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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Minuet in a reefing breeze

by John MacBeath Watkins

I was in a regatta this weekend. First day was fine, I sailed a Lightning and was one point out of first place despite being rated for a spinnaker I didn't have, but the second day I chose to race with Sarah Howell on her Yankee One design, Gemini. We did some spirited sailing in winds that we later learned gusted to 36 mph, but the racing was called off, and a good thing, too.

On the way home I caught sight of Carl Kamenzind sailing his 1929 cutter, Minuet, in plenty of breeze near the Fauntleroy ferry dock. Got this one from the ferry:

Minuet seemed to revel in the weather.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Funny how those spending cuts are supposed to come from blue turf

by John Macbeath Watkins

Looks like we've once again dodged a government shutdown, but just a quick note before we forget what it's about.

The House Republicans passed a bill that would have removed funding for development of hybrid vehicles, which would have been spent in places like Michigan, which tend to vote Democratic, in order to finance disaster aid to places that have had disasters like the Texas wildfires and hurricane Irene.

In the past, emergency funding for disaster aid has never required cuts in other parts of the budget. The government steps up. Although this particular move was unprecedented, it is part of a larger game Republican congressmen have been playing very skillfully since about 1980. They declare that government waste must be cut, and invariably find it being spent in areas that tend to vote for Democrats. Meanwhile, Democrats take the view that government should be financed to do what it needs to do, so while they are defending their spending projects, they are not attacking projects in areas that vote for Republicans.

Years of fighting budget battles from a defensive crouch has affected the spines of Democrats, and the distribution of spoils in the budget.

This is a map of which states contribute more in federal taxes than the government spends in them (blue) and which states pay less in taxes than is spent in them (red):

And below is a map of which states voted for Democrat Barak Obama (blue) and which voted for John McCain (red.)

No, it's not the same map. You can tell by looking at Texas.

Clearly, Democrats are going to have to learn to play this game if they are going to get a better deal for their constituents.

But I must say, few of the stories about the resolution to this latest standoff put the issue of where the cuts were aimed in perspective. Most of the stories just said the Republicans wanted offsetting cuts, without mentioning that this had never been required before for disaster funding, nor taking note of the partisan nature of the cuts proposed.

A story of slutty snakes and warfare

by John MacBeath Watkins

World War I graves: You're doing it wrong.

Every animal seems to have an instinct to not kill its own kind. Piranha do not bite each other, they fight with tail taps. Rattlesnakes don't bite, they wrestle.

One might think that a rattlesnake who bit would have an unfair advantage, but consider a society of four snakes, one of whom is a male with the gene that allowed them to bite other snakes. Two snakes are male, two are female.

The males both wish to mate with both the females, but they get in a fight over the slutty one, who engages in sexual displays on the sidelines while they compete for dominance. One of them bites the other. What happens next?

Well, it takes time to die of a rattlesnake bite, so the other snake, seeing that a line has been crossed, bites his opponent back (in fact, snakes that bite back will be selected for because their near-relatives will reproduce, while snakes that don't bite back leave the psycho snake alive to wipe out their whole line.) Both males die, and the remaining snakes are left to the comfort of a lesbian relationship and a sterile existence unless more sensible males can be found.

Now consider warfare. It asks soldiers to kill their fellow man, which most people will react to with an instinctive repugnance. This is hard to do; S.L.A. Marshall, who interviewed troops immediately after WW II battles to determine what each man was doing, found that only 15-20 percent were actively shooting at the enemy. Most found other things to do, many of them "essential," like tending the wounded or running messages.

The Army reacted with horror to this revelation, and sought to correct it. By the Korean War changes in training had up to 55 percent of soldiers shooting at the enemy, and by Viet Nam 90-95 percent were shooting at the enemy.

Okay, we won WW II. We tied the Korean War. We lost Viet Nam. I grant that there are many other factors involved, but is it just possible that it ain't how many you kill, it's who you kill?

A WW I officer told Marshall that his men would shoot over the heads of the enemy unless he went down the row making them shoot low. Another reported that the soldiers said "they thought if they didn't shoot at the Germans, the Germans wouldn't shoot at them."

That fits with the Parable of the Slutty Snake. If the males settle their differences without killing each other, the jock snake gets to mate with the slutty cheerleader snake, and the geeky snake gets to mate with the geek-girl snake, and the world is safe for snakekind. If one snake crosses the line, neither gets to reproduce.

Infantry soldiers are often more sensible than generals, and WW I was a prime example of this. I suspect the soldiers who gave this justification were right. People on the other side of the line could tell where the most deadly fire was coming from, and would concentrate their efforts on the source of it (the selective effect of this would be to weed out those most willing to kill other people, which would be an interesting version of the role of warfare in human evolution.) The rest of the firing was for show -- a threat display, if you like, or submission to the dominance of the officers who told them to shoot.

In effect, the officers thought they were organizing death to the enemy, but were organizing a threat display with deadly implements, in which the deaths were inevitable but incidental. My contention is that most warfare through human history has been like this, with the symbolism of death and a certain amount of real death, but it's about establishing dominance, not killing the enemy.

As we've industrialized the process of killing and established greater distance between combatants, the amount of death has increased, but this does not mean the goal of establishing dominance has been furthered. In the snake example, blood called out for blood. I once, as a journalist, covered some of the killings involved in a Hispanic blood feud, and no one could tell me where it started. Every attack had to be paid for with another attack, and punishment, which had to be paid for get the idea.

The books never balance when they're kept in blood.

As a result, the more effective you are at getting your troops to kill, the more you have to pay for. The implication of this line of thought is that much of Western military thought since Clausewitz has been wrong. He contended that war was "the continuation of policy by other means," and on another occasion, defined war as "an act of force to compel the enemy to do our will." He never finished his master work, On War, and much of the material he had assembled on "peoples' wars" never made it into the book.

One of the primary concepts military planners took from Clausewitz was absoluter Krieg, total war, in which the entire nation is called into the war effort rather than just those glory hounds in uniform and the draftees compelled to do the actual killing. This involved wars of both maneuver and attrition, creating far more suffering than past wars of conquest while retaining the forms of battle that military men knew.

In WW I the war of maneuver was missing, and only the war of attrition remained. War planners who considered attriting the enemy to be the way to win attempted to come up with industrialized forms of killing, such as machine guns, enormous artillery pieces, and poison gas. All of these were far better at killing than infantry ever had been, in part because they did not ask the individual soldier to look another man in the eye and kill him. The war was not shortened by the large numbers of deaths, however, because as Clausewitz knew, war is not about killing as many of the other side as possible. It's about making them say "uncle," which the dead cannot do and their families are often not inclined to do.

Now consider the case of the laughing sickness, of cannibals and war.

Tribesmen of the Papua New Guinea highlands sometimes suffer from the laughing sickness, Kuru, a type of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy,  transmitted by cannibalism. One would think such a transgression of the instinct not to kill one's own species would indicate a culture that did not respect human life.

But the warfare of New Guinea involved the use of bow and arrow, a weapon with which tribesmen were capable of great accuracy. Before going to war, they removed the feathers from the arrows, so that they no longer flew true. Wars were fought with these ineffective missiles, because the war and what they did with the bodies were part of a symbolic structure that allowed the tribes to engage in the very human struggle over dominance without exterminating each other.

The development of atomic weapons was the ultimate in the industrialization of killing, metaphorically of biting the other snake, and made the struggle over the slutty snake a potential way of killing all humanity. At that point, the way of warfare had to go back to its earlier forms, and America found it was not as good at wrestling as we once were. We wracked up body counts in Viet Nam without without effectively directing our acts of force to compel the enemy to do our will. In our current conflicts, we're finding out how hard it is to learn how to wrestle.

Or when not to.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

PETA porn to promote...wait, there's a naked lady!

by John MacBeath Watkins

PETA porn? Sounds delicious, but it's in no way related to pita sandwiches. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is planning a porn site, which should be ready in time for the Christmas season, using porn to get people to look at their propaganda. isn't ready yet, but PETA has already contacted the ICM Registry to reserve the site, and expect to have it up in November. After all, Thanksgiving and Christmas are family-oriented holidays, and what could be more family-oriented than videos of people engaged in the procreative act?

The ABC News story on it is here and David Horsey's take is here. Personally, I have no objection to using sex to sell a message (or, for that matter, tires.) But in the past, PETA has been a bit more restrained, using nude volunteers modestly shielded by a banner with PETA's message, sometimes looking rather cold. The technique is cheeky, attention-getting, and all in good fun. The question in my mind is, can they keep on-message and keep it fun while doing porn? And just how hard-core will it be? Naked women eating bananas seems about right for the message, go much further and you've got an entirely different demographic tuning in.

And if your porn is constantly interrupted with messages to neuter, will that interfere with its enjoyment? Let's just pick a few random words out of, say, this post on their website:
breeders be spayed and neutered. Bob Barker

Now, you're going to think I'm taking this out of context, because, well, I am, but with the moaning and all, can you be sure you'll hear every word in the messaging part of the experience when you're trying to pay attention to the massaging part? No. You'll be thinking, hey, I know it would be hipper to be gay, but what have they got against breeders? And do we really want to be thinking about Bob Barker while this stuff is going on?

And can we really concentrate on the need to give up dairy goods while looking at womens' breasts? More likely we'll be thinking, wow, those poor cows, we should...wait, there's a naked lady!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Weapons procurement, Death Stars, and telekinetic strangulation as a primary motivational approach

by John MacBeath Watkins

I believe I'm not bad at suspension of disbelief; after all, I didn't walk out on Cowboys and Aliens, and you pretty much had to switch off major parts of your brain to accomplish that. I mean, the hero got his weapon when an alien casually set a weapon down next to him, and none of the other aliens have cool weapons? They spend the bulk of the show trying to get close enough to gouge the cowboys with their fingernails, lacking any better weapons, for Pete's sake.

But now, here comes an Air Force procurement officer facing me with the hard reality that what seemed implausible in the first Star Wars movie was quite familiar to him.

From the wise mind of Lt. Col. Dan Ward, USAF, to you, this nugget: "...even the florid imagination of George Lucas could not envision a project like the Death Star coming in on time, on budget."

Now, I tolerated the plot line, but the notion that a program the size of the Death Star having a flaw like a vent that acts as a sort of destruct button for the entire project if a novice pilot can lob a single round into it didn't strike me as particularly plausible. Mr. Ward, having seen military procurement close up, begs to differ:

"From a design perspective, a system as enormously complex as a Death Star is more than any program manager or senior architect can handle, no matter how high their midi-chlorian count is. There is bound to be an overlooked exhaust vent or two that leads directly to the reactor core. That is just the sort of vulnerability an asymmetric opponent can exploit. In my professional engineering judgment, a flaw of this type was inevitable."

And although Ward does not bring up a certain former vice president, he does note from having read fan websites:
"More than one writer inexplicably complimented Vader’s leadership style, conveniently overlooking his use of telekinetic strangulation as a primary motivational approach."
 The lesson he draws is that R2-D2 is the hero of the saga:

"Yes, there are plenty of flaws in the Star Wars films—I’m looking at you, Jar Jar Binks—but casting R2-D2 as the hero isn’t one of them. Just as the Death Stars’ vulnerability and inadequacy are perfectly realistic, the superior operational performance of a simple droid corresponds to real-life experience. Time and again, war-winning weapons tend to be simple, inexpensive and small."

Friday, September 16, 2011

Of taboo, power, and great moral causes

by John MacBeath Watkins

"The concept of culture I espouse ... is essentially a semiotic one. Believing with Max Weber that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of laws, but an interpretive one in search of meaning." -- Clifford Geertz

This gets at something I've been trying to capture through the lens of linguistics, in post like this one and this one. I found the quote, oddly enough, in a wonderful paper about why Jews love Chinese food. I did understand the "Safe Treyf" aspect of eating food that, unlike, say, Italian food, did not combine meat and milk products, and the fact that the Chinese places were open on Christmas and Easter, but there is a web of other cultural factors that the paper elucidates.

For example, as the authors note:

"The British historian Raymond Williams pointed out that a culture spawns the terms of its own rejection. Rebels can disavow the strictures of a food-oriented culture by eating forbidden food. But a food-oriented rebellion cannot be accomplished with just any forbidden substance. It cannot be food that looks so like prohibited fare that it automatically triggers revulsion, nor can it be food that requires some expertise to eat (such as a whole lobster)."
I've actually dated a Jewish woman who loves ham and cheese sandwiches, which could only be made less kosher if they included shellfish. I've no doubt that she was a rebel, although the flavor had to have something to do with her choice.

Now, let's step sideways. The modern food culture with a strong moral element is the vegetarian, and even more so, the vegan diet. Now, psychologists know that a thing and its opposite reside close to one another in the psyche. That's why you get politicians like former Sen. Larry Craig, he of the "wide stance," opposing gay rights while soliciting gay sex in restrooms. And there's a point to the joke behind one of the great titles of all times, Oral Sadism and the Vegetarian Personality: Readings from the Journal of Polymorphous Perversity. The point is that the people who think the most about something may embrace it or reject it, which is the reason for the perverse tendency Williams noted. Craig no doubt thought a great deal about his own sexuality, and secretly embraced it while publicly rejecting it.

The vegan project is a great moral cause, which means it could be the seed to a church. And as Eric Hoffman noted, a church begins as a great moral cause, becomes a business, and eventually turns into a racket (I'd say at that point, the church must reform of die.) I doubt we'd see the sort of rejection Williams talks about in the first phase, but it's possible in the second and likely in the third.

The great moral cause of the vegans bears some similarity to kosher food laws, because one of the goals of those laws is to make sure people aren't inhumane in the way they slaughter animals. Killing is one of the most unnatural things human beings do. There are rules against it in every human culture, in part because it repels us, and in part because it happens.

How unnatural is it? Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, in his book On Killing, notes that when firing at targets, Prussian soldiers could hit a target representing a rank of opposing soldiers 60 percent of the time when firing at a range of 75 yards with smooth bore muskets, so the first volley by a 200-man unit should take out 120 soldiers in an equal unit, and the men could fire 4-5 times a minute. American Civil War soldiers, equally equipped and trained, engaged the enemy at an average range of 30 yards, so you can imagine how quickly such engagements were expected to end.

Only they didn't.

Regiments killed the enemy at a rate of only a few a minute in most engagements, and engagements could last hours. Many soldiers chose to load and pass weapons to soldiers willing to fire, and in some cases individual soldiers fired hundreds of rounds, although black-powder weapons would generally foul by the time a soldier had fired the 40 rounds each was equipped with. The extra rounds and the extra rifles came from men unwilling to shoot at the enemy themselves.

Others shot over the heads of the enemy. Some postured, pretending to fire. Grossman notes that of the 27,574 muskets recovered from having been left on the field at Gettysburg, 90 percent were loaded. In drills, the rifle was loaded only about 5 percent of the time -- firing and loading took the rest of the time. About 12,000 were found to be loaded more than once, 6,000 having three to ten rounds in them. Men were pretending to shoot, sometimes going through the motions of loading and firing while engaged in a desertion in place, not firing under the cover of the black powder smoke from their compatriot's guns.

Armies try to overcome this, of course. Part of the psychological brutality of boot camp is designed to remake the psyche of soldiers so that they will automatically follow an order rather than think about what they are doing. Yet Civil War soldiers, and soldiers in WW I, reported paralysis of the trigger finger. More Civil War soldiers died of "nostalgia," thought then to be an extreme form of homesickness, than died of dysentery..

There is power in such a terrible taboo, and power in breaking it. I covered the police beat for a daily paper at one point in my life, and was struck by the fact that while some criminals had clear and powerful motives, most did not. And if you think about it, most motives for murder don't stack up to the enormity of the crime. And some of the motives we accept as likely don't seem to me to be all that powerful. Yes, people kill for money, but what's money compared to a human life? In that case, the goal and the means are both expressions of power. Sex often plays a role, but let's face it, an orgasm isn't that difficult to achieve. Power, again, is.

Surely we should value a culture that has a means to express rebellion and personal power through eating Chinese food, or even the more extreme expression of eating a ham sandwich.

By the way, I explored the link between taboo and power in this bit of fiction:

Monday, September 12, 2011

2011 Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival

by John MacBeath Watkins

Forgot my camera, but I took some pix with my cell phone:

A lovely little Leigh Coolidge designed 17-foot dinghy, with a very straight run, that could probably plane:

R-boats tacking close to shore after the beginning of their race on Saturday. Aloha has finished her tack, as has Lady Van, out of view behind Ace, which is in the act of tacking. Ace managed to pass Lady Van on the weather leg, only to be passed again under spinnaker. Pirate was out of the picture, both literally and figuratively, because she had trouble with the pawls in the port winch. Lady Van continued her winning streak. Ace was the first to sail back into port:

The Schooner Cup was the same day, giving us a nice view of the Martha tacking close to the breakwater:
Had a nice visit with David Smith aboard his Pete Culler cutter, Silva Bans, which he rebuilt after it had suffered substantial rot. His tiller is a tree branch:

David kindly offered to take me out in his wonderful Swampscott dory, Chesuke, but I wasn't able to make it. Next time, David!

I'm going to cheat a little. Here's the Silva Bans on Lake Union, where I had a better shot of her:

And of course, how could we leave out James McMullen's Rowan?

The general scene off the beach on Saturday:

Where I live now, continued

A Whitehall boat rowing by Jensen's Point.
photo by John MacBeath Watkins

Friday, September 9, 2011

Likely stories: Why the mayfly does not prepare for night, why the fruit fly does not prepare for winter

by John MacBeath Watkins

Legend has it that the mayfly lives for only a day, though in fact the Mayfly nymph lives much longer, and the lifespan of the adults can be anywhere from a few minutes to a few days. But this story is about the stereotypical one-day mayfly:

Why the mayfly does not prepare for the dark

The aged Mayfly sat on a leaf and complained.

"Look at that sun!" she said. "Going down like that and turning reddish. Not like the sun we had when I was young, back then it was rising."

A scholarly Mayfly nearby nodded, and spoke in a measured tone.

"Quite some time back -- several minutes at any rate -- I invented a science I call astronomy, and I've been making precise measurements of the sun's position. Soon, it will go behind those hills and the world will become very dark."

"Ha!" said the first mayfly, "it's an interesting theory, but that's all it is. I bet I can find dozens of mayflies that don't think it is certain the world will become dark."

"Yes, but the ones who have actually measured the position of the sun..."

"Are part of your little group of elitist lefty pinkos. Off with you! Alarmist! Prevaricator! It's just a conspiracy by all you sun-measurers to make us do your bidding!"

Why the fruit fly does not prepare for winter

Fruit flies live about a month.

"I don't mean to worry anyone," the fruit fly scientist said, "but the climate seems to be changing. In the last two weeks, we've seen a gradual decrease in nighttime temperatures."

"Nonsense," the fruit fly politician said. "It's warmer than it was this morning."

"But if my calculations are correct," the scientist said, "we could see dramatic changes in our world. We believe the entire orchard could be bereft of fruit."

"In my entire lifetime," the politician said, "fruit has only become more ripe."

"It's even possible that water could become hard instead of liquid."

The politician fixed the scientist with a multi-faceted eye.

"Right. Water could become hard. Like a solid."

"Yes, sir, hard as a rock."

"Sort of the way the pitch on yonder pine is getting thicker and slower-flowing the longer it's exposed to the air?"

"No, more like a phase change, from liquid to solid without becoming more viscous in between."

"You got funding to study this, did you?"

"Why yes, and I've done my best to use the money wisely to gain knowledge on important issues."

"Well, clearly, you want more funding. That's why you've come out with this silly theory. The solution to the problem is obviously to stop funding your research. God said, 'go forth, be fruit flies, and multiply,' and that's what we're doing, so God will be pleased to allow us to continue doing it."

(Happily, these events have occurred often enough in the evolution of these creatures that they are prepared to survive as a species.)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The unjust steals the just's umbrella

by John MacBeath Watkins

I am an admirer of doggerel, finding it subversive exactly because it doesn't take itself seriously. Today, reading Mike Lofgren's piece on how the former member of the Republican congressional budget staff views American politics, I thought of a waggish verse by a 19th century jurist named Charles Bowen:

“The rain it raineth on the just
And also on the unjust fella;
But chiefly on the just, because
The unjust steals the just’s umbrella.”
Here's the context. Lofgren was talking about how beltway pundits try to avoid the charge of bias, by noting that the system is broken and assigning blame to congress, not to particular actors.

"Inside-the-Beltway wise guy Chris Cillizza merely proves Krugman right in his Washington Post analysis of "winners and losers" in the debt ceiling impasse. He wrote that the institution of Congress was a big loser in the fracas, which is, of course, correct, but then he opined: "Lawmakers - bless their hearts - seem entirely unaware of just how bad they looked during this fight and will almost certainly spend the next few weeks (or months) congratulating themselves on their tremendous magnanimity." Note how the pundit's ironic deprecation falls like the rain on the just and unjust alike, on those who precipitated the needless crisis and those who despaired of it. He seems oblivious that one side - or a sizable faction of one side - has deliberately attempted to damage the reputation of Congress to achieve its political objectives."
The problem is that damaging the reputation of government is one of the goals of one side of the debate. As Lofgren noted earlier in the piece:

"A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress's generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner."
 I do not think we have ever previously had a party determined to prove that government doesn't work, and willing to sabotage it to make sure it doesn't. Remember, the original saboteurs were people who threw sabots (wooden shoes) into machinery to make sure the machinery didn't work. The were the Dutch equivalent of Luddites, destroying mechanical looms that were taking work away from artisan weavers. I almost wrote "willing to throw sand in the gears," but it looks to me like they're throwing something bigger.

Not that they want to undermine all government. The one problem I have with Lofgren's narrative is that he buys into the notion that the Republican Party wants small government.

As we discussed in this post, the number of people employed with federal government funds increased by 35% during the presidency of George W. Bush. Republicans consistently want to fight more wars, arrest more people, and keep people in jail longer. They're also big on agricultural subsidies. And they are opposed to most taxes, that is, other than those that might not benefit those already rich. As a result, the only way they are willing to bring the budget into anything like balance is to cut spending on Democrats' priorities. Their success in doing this is part of the reason the spending map looks like this:

The red states get more money from the federal budget than they send back in taxes. There's a Marxist motto, that "property is theft," and there seems to be a Republican motto to the effect that "taxes are theft." In which case, the umbrellas of the blues are being stolen by the reds.

Now, I don't think property or taxes are theft, and as I have acknowledged before, one major difference between the blue and red states above is that the red states are, on average, poorer. That's why you see Texas, red as they come in terms of Republican popularity, sending out more than it receives -- Texas is a relatively wealthy state.

But a study titled The President and the Distribution of Federal Spending by Christopher R. Berry, Barry C. Burden and William G. Howell, found that "...we find consistent and robust evidence that districts represented by legislators in the president’s party receive systematically more spending, as do those where the legislator or the president was narrowly elected."

It has long been observed that when it comes to budgets, the president proposes and the legislature disposes. In the 40-year span from 1968 to 2008, Republicans were in the White House for all but twelve of those years, with the result we see in the map above.

So, no, Republicans do not believe in small government. As the payroll tax cut extension battle shows, they are not always opposed to tax increases. What they believe in is using government to reward Republicans, whether by spending or through the tax code.

Republicans rail against government because they see it as redistributive. But they've internalized the notion that government is redistributive and tried to use it to redistribute to themselves and their allies.

The Democratic vision of government is that you ask it to do things -- educate children, protect its citizens, and provide a variety of public goods, primarily..

What do we mean by public goods? The standard definition of a public good is one that is needed, that increases productivity, but that does its work in a way that makes it difficult to sell to those who use it. The usual example is a lighthouse. If you build one and try to charge users, it is in their interest to be free riders and let others pay. Consequently, lights to warn mariners of rocks tend, in the absence of a public one, to be provided either on a volunteer basis by people who build fires on dark nights to save mariners, or on a pure market basis by wreckers who build fires intended to fool mariners into running into those rocks.

Where the strangeness of the current Republican Party becomes evident is when you look at what has happened in the investment needed in infrastructure. Most forms of infrastructure are either public or public/private. If 20 years of Republican presidents were simply proposing to spend more on infrastructure in red states than in blue states, the average age of our bridges, roads, and other infrastructure would remain the same. Instead, it is aging rapidly, as Kevin Drum notes.

Here's a chart from Drum's piece, which I recommend you read in full:

The nation's private capital stock, both residential and non-residential, has remained the same since the 1960s. Government capital stock has increased in age by about 50 percent.

The Republican notion that "government is not the solution, it's the problem" has contributed to this. Although Republicans claim government needs the hand of business to guide it, they seem to have little interest in viewing government as a business. If they did, maximizing service and return on investment to taxpayers would be more important than the sort of redistribution they've been preoccupied with during the 28 years since 1968 that they've held the White House. If they viewed the government as a business, they'd figure it needs to invest in its capital stock in order to remain productive.

Instead, they see government as a racket, and act as racketeers, taking from others by whatever means they can get away with. Lofgren apparently found the Republican tactic of holding the nation's creditworthiness hostage during the debt ceiling fight repellant, but it's exactly what you would expect from racketeers.

I'm not denying Lofgren's observation that:

"It should have been evident to clear-eyed observers that the Republican Party is becoming less and less like a traditional political party in a representative democracy and becoming more like an apocalyptic cult, or one of the intensely ideological authoritarian parties of 20th century Europe."
But I do think that the way their ideology manifests itself is harmful not just because of their tactics, but also because their nihilism about government is expressed in making government do less than it should, while doing little to restrain costs.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The passions and tragedy of the bankers: Morgan, Burr, Hamilton and the American Way

by John MacBeath Watkins

If you banked with Washington Mutual before the 2008 banking crisis, and haven't moved your accounts, you now bank with Chase. Now here's a curious thing about Chase. The bank owns and displays the dueling pistols used by Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr when Burr, our third vice president, killed Hamilton, our first Secretary of the Treasury and the man most responsible for the institutional structures that allowed the young republic to prosper. And if that wasn't enough, Hamilton was an early advocate for the policies known as the American Way.

In a nation that shows nearly religious reverence for founding fathers, J.P. Morgan Chase displays the weapon that was used to murder one of them at its New York headquarters building.

Burr founded the bank in 1799 as the Manhattan Company, supposedly to bring fresh water to New York from the Bronx River. New York had extremely unhealthy water, as we discussed in this post, and had in 1798 suffered an epidemic of yellow fever. Really, it was a front for starting a bank to compete with Hamilton's Bank of  New York.

The bank was a success, and in 1955 merged with Chase Bank (founded in 1877), then in 2000 acquired J.P. Morgan Co., founded in 1871 by J. Pierpont Morgan, whose name was synonymous with the robber baron capitalists of the Gilded Age. Was he ruthless? Well, in the Civil War, he financed the purchase of 5,000 dangerously defective Hall carbines, which were known to blow up and maim the men using them, for $3.50 each, then sold them back to the military for $22 each as the improved, not-blowing-up model. Morgan paid $300 to get someone else to serve in the military for him during the conflict, so there was no chance of him being blown up by one of these guns.

Edward Steichen photographed Morgan in 1903, in one of the most famous portraits of a capitalist of all time. Morgan was sitting in a chair, grasping its arm, but the camera never lies, right? He was a cutthroat businessman, and the fact that the way Steichen chose to print the photograph portrays him as such is no accident.

Of course, Morgan managed to steer a great deal of European capital into the American economy, financed the construction of many of our railroads, and through his contacts, political and financial and acumen, and force of personality quelled the Panic of 1907. The realization that Morgan would not always be there caused Congress to set up the Federal Reserve system.

Burr and Morgan were grasping, ambitious men who were ready and willing to see others hurt to advance their careers. Banks may want you to forget this, because their reputation is enhanced by creating the illusion that they are the keepers of respectability, but business is often more full of drama and tragedy than politics. Shakespeare understood that Shylock could be as good a character as any king, so he took what was then a stock villain -- the Jewish moneylender -- and gave him human and rather tragic motivations, allowing the audience to identify with his hurts and humiliations.

I can't claim knowing that your bank has a dramatic, sometimes tragic history will make you feel better about where you keep your money, but knowing that its founders were characters of Shakespearean complexity and passion might make the state of business in this country a little easier to understand.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Music to provide relief from the dismal science: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots

by John MacBeath Watkins

Paul Krugman has asked his readers to recommend music to provide relief from the dismal science. My recommendation was The Flaming Lips, especially Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.

What would you prefer?