smallpox. He often worked out of the secret vice-presidential “undisclosed location.”

And now he tells us that we must torture people if we wish to remain safe. Once again, Cheney is letting his overblown fears get in the way of sound policymaking. If you, Mr. Cheney, are so afraid of terrorists that you are willing to scrap our constitution and our values in order to make us a just a little bit safer, I suggest some further lifestyle choices for you: don’t ride in airplanes, don’t visit New York City or Washington D.C., and certainly don’t ride the subway in those cities, and give some serious thought to moving to Canada or perhaps Switzerland or a Nordic country. You will then be 100% safe from terrorists, and torture will cease to be of concern to you. Meanwhile, back in American cities that will one day certainly suffer from another terrorist attack, the non-cowards who live in those cities will choose to not torture anyone. We will take on that small burden of being a little less safe. We will know that we didn’t cave in to our base, cowardly, irrational, fears; instead, we will have stayed true to our humanity and to our constitution.

As for Obama, he may be wary of making decisions based on fear, but his decision to support what he calls “preemptive detention” is rooted in just this type of irrational fear. I haven’t seen the rap-sheet on these supposedly “too dangerous to release” terrorists, but I doubt they are so dangerous that we need to forgo due process in order to protect ourselves. At some point, Obama must trust the American people to be brave enough to take on a marginal increase in risk from terrorism so that we can uphold our principles. Obama may be more afraid of the political implication of releasing terrorists than the actual implications of releasing terrorists. But either way, he is acting like a coward.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Inevitability of Gay Marriage

Tomorrow morning, the California Supreme Court will announce its decision in the Prop 8 case, and though the actual issue it's deciding, whether Prop 8 is more properly considered an amendment or a revision, is procedural rather than substantively about gay marriage, it still occurs within a political context.

Which is... what? Proponents of gay marriage are jubilant. The winter of our Prop 8 discontent is a distant memory, seemingly now made summer by a spate of advancements of gay marriage in Vermont, Connecticut, Maine, and most notably Iowa. Proponents and opponents alike have, just to shuffle up the metaphor, identified these events as a long-awaited, much-prophesied avalanche, soon to cover the country in a cleansing coat of powdery, snowy civil rights. Democrats are dancing on the grave of the Christian Right, and (younger) Republicans publicly acknowledge that they've long known being the party of homophobia is a demographic dead end.

I believe in the inevitability of gay marriage. I'm just not sure we're quite mid-avalanche yet; I'm not sure a permanent demographic shift has suddenly come in to being. Sure, we've stacked up some victories in rapid fashion, but the forces that brought us Prop 8 are still around. It was only seven months ago, and it was in CALIFORNIA. In what was otherwise a sea change of an election. It was a thumping.

What if the court holds Prop 8 is constitutional, as many say it is likely to? Worse, what if the voters of Iowa decide to overturn their court's decision? After all, Iowa is the crown jewel of the so-called avalanche because it's a "heartland" state as opposed to godless Vermont and Maine. Indeed, the advancements in those two states came from the legislature, the "people's branch," making them much more stable (Vermont's in fact from an override of a gubernatorial veto), whereas Iowa's came from the courts, albeit unanimously (unlike Connecticut's 4-3 decision).

I don't really think Iowa's voters will overturn their court's decision. It can't go to ballot there till 2012, and the avalanche may be real by then. My larger point is that the left's "inevitability" prophecy also functions as an excuse for complacency, sometimes to the point, as we sometimes saw during the Democratic primary last year, of regarding gay marriage as an unimportant distraction. Avalanches don't require work, after all, and in the meantime, we get out-hustled by gay marriage opponents (which is exactly what happened) on our own turf.

Friday, May 22, 2009

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Economic Meltdown: Part II, The Future

Here is a run-down at some potential long-term changes that, if they come to fruition, could mean real hope for the future. And we have the economic crisis iceberg to thank, at least in part, for making them possible.

