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Monday, December 27, 2010

The spirit and structure of German fascism

by John MacBeath Watkins

"Fascism" is a word that gets thrown around a lot, but it has achieved such a mythic status that it's easy to forget what a popular movement it was.  We tend to think of it like passenger pigeons, a thing that once turned the sky black, but now is gone.

I've run across a 1937 book, The Spirit and Structure of German Fascism, written by American economist Robert A. Brady, who was enamored of Thorstein Veblen's approach to economics.  Because he was writing before WW II, Brady was able to describe fascism as it was on the rise, without dismissing it as an aberration or simply an evil force like the ethereal  epidemic forces blamed for disease before the discovery of germs.

The Great Depression led to unrest, gaining adherents for fringe parties on the left and right.  In Germany, as in France, both the Communist Party and the Fascists gained strength.  They offered contrasting visions of society; the Communists advocated a classless society where all men were equal, while the Fascists saw a rigid caste system as natural.  The Social Darwinist strain in German politics -- sometimes called neo-Darwinism, and not to be confused with more recent uses of that term -- was there in World War I, as noted here.

The fascists believed so strongly in the heritability of merit that they insisted that sons of industrialists should be industrialists, the sons of laborers should be laborers, and so on.  Germany had made the last forms of serfdom illegal less than 100 years before WW II, so the notion that people were born to their station was a familiar one in German culture.  "Class war," therefore, was a crime against nature, not merely wrong, but repellent  Keep that in mind next time you hear someone accuse people of "class war."

The Fascists did not consider science objective.  Each nation had a science natural to them, they maintained, and any science that claimed to be universal was "Jewish" and false.  The "science" of racial hygiene was far more acceptable.

They offered a suffering people a scapegoat to blame.  The first German pogrom was in the 11th century and they continued for centuries, so this had a familiar feel as well.

The Führerprinzip, or leader principle, dictated that some are born to lead, some are born to follow, and the Führer's word superseded any written law.  This is why people of the generation that fought World War II were struck by Richard Nixon's explanation that "when the president does it, that means it's not illegal."  It smacked of the Führerprinzip.

Because the leader was wise, and the people should obey, a leader could use whatever means necessary to persuade people to do what needed to be done.  This willingness to mislead in order to lead is similar to Lenin's theory that the intellectual vanguard could say whatever they needed to in order to get people to do what was needed.

"Totalitarian" is a term invented by Italian Fascists, and was aspirational rather than condemnatory.  Mussolini boasted that Fascism politicized everything spiritual and human: "Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state."

Professional norms for government prosecutors, for example, would be replaced by the political expediency of the Fascist Party.  It's the ultimate in big-government conservatism; as Goebbels noted, people could think and say whatever they liked as long as they didn't mind going to a concentration camp.  Brady's book, published in 1937, quoted that remark, so it wasn't just a wartime expediency, it was a peacetime policy as well.  I know a number of intellectuals died in concentration camps for what they said against fascism, but I've never seen a figure for how many.

We should keep two things in mind about fascism.  One is that not only are officially fascist parties banned in Italy and Germany, politicians are aware that they have a branding problem, so any politician who adopts the aims or methods of the fascists will not only avoid the label, they will object strenuously to its application to them.

The second is somewhat countervailing to the first.  I call it the "shave the whales" problem, in honor of Scott Adams' cartoon illustrating the problem.  The reasoning goes like this:  Whales are mammals.  Mammals are hairy.  Shave the whales.

Similarly, we might point out that Hitler was a vegetarian.  Hitler was a Nazi.  Not all vegetarians, however, are Nazi.

When people adopt the aims and methods once associated with fascism, we should object to them for the harm they do, not who was associated with them.  The value of a book like Brady's is that it helps us know where such ideas lead.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

crow myths spun off from the PBS program

By Jamie Lutton

    Crow Myths spawned by 

    I still have not found out the name of the PBS program (which I suppose I could just persist with Goggle, but it did not turn up yet.) I did  discover that that PBS program has spawned some wild tales about crows. The show  seems to have been broadcast a couple of times, and the tales of the brilliant crows among us has grown in the telling.  I have heard all sorts of variants on the tales of the prowess and intellectual ability of crows; a great many of the stories surpass what the program revealed.. The wildest reaction was the young man who told me very seriously that he worried about when the crows would learn how to use matches, as they would become pyromaniacs and burn down our cities.  His friend said, jokingly, that he was ready to bow down before his Crow Masters, when they reveal themselves in all their glory.. Most of the stories that were related to me involved tales of the wonderful ability of the crows to recognize faces, and that scientists had to wear masks at the UW so they would not be attacked by crows they had experimented on.  Many of the stories involved crows uncanny ability to recognize human beings from great distances.

None of those stories were true; the real studies were far more pedestrian. The PBS program discussed studies of how well the crow populations all over the world adapted to urban environments, that they recognized faces after many years after one short exposure, and that one group of crows in one geographical area in South East Asia seem to be smarter than primates. They could perform many difficult tricks to get food from boxes.

But the general rumor  that the crows are brilliant, and are studying mankind, and have been studying mankind forever, seems to have led to a greater respect and affection for the birds.   Perhaps people will be less likely to throw rocks, hit them with sticks, poison them, and hate them, if they have heard these tall tales.Perhaps they will learn to understand why they might get divebombed in the spring, when the baby crows are trying their wings out.

A crow attacted me - not

by Jamie Lutton

  Whenever I talk about watching crows, I always here this remark "a crow attacked me, once". Often people are filled with fear of crows, as if any rational creature that small would take on a human being.  What is going on is, I believe, is that a crow will dive bomb a human, usually hit the top of a human's head, then fly off, when the clumsy feet of a human are near a baby crow. Usually, the human as no idea that the baby crow is anywhere nearby, but the mama crow (who has done the attack) is hyper- aware of the baby, and wants to distract the human from the baby underfoot. This is my theory, anyway.

  To improve my knowledge of crows, I went and bought two crow books the day after Christmas:. CROW PLANET and CORVUS.  I will be able to pepper this blog with facts about crows, now, instead of conjecture.

        This morning, I missed my bus, so the crows and I kept close company while I waited for the second one, in the light December rain. I was working today across town, so I needed a bus. Two very aggressive crows ran along the top of a brick wall, cawing at me, while I walked to the bus stop.  They were only a foot or two feet from me, at hip level, on this wall. They got very nervous, when I turned to look at them. For a few heartbeats, I was very close to them, and I could see every feathered muscle, the curve of the leg, all gleaming black and their curious eyes on me, asthey examined me with the same curiosity I examined them.  Then, they edged away sideways, the way these birds do; but not too far, still staring at me, still standing on the wall.. I placed a few crow treats at the top of the wall, which disappeared quickly. They ate and grabbed treats quickly, then flew away, with beaks loaded with treats. .

         I put down another pile of treats, on the top of the wall by the bus stop, farther north.  This caused consternation with the crows, as getting a treat meant that they would have to get close to me.  There was great hoarse cawing and vocalization, back and forth, as more crows appeared, that roosted in the tree and on the telephone lines overhead.  A crow would land on the wall, eye the pile of treats, then fly away, as I was too close to the goodies.  There was a good bit of standing and staring at the treats, and at me, looking for a trap or a trick or a fast movement from me. Eventually, one would edge up sideways, grab one, and fly away.  This happened till the pile was down to four or five treats, and then I would add ten or so. This would make the crows in the tree squawk more, as they knew that a bolder crow might get the goodies. I did the several times, with bold crows getting a treat or two or three - often grabbing a treat with one jammed down their throats, as they grabbed another, while their more timid relatives commented on their rash actions, from the trees.  When I boarded my bus, most of the group descended on the pile, and jostled each other over what I had left for them.

  Once in a while, some human would  walk in front of this scene, and would ignore what was happening, as they were in their own worlds; either on a cell phone, or talking to their friends, or listening to music. But a few people, women, noticed what I was doing, and nodded at the birds and me, who would get spooked by them and fly up for a while.   I told them I was watching the birds for my blog, and one said that they had fed the birds,  but not recently; we both agreed that they were beautiful.

        The bus driver remarked that he had 'been attacked' when I told him I watched crows; I said in passing to him that is was probably a crow defending 'his' nest, but it is hard to explain what probably happened in a few sentences. Crows get a bad rap because their children are so hard to raise in an urban environment, with so few trees and ground cover for them.

  I had watched a PBS special that said that crows take a while to learn how to fly; and that they flop about on the ground a bit till they get their proper use of their wings down.  I can visualize a mama crow being nearby, ready to attack the head of any human who got too near a baby crow, even though they might not see the baby.

           This did happen to me once years ago. I had a crow attack my head for no particular reason, one June morning. I was more curious than concerned; I went to a pet store to get a treat for the crow, but she or he was long gone.  I figured out what happened only when I saw the PBS special, which I have to recommend to my readers here.  I will try to find out the name of the program; and post it here; it was broadcast in the last 6 months; and it was a study on the intelligence of crows, conducted by the University of Washington scientists. They banded baby crows, and watched them over a few years, for their ability to identify faces.

            I will do a separate blog on the way that study has entered the local  folklore - next  time.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The camera lie

by Jamie Lutton.

