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A Small Beam of Light
September 30, 2008

I don't suppose much good can come from the current economic crisis, but if it causes anything of worth it will be a shift of language we've needed for a long time. Creeping into the mainstream media, for the first time, are descriptions of the so-called Republican base as a pack of lunatics. That's a development long overdue.

David Brooks in the New York Times mildly describes the Republican majority in the House, who brought down the bailout package, as nihilists. I'm not sure the average reader will know what a nihilist is, but if you read Brook's column carefully, you'll see that he thinks these nihilists are deranged and cut off from reality.

His fellow columnist Bob Herbert is more direct. His article is titled, "When Madmen Reign." In developing his argument, Herbert uses such terms as "zealots," "a man covered in Crazy Glue," and "reckless clowns."

Over at Mother Jones News, Kevin Drum, who generally uses quite moderate speech, says, "The Republican Party is now officially hostage to a band of primitive conservative ideologues whose knowledge of economics was already outdated when Christians were being fed to lions. They are simply beyond belief."

Throughout the Bush administration, it has been accepted as a principle of fairness and objectivity, that unbalanced people can't be described as what they are. It has gone so far that even those who respect the ravings of men like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly are presented as thoughtful citizens. It's good to be fair, but if you take it so far as to separate the public from the truth, that's not a healthy practice.

We need to understand that some political stances are matters of opinion and some are simply nuts. We mustn't be eager to describe people as crazy, but when a long train of evidence demonstrates irrational thinking, we shouldn't ignore its nature and consequences. So if the financial crisis manages to get that across to us, at least it will have been an effective teacher.

Train Wreck
September 25, 2008

It becomes more obvious every day that the nomination of Sarah Palin will turn out to be a disaster for the McCain campaign. McCain sacrificed long range effectiveness for temporary advantage, and as we come to understand more about the Republican candidate, we see that's what he always does. You can pitch this kind of stuff as decisiveness, or leadership, or instinct of command just so long. After a while it presents itself as what it is, pure silliness. Mr McCain is an arrested adolescent.

Last night on TV, Chris Matthews asked, do we really want eight years of razzle-dazzle? His answer was clearly, no. Barney Frank, though, had the best line of all. McCain's ploy to postpone the presidential debate was, said Frank, the biggest Hail Mary pass in the history of football and in the history of Mary.

What the American people are gradually coming to see is that Ms. Palin's biggest problem is not unfamiliarity with national and world politics. A good mind can find ways to deflect charges of ignorance. It's the actual habits of mind that Ms Palin displays that get her into trouble. As Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly said of her responses to Katie Couric, they were either odd or nonsensical.

In politics, you can get away with some eccentricities. A certain number of them can be endearing. But it's unlikely, here in the first decade of the 21st century, that a majority of the people can fail to be troubled by a person who submits to a religious ritual for protecting herself against witchcraft. Even if she doesn't believe in witchcraft -- and it's pretty clear we are not going to find out anytime soon what she does believe in -- there's something bothersome about that.

Yet, what's far more worrisome than Ms Palin's witchcraft-protection gambit is McCain's decision to project her to the center of national decision-making. We have to ask, what did he have in mind? And the only answer that seems convincing is one more wild gamble to secure advantage. And the bet was put down regardless of the consequences.

Americans do like to gamble sometimes, but I doubt they want to gamble with the future of their children as much as McCain does.

Bundling, Slicing and Dicing
September 24, 2008

Almost every account of the financial crisis I've read says that institutions are reluctant to buy mortgage-backed securities because they are made up of so many different pieces no one can figure out what the whole is worth. This came about from the practice of bundling not only a great number of discrete mortgages but even pieces of mortgages into gigantic packages, which were then sold as assets under all sorts of confusing names.

You don't have to be a genius of financial analysis to see that the primary purpose of this bundling was deception. Why else was it done? And in financial transactions, deception, if not technically illegal, is fundamentally dishonest. Now those mountains of dishonesty have piled up so high they are strangling the financial system. What for years was described as creativity and ingenuity is revealing itself as what it has always been, pure crookedness. The bright young men who have been amassing billions on Wall Street are the moral equivalent criminals, clever criminals, admittedly, but criminals nonetheless. Their activity has led, as criminality always does, to the destruction of social equity.

If we really want reform of the financial system, we have to start by cleaning deception out it. It won't be easy because deception has been accepted for so long, many financial people see it as the essence of the system. They have lost the ability to imagine any other kind.

