Saturday, February 26, 2011

What follows Wisconsin?

I hope people leading the US labour movement, progressive leaders, MoveOn and whoever else are giving some thought to what comes next here, win or lose.  It seems likely winning would entail more momentum than losing, but this looks like a great candidate for a situation where losing could still mean "losing well" - it would depend how it went down, but Walker has spent a tremendous amont of political capital here, and labour has been fired up in a way they probably haven't been since Reagan fired the air traffic controllers. 

Anyway, where from here?  Seek a federal law protecting collective bargaining?  A constitutional amendement?  A series of state level ballot initiatives?  A drive to unionize Koch industries?
A win in Wisconsin would be great, but isn't enough, as the current fight is defensive in nature.  It's worth trying to make back some lost ground.  Obviously the national Democrats aren't going to lead on this.  Don't let this moment pass.

No one cares about legislative process

Watching the right's reaction to the Wisconsin situation has provided a too rare real world reversal experiment on what happens when it is the left using some procedural quirk to halt measures they oppose but that would otherwise pass easily.

For example across the twitter streams for tags like #wearewi and #wiunions you find right wingers whining about the State Senate Democrats "not showing up for work" and "not doing their jobs" and other variations.  The interesting thing is that they haven't actually settled on a talking point, probably because nothing they're trying is really working.  Voters just don't care.  They now understand something of what the Governor and Republicans were trying to do (at least the union busting part, probably less so the medicaid and privatization parts) and oppose it, vehemently.   They just don't care how the State Senate Democrats have been able to stop it, as far as voters are concerned at a moment like this, as long as the rules allow whatever is stopping the bill, they're fine with it (and more). 

This is a bit different from the filibuster fight over the past four years in that most of the time, the general public was not really aware of whatever the Republicans were obstructing.  On the occasions where the public did care, like over the health care bill, and somewhat on financial regulation reform, the reaction to Republican obstruction just depended on whether the public liked the bill.  On HCR, they were slightly opposed, so Republicans paid no real price for uniform obstruction.  On Finreg, the public supported the bill and so Reid's gambit of holding repeat cloture votes eventually did work.

The important lesson here for process reformers is to understand how vital it is that the process be fair and robust against trickery because voters just don't respond much to process issues.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Paul Rosenberg on Wisconsin

Where else?  Random Lengths News.  Go give him some click-love and maybe click on a few ads while you're there. 

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Villages raise kids, not nannies

Do you ever wonder if the people who complain most about the "nanny state" are those who grew up rich enough to actually have nannies raise them? 

Wisconsin Senate Rules

The google seems to be sending me lots of readers interested in Wisconsin Senate Rules.

I don't make any money from you reading this, but I commend you looking into the details of this story so a special post on the topic.  Sorry people paid to tell you the news couldn't bother to explain this stuff.  Here are the Wisconsin Senate Rules.  You won't find what you're looking for though, because the quorum rule that allows the State Senate Democrats to stop the Senate from conducting business is actually found in the Wisconsin State Constitution, Section 8, Article 8, which says:
Article VIII, §8
Vote on fiscal bills; quorum. Section 8. On the passage in either house of the legislature of any law which imposes, continues or renews a tax, or creates a debt or charge, or makes, continues or renews an appropriation of public or trust money, or releases, discharges or commutes a claim or demand of the state, the question shall be taken by yeas and nays, which shall be duly entered on the journal; and three-fifths of all the members elected to such house shall in all such cases be required to constitute a quorum therein.
If you don't know what "quroum" is, it simply refers to the minimum number of members of a body that need to be present in order to conduct business as that body in the official sense.  So, 1 US Senator cannot claim to be "the Senate" and speak for the entire body, or pass a bill for them.  Neither can 2.  But say 70 Senators get together somewhere, should they be allowed to conduct formal business of the Senate?  That's what quorum tries to address.  For fiscal bills like the one under dispute, Wisconsin's constitution requires that 3/5th of the members of each chamber of the legislator be present to hold a vote on the bill.  This applies even to things like Condo boards and Rotary club executive meetings.  Usually most bodies have settled on a majority of members to constitute a quorum. 

I don't know why Wisconsin chose to have this requirement in its Constitution.  However in my experience, usually supermajority requirements for "fiscal" matters (especially tax increases) are put there by conservatives to prevent anyone from raising taxes.  Notice that the article for Wisconsin does not require 3/5th attendance to lower taxes.  Lowering taxes can create a deficit.  If raising taxes is such a weighty matter to require supermajority attendance, why can they be lowered by a simple majority?   So it appears to be a bit ironic that this article is blocking conservative legislators and the conservative governor from taking away powers from unions.

What the Wisconsin Senate Democrats are doing is not new in the annals of legislative history.  For example, the US House of Representatives used to have a thing called "disappearing quorum" where members would simply not respond to quorum calls so that the House would have to halt official business if something they didn't like was about to come up for a vote and might actually pass.  This practice ended with Speaker Reed in the 1890s, which was the last vestige of non-majority rule of the US House.  The minority's ability to stymie the majority has continued in the US Senate to this day, with the vast majority of filibusters conducted by conservatives (usually Republicans but sometimes conservative Democrats).

You might be inclined to disagree with the fact that the minority party can stop a bill just by not being in the chamber.  If so I hope you were also upset at the US Senate Republicans over the previous 4 years, who, with as few as 40 members were able to stop an a historically unheard of number of things from passing by use of a slightly different means of minority obstruction, the filibuster (but the effect is mostly the same).

The Walker prank

There's a lot of great stuff within the call itself, but I also find the meta-issue that this happened at all fascinating and revealing.  We've become so used to the fact that the rich get special access to powerful elected politicians, but it really should be a scandal all on its own that in the midst of the political crisis that will almost certainly define his career, Governor Walker found time for an out-of-state billionaire who holds no office.  No journalist, in state or out of it could get ahold of the governor, nor any ordinary citizen of the state, but he drops everything to take Mr. Koch's phone call.

Take this part from Salon's interview with the prankster, who upon calling the governor's office and identifying himself as Koch was immediately put through to Walker's COS, and to pass that barrier:
I politely said hello, not knowing how friendly Gilkes and Koch may be. He was eager to help. “I was really hoping to talk directly to Scott,” I said. He said that could be arranged and that I should just leave my number. I explained to Gilkes, “My goddamn maid, Maria, put my phone in the washer. I’d have her deported, but she works for next to nothing.” Gilkes found this amusing. “I’m calling from the VOID—with the VOID, or whatever it’s called. You know, the Snype!”
The tactic of pretending to be Koch was singularly brilliant as it exposed and exploited a huge conservative weakness.  Their elected officials really are quite eager to ingratiate themselves to America's owners and despite the absurdity of a billionaire being unable to provide a call-back number, neither Walker nor his COS could stand to risk offending Koch by refusing the call.  Koch can funnel rivers of money and positive press toward a guy like Walker toward some future campaign.  If things go badly, Koch can ensure a safe landing at some no-work-required 6 figure sincecure "think tank."  He's the reigning wingnut welfare paymaster and the mid level help like Walker are thrilled to be noticed by the likes of him.