People watch me tossing treats to the crows. Some of them overcome the local reticence to ask me what I am doing. I tell them that I am photographing the crows, or filming them.

I have to give a reason for what I doing. It is not enough that I like to watch them, or that I am (actually) writing about them. I feed crows a lot more than I write about them. Photography sounds somehow more official and useful than just watching the crows; watching them for its own sake.

I have recorded in my brain all sorts of images of wintertime antics of crows, and not one dot of film or photographs. The lie is to keep some pecksnifian from calling the police, or from just telling me not to. And, somehow, what I am doing feels illegal and wrong; so I toss treats to the birds furtively, in back alleys, and side streets. I don't want to yelled at; one of those yelling sessions that freeze the blood and makes one head hang in shame. In a big city like this one, people who monitor your behavior are all around. So, I have my official lie, and I keep merrily on, every early morning, watching the crows, and they watch me.

What is wrong with just looking at something? The fixation on photographing something is so wrong, somehow. The camera gets between you and the observation at hand. Even when I look down at my hands, when I am prying my bag open, to get treats out, I am missing a moment of watching the birds, and I miss so much. If I had a camera, or film camera, I would be trying to get the birds to pose, to capture a particularly farcical or beautiful moment or sequence in flight, and spoil our friendship.

Also, I can't afford a good camera, and I am afraid of breaking an expensive one, after I got one. So some of this altitude is from poverty, really.  I do not have money to invest in gadgets to record my birds.  I still feel, though, that it would not be the same. It never could be the same as standing in the winter rain, getting my hair soaked, getting rather cold, and looking at wet crows, their feathers soaked. Some of the birds, their feathers stick up like wet hair on a human, from the pounding rain. They stop and shake the rain off, from time to time, like little black cats.  But this does not seem to deter them, really.  We  endure the weather together, for a little time, so that we can have a bit of throw,  get and eat the  dog treats.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Mysterious crow business

by Jamie Lutton

I could not sleep; I was miserable, depressed, dark thoughts; I don't feel very well at night any more. I have had a grim fall; lost my father just a month ago, who I was very close to. I am plagued with bad dreams. So, I got up early, left my house before dawn. Watched this crow, at the top of this tall pine tree, cawing its heart out,with great volume, about two blocks from my apartment. I tried to lure it down to me; I stood in the middle of the road, and cawed back at it, and waved treats at it. Tossed a few on the ground.

But it scorned me, looking out over the city, cawing and cawing and cawing. It was cold, and raining a bit, and the top of the tree swayed in the wind. But the crow was on mysterious crow business, and had no time for me, cawing and looking out over the pre-dawn city landscape. This morning, I got up even earlier. I saw no crows at all; heard some peepings from some unidentified small birds, and some seagulls go by. They seem to rise first.

It was still rather dark out; at 7:15. This was the shortest day of the year; but the weather was good. It had rained overnight, like yesterday, but was not raining just then. Almost warm.

Overhead, I saw a group of crows flying south, about eight of them, up high, on some purposeful trip nothing to do with humans. They were croaking faintly to each other, as they flew. When I came around the corner, to get coffee, there were no crows about at all. It was still dark; all I could see were seagulls up high, crying out. I got my coffee, and chatted with the owner at the tiny drive-through coffee stand, and watched the sky. Suddenly, from several directions, crows appeared, and roosted in the top of this tree across the street from me, at the very top of the tree. They roosted close to each other,and as far as I could tell, were almost silent. They were croaking at each other, quietly, talking crow business, I supposing making plans for the day. There were at least 20 of them, roosting close to each other. I tried to get their attention; nothing doing. Nothing worked. I stood in the middle of the crosswalk, and stared at them; waived my arm. They were busy with their plans for world domination, or just planing their cribbage game later. Finally, after a good five minutes, a smaller, skinny crow, peeled off, and flew over my head, and stared at me, then another. I knew what that meant. I crossed the street ( I had been watching them from across the street, to see them better) and went around the corner. Threw out a couple of treats to the birds who had peeled off from the group. There was suddenly a flurry, and the whole group came around the building, to check me out. The usual hilarity ensued; with a black cloud of crows - and a few seagulls - fighting, flying, floating up and over the treats I threw out for them. I ducked inside the big grocery store to get my breakfast and lunch for my 12 hour day at work; when I walked over to the front door, one little fellow buzzed my right ear, then landed near my right foot. I threw him a treat at this feet, specially for him. When I came back out the front door, I had a welcoming committee of a few crows. As I walked to work, I threw out a one treat at a time, aiming them at specific birds who had gotten closest to me. Usually I threw handfuls of dog treats on other mornings, this made it a better game, as they had to be fast to beat their friends for the treats I threw. It was a greater challenge than when I threw twenty treats at a time; then everyone would get one. Also, I was walking down the main street, which they do not like as much; too many people, even at that hour.

I got to work; and only one lone crow was still with me, perched high up on a telephone wire, silent, staring at me. I threw him five treats, then went in to work, and to write this.

I now know I can get up before the crows, and watch their secret morning meetings. I know that I will never know all their business, or even a tiny fraction of it. Their games with people are a sideline for them; just
like me petting a dog or throwing sticks for it. That they get food from us is merely a hobby for them; I am sure that before people were in the New World; they had other rich sources for food, that were just a sideline to their important crow business.

I can only stare up, and speculate about what they are up to, before I begin my mysterious work for the day, that they might puzzle about, as they escort me to my place of work, hitting me up for dog treats, buzzing my head, staring down at me from telephone lines and trees.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Gold, air power, and blimps on a computer screen

by John MacBeath Watkins

Ron Paul's website has a post about his views on the money supply, and it contains one of the most wonderful images I've seen in a polemic in some time.

"What, then, is fiat money? It’s exactly what we just talked about: money that can be inflated or increased at the push of a button at the say-so of a powerful person or organization. Nowadays most dollars are just blimps on a computer screen and it’s extremely easy for the Federal Reserve to create money out of thin air whenever they want to."

There you go, blimps on a computer screen.  Spend them however you like.

(The text has been changed to "blips on a computer screen" on Ron Paul's website, which demonstrates why you can't trust electronic media to say the same thing every time you read it. You see, it lacks the permanence of octopus ink.)

Actually, while it's not entirely clear who wrote that post, Ron Paul is an advocate of the gold standard, or even the use of gold and silver as a medium of payment.  He regards "fiat currency" as unreliable and prone to rust, just like the cars were back in the 1970s.

But the interesting thing, to me, is the confusion about what money is.  With Federal Reserve notes, the dollar bill is (in linguistic terms) a signifier, signing that a dollar in value belongs to the bearer.  We can think of money as a favor owed to the person who owns it.  If you have a lot of dollars, the world owes you a lot of favors.

The thing is, gold and silver mean the same thing when used as currency.  They also have a use value, for electronics, jewelry, and fancy dining utensils.  Those dual roles actually interfere with them serving either role well. Why should the gold used in electronics cost more because confidence in the banks is shaky?  Why should the money supply increase when a miner hits the mother lode, or decrease when a treasure ship sinks?

Those problems help explain why France was so helpless in the Second World War.  Japan, then Britain, then Germany, then America, then France dropped the gold standard during the Great Depression.  Here are the economic results, in terms of industrial production:

That's from here:

The result was that France, which had fought Germany to a standstill in World War I, was poorly equipped for WW II.  Most of the French aces in their brief resistance to the German forces flew the Curtis P-36 Hawk.  You probably haven't heard of it, because it was generally considered obsolete at the beginning of the war, but Curtis could deliver then on time, with spares, in the quantity ordered, so they were the most advanced aircraft widely available to the French at the time of the invasion.  There were better French designs, but their industrial base had eroded to the point that they could not be produced in sufficient quantity, in time, and in good operating order.  In WW I, the British had difficulty equaling the French aircraft industry, and the Americans were barely in the game, but ill-advised monetary policy eliminated that advantage, and no doubt this was reflected in all areas of industry, leaving the French nearly helpless against the German juggernaut.

If you understand value as a favor owed, notes on a piece of paper make a lot of sense for keeping track of them.  If you're confused about what money is, and think only things with a use value, such as gold or silver, have real value, you are adopting the failed policy of the French prior to WW II.  So why isn't the gold standard the Freedom Fries of monetary policy?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Agnotology, the science of our time

by John MacBeath Watkins

I've discovered a new word, agnotology, "the science of creating ignorance."  It was coined in 2001 by Robert N. Proctor, a Stanford University professor specializing in the history of science and technology.  The idea applies to deliberate efforts to create doubt about science, such as the tobacco company pushback on cancer research, and the unintended consequences of concealing information for other purposes, like the military's classification of research that would have confirmed plate tectonics about a decade sooner than actually occurred.

In 2003, Proctor organized the first conference on the topic, titled "Agnatology: The Cultural Production of Ignorance," held at Pennsylvania State University.

Proctor and others propose that the flood of knowledge now available may not be creating a more knowledgeable citizenry.  When people are overwhelmed by the quantity of information available, they have to look to elites to select which information they need to know.  Our increasingly polarized society produces a situation where different groups pick different elites.  Those who watch Fox News will be presented with quite different information than those who watch MSNBC, and those who (horrors!) do not watch television may get their information from blogs with names like Red State (conservative) or Conscience of a Liberal (I think you can figure that one out.)