On the Economic Front
1.) Milton Friedman and his fanatical free-market disciples have gotten the comeuppance they have long deserved. Say goodbye to unregulated derivatives, unregulated hedge-funds, naked short selling, golden parachutes, priceless office trashcans, and off-shore corporate tax-havens; say hello to a boring banking industry that poses no systemic risk to the economy, consumer protection for usurious credit card practices, and the closing of corporate tax loopholes.
2.) When you say “hummer“ I no longer think of the four wheel vehicle…! Say goodbye to SUV dominated roads, Enron dictated energy policy, and a non-viable American car industry; say hello to low-emission vehicles, cap-and-trade, wind and solar energy, and all things green.
3.) Get rich quick is out. Good old-fashioned hard work is in. Our future will not include nearly so many condo-flippers, day-traders, internet/house/credit bubbles, credit-default swaps, or 100k first-year-out-of-college jobs.

On the International Front
1.) Economic dire straits have already transformed, and will continue to further transform, our foreign policy for the better. Moral crusades are so 20th century. We no longer have the luxury to contemplate what we might LIKE to do (overthrow every tin-pot dictator in the world, bomb Iran into submission, ignore the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, push around Russia and China, turn Afghanistan into a flowering democracy, etc.). We are now forced to think only about what we MUST do, and what we CAN do.
2.) The need for frugality in government will eventually mean a much reduced military budget, thereby further eroding the militaristic culture at home and adventuresome foreign policy abroad.

On the Domestic Front
1.) OBAMA, baby! The election of Obama, which was greatly assisted by the economic meltdown in the middle of the election home-stretch, means so much for the future it is hard to count the ways. I’ll let you make your own list.
2.) The idea that “America is in decline,” which was evident well before Bush’s re-election in 2004 but could not be acknowledged unless you wanted to be labeled as “unpatriotic,” is now one of the dominant narratives of our time. This (albeit belated) recognition that America will not always be the only cock of the roost will concentrate our collective minds on how to prevent America’s relative decline from turning into an absolute decline—think, “the decline and fall of the American experiment.” This means we will give serious thought to the paltry state of education in this country, we may have greater recognition that we need sensible immigration reform (being a “nation of immigrants” has always been a great strength of America since new arrivals often bring renewed cultural and economic vitality to a community), and we will have a more humble and sensible foreign policy, discussed above.
3.) In the arts, poverty breads creativity, as this NYTimes article highlights.

Thanks to this economic crisis, America will be a place with smaller cars, smaller McMansions, a smaller financial industry, a smaller military, and full of people with smaller egos who are less militaristic. Yes, we all have smaller bank accounts. And that sucks. But at least we will be getting something for our money: a new and improved direction for the country.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Times Reader

My day today started in my favorite way for a day to start - at the diner around the corner from my house, with a delicious egg and cheese sandwich and the New York Times. Today's paper had an add for the new Times Reader 2.0, which is designed to simulate at least part of the experience of reading the actual physical newspaper. It does. Part of the reason I don't like reading the paper online is that, perhaps antiquatedly, I think there's a reason the editors put the stories in the order they put them in in the actual paper, and I'm inclined to follow their expert advice, at least to a first approximation. This is similar to my feeling that legislators are there to make laws and pass budgets, so California might want to focus more on electing legislators who share their priorities and less on negotiating those priorities line by line at the ballot box. But I'll leave that to Luvh and stick with the point of my post, and just say that after downloading the Times Reader and checking it out, it does address that issue quite well.

But the other reason I like to read the actual physical newspaper it just that it feels better. I stare at this damn screen enough as it is. I like that the first hour of my day is a pre-computer hour. And at least for the moment, it's not very enjoyable to take my mac to the diner and surround it with food and beverage. It's not very practical, either - my waitress poured coffee all over A11 today.

