Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Tom DeLay convicted for illegally laundering corporate money to finance Texas elections

I suppose this falls into the category of Better Late Than Never. Mark Kleiman can't resist an appropriate pun, "Justice DeLayed, but not denied". According to the AP story:
Former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay — once one of the most powerful and feared Republicans in Congress — was convicted Wednesday on charges he illegally funneled corporate money to Texas candidates in 2002.

Jurors deliberated for 19 hours before returning guilty verdicts against DeLay on charges of money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering. He faces up to life in prison on the money laundering charge. [....]
"Life in prison" is a hypothetical possibility because the money-laundering charge carries a potential maximum sentence of 99 years, and a separate conspiracy charge carries up to 20 years. No one believes his actual sentence will come anywhere near either of these figures.
Prosecutors said DeLay, who once held the No. 2 job in the House of Representatives and whose heavy-handed style earned him the nickname "the Hammer," used his political action committee to illegally channel $190,000 in corporate donations into 2002 Texas legislative races through a money swap. [....]

Prosecutors said DeLay conspired with two associates, John Colyandro and Jim Ellis, to use his Texas-based PAC to send $190,000 in corporate money to an arm of the Washington-based Republican National Committee, or RNC. The RNC then sent the same amount to seven Texas House candidates. Under Texas law, corporate money can't go directly to political campaigns.

Prosecutors claim the money helped Republicans take control of the Texas House. That enabled the GOP majority to push through a Delay-engineered congressional redistricting plan that sent more Texas Republicans to Congress in 2004 — and strengthened DeLay's political power.

DeLay's attorneys argued the money swap resulted in the seven candidates getting donations from individuals, which they could legally use in Texas. [....]

DeLay has chosen to have Senior Judge Pat Priest sentence him. He faces five years to life in prison on the money laundering charge and two to 20 years on the conspiracy charge. He also would be eligible for probation.

The 2005 criminal charges in Texas, as well as a separate federal investigation of DeLay's ties to disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, ended his 22-year political career representing suburban Houston. The Justice Department probe into DeLay's ties to Abramoff ended without any charges filed against DeLay.
DeLay's problem was that a Texas law going back to 1903 prohibits corporations from donating money to candidates. He tried to work out a tricky way to evade this restriction, but got caught.

This case was set in motion by Ronnie Earle, then District Attorney of Travis County—which includes the state capital of Austin—who first managed to obtain a grand jury indictment of DeLay in 2005. (At the time, Earle happened to be the only Democrat in Texas with state-wide prosecutorial jurisdiction, and the same is true of his successor.) Years of legal maneuvering, delays, and postponements then followed. But eventually, as Mark Kleiman notes, Ronnie Earle has been vindicated.

DeLay and his lawyers will undoubtedly appeal. When I saw the news, I couldn't help wondering whether the Supreme Court's notorious recent decision in the Citizens United case might get him off the hook by allowing them to challenge the constitutionality of the Texas law he broke. But after a few moments' reflection, my (highly non-expert) sense is that this probably won't save him. The Supreme Court's decision held that corporations have a constitutional right to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence election campaigns—but not necessarily to contribute money to the candidates. We'll see, I guess.

--Jeff Weintraub

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Brad DeLong offers a brief guide to depression economics ...

... and plausible sketch of how it applies to our current situation. I pass this along as an admirably clear, cogent, illuminating, and usefully thought-provoking guide for the perplexed. (And who isn't perplexed these days?)

Unless Brad objects, I would describe his analysis of the current crisis and the policy options available to deal with it as essentially neo-Keynesian, with the caveat that there are various forms and shades of neo-Keynesianism. It's worth emphasizing that this particular discussion undertakes to provide only "the spine of the topic of depression economics." There are various ways it could be fleshed out. One thought that occurs to me is that the short-term factors emphasized in this account may need to be placed in a larger and more long-term socio-economic and historical context (including, for example, the dramatic increase in economic inequality in the US since the 1970s, which in combination with other developments helped leave most families increasingly indebted and economically overstretched)—and my guess is that Brad would probably not disagree, at least in general terms. But those are matters for another lecture.

--Jeff Weintraub

Grasping Reality with Both Hands: The Semi-Daily Journal of Economist J. Bradford DeLong
November 19, 2010
The Topic of Depression Economics in a Nutshell

From my September 15, 2010 Econ 1 lecture:

Let me, once more, present to you how you should think about the topic of “depression economics.” This time, however, let me just provide you with the spine of the subject.

The US employment to population ratio over the last three years has crashed from 63.4 down to 58 point something percent of American adults. This collapse is not because we have forgotten how to make things. It is not because we’ve all decided we want to take longer vacations, or go back to school, or get in touch with our inner selves. It is not because our capital goods have mysteriously rusted away. This collapse in employment is the result of a collapse in spending, a generalized deficiency of aggregate demand, an excess of aggregate supply, pretty much everywhere in the economy.

There is only one sector I am aware of that is still at capacity: high-end restaurants within a mile of the capital in Washington DC. Those still appear to be at full employment and at full capacity. Nothing else in the economy is.