Also bleakly hilarious is that the line about deporting the maid was apparently believable enough.  We know these people are serious assholes, but shit, that's still a little incredible.

Just ask yourself what would happen if a right wing prankster got through to Obama by pretending to be Soros.  Even if Obama said nothing different from his public positions the right would make a stink about him taking Soros' calls.

This was a rare moment of using a conservative weakness against them.  I hope others can find ways to exploit their desire to suck up to the caviar class in order to trip them up. 

Fake edit:  Lawrence O'Donnell made note of the hilarity of their eagerness to take the call too.  Cool.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Warming Wednesdays: Acceptance of global warming rebounding in US

As if on cue, via the CBC I learned of this fascinating poll (PDF) that had identical polls run in Canada and the US within a couple months to provide a very interesting comparative result for attitudes toward climate change.

The poll questions seem to have originated on the US side, because the same poll has been run four times going back to 2008, which provides for some trending too, which brings us to the title:

There is Solid There is Not Solid Not Sure

Evidence of Global Evidence of Global

Warming Warming
Fall 2008 72 17 11
Fall 2009 65 20 15
Spring 2010 52 36 13
Fall 2010 58 26 16

This broadly comports to other polling on the climate crisis, but even as question wordings vary the trend is important, a 6 point gain on acceptance of the problem and a 10 point decrease on denial of the problem is good news.  Climate realists now outnumber denialists by more than 2:1.

As for Canada, the numbers are better - 80% believe global warming is happening and only 14% deny it.  I'm not one to believe in chauvanistic theories of why one nation might do better at a particular thing than another, so my guess is that this has to do with the improved Canadian media scene - we have a strong national public broadcaster in the CBC, and something akin to the Fairness doctrine which still requires news be factual.  We don't (yet anyway) have a Fox news analog so the Washington Times North (aka the National Post) can only do so much.  It's not for lack of a denialist industry or lots of people with a very strong economic incentive to disbelieve in global warming.  Given the role of Alberta, is is likely a much greater share of Canadians depend on fossil fuel extraction for their prosperity at the moment.

Here's the bad news for America:

Question Wording: For each level of government that I mention please tell me if it has a great deal of
responsibility, some responsibility or no responsibility for taking actions to reduce global warming

A Great Deal of Some No Not

Responsibility Responsibility Responsibility Sure/Refused
US Federal 43 30 22 5
65 24 8 3
US State/Province 35 37 23 5
52 36 9 2
US Local 29 36 30 5
42 42 13 2

I think this question was only asked of those who accept the planet is in fact warming because the "no responsibility" figures for both Canada and the US are less than the totals of climate deniers.  In which case, a real problem in America for building the consensus to act is rebuilding the public's understanding that government is the only actor that can adequately address the issue.  There's still too many running around under the delusion that voluntary consumer choice or market forces will solve this on their own.  Those may have some role to play in supporting key technologies as they reach critical mass, in no way can they realistically suffice to resolve the many tragedies of the commons that are built into this problem.

Still 73% of Americans who accept the reality of climate science think the Federal government has at least some responsibility for solving the problem, so it's far from hopeless.

In a way this result is somewhat the opposite of what you might expect, particularly for Canada.  Canada is not a highly centralized country and our Federal government does not actually deliver many services that ordinary Canadians use.  Healthcare, welfare and education are all delivered provincially.  The Feds run the military and the post office and issue passports as perhaps the highest profile Federal services.  Further, with just ten provinces, and only four of them comprising the vast bulk of the populace, it's actually conceivable Canada could reduce greenhouse gas emissions just by provincial action if Ontario, BC, Quebec and Alberta were on board.  That Canadians are so strongly in favour of Federal action is something of a rarity.

The entire poll is well worth reading, there are questions that demonstrate the very strong role partisan affiliation (and thus by proxy, ideology) plays in one's beliefs about the climate - and the results confirm what you'd expect with right wingers in both countries the most likely to be climate deniers.  Other questions delve into support for various policy options and ask how much individuals would be willing to pay in addtional taxes or costs to solve the climate problem.  It's a good poll and I hope they repeat it.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Atrios got me thinking about something I've been meaning to do.  That is to assemble a half decent list of the known billionaires who fund US politics.  All us dirty hippies have long known that far far more and bigger sacks of cash exist on the right, mostly courtesy of an arm length list of ultra-wealthy donors who have decided to misuse their great luck in life on an ideological mission to remake the world into a safer place for Pharohs and Princes.  According to Forbes, there were 403 American billionaires in 2010.  That isn't the whole set to worry about, I'd say Rev Moon and Rupert Murdoch belong on my list despite not being Americans. 

Here's a start:

Class Traitors Funding Fathers
George Soros Koch Brothers
Peter Lewis Rupert Murdoch
Herbert & Marion Sandler Richard Devos

Richard Mellon Scaife

Reverend Moon

Bob J. Perry

Jerry Perenchio

Robert Rowling

Sheldon Adelson

Philip Anschutz

B. Wayne Hughes

Harold Clark Simmons

Carl Lindner

John Templeton

Alexander Gus Spanos

T. Boone Pickens

Roland Arnall

Pete Peterson

Charles R. Schwab

Pete Coors

Steve Forbes

Sam Zell

August Busch III

Part of the idea here is to create a simple, visual aide that can be pointed to when encountering the usual right wing hysterics about Soros.  Soros recently pointed out himself the absurdity of Beck hyperventilating about him, when really what Beck describes actually fits Murdoch much better. 

I really tried to find some more left wing billionaires, the closest I came were Sanford Robertson and Fred Eychaner, neither of whom appear to actually be billionaires.  Of course there are such things as billionaires who hold left-wing views, but very few of them actively and regularly fund liberal/progressive ideological or Democratic partisan politics in a big way.  I'm sure a few other left(ish) wing billionaires give their $30,000 to the DNC and $2000 to a bunch of candidates, but this is pittance compared to Scaife and the Kochs actively funding the wingnut welfare system that is the vast right wing conspiracy.  Left wing billionaires tend to end up on lists like this, which is well enough as far as it goes, but eradicating malaria or polio isn't going to help much if we can't build a political movement powerful enough to get something done to avert a climate catastrophe.