The result is that different groups are judging what is true from different sets of information, often cherry-picked to lead to the conclusion the source wants the viewer/reader to come to.  The problem here is not just the flood of information, it's a deeper one involving the splintering of our society and the splintering of which elites different groups choose to regard as legitimate.

In a court of law, a case may be thrown out if the prosecutor is found to have concealed exculpatory information.  In the court of public opinion, no such rule applies.  As a result, manipulation of information, even outright lies, can be rewarded.  If an elite trusted by a large part of the population (I'm looking at you, Fox News) won't report that the politicians it favors have lied, the backers of those politicians won't mend their ways.  If exculpatory information is concealed (nope, no death panels in this here healthcare bill) the lie will win the day.

Of course, this will only happen if a powerful group takes the Leninist position that the intellectual vanguard must be willing to mislead the masses to guide them to the proper action.  I knew people like that in graduate school, where they tended to be Marxists.  Now we have recovering Marxists like David Horowitz who are conservatives, and we see some of the methods of the old "new left" adopted by the new right.

Ferdinand de Saussure, the father of modern linguistics, believed that words give us the categories we use in symbolic thought.  Perhaps now that we have a word for it, we can think more carefully about the practice of agnotology.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Stalked by a Murder of Crows

by Jamie Lutton

Hello, faithful reader(s). Over the last month or so, I have discovered why people in general do not feed crows. Not that I have stopped, but there are a few problems with the habit.

They find out where you live. A few mornings ago, I was buzzed on my balcony, near my elevator, by a cheerful fellow, who cawed at me. He flew right in front of my face, as I looked at the view. When I went outside, he and his friends greeted me enthusiastically and cawed at me till I gave them dog biscuits.

This particular group of about eight eats the trash left outside a group home for mental patients two blocks from my apartment. They get fairly close to me, perching on NO PARKING WEST OF HERE signs, looking down at me, and shifting from one foot to another on the telephone wires overhead. If I keep walking, they buzz over my head, flying in great graceful loops, forlornly, trying to get my attention. I usually toss them a few dog treats, maybe twice, then I keep walking. A few of them follow me, and caw at me for more, flying over the street and landing in front of me as I walk away from them. I usually toss a extra biscuit or two. They peel off after a block, I think, for a reason. The crows on the next block are territorial.

Near where I get my coffee, across the street from an outdoor coffee drive through hut, for years a woman has put down pounds and pounds of feed for birds at dawn. This attracts pigeons, gulls, and of course crows. The crows wait now until I walk by. This group is a tiny bit more aggressive, and there are more of them. Usually 50 or so. They sit very quietly, all in a tight group, on the top of a nearby building, and the telephone wires, watching me. They send down an ambassador to greet me, landing on the sidewalk in front of me, or he flies by my head. Sometimes two or three of them. The rest of them rest, and wait. If I throw out a couple of treats, they all launch themselves off of the wall, in a great flurry, to get them. My innate sense of fairness makes me throw out a big handful, then, so they can all get some. I hurry away, as a black cloud spins and flies over the treats, landing and taking off.

I go inside my shop. I set up the register, and putter about for a while, then take the signboard out to the sidewalk. I look up. About 20 of them have followed me to work. They nonchalantly fly back and forth from tree, to wire, to top of post, in front of me, almost flirting, to get my attention. Knowing better, I go inside and get more treats anyway. I toss maybe four or five out, and then 40 of them suddenly appear from all directions to descend on the treats, so I have to toss out more. As I retreat inside, I see my obese orange shop cat is staring with terror and fascination at the birds swooping in; very still, very bewildered looking.

I go inside to work for the day. For the rest of the day, I see a few crows hanging about, peering in the window now and then. The shop cats peer back out at them, going from window to window.

I can avoid dealing with the crows, mostly, if I walk down the main street, Broadway, as the crows are shy around people. I will get a few bolder ones following me in the trees, but mostly the really big group will not bother me.

If I knew I was going to get this popular, I might not have started this. I wonder what summer is going to be like. But the crows had been flirting with me for years. The group that eats trash near my apartment have been flying down and hopping near my feet, or flying overhead for years and years. I succumbed to the temptation to give them what they wanted; to make them happy.

How anyone can resist them I don't know; everyone has once fed a crow perhaps, and then found that he or she was too popular with them for comfort. I do think they dive around my head to amuse me; it does not frighten or alarm me a bit. They are just trying to get my attention, and they fly so beautifully. It is rather like that I have many new friends, now. I now know how St. Francis must have felt.

It has been raining a lot in November and December here.  They call it the Pineapple express, locally.  The crows are not impressed by this, but they still fly in very rainy weather. I see them, on my way to work. They are all bedraggled, with their feathers here and there, when the rain is really pelting down, but they are still flying about.

I go out, too. I usually do not carry an umbrella, and I often forget my hat. I get to work with my longish hair soaked, so I have to use a paper towel to dry off.  But I do not like umbrellas, there is some sort of trick to carrying them so you don't poke other people that I have never mastered. Possibly it is because I am so short. So, I usually do not bother.

The crows are on their usual patrol near my house and near the coffee stand, and near my workplace, begging for dog treats.  They will grip the telephone wires in the heaviest downpour, shifting from one foot to another, staring out across the city, and glancing down at me, as if to say, well? well? get on with it. I throw out treats that skitter into puddles, which fazes them not a bit, as they eat them right away, then. I had observed them dipping the dog treats before, in water, to soften them up.  As I said, they are all bedraggled, feathers poking up and sideways in the heavy downpour, but still patrolling looking for food and for my flick of my wrist, that  signals that I have thrown more treats out.

Today was unsettling. No crows. The sun was out, and it was unseasonably warm for December. I saw only two crows, and they wanted no business with me. They were flying east, both of them towards the rising sun.  I saw no other crows this morning. I assume that they were flying east, to greet the sun, as it came up to dry out their wet world. I suddenly had a fierce desire to rise up with them, to greet the December sun, so beautiful after so many wet days.

 I wondered about crow religion; if they worshiped the sun, and met in secret places, after wet, miserable days like the ones we just had.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

That Sister Souljah moment

by John MacBeath Watkins

This morning I listened to a Democratic congressman passionately denouncing President Obama's "cave" on not letting the Bush tax breaks for the rich expire.

My first thought was, where was this passion before the election? Obama favored a vote on the issue back in September, but Congress balked.

My second thought was, this is Obama's Sister Souljah moment.

Sister Souljah is an African American hip-hop MC and political activist who during the 1992 presidential campaign was quoted as saying, "If Black people kill Black people every day, why not have a week and kill White people?"

Bill Clinton, in a speech to a predominantly African American audience, condemned the statement, saying that if the words black and white were reverse, "you might think David Duke was giving that speech."

That was the moment at which most political observers say Clinton captured the middle in his campaign for the presidency. Much like chess, political campaigns are usually won by the candidate who captures the middle.

The more I look at the deal Obama struck with the Republicans, the more it looks like he pulled a rabbit out of a hat. The deal provides billions of dollars in stimulus at a time when the economic recovery is looking stalled, extends unemployment benefits without the cuts in stimulus money the Republicans had been demanding, and exposes the hypocrisy of the Republicans on deficit reduction.

It also shows Obama willing to compromise with the opposition, undermining the Republican narrative that Obama is an extremist.

But what makes this his "Sister Souljah moment" is the liberal opposition to it. I'm sure the President would prefer that his party's congressional delegation had recognized the benefits of the deal and swallowed their revulsion for the extension of the Bush tax cuts to the rich, but he actually benefits with independent voters because this liberal opposition highlights the pragmatic willingness to work with the opposition that he campaigned on.

He may have been trying for this moment when he attacked "purists," but only opposition from the liberal wing of his own party could secure his bonafides as a centrist willing to take a pragmatic approach to the nation's problems.

And as the parties have become more polarized, the ranks of the indepent voters have swelled. My take is that these voters are no more liberal or conservative than they were before, they are simply reacting to increasingly ideological parties by abandoning the parties. They want Washington to work, and to represent the people who voted for them, not the think tanks and pundits who drive the ideology.

The results of the last two elections show that voters are pragmatic. If the economy sucks, vote out the incumbents. If it keeps sucking, vote out the new incumbents. Repeat until you find someone who can play this game.

A little more patience might give one approach or another a chance to work, but you can appreciate the logic.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Locke was wrong

by John Macbeath Watkins

I've been working on a long essay on political theory. It's about 38,000 words at this point, so a bit longer than a blog post. This is the basic argument:

Too much of our national conversation is about property, with both Marxists and libertarians insisting that if we perfect our relationship to property we will achieve perfect freedom. It all started with Locke's Second Treatise of Government, in which even life itself is reduced to property.

But what is property? Not objects, which exist regardless of owners. It is the web of rights and obligations we attach to objects. It is, in fact, the meaning of objects, and is only one category of the meanings that define us. For property to exist, meanings must exist, which means that language must precede property. Making and using language is a social act. The signs (words) that we attach to meanings are arbitrary, not instinctive, so we must agree to the signs to understand meanings -- it doesn't matter whether we say aloha or hello, as long as we agree these are words of greeting.

The social contract, therefore, is not a pact to protect property, but a conspiracy to imbue the world with meaning. To be free is to be able to engage in this creative act, to be unfree is to be denied it. Those who would control people against their will must first manipulate, then chain the word, and in so doing deprive people of the opportunity to define themselves, in fact, deprive them of their humanity.

That's the basic argument. The essay goes back to history and prehistory to talk about how we become human, how we define humanity and exclude people from that definition, the emotion of belief and its relationship with truth, the social construction of race, the subversive speech of groups like the lollards and Goliards and efforts to suppress them, and alternatives to democracy.

I'm still working on it, but you have the basics.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Deficit-Reduction Theater: We're in deep voodoo here.

by John MacBeath Watkins

Today, the deficit-reduction commission appointed by President Obama ended its work without even voting on its proposal.  Erskine Bowles and former-Sen. Alan Simpson, co-chairs of the commission, realized they didn't have the votes for the proposal they released Nov. 10 to be adopted by the full panel, so they didn't hold a vote.

Of course, the reason they can't get that support is that it was a lousy plan, replete with what Henry Aaron of the Brookings Institution calls "magic asterisks" -- promised cuts like those in the 1980 Regan budget, cuts that never materialized.  Its proposed changes in tax policy were disruptive and cuts were severe.

There's a fairly simple way to reduce the deficit.  You increase revenues and cut spending.  We currently spend more than six times as much on our military than the second-place country, China.  American military expenditures amounted to 43% of the world total in 2009.  That kind of muscle makes our leaders far too quick to spend the lives of our service men and women and the wealth of our treasury. So how about if, once we wind down the ill-advised adventures we're now engaged in, we only spend five times as much as the next biggest military spender?  In 2001, our lawmakers voted for tax breaks they said would stimulate the economy and would expire in 2011.  The economy is in a shambles and 2011 is a month away, so why not hold them to the expiration date they voted for?

Those two changes would take care of most of the problem.  Cutting the rate of increase in the cost of medical care could take care of the rest, and the Affordable Care Act takes a stab at that, so guess what?  The new majority in the House wants to repeal it, and has no proposal for a replacement for it.

Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans are negotiating a deal whereby unemployment benefits will be extended in exchange for the extension of tax cuts for income above $250,000 a year.  In other words, we (Republicans) will let you spend more if you (Democrats) will let us cut revenues.  I can see the Democrats' point of view -- we're in the worst economic state we've been in since the Great Depression, and temporary measures will alleviate much suffering.  I honestly can't see any justification for the Republican point of view.  They say the temporary extension of the unemployment benefits busts the budget, but they think the much longer extension of the tax breaks for the wealthy, which are far more expensive and build a structural deficit into our government's accounts, are not a problem.  If they believe that, they're in deep voodoo (economics.)

Now, I have my doubts about the priorities of politicians who think addressing the deficit is the most pressing matter at a time when voters are more worried about the economy, and I don't buy the argument that cutting the deficit will stimulate the economy.  But we've sure seen a lot of grandstanding about the deficit, and the priorities revealed by the current negotiations on taxes and unemployment benefits show that this has been nothing but grandstanding.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Tax Debate

by John MacBeath Watkins

I've been watching the tax debate in bemusement, wondering why no one seems ready to point out the simple fact that the Republicans voted for those Bush tax cuts to expire, so if they expire in January those who voted for their expiration will include all the congressional leadership of the Republican party.

Can't we recast the debate somehow so that this is more evident to low information voters?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Welfare state resentment

by John MacBeath Watkins

Ezra Klein last spring posted a chart, originally from The Fourth Branch, showing states in which more federal dollars are spent than collected in red, and states in which more taxes are paid than federal dollars spent in blue:

and comparing this to a chart showing which states voted for Barak Obama and which for John McCain in 2008:

The first thing one notices about these charts is that states that got the best deal tended to vote for the candidate who said he wanted to cut federal spending, which should hurt the red states the most.  There are exceptions, such as Maine, Vermont, Hawaii, and Texas, but the correlation is strong.  Some of the states that went for Obama, such as Iowa, Ohio and Indiana, aren't exactly deep blue states, and could easily swing the other way in the next election.

Why is this the case?  Why do donor states vote for the welfare state, while the welfare states vote against it?

I'd say the the welfare states vote that way because they resent being dependent, and their elected officials don't cut the welfare state because the people they represent really do need the money.  The donor states tend to be on the coast, either Atlantic, Pacific or great lakes, and they are donor states because the average income is higher, resulting in more income taxes paid.  The welfare states tend to be rural, inland, and poorer.

One of the best reasons for locating a city in a particular place is because that place is a natural center of commerce.  A city with a good harbor tends to be such a place, because ships are a more efficient way to move a lot of stuff than even trains, while trucks are way behind.  Other means of transport tend to be built to such cities because they are already transportation centers, enforcing this trend.

I remember the first time I visited Spokane, wondering why they'd chosen to build a city right there, when there was no harbor.  Then I came to the rail yards, and saw that this was Spokane's equivalent to a harbor.

Commerce follows transport, and wealth follows commerce.  And commerce tends to attract people who belong to a culture that Max Weber described in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

The second thing I noticed about the maps is that most of the welfare states tend to have what Ruth Benedict called a "shame" culture, while most of the donor states have a "guilt" culture.  In a guilt culture, you are mainly defined by what you think of yourself.  One way to think about this is that this is a descendant of the New England Puritan culture, one of the offshoots of which is the Unitarian Church.  Unitarians don't need a church constantly reminding them to act morally, because they've got a Puritan in their head who makes them feel guilty when they don't.  I've had customers at my bookstore point out to me that they wouldn't have known if I'd acted unethically, to which I reply, "I'd know."  I spent my formative years in Maine and the state of Washington, and have lived most of my life in the latter.  I'm a guilt kind of guy.

The South was settled by people who were not so opposed to fun.  Paradoxically, that means they need a church that talks a lot about morals, and have a culture in which a sinner repents (think of Bill Clinton, and a long line of Southern politicians who have had lapses and confessed and asked forgiveness.)  You can have a little fun, but you need to come to Jesus and ask forgiveness, because what's important is what people think of you.  Inside, you may think you're a hell of a fellow, but if you have been publicly shamed, your honor is besmirched.  You must have your honor restored, either by gaining forgiveness or by fighting for your honor.  It's no coincidence that dueling was in the U.S. a Southern institution.  Andrew Jackson fought a duel to defend his honor.  Lincoln, challenged to a duel, is said to have replied that he would accept if his choice of weapons -- cow pies at two paces -- was adopted for the duel.

To the Yankee, the idea of fighting a duel was laughable.  To the Southern gentleman, it was a matter of life and death, because to live without honor was a kind of social death.

The modern-day version of this is a society in which the rich states tend to be those with a guilt culture, who feel they must do the right thing for those less fortunate, while the poorer states tend to be populated by people who worry that the people in the richer states may look down on them.  This is why conservatives tend to talk so much about "liberal elites," even though the wealthy are more likely to support conservative politicians.  If you live in a rural area, you are likely to be dependent of roads that could not be built and maintained with local taxes, crop subsidies that help keep the family farm alive, and a number of other subsidies that wealthier, more urban populations supply.

Each side thinks about this in terms of how they themselves would feel.  Urban "guilt culture" people feel that they should help the less fortunate, and should they fall on hard times would feel grateful rather than guilty for the help the received.  Rural, "shame culture" people need the help, but feel shamed by the need, and feel they must be looked down upon.

Vermont, a guilt culture state, is rural, and a net importer of federal money, yet votes as liberal as Connecticut, because the subsidy is what they would do if they were the rich ones in order to make them feel right about themselves.  Texas, an honor culture state, is wealthier than average, but does not vote like Connecticut.  In part this is because they don't have the guilt culture need to help those less fortunate in order to feel good about themselves, and in part it's because guilt and shame aren't just about the money.

The third thing I noticed about this chart is that the red states in both cases show a strong correlation with where slavery was legal before the Civil War.

As it happens, the state of Washington was a territory at the time, and slavery was not legal here.

Yankees tend to look back on the Civil War as ancient history, especially if they live in an area that wasn't a state at the time, but when I lived in Texas, I discovered that for many Southerners, that history is still very much alive.  I lived in one of the many counties named after a Confederate general.  The schools in that county were desegregated in the 1980s, not long before I got there.  However they may have felt about desegregation (and remember, the North had plenty of segregated school systems) having it imposed on them by the federal authorities shamed them.  Although many areas in the South saw the emergence of "white academies," private schools that did not have to integrate, usually associated with a church, I suspect that there was an element in the South of not so much opposing integration as feeling shamed by its imposition.

Those white academies, by the way, were dependent on their federal tax-exempt status for their economic survival.  Jimmy Carter, who knew exactly what was happening, felt the law should be enforced requiring that tax-exempt schools be integrated.  It's at that point that Southern churches began to be involved in politics.  In that case, I've have to say it was really about race, although there had to be some shame mixed in.

Yankees try to conceal their racism, and make others feel as guilty as they do about it.  Southerners have historically been more open about racism, and have responded to efforts to make them feel guilty by concluding that the persons doing this are trying to shame them.

The legacy of civil rights legislation has been to make Southerners more hostile to the federal government, but that alone doesn't explain why they keep opposing federal spending.  Donor states tend to have a culture in which guilt is assuaged by compassion, which in turn is mistaken for condescension, leading to shame, in welfare states.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Rationalism, Christianity, and the Atheist Best-Sellers

by John MacBeath Watkins

Two classes of books about religion are selling well at my bookstore:  Atheist and Christian apologist.  The latter aren't that hard to keep in, especially C.S. Lewis, because his books have been selling well for quite a long time, and there's a substantial supply of used copies.  The former are much harder to get a copy of, because the only one that has sold well for very long is Bertrand Russel's Why I Am Not a Christian, and it's never sold in the quantities that Mere Christianity has.

Books by Sam Harris and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins are recent, and not the sort people give up once they know how it comes out.  As a purveyor of used books, I rely on people who own the book being willing to sell it so that I can stock it, and people are hanging onto their Sam Harris. (For additional reading in atheism, look here.)

But why are these books so fascinating right now?

I suspect it has to do with the the increasing respectability of atheism.  Lewis and other apologists like G.K. Chesterton provide a rational approach to Christianity at a time when much of the public face of Christianity opposes science.  Fundamentalists are often Bible literalists, opposing teaching evolution in schools or trying to get creationism taught as a science.

Lewis had become an atheist as a teenager, and converted to Christianity.  He became an atheist at age 15, in 1913, a theist in 1929 at age 31, and a Christian in 1931.  This places him squarely in the middle of the argument between atheists and Christians, a man who went through that argument and became a rather orthodox Anglican.

But why is atheism such a hot topic?  Well, for one thing, it's a lot safer and more respectable to talk about it now.  In 1697, Thomas Aikenhead, an 18-year-old university student, was hanged in Edinburgh for blasphemy, having argued that the Bible was "stuffed with madness, nonsense, and contradictions" and said that Jesus' miracles were magic tricks.  The death penalty was not subsequently used in the United Kingdom, but in 1908 and again in 1909, Hyde Park orator Harry Boulter, who had links with the rationalist movement, was imprisoned for blasphemy.  John William Gott, author of the pamphlet Rib Ticklers, or Questions for Parsons, among others, was sentenced to nine months hard labor in 1921 despite illness, and expired shortly after he was released.  The last English blasphemy case was a private prosecution in 1977.

We in America tend to forget that even liberal democracies like the UK had established churches, and could prosecute public expressions of atheism.  In 2008, England passed a law eliminating the common law crime of blasphemy.  The God Delusion was published in 2006, two years before it was officially legal for an Englishman to profess atheism.

Among Americans, a 2008 poll found that more people (55%) would vote for a homosexual than would vote for an atheist (45%), so apparently there is a stronger prejudice against atheists than homosexuals.  In spite of this, since the Bill of Rights became the law of the land in 1791, we've had no law against expressions of atheism.  This makes us 217 years more progressive than the British on this issue, so mention that next time some pom tells you Americans are backward on issues of religion in politics.  Mind you, we'd rather elect a Muslim than an atheist.

So this is a time when atheism is still shocking, but not actively dangerous to profess.  Perhaps that's why atheism is at last willing to speak its name.  In fact some atheists have become rather strident, and openly contemptuous of those benighted people of faith they engage in public forums.

For the record, I'm agnostic, and find evangelical atheists who seem to want to convert me no more reasonable than evangelical Christians.  They present their belief as the only reasonable one, and want no one to believe differently.

The lager conflict that continues is the rationalism of the Enlightenment against the traditional belief systems that preceded it.  Atheists seek the final triumph of rationalism over what they see as superstition, while Christian apologists such as Lewis maintain that Christianity is compatible with rationalism.  So I surmise that those buying from my religion section are rationalists.  Books seeking to convince the reader that creationism should be taught in schools don't sell at my store.  I'm guessing that they sell in a different kind of bookstore, one that caters to a specifically evangelical Christian clientele.

It reminds me a bit of the time a fellow called the shop and asked if I carried any Christian authors.  I said sure, we've got C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien, Thomas Aquinas, Marin Luther, Augustine...

"No, no," he said, "Christian authors."

It is apparently possible to be a saint, or author of some of the best selling books about Christianity of all time, without being a Christian by some definition that excludes mainstream protestants and Catholics.  Strangely enough, I find it discouraging that the books the gentleman wanted don't sell in my store.  Americans seem to have sorted themselves so that they don't have to talk to people who don't share their views.

A book like The Shack, which sold millions nationally, languishes on my shelves, and that's bad news, because it means many of the other books in my store are not part of the world of the people reading that book.  Given the number of people who bought The Shack, I'd say the culture it belongs to must be quite widespread, and if the books of interest to so many in Seattle's University District aren't of interest to them, it's as if there is not one mainstream culture, but two in present-day America, and they don't talk to each other.  The rationalists have gathered in the cities, while the traditionalists have chosen to live in smaller towns.  The two groups read different books, even when both are reading about Christianity, because they live in different worlds.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

More on the emotion of belief

by John MacBeath Watkins

I've been working on a long essay, working title, The Structure of Thought, the Emotion of Belief, and the Truth We Know Alone.  Just thought I'd excerpt a couple paragraphs:

My own view is that truth is a word we use to describe that which we believe without question. Belief is an emotion akin to love, which is why Truth and Beauty are so often mentioned together. The question, therefore, is how we should form our beliefs? Different cultures at different times have used different methods. In the end, the searcher for truth may not be objective, but reality is, by definition; what could be more objective than the object we wish to describe? And when a theory is not faithful to reality, the scales fall from our eyes and we no longer desire to embrace it. Or perhaps I should say, we should no longer desire to embrace it.

Many people when faced with facts that contradict their beliefs experience backfire, that is, they end up holding their false belief more strongly in reaction to what they perceive as an attack on them. If you view belief as an emotion, this is understandable. It's as if you told them their lover was unfaithful, and they responded by saying "take that back!"

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Shareholders vs. management on political contributions

by John MacBeath Watkins

Looks like I'm not the only one to think corporate executives might be spending money on politics that benefit their interest instead of shareholders'.

"The activists' proposals ask each of the four companies to review political spending and contributions, with an eye on their own corporate rules against political spending.
"Shareholders are likely to introduce more such measures as similar legislation stalls in Washington, said Lucian Bebchuk, a Harvard University law school professor who studies corporate governance.
"In a forthcoming paper, Bebchuk himself and co-writer Robert Jackson of Columbia University argue that shareholders should be given the chance to vote directly on political contributions and that companies ought to be required to disclose their spending to intermediaries.
"Currently, when it comes to such support, "the interests of (company) directors and executives may significantly diverge from those of shareholders," they write."

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Lessons from the election

by John MacBeath Watkins

1) There are no permanent majorities.  Rove sought to build one, and in a couple elections the Republicans lost the House, Senate and presidency.  Liberals thought they had one, and in the first election since their euphoric declarations, they lost the House.

2) Polls that don't include cell phones are crap.  Also, polls that do include them (like Gallup) can miss by a wide margin.

3) Even in a wave election, it's possible to nominate someone so nutty they can't get elected.  Delaware and Nevada are cases in point, and with Joe Miller running well behind 'write in candidate' Alaska may be an example as well.  We can only hope enough people spelled Lisa Murkowski right to put a sane person in the Senate.

4) Voters don't care about policy, only results.  Poll after poll showed people trust the Democrats on most policy issues more than Republicans, but more voted for Republicans.  They are understandably upset about the economy, and they're expressing their discontent.  Had the economy collapsed a year earlier in Bush's term, he would own the recession.  Instead, he left office while the collapse was still in progress.  More of the recession has happened on Obama's watch than happened on Bush's watch, so the fact that things are slowly getting better seems to be irrelevant.  Obama even gets blamed for TARP, the bank bailout signed into law by Bush, which I happen to think was a necessary evil.

5) Corporations are people too.  Rich people, who like to spend money on elections, especially if they can do so without people knowing who they've spent it on.  From a stockholder's viewpoint, this means they may be spending your money defeating candidates you think will do a better job of getting the economy moving, and they may be doing it because they want executive salaries taxed at a lower rate.  The Citizens United case didn't deal with the agency problem that is always an issue with corporations, and it's just one of the problems with the decision.  The 'educational' money can't be spent to support a candidate, but it can be spent to tear one down, so this flood of new money into our politics is going to make the ads you see in the future even more negative.  The sheer meanness of our politics can only get worse because of this.  Or, as Yeats more ably put it:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity. 

