THE LIPSTICK-ADORNED PIG

Posted in Rants on March 18th, 2010 by Ed

Visiting the U.S. for the first time has to be weird for foreigners. This has been the case for as long as America has been a nation, and in fact a French guy made quite a name for himself writing about our peculiarities for a Continental audience over two centuries ago. We've always been a bit "different" and like most countries we're rather proud of (some of) our unique attributes. But I think we are starting to overdo it with the cognitive dissonance. We're far and away the wealthiest nation on Earth but we sure as hell don't look like it. We've built a magnificent castle of wealth on top of crumbling, centuries-old infrastructure in which no one seems willing or able to invest. The effect is not unlike seeing a decrepit trailer park with a 2010 Bugatti Veyron parked out front.

Two anecdotes are relevant before we move on.

First, I have a friend who was raised in Berlin Wall-era Eastern Europe. I once asked her to recount her impression, having been raised in a much different society and subject to considerable anti-American propaganda, of seeing America for the first time. She responded that she was amazed at how shabby it was (being in the South at the time didn't help). Potholed, filthy streets lined with boarded up buildings. Trash everywhere. Public transportation systems that would embarrass any other nation on Earth. Say what you will about the failings of the Communist system, she concluded, but at least it was clean and looked like someone gave a shit about it.

Second, the company at which I worked in Chicago for several years briefly took in a Kenyan exchange student studying law at a university in the city. He accompanied me on a field visit to a hospital in the decrepit Austin neighborhood on the far west side. He surveyed the neighborhood and said "This looks exactly like Nairobi." That made me incredibly sad. It didn't help 30 seconds later when he added "Actually, most of Nairobi is nicer than this."

I don't think many Americans understand this. We raise our children to believe that everyone else in the world wants to come live in America. Most of us, I think, believe that America looks terribly impressive to foreign visitors. I seriously doubt that Los Angeles is impressive to a traveler. Other countries have shitholes too, so I assume most visitors have seen one before.


Pictured: St. Louis. Or maybe Mogadishu. I don't know.

The NYT has recently emphasized the fact that most major cities' sewage networks are crumbling. Many date back to the 19th Century and are literally leaking shit into our water. Our roads and bridges are disintegrating (and occasionally fails at considerable economic and human cost). Our society and economy rest upon a "third world power grid" that occasionally fails spectacularly. The average African country has better, newer, cheaper cell phone infrastructure. We lose (waste) seven billion gallons of clean, treated water every day through the leaks in our water system. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that it would take a five year investment of over two trillion dollars to bring the nation's road, levee, and utility infrastructure up to a passing grade. Not even an A. Just a C. And this doesn't even include general urban blight – the collapsing tenements, abandoned businesses, and wagon-rut roads.

Our theory, aided considerably by how continuously broke state and local governments are, seems to be of the patch-and-pray variety: do just enough to prevent total collapse and hope it holds up. We did precious little to address this with the Federal stimulus package, most likely because the right would have gone into hysterics over infrastructure projects as a Trojan Horse for funneling kickbacks to organized labor. Not that we could use blue collar jobs these days.

It makes perfect sense that Americans, like many people, adopt the ego-defensive position that we live in a great place. While we certainly don't need anything else to be sad about these days, I can't help but wonder why more people do not look around and think, "Wow. Was this place always such a dump?" Instead we tell ourselves that billions of people around the globe secretly long to live in Spartanburg or Waco or Merced. Sure they do, Billy. Sure they do.

DICK ARMEY: AS SMART AS HE IS RELEVANT

Posted in Rants on March 16th, 2010 by Ed

You have to hand it to Dick Armey. He gets a phenomenal amount of attention from the mainstream media considering that he died in 2002. Or so many of us thought. Nay, wished. But after several lucrative years of consummate Beltway insider status as the top dawg at lobbying titans DLA Piper, Armey has emerged as the unofficial spokesman of the anti-Washington Teabagging movement as the head of the so-totally-grassroots "FreedomWorks" group. That's right, eight term Congressman and multimillionaire lobbyist Dick Armey, leading a populist movement.