There's also plenty of rich people who give to the Democratic party as part of their bet-hedging or influence peddling, but do not qualify as people actually interested in promoting any kind of left wing vision for America.  They may find the current incarnation of the Republican party too extreme, particularly on social issues, but they're not going to fund MoveOn or a new ACORN or hire dozens of left wing intellectuals to churn out research papers which overworked journalists are happy to transcribe and meet deadlines, as happens on the right.   

Also, if I start including mere hundred-millionaires then I would also include right wing funders like Fred Eschelman, and no doubt we could have a similarly slanted, albeit longer, list.

But I need help.  What major right wing funders am I missing?  What about any left wing funders?  Anyone not deserve to be on that list?  For now I would rather cast too wide a net and then whittle down based on some reasonable criteria that better distinguishes Scaife or Murdoch from some dot com billionaire that say, gives money to support net neutrality but otherwise is ideologically unremarkable in philanthropic terms.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Wisconsin: Dueling conservative villains

The polling thus far on Wisconsin has been surprisingly good for the public sector Unions.  Reading PEW's recent polling, this question struck me:

"How about when you hear of a disagreement between state or local governments and unions that represent government workers, is your first reaction to side with the governments or to side with the unions?"

Unions 44%
Governments 38%
Both/Neither 3%
Depends 5%
Unsure/Refused 10%

Could it be that having spent decades building up reflexive antipathy to government among the populace, the right has set this fight up with the public predisposed to side with the Unions?  I know they've made considerable efforts to demonize the latter too, but nowhere near what they've done in recent times to attack government.

Not to disregard all the other factors that affect public opinion on these things, but the particular phrasing of that question pits unions v government and in general the public is inclined to side with the unions.  It would be nice to think that is partly the doing of the right wing noise machine working against itself for once.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Rules blocking States from deficits and debt are dumb

From the little I understand and some moderate research, it appears that only Vermont is allowed to govern itself like a real soverign government, with every other state having some level of "balanced budget" requirement baked in.  Some of these are only a requirement that the Budget proposed by the Governor be balanced, some require the Budget plan passed to be balanced, but most others go furthest and require the actual budget as spent to balance every cycle (sometimes two years).  That last covers 37 states so it's not like some small group of ultra-red states. 

This is all deeply stupid and the cause of a great deal of misery happening today.  In Wisconsin, the misery is a deliberate strategy by conservatives and who are happy to have the excuse, but in other States from Califnornia to New York I am not convinced this is the case.  Even if it is, again, why give the politicians such a convenient excuse to hide behind?  There are already enough people out there who are eager to afflict the afflicted, why provide the get-out-of-blame free-card?

Keep in mind that many states also have rules requiring supermajorities to raise taxes so even if you get the occasional governor like Ryan Quinn in Illinois who is actually willing to increase taxes as at least part of the solution, it will often be out of reach anyway.

Canada has 13 provincial level governments (3 are technically territories but they act like provinces) ranging from tiny (Nunavut and PEI) to Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and BC which are comparable in size to many medium and larger US states (Ontario is biggest at 12M people) and all are able to run deficits and debt as their elected governments see fit.  They have no supermajority requirements for raising taxes either.  Luckily for us, this is guaranteed in our federal constitution.  Provinces can pass laws requiring balanced budgets, but the next government is typically free (and willing) to repeal such laws.

It's not utopia of course, most of the provinces have debt and in some cases the levels are a long term concern, but we have been able to ride out the Great Recession without massive public sector layoffs and other cretinous stupidity in service of absurd rules.  As far as I know of, the last time a province defaulted in Canada was during the Great Depression...and it was Alberta, currently swimming in oil money and in no danger of a repeat (though they might drown in a tailings sludge).

As I think about this now, I think this sort of thing is also a big reason why Canadian provinces are so much more powerful within Canada than States are in America.  Last time I checked, Canada's provinces actually account for more collective spending power than Ottawa.  In the States, Washington is something like 70% of the State/Federal combined spending.  Not that I'm a big proponent of "state's rights" as having strong sub-federal governments leads to its own set of problems but all these rules hamstringing State govenrments are a big reason why Washington can push them around on things like speed limits and the drinking age. Not that conservatives are generally sincere in their support of States' rights, but still a factor worth considering.

For what it's worth, Australian States also don't seem to be bound by such rules and I've not read of any great fiscal crisis or looming debt default at the State (or Federal) level there either.  In fact, this freedom of democratic government action certainly helped the government of Queensland deal with the massive floods by passing a flood tax to help cover the costs of the crisis. 

California took a big step forward in 2010 when it passed Proposition 25 and can now pass the State budget on simple majorities.  These measures can pass, and for progressives determined to focus at State level improvements, you can pretty much pick any state on this one.  There will be future recessions and even future depressions and requiring governments to balance their budgets in times of revenue crisis and weak economies has proven horrendous to all the people who can least survive it.  This needs fixing.  States should not be reliant on whether Presidents Snowe, Collins and Specter feel like allowing federal aid in order to avoid having to do stupid things like privatize parking revenue or turn off street lights.  Aside from hamstringing the economic recovery, these things are just bad for the people who have to live through them.

And Vermont?  I doubt the phantom bond vigiliantes are about to unleash their flying monkeys over a debt-to-gdp ratio of less than 20%.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Semi-apology about Wisconsin's Senate Rules

Perhaps the longest and most intensive work of original research I published at Open Left was my piece detailing that 36 State Senates do not allow filibusters by the minority.   It was not fun tracking down 50 49 (never did find Delaware's) sets of Senate rules, trying to interpret 18th and 19th century legalese and figure out whether that institution even theoretically allows a minority of members to indefinitely prevent the majority from passing bills.  Today's events in Wisconsin would evidently make my inclusion of Wisconsin in the "no-filibuster" side of the list problematic. 

In my defence, the Wisconsin Senate rules do state fairly clearly:
Senate Rule 15. Roll call, quorum. [...] A majority of the membership presently serving must be present to constitute a quorum for the transaction of business; a smaller number, however, can adjourn and may compel the attendance of absent members.
 And I would not have been satisfied with just that, as I knew various States had supermajority requirements for certain special types of legislation, like California's infamous two-thirds requirement for its Budgets.  So I had also dug up this, from the National Conference of State Legislatures, which clearly lists Wisconsin as able to pass its budget on a legislative majority basis.