The question of why this should happen is an important one. Why should there be such crashes in the level of employment? How can it be that there is not enough spending, not enough demand in the system to put everyone who wants to work to work productively? Back in 1803 Jean-Baptiste Say observed that nobody makes except to use or to sell. and nobody sells except to buy. Thus, he argued there can be particular shortages of demand in some commodities balanced by excesses of demand for others. But “overall excess demand” is self-contradictory because everybody’s spending is someone else’s income and everyone’s income is then spent sooner or later on something. How is it that the economy can wedge itself into a position like it is in today? That is an important question.

And this question has an answer. The answer is that what we try to spend our money on does not have to be currently produced goods and services. Say’s Law says that if there is excess supply for something there has to be excess demand someplace else in the system is sound. But the excess demand does not have to be for currently-produced goods and services. The excess demand can be for financial assets. People can be trying to switch their spending away from currently-produced goods and services in order to build up the amount of financial assets they have.

That is what gets the economy wedged in a position of high unemployment—like it is today.

This is bad news for Say and good news for us. It is bad news for Say because it means there is a hole in his logic that the market system would always work well on a macroeconomic level. It is good news for us because it suggests a way to cure even a big down turn in employment and production. Such a downturn should have a cure in the form of a strategic financial intervention by the government. Find a way for the government to fix the excess demand in financial markets, and you fix the deficient demand for currently-produced goods and services—you fix the economy.

Historically, we have had three types of excess demand for finance that have produced big downturns in economies.

First, we have seen excess demand for bonds—for the pieces of paper corporations and the government issue that pay interest and eventually return your principal—for the savings vehicles that enable you to take your purchasing power, store it up, and use it in the future, with interest. When there is an excess demand for bonds—when planned savings is greater than planned investment—we then have downward pressure on the flow of currently-produced goods and services as individuals try to build up their stock of savings vehicles beyond what is possible. How large a downturn? We have a master equation from the income-and-spending approach to enable us to calculate how far the level of production will fall. We fix this kind of downturn by having the government do something to restore balance in the market for savings vehicles, the market for bonds. If it can reduce the demand for bonds or increase the supply, it can fix the excess demand for bonds and thus the deficient demand for currently-produced goods and services.

That is the type of downturn we saw in 2002. It is not the kind we have now. If it were, then bonds would be expensive—there would, after all, be high and excess demand for them. But right now risky bonds are cheap.

Second, we have also seen in history excess demands for liquid cash money. Such an excess demand produces a monetarist downturn as nearly everybody cuts back on their spending on currently-produced goods and services in order to try to build up their holdings of liquid cash money above what is possible. It is possible to tell when there is monetarist downturn: since everybody is trying to build up their stocks of liquid cash money, everybody is selling their other financial assets and thus their prices—stocks, bonds, whatever—and all their prices are low. That is not the kind of downturn we have today: today the prices of some financial assets—the liabilities of credit-worthy governments, for example—are very high.

In a monetarist downturn there is also a master equation to calculate the size of the fall in production: the quantity theory of money equation.

And here again we know how to fix the problem with the economy. If the Federal Reserve increases the stock of liquid cash money in people’s pockets enough by buying short term government bonds for cash, it relieves the excess demand for cash and so cures the deficient demand for currently-produced goods and services. That is the kind of downturn we saw in 1982.

Today, however, we have a third kind of downturn: a different kind of downturn than one generated by a shortage of money or of bonds, than a monetarist or a Keynesian downturn. We know we do not have a monetarist downturn because the prices of a number of non-money financial assets are very high. We know that we do not have a Keynesian downturn because the prices of some savings vehicles are very low. So what do we have?

We conclude that the excess demand in financial markets right now on the part of investors is an excess demand for safety: for high quality AAA-rated assets for people that hold in their portfolios. Prices of risky financial assets are low—there is no excess demand for them. Prices of safe financial assets are high—there is an excess demand for them.

Thus businesses and households have cut back on their spending on currently-produced goods and services as they all have concluded: “We don’t have enough safe assets in our portfolios. We need to stop spending so much until we build up our holdings of safe assets to a higher level.” And the fact that they cannot do so because there is a shortage of safe assets in the economy is what is keeping us wedged in this current situation of high unemployment and low capacity utilization.

Where did this excess demand for safe assets come from?

It came as a consequence of the deregulation of finance and of the securitization of mortgages, from the housing bubble and the crash, from the fact that then it turned out that investment banks that had created brand new derivative securities based on mortgages had not originated-and-distributed them but had, to a remarkable and astonishing degree, originated and kept them. They were supposed to sell off all the pieces o real estate risk in small bundles to savers all over the world. They did not.

When it turned out that these mortgage-backed securities were actually a lot riskier than had been claimed, the natural response was to fear. For not only were those securities exceptionally risky, but all debts of any financial organization thought to be holding any significant amount of mortgage-backed securities became risky as well. Thus the economy-wide supply of safe assets fell massively just at the very point in time when increasing uncertainty and the coming recession made everyone wish to hold more safe assets in their portfolios.