I saw the Washington Post's financial reporter Steven Pearlstein on TV last night saying that he would have no problem knowing what to do with a single mortgage. He could find out who the homeowner was, what his past behavior has been, what the house looks like, where it's located, and using that information make a rational decision what to do. But if he was dealing with a bundle of a thousand mortgages, which can't be treated as separate units, he couldn't begin to approach rational action. That should tell us something.

If we're going to have more effective regulation, shouldn't we start by forbidding deceptive bundling? That wouldn't solve the whole problem but it would be a good beginning.

Strange Bedfellows
September 22, 2008

When you see William Kristol and Paul Krugman taking a similar stance on an issue then you know something really bizarre is going on. The bizarre thing in this case is simply handing seven hundred billion dollars to the Secretary of the Treasury to buy anything he wants to buy at whatever price he wants to pay and to allow no oversight over the process by anybody else.

Seven hundred billion dollars is a lot of money and when it can be dealt with in a way pretty much outside scrutiny, with a guarantee of no repercussions, quite a few people are bound to get millions for reasons that don't stand up.

The problem is that lots of institutions have assets they want to sell, and that they can't sell because buyers aren't sure what they're worth. How is the Secretary of the Treasury going to know what they're worth? Well, you see, it doesn't really matter to him because if he pays a billion dollars for a packet of financial paper that he -- or some later Secretary of the Treasury -- has to sell for five hundred million, the half-billion loss doesn't come out of his pocket. It's simply dumped into the national debt. And this is the thing that makes the blood boil: the people who will get the half-billion extra are precisely the same people who have been cheating us all along. They're being rewarded for their corruption.

This is said to be regrettable, but necessary.

But is it necessary?

If the Bush Administration had wanted to set up a scheme to pay off the financial thugs they've been supporting all along, they couldn't have come up with anything better than this --- one last gigantic scam as they exit from office.

I hope Congress won't let itself be stampeded. But I don't have much confidence in the courage of our representatives.

Daring to Be Obvious
September 18, 2008

A wave of dauntless courage is sweeping through the ranks of American journalists. For the first time in years, quite a few of them have got brave enough to state the obvious. It's astounding!

Surprising as it may be, some reporters and commentators have begun to say that John McCain's recent twists and turns have nothing to do with conviction or policy; they are pure opportunism designed for one purpose only: to manipulate those voters who continue to refuse to think. In other words, they're the essence of the Karl Rove electoral strategy.

My favorite quip so far comes from Gail Collins who noted that the trouble with McCain's newfound populism is  that his "willingness to make speeches that have nothing to do with his actual beliefs is not matched by an ability to give them, he wound up sounding like Bob Dole impersonating Huey Long."

In the spirit of this dawning boldness, I'd like to offer one obvious point that the waves of courage have not yet quite reached: John McCain is not very bright. His dullness of mind has nothing to do with his age. He has been dull all the way back.
There are, of course, various forms of stodgy thought but in a politician its most frequent manifestation is an unwillingness -- or inability -- to think seriously about the public weaknesses that government might help to bolster.  It's all very well to make an occasional ironic quip about something that's going on in the federal government, but when it's followed by lockstep devotion to a party line that has been more destructive of public well-being than any other in our history, a reputation for independence become a farce. John McCain is a standard, regular, dead minded, squint-eyed Republican, and nothing else. His attempt lately to run away from who he has been is a tactic that comes naturally to a mind such as his. If the public can't grasp that, then another obvious truth the media may not be intrepid enough to mention is that the public itself is severely limited when it comes to accurate perception.

Mumbo Jumbo Scams
September 17, 2008

An editorial in my local paper about the financial crisis contains this sentence: "What's needed is sound, insightful leadership, not just by the giants of Wall Street -- who may bear much of the responsibility for the problem -- but also by our political leaders."

Why not just say: what's needed is for a genie to pop out of a bottle and provide plentiful, free energy for all the people of the earth? There's about as much chance for one as for the other.

To become a giant on Wall Street one must mimic the behavior of a somewhat clever spoiled brat child, who cares about nothing except his own wants. The notion that we can get sound, insightful leadership from such people is beyond fantastic. The public need to learn, once and for all, that any modicum of social service that a stock market or non-deposit, shadow bank like Lehman Brothers may provide is so far overwhelmed by the consequences of greed that the former count for virtually nothing. These institutions are giant, sucking leeches and they have no thought, ever, beyond a determination to continue to bloat themselves unto eternity.

Their propaganda machines have drummed into people's minds so incessantly the idea that wealth equals respectability and intelligence that probably a majority of the population believe that business acumen is the main ingredient in a solution of the social and political problems of the earth. No belief could be farther from the truth. What's now called business acumen is little more than tricking up pieces of paper with fancy names, which can be bought and bundled by a second set of manipulators who are hoping to acquire vast wealth by selling them to dupes.  It's little more than a gigantic Ponzi scheme, and the economic well-being of the people of the United States supposedly depends on keeping it going.
Up till now, the American people have consistently punished politicians who dared to tell the truth about the monied classes in America. Truthtellers were written off as unbalanced radicals. That's why we have had scant political leadership on economic issues. You would think current conditions would cause enough voters to wake up that we could get politicians who actually want to promote the well-being of a majority of the people. But waking up takes mind, and, at the moment, there's no telling whether there's enough mind in America to seize control of public affairs from those who seek it only to fleece us.

What Comes Naturally
September 13, 2008

The press is full of reports that the Democrats are at a disadvantage in the presidential races because they don't know how to lie like the Republicans do. The GOP can lie without even thinking about it whereas the Democrats, if they're going to stretch the truth a bit, go through contortions with prior announcements of why they're doing what they do.

It's true that Republicans will lie at the drop of a hat and not have the slightest thought that they're doing anything wrong. They know that some people -- their natural constituency -- will believe the lies and that anyone with mind enough to examine whether a statement is true would never vote for a Republican anyway. Their faith has always been that there are more stupid voters than intelligent ones, and, therefore, the only smart tactic is to go after the stupid element in the electorate. And many Democrats are in despair because they believe that's true. They don't know how to appeal to stupid voters the way the Republicans do.

Actually it is a fairly serious problem. But I don't believe it's insoluble. The Democrats have to simplify their message by repeating incessantly that if you vote for Republicans you're not going to get what they promise you because they always lie during campaigns. They always tell you they're going to do something they're not going to do. This has the advantage not only of being simple but also of being true.

The only issue in this campaign should become whether Republicans are inveterate liars. Obama and his supporters should refuse to let it be anything else. After all, they've got plenty of evidence; so just keep trotting it out. They've got a little wave going already, and if they can keep it rising a considerable portion the press will get behind it. Reporters love a juicy theme of that sort.

Although the average American voter is badly misinformed about the actions of government, there's something about the concept of a lie that will make him, or her, uneasy. And once the Democrats make smug people uneasy, they've got them moving in the right direction.

A Grand New Venture
September 10, 2008

The Republican Party, under the leadership of John McCain, is launched on a new experiment in politics. They have decided to lie their way into the White House and to do it not deceptively, as has been done so often in the past, but, rather, to do it arrantly, blatantly, obviously. They are prepared to say their candidates did things they did not do and opposed thing they vigorously championed, and to continue to make these proclamations in the face of clear evidence that they are false.

It's a strategy that must be based on the belief that a majority of the American electorate are either incapable of recognizing truth or simply care nothing for it. Never before has a major political party in America grounded itself so completely and confidently on the corruption of the people.

Their campaign is, indeed, an attempt at revolution, and if it succeeds, it will transform the American political climate for generations. If a candidate does not have to worry, ever, about being caught up in a lie, what motive will remain for any semblance truth in political debate? Newspapers and television news networks will become nothing but carriers of self-serving fantasy. Few will any longer give a fig for what's actually occurring. The only issue and the only topic discussed will become who is more skillful at lying manipulation. We have been moving in this direction for some time, but now the Republicans have decided to cast caution aside and go the whole way.

We are facing a landmark election, one in which truth, accuracy, and sound evidence could become nothing more than relics of the past.

New Deportment
September 9, 2008

A peculiar propriety seems to be arising in America. An example of it can be seen in David Brooks's column this morning where he advises Barack Obama to chastise his own supporters if they criticize Sarah Palin. And why should he do that? Because coming out against Ms Palin is snobbery. Anybody who engages in it is practicing coastal condescension. They are savaging Ms. Palin's faith and family. Maybe, but it seems to be the case that any reservations about Ms. Palin's stance on anything are being twisted into an attack on her faith and family. After all, she's a champion of those solid working-class values -- whatever they are -- that make America great.

There's just a step from this sort of palaver to claiming that anything a person who hunts animals and drives a pickup truck supports is bound to be virtuous. And it's a step the Republicans have long since taken. It's also a claim that anyone whose tastes happen to diverge from those of moose hunters are effete elitists who have no right even to live in America. Both Republican leaders and the media are close to declaring that anything once considered elegant or intelligent is disgusting. Do you enjoy reading Shakespeare? Disgusting! Do you prefer Bach to Toby Keith? Disgusting! Did you ever read a novel by Gustave Flaubert? Disgusting! Have you ever heard of Virginia Woolf? Disgusting!

All this has long since passed reverse discrimination and has now established itself as the reigning intolerance in America.

Just for the sake of counterpoint, I'd like to point out that I've known quite a few guys who drive pickup trucks and like to hunt who are total slobs -- vicious to their families, obnoxious in virtually every social relation, selfish and mean-spirited to an insane degree, and cry-babies to boot. Owning a shotgun and carrying it around in the back of your truck is not an automatic passport to sainthood. But I guess I'd better be careful about saying such a thing because I might be written off as disgusting.

Factor Confusion
September 7, 2008

Over the past two decades, Republican operatives have had a far stronger faith in the essential vulgarity of the American people than they have in God, country, or any other supposedly sacred entity. Their entire strategy has been based on belief that in America it is impossible to exceed the yuck factor. Watching the success of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Ann Counter, they have been captured by the conviction that no matter how dishonest and nasty they get, filthy attacks will always work for them because filthy attacks always resonate favorably with the people. Yet, it may be that they're now stepping over a line they'll regret.

One piece of evidence is the new militancy of the Time magazine writer Joe Klein. He was so put off by the Republican Convention and its notion that the party can now be successful by running away from itself, that he says McCain's ugly style of campaigning is a sign of a severe character defect in the candidate. McCain's choice of a running mate who is clearly not competent to be president, and then his having her spirited away so she won't have to answer any questions, is clearly beyond the pale for Klein. In fact, Palin's attempted escape from press scrutiny, while Bush operatives try to pump her up with a little knowledge, is getting to be a principal theme of campaign discussions.

The notion that selecting a woman whose enjoyment of killing moose and wolves will endear her more to the people than will any knowledge anybody else has of Iraq, the economy, and the national debt is a gigantic insult to the political intelligence of the public. Do the Republicans think nobody will notice that? Evidently they do.

I can't say I know for sure where the yuck line is, but I suspect it's not as far away as the Republicans think it is.

Too Nice
September 5, 2008

Barack Obama in attempting to woo Republican voters -- an unlikely occurrence -- is undermining his ability to say what the Republican Party is, and, consequently, has increased the difficulty of saying what he's running against. It could turn out to be a crippling tactic.

I hope he has paid close attention to the Republican Convention this week. If he has, he should have learned he's not going to win Republican hearts by sweet reason. They hate reason; hate it so much they have actually tried to launch an insurgency against themselves in order to give themselves the power to keep on doing what they have done all along. They are touting themselves as the party that wants to clean up Washington when they have made Washington what it is. It's an unreasonable ploy, but what do they care?

Obama has got to find some way to point out the nature of the modern Republican Party. He can't let McCain get away with running against the Republican Party while remaining the biggest Republican of them all. He needs to be brave enough to ask: is George Bush a Republican? is Dick Cheney a Republican? is Donald Rumsfeld a Republican? is Karl Rove a Republican? is Tom DeLay a Republican? is Alberto Gonzales a Republican? is Jack Abramoff a Republican?

This may be seen as turning against his own tactic of unifying the country, but he's also got to recognize that any semblance of unifying with those guys is a turning against his own supporters. Some turnings are necessary, and turning against the Republicans is a thing Obama desperately needs to do. And he needs to do it before it's too late, which means, right now.

September 5, 2008

I watched the first part of Senator Obama's interview with Bill O'Reilly. The candidate handled himself well but unless he has a hidden strategy for using the event, I think it's a mistake for him to submit himself to persons of O'Reilly's character. The talk show host is a conversational thug, and unless one wants to tell him off and point out his simplemindedness -- which is not Obama's style -- it's best to ignore him.

If Obama thinks he can win over O'Reilly's followers by being courteous during the interview he is mistaken. Scarcely anyone who finds O'Reilly persuasive will vote for the subtler of two candidates in a race. O'Reilly's people want simple answers to complex questions, and anytime a candidate refuses to gratify them, they write him off as weak.

One can't accept O'Reilly's queries and answer them intelligently. Virtually every O'Reilly interrogation is framed with false premises, and by appearing to take it seriously, one lets himself be goaded into naive responses. O'Reilly's insistence last night that Obama say exactly how he planned to bomb or invade Iran, no other tactic being credible, is a perfect example of his interviewing technique.

Obama was astute enough not to fall into the trap, but his refusal to bow down to O'Reilly's premises left him vulnerable to another manipulative technique. Immediately after the interview segment had been aired, O'Reilly trotted in the Ann Coulter mannequin, Monica Crowley, to pronounce triumphantly that Obama is not an adequate terror warrior.

Every element of the O'Reilly Factor is unfair, dishonest, and manipulative. That's what the program is; that's who Bill O'Reilly is. I guess you could say it shows becoming self-confidence to think that you can go into that pit and come out unsullied. But unless you're ready to tell O'Reilly to his face that he's a cheap sensationalist, there's little profit in it.

Sanctified by Blood
September 4, 2008

If you take seriously some of the talk coming from the Republican Convention, you would think the GOP might sponsor an amendment to the Constitution requiring that any candidate for the presidency or vice-presidency must have slaughtered a mammal weighing at least a hundred pounds, preferably a human, but at least a moose.

The convention organizers missed a grand opportunity by failing to have a moose trotted onto the stage with Sarah Palin and having her gun it down to the frenzied cheers of the multitude. That would have garnered a lot of air time.

It's hard to know whether Republican paeans to killing are merely a bizarre form of humor or actually reflect something deep within the Republican bosom. I suppose they could be both.

At any rate, the gathering of the GOP faithful leaves one wondering what portion of the people finds something noble in the concept of killing. Obviously, celebration of big killers has been a significant feature of the human story. But, we've tended to flatter ourselves with the notion that we've got past such appetites. I'm afraid, though, it's not true. Many people believe that the definition of leader includes not only willingness to kill at the drop of a hat but, also, a certain zest for doing it. We kill, of course, only to promote peace, but we seem to like it all the same.

It would be fascinating to know how long the passion for turning living creatures into dead meat will persist. We can't know that, of course. But we can be fairly sure that if it faded, the Republican party would fade along with it.

Palin's Influence
September 4, 2008

The consensus emerging about Sarah Palin's speech to the Republican Convention is that she told a lot of lies but she did it perkily and with verve. So now, say the pundits, the question is whether perkiness will outweigh falsehood.

It's an extraordinary question. There's at least an implication in it, that a majority of the American people can be so swept up by manner they simply lose all interest in the principles or the policies of the person who exhibits the manner. Can that be the case?

I ask the question sincerely, because I don't know the answer. If I were forced to wager, I would bet that the people, though they're more ignorant than they should be, can't be carried off by pure posturing. Yet, I confess, my bet would come as much from hope as from analysis. I don't know, for sure, who the American people, in the whole, are. This election will come close, though, to settling the issue.

I did see a Republican delegate from Texas say she was excited about Ms. Palin's becoming vice president because the candidate loves her family and likes to ride on motorcycles. I guess the question before us is whether that delegate is representative of a majority of Americans.

If it should turn out that she is, those of us who don't warm to her sympathies have hard issues to be confronted. Difficulty isn't a thing always to be avoided but I hope this version of it will pass us by so we can turn our best political thought to modifying some of the cavernous weaknesses already dumped on the country by the Bush administration.

September 3, 2008

I turned on the Republican Convention for a few minutes yesterday, but, I confess, I couldn't keep it on long. I don't think my inability to watch Republicans talk comes from disliking their motives. After all, I read Republican arguments all the time. But to sit and watch people actually demean themselves is extremely uncomfortable. I can't do it for very long.

The addition of Sarah Palin to the GOP ticket has exacerbated their humiliation. Person after person is trotted before TV cameras to defend and praise this pathetic choice. The exaggerated cheerfulness as they enunciate absurdities is an indication that they know what a sacrifice of personal dignity is being demanded from them by their party. Who can say that someone is knowledgeable about foreign affairs because she happens to live in a state close to Russia without wincing internally. Many Republicans are stupid, yes, but they're not that stupid.

I suspect most of the delegates are going to come away from the convention with a bad case of dyspepsia. No one can play the fool for long without beginning to feel like a fool. And that's scarcely a comfortable self-evaluation.

I'm not overly fond of Republicans as political beings, but even I feel too much for them to be able to watch steadily the spectacle of what they're doing to themselves.

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