All that said, clearly I missed something important.  That being Article 8, Section 8 of the Wisconsin State Constitution, which says:
Article VIII, §8
Vote on fiscal bills; quorum. Section 8. On the passage in either house of the legislature of any law which imposes, continues or renews a tax, or creates a debt or charge, or makes, continues or renews an appropriation of public or trust money, or releases, discharges or commutes a claim or demand of the state, the question shall be taken by yeas and nays, which shall be duly entered on the journal; and three-fifths of all the members elected to such house shall in all such cases be required to constitute a quorum therein.
I drew the line at reading 50 State constitutions (a guy can only take so much!) and relied on other sources like the NCSL to point out such land mines of supermajority requirement.  Looking at this, while it is technically true that Wisconsin's Senate does not allow "filibusters" in the narrow way that term is understood (protracting debate) and it is also technically true in the NCSL's defence that a straight majority vote, once held does pass the budget in Wisconsin, it still remains that minorities larger than two-fifths of either chamber can prevent business and thus prevent passage of something they are united against.  Given how widely this language is written, it covers a great deal of legislation and all of the most important stuff.  It also doubles the veto-points by granting this power to the minority of either Chamber.

I don't know the history of this provision but my guess based on the history of these things is that it's another aristocratic relic - a way for the wealthy to more easily prevent the masses from taxing or spending their money.  This makes the use of it by WI Senate Dems some nice poetic justice, to put one of these "keep the liberals from doing so much damn good" measures into actually supporting the greater good.

This only works because Republicans are trying to repeal some existing government support for the little guy, if the law didn't support public sector unionization, Republicans could just as easily use this sort of provision to prevent it from passing.

I'm also a little worried because it looks to me like a stand-alone bill repealing public sector collective bargaining rights could be passed without the three-fifths quorum so long as such a bill didn't spend any money.

Last to address the inevitable (general) claims that "you liberals were against minority obstruction when it was to your advantage now you are for it" - my take is that I would be happy to see this provision stripped from the Wisconsin State constitution.  However, while it is there, I do not claim Democrats must unilaterally disarm and never obstruct majority business where the rules allow them.  The "founders" of Wisconsin saw fit to give the minority the power to block spending bills by physically leaving the Chamber and the State, and Democrats believe this issue is sufficiently important to take such an extreme measure to prevent it.  If they fail to stop something the rules allow them to, they are complicit.  If the rules did not allow them to stop this, then voters could decide if they approved in 2012. 

I also thought Democrats should have filibustered Alito and by not doing so, they still bear some responsibility (and ill will among the base) for each and every odious decision he joins.  If Democrats had filibustered Alito, Republicans would probably have invoked the nuclear option and confirmed him on 51 votes.  Aside from the upside of ending the filibuster, they would not bear the stain of failing to stop something awful.  Wisconsin Democrats may lose this fight, but they will "lose well" in a way that builds for the future and leaves their hands clean.

Conservatives are smart to defund PBS/NPR

The move to defund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is both predictable and smart for conservatives.  PBS provides the only major newscast and investigative journalism on TV that is not from a big corporation.  They provide details and nuance into issues.  They allow thoughtful discussion.  NPR is my least favourite news channel on my satellite radio, but it is still miles better than any commercial radio for providing news and insight.  Whatever harm and weakening conservatives have done to the public broadcasters in America through relentless working the refs would and could be repaired by simply funding these organizations properly and for long periods of time.

Conservatives get why public broadcasting is bad for their cause and quite naturally oppose it.  It has nothing to do with "bias" or a desire to save money or any of that.  An America that got its information from PBS and NPR would not have believed Saddam helped Al Qaeda, or had actual WMDs in 2003 and thus would not have supported going to war in Iraq.  This is true for any number of popular and useful right wing myths from Welfare Queens to the imminent doom of Social Security.  The CPB funds local radio stations that provide actual coverage of important local affairs rather than endless police blotter murder and rape crime stories.  Accurate and appropriately ranked news is vital to democracy and the lack of it allows propagandists free rein. 

The tragedy is that so few internet liberals understand the importance of defending US public broadcasting.  There is still a neoliberal internet triumphantilist bent to the various liberal sources that assumes somehow journalism (particularly local and investigative) and news will be just fine because the market fairies will somehow figure out how to profit from click-revenue and not have it end up looking like Politco or the Huffington Post.  Once the funding goes, it will probably never come back.  Liberals allowed the right to weaken public broadcasting to the point that they no longer care what happens to it.  No doubt it will limp along for awhile based solely on donations, but if donations were going to make these organizations thrive, they already would be. 

Good luck winning the information war without the most trusted name in news (and actually even the second most trusted among ordinary Republicans).

I made my case for much stronger funding of NPR and PBS at OL.   I also explained why journalism is now a market failure.  Both posts stand up well re-reading them now.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Warming Wednesday: Daily Kos Edition

I've posted about this to the Grand Orange Satan version 4, I would appreciate anyone with GOS accounts visiting to recommend the post.

Warming Wednesday

Not the most auspicious start, but to make sure I had a post to start this off, I prepared a link dump, since sometimes reading and reviewing a few good things is mentally easier (or at least uses different mental muscles) than writing something original.  Here we go:

The UK Government has a decent introduction to the topic for the uninitiated.  Given that no less a figure in the British Conservative pantheon than Margaret Thatcher was an early accepter of the need for government intervention on the climate, I have some faith that the current British government won't pollute that guide with FUD.

In case they do, New Scientist has a similar guide.

If you're past that point, and you've never visited, time to visit the home of the global conspiracy by scientists to fund themselves doing research they don't believe in because somehow there are tons of people who spend 15 years studying just so they can bilk meagre research dollars out of government instead of actually studying stuff they find interesting.  I speak of course of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Western Antactica is still warming.  If you've ever wondered, look at this map (scroll down) and "western" antarctica is the left side, the skinny side.  I'm not positive how they picked an "east" and "west" for a continent that covers a pole, guessing it is just convention based on that map view being the norm, and the left side of standard maps being the west (since up is usually north).

The spinners of my country are worried because our oil is much dirtier than regular oil.  Saudi Arabia north they say, but in terms of actual planetary impact, perhaps we should refer to Saudi Arabia as Alberta-south.

It took awhile, but I found a group at the GOS that deals with climate and intend to follow them.  If I needed confirmation of my thesis that we don't write about this stuff enough, scrolling through 7 or 8 pages of groups dealing with pets and cooking and home repair at the premier traffic liberal blog kind of did it.

Last, bookmark this post by Krugman where he succinctly explains why changing the climate can cause increased number and severity of extreme weather events, even though we can never know for sure if any particular storm or drought is caused by climate change, we can know that we are seeing an effect in the aggregate.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The unaffordability of the safety hammock

Maybe some of the much better econo bloggers could make this point (and make it better than I) but one thing I can never get past in these endless discussions of our lavish unaffordable growth choking Western safety nets is expressed in this chart comparing (just for example), GDP per capita from 1960 and 2008 in several wealthy western countries (inflation adjusted to 2005 and converted to PPP dollars):

Data taken from page 13 of this BLS report.  If you do the math, you find that between 1960 and 2008, GDP per capita went up 276% in the US, 277% in Canada, 277% in the UK and 287% in Germany (which is really impressive given that West Germany absorbed a fairly large moribund, poorer neighbour named East Germany in 1990).

Inescapable point here being that we're all a lot richer as collective societies and while there are other variables that have some impact on the grand question of "how much social mooching we can afford" the basic fact that we're all things considered almost 3 times as wealthy as we were in the heyday of liberal social intervention should at least get mentioned once in awhile somewhere in the debate about how many poor people should freeze to death next winter and how many poor women should deliver babies suffering foetal malnutrition so that this party can go on without disruption.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Climate Change is still the big fight

If I have a big regret about my time at Open Left, it's that I didn't write more about climate change.  I did address it a few times, and Paul did fairly often but given that it is the defining challenge of the century we all certainly could have written about it a lot more.  More than anything else, the whole "game" such as it is really rests on whether we get anthropogenic global warming under control or don't.  I usually hate the "why isn't there more urgency about my favourite issue" style post when I see them, but if such complaints are ever right, this is the issue.  

Every human on earth will see downside from this.  Even the very richest will suffer some discomfort in the "uncertainty" that comes with the wars and conflicts (bad for investments), the natural disasters (which don't always respect gated communities) and the general increase in human misery worldwide (they can't all literally be sociopaths).   Problem is we can't wait for the effects to be severe enough for the rich to actually want something done about it. 

I realize a lot of the energy went when it became clear the Senate was not going to follow the House in actually doing something meaningful about it, so it appeared to be a fight for "later" (whenever that might be).  That alone should have been reason enough to change the Senate rules if those preening idiots could ever understand sheer necessity over self-interest, but unfortunately not, and unfortunately we on the outside weren't able to generate the critical mass needed to make senate reform in their immediate self-interest (it
took more than 80 years to get the noble Lords to accept elections and pass the 17th Amendment).

Still, something has to change and if the political class isn't going to supply the urgency on this, outsiders will have to.

"Warming Wednesdays"

 Ok, so to put some kind of idea out there, what if every progressive blogger and blog featured a couple posts on climate change every Wednesday?  Right now we only seem to write about it when it's "news" - which is usually whenever cable TV or newspapers find something newsworthy about the climate (face it, blogs tend to follow the news cycle for better or worse).

The title here is loosely based on the popular "follow Fridays" on Twitter, where everyone tweets the names of people they follow who they recommend others follow (and #ww doesn't seem to have any generally agreed upon meaning in the twitterverse, so why not abscond it for the cause?)

I'm not a climate blogger and while I would guess I know more about this issue than the average person, I wouldn't claim to be an expert.  But fuck it.  This needs doing and it needs everyone.  This isn't the biggest and most ambitious plan but it's something and if it got started, we could go from there.

What say you Open vets?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Conservatism is a pyramid scheme

David Kaib suggests this is worth a post and no time like the present.  I first had this thought pondering the Devos billionaires, one of the most generous and dedicated donors funding the whole conservative movement.  While most billionaires live up to the aphorism that "behind every great fortune lies a great crime" the Devos clan take it to the next level by having made their money quite literally through a pyramid scheme, that being Amway.  Having them fund movement conservatism makes the phrase "poster child" seem dim and inadequate to describe the fit.

Liberals have often lamented how conservatism is able to attract so many followers from the ranks of those who economically have almost no chance of gaining by the policies they support.  The empirical record of supply side economics and flat(ter) tax rates is lengthy and conclusive in demonstrating that only the narrowest slice of the already-rich actually net benefits by them - sometimes we say top 2% or 1% but actually in many cases the benefits go even narrower - to the top 0.1% or 0.01%.  Even a game which only 2 out of 100 players can win would be known as "gambling" but when you get to 1 in 1000 or 1 in 10000, conservatism can really be described more in terms of the lottery.  And at least with real lotteries, every player has equal odds of winning, with conservatism the winners are pre-ordained and yet the other 9999 still seem to want to play.  Why?

It's a neat trick conservatives have pulled.  They have tens of millions of middle and lower-middle class white people out marching and screaming on behalf of a couple hundred billionaires who reap the rewards of trickle down economics (which probably should be called "trickle up" economics, since that is what really happens).  It is this trick that I find most comparable to a pyramid scheme.

Most explanations focus on conservative appeals to social issues; guns, God and gays.  There is certainly something to all this, but not enough to explain polling which still shows much too large percentages of the populace in favour of the wide array of conservative economic ideas from deregulation to lowering of corporate tax rates to tort reform.  Any benefit that anyone in the bottom 98% gets from any of these is at best tangetical and is most likely beneath notice.  Even if I own shares in companies having their taxes cut (most people do not), and see an increase in my divident payouts, what will it amount to, a few dollars?  Point here being that it is not the case that conservatives win votes solely on social issues while most of their voters actually prefer liberal positions on economic issues but elevate social issues in their voting criteria.

Now, Paul Rosenberg wrote many posts showing that even the majority of conservatives are in favour of many liberal ideas - that they want increased spending on numerous social programs.  This is a complex phenomenon and I don't want to oversimplify it, but aside from the usual ideological incoherence of most people, there is duality and contradiction.  These people may support increased spending on health care, but they may also support cuts in the corporate tax rate that make such spending unsustainable.  Why they support spending on health care is not mysterious, the other side is more interesting.

I also find the separation of social and economic issues to be a little too neat, ignoring that there are commonalities between them.  It's not so much that conservative rank and file positions on social issues are consciously linked to economic issues, but that they serve similar roles:  Perpetuating power over the powerless.  Having more money is certainly a form of power, but so is maintenance of social norms and even laws that privilege some people over others.  I shouldn't need to make the link between power and desire for personal gun ownership because it should be pretty obvious.  The myriad of religious issues are typically about keeping Christianity in a defacto privleged status, where we all have to say "Merry Christmas" to each other every year, but no one worries about the correct seasonal greetings for members of any other faith.  Naturally, Christianity itself generally promotes a misogynist and hierarchical view of the world, so promoting it is promoting secular conservative values too.  On gay rights what I find most revealing is the conservative preoccupation with not "changing the definition" of the word "marriage" - as if they were all English language pedants. Partly it is just ordinary sophistry to evade the charge of bigotry for an indefensible position, but I think really they are upset that the legal privilege alloted to their special relationships would now be shared by others.   Nothing else really explains the difference in polling support for civil unions and full legal same sex marriage (and certainly most gay proponents of full marriage equality understand the social status insult inherent in only recognizing their relationships as "civil unions").  It is about saying "I am better than you."