They tell me my days are numbered, but I just don't see it. Maybe they'll stop giving me an actual physical newspaper soon, but I really don't think I'm about to stop wanting one.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

CA Special Election Today

Again, I have found the analysis at Your Political Friend enlightening and persuasive, summary of which is Yes on 1A, No on everything else.

Monday, May 18, 2009

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Economic Meltdown: The Titanic Analogy

In the darkest days of the Bush administration, not too long after our cowed media failed us in the run-up to the Iraq war, after countless “left-leaning” politicians and pundits supported the Iraq invasion, after a scared public inexplicably voted for four more years of Bush stupidity, after Abu Ghraib, and with Katrina coming up just over the horizon, I remember thinking the following: “It feels like the American steam ship is headed straight for a giant iceberg, and the funny thing is, a part of me believes it might be better—for the long run—to go ahead and hit that iceberg head-on rather than try to maneuver around it. That way, after hitting it and suffering the painful consequences, the spineless apes currently running the show (in both parties and in the media) will be thoroughly discredited, and we can more easily mend our wounds as best we can and then head in a new and improved direction. Missing the iceberg would mean the country would avoid disaster but would continue on its downward trajectory. We need a wake-up call, followed by big changes.”

Be careful what you wish for, right? Sure enough, the iceberg was there and America hit it going full-bore. And the consequences have been terrible for countless individuals, as well as for the country as a whole.

But when we finally come out of this mess, we may be thankful for the changes that this terrible shock will have engendered. We can no longer fool ourselves that we are making progress by simply re-arranging the deck chairs. Real changes must, and I believe, will be made.

The improved direction in which we may be headed can already be mapped out today, even though we are still in midst of the crisis, with much more pain to come. My next post will outline some of these changes on the horizon that can, at least in part, be attributed to the U.S.S. America hitting the economic crisis iceberg.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Gut check

Here's a way to visualize the job losses of the last year or so. Note that it is more or less like a Katrina in every major metro every month for the last 6 months.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Employee Free Choice Act Video

I wrote many parts of this video and helped produce it:

The part I'm proudest of is the one emphasizing the value of having control over your own life. My worry is that the labor movement generally doesn't make this sort of emotional pitch in its public relations. The EFCA is supposed to help the labor movement take the next great leap forward, and accordingly labor should break out of what is often, in my opinion, a very dated way of talking. In particular, "worker" is not a word that plays - many of the people whose support this campaign is supposed to elicit don't think of themselves as "workers."

Californians: currently, every member of our Congressional delegation supports the EFCA - except one. Guess who it is? You're right, Feinstein guessers.

Waxing Waxman

I’m reading up on the Waxman-Markey cap and trade bill this morning, and I have a lot of thoughts about it. For starters, now that I’m finally tuning in, I’m a little shocked at how badly the cupboard has been raided. I know, shame on me, that’s a helluva lot of naïveté for someone who has seen first-hand what big business can do to a legislative process, but I did think Waxman would protect his turf a bit better than it appears he has.

The most important thing about domestic carbon legislation is that we have a price on carbon in the US marketplace; that we make everyone pay for the global warming externality of greenhouse gas emissions. (For those who haven’t thought about it, it’s a simple concept. If the computer on which I type this post is drawing 60 watts of electricity generated by burning coal, it’s contributing a little to global warming. If it’s drawing 60 watts generated by a wind turbine, it isn’t. By charging a price for that pollution, the market can capture the social cost of contributing to global warming, and my decision as a consumer – or, more realistically, NStar’s decision as a producer – will factor that cost in, giving lower-carbon options a competitive advantage over higher-carbon options.)

That’s the fundamental policy tool here, and this bill would get that job done, so I guess I’ll continue to be for it. But if that’s the primary goal, then the secondary goal is to give that price teeth. We can better chase the policy aim by spending some of the revenue from a cap and trade system on things like R&D and new energy infrastructure. We can also use some of the revenue to give rebates to the people who are hit hardest by higher prices as a result of the carbon price.