Frighteningly, it now appears that he is more convincing as a salt-of-the-earth populist than as a historian. Bear in mind that this guy used to be a professor of economics. He has a Ph.D. and taught at a not-bad university for several years. Keep that in mind. Remember that.

On Monday, Dr. Dick gave a speech at the National Press Club in DC, which is just the sort of thing a regular Joe does. The topic of his ramblings was, as best I can tell, a re-telling of 400 years of American history through the eyes of a Teabagger. As an aperitif he began in 1600 with Jamestown ("Jamestown colony, when it was first founded as a socialist venture, dang near failed with everybody dead and dying in the snow.") Yes, it was the typical 16th Century socialism. If it didn't work then, why would it work now? Let us also remember the lesson of the earlier Roanoke Colony, which failed in 1587 because of the capital gains tax.

The eminent historian continued by reprimanding non-Teabaggers (i.e., not "real" Americans) for failing to understand our founding period. At this point you might want to make sure that you are sitting on something that resists stains, because this is about to get pants-shittingly awesome.

"The small-government conservative movement, which includes people who call themselves the tea party patriots and so forth, is about the principles of liberty as embodied in the Constitution, the understanding of which is fleshed out if you read things like the Federalist Papers." The problem with Democrats and other "people here who do not cherish America the way we do is they did not read the Federalist Papers. Who the heck do these people think they are to try to sit in this town with their audacity and second-guess the greatest genius, most creative genius, in the history of the world?"

The most creative genius in the history of the world? More creative than Beethoven, DaVinci, or Falco? Oh my. But here comes the best part. Apparently one of the Teabaggers submitted a question about how Alexander Hamilton – you know, author of the goddamn Federalist Papers and the Federalist – could be an inspiration for the movement given that he was "widely recognized then and now as an advocate of a strong central government." Good question, albeit a considerable understatement. The man devoted his entire life to a powerful, supreme Federal government.

"Widely regarded by whom? Today's modern ill-informed political science professors? . . . I just doubt that was the case in fact about Hamilton."

OK. Before I go on, I have to disclose my status as a modern, ill-informed political science professor.

Having read the Federalist Papers in their entirety at least a half-dozen times and a few specific papers many times more, it is painfully obvious that Dick Armey has never read the Federalist Papers. He may in fact have no idea who Alexander Hamilton is.

Another possibility is that he is stupid like a fox. Totally unprepared for a real question – how did this guy get past the screeners anyway? – he quickly read the situation and gave the best answer for the audience at hand. Dick Armey probably knows who Alexander Hamilton is and what the man stood for, but he also knows damn well that not a single person in that audience has read the Federalist Papers or knows anything about Hamilton. So he dismissively recasts Hamilton as a states' rights advocate whose record is distorted by liberal elites. Sounds pretty plausible to the average Teabagger, no?

It's that kind of rapid-fire reaction that makes Dick Armey, Ph.D., in such high demand among the K Street oligarchs who pay handsomely to have him lead their populist revolt. Who said there are no second acts in American life.

SATISFICING AND COCKTAIL WIENERS

Posted in Rants on March 15th, 2010 by Ed

Sometimes – OK, most of the time – I think it would be pretty cool to be a Big Name Blogger; carried by major media outlets, rubbing shoulders with media celebrities, and raking in 50,000 hits per day. Then I remember that popularity of that kind draws one into the Beltway world and, given enough time and exposure to the media Villagers, turns you into another milquetoasty cog in the machine that churns out the bland, "moderate" product that passes for journalism these days. Fortunately I'll never have to figure this out firsthand but I think that no matter how progressive you are, every day immersed in that world makes you sound just a little bit more like David Brooks. Before anyone realizes what happened you're on TV telling the President to run to the center. You start talking about being "mature" and "realistic" with alarming regularity. Policy advocacy goes out the window in favor of satisficing (Herbert Simon's wonderful portmanteau of satisfy and suffice) and accept catering to the mushy center. Maybe something in cocktail wieners – or whatever gets served at exclusive Beltway circle jerks – makes settling for mediocrity seem appealing.