Elevated social status

This is the underappreciated driver of many conservative issue positions.  For conservatives, status and hierarchy are part of the norm they expect to see.  The thing about hierarchy is that the person one rung from the bottom will often be the most strident defender of their prerogatives and feel they have the most to lose through a push to equality.  Thus, Corporals are often the biggest assholes toward Privates (at least initially on being promoted, usually a Sergeant sorts out these victims of their first power trip fairly quickly).  This I think is why conservatives fight so hard against anything that brings just basic equality to historically disadvantaged groups.  After all, if blacks, women and gays are no longer being stepped on, then everyone else who was previously slightly above them (poor white straight males) are now reduced in status according to a zero sum calculus.  The villian in the movie The Incredibles expressed it as "if everybody is special, than nobody is."

This belief is oneself as special and deserving of privilege can easily contribute to the next motivator for non-rich support of rich people economic policy, that is the belief that one will be rich.  Here we come full circle to the pyramid scheme angle.  These things only work on a particular kind of sucker, the kind who vastly overestimates his own abilities.  This is backed up by social science research which also reveals that those with the greatest abilities are most apt to underappreciate their abilities. 

It also makes it difficult to accept you've been fleeced (also backed empirically) which means that instead of accumulating enemies among the lives of those bilked by pyramid schemes, most victims remain in denial even if they are forced out of the scheme for losing too much money, accepting they got fleeced would be to admit their abilities are not so keen as they hoped an ego trip they're not able to make. 

Taking this back to the realm of economics, we end up with a few factors driving non-rich people to support policies that only help rich people:
  1. The belief in one's own imminent success
  2. Overestimation of one's own current economic status (not wanting to forget that upper-middle class conservatives also net-lose from upper class tax cuts, even if they see some nominal benefit at tax time)
  3. Desire to keep others down (and yourself "up" if only in comparison)
All these flaws common to the human psyche allow con artists to prosper again and again, and conservatism is just a bigger and longer con than the others. 

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Arc of history

Just bent a good bit toward the "justice" side.

Congratulations Egypt.  Keep it up.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Polling on Egypt

Like Atrios and Krugman (though not in their league) I don't have much of value to say about Egypt other than to hope the protesters get what they want, and that it doesn't turn into something horrific.  The moral calculus seems pretty obviously weighted toward supporting any reasonable attempt to overthrow a dictator, even though revolutions often go astray.

That said, reviewing the recent polling on the subject (do take a look), I think it is mostly an encouraging picture that the paranoia about the Muslim Brotherhood and imminent Caliphate from the usual suspects isn't (yet) having too much effect.

Also, people in general in both Canada and the US seem more interested in this story than I would have expected.  I doubt that many of us are worried about oil shipments through the Suez or the effects on Israel, I would guess that Egypt just has a fairly large place in western consciousness.

Haidt unsurprisingly off base on academic discrimination

Krugman points out this piece about a speech given by psychologist Jonathan Haidt complaining about the lack of ideological diversity in academia.  Krugman makes some obvious (but good) points in rebuttal, noting that ideology is understood to be a conscious choice of beliefs, not some unchangable circumstance of birth like gender, race or sexual orientation.  I'm told by people I like to read that McMegan has some predictably dumb things to say about the subject, going as far as to call for affirmative action for conservative academics. Hypocrisy for me and not for thee.

My thoughts go to two places:

1)  Conservatives believe in a lot of wrong stuff.  Things either empirically disproven or logically faulty to begin with.  Creationism is the most obvious example, and we can add in climate denial for good measure.  These aren't fringe beliefs for the right, most US conservatives are creationists and/or climate deniers.   Academia is about the pursuit of knowledge and truth and you can't expect to progress there by disavowing these.  Being wrong about germane stuff is legitimate grounds for employment discrimination.  There are a couple successful biologists who don't believe in evolution and while that proves it is occasionally possible to be a competent while rejecting a major portion of a field, such people cannot but be hampered by the baggage of these beliefs.  That's what cognitive dissonance does.  Scientists who reject very well established theories in their fields should have the onus on them to justify that and not be catered to any more than medicine should seek out Stork-theory-of-reproduction proponents.

I know there is a risk of group-think and I am not arguing for any special exclusion of conservatives, only that I see no reason to privilege the nonsense they insist on believing in over any other unorthodox theories that anyone might have.  Academia should value diversity in thinking but seeing as how they are a group of psychologists perhaps they have other ways to ensure diverse thinking that don't involve purposely hiring lots of people known to hold bad ideas as some kind of foil.   Don't they have other metrics of thinking styles or personal background that would avoid uniformity of biases?

2) I think Haidt's thinking on this is informed by the artificial moral equality he has assumed between liberal and conservative belief systems.  He starts from the premise that they are equally valid viewpoints and if that were true, it would make sense for academia to include both in good numbers.  I wrote about this awhile back, when I encountered Haidt's ideas around the differing sources of morality for liberals and conservatives:
[...] Having additional priorities to your moral calculus doesn't preclude your decisions from actually being immoral.  Just because it made moral sense to your value system doesn't mean we should all just agree to disagree.  Conservatives, according to Haidt's test results place a higher value on authority than fairness or avoiding harm.  So they'd rather not weaken a strong President who engages in torture.  Perhaps that result is internally consistent with their values, but it is still immoral, if the word is to have any meaning at all. 
(Quick primer:  Haidt's basic idea is to define five basic values: harm reduction, fairness, loyalty, authority and purity.  His empirical research shows that conservatives and liberals value these five at different levels, with liberals giving more weight to harm reduction and fairness, while conservatives tend to value all five nearly equally).

Consider what is happening when you attribute moral value to loyalty, by which Haidt mostly means loyalty to your in-group (however defined).  That is inherently an exercise in contracting the circle of compassion and leaving some group outside it in order to favour others within.  It is the thinking that allows for bigotry, racism, slavery, misogyny and oppression.  If it is moral to harm person X because of fairness or harm reduction then it doesn't matter if group loyalty also supports harming X.  If neither of these are true, then you must being doing something unfair, that does not reduce harm in order to support group loyalty by harming person X.

Consider two people in a position to disarm a shooter spraying a crowd of innocent people.  Person 1 decides to do so because the shooter is killing many people and stopping that is moral.  Person 2 decides that the shooter is "like him" in some sense, sharing some type of identity and decides not to disarm the shooter, because that would lead to one of that person's group being killed or put in jail.

Is Haidt really claiming these two value systems are morally equal? This example is admittedly extreme and I am not claiming most conservatives would decline to disarm a mass shooter if they thought the shooter was also a conservative, just that if your value system valued loyalty to the group that much, it can easily lead to absurd results.  Conservatives do routinely find that actions are moral when America does them (say, waterboarding) which are not moral when others use them (say, Japan).

