Monday, January 31, 2011

There's No Such Thing as a Free Market

AlterNet excerpts from the first chapter of economist Ha-Joon Chang's book 23 Things They Don't Tell you About Capitalism:

Recognizing that the boundaries of the market are ambiguous and cannot be determined in an objective way lets us realize that economics is not a science like physics or chemistry, but a political exercise. Free-market economists may want you to believe that the correct boundaries of the market can be scientifically determined, but this is incorrect. If the boundaries of what you are studying cannot be scientifically determined, what you are doing is not a science.

Thus seen, opposing a new regulation is saying that the status quo, however unjust from some people’s point of view, should not be changed. Saying that an existing regulation should be abolished is saying that the domain of the market should be expanded, which means that those who have money should be given more power in that area, as the market is run on one-dollar-one-vote principle.

So, when free-market economists say that a certain regulation should not be introduced because it would restrict the "freedom" of a certain market, they are merely expressing a political opinion that they reject the rights that are to be defended by the proposed law. Their ideological cloak is to pretend that their politics is not really political, but rather is an objective economic truth, while other people’s politics is political. However, they are as politically motivated as their opponents.

Breaking away from the illusion of market objectivity is the first step toward understanding capitalism.


More
here.

Okay, so I've said as much before many times here at Real Art: the market, because it is artificially constructed by government, cannot ever possibly be free from interference in its "freedom." And really, that's pretty obvious when you think about it for, like, two seconds. But what interests me here is Ha-Joon Chang's assertion that all economic decisions are political in nature.

In my life, I've had two face-to-face conversations with neoliberal economists, one at an economics seminar when I was in high school, and the other with my macroeconomics professor at the University of Texas. Both of them said something that disturbed me then, but later grew to outrage me: economists aren't interested in morality; they're just interested in understanding the efficient production and use of goods and services--morals are something for the politicians to wrangle with.

In the same way that journalists fool themselves that there is such a thing as objectivity, even while they and their editors decide what is newsworthy, who to quote, what tone to take, and how many times to report on a given story, so, too, do economists fool themselves into thinking that decisions about who gets what, how much, and in what way, is somehow devoid of moral ramifications. I don't even think I need to explain why this is the case--I mean, when Big Agribusiness starts buying up huge tracts of land in India, and local farmers who have worked that land for generations start to kill themselves because they can't compete, that's a moral ramification of an economic decision, one that makes good sense to everybody in the field because it makes more "efficient" use of resources. As if preserving lives, livelihoods, and ways of life didn't make good sense.

Ha-Joon Chang uses the word "political," but "moral" works just about as well--sure, politics and morality aren't the same thing, but there is a hell of a lot of overlap, so his line of thinking applies either way. The bottom line here is that because our political and economic establishment projects almost god-like powers of wisdom onto the field of economics, the public discourse overwhelmingly tends to treat economists' pronouncements, which are almost always from the point of view of the capital holding class, as written on stone tablets, sort of a morality unto themselves.

Until economists, and the politicians who worship them, start to look at economics as a moral exercise, instead of simply an examination of efficiency, we will continue to be doomed to enduring trillion dollar bailouts, decreasing wages, unemployment, and an ever lower standard of living.

I continue to be amazed by how stupid, craven, and mean our leaders are.

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Today, Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower Would Be Bernie Sanders

Just to put that title into perspective, consider this: even though he is usually identified on television as "Bernie Sanders (I., Vermont)" he is actually a socialist, the real deal, not that fake Obama kind, the farthest to the left elected official in the federal government these days.

Let's see what MSNBC's Rachel Maddow has to say about this. From
AlterNet:

Listen to the way he goes after the right here. "Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things, but their number is negligible and"--and the president says--"their number is negligible and they are stupid."

That is not what Barack Obama said last night. That is way to the left of any national Democrat at this point. That was all Republican President Dwight David Eisenhower. That was all the stuff he said when he was president.

Republican President Dwight Eisenhower, president when the top tax bracket for the richest people in this country was 92 percent. President Eisenhower defended that tax bracket. He said we cannot afford to reduce taxes until, quote, "the factors of income and outgo will be balanced." Eisenhower insisting there must be a balanced budget and that taxes on the rich are the way to balance it. Dwight Eisenhower, you know, noted leftist.


And

Historically, the process of a Democrat trying to find the center in politics has seen Democrats chasing the center as it moves to the right. The thing that's different about the left and the right in this country is that there isn't an equal and opposite force on the left that's anything like the conservative movement on the right. The conservative movement exists outside the Republican Party, and it serves to constantly pull the Republican Party further to the right.

So, when you have a president like Bill Clinton who found popular centrist decisions by splitting the difference between where the Republicans were and where the Republican--where the Democrats were and where the Republicans were, and the Republicans kept moving further to the right because they're being pulled there by the conservative movement, when you have a president who triangulates like that, what you end up with is a president who as a Democrat moves the country further to the right, because he shifts to the right every time he takes another centrist position.


More
here.

I've been making similar statements along these lines since pretty much the beginning of this blog back in '02. Probably the most common iteration is something like this: today "liberal" means "moderate," "moderate" means "conservative," "conservative" means "far-right reactionary," and "far right" means "psychopathic Nazi." Note that there is no term to denote real liberals because they don't exist in the public dialogue. Or in politics, for that matter, excepting, of course, the above mentioned Senator from Vermont, who can't really do that much all by himself, facing political hostility toward his ideas from not only the Republicans, but also the Democrats, with whom he caucuses.

I would say that the country has moved to the right, except that it would be untrue. What has happened is that the political establishment has moved to the right, leaving the country in its wake, confused and frightened. And really, I think the country continues to be as liberal as the establishment was back in the 1950s: polls of the general population continue to show strong support for social services, universal health care, an equitable distribution of income, and high taxes for the rich. That is, the country isn't "liberal;" rather, these "liberal" ideas are, in fact, moderate, in spite of what the politicians, from both parties, and the mass media elite tell us over and over again.

Last Christmas, as I sat around the dinner table with my far-right conservative family, one of them casually asserted that President Obama is a big liberal. They seemed a bit shocked when I strongly asserted that the President is not a liberal. "Sure he is, Ron" my older brother said. "No, he's not." I shot back. I was wearing a Noam Chomsky t-shirt my girlfriend gave me for my birthday last year, and, in an attempt to change the subject, my sister-in-law asked me who's face was on my chest: "a liberal," I answered.

Liberals don't give private banks and brokerage houses trillions of dollars in free money. Liberals don't sell out to Big Pharma and the HMOs and call it health care "reform." Liberals don't suck the oil industry's big huge cock and call it good for the nation. And on and on. But conservatives and the establishment think that's what liberals do.

So what do real liberals do? What do real liberals want? Well, for my answer to that question, just read this blog, or any of the other political blogs listed, appropriately, on the left side of the page--I mean, you're certainly not going to find any liberal ideas in the mainstream media; well, okay, there's Rachel Maddow, to be sure, but her fate now is dripping with uncertainty after Olbermann's hasty departure from the network in the wake of the Comcast merger.

But that's really the problem with this continual establishment push to the right: lots of good and reasonable ideas are completely excluded from the grand debate because they are no longer considered to be within the accepted American political spectrum. I mean, if Obama is as far to the left as you can get, then what the hell am I? Answer: a non-entity.

And that's a total drag. By mid twentieth century standards, I'm not even particularly liberal. I'm more of a moderate. Even by today's standards, if you look at what most Americans actually think about the issues, I'm fairly moderate. But by today's establishment standards, I don't exist. Or I'm so fucking crazy, my views don't matter. Whatever.

The bottom line is that, by cutting ourselves off from a whole host of political ideas and points of view, this country has totally crippled itself. Actually, we may very well be destroying ourselves.

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Saturday, January 29, 2011

Egypt News: At Least 62 Killed In Last 2 Days, Officials Say

From the AP via
the Huffington Post news wire:

With protests raging, Egypt's president named his intelligence chief as his first-ever vice president on Saturday, setting the stage for a successor as chaos engulfed the capital. Soldiers stood by – a few even joining the demonstrators – and the death toll from five days of anti-government fury rose sharply to 74.

Saturday's fast-moving developments across the north African nation marked a sharp turning point in President Hosni Mubarak's three-decade rule of Egypt.

Residents and shopkeepers in affluent neighborhoods boarded up their houses and stores against looters, who roamed the streets with knives and sticks, stealing what they could and destroying cars, windows and street signs. Gunfire rang out in some neighborhoods.


And

The crackdown on protesters has drawn harsh criticism from the Obama administration and even a threat Friday to reduce a $1.5 billion foreign aid program if Washington's most important Arab ally escalates the use of force.

And

The protesters united in one overarching demand – Mubarak and his family must go. The movement is a culmination of years of simmering frustration over a government they see as corrupt, heavy-handed and neglectful of poverty.

Egyptians were emboldened by the uprising in Tunisia – another North African Arab nation, and further buoyed by their success in defying the ban on gatherings.

At the end of a long day of rioting and mass demonstrations Friday, Mubarak fired his Cabinet and promised reforms. But the demonstrators returned in force again Saturday to demand a complete change of regime.

The president appeared to have been preparing his son Gamal to succeed him, possibly as soon as presidential elections planned for later this year. However, there was significant public opposition to the hereditary succession.


More
here.

Okay, this is pretty serious.

Of course, I'm no expert on Egypt, no Egyptologist, but I do have an understanding of Egypt's overall role in the whole Middle East dynamic, which puts me way ahead of most Americans, which, admittedly, isn't much to write home about. Nonetheless, here are a few thoughts.

Even though Israel kicked Egypt's ass in 1967's Six Day War, the outcome of the next one, the 1973 Yom Kippur War was far more ambiguous, and threatened to bring the Soviets into the conflict. This made the US reconsider the regional situation: only a few years later, President Carter brokered the Camp David Peace Accords which ended hostilities between the two nations, and essentially turned Egypt into yet another US client state run by a brutal dictatorship.

This was good for the US for a couple of reasons. It kept the Russians out of Egypt, which my older brother once described as the only Arab country that's actually a nation state in the way we understand the term here in America, and it effectively ended Arab hopes for toppling Israel. Thus, Egypt became the biggest recipient of US aid money after Israel, and the vast majority of that aid has been in the form of military spending.

This relationship has been the lynch pin for American diplomacy in the Middle East for over three decades, and it's worked pretty well from that point of view. Egypt's government is secular, a plus from a diplomatic point of view, and the nation has been pretty stable over the years, which is really all the US establishment gives a shit about. Of course, the US establishment doesn't give a shit about the fact that such stability exists only because of the Egyptian government's willingness to fucking torture any and all dissidents. And many of these dissidents are Muslim radicals.

Indeed, one of the first rogue actions of the jihadis who eventually formed the nucleus of what is now called Al-Qaeda, people we were supporting in their fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan, was to assassinate Egypt's President Anwar Sadat, the guy who signed the Camp David peace agreement with Israel, back in 1981. And we shouldn't forget that two of the 9/11 terrorists were Egyptians. So not only does Egypt produce more than its fair share of Muslim extremists, their radicals aren't just willing to kill to further their political goals: they've already done it quite spectacularly.

This is not to say that this uprising is all about radical Islam. It's not. It's probably safe to say that, while Muslim, most Egyptians prefer, and are very used to, secular governance. But make no mistake, the sometimes locally popular brutal dictatorship that has controlled Egypt since the 1950s has been heavily supported by the US since the late 70s. And this kind of relationship, the US supporting evil dictators in the Middle East, is exactly the kind of thing that has inspired and motivated the radical Muslim terrorists we say we're fighting in the endless "War on Terror." That is, if this thing turns out badly, if Islamic extremists somehow end up running Egypt, it will be, to some extent, our own damned fault. Indeed, it's almost laughable to hear the US State Department and the President issue statements in support of Egyptian democracy, when we've helped prop up their oppressor for decades. Typical bullshit rhetoric.

More generally, if Egypt ends up with an entirely new government, whether secular or religious, it is very probable that the new boss will reevaluate its relationship with the US. I don't know exactly what this would mean. They may think there are good reasons to continue the status quo as far as peace and stability go, or they may want to stop being one of America's client states, which wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, given Israel's utter intransigence on the Palestinian issue, and America's utter unwillingness to use its leverage with the Jewish state to force some progress.

So, in short, I have no idea where this is all going. Nothing terribly significant could happen, from the US's standpoint, or the entire geopolitical calculus of the Middle East might shuffle itself overnight, for better or worse. But this is a big deal. I wish the news was explaining it all better.

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Friday, January 28, 2011

FRIDAY CAT BLOGGING

Evil Roi




Be sure to check out
Modulator's Friday Ark for more cat blogging pics! (Note: Modulator's on vacation until the end of the month, but go check it out, anyway. It's a good blog.)

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STAR TREK
"The Way to Eden"


From Wikipedia:

"The Way to Eden" is the nineteenth episode of the third season of Star Trek: The Original Series, and was broadcast February 21, 1969. It was written by Arthur Heinemann, based on a story by Arthur Heinemann and Michael Richards, and directed by David Alexander.

Overview: The Enterprise is hijacked by an insane doctor and his fanatical, hippie-like followers, in an attempt to find paradise.


More
here.

Watch it
here.

Notes and pics:

* Where's Uhura? Who's this white chick?



* They look like Space: 1999 aliens.



* Space: 1999 aliens:





* "No go! No go!" Really, hippies haven't changed too much in forty years. Still annoying.

* "You've got a hard lip, Herbert." Great one liners in this one.

* This reminds me of that episode of Dick Cavett or Mike Douglas that brought on something like six or seven of the performers at Woodstock. David Crosby was a raging hippie asshole.



* Now Spock's going to try to rap with them.



* Spock: "One."

Dr. Sevrin: "We are one."

Spock: "One is the beginning."

Adam: "Are you one, