September 29, 2009

Good Call, James Madison

The Senate today today:

WASHINGTON – In a long-anticipated showdown, liberal Democrats twice failed on Tuesday to inject a government-run insurance option into sweeping health care legislation taking shape in the Senate, despite bipartisan agreement that private insurers must change their ways.

And James Madison explaining more than 200 years ago why the Senate would naturally represent the interests of rich people:

Should experience or public opinion require an equal & universal suffrage for each branch of the Govt., such as prevails generally in the U. S., a resource favorable to the rights of landed & other property, when its possessors become the minority, may be found in an enlargement of the election districts for one branch of the legislature, and an extension of its period of service. Large districts are manifestly favorable to the election of persons of general respectability, and of probable attachment to the rights of property, over competitors depending on the personal solicitations practicable on a contracted theatre. And although an ambitious candidate, of personal distinction, might occasionally recommend himself to popular choice by espousing a popular though unjust object, it might rarely happen to many districts at the same time. The tendency of a longer period of service would be, to render the body more stable in its policy, and more capable of stemming popular currents taking a wrong direction, till reason & justice could regain their ascendancy.

Say what you want about the founding fathers, you can't claim they weren't up front about what they were doing.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 05:32 PM | Comments (49)

America's Elites Are Funny

This is the beginning of a gigantic New Yorker article by James B. Stewart called "Eight Days:
The battle to save the American financial system" (not online):

The most important week in American financial history since the Great Depression began at 8 A.M. on a Friday in the middle of September last year. I have pieced together this account of it from scores of interviews with participants and observers. Many of the principals agreed to be interviewed, including Henry Paulson, who was Secretary of the Treasury; Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve System; and Timothy Geithner, who was president of the New York Federal Reserve. As time has passed, memories inevitably have been colored by hindsight and efforts to shade the truth, to affix blame and claim credit, but, as one Treasury official told me, referring to himself and his colleagues, "For better or worse, we're the ones responsible. The more accurately the story is told, the better our policies will be received."

It's funny that a Treasury official (probably Paulson) would talk about how important it was to him for the story to be told accurately, and then refuse to be named. I guess him talking about how the story should be accurate isn't part of the story.

It's funny that James Stewart was willing to print it anyway, and without drawing attention to how preposterous it is.

It's funny that no editor at the New Yorker thought to question whether they should print something at the very beginning of the article that would make you feel the rest of it was going to be bullshit.


—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 05:45 AM | Comments (12)

September 26, 2009

Ukraine's Got Talent

By: Bernard Chazelle

Watch this. It's amazing. (h/t)

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at 04:42 PM | Comments (20)

September 25, 2009

Obama Will Close Gitmo by Xmas 1961

By: Bernard Chazelle

A revealing exchange between NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg and a WHLJ (White House Legal Jackass). I paraphrase.

Totenberg: But President Obama said he'd close Gitmo by the end of the year.

WHLJ: That's not the way we do deadlines around here. If we promise to do something but we don't set a deadline, then you can be sure we'll never do it. If we set a deadline, that means we'll do it. But not by the deadline. It only means that we'll do it at some point in the future.

I wonder what they say then when they have an actual deadline they intend to meet.

WHLJ: Oh, we predate it. If President Obama had meant to close Gitmo by Xmas '09 he would have said, "I promise to shut down Guantanamo by Christmas 1961."

Bagram, of course, is worse, far worse. No deadline there, not even of the pre-postdated kind. Human rights lawyer Tina Foster:

[Major General Douglas M.] Stone reviewed the military's own records and determined that, of the 600 current detainees at Bagram, there are 400 innocent people that the US government should not be detaining.

In terms of torture and abuse, Bagram has a far worse history than Guantanamo. There are at least two detainees who died there after being tortured by US interrogators. One of them was strung up by interrogators by his wrists, and then beaten until his legs were "pulpified," according to the military's own autopsy report. Our clients who have been released more recently report exposure to extreme temperatures, sleep deprivation, prolonged isolation and other torture that is still ongoing. Bagram has always been a torture chamber.

The reality is that the Bush and the Obama administrations have the same position on the rights of detainees in Bagram.

Foster campaigned for Obama, partly on the basis of these famous words of his:

We're going to restore habeas corpus. Because we're not a nation that locks people up without charging them. That is not who we are!

Ah, the eloquence. When I was little, my uncle told me to distrust anyone who gives a very good speech. And I thought, what an odd thing to say...

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at 06:04 PM | Comments (24)

September 24, 2009

Thanks For Not Killing Us Anymore

By: John Caruso

At a restaurant recently I asked a friend: isn't it hard to believe that just a few years ago there would have been people smoking at the tables all around us?  It's a mark of how much things have changed that the idea seemed so surprising, and that breathable, non-lethal air in restaurants has become something we basically take for granted around here.

Two new studies have verified the health benefits of smoking bans:

Overall, American, Canadian, and European cities that have implemented smoking bans had an average of 17 percent fewer heart attacks in the first year, compared with communities who had not taken such measures.

Then, each year after implementing smoking bans (at least for the first three years, the longest period studied), smoke-free communities have an average 26 percent decline in heart attacks, compared with those areas that still allow smokers to light up in public places.

(This echoes a study I mentioned a few months ago that showed a 41% drop in heart attack hospitalizations over three years thanks to a smoking ban in Pueblo, Colorado.)

And the benefits also extend to non-smokers inhaling the smoke from the other end of the cigarette:

Nonsmokers have a 25 percent to 30 percent higher risk of heart attack if they inhale smoke at home or at work, and smoke has been shown to affect heart health within minutes, says [Dr. David] Meyers.

"We can measure chemical changes within 20 minutes," he says. "The changes that occur primarily involve the clotting system. Basically, exposure to smoke makes your blood sticky and real clot-y and that's what causes heart attacks."

This is why I support smoking bans: because I'm happy with my blood's standard viscosity, I'm opposed to olfactory abuse in all its forms, and being alive is one of my favorite pastimes.  So to those people who've gotten hooked on the products of some of the most evil corporations on the planet, I say, sincerely: thanks for not killing us anymore.  I'm sure it's a pain to go smoke outside in the cold and I can imagine that the looks from non-smokers get on your nerves, but I thank you from the bottom of my heart for not causing my blood to clot excessively and, you know, terminate my existence.

The larger point here (and one that gives me hope) is that behaviors that are destructive to other people are continually becoming less acceptable.  As the movement against smoking gained traction in the U.S. I noticed a direct effect throughout my extended family, nearly all of whom used to be smokers and nearly all of whom no longer are—and I have no doubt that the lower acceptance and higher social costs of smoking contributed to that change.  Even before smoking bans were adopted where they lived, the growing sense that it was no longer acceptable to inflict cigarette smoke on innocent bystanders led many of them to change their smoking habits.

There's been a similar slow and steady growth in the notion that we need to take responsibility for the environmental consequences of everything we do.  The environment has become a central consideration in almost every public activity in a way that seemed unimaginable 20 or 30 years ago; witness the ubiquity of recycling, the rise of green architecture, and the changes in the way large events are handled (in terms of waste management, energy efficiency, environmental impact, and so on), to name just a few of the more visible effects.  The idea that it's immoral to harm the environment or to waste the planet's resources is becoming more widespread every day.

So I'd say the movement against smoking has contributed in a small but important way to the growing acceptance of a core principle of the left: that we need to take responsibility for the way our actions affect other people.  I've mentioned two of the signs of this pattern of change, but they're only the tip of the iceberg; in looking back at the past few decades I see a greater regard for human rights, an increased belief in the need for universal accountability, the steady growth of boundary-defying solidarity movements, and many other positive trends that can be traced to this same principle.

Against the best efforts of its worst members, civilization is slowly becoming civilizedThat's a major change for the better, and it's the one thing that makes me the most hopeful for the future.

— John Caruso

Posted at 12:09 PM | Comments (67)

September 22, 2009

McChrystal Wants US Troops Home. Obama Says Wait

By: Bernard Chazelle

U.S. Army General Stanley A. McChrystal warned President Obama that failure in Afghanistan was a distinct possibility. McChrystal wrote in a confidential report:

The insurgents cannot defeat us militarily; but we can defeat ourselves.

Damn! So we're fighting two enemies now. Call them T (for "Taliban") and W (for "We"). Enemy W are brave and ferocious, and they can defeat us. Enemy T are a bunch of ethnic cavemen, losers who don't have a prayer. So, when McChrystal asks for reinforcements, quite obviously, he means more troops to fight Enemy W.

Now, if Sun Tzu ever taught us anything, it is that you fight the enemy at the source! US Intelligence agencies have confirmed that Enemy W have training camps in a country called the United States of America (code-named USA). I've been told that General McChrystal wants to take the fight to Enemy W right on their home turf, USA, which is what I call excellent generalship. The good news is that we have 68,000 troops in Afghanistan. McChrystal wants to ship them stateside. At once!

I like the logic. Why should we do battle with ourselves in Afghanistan when we can do it right here at home? Remember how "we defeated ourselves" in Vietnam. Why did we have to go so far away to do that? Why Vietnam? Why not New Jersey? The Pentagon would also reduce its carbon footprint considerably if it fought its wars right here. Think of all the fuel saved. Plus we'd be fighting the only enemy worthy of ourselves, ie, ourselves. Lincoln understood all of that. He didn't fight the Civil War in Vietnam or Afghanistan. He did it right here. General McChrystal wants our troops home so we can win! Now, President Obama, do you want to win?

I have a slogan for this glorious battle: "Let's defeat ourselves before we defeat ourselves!"

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at 06:56 PM | Comments (35)

September 21, 2009

Scam Becoming a Little Too Obvious

Joe Biden:

"It's not that Republicans are bad guys. This is just the bet they've made. They're going to put their chips on movement in the 35 seats in the House that have been traditionally Republican districts and trying to take them back. If they take them back, this is the end of the road for what Barack and I are trying to do. This is their one shot. If they don't break the back of our effort in this upcoming election, you're going to see the things we said we're for happen."

For a second I thought that the Democrats weren't coming through because they don't want to. But it turns out it's because you have to win elections twice or sometimes three or four times before you're allowed to pass laws.

Look, they don't like it any more than we do, but those are the rules.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 08:59 PM | Comments (14)

September 20, 2009


Delicious biochar for everyone!

It really will be a shame if humanity destroys itself, since we actually have the means to save ourselves if we could manage to focus on what matters.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 08:41 AM | Comments (12)

September 19, 2009

Welcome Back, Potter

By: John Caruso

Former CIGNA Oberführer Wendell Potter, who to his eternal credit "finally came to question the ethics of what I had done and been a part of for nearly two decades" and left his lucrative health care-denial job to join the truth heroes at the Center for Media and Democracy, offers a timely overview of the ways his former industry has prevented any unprofitable changes to the U.S. health care system over the years.  An excerpt:

[T]he insurers formed a front group called the Health Benefits Coalition to kill efforts to pass a Patients Bill of Rights. While it was billed as a broad-based business coalition that was led by the National Federation of Independent Business and included the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Health Benefits Coalition in reality got the lion’s share of its funding and guidance from the big insurance companies and their trade associations. [...]

One of the key strategies of the Health Benefits Coalition as it was gearing up for battle in late 1998 was to stir up support among conservative talk radio and other media. Among the tactics the PR firm implemented for the Coalition was to form alliances with important conservative groups, such as the Christian Coalition and the Family Research Council, to get them to send letters to Congress or appear at HBC press conferences. The Health Benefits Coalition also launched an advertising campaign in conservative media outlets. The message was that President Clinton owed a debt to the liberal base of the “Democrat” Party and would try to pay back that debt by advancing the type of big government agenda on health care that he failed to get in 1994. The tactics worked. Industry allies in Congress made sure the Patients’ Bill of Rights would not become law.

And the conclusion, which makes an important point:

During my 20 years in corporate communications and public affairs, I participated in the steady growth and influence of largely invisible persuasion -- and at a time when newsrooms are shrinking and investigative journalism seems to be vanishing. The number of PR people long ago surpassed the number of working journalists in this country. And that ratio of PR people to reporters will continue to grow. The clear winners as this shift occurs are big, rich corporations and other special interests. The losers are average Americans, most of whom are completely unaware how their thoughts and actions are being manipulated to achieve corporate goals on Capitol Hill.

There are many reasons for the media's awfulness, but one of them is just the fact that reporters swim in an ocean of PR.  And as media corporations have cut staff over the years there's only been a greater motivation for those who remain to take the shortcuts they can—and the PR industry is right there to fill the gap.  Which is just one of the many ways that the pursuit of corporate profits makes it easier for CIGNA, Pfizer, and their cohorts to plant their lies in our heads.

By all means, read the rest—and you may also want to follow Potter's blog.

— John Caruso

Posted at 01:23 PM | Comments (6)

September 18, 2009

How Very

Thanks for your views, Heather:

The United States has "serious concerns" about a U.N. investigator's report accusing Israel and Palestinians of war crimes during their Gaza war, the U.S. envoy to the United Nations said on Thursday.

"The United States is reviewing very carefully what is a very lengthy document," Ambassador Susan Rice told reporters...

"We have very serious concerns about many of the recommendations in the report," Rice said...

Rice said the Human Rights Council's approach to the Gaza war investigation was deeply flawed.

"We have long expressed our very serious concern with the mandate that was given by the Human Rights Council prior to our joining the council, which we viewed as unbalanced, one-side and basically unacceptable," she said.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: black women named Rice who are willing to be appalling hacks to rise to the top of the foreign policy establishment are a precious national resource. However, I thought we faced serious supply constraints. Clearly I was wrong.

Seriously though, stuff like this really does make you respect the system. It turns out white supremacy was a less important part of the machine than we'd believed, and can be jettisoned without too many problems. Or at least for now—it's possible getting rid of the most obvious white supremacy will eventually lead to angry white 9/12ers becoming so roiled up they manage to install one of their own in power, who will then accidentally destroy the system, along with much of humanity.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 12:29 PM | Comments (31)

September 15, 2009

Banks vs. YouTube

This is an excellent use of YouTube by Ann Minch of Red Bluff, California to call for a U.S. debtor's revolt—with her going first. I certainly endorse anything that calls Bank of America "evil, thieving bastards."

Now, it is true (as you can tell from her blog) that she's mildly right-wing crazy. But she's certainly no more crazy than America's Serious Liberals (like Robert Morgenthau, last seen here calling for a first strike against the dangerous alliance between Iran, Venezuela and Saturn).

Moreover, while Morgenthau is evil crazy, Ann Minch is just confused crazy. People like her have been completely abandoned by both political parties. There's almost no one prominent anywhere explaining the world in a way normal people can understand—and for good reason, since just about everyone prominent is implicated in it somehow. Minch is doing her best to decipher the puzzle around her with no help. I think she could learn something from people like us, but I'm also sure we could learn something from her.

If you just want to read was she has to say, a transcript is below the fold. The Huffington Post also has a good story about her here.


There comes a time when a person must take a stand to sacrifice for what's right. Now this is one of those times, and if I'm successful, this will be the proverbial first shot first in an American Debtors Revolution against the usury and plunder perpetrated by the banking elite, the Federal Reserve and the federal government.

For fourteen years I've been a Bank of America customer. I've had two B of A credit cards, one of them paid off, another carrying a balance. I wasn't over the limit, nor behind in payments. If fact, my credit is good, and even though I've been laid off, I've had no trouble paying my bills.

Recently Bank of America jacked up the rate on my credit card to a whopping 30%. 30% APR. I could get a better rate from a loan shark. Well, I followed the advice of the finance gurus you see on TV, who say if you call the company you can negotiate a better rate. I did call Bank of America, and they weren't willing to negotiate anything. In fact, they referred me to a credit counseling and "debt consolidation" service. I don't have any trouble with my budget. Basically Bank of America's message to me was "Tough shit."

Well, I thought about it. And now I have a message for Bank of America, and all the big banks which are robbing our middle class citizens and robbing our children and grandchildren of any hope of a middle class standard of living in their future.

So here goes: you are evil, thieving bastards. You have reaped ungodly profits in your behemoth casino scams, then lost -- only to turn around usurp the wealth of this great nation by the outright rape and pillage of middle class Americans whose sweat and toil built it. The biggest rip off in the history of the world is padding your bonus checks with the federal government as your co-conspirators. Every last one of you should be rotting in prison. Well, I'm here to tell you B of A, I officially notify you, Ken Lay [actually Ken Lewis], that I'm staging a debtor's revolt right here, right now, and thereby refuse to pay you one more red cent on your 30% credit card account. This is called civil disobedience.

Now, these are my terms: unless you return my interest rate and monthly installment amount to what it was before the rate hike, or you make me a too good to turn down payoff offer, you're not getting another penny out of me. If you had left well enough alone, I would have continued to make my payments in good faith. But no, you had to bend me over for no good reason other than to paper over your mega-screw up. You can send all the collection agencies after me that you want. You can call me fifty times a day if you want. I don't own any real estate, I don't own any real assets, I don't even have a permanent job right now. And even if I did, you'd have to get a court order to garnish my wages. And considering how many people are defaulting on your credit card accounts right now, the civil courts are going to be backed up for years. Years! You can ruin my credit, but the banks aren't loaning money anyway. So the way I figure it, Mr. Lay, I've got nothing to lose. So stick THAT in your bailout pipe and smoke it.

And to my fellow citizen debtors, you must make your own personal decision about whether to join me in this debtors revolt. You will have to search your own soul to know whether it's right for you to take a stand and be willing to sacrifice your credit score. There's power in numbers. So make your own video and send it to your creditors. Send a letter. Or simply tell your bill collectors to stick it. But I hope you'll join me in the fight. There comes a time when we must make a stand, and my time is now.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 07:41 AM | Comments (41)

September 13, 2009

I Like the 9/12ers

On the one hand, they are terrifying nincompoops. There are few things more frightening than a bunch of confused angry white people.

On the other hand, I appreciate anyone who actually gets off their ass and does something. And many of them have fallen into Rupert Murdoch's evil clutches because the Democratic party's upper middle class liberals have screwed them relentlessly. This guy here, for instance, is completely right:

"Nobody's standing up for us, so we have to stand up for ourselves," said Phil Chancey, 66, who drove to Washington from Clinton, Tenn.

Perhaps the world would be a different place if, say, Larry Summers had graduated from college and decided to teach high school math in Clinton, Tennessee. But he felt a better use for his life was to help pass NAFTA and make $100,000 per day working for a hedge fund. And people from my social strata encouraged this by being far more impressed by Hedge Fund Larry than we would have been by Math Teacher Larry. And here we are.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 01:52 PM | Comments (73)

Washington Post Publishes More Information About Exciting Alternate Universe

Lots of banks had to get a bailout from the federal government. But you know who didn't? The ultra-smart guys at BlackRock investment management, that's who. Here, let the Washington Post explain it to you:

Before the financial crisis, BlackRock's chairman Laurence Fink would speak with federal officials at most a few times a month, for instance when they called him in New York for information about mortgage markets or pensions funds or other areas in which his company was active. But now, as the chief executive of the nation's largest asset manager, Fink says he talks to officials at least once a day. He plans to open an office in Washington by next year to influence policy and has hired the lobbying powerhouse of Quinn Gillespie & Associates...

Treasury and Fed have tapped Fink's expertise. BlackRock emerged as one of their principal advisers as the agencies bailed out major companies and tried to put a price on their toxic assets. BlackRock is also managing tens of billions of dollars worth of AIG assets for the government. In August, officials selected the company to help arrange the purchase, partly using taxpayer money, of toxic assets from banks.

"We made ourselves available on issues that many people don't understand," Fink said.

Although BlackRock, which avoided the plague of toxic assets, has turned to Washington by choice, some firms have been forced to Washington.

Impressive! Impressive work there by BlackRock! Let's stroll over to BlackRock's own website, so we can find out who owns them and extend our congratulations:

Merrill Lynch & Co., Inc., a wholly-owned subsidiary of Bank of America Corporation, and The PNC Financial Services Group, Inc. own approximately...47.4% and 31.5% of BlackRock’s capital stock...


Bailout Recipients

Bank of America $45.0 billion
Bank of America, NA $6.0 billion
PNC Financial Services $7.6 billion

Oh well. There's no need for the Washington Post to report on what's going on in THIS universe. It would only upset and confuse their readers.

PREVIOUSLY: The Washington Post is great at describing a wonderful imaginary world.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 05:08 AM | Comments (7)

September 11, 2009

Everything's a Lie

By: Bernard Chazelle

We are swimming in an ocean of lies. My esteemed colleague Harry Frankfurt calls it bullshit, but he's too kind. When Obama promised he'd fight "the lobbies" and Geithner now works overtime to keep bonus caps off the agenda at the next G20 meeting, does that mean Obama was bullshitting us? No, that would be insulting him. He was lying.

Everything's a lie. You turn on the radio and hear commercials (lies), then some guy tells you we're making progress in Afghanistan (lies). Then you're stuck at the airport and the PA system tells you your plane is only an hour late (lies). The president, of course, is the liar-in-chief. He tells you Afghanistan is a war of necessity (lies) and it is part of the American character to care for one another (funny lie that one). Obama said that, without your trillions of dollars to Wall Street, the world would come to an end. We now know it was a lie. Elizabeth Warren (bless her soul) says that the world of Wall Street would have come to an end but everyone else would have been basically fine. Not long ago, another president assured us that Saddam had WMDs, etc, etc.

The issue, as Kant said, is not the falsehood but the intention behind it. You can lie for someone's good and that can be fine, as in telling a terminally ill patient that she'll be OK. (I know, Kant would not have approved but let's leave the great man alone.) Politicians lie for their own interests, however. They're the dental hygienist and the public is their floss: the means to their ends.

But here's the funny thing. People don't seem to mind very much. This is pure Hegelian alienation: the acceptance that some creatures, by virtue of their function status, are normatively alien from us. They may do things (lie, kill, steal) that no one else would be allowed even to consider. Normative is the key word here, because they can't just do anything. They are strict norms of conduct they must abide by. So a senator who steals a stamp may go to jail, but if the same senator pushes for a billion-dollar bill to favor a baby-killing (military) industry that will make him mega-rich once he leaves office, that's fine. He can go on and give speeches about taking on the baby killers. If a president lies about his intern's extracurriculars, he gets impeached. But if he lies about a bogus threat and bombs the crap out of the Sudan, that's OK. So it's not true that anything goes. The modalities of lying have to be accepted. It's what you might call a normative alienation. See the division of labor: they get to lie and the little guy doesn't, but the little guy gets to approve the norms and they don't. This applies not just in politics but across all modes of power.

Back to lying. Mothers don't lie (though sometimes you wish they did). They don't lie out of love, but love is a private matter of no relevance to the public sphere. No one loves humanity. Nor did anyone love Lady Diana or JFK (except their friends and relatives). Call it infatuation, admiration, idolatry, but that's not what love is about. The proper relation to humanity is empathy and respect, not love. How does lying fit into that? Obviously, lying is showing a lack of respect. But why do we put up with it? Bush lied and was reelected. And even those who opposed Bush pretended to care a lot about the lying but probably not as much as they thought. (Of course, it's self-flattering to oppose someone else's lying.) Suppose Bush had not been lying but had been honestly mistaken and therefore, obviously, still had gone to war. How many Bush opponents would have said, "Oh well, he didn't lie so the war is fine"? The lies bothered us because they made going to war easier. But an honest mistake would have had exactly the same effect. So ask yourself: would you be more indulgent toward Bush if you'd known he'd made a mistake. Probably not. The reason is that your No1. problem is that he wanted to go to war no matter what. This means that the lies disgust us for consequentialist reasons. But Kant would say that consequences shouldn't matter. Being used as a means to an end is the sin in and of itself.

I think Kant has a point, which we forget at our own peril. Some will say: well, the way the game is played, a president must lie in order to get things done. So, yes, Obama's speech was full of lies -- "We're all in this together... (well, except for the bankers and their million-dollar bonuses that I just approved)." -- but if that gets the job done, what's the big deal? The big deal is that a democracy entirely based on lies does not get the job done. (Proof: look all around you. QED.) Those who accept the lies as the price to pay are exactly where the liars want them to be. If you act as a lapdog, don't be surprised if you're treated like one.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at 08:19 PM | Comments (17)

"You Lie!"

By: Bernard Chazelle

Obama-wise, let's just say I am speeched-out. When everyone else hears a new Gettysburg Address, I hear a new ABBA song. Take this BS, cribbed from his 2004 Convention speech and perpetually recycled ever since:

That large-heartedness -- that concern and regard for the plight of others -- is not a partisan feeling. It's not a Republican or a Democratic feeling. It, too, is part of the American character.

Concern for the plight of others... Yes, really, what's more American than that? To be fair to the speech, there was Joe Wilson's Jimmy Rushing-like one-bar solo. And who didn't enjoy that? Although the shoe-thrower set standards that mere mortals will find hard to match, it was interesting to see how one could be both a breath of fresh air and a cretin at the same time. Well done, Wilson!

Now let's get technical. What I got from the speech was that Obama will force everyone to become a paying customer of a private health insurer (as opposed to paying the government). In the olden days, the government would tax you and pass on the loot to the robber barons. So 20th century! Obama wants to cut the middle man and have the taxpayer fork their money over to the robber barons directly. Or else. It's brilliant. (We could save Detroit by requiring every US citizen to buy a Ford or GM vehicle.) Health insurance stocks soared after the speech, which says all you need to know about it.

After rewarding the Wall Street gangsters with trillions of our own dollars, Obama had this to say:

... our ability to stand in other people's shoes; a recognition that we are all in this together.

Not only are we not "in this" together, Mr President, but your policies are to ensure that we never will be "in this" together. You lie!

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at 11:52 AM | Comments (66)

Escape from the Asylum


I recently spent four weeks sleeping at the former Northern Michigan Asylum for the Insane in Traverse City. That's it above.

That picture doesn't do it justice, though. It's a gigantic complex on about 200 acres, with maybe another 1000 acres of woods behind it. A picture from the early 1900s can be seen here.

It opened in 1885 and was abandoned in 1989. Some developers have begun renovating it, but it remains absolutely terrifying. Just one wing has been worked on, so the rest is still empty and looks like this:

I learned thanks to a book in the apartment that the renovated section was the part of the asylum which housed the most disturbed male patients. And there are apartments only on the top floor; the rest of the space is used for offices, stores, a restaurant, etc. That means at night there's almost no one around, and it's far, far away from any normal houses. Because I would arrive around midnight each evening, I never saw a single other person there.

That said, the apartment itself and everything else was beautiful. I would recommend it to anyone visiting Traverse City, as long as you aren't bothered by the psychic vibrations left over from a century of human suffering.



—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 01:01 AM | Comments (20)

September 09, 2009


Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman Sachs CEO, looks back at the financial sector bailout:

My guess is there will be 1,000 different Ph.D. dissertations looking back at the period, each of which will find fault with one or more decisions. But those dissertations will have been written in a calm environment.

This decision-making was made under battlefield conditions, in a fog of war. Some things might have been done differently, but if you look at the constellation of the things done, it was very effective.

"And when the smoke cleared, I was standing there holding a bag with $10 billion. It was very effective."

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 12:30 PM | Comments (12)

September 08, 2009

Good & Evil

John F. Enders received a Nobel Prize in Medicine for work which led to the development of the polio vaccine. According to this book, his discoveries about how to grow large quantities of viruses prevented about 114 million people from dying of polio, measles, etc.

I also just realized he was the uncle of this guy.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 09:39 PM | Comments (14)

Ruined By Google

Bob Harris and Arthur Phillips have created a beautiful puzzle for the New York Times which you can solve online. However, I think it would be far harder and more enjoyable in a world without search engines. I for one don't store anything in my brain anymore.

It also comes with a bonus op-ed by each of them.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 05:51 AM | Comments (1)

September 06, 2009


I remember being very worried when George Stephanopoulos left the Clinton administration. Before joining it, he'd done a few things that suggested he was a decent human being. And if he'd gone on post-Clinton to do something like, say, teaching high school, I would have had to recalibrate everything I thought I knew about these people.

Fortunately, Stephanopoulos went on to host This Week on ABC. No recalibration needed!

Likewise, I became concerned when I saw Van Jones had been hired by Obama. Van Jones is a genuinely worthwhile person, from which it follows he's someone whom America's right-wing would inevitably go berserk about. Yet if Obama were willing to face down their berserkitude, this would mean I would have to redraw my mental map of who and what Obama is.

Thank god that turned out not to be necessary. I have enough on my plate as it is.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 01:56 PM | Comments (76)

September 05, 2009

Putting The "BS" In PBS

By: John Caruso

I happened by PBS the other day when they took a break to blandish us thusly:

Check, Please! Bay Area is looking for an underwriter!
If you are seeking a unique sponsorship opportunity for your business and want to reach a prime demographic group through multiple platforms email us today...

"Reach a prime demographic group through multiple platforms"?  C'mon, guys, we're sitting right here.  Can't you at least do us the courtesy of being subtle about the fact that as far as you're concerned, we're nothing but pairs of eyes for corporate sponsors?  Just little nodes of potential consumption?

FAIR was warning about this trend years ago:

In a 1986 public notice, the FCC explained that "enhanced underwriting" would offer "significant potential benefits to public broadcasting in terms of attracting additional business support."

The "benefits" of making a public broadcasting system increasingly dependent on the same corporate sponsors that fund commercial TV seem dubious. Critics charge that corporate underwriting has led PBS stations to avoid controversial issues and focus too much on programming aimed at upscale audiences, to the neglect of the public they were originally intended to serve.

(For reference, "upscale audiences" = "prime demographic group".)

There was a day not that long ago when PBS's purpose was to provide, you know, broadcasting services for the public.  Now that they're just selling audiences to advertisers like the rest of the corporate media, they really should change the name—though I suppose "Supplier of Prime Demographic Groups to Underwriters through Multiple Platforms" doesn't quite have the same ring (and SPDGUMP doesn't exactly roll off the tongue either).

While they're at it, maybe they should change their standard sponsorship message as well.  Allow me to suggest an alternative:

This program was made possible by contributions to your PBS station from Upwardly Mobile Middle Class Consumers Like You.  Thank You!  But seriously, we're just as happy getting our money from ExxonMobil.

— John Caruso

Posted at 10:31 AM | Comments (17)

September 04, 2009

Interesting Graph

Here's an interesting graph from a paper by Dean Baker called "Behind the Gap Between Productivity and Wages":


This is actually a smaller gap than I've seen elsewhere; e.g., in The State of Working America.

I'm sure Baker is the one who's right (the main difference has to do with technical details about how you deflate the productivity numbers to make them comparable across time). Nonetheless, this is kind of amazing. It suggests that if wages had gone up at the rate of productivity from 1973 onward—as they did from World War II to 73—and if this increase were taken in time rather than money, everyone could make as much in wages as they do now while only working four days a week. Or we could all work five days a week but get ten more weeks of vacation every year.

I would say more, but I'm too tired from my job.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 12:26 AM | Comments (23)

September 03, 2009

The Art of Primal-Dual Debating

By: Bernard Chazelle

Hitler's "Mein Kampf" is often regarded, fairly or not, as the lesser volume in the "Kampf" comedy series. Oh, it's a funny book all right; no one disputes that. But then, of course, when all your comedy writers are graduates of the WaffenSS-Lampoon, what else could it be? No, where the book comes in for criticism is in its lack of gravitas. It's got this annoying "News You Can Use" style that suggests the author's motivation was not just to make a mark but also to make a Mark. On page 123 of my signed copy, for instance, Hitler writes of the need to "exterminatieren die Verminen." Promising start, but what comes next has little of that Churchillian elan one might expect from a committed Nazi:

Koalas lieben, auf Eukalyptusblättern zu munchen.


Koalas love to munch on eucalyptus leaves.

I don't want to sound like a 2-bit Hitler basher and deny the practicality of that insight. Say you're debating Chomsky on national TV. You've spotted the flaw in his plan for world peace and you're ready to pounce:

"Well, well, Professor Chomsky, but aren't you forgetting that koalas love to munch on eucalyptus leaves?"

Gasp from the audience! A dejected Chomsky, his head bowed down, limps off the stage, defeated. OK, so you win the debate. But at a price! By the next day, you'll be called a plagiarist all across the blogosphere.

"Not only [insert-your-name] steals! But [insert-your-name] steals from Hitler!"

Now, you could have credited the furious Fuehrer for the koala insight, but, trust me, Professor Chomsky would have crushed you like a ripe papaya. To find your way around what is often called the "Hitler Attribution Dilemma" you must carefully study its "dual" version.

"Well, well, Professor Chomsky, but aren't you forgetting that, as Einstein once said, 2+2 is 4?"

Quoting Einstein is always a good thing. It's like speaking English with a British accent or making up Chinese proverbs. It lends the trivial a ring of profundity. But if the addition table does not deliver the goods, Hitler is there to help, that is, as long as you go for a "primal-dual" approach:

"Well, well, Professor Chomsky, but aren't you forgetting the classic Einstein-Hitler principle: 'Koalas love to munch on eucalyptus leaves as surely as 2+2 is 4'?"

That'll do. But primal-dual debating is an art you'll need to practice. It exploits the subtle tension between two cosmic forces. Think of what happens when you strap buttered toast to the back of your cat and you toss him up in the air. (Warning: This is a thought experiment. Should you ever do that to a real cat, I will dump you in a real vat of real boiling oil.) The cat will land on its feet, as cats always do, but by Murphy's law it will also land on the buttered toast, ie, on its back. Can't be both, right, so what happens?? The galaxy explodes! That's what happens!!

Same thing with primal-dual debating. As Confucius put it, "It will pulverize your adversary like a famished tiger attacking a fortune cookie." Hitler was no great fan of primal-dual debating. When his therapist suggested it to him as an alternative to invading Poland, Hitler smiled gently and quoted this classic line from his book, "I shall go all primal-primal on the Pole. And to a world aghast I shall say these three words, Go kampf yourself."

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at 11:52 AM | Comments (26)

September 01, 2009

They Aren't Working on Their Worms At All!

This is a funny story from Aimai:

Since I've been outed as Izzy's granddaughter (one of three), Tom Levenson, I'll tell you that my earliest memories of my grandfather were of watching him walk down to the Out of Town News Agency, when he was visiting, and return with a stack of newspapers. Izzy read from the back of the paper to the front, something I still do. I think it was because, as he said, "you never know on which page of the Times you'll find a page one story." Another reason was that the meat of the story was always low down and the mere teaser at the front was usually very deceptive.

He would start at the back and then tear the paper into long strips of columns that he would clip together and then compare across writers, newspapers, and of course across time and genre.

A few years ago I read a biography of Darwin. He spent years working on earthworms, every afternoon in his study. One of his sons, upon hearing that a neighbor's father was going out in the afternoon, asked "but when does he work on his worms?" That's the way I feel about the practice of reading. Surely, every journalist does the same thing? But then, you meet up with a Klein, and you find out that they *aren't working on their worms at all.*

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 11:44 AM | Comments (54)