Tuesday, September 30, 2008

All We Need To Know

Am I the only person who feels that media coverage of the latest Wall Street turmoil and the efforts to pass the "Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008" has been lacking? I can't escape the feeling that we're being told over and over again that it's important that this thing pass, and the airwaves are full of dire warning of the consequences, but the entire scenario is no less opaque than it was when President Bush warned us that the Sky was falling and Henry Paulson submitted a plan that explicitly rejected any sort of Congressional or Judicial oversight of the Treasury Department's relief efforts. At the same time, this whole thing is often described as Wall Street foisting off $700,000,000,000.00 of their mistakes onto the taxpayers (who we are made to feel are just us ordinary joes, even though Wall Street executives and large corporations pay taxes, too) and walking away clean. The Anglican Church has weighed in on the plan, complaining that it would only take "$5 billion to save six million children's lives." and that "World leaders could find 140 times that amount for the banking system in a week." The Archbishop of York clearly doesn't understand that the EES money isn't meant as a giveaway, in the way true charity is supposed to be, but as an investment that could be reasonably expected to return at least some of the money. But since very few other people seem to either, I suppose it's only to be expected.

A lot was made of the fact that the Dow had its single largest one day POINT drop in history. But that's because there were more points to drop. In percentage terms, more of an absolute measure, the drop was the 17th largest. Still a big deal - but not the biggest catastrophe in the world. But the coverage seemed tailor-made to get people running scared.

In the end, I want the facts, just the facts, and a decent amount of the facts - and then I want to be able to make a semi-informed decision on whether or not this really is a good idea, or as urgent as we're being told that it is. Of course, it's really not possible to go from Zero to Educated in this way in a short span of time. And that's the problem. A whole raft of factors and interests have banded together, through both chance and design to render the whole system so opaque that the only thing that anyone seems able to say now is "trust us." And that's hardly been a plan with good outcomes in the past. So, as John McGuiness so correctly points out, "people need something to demonstrate that we’re not being played for suckers."

But I don't think that we'll ever see that, because I suspect that we ARE being played for suckers. And while the financial press seems to be telling us that we're not being duped, they aren't doing so in such a way that allows one to independently reach that conclusion. Although I suppose that its more accurate to say that the game has been rigged so that if Wall Street loses, everyone loses (while also allowing Wall Street to win while millions of us lose). But it's also true that Wall Street isn't a single entity, any more than "Main Street" is, and to a degree, this mess is something that we would have seen coming, if we hadn't been so busy trying to line our own pockets with what we decided was free money. In the end, our financial system is choking on the very mechanism that it designed to keep up a continuous transfer of wealth up the food chain. Yes, It's going to be painful to press the reset button, but forestalling that isn't going to help the hoi polloi any - and the pain will just be that much greater when it actually does require pressing.

Sunday, September 28, 2008


What does it mean for a candidate to "Approve this message?" MSNBC's FirstRead blog points out that the McCain Campaign released a web spot with the boilerplate candidate approval message - even though it was literally impossible for him to have seen it prior to airing, as he was still on stage at the debate from which comments in the spot are taken...

Oh, That's Just GREAT...

Now, the pirates have tanks... But I suppose the most important question is who's the rocket scientist that decided to send a shipment of hard-core military hardware into some of the most pirate-infested waters on the planet undefended? You'd think someone would have piped up with "Crave pardon, milord, but this isn't the smartest way to go about this."

The Nature of the Beast

“We make a terrible mistake believing we have to find something wrong with the people we won’t vote for.”
“You can’t tell someone else that ground on which they make their voting decision is irrational. We can’t tell anybody they don’t know what they’re doing because they vote for candidate X instead of Y.”
President William Jefferson Clinton
Both of the statements above were quoted in the "Trailhead" blog on Slate. In this particular posting, Christopher Beam makes a very interesting point after the second of these - "That’s actually a good description of what campaigning is." I suspect that this actually applies to both of the lines from President Clinton's recent statements that I've quoted above. Both of these statements were made after Senator Hillary Clinton's bid for the Democratic nomination for president had failed, and it's quite interesting to note, when the campaign was still going on, how vocally Clintonistas (one of their more flattering nicknames) found something after something to be very wrong with Senator Obama and claimed that it was irrational to the point of lunacy to vote for him. And of course, the Obamamaniacs returned the favor, round for round, without any high-profile chiding over it.

And, for those of you who may have been living under a stone somewhere, the general election campaign is shaping up in much the same way, with the partisans on both sides digging their trenches deeper and deeper and seeking to drive their Hate Train of choice straight through the other side's living rooms. It's been like this for as long as I can remember - dating back to the Carter administration.

Of course, this goes far beyond politics. You can understand each and every choice we make about or between people to be a vote of sorts, and people constantly seem to feel the need to find fault with the people they don't "vote for."

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Which Witch?

There is a video, circulating on YouTube, of now Alaska governor and vice-presidential pick Sarah Palin, receiving an anti-witchcraft blessing from a Kenyan priest. Why is this news? Why has it shown up in the newspaper, and online? Who cares? Now, if Governor Palin herself were going around, claiming to ward people against witchcraft in the name of God, that might be newsworthy. But she was attending a church service, and, basically received a blessing from someone of another culture. And that culture happens to be one of those that still harbors a widespread belief in witchcraft. (Although, given the fact that there are people in the United States who sincerely believe that Harry Potter is an enemy of God, and that Dungeons and Dragons is a gateway to Satan worship, pointing out that a belief in witches in the Third World might be the pot calling the kettle black.)

When you think of all of the functions that politicians attend in a given year, let alone across their careers, it's a pretty safe bet that some strange (to the average American) things happen on a fairly regular basis. I understand that the McCain campaign has been keeping Governor Palin away from the press, and so reporters are scrounging for tidbits to feed to the public, but it seems that this particular non-event is really scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Shoot the Message

I listened to President Bush talk about the current financial meltdown, and the need for immediate action, and immediately felt that he was engaging in scare tactics, attempting to convince me that if I didn't support his plan, that I risked my financial well-being. Surely, I thought, there is more than one way to skin this particular cat. I was also put off by his call for fixing the regulatory structure later, once the immediate crisis had passed. Yes, I know that I'm being rampantly cynical, but I think that I've been around the block enough times to understand that "we'll fix it later" is political speak for "we'll blow it off, and you'll forget about it." The President even spoke about single companies having such a huge influence on our collective financial health, without addressing the fact that no single company should ever have been encouraged to get that big in the first place.

But what I'm not sure of is why I had a negative reaction. Was the President really simply spouting rhetoric that I felt was infantilizing and designed to create support for a quick fix while dodging doing the hard (and painful) work of really fixing things? Or does the fact that I really don't think that President Bush was (is) very good at being President taking things that I'd have tolerated out of say, Harold Washington (the late Mayor of Chicago), and making them sound somehow sinister?

Do I have enough dislike of the messenger that it killed my tolerance of the message?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Are We There Yet?

I don't think that I've been this desperate for time to pass since I was a child. I can't wait for this election to be over, the winner to be inaugurated, and their first several months in office done. Just as long as it's over. I've had it up to here with both Presidential campaigns. The moronic sniping and countercharges, the bogus and manufactured outrage, the ever more blatant disregard for facts while pandering to the "greater truths" that partisan supporters hold up as reality (while pressing their fingers into their ears, and loudly singing off-key to avoid anything that might clash with that) - all of these things have left me completely disgusted with what passes for the Republic around here. It's gotten to the point where I find myself going out of my way to avoid political advertising (which is good, because it also allows me to dodge Washington State's rampantly annoying Governor's race).

It's becoming more and more difficult to resist the urge to simply not get involved. Spend the fourth of November playing Zoids Assault or shopping for new shoes or something. But, while I hate the conspiratorial tone this has, I do get the feeling that this is exactly what "they" want me to do. The primaries are done, and the campaign apparati* of Senators McCain and Obama are done looking for new votes. Now it's all about energizing/terrorizing core constituencies into turning out on election day, and introducing doubts about the other guy into those people who aren't blindly partisan one way or the other. And the purpose of those doubts, when it all comes down to it, is to keep people from voting. It's probably the single best method of voter suppression ever invented.

I don't want to reward the trend towards negativity by not voting, but I'm fed up enough with the major-party campaigns that I can't muster up any real enthusiasm or even desire to see either one of these fruitnobs elected President. On the Nth party front, there are a few candidates, but none that really capture the imagination.

But it's not yet October, so I have an entire month to see if I can find some sense of interest in the outcome of the election and revive it. I suspect that in the end, I'm going to wind up voting either for Senator Obama or Senator McCain - whomever my research shows has the least number of outright falsehoods to his name. I have a hunch as to who that will be, but we'll see if I'm right. I know this is an odd cause to be a single-issue voter around, but I guess I'm not buying that getting into the office is important enough for deception to be appropriate, but nothing that one does in office could be considered worth lying about. But then again, I know that politics is not a career that entirely honest people can ever really excel at.

* Yes, I know that apparati isn't the plural of "apparatus." But it should be.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Moral Foundations

This is an interesting website at which you can do a short quiz and find out which of five moral foundations are the most important to your own sense of right and wrong. (Thanks to Ben, for posting the TED talk that turned me on to this.) It turns out that political lefties see two of the foundations as pretty important, while people to the political right tend to see the other three as being the ones to follow. (But the response distribution is pretty skewed - a lot more political liberals than conservatives have taken the test.) Interestingly, of my top two moral foundations, one is stereotypically liberal, and the other stereotypically conservative. Which may explain why I don't naturally find myself in line with either of the major political parties.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Barack Star

This is absolutely hilarious. I wonder if the Senator really does classic rock. (Note that the pig [who does the strip in drag] is a longtime recurring character. Sometimes the punchlines write themselves.)

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Claims and Clichés

"It (sic) accelerating basic trends — recognizing that food at home is healthier, there is better control of the calories, content of food, less expensive and in tune with family values," [Tim Hammonds, president and CEO at the Food Marketing Institute, an industry trade group] said.
"More are eating out at the grocery store"
Just in case "family values" hadn't quite made it onto the list of "terms so clichéd that they're basically meaningless" yet, now it's being applied to - picking up prepared food from the grocery store, and eating it at home. I also suspect that Mr. Hammonds is trying to push "healthy" into the category as well. How is eating food prepared somewhere else at home any healthier than eating it where it was prepared? I can see how one might make the case that picking up a rotisserie chicken from a grocery store is healthier than getting, say, the 10-piece bucket of Original Recipe from Kentucky Fried - but that's a completely different issue than whether or not the same food is more healthful if I eat it at home than it would be if I ate out.

As for the rest of it, I suspect that only "less expensive" really holds up in the real world. Why does buying prepared food and bringing it home control calories or the content of food better than eating out? I doubt that food leaks calories while you're taking it home. I suppose that there might be research that shows that people tend to eat larger portions when they eat out, so that I'm not quite sure of. And as for content of food - where you eat it doesn't change that - it's who prepares it. I don't have any more control over what went into food I bring home than I do over food I eat in a restaurant. In fact, given that many casual or formal dining establishments do allow you to make certain requests concerning preparation, I'd bet that I have more control than I would in a grocery store, where the food is pre-prepared.

Hammonds is indulging in a common industry pastime - conflating two things that seem similar by describing one as having all of the positive traits of the other by linking them through a common characteristic that is unrelated to the traits in question. Going to the grocery store and preparing my own food from basic ingredients is usually (depending on what I cook, and how well I cook it) more healthful, gives me exact control of what goes into it and allows me to better control the calorie count than eating out. But that's because I prepared the food myself. Buying prepared food removes that factor. The fact that I picked it up from Safeway or Dominic's on my way home, rather than eating it at Olive Garden doesn't replace it.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Not There Yet

While it's important to understand that there are many other things in the world than taxes (like Death); if I were a single-issue voter, solely concerned with lowering my federal income tax bill, even though I am supposedly in the top 1% of worldwide annual income, I still don't make enough money in a year to vote Republican. Of course, it's never really that simple. While I like the fact that (all else being equal - which is kind of a stretch) that Senator Obama's plan would result in a lower deficit, I don't know that I care for the hint of class warfare that it brings.