Well, that was what things looked like in Ireland in 1920.  It got better, and so can we.  At least none of our political parties has a terrorist wing.  Yet.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Weather Map

September 15, 2009 atmospheric pressure measured in hectopascals (hPa)

by John MacBeath Watkins

I have seen the isobars
rippling on the flanks of a monsoon
as it thundered across the waves to China

And I have seen the wild typhoons
each wrapped tight about its eye
failing its fury at some speck of dirt
in the Pacific light of a sedentary moon

And I have seen the isobars
rippling on the flanks of a monsoon.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Manipulation and the bestseller lists

by John MacBeath Watkins

Republicans found an argument they liked in Edith Efron's 1971 book, The News Twisters. Efron used her judgment of whether television news reports were biased to show that in fact they were. Nixon liked the book so well that he told Charles Colson to make it a best seller. Colson found out which stores the New York Times consulted in determining its best seller list, then took $8,000 from the Nixon campaign fund and bought out the stock in those stores. The book, which Colson had thought destined for obscurity when he read it before Nixon spoke to him about it, became influential as a result.

The problem, of course, was that Efron's judgment was far from unbiased. For example, when hecklers disrupted a Nixon speech, she counted the fact that the news media reported this as an example of anti-Nixon liberal bias. When Hubert Humphrey had a speech disrupted by hecklers, this was counted as pro-heckler, rather than anti-Humphrey, therefore liberal bias again. She didn't want an unbiased press, she wanted one that matched her bias, a dream that would one day be realized in Fox News.

Say what you like about Nixon, he was in his own way a genius.

That's just one example of how such lists are manipulated, and one more reason not to trust bestseller lists. Nixon wasn't the only one to do it.

Al Neuharth, CEO of the Gannett newpaper chain, claimed he manipulated the bestseller list for his autobiography, Confessions of an S.O.B.

I suppose if you have a herd instinct, and must know what others are reading, such lists are some good, but I have to wonder, how often does stuff like this happen? And how much good are bestseller lists?

Watch out for books with a political bone to pick, or with a moneyed man with a large ego behind it.  Those are ripe for manipulation.

More on the moral dimensions of economic theory

by John MacBeath Watkins

I've rewritten and expanded the post on this topic to about 2,000 words, more than twice the length of the original, and posed it on Scribd:

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Willie Sutton, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you

by John MacBeath Watkins

One of the more curious aspects of the Great Depression was that bank robbers became national heroes. Now, how did that happen?

I'm starting to understand, since the foreclosure mess started getting a little publicity. Currently, a number of banks have a temporary freeze on foreclosures, at least one of which ends Oct. 25.

From Joseph Tauke's great article in the Daily Caller:

"What’s most insidious is where the foreclosure freezes are taking place. Many banks have only ordered foreclosures to cease in 23 states. Why 23? Because there are 23 states that require courts to review foreclosures. And every single one of those states is on the list."

Read more:

Read the whole article, it's well worth it. Hell, I wish some of their advertisers weren't so objectionable, so I could click on them and help support the site. This is really good enterprise reporting.

The banks have a huge mess on their hands because during the housing bubble, they were writing mortgages so fast they weren't taking much trouble to make sure the documents were right. And now that they've got a huge number of foreclosures on their hands, they've taken even less trouble.

There's a big problem with fraudulent papers being used to foreclose. In some cases, the documents are missing, so a specialized industry has grown up to provide them...and they can say exactly what you want. But why are the documents so hard to find?

Again, from the Daily Caller:

"Banking officials happily told the Florida court system in 2009 that the documents had been shredded. At the time, lenders were trying to prevent some foreclosure rule changes, so they sent a letter to the Florida Supreme Court. Among other things, the letter stated that it was standard practice to destroy mortgage papers once the mortgages were sold into MERS in order to avoid confusion. (“A” for effort on that front.) Something funny happens when tearing up a contract, and it might best be explained by a certain common phrase. That phrase is, “Tearing up a contract.” Unless very specific conditions are met, the contract becomes null. Void. Not worth the paper it is printed on.

"The fact that so many contracts were torn up explains why DOCX didn’t deal in affidavits of foreclosure, at least not according to a DOCX price sheet posted on attorney Matthew Weidner’s website. The sheet lists the going rates for tasks such as, “cure defective mortgage.” Nowhere on the document does DOCX say that its services were limited to 23 states. Quite the opposite, in fact—DOCX proudly boasts of its “nationwide” presence at the very top of the sheet. Any mortgage that became “defective,” something that tends to occur when banks can’t find anything signed by homeowners with “mortgage” written in nice big letters somewhere, could be “cured” by DOCX, no matter what state contained the relevant property."

Which means that in states where there are weak controls on the banks, they've continued to use possibly fraudulent documents to foreclose, because who's going to stop them?

And once word gets around that the banks are engaging in fraud to take peoples' homes from them (and often everything inside those homes) how long until people start thinking it's morally acceptable to take what's in the banks?

DCOX, the company referred to above, advertised that it could provide all the proof of ownership a bank could want for the low, low price of $35. I'm sure that buys a lot of due diligence.

And they offered a volume discount if you bought a lot of these papers.

Now, one of the reasons that the property bubble was so damaging to the Japanese economy was that in some cases, title to property wasn't clear, and when that happens, it takes a lot longer to clean up the mess. As Paul Krugman points out, we were very smug about how this could never happen to us.

Until it did.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Getting played by the crows

by Jamie Lutton

I have to set limits on the crows, even though I have fed them only three times.

I told myself that I would only feed them several blocks from work, and only for about 10 minutes, so that they would not associate my business with food.

But they know my face.

On the way back from the bank this morning, a black shadow few in front of my face, and perched on the post office. I said, staring up, happily "HI there!". Crow looked down at me, turning his head back and forth, then fluffed his feathers at me.

This happened twice this morning, coming and going to the bank. The crows are trying to play me; as several other crows, I noticed, were watching the game to see if he could get me to give out treats again.

I noticed that the crows seemed to be happier if I tossed the dog biscuits than if I put a pile on the ground. When I do that, they seems to grumble, as they line up, as if at a cafeteria, and each fly down and take one. None of them seem to think of grabbing one in a claw, yet; they try to carry the dog biscuits in their beak to eat later or swallow whole.

Sometimes a slightly larger crow will try to grab two; this is a comedy, as they are slightly too large for this so be accomplished easily. He will fly down with one already in his beak; try to grab a second one, the first will fall out, the new one will fall out, he will hop. Then stare at both of them. Then pick the new one up, then a car will come by, and he will have abandon both, then fly back, and try to pick them both up - if another couple of crows have not grabbed both the biscuits.

Once in a while, flying slowly, a crow will manage to get two biscuits at once, but the crows look like they are having to balance them, like a waiter with a full tray.

This morning, as usual, I finished up with the biscuits a few blocks from my shop, and showed the crows my empty hands, saying "all gone" to them, looking up. But several were determined to try to guilt me into producing a few more.

I stuck my head out of the shop a few minutes ago - it is a beautiful October day - and I can see them, in the trees and one on the top of a building - hoping that I will relent.

I wonder, in centuries in the future, if we will take better care of the crows, and they will not be feral any more than we no longer have feral dogs and cats wandering our streets in the US. Maybe have birth control for the crows, and the pigeons, so they do not dig in our trash, and pester people for scraps. Since the crows are so smart, they are all worth watching and cherishing, the way we cherish cats and dogs now, instead of kicking them, and feeding them scraps, and drowning their puppies and kittens instead of getting them fixed and getting them proper homes.

But then, I do not think the crows suffer much. And they are wild birds, after all. They seem tame as they are associated with the trash of our cities, and live off of it, and are thus our responsibility. I wish that more humans thought they were beautiful.

If they were rare; I think we would. If you saw only a few crows in your lifetime, you would freeze, and stare, from the beauty of their flight (if not their song).

I do not see dead crows too often. Do they eat their dead? We used to eat our dead; humans have been cannibals. I do know that I can't be the first human they have tried to play into giving more treats.

The "fly in front of the face" repeatedly cute routine is too practiced. I have to draw limits, though Only a few treats, and only in the early morning, and only far from my shop; or I will end up like that school bus driver who fed crows, who ended up having a black murder of crows following her on her route.

She almost lost her job over that.

Crows are worth watching and feeding, though. As my birder brother said thoughtfully "they are a native bird" which, in this mind, made them worthy of a bit of food. And they are so smart; almost as smart as us. An alien species among us; we don't have to go to the stars to meet.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Feeding the crows

by Jamie Lutton

I had been thinking about this for years. It is incredibly easy, yet so forbidden, and so politically incorrect.

Feeding the crows. When I walk to work in the early morning, threading through a maze of apartment buildings and houses, or down Broadway, there are always a few about, digging in the garbage or eying the passersby hopefully. Since there are fast food places with garbage spilling out, a few young crows are always in and out of the trash, tugging at wrappers. Sometimes, if it is early enough, they fly races down Broadway, or that is what it looks like, fast low and in groups, zipping above the street.

My elderly cat died a few weeks ago, and I have been mildly blue ever since - from that and overwork. Never have time to post on this blog. I had been thinking about feeding the crows for months and months.

What triggered this was a crow playing with me. I was walking to work early on a Sunday morning. when a chewed fried chicken leg dropped at my feet. It looked like a crow dug it dug from Ezel's trash.