So what do we do now?

Cutting-edge macroeconomic theory—the theory of Say (1803) and Mill (1829)—tells us that we can fix the real-side economic downturn if we fix the excess financial market demand for safe assets. Successfully doing that would be a neat trick. Figuring out how to regulate financial markets so that we can keep it from happening it again would be an even neater trick.

So how is the government doing at this task?

There are two ways to look at it: half-full and half-empty.

The half-full way is that of Alan Blinder, adviser to the Obama campaign, and Mark Zandi, adviser to the McCain campaign. They have a paper claiming that if the government had simply stepped back in the fall of 2008 and let the economy “liquidate” itself, that right now our unemployment rate would be 16%.

The fact that the unemployment rate now is only 9.6% rather than 16%—Henry Paulson who was Bush’s secretary of the treasury and Tim Geithner who is Obama’s secretary of the treasury take pride in that as a substantial accomplishment: their policies have kept 6.5% of the American labor force from becoming unemployed.

The half-empty way is to say: “Wait a minute. The unemployment rate ought to be 5%. Even an generous estimate of how much extra structural unemployment there is in America today the unemployment rate should still not be much above 6%. But it is 9.6%. It is way above where it ought to be if the market were working smoothly and well. Policy simply has not done enough.”

That is the spine of the topic of depression economics.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Lord Glasman of Stoke Newington & Stamford Hill - A Polanyian democratic activist in the House of Lords

[Also posted, in slightly revised form, on Dissent magazine's Arguing the World blog.]

Every once in a while one gets reminded of the ways that Britain is a funny sort of place, where the interplay between modernity and tradition continues to take rather quirky forms. Consider, for example, the case of the great historian of classical antiquity Moses Israel Finkelstein—or, as he would have been known while he was teaching at CCNY in his twenties, Moe Finkelstein. If Moe Finkelstein's name doesn't ring a bell with you, part of the reason may be that in the 1950s his having been a Communist for a while in the 1930s caught up with him, McCarthy-era persecution cost him his job at Rutgers and made him unemployable in American academia, and he moved to England ... where he spent several decades at Cambridge and became, not just Moses Finley (or M.I. Finley), but SIR Moses Finley.

=> I was reminded of Moe Finkelstein's story by the latest news about my good friend Maurice Glasman (an authentically English Jew, with remaining traces of a London working-class accent to show for it).

As I explained when Glasman cross-posted something on my blog back in 2006, he's an exceptionally bright and argumentative London-based intellectual, academic, and sometime jazz musician. He spent some time as a graduate student at the European University in Florence, and we met in 1991-1992 when our paths crossed there. Since 1995 has taught Politics at London Metropolitan University.

His University website indicates that "His research interests focus on the relationship between citizenship and faith and the limits of the market"—which I guess is at least partly right, but by itself seems a little bland and limited.

I think it is fair to say that Glasman has established himself as a committed and sophisticated partisan of democracy, critical rationality, cosmopolitan imagination, community, and the pursuit of equality and as a persistent and penetrating critic of market utopianism, ethnic nationalism, the use of cultural-relativist arguments to support oppression and xenophobia, and trendy or fraudulent thinking in general. His writings include an ambitious critique of top-down "shock" marketization in post-1989 east/central Europe and its socio-political consequences, which also seeks to put this story in its larger historical and theoretical contexts, Unnecessary Suffering: Managing Market Utopia (1996). As that reference to market utopianism in the subtitle suggests, Glasman’s perspective has been profoundly influenced by the thought of Karl Polanyi, and especially by his interpretation of Polanyi’s mid-century classic, The Great Transformation. While finishing up his book, he wrote a sometimes problematic but deeply insightful and basically brilliant essay on Polanyi’s argument and some of its practical implications, "The Great Deformation: Polanyi, Poland, and the Terrors of Planned Spontaneity" (New Left Review #205, May/June 1994). Anyone interested in Polanyi and the issues he raises should read that piece. (No, Glasman doesn't write for NLR any more.)

As founder and Director of an enterprise called the Faith and Citizenship Programme, Glasman has been trying to help establish a civic practice of interfaith scriptural reasoning, in which Jews, Christians, and Muslims explain their holy books to each other. And he's working on a book about the City of London, the city's financial district, in the context of the civic impoverishment of London and destructive effects of financial deregulation for British society as a whole, provisionally titled Capital City. (For more on this subject, see here & here.)

=> Glasman's interest in community has been practical as well as intellectual. Among other things, he has been actively involved with London Citizens, an umbrella organization of community groups (see also here). As reported by a September 2010 piece in the Guardian:
The Labour party was born out of civil society groups organising against power, and he thinks Labour needs to return to that, weaning itself off a reliance on the state as the sole organising force of leftwing politics. Through his work with London Citizens, Glasman used those techniques to help organise people into persuading Ken Livingstone to agree a living wage when he was the capital's mayor.
(Back in November 2008 Glasman was excited by the fact that a former community organizer, influenced by the approach of Saul Alinsky, had gotten elected President of the United States—see "Maurice Glasman on the secret of Obama's success". I suspect that, since then, the style and substance of Obama's record in office have may disappointed some of Glasman's hopes and expectations.)