But to do that there has to be revenue. In principle, the “price the externality” policy tool works just as well whether you make a polluter pay for a permit up front or whether you give it to them and let them trade it. Either way, once they have the permit in hand, there is money to be made from not having to use it. The difference is that if you auction the permits at the start, revenue flows to the government that can be used for other purposes. If you just allocate the permits for free up front, no revenue, no spending on R&D and infrastructure, and no helping poor people with higher electricity bills.

There are two good reasons to allocate permits for free. The first is that some industries would experience too much of a shock from a carbon price, so you have to gradually wean them off their carbon addiction. I’m not sure about the economics, but I think that partial free allocation of permits to the electricity sector, declining over time, makes some sense. Other sectors – like steel, for example, which competes as an internationally traded commodity – have competitiveness concerns. They don’t want to all of a sudden have to compete against other producers with one hand tied behind their balance sheets. One way to deal with that problem is to allocate permits for free. (Another way would be to charge a tariff on imported steel, equal to the effect of the carbon cost. Some say that wouldn’t be legal, but I think it would be.)

The second good reason to allocate permits for free is that it’s a good way to pay a political bribe to the powerful special interests who still run this place.

The question has been how much of a bribe you have to pay to squeeze this thing through the US Congress. I thought the answer was somewhere between 25-50% of permits; 25 to 50% of permits would have to be freely allocated to deal with competitiveness and political issues, before you could cobble together enough support to auction the rest and have the carbon price. President Obama evidently thought so to, since there is a lot of revenue in his budget projections from the sale of permits under a cap and trade system.

In the first year of Waxman-Markey, though, it looks like we’re giving away 85% of the permits for free. It’s a buffet table. Environmental groups are urging Congress to scrap it and start over. I’m not sure. Remember, the primary objective is to get that price in place. But here again, we have a nice little lesson in who controls Washington. There are a lot of captains of industry who are going to have a nice new revenue stream from selling freely allocated emissions permits.

By the way, this post was supposed to be about the smart grid. We’ll get to that, hopefully.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Edward Sharpe and a New Pickle Direction

Banner night for downtown LA. In addition to an Atomic Pickle, I ate an astounding lamb French dip sandwich at Cole's, en route to the Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros show at the Regent. Here's a catchy one from them:

Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros - Janglin

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Horses: Dumb Design?

We’re in those few weeks of the year when the ancient and royal “sport” of horse racing bubbles up into public consciousness. That, combined with me wondering recently if I broke my finger playing basketball, has led me to wonder why racehorses have to be euthanized when they break a leg.

There are some unsurprising answers and some surprising ones. The unsurprising ones are that breaks suffered by racehorses can be quite catastrophic, due to the extreme race forces their legs are subjected to. The fractures can result in shattered bones or, as in the case of Eight Belles in last year’s Kentucky Derby, compound fractures that quickly can involve infection due to dirty race track getting into an open wound.

The surprising answers stem from the follow up question “Why can’t they just let them heal?” And sometimes they can. But apparently, horses aren’t great at sitting still, and moreover, adult horses are so bulky that if they lie down for too long, it puts too much pressure on their internal organs. They have to stand, and with a broken leg, their weight is distributed unevenly, leading to a condition (generally in the leg opposite the broken one) called "laminitis." It's basically the destruction of the tissue connecting the hoof to the leg. Once laminitis sets in, that leg is lost and the horse is completely immobilized.

At that point, it's a question of the horse's quality of life, such as it is, and given the rampant anthropomorphism in horse establishment, I think we can safely count on owners not to dispose of horses too cavalierly. (Although there is unquestionably an economic component to euthanasia - if a horse can no longer "produce" for you, and you think you can't even get any stud fees for it, you may not want to waste money keeping the horse alive - something like this looks expensive.)

Is it possible that ancient wild horses pretty much died every time they broke a bone in their lower legs? I guess so, but that's pretty dumb design, especially for an animal that reproduces so rarely (generally one offspring, and gestating in something like eleven months). More likely, domestication - generations of it, designed to make horses (leg breakingly) faster and (organ smushingly) stronger - is to blame here.

UPDATE: Accidentally published too early. I was going to explain/add that I'm not anti-domestication, and that if you have to tolerate a few public horse executions in exchange for powering the past 5,600 years of human civilization, that's a bargain.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Newsflash: Obama is Not Perfect

I couldn’t be happier with Barack Obama and his first 100 days as President of the United States. He is everything I had hoped he would be—an intellectual titan, emotionally steady, a man of sound judgment—and nothing of what I feared he could be—too quick to compromise his principles, and too inexperienced on foreign policy, making him easily influenced by the human rights intervention-mongers in the Democratic Party. Like most of the rest of the country, I am a big fan.

But, as usual, I agree with Frank Rich, who has found the one area where Obama may be vulnerable: he could become a victim of his own success. Because of the lack of opposition from the GOP, and because of all the Obama hagiography going on right now, Obama must be extremely vigilant about checking his ego at the Oval Office door. I trust that Obama will learn quickly if he makes the mistake of drinking his own Kool-Aid. But Rich rightly worries when he writes:

We need more than one functioning party, not just to ensure checks and balances and pitch in ideas at a time of crisis, but to temper this president’s sporadic bursts of overconfidence and triumphalist stagecraft. No one is perfect. We must remember that there is also an Obama who gave us “You’re likable enough, Hillary,” a faux presidential seal and a convention speech delivered before what Sarah Palin rightly mocked as “Styrofoam Greek columns” hauled out of a “studio lot.”

And, speaking of checks and balances, I’ve stumbled upon something Obama has done that, in my mind, is pretty troubling. Obama, the former constitutional law professor, has been issuing signing statements—that most pernicious of practices that epitomizes all that was wrong with the Bush-era imperial presidency. And they have not been the kind of benign signing statements that Presidents have always used to simply clarify ambiguous sections of laws that they are about to sign. He seems to be trying to make real end-runs around Congress. His actions expressly contradict the promises he made on the campaign trail about signing statements.

Although I trust Obama not to use signing statements as egregiously as Mr. Bush used them, I’m quite certain that America will not be so fortunate as to always have someone as clear-headed as Obama sitting in the White House. It rests on his shoulders to nip the practice of signing statements in the bud, or else Bush’s executive power grab could become permanent. Arlen Specter, in an interesting piece in the New York Review of Books entitled The Need to Role Back Presidential Power Grabs, points out some other instances in which Obama has been suspect on this issue of executive power. Notably, Obama’s reassertion of the “state secrets” privilege to block lawsuits against warrantless wiretapping is worth a raised eyebrow or two.

Obama is such a clear upgrade over Mr. Bush that it’s hard to muster much criticism of him. But let’s not forget that Obama is a politician, and politicians practice…politics. It’s a dirty game, and the players are well known to be fallible human beings who tend not to make their best decisions when showered with too much praise, power, and trust.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Hate List

This morning finds me empowered by self-righteous anger as I've finally deleted a Facebook friend whose updates were far too frequent and self-promoting. I'm going to ride this wave of emotion right past the irony of a blog post decrying self-promotion and right to what I'm calling the Hate List, a compendium of slang and slang formulations I hate:

- "Hearting" anything

- The McAnything nickname (hatred predating but exacerbated by Grey's Anatomy)

- Use of the -tastic "suffix" to make an ornate fake adjective, e.g. "craptastic"

- Gratuitous "Yes please," most notably when replying in the "Yes" section of an Evite

It's going up on the right, lest we forget. Suggestions welcome.

UPDATE: Reader PF is not into the negative energy resulting from the prominent position of the word "hate" on the right. Ever responsive, I have changed the name to "Nemesis Club Membership Requirements."