I looked straight up, and at the very top of a telephone pole there was a crow looking down at me. I did not think he meant to drop it, as it still had meat on it. I said to him "that was funny" as if he could understand me. We both looked at each other, then he flew away. Crows do not like to be stared at; they know that is a menacing act by humans; and could be followed by an attack of some kind.

That morning, I went into the pet food store, and said that they could make a fortune selling "CROW FOOD" for people who liked the crows, with fancy packaging and such. The clerk said that one of his customers bought cheese flavored dog biscuits to feed them, in bulk, at $2,98 a pound. I looked at the biscuits, and left, without buying any.

Came back a week later. I had been staring at the crows as I went to work. The hopeful ones had always swung by me, if I bought a latte, as there might be crumbs involved. I could tell, then, that others had been breaking off bits of pastry to feed them, as a hopeful crow would check me out at close range when I had a latte in my hand.

Dog biscuits, then. And where I was not observed too closely. There is some ordnance against feeding crows, I knew, and I did not want some Pecksniffian type to come up and yell at me. I went and bought a big bag, telling the clerks what they were for, and announcing that I was now truly crazy. I tried one on my home cat Piglet, she licked one, but was not impressed.

I walked by a group of crows, going through the trash, this morning. I threw out a dog biscuit, experimentally. I got there attention immediately; one dived and grabbed it. I did not know if they would like the taste, despite the reassurances of the people at the pet store. I kept walking toward work. I now had company.

Twenty crows followed me. I threw out another biscuit, and another. The ones that landed too close to me did not pick up the biscuits until I was well away, but they got all of them. I had to walk about eight blocks to work, but until I crossed a busy street, eighty percent of the crows kept me company. I walked pretty slowly, and tossed out probably forty dog biscuits, as there was so many of them. They were above me, circling in the sky, flying ahead, lagging behind, like a pretty black cloud.

I had read about how smart they were, like an alien species among us. The only thing that kept them from building cities was a lack of an opposable thumb. They subsist on our garbage, thriving in our cities. Such beautiful birds. If they had beautiful voices, I think they would have more respect. But, I am sure is due to their intelligence, they do not need pretty songs, they get by with their hoarse caws and gestures.

When I finally got to work, I only had five or six crows with me, even though I was tossing out just as many biscuits. I perhaps had lured them beyond their territory. When I went inside, they peeled away and left me. When I reemerged to mail a letter, one crow was outside waiting for me.

I tossed him a biscuit, and he swooped down and grabbed it. We eyed it other with mutual satisfaction, and I went back to work to write you.

I looked over at my counter, and the two remaining dog biscuit I had been carrying were being wolfed down by my orange shop cat Schmoo, who will eat anything.

I will probably feed the crows again once in a while, if only because they are so beautiful, and alien, and smart, such fun to watch. I know that that they are supposed to be pests, but I cannot fault them for their habits, when it is humans who have disrupted their natural environment. They subsist on our garbage; giving them an extra treat now and then is not that outrageous an act.

I went out today and got coffee on the way to work. I saw what I believe was the same murder of crows eating out of the trash. They look young somehow. They act like teenagers, eating together, and hanging out together. I was on the other side of the street, but I tossed one dog treat to get their attention. I instantly had a group of crows following me. I walked along Broadway, tossing out a dog biscuit now and then, and I watched the crows diving for them. I was suddenly reminded of beggars diving for coins in old movies set in Calcutta, or 19th century London, except that such beggars were never so beautiful as these birds. All alike, black feathered, but not all alike, sheened perfection.

I felt like I was in a Hitchcock film, but one where a miracle happened instead of a horror; the birds coming; to give me a benediction. I got a proper benediction by one of them; he or she crapped on my head. I threw out the last of the treats, and crossed Olive Street, where I left them behind me, squawking over the last couple of biscuits. I had to put my head under the sink, in the end, to get the crow crap out of my hair.

I am not discouraged, however. I am having too much fun.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Democracy, the Nobel peace prize, and the robber-baron Communists

by John MacBeath Watkins

One of the odder sights ever recorded on film had to be the “Goddess of Democracy” built by protesting students at Tiananmen Square in late May, 1989. It bore a striking resemblance to the Statue of Liberty, and following its unveiling, the crowd in the square grew from about 10,000 people to 300,000. The idea for the Statue of Liberty was of course hatched by a couple of Frenchmen during the reign of Napoleon III, who had been elected president of France before initiating a coup and taking on the mantle of emperor. It was as much a symbol of threatened French liberty (though it was built after the fall of Napoleon III) as of continuing American liberty.

The Tianamen protesters wrote a declaration to go with their statue that read, in part:

“At this grim moment, what we need most is to remain calm and united in a single purpose. We need a powerful cementing force to strengthen our resolve: That is the Goddess of Democracy. Democracy…You are the symbol of every student in the Square, of the hearts of millions of people. …Today, here in the People’s Square, the people’s Goddess stands tall and announces to the whole world: A consciousness of democracy has awakened among the Chinese people! The new era has begun! …The statue of the Goddess of Democracy is made of plaster, and of course cannot stand here forever. But as the symbol of the people’s hearts, she is divine and inviolate. Let those who would sully her beware: the people will not permit this! …On the day when real democracy and freedom come to China, we must erect another Goddess of Democracy here in the Square, monumental, towering, and permanent. We have strong faith that that day will come at last. We have still another hope: Chinese people, arise! Erect the statue of the Goddess of Democracy in your millions of hearts! Long live the people! Long live freedom! Long live democracy!"

The statue was knocked over by the tanks that invaded the square to re-assert the authority of the Communist Party.

It seems irrational for a person to take up a political crusade that they know will land them in prison or even result in their deaths, but ideas can drive people to accept their own destruction to achieve a greater end. Even after the brutal suppression of the Tianamen Square protest and the persecution of its leaders, China continues to have citizens who care more about what kind of society China becomes than about their own safety and comfort. The 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, is serving an 11-year sentence for advocating democracy. In an editorial on Oct. 10, 2010, The Guardian said:

“It is not hard to see why Beijing should react as it did. Although Mr Liu is known and admired among human rights campaigners abroad, he is not, thanks to a powerful apparatus of censorship, a famous figure for most Chinese.

“Charter 08, the call for democratic reforms that Mr Liu co-authored and which earned him an 11-year prison sentence, is not a widely circulated document. Having the man and his cause flashed all over global media threatened to subvert Chinese information control.”

It's Henry VIII's old dilemma, the difficulty of chaining the word. On July 19, Qin Xiao, retiring chairman of China Merchants, a state-owned bank (China's sixth largest,) spoke at a graduation ceremony for 2,000 people at Tsinghua University, urging them to resist the lure of material things and pursue “universal values,” including freedom and democracy

“Universal values tell us that government serves the people, that assets belong to the public and that urbanization is for the sake of people's happiness,” while supporters of the China Model, Quin said, believe that the state should control assets and the interests of the individual are subordinate to those of state sponsored development, and that people should obey the government.

Qin's ideas about where government gets its legitimacy are recognizable to us from Hobbes, and his ideas about property are communistic. The notion that the state should control the assets is really a way of saying those who control the state should control the assets, which is to say, the Communist Party. The latter formulation is what usually happens when a society attempts to apply communism. This is not merely because those in power like to grab all the good stuff, nor is it only because control of property is itself a source of power. It is also because property is not land and buildings, it is the system of rights to the use of such physical objects. In the absence of some system of rights, property is a commons, and the tragedy of the commons is that everyone has an interest in exploiting it, and no one has an interest in maintaining it.

But part of the political significance is that China's biggest exporters are at least partly state-owned. China is manipulating its currency to undervalue it, so that its exports are more competitive because its labor is cheaper. Qin is no doubt aware that this means the government is making workers poorer so that the industries the state controls will be richer.

Well, what's the point of being a Communist if you work for a robber-baron party?

Liu and Qin would both recognize the following sentiment:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. -- That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, -- That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

This is, of course, from the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. The China Model Qin spoke of is the party's effort to base its legitimacy on nationalism. But the meme of liberty and self-government is a powerful one, and one of the few that has shown itself able to rule for long without great force.

How does such an idea worm its way past the censors and override a person's sense of self-preservation?

Saturday, October 9, 2010

That burning sensation gets worse

by John MacBeath Watkins

Remember that Tennessee fire where South Fulton firefighters stood and watched a house burn down because the owner hadn't paid a $75 annual fee for fire protection?

Now it turns out that three dogs and a cat burned to death in that fire.  That's an even greater nightmare for the firefighters who were ordered not to put the fire out, and more proof of the moral bankruptcy of those who ordered them not to.

The firefighters, you may recall, were already there with their gear, having responded to the fire in a field belonging to the neighbor of the Cranick family.  The neighbor had paid his fee.

So the firefighters were there, Mr. Cranick was offering to pay whatever it took to get them to put out the fire consuming his house, but the firemen were ordered to stand down.

Nobody becomes a firefighter to watch a family lose its home, and these people certainly didn't become firefighters so that they could let peoples' pets die horribly in a fire.

Ezra Klein has a post on how this relates to the healthcare debate -- less of a stretch than you might imagine.  His argument is that if you treat firefighting as insurance, then put the fire out for people who haven't paid, that's bad business.  That's why you have to treat firefighting as a public good, and the same applies to health insurance.  It's unconscionable to let the house burn down because someone didn't pay the fee, and it's also unconscionable to let someone die because they don't have insurance.