Glasman has also been trying to nudge the Labour Party back toward its historic roots as a social movement based a genuinely communitarian (and not exclusively statist) form of politics. This project might sound quixotic, but such a conclusion may be premature. His approach has generated strong interest in prominent Labour Party circles, and Glasman has developed a reputation as the intellectual godfather of "Blue Labour". In British political imagery, "blue" is the color of Toryism. But the "conservative" element in this mix does not refer to Thatcherite free-market fundamentalism, social vandalism, and unqualified endorsement of unchecked individual greed (a package more properly seen as a radical version of 19th-century economic liberalism). On the contrary, it involves more genuinely conservative concerns for protecting and revitalizing social cohesion, solidarity, moral order, and the "mediating structures" of social life (to borrow a phrase from the American conservative sociologist Peter Berger). Of course, these concerns have never been exclusively conservative, but the point is that they have been increasingly marginalized in the political perspectives of both left and right (appeals to religious bigotry don't count)—and too many people who consider themselves left-wing or "progressive" have become absurdly and self-defeatingly allergic to any talk about morality.

In April 2009 Glasman described "Blue Labour" as pointing toward "a deeply conservative socialism that places family, faith and work at the heart of a new politics of reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity." (Though at one point he apparently added that "It's also 'blue' because it's a sad moment – in a Miles Davis kind of way.") It could also be described as a deeply Polanyian socialism, since its guiding orientation owes more to Karl Polanyi than to either Marxism or the kind of technocratic social-engineering approach exemplified by the Fabian tradition in British social democracy. (And if it’s not immediately clear what a Polanyian approach to socialism would entail, one way to begin getting a sense of it might be to read “The Great Deformation.“)

According to the Guardian's Allegra Stratton, both David and Ed Miliband, the two brothers who recently competed for leadership of the Labor Party, were drawn toward Glasman's thinking "during the leadership contest after Glasman gained credit in Labour circles for helping orchestrate what some privately say saved Labour 25 seats at the general election: Gordon Brown's impassioned speech to grassroots charity London Citizens. Glasman helped to write it."

(That was an unexpectedly powerful and moving speech, by the way. It's worth watching. See Gordon Brown's last, best shot.)

For Stratton, a September 28 speech by Ed Miliband "calling for the 'good society' – to take on David Cameron's 'big society – reflects the influence of Maurice Glasman".
Along with this emphasis on work being rewarded, Glasman and Ed Miliband's university friend Marc Stears have pushed what he calls Blue Labour – disinterring the conservative strains of Labour's thinking.

Glasman has encouraged both Milibands into support for small business, a defence of the state but a demand for its reform along mutual lines and a patriotism rooted in British traditions of liberty. David Miliband called for the good society when he made a speech in August at the height of the campaign and Ed Miliband went further today [....]

Glasman's thinking also extends to practicalities: if Labour is to return to some of the principles of reciprocity and mutualism out of which it emerged in the early 20th century, then it must re-learn how to run a membership organisation. [....]
=> All this brings me to the latest news. As we all know, the British Parliament (the Mother of Parliaments, if you please) has two parts, an elected House of Commons and a House of Lords. Over the course of the past few centuries, the powers of the House of Lords have been gradually chipped away. But in characteristically Burkean fashion, the British have never done anything so drastic as abolishing it, so it's still around, and it still exercises some quasi-legislative functions—for example, it can still occasionally delay bills passed by the House of Commons. In a 1999 reform of the House of Lords, most of the hereditary Peers were expelled (though, for the moment, not quite all of them), and this chamber now consists overwhelmingly of appointed Life Peers.

For the latest round of appointments, the Labour Party had the opportunity to name ten new Life Peers. One of its nominees, in the category of Working Peers, was none other than Maurice Glasman. To quote the Guardian again:
The Labour appointments eschew the usual humdrum collection of former Labour MPs in favour of a list that includes Maurice Glasman, the academic and advocate of community politics. He will dub himself Lord Glasman of Stoke Newington and believes he may be the first peer to live above a shop with a pink front door.
So Maurice is now Lord Glasman. (Technically, I believe, he is Baron Glasman, just as Margaret Thatcher is now Baroness Thatcher.) His wife is thus Lady Glasman, and any (legitimate) children he might have are entitled to style themselves Honourable.

(As I understand it, Maurice's chosen moniker, in full, is Lord Glasman of Stoke Newington and Stamford Hill. Stoke Newington is the part of London where he lives, and Stamford Hill is the Jewish neighborhood in London where he grew up. Neither can be described as posh—though I gather that Stoke Newington is gentrifying.)

Maurice richly deserves the recognition, as well as congratulations on his elevation. On the other hand, this is a hoot. As the saying goes, there will always be an England (for better or worse). Rule, Britannia!