Ezra Klein is a pretty good read. He has widely been considered one of the bright lights in a dim field of political commentators. This makes it all the more shocking to see him grab his ankles for Evan Bayh in this puzzling, rambling, open-ended interview. Bayh makes some valid points and of course his premise – that the Senate is fundamentally flawed – is reasonable. At the same time he is using Klein to go on the traditional Retiring Senator Jeremiad about how irrevocably broken the institution is, how valiantly he tried to make it right, and how in the end the forces of Evil were just too powerful. The fact is that Evan Bayh is exactly what is wrong with the Senate and I find it irresponsible at best that Klein not only failed to call him on it but served as a one-man cheering section throughout Bayh's sanctimonious, pedantic, Lieberman-esque lecture.

He complains about the "six year campaign." What meaningful campaign finance reforms did he propose or vote for during his tenure?

He whines about the influence of moneyed interests. No doubt his principled opposition to health care reform was not influenced by the millions and millions of dollars that Indiana insurance giant WellPoint channeled through Mrs. Bayh as a poorly disguised bribe.

He complains about self-interest a few paragraphs after complaining about how he'd never get a chairmanship because of the Democratic rules.

His grand example of the failure to protect the common good is the members of his own party who refused to cater to GOP talking points about "deficit reduction" and the discredited economics that underlie them.

He says "Ezra, is we're on the path of political least resistance. Make no hard decisions…" after he quit.

He talks about real statesmanship being defined as making tough choices and doing something for the good of the whole even if it isn't your preference. Why did he repeatedly hold up his own party's legislation until it looked more like Evan Bayh wanted it to look? (i.e. like something the Republicans wrote)

He calls himself a "progressive" repeatedly and Klein is too busy sucking to call him out on it.

He talks repeatedly about being a deficit hawk and Klein never asks him why he voted to repeal the Estate Tax and for the massive Bush-era tax cuts.

Bayh's grand message is that good people are caught up in a bad system. That sounds more than a bit like the Nuremburg Defense. The system is made up of people, and Evan Bayh is one of them. Maybe the problem is more complex than Senate rules and the need for constant fundraising. Maybe the real problem is that retiring Senators suddenly start talking about very big ideas that were strangely absent during their time in office. Now that he has had this spiritual epiphany he's quitting a position of tremendous power because attempting to fix the problem would be too hard. Thanks for playing. I have fifty bucks that says he takes a lobbying job six months after his term ends.

I hope Ezra Klein re-reads this a few times and does to his own work what he failed to do in his talk with Bayh; that is, to ask a few critical, tough questions about his performance.

WOW

Posted in Quick Hits on March 15th, 2010 by Ed

Your enthusiasm for the academic literature on Congressional oversight is palpable. I knew that post needed more dick jokes.

BUT IT'S A REALLY IMPRESSIVE PHONE

Posted in Rants on March 15th, 2010 by Ed

The speed with which most academic research is obsoleted, especially in the social and behavioral sciences, is something of a punchline. It is deserved to some extent, but there are a number of "classics" in any field which stand the test of time. In political science, McCubbins and Schwartz produced their seminal work on Congressional oversight in 1984 and it hasn't been improved upon in the intervening years (although Aderbach's Keeping the Watchful Eye from 1990 expands upon it). If this paragraph has thus far caused your eyes to glaze, I promise this is more interesting than it sounds.

Congress is constantly delegating authority to various Federal agencies – the EPA, Securities and Exchange Commission, FDA, etc. – and one of the fundamental questions of politics is how (or if) Congress can control them after handing over the keys. Staffed largely by unelected (and un-fire-able) civil servants, the agencies are something of a leviathan and Congress can very quickly lose control of policy. Traditionally it was thought that oversight required Congress to hover over the agencies and crack the whip when they deviate from their mission. Yet there is no evidence that this happened, so it was widely assumed that Congressional oversight was limited at best.