That's an argument for making healthcare a public good.  Only our healthcare reform doesn't really do that, instead it is a reform of the way health insurance works.  It's better than the system we've got, which works much like the South Fulton Fire Department, but even when it is fully in force in 2014, it will be insurance-based.

The reform is not particularly popular, which has led Republicans to believe that repealing it should be possible.  The problem with that theory is that according to an AP poll conducted last month, those who don't think the reform goes far enough outnumber those who think it goes too far 2-1.

Politics is the art of the possible.  The reform we've got was nearly impossible to pass, and a reform a majority of Americans would agree in advance was the right way to go was impossible.  We can only hope that the reform we've got gets a chance, and is revised in a way that makes it better.  But don't expect the current election to produce that result.  The Republican platform calls for a system that works more like the South Fulton Fire Department.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Burn, baby, burn, when am I gonna get my fee?

by John MacBeath Watkins

Well, that's libertarian.

Firefighters from the city of South Fulton, Tenn., got the call in time to save Gene Cranick's house from the flames that would consume it, but they wouldn't come until his neighbor's field caught fire. They dealt with the field, then stood around and watched the house burn down because Cranick hadn't paid a $75 annual fee to be protected by the fire department. His neighbor had paid, (the fee is for people outside the city) so his fire got put out.

A local television reporter, Jason Hibbs, asked the fire chief why, when the firemen were already there, and Cranick offered to pay whatever it would take to get the fire put out,  he refused to do so. The fire chief called the police to escort the reporter off the property, and while the police did not respond, the firemen quickly left while the house still burned.  I can well imagine why the police did not want to get caught up in the dispute.

The fire department has, or course, been roundly condemned -- sorry, got that wrong, actually roundly praised -- by bloggers at the National Review.

Kevin Williamson of the National Review said: "The world is full of jerks, freeloaders, and ingrates — and the problems they create for themselves are their own. These free-riders have no more right to South Fulton’s firefighting services than people in Muleshoe, Texas, have to those of NYPD detectives."

Two other bloggers from the same conservative organ felt the same, while only one wondered what moral theory allowed them to let the house burn.

So here's my question: Suppose the contract in question had been a union contract instead of a management contract. Would these stern conservatives still think the contract was sacrosanct, and the firefighters, even though they were there to deal with the neighbor's fire, had no obligation to put out the house fire right in front of them?

One of the four National Review bloggers, Daniel Foster, would have a ready answer, and it would be the same one he gave this time:

"But forget the politics: what moral theory allows these firefighters (admittedly acting under orders) to watch this house burn to the ground when 1) they have already responded to the scene; 2) they have the means to stop it ready at hand; 3) they have a reasonable expectation to be compensated for their trouble?"

The other three bloggers would have some thinking to do.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Great Warming

by John MacBeath Watkins

From about 1000 to 1300, the world was warmer than it had been previously, and warmer than it will be until we manage to crank enough CO2 into the atmosphere to really get some global warming going.  For that reason, it is helpful to look at what happened during the Medieval Warm Period.

Vikings, that's what.  Well, that's just my favorite part.  Brian Fagan's book, The Great Warming, recounts how the climate change of that period produced winners as well as losers.  Among the winners were the Vikings, who, freed from the oppressive winters that had limited their population and sailing season, ranged far and wide, and colonized Iceland and Greenland, at least until the Little Ice Age made the Greenland climate too harsh for the farming and dairying way of life the Vikings knew.

Europe in general did quite well during the Medieval Warm Period.  Farming blossomed, helped by the invention of better methods, England produced wines, the population increased, witches burned, and the inquisition sought to save the souls of wicked sinners.  Well, maybe those last two were a coincidence.  In any case, I suspect that had the Medieval Warm Period been less kind to Europe, we'd be a lot more worried about the current warming trend.

Mayan civilization, on the other hand, disintegrated because of persistent droughts, China went through a period of instability caused by alternating droughts and floods, and the trade winds faltered in the South Pacific.

It appears we are likely to experience substantial warming before our leaders decide to deal with the problem of global warming, so a bit of review about what we can anticipate seems quite in order.

Fagan also wrote a book on the Little Ice Age that I quiet enjoyed.  It didn't end until we started burning quite a bit of coal in the mid-19th century, so perhaps until we started to overdo it, we were benefiting from global warming.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

How to disassemble a society

by John MacBeath Watkins

When America entered World War II, our society worked together with remarkable social cohesion, and the end of that war, which revealed the evil of the Holocaust, seemed to confirm the good we had done and the validity of American ideals.

During the 1950s, this cohesion seemed secure, although there was an ugly side to it.  The House Un-American Activities Committee attempted to enforce conformity of thought by weeding out Communists, and fear-mongering became a technique used by some politicians with great success.  But in the end, the Army-McCarthy hearings showed the excesses of this tendency, and the urge to apply the American principles of freedom, equality and self-government seemed secure.

Then came the civil rights movement, an extension of the urge to apply those ideals, and with is civil unrest.  This was resolved through the democratic process as progressives from both major parties helped pass the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

The urge to spread the American way of life, however, led to an unpopular war in Viet Nam, and again, to civil unrest.  Our draft laws tended to concentrate anti-war people of draft age in the universities, leading to student riots.  To many Americans, it looked like the country was tearing itself apart.  The Democratic Party, which had been ascendant since the 1930s, began tearing itself apart at its violent 1968 convention.  Conservative Democrats began leaving the party and joining the Republicans, in part because of the Southern strategy of Richard Nixon.

George Packer, in his New Yorker article, The Fall of Conservatism, explored the history of this strategy.  I recommend you follow the link and read the entire article.  Here's an excerpt quoting Patrick Buchanan:

“From Day One, Nixon and I talked about creating a new majority,” Buchanan told me recently, sitting in the library of his Greek-revival house in McLean, Virginia, on a secluded lane bordering the fenced grounds of the Central Intelligence Agency. “What we talked about, basically, was shearing off huge segments of F.D.R.’s New Deal coalition, which L.B.J. had held together: Northern Catholic ethnics and Southern Protestant conservatives—what we called the Daley-Rizzo Democrats in the North and, frankly, the Wallace Democrats in the South.”

Read more
Packer recounts a memo Buchanan prepared for Nixon:
" recommended that the White House “exacerbate the ideological division” between the Old and New Left by praising Democrats who supported any of Nixon’s policies; highlight “the elitism and quasi-anti-Americanism of the National Democratic Party”; nominate for the Supreme Court a Southern strict constructionist who would divide Democrats regionally; use abortion and parochial-school aid to deepen the split between Catholics and social liberals; elicit white working-class support with tax relief and denunciations of welfare. Finally, the memo recommended exploiting racial tensions among Democrats. “Bumper stickers calling for black Presidential and especially Vice-Presidential candidates should be spread out in the ghettoes of the country,” Buchanan wrote. “We should do what is within our power to have a black nominated for Number Two, at least at the Democratic National Convention.” Such gambits, he added, could “cut the Democratic Party and country in half; my view is that we would have far the larger half.”

Exacerbating divisions in the electorate became standard procedure for Republican candidates.  To this day, the culture wars, veiled appeals to racial fears, distrust of elites, denunciations of welfare and appeals to the divisions in religious belief of the electorate are visible in our politics.

There was also another attack on elites.  By the 1950s, there was a broad scientific consensus that smoking tobacco caused cancer.  To avoid regulation that would make their product unprofitable, they funded skeptics and research into possible alternate causes of lung cancer, started a program to reassure smokers about their health and in general, tried to argue that the case against tobacco was not closed.

Robert N. Proctor, a professor of history at Stanford, has quoted a tobacco company memo as saying "doubt is our product."  Proctor said: "There's a saying in the PR business that for every PhD there's an equal and opposite PhD. And if there's not one then you can create one through funding. And if you put a lot of money into manufacturing ignorance, it can actually work."
At the same 2007 symposium, University of California-San Diego history and science studies Professor Naomi Oreskes discussed a similar topic in a paper titled "Confounding Science: The Tobacco Road to Global Warming," and journalist Paul Thacker gave a talk titled "Thank You for Polluting: How Campaigns to Create Scientific Confusion Kill Product Regulation."
At the same time as people were being told they couldn't trust government elites, they were being taught not to believe scientific elites.  And while they were funding confusion and obfuscation in science, the same regulation-adverse companies were funding Republican politicians.  The Republican party has long been the party of business, so there was a natural alliance between those undermining political and scientific elites.

In addition, Nixon began an attack on the news media.  Those who bought into all of these attacks on elites could not trust government, intellectuals and scientists, or the news media that brought them information on the basis of which they would make their decisions.

And now, the success of the tea party candidates in knocking off candidates endorsed by the Republican party shows that the conservative distrust they have nourished has now turned on the Republican party elite.  Where does this lead?  Perhaps it's a momentary movement, a reaction to the state of the economy and residual racial fears awakened by having a black president and a black head of the Republican National Committee.

Or perhaps, it's the beginning of an ant mill.