—Jeff Weintraub

P.S. from Friday 11/19: Maurice Glasman talks to the Germans about A New Political Economy for the Good Society - "Watch Lord Glasman of Stoke Newington and Stanford Hill discuss political economy issues and the role of the German SPD for European social democracy."

Can democracy work when people are idiots? (Professor Bainbridge & Jonathan Zasloff)

"Can democracy work when people are idiots?" is the question raised by right-of-center "libertarian" blogger Professor Bainbridge as the title of a blog post. It's a good question. And his conclusion—that "California's main problem these days is the people who live here", since "[a]pparently Californians will believe anything, no matter how moronic"—is partly correct. Bainbridge quotes from Cathleen Decker in the LA Times to illustrate:
Californians object to increasing taxes in order to pare the state's massive budget deficit, and instead favor closing the breach through spending cuts. But they oppose cuts—and even prefer more spending—on programs that make up 85% of the state's general fund obligations, a new Los Angeles Times/USC Poll has found.

That paradox rests on Californians' firm belief that the state's deficit—estimated last week at nearly $25 billion over the next 18 months—can be squared through trimming waste and inefficiencies rather than cutting the programs they hold dear. Despite tens of billions that have been cut from the state budget in recent years, just a quarter of California voters believed that state services would have to be curtailed to close the deficit.
Jonathan Zasloff of The Reality-Based Community agrees with "my friend and colleague Steve Bainbridge" up to a point ... but he adds an important part of the story that Bainbridge left out. When one of the country's two major political parties has, for decades, pursued a strategy of systematically fostering and exploiting public idiocy on these matters, that doesn't help matters.
As Steve is fond of saying, you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas. It’s even worse if you are the dogs and fleas simultaneously.
Correct. Read the rest (below).

--Jeff Weintraub

P.S. This kind of magical thinking is not restricted to Californians, of course. See How the US public thinks we should cut the federal deficit.

Jonathan Zasloff (The Reality-Based Community)
November 18, 2010
Proposition 19 Actually Passed!

Or at least it appears that a majority of Californians were already smoking some serious weed:

Californians object to increasing taxes in order to pare the state’s massive budget deficit, and instead favor closing the breach through spending cuts. But they oppose cuts—and even prefer more spending—on programs that make up 85% of the state’s general fund obligations, a new Los Angeles Times/USC Poll has found.

That paradox rests on Californians’ firm belief that the state’s deficit—estimated last week at nearly $25 billion over the next 18 months—can be squared through trimming waste and inefficiencies rather than cutting the programs they hold dear. Despite tens of billions that have been cut from the state budget in recent years, just a quarter of California voters believed that state services would have to be curtailed to close the deficit.

As is his wont, my friend and colleague Steve Bainbridge is not amused: “Can democracy work when people are idiots?,” he asks. “It’s no wonder Scientology is so big out here. Apparently Californians will believe anything, no matter how moronic.”

Very true. But there is a bigger problem here. The entire gravamen of Republican Party ideology since St. Ronald is that government is so shot through with “waste, fraud, and abuse” that we can cut it without any consequences. My UCLA colleague David Sears’ classic book on Proposition 13 carries with it an even more classic subtitle: “Something for Nothing in California.”

This may be true on Planet GOP, where tax cuts pay for themselves, where Saddam Hussein caused 9/11 and had weapons of mass destruction, where climate change is a hoax, where Barack Obama is a Marxist Muslim, where the federal government is taking over our Medicare, where progressives are derided for being too “reality-based,” where war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength. But it is not true on earth.

Republicans never meant it, of course: their hope was that they would “starve the beast” and attempt to redistribute income upward in order to turn the whole country into Mississippi, or maybe Venezuela. And now they find that the voters don’t want them to and they don’t know what to do. They have told the big lie for 30 years, but it’s hard now to say, “Oh, sorry folks: just kidding.”

As Steve is fond of saying, you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas. It’s even worse if you are the dogs and fleas simultaneously.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

How the US public thinks we should cut the federal deficit (NBC/WSJ Poll)

Andrew Sullivan points out that the responses to two items in a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll, in combination, suggest how serious the public really is about taking concrete steps to reduce the federal deficit. Many Americans claim to be very concerned about reducing the deficit (though, unlike some pundits, they put a much higher priority on reducing unemployment). So would they do this by cutting expenditures, raising taxes, or both?

Q32a [H]ow comfortable are you with the idea of spending cuts to reduce the federal deficit that would include such things as cuts to Medicare, Social Security, and defense spending? Are you very comfortable, somewhat comfortable, somewhat uncomfortable, or not comfortable at all?

Oppose: 70% ("Not comfortable at all" = 43%)
Support: 27%

(Of course, many people believe that unpopular items like welfare and foreign aid constitute a major proportion of the federal budget, so that one could achieve major cuts by slashing expenditures in those categories, plus ending earmarks, firing some civil servants, etc. But those beliefs happen to be inaccurate--or, to be less polite about it, delusional. If you oppose any cuts in spending on Medicare, Social Security, and/or the military budget, then in fact you have ruled out any significant reductions in overall federal spending.)