Friday, September 5, 2008


Monica Guzman is a reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer who's a frequent contributor to their "The Big Blog" feature. One of her recent posts is a great little rant about recent shootings north of the Seattle area: "Skagit County shooting: 'Whatever happened to crazy?'" In it, she rips off a few paragraphs about what does happen to Crazy, at least here in Washington. It's actually really good. Judging from the relative lack of comments (and complete lack of partisan hate-mongering that P-I blogs tend to attract), it wasn't widely read. Which is a pity.

For my part, I would like to have seen "crazy" capitalized, is if it were a name. I think that would have made the idea that we're talking about people, as well as a state, more clear. But that's a minor quibble. What really caught may attention came near the end of the peice, when she said, of the shortcomings in Washington state's mental health system:

"But you probably won't read much about them again until the next tragedy, when crazy gets away from us again."
And that made me think.

Guzman is right, we won't hear much about them. Because the Post-Intelligencer, and the broader "media machine" in general, don't think that we're really all that interested in the problem. And so, in the name of keeping expenses low, and advertising revenue high, they're going to stick with stories that have a better chance of getting people to pick up a newspaper, or click over to the website. Or watch the program, or download the podcast. After all, their job is to generate audience. So nothing will be said, and we won't complain about it, because this is the way that we handle problems, isn't it? We adopt passivity as a strategy, hoping that the issue will somehow fix itself, or that some other idiot will take it upon themselves to fix things for us. And so we wait until the situation blows up in our faces, like it has recently. And then we go hunting for Someone to Blame.

There will be a frenzy around how a man who claims that he kills for God managed to avoid being treated, even while his mother was going out of her mind trying to get something done. The Blame Game will swing around to the managers of the state's mental health system, whose first priority will be to make sure that no matter what else happens, their exposure to liability is limited. Their second task will be to lie low long enough for next week's crisis, which has been steadily brewing while we studiously ignored it, too, suddenly detonates. Then we, the public, will take our torches and our pitchforks, and we'll start another witchhunt, chasing after a new Someone to Blame, and this problem will go back to being out of sight and out of mind.

Crazy will be back. It always is. And we'll ignore it - the public, the press, the politicians. Yeah, there will be activists of various stripes, that will try to rouse people to action. But their fight against public apathy will eventually mean that they'll sacrifice the truth in the name of action, and someone will call out their falsehood, and we'll prefer to think that everything they said was a lie, rather than try to understand why they were so desperate. And when Crazy gets away from us again, we'll clamor to be lead to safety, and then quietly forget again.

We always do.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Private Lives

"It's a private family matter. Life happens in families," Schmidt* said. "If people try to politicize this, the American people will be appalled by it. The fact is that the American people, who are decent people, don't appreciate intrusions into the private space of good families."
"McCain campaign's scrutiny of Palin called into question"
There is a certain irony in the fact that when I read this story, in the sidebar, immediately adjacent to this statement, "Palin says daughter, 17, is pregnant" was listed as #1 in the list of most read stories in the Seattle Times for the day. It outranked the coverage of Hurricane Gustav, and the fact that a local school district was out from a teachers strike. Clearly, to a number of folks the sex lives of the teenage children of politicians is more compelling than a low-grade natural disaster.

But beyond that, I would recommend that Schmidt spend some time in a grocery store checkout line, where entire magazines are devoted to the goings-on in the private spaces of many good families who just happen to be famous. Perhaps Schmidt really does believe that whatever it is that people do to be at the point where the paparazzi dog their every move disqualifies them from being members of "good families," but I suspect that he's simply looking to enlist the help of a public that is uncomfortable admitting to the spirit of voyeurism that thrives within it to somehow shame the media into dropping the story. Good luck with that.

* "Schmidt" appears to be some high-ranking McCain adviser. The article, which was compiled from McClatchy Newspapers, The New York Times and The Associated Press doesn't establish who they are, as is normally the case. I expect this was simply an editing oversight.

That's Not a Knife

Thai pro-government protestors wield a sling and a knife against anti-government demonstrators near the Government House, in Bangkok early morning Tuesday.
World News in Pictures

Uhmm... I think, that once it's as long as your arm, the word "knife" no longer qualifies.