McCubbins and Schwartz relied on a very old concept – classic Madisonian pluralism – to solve the puzzle. Their analogy, not to mention the title of the paper, is "Fire alarms vs. police patrols." The police engage in costly hands-on oversight. They cruise around looking for crimes being committed and, provided the offender is black or Latino, they chase after them yelling, "Stop, evildoer!" This is time- and labor-intensive. It costs a lot of money. But preventing crime is judged to be worth the cost. The fire department operates much differently. They don't cruise around looking for fires. They are organized to respond quickly, but only when someone says "Hey, there's a fire!" In this scenario, you and I are effectively the regulators.

This idea was intended to describe how Congress monitors regulatory agencies, but it has come to accurately describe the behavior of regulators themselves. This is partly by design – Reagan-era ideas about "getting government off our backs" – and partly of financial necessity. The public and interest groups become the regulators, sounding the "fire alarm" when necessary. It's not always a great system. The Food & Drug Administration (or the FAA, or OSHA, or whatever) has nowhere near enough people to do police patrols, actively seeking out safety violations. So they respond to fire alarms, i.e. a few dozen people get e.coli, someone loses an arm in a kick press, or a plane goes down. Both the regulatory agencies and the Congress that ostensibly monitors them are designed to react, not to prevent. Neither the political will nor the resources to engage in preventative regulation exist.

OK. Now the point.

Mike draws our attention to an old Baseline Scenario piece on the House GOP version of financial reform, which is relevant because what is about to come out of the Senate is really, really similar:

…creates an Office of Consumer Protection within the [Financial Institutions Regulator]. The Office of Consumer protection is responsible for all consumer protection rulemaking under the Consumer Credit Protection Act, and will coordinate with the other divisions of the FIR in enforcing consumer protection. Establishes a consumer complaint hotline for the timely referral and remedy of consumer complaints, regardless of charter type or regulatory structure. Requires the Office of Consumer Protection to use extensive consumer testing prior to the promulgation of new consumer protections. Requires a comprehensive review of consumer protection rules and regulations on a regular basis with reports to be issued to Congress based on inaction or action with regards to consumer protection standards.

So the GOP idea of regulation is a hotline, a phone in the basement at Treasury. We wait until something devastating happens and then we spring into action…by calling this number and saying "Hey, something devastating happened!" well after the opportunity to do anything meaningful has passed. N.B. the cute language about "testing" regulations and doing a periodic review so Congress has a regular opportunity to cut whatever the banks are complaining about.

It is entirely understandable that Congress oversees regulatory agencies in this manner. Their time is finite and the demands for their attention are many. For the agencies themselves, however, this is demonstrably the worst possible way to regulate. It gives us little more than good autopsies; the role of Federal agencies is to show up after the fact and explain the disaster they failed to prevent. So what we are getting in terms of financial reform (and I defer the nuts/bolts to Mike) is a regulatory body that will be empowered to do little except write a nice, detailed 9/11 Commission Report for the next crash. If we can't regulate derivatives I guess that's the next best thing, right?

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NPF: MOUSETRAP

Posted in No Politics Friday on March 12th, 2010 by Ed

Mousetrap was one of my favorite games when I was young and, I assume, would still be pretty awesome as an adult if I threw caution and recommended age limits to the wind and started playing with children's board games. So you can imagine my delight upon seeing this. It's quite real, shot in one continuous take. Allegedly it took two months to build.

Yes, the song blows. Yes, that's the dancing-on-treadmills guys. Yes, that kicks as much ass the 10th time one sees it as the first.

The funny thing is that it probably cost a grand total of about $50,000 to produce and yet it entertained me far more than any of the crap with eight- or nine-figure production costs that passed through theaters in the past year. But I suppose that's not a bold statement in a year in which Jeff Bridges was named the best actor (for some movie I've never heard of) and the big, groundbreaking news out of the Oscars was that they nominated a fat person for an award.