Q32b [H]ow comfortable are you with the idea of increasing tax revenues to reduce the federal deficit that would include such things as increasing taxes on gasoline, limiting deductions on home mortgages over five hundred thousand dollars, and changes to corporate taxes? Are you very comfortable, somewhat comfortable, somewhat uncomfortable, or not comfortable at all?

Oppose: 59% ("Not comfortable at all" = 36%)
Support: 39%

=> You can draw your own conclusions. (One obvious conclusion, of course, is that one should always take polling results with a grain of salt, especially when considering what they imply for actual public policy decisions.)

=> On the other hand, the poll results also make it clear that Americans are not opposed to all tax increases. Question #30 asks whether or not respondents favor letting the Bush tax cuts expire, which will happen automatically in 2011 unless Congress extends them. Those who favor eliminating all the Bush tax cuts plus those who favor eliminating them only for families with a taxable income over $250,000 per year (Obama's compromise proposal) add up to 49%. The proportion who favor permanently extending all the Bush tax cuts--which is the position of the Republican Party, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and so on--is 23%. (Another 23% favor extending all the tax cuts temporarily, for two or three years.)

So although the people, in their collective wisdom, are ambivalent on these issues, and seem generally unwilling to make any sacrifices themselves, perhaps their overall position isn't completely incoherent? Still, that leaves open the question of why they just voted heavily in the midterm elections for the party that is strongly committed to permanent extension of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 2% or so--a position that less than a quarter of these respondents support.

--Jeff Weintraub

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The piglet who thinks she's a puppy

A BBC World News report (11/5/2010):
A Spanish piglet has been spared the butcher after it was adopted by a dog.

The Iberic piglet was due to be sold for Christmas dinner but was turned down by the butcher in Caceres, in Spain's Extramadura region, for being too small.

Now the piglet is being looked after by the family Dog, Diana, who has welcomed it as part of her litter.
I guess the message is that, in the end, we're all mammals together--sometimes? Or perhaps the real moral to be drawn here has something to do with the mysteries of maternal love? At all events, I suspect even the coldest heart will find the video irresistibly heartwarming. To watch it, click HERE.

--Jeff Weintraub

Anti-semitism still thrives (Mick Hartley & PZ Myers)

A post by the biologist and self-described "godless liberal" PZ Myers on his Pharyngula blog, titled "Antisemitism still thrives", was followed up by some characteristically acute and illuminating commentary from Mick Hartley on his Politics & Culture blog. I think that, taken together, they speak for themselves. And the same is true for the video clip below, which I recommend watching.

=> I will add just one point. That video clip was compiled by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). MEMRI's website explains:
The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) explores the Middle East through the region’s media. MEMRI bridges the language gap which exists between the West and the Middle East, providing timely translations of Arabic, Persian, Urdu-Pashtu, and Turkish media, as well as original analysis of political, ideological, intellectual, social, cultural, and religious trends in the Middle East.
As Mick Hartley notes, MEMRI is the target of considerable hostility, abuse, criticism, defamation, and malicious innuendo from certain circles. But as far as I have been able to tell, most of the attacks (or malicious insinuations) against MEMRI come from people who would prefer not to face some unpleasant realities—including the fact that we live in an era in which significant portions of the world are infected with pervasive and virulent anti-semitic discourse reminiscent of Europe in the 1890s or even the 1930s—and who therefore respond by trying to shoot the messenger. (Of course, some of the fiercest vituperation against MEMRI comes from straightforward anti-semites and/or obsessive anti-Zionists, but it would be inaccurate and unfair to put all of MEMRI's critics and enemies in those overlapping categories.)

MEMRI does make occasional mistakes and misjudgments, and I know of some specific cases where it has been careless, tendentious, or otherwise deserving of blame. However, if anyone has ever made a serious, credible, and convincing case (I emphasize those adjectives) to support the frequent insinuations that MEMRI is systematically dishonest, misleading, inaccurate, or otherwise unreliable, I haven't seen it. When pressed, even MEMRI's harshest critics—I mean the honest ones—are often forced to concede that its reports and translations are "usually accurate" and reliable (though they also complain that MEMRI "is highly selective in what it chooses to translate", meaning that MEMRI translates things they would prefer were left in obscurity). In fact, MEMRI is an extremely valuable organization that performs an invaluable service, and otherwise well-meaning people should not swallow the propaganda campaign against MEMRI too gullibly.

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub

PZ Myers (Pharyngula)
November 15, 2010
Antisemitism still thrives

This is a very grim video; the myth of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion still lives on Muslim television. When it starts, you might be able to laugh a bit — did you know the Jews drain the blood of young boys to make matzoh balls? — but by the end, where some evil cleric is gloating over old footage of dead and dying Jews in Nazi prison camps ("look at the corpses, Allah be praised!") and that he hopes the followers of Allah will be the next to carry out this holy work, I give you fair warning that you might well be too sickened to continue.

New Trends in Arabic Anti-semitism from Henrik Clausen on Vimeo.

I'm not a fan of Israel's policies — they're becoming what they oppose — but there's clearly no possibility that they could simply stop fighting for their existence and live in peace and tolerance with neighbors who promote the kind of hate shown above.

Mick Hartley (Politics & Culture)
November 16, 2010
Antisemitism still thrives

MEMRI - the Middle East Media Research Institute - are well known for exposing the virulent anti-semitism that can be found in the Arab and Middle-Eastern media. They're controversial of course: Norman Finkelstein compared their style to the propaganda techniques of the Nazis. Ken Livingstone doesn't like them. They do have Israeli connections. Nevertheless, despite the occasional accusation of inaccuracy in translation, there really isn't much doubt about the general truth of what they show. As for the charge that they're selective; well of course they're selective. If someone rants on TV about Jews being the sons of apes and pigs, and a cancer that needs to be cleansed from the face of the earth, that's worth knowing in itself; never mind if the next programme is a weather report, or the Arab X-Factor, or if those are the only anti-semitic words spoken during the whole day's programming. No one believes that the Arab media are one non-stop anti-semitic rant. But the anti-semitism is there, and needs to be shown.

Yes, they're well known - but perhaps not well known enough. So what happens when people in the West are shown MEMRI clips? Surely it gives them a better understanding of the kind of rhetoric that Israel faces from its neighbours. Doesn't it?'s a test.

PZ Myers - a man who makes Richard Dawkins seem meek and mild - posted yesterday at his Pharyngula site under the title "Antisemitism still thrives". He has a video from Henrik Clausen of a selection of MEMRI clips put together under the title "New Trends in Arabic Anti-semitism", which, apparently, was presented to the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva back in September. It's a kind of MEMRI greatest hits, including some truly demented anti-semitic material.

PZ, as everyone calls him, is a scientist - a biologist - but Pharyngula is best known for its denigration of creationists, intelligent designers, and other such religious nutjobs, to use a favourite phrase of his. The politics of his commenters, as far as one can characterise such a thing (he gets lots of comments) is liberal left, with a strong dislike of the GOP.

PZ is of course horrified by the contents of the video:
I'm not a fan of Israel's policies — they're becoming what they oppose — but there's clearly no possibility that they could simply stop fighting for their existence and live in peace and tolerance with neighbors who promote the kind of hate shown above.
Quite what "they're becoming what they oppose" is supposed to mean I'm not sure. I'm guessing that it's some kind of Gaza-as Warsaw-ghetto type comparison. Still, he gets the point.

So...the comments. It starts off with a mild "Would you mind elaborating on the policies of Israel you disagree with and what you mean by "they're becoming what they oppose"?", but from then on it's pretty much all downhill: MEMRI's totally unreliable and biased...What the Israelis say about the Arabs is much worse...Any hatred of the Jews is purely a reaction to what the Jews are doing. There's no criticism of Islam beyond a constant repeating of the view that all religions are equally bad, and Christianity is a whole lot worse. Even those trying to resist the flow of the comments - and there are a few - preface their remarks by saying how they're no friend of Israel, but, or yes, Israel commits terrible crimes, but.

By about 100 comments in, all pretence has vanished:

"Jewish asshole. Can't spend time thinking about how much of an asshole you are, can you, jew."

"Fuck Israel."

Or this:
Professor Myers, you have my respect, gratitude and admiration as an atheist. However, the Israeli's treat the Palestinians the same as the jews were treated by the NAZI's.
Is it possible that your job is on the line if you say anything against Israel, Zionists or Jews. I think you may have been notified because you seem to favor Israel.
Sir, please show a similiar video of Israeli's insanity so we will know you are against all hate and villifacation.
Keep up the good fight and thank you.
Antisemitism still thrives? You bet.

[I should perhaps make clear that I'm not holding PZ responsible for the comments on his site. He's said before that he's not interested in censoring or deleting them, and anyway I think he's off in Mexico at the moment]

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Liveblogging World War II - Mussolini Invades Greece (October 28, 1940)

Since the beginning of September of this year (with one precursor, I believe, in October 2009), Brad DeLong has been Liveblogging World War II—posting items, day by day, lifted from 70 years before. This has been a very interesting and illuminating series, and I hope Brad keeps it up.

At the end of last week, Brad marked the 70th anniversary of Mussolini's invasion of Greece with these two posts:

Liveblogging World War II: October 28, 1940
Mussolini's fascist Italy attacks Greece

Liveblogging World War II: October 29, 1940
William Shirer on the German propaganda response

Both of those posts are worth reading in full, but this video clip from the first one may be of particular interest (especially, though not exclusively, for those of you who know Greek):

The second post quotes from a report by the Berlin-based American journalist William Shirer (who later wrote The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich) that includes the following passage:
German military people, always contemptuous of the Italians, tell me Greece will be no walk-way for Mussolini’s legions. The mountainous terrain is difficult for motorized units to operate in and moreover, they say, the Greeks have the best mountain artillery in Europe. General Metaxas, the Premier, and quite a few Greek officers have been trained at Potsdam, the Germans tell me.
As it happens, the Greek army inflicted a quite humiliating defeat on the Italians, not just repulsing the invasion but pushing into Italian-occupied Albania as well. In order to save Mussolini from the consequences of his folly, and to prevent the British from consolidating a military presence in Greece, Hitler was forced to launch a full-scale invasion of the Balkans, overrunning Yugoslavia on the way to Greece. The long-run consequences included death, destruction, and suffering on a massive scale in both Greece and Yugoslavia. But this diversion delayed Hitler from launching Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union, and that delay may have been the crucial factor that prevented the Germans from capturing Moscow before the onset of winter, thus saving the Soviet Union from collapse and wrecking Hitler's grand gamble. (These points are all highly controversial among historians, of course, but that scenario is not at all implausible.) So Mussolini's foolish invasion of Greece, combined with the effective Greek military response, may have inadvertently saved civilization. That seems worth commemorating.

--Jeff Weintraub

Election day in 1860

Another useful tip from Brad DeLong: The New York Times Starts Liveblogging the Civil War:
One-hundred-and-fifty years ago, Americans went to war with themselves. Disunion revisits and reconsiders America's most perilous period -- using contemporary accounts, diaries, images and historical assessments to follow the Civil War as it unfolded.
It should not be forgotten that back in the 19th century democratic politics in the US were rowdy and passionate. On the other hand, unlike today, rates of turnout for elections were, as Walter Dean Burnham once put it, consistently "awesome".

--Jeff Weintraub

New York Times Opinionator blog
November 1, 2010, 9:00 pm
Head-Stompers, Wrench-Swingers and Wide Awakes
By Adam Goodheart

New York, Nov. 2, 1860

Young Republicans with axes! New York firemen run amok!

Welcome to election week, 1860.

Hurled brickbats, smashed glass and howled curses were the soundtrack of American electoral politics a century and a half ago. The oratorical eloquence that most people today associate with the 19th century — those resonant fanfares of prose carved upon monuments, enshrined in history textbooks, hammered into the brains of 10th graders — often provided little more than the faintest melodic line, drowned out amid the percussive din. Last week’s notorious “head-stomping” incident outside a Senate debate in Kentucky, footage of which has drawn nationwide condemnation and half a million views on YouTube, seems almost gentle in comparison.

On the last Friday night before the 1860 election, Senator William H. Seward delivered a rousing Republican campaign address to a large outdoor gathering on 14th Street in Manhattan. Afterward, crowds of pro-Lincoln “Wide Awakes” fanned out through the surrounding area. Wide Awakes, members of an organization with strong paramilitary overtones, could be a menacing sight: they wore military-style caps and shrouded themselves in long black capes made of a shiny fabric that reflected the flames of the torches they carried. Some strapped axes to their backs, in tribute to their rail-splitting hero.

The Library of Congress: New York Wide Awakes marching, autumn 1860.

According to the next day’s Times and other papers, things began to spin out of control when supporters of a rival presidential contender, John Bell, charged toward the Lincoln men, “calling them ‘negro stealers,’ ‘sons of b____s,’ &c.” At the corner of 12th Street and Fourth Avenue, several dozen volunteer firemen — members of Engine Company 23 — joined the fray, swinging roundhouse blows with clubs and heavy iron wrenches that the Wide Awakes tried to parry with their torches. But the tide of battle turned when the young Republicans brought their Lincoln axes into play. They chased the enemy back into the company firehouse and promptly began smashing down its barricaded doors, as other idealistic marchers flung bricks and cobblestones. (News reports are vague about what finally ended the fracas.)

Similar disturbances happened almost daily in various East Coast cities. In Baltimore the previous night, Republican marchers had been pelted with stones and rotten eggs. (That city was justly known as “Mobtown”; dozens sometimes died in a single campaign season there.) In Washington on Election Day itself, pro-slavery forces stormed a Wide Awake clubhouse a block or two from the Capitol. The attackers practically demolished the building and were only narrowly prevented from burning the ruin — along with several Wide Awakes trapped on the third floor — by the timely arrival of police.

There was little talk of bipartisan civility during that particular election cycle.


New York Times, Nov. 3, 1860; New York Tribune, Nov. 3, 1860; New York Herald, Nov. 5, 1860; Baltimore Sun, Nov. 2, 1860; Public Ledger (Philadelphia), Nov. 3, 1860; Jon Grinspan, “‘Young Men for War’: The Wide Awakes and Lincoln’s 1860 Presidential Campaign” (Journal of American History, September 2009); David Grimsted, “American Mobbing, 1828-1861: Toward Civil War.”

Adam Goodheart is the author of “1861: The Civil War Awakening,” to be published in April by Alfred A. Knopf. He lives in Washington, D.C., and on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where he is the Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Is the US Senate insufficiently entertaining?

Jeffrey Goldberg sometimes wonders. "A Part of Me Would Love to See This in the Senate", he admits.

Not too big a part, I hope. After Tuesday, the US Congress will probably be spooky enough without Christine O'Donnell.

--Jeff Weintraub