It rather appears that loyalty, while a common human attribute and something we value when shown towards us, is not really inherently moral at all.  Actions are either moral or not regardless of whether one demonstrates loyalty in doing them. What is a "whistleblower" but a person performing moral yet disloyal acts?  What is a "cover up" but group loyalty protecting immoral actors from reprisal?

I might be beating this point to death but this is what happens when you ignore the sources of liberal and conservative morality.  Liberal morality preferencing harm reduction and fairness is not some accident, it is the consequence of hundreds of years of philisophical thought and development.  It's not that we don't feel any affinity towards the in-group, have any instincts toward purity and authority, but that we consciously try and override such things.  A quick trip to the latest Obama picture worship diary on the Daily Kos rec list tells you we don't succeed 100% of the time at this, but at least we try to battle the demons of our worst behaviour.

Ironically, Haidt's implied view that liberal and conservative value systems are equal is itself part of the dogma of entirely subjective morality (Sam Harris has recently taken up against this to much controversy).  I hope conservative psychologists enjoy having a moral relativist argue on their behalf.  I am a little proud as a liberal of the reaction of the field to Haidt's speech (read the NY Times piece to the end to learn how they have already begun to heed his call trying to positively support conservative psychologists) even though I think it a poor idea, I do wonder how that same call would go over at a gathering of any right wing leaning profession.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Why Autonomy?

Though the name of this blog was sort of a last minute panic to have some place to announce while I still could, I did pick it because it means something to me (though considered some kind of irreverent or semi-comedic name but nothing funny or original enough came to mind).  I first explored the concept of autonomy in my post "One Liberalism through the ages" where I used Alan Wolfe's definition for liberalism:  "As many people as possible should have as much say as is feasible over the direction their lives will take."  

Baked into that phrase is the need not just for "freedom" or "liberty" but the need for something beyond the mere absence of formal restraint those concepts entail.  That extra thing is the positive means to act on goals in addition to the negation of barriers.  That's what one needs to have that say over the direction taken in life. That's what autonomy is, and I think it is at the heart of liberalism.

I thought then and think now that autonomy is a powerful concept that liberals* should promote more often.  As it is a superset of freedom or liberty, we could dispense with those terms as insuffient to describe our goals. As I noted in the piece linked above, I have never liked the term "liberty" very much.  At least partly because it is abused so insincerely by right wing demagogues but also because it really is loved by the powerful as the absence of restrictions on their ability to take from the powerless.

This peculiar use of "liberty" by conservatives could be better broadcast to the public if liberals had a competing and powerful concept to promote, one which allowed them to critique the limits of liberty and point out how it allows conservatives to insist on deregulating business and regulating women's bodies or which consenting adults can get married.  This isn't inconsistent for them:  They're powerful (or wish to be) and regulations on business harm them.  Regulations on women or gays do not (and even empower them in some ways).

One of the powerful tools of persuasion employed by conservatives all these years is the ease with which their pundits and spokespeople can easily link complex policy discussions to simple principles.  They're often wrong or deliberately misleading, but they're good at it, and leave liberals in the disadvantaged position of trying to demonstrate how some small sacrifice of nominal personal choice or money would lead to disproportionately greater net social benefits.  So let them have freedom and liberty and instead sell autonomy.  Does policy X sacrifice autonomy for many to support freedom for a few?  Having comprehensible philisophical grounds to say why right wing policy ideas generally do just that can only help win the message war without trying to fight it the way conservatives do.

Finally, just being able to demonstrate and explain what liberalism is, while challenging conservatives to do the same would make for an important constrast.  One of the themes at Open Left was this idea that most self described conservatives and moderates actually believe in a lot of liberal policy ideas.  Decades of rigorous social science research undoubtedly bears this out, but now after listening to moderate and centrists beat the left up for two years that we can't expect too much from Obama because the country is so right wing, maybe it's time to try and change that imbalance.  We hoped to convert the persuadables by demonstrating the power of liberal ideas in practice (the whole "governing well" thing), but we didn't really get to implement the good ideas that would measurably improve their lot in life.  The New Deal model is a pipe dream for the time being, and America really can't afford to wait for another collapse caused by implementing right wing ideas.  We need a better option than waiting for another Great Depression in order to persuade America to try again for a Great Society.  Autonomy probably isn't the end-all of that but I had to start somewhere, and an attempt at a first principle seemed like the place.
* - I generally use liberal and progressive synonymously even though I know some see a distinction.  I slightly prefer liberal so I tend to use it for both.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Kim Campbell on Maher

I'm a bit late to the party on this one, but I just watched that episode of Bill Maher from a couple weeks ago that had two climate change deniers and one of them (Republican Representative Jack Kingston) is also an evolution denier (so was DL Hughley).  I can't link to a clip because HBO seems quite zealous about DMCAing even small obviously fair use clips off the internet and they don't post much up on their site

One thing I enjoyed was that the guest who did the best job defending the obvious need and rationality of accepting human caused climate change was former Canadian Prime Minister, Kim Campbell.  One thing the show neglected to mention and might have mattered in the minds of some is that Kim Campbell was a conservative.  Back then our right wing party was called the Progressive Conservatives, and they were more moderate than the current version.  Still, I wish it had come up, particularly since at one point Kingston dismissed all the climate science as "Democrat funded" and Hughley complained about people simply dismissing factual claims from those perceived to be in other camps.  That would have been an interesting moment for Maher to mention "By the way, Kim Campbell here is a conservative and thinks you're wrong..."

Of course, our contemporary Conservative party is rife with climate (and evolution) deniers so it's likely that Campbell is and maybe always was an outlier. She became leader under rare circumstances and I wonder how representative she was of conservatives even in the early 90s, who may have wanted a moderate face to make up ground lost under Mulroney.  Still, along with Margaret Thatcher she joins a very short list of conservatives who can accept science even if it implies bad things for their ideology.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

McClatchy with the must read on Fannie/Freddie

It's a great piece, but I think this needs to be put on T-shirts or something and maybe kill a zombie lie:

Q: What role did Wall Street play?
A: For most of their history, Fannie and Freddie performed their role without problems, helping home ownership grow and freeing up banks to lend more. In the late 1990's, Wall Street began aggressively pooling mortgages into bonds — called private-label mortgage-backed securities.

After 2001, these Wall Street firms focused heavily on subprime loans given to the least creditworthy borrowers. In 1999, 81 percent of new U.S. mortgages were securitized by Fannie and Freddie. By 2005 and 2006, the final years of the housing bubble and the period most characterized by the deep erosion of lending standards, Wall Street firms were securitizing two out of every three new U.S. mortgages.

Clearly Fannie and Freddie must be totally at fault for the housing meltdown.  Oh wait, also this:
Q: Didn't government requirements to lend to minorities and the poor fuel this subprime lending?
A: This is a narrative spun by some conservatives that is not grounded in fact. Beginning in 1992, Fannie and Freddie were directed to foster more lending to minorities by purchasing and securitizing these loans — when the loans met guidelines.
 Go, read, enjoy.

What is "centrism" anyway?

In my last post at OL, I touched indirectly at this topic, but couldn't work in a paragraph or two about it without straining an already long enough post.  The problem has bothered me for awhile, and it flares up every time some Villager dies or retires and they're all falling over themselves to praise that person for their centrism and moderation, as if these are self evident virtues.

As I see it, the problem with centrism is similar, but worse than the problem conservatives have in defining their beliefs, because centrism has even less meaning to it than conservatism.  Not only is it bereft of meaning in itself, but any meaning it defines is dependent on liberalism and conservatism as the "extremes" which it seeks to place itself between.  As I demonstrated in my post on conservatives' own flailing attempts to define conservatism, now imagine trying to define an ideology that relies on another incoherent ideology for meaning.  It would be stupid to define an ideology that was, say, the opposite of objectivism or marxism - the results would not likely be something anyone could really intellectually support, but at least you wouldn't have difficulty understanding what this anti-belief of those two meant.  With centrism, you have one foot in liberalism, which at least can be understood to mean something but what is the second foot standing in?  

Beyond this, if you still wish to claim that conservatism is coherent or no worse than liberalism then you have the very serious problem for centrists in asking how they "split the difference" on subjects which do not have mid-points.  It isn't a black or white world, but on many issues there isn't really any kind of useful middle ground.  Either abortion is legal or it is not.  Either same sex partners can get married or they cannot.  Yes there are psuedo compromises on those issues like carving out exceptions on abortion for rape, incest or health of the mother, but those really are themselves generally incoherent.  If a foetus is a human being with a right to life, why does the mother's lack of consent or relation to the father matter?  I realize a great many "pro-life" people would support allowing abortions in those cases, and pro-choicers should use that as they can to defend choice, but it does demonstrate that the political beliefs of many people are not thought through and consistent.  Perhaps no one is 100% consistent in their beliefs, but certainly the degree matters a great deal.

Where centrism makes some kind of sense is on issues involving numbers, because those are the most easy to split the difference on.  Liberals ask for 100 of something, conservatives want 0, maybe we settle on 50 (or in America, more likely today we settle in the "middle" at 10).  The problem here is that this only works where input and results have a linear relationship, (where spending twice as much gets you twice the amount of the desired thing).  Many things in real life do not work this way.  The stimulus was a great shining example of a chasm that could not be lept in two jumps.  Another one is global warming.  We as a species must reduce our greenhouse gas emissions below a certain level by a certain time or we risk natural tipping points making the process irreversible.  So when liberals ask for 350ppm, centrism might tell us to settle on 400ppm, but if 400ppm still results in the Siberian tundra melting and releasing vast quantities of methane, we'll still end up at a world 4-6C warmer by 2100 with all the fun and excitment that entails for all concerned.

Even something like progressive income taxation cannot really be addressed by centrism.  One of the goals of progressive taxation is to flatten the wealth curve and ensure a more equal society.   At any given time in a society, that society is either becomming more equal, more inequal or just possibly staying flat in terms of income distribution disparity growth.  If we are debating changing the tax structure, we cannot arrive at a policy recommendation in terms of numbers without understanding first what is our goal?  Do we want a more equal society or a less equal one?  Is the current structure leading to a more or less equal society?  A coherent form of centrism might seek to moderate either conservatives or liberals in the structures they propose to bring about their competing goals, but really centrists must pick a side here and actually lack any ideological basis to do so.  Do they want a more equal society?  I have no idea.

More can and should be written about this, but I just wanted to highlight the unspoken problem we observe when anyone praises Snowe or Nelson or Lieberman for being centrists.  Moreover you do see individuals proudly describing themselves as centrists and I don't think they have any sense how absurd this is.  

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Big Finance in a country run like a company

Like Paul Krugman, I have long detested the right wing meme that government should be run "like a business."  For many obvious reasons this is deeply stupid and Krugman does a better job of course on the economics of why a national economy is not like a business, and the difference is much more than just scale.

That said, let's imagine that we were going to treat the United States as a business.  What would that mean for the Big Finance MOTUs?

If you've worked for a big company, you'll probably find that there is a class divide between those whose work brings direct revenue for the company (the "profit centre" people) and those whose work does not ("cost centre").  Profit centre people are usually sales people and other front line workers who interface directly with customers, but they're also the production staff that make whatever product is sold.  Basically everyone working in the primary line of business for that company.

Everyone else works in a cost centre.  That's where I've always worked.  This is IT, HR, mailroom, legal, facilities and all the roles that don't directly contribute to incoming revenue, but either make it possible or otherwise reduce risk, cut costs and so forth.  The profit centre people couldn't actually do what they do without some amount of these people to support them, but the class divide is often very stark with greater perks and higher status given to the profit centre employees. 

Intuitively this makes some sense, though many companies take it too far and neglect the support trades which ultimately hampers the "productive" people too.

The funny thing is that in United States Inc, the Big Banks, traders, brokers and the like would all be cost centre employees.  In their own companies now they clearly walk tall as the drivers of profit for their firms, but in the grander sense of the economy, they're a burden to be minimized.  You need a certain amount of HR people to keep down misconduct and enforce policy but only so many and every extra one after that is money wasted.  Whereas with the profit centre staff, hiring more can mean more revenue, more profit, more product.

In big companies, employees in the cost centres are very aware of that status, and work to demonstrate their worth to the enterprise by trying to track such metrics that they can, to prove they're contributing to the bottom line.

We should demand the same of Big Finance.  Justify your existence.  Not just by hand waving about connecting lenders and borrowers or buyers and sellers, a web site could do that.  Prove the 15% the economy lavishes on you returns to us somehow.

Of course they couldn't, but that's the point of exercise.  Finance has some role to play, and the ideal size of that role varies with circumstances, but when we hit a point where we can't figure out what benefit United States Inc's shareholders are seeing from hiring another big-bonus banker, it's time to clean up that "department." 

Friday, February 4, 2011

RIP Open Left

If you're here, you probably came over from my farewell to arms at Open Left.

I plan to post semi-regularly as I can, keeping up the work on the subjects I like:  political systems, ideology, media and some current affairs.

One thing I'll get to do a bit more of is talk about my own country a bit more.  I did occasionally mention affairs in Canada when I thought it particularly relevant at Open Left but I also felt more constrained by writing for a US centric place to keep it topical.

Also, our affairs are most definitely not in order and my hopes for a quick Harper minority have been dashed and it remains within the realm of the possible he could get a majority.

Welcome and thanks for reading.