This is a roundabout way of saying that either I am getting older and harder to please or movies just aren't very good lately. There was a time not terribly long ago that I saw a few dozen movies annually, ranging from shit-gets-blowed-up summer action garbage to art house fare. This past year I think I saw about five movies, two of which starred Meryl Streep and which I attended under protest. Lately it all looks the same – same actors, same directors, same tired plots, etc. Is this what getting old is all about? Saying "I've seen this all before" and meaning it literally?

RFNPR: CANOLA OIL

Posted in Random Facts on March 11th, 2010 by Ed

(Random Facts of No Particular Relevance are exactly what the name implies. If the reader relies upon one of these facts to win money on a game show I am entitled to 10% off the top. That's pre-tax. On the other hand, you may use these to achieve mastery of bar trivia free of charge.)

"Canola", as in canola oil, is an acronym for "Canadian oil, low acid." The plant from which the oil is produced is called rapeseed. For some strange reason they must have doubted that consumers would want to buy or eat something called "rapeseed."

You're welcome.

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STANDARD DEVIATIONS

Posted in Rants on March 11th, 2010 by Ed

Black conservatives amaze me. Seeing black commentators parroting Trent Lott's talking points causes the same reaction I had the first time I attended a live Rocky Horror screening. I stare in slack-jawed wonder and ask myself, "Who in the hell are these people, and what could have gone so wrong in their lives to make them like this?" Staring at a freakshow is usually entertaining, but this is…this is too many standard deviations away from normal. A student writing a doctoral dissertation on personality disorders could have a field day with Larry Elder, Armstrong "On the White House Payroll to Pimp NCLB" Williams, Star "Abortion should be illegal now that I've had four of them" Parker, Thomas Sowell, Fox News pinup girl Angela McGlowan, or La Shawn Barber. That could fill several hundred pages before we even got to Alan Keyes.

When I read something like Walter Williams' latest – and I'm convinced that Intellectual Chernobyl syndicates WW for the sole purpose of making Star Parker look smart in comparison – I end up conflicted over the motives and mindset of the average black conservative pundit/politico. Try crawling inside the head of a black person who would write the following:

Most politicians, and probably most Americans, see health care as a right. Thus, whether a person has the means to pay for medical services or not, he is nonetheless entitled to them. Let's ask ourselves a few questions about this vision.

Say a person, let's call him Harry, suffers from diabetes and he has no means to pay a laboratory for blood work, a doctor for treatment and a pharmacy for medication. Does Harry have a right to XYZ lab's and Dr. Jones' services and a prescription from a pharmacist? And, if those services are not provided without charge, should Harry be able to call for criminal sanctions against those persons for violating his rights to health care?

You say, "Williams, that would come very close to slavery if one person had the right to force someone to serve him without pay." You're right.

There can be but a small number of explanations for such fatuousness.

1. An African-American version of the "self-hating Jew" phenomenon. Society scapegoats and marginalizes them to the point that they snap and turn on not only their own people but themselves. Their self-flagellation happens to be a valuable commodity in the marketplace of ideas.

2. They are extremely savvy businesspeople who don't really believe what they say but realize that one can make a handsome living as The Black Guytm in a monochromatic conservative movement desperate for diversity. Race provides them a competitive advantage in the marketplace because they can say all kinds of phenomenally racist shit, including comparing lots of things to slavery, but it can't be racist if a Black Guytm says it! Can it? Sure can't!

3. This is some sort of Dadaist performance art, a minstrel show for the 21st Century. Bill Kristol pounds out ragtime tunes on an old piano while Larry Elder and the rest of the crew shuffle around on stage for our sick amusement.

4. They are either not smart enough or not reflective enough to realize that, you know, it's a little weird for a black columnist to be so ideologically aligned with people who are closet, or in Limbaugh's case explicit, racists. I'm sure there are lots of black people who believe in things like smaller government or outlawing abortion, but it's hard to imagine anyone believing them strongly enough to overlook the entire southern wing of the party and the attitudes of its white media figureheads.

Is it bad that I often consider #3 the most plausible?

It's no secret that 95%-plus of African Americans run from the GOP like it is an incontinent, fire-spewing dragon with a thousand heads. The party grasps at non-stories like the Kenneth Gladney thing "like a rope ladder over a stream of crocodiles" simply because they know the movement has absolutely nothing to offer black voters except a bunch of white people with pre-1960 attitudes toward them. Those who don't run leave us to ask the same question that comes to mind every time Michael Steele steps in front of a camera – is he a dupe, a self-loathing basketcase, or a particularly shrewd and amoral person who sleeps well at night as long as he's raking in the cash?

WELCOME TO THE INTERNETS

Posted in Quick Hits on March 10th, 2010 by Ed

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FRAT PACK

Posted in Rants on March 10th, 2010 by Ed

Someone should do a study on what percentage of men in the industries colloquially lumped under "Wall Street" – banking, finance, etc. – are former fratboys. I deal with a lot of fratboys, obviously, and I must say in fairness that they are a highly polarized group. They are a not-quite-even mix of dedicated, conscientious students of above-average intelligence and some of the laziest, meanest, most entitled borderline sociopaths (inability to feel remorse or accept responsibility for one's actions being particularly rampant) you'd ever hope to avoid meeting. The former invariably go to law school or the public sector, as many of them have connected friends who can land them desirable Capitol Hill type employment. The latter, realizing that law school is, you know, hard and stuff, get MBAs or have Dad land them some vague position in "business." It is essentially impossible for me to listen to some lazy kid in a backward baseball cap whining about his grade without silently wondering which mutual fund he is going to end up managing straight into the ground in ten years.

Admittedly I am flying by the pant seat here, lacking empirical evidence to support the anecdotal. But I'll be damned if I can read the transcripts of AIG employees alternately spitting venom at the public and whining like children at the mere prospect of not getting a second round of bonuses on the taxpayer's dime without noting, "These guys sound exactly like fratboys." The poor logic, the self-righteous appeals to fairness, the victimhood, the sense of entitlement, and the naked disgust for people they consider inferior (i.e. everyone) are all there in spades.

"To be honest with you, I really hope it blows up. I think the U.S. taxpayer deserves to lose a trillion dollars over this thing for the way they have behaved."

That is just one quote and may or may not be representative of all the people involved. Regardless, it has to be a bit shocking coming from an employee of a company that would not exist today without taxpayer intervention. Whether or not the people working for the company today were involved in the Credit Default Swap trading that brought the company to the brink of ruin, the fact remains that AIG would already be moldering on the dustbin of history next to Lehman Brothers, Enron, and the Edsel.

Apparently the majority of the aggrieved employees received their second round of bonuses anyway. Irrespective of that, I have a suggestion for any of them who feel mistreated by AIG, the taxpayer, or Washington: look for another job. Surely one of the big banks, investing houses, or insurance companies will be looking for sharp new employees with that magic AIG touch. In fact I just saw this ad posted on Monster.com:

BIG EGOS WANTED. Seeking analysts and traders for growing Financial Products division. Experience with insolvent companies a plus. Inflated sense of self-worth desirable but not required. Must be prepared to take on challenges and work to bankrupt the division with minimal supervision. Provide list of three references who can speak to your staggering ineptitude and child-like ignorance of financial markets. No blacks.

The reality is that "AIG Financial Products division" looks about as good on a resume as "Producer – The Chevy Chase Show", "Giuliani 2008 Campaign Manager" or "One time my roommate blacked out and I raped him." It takes a special kind of person to maintain a sense of entitlement after being generously bailed out and thus saved from unemployment. Fortunately our universities are chock full of the next generation of young minds who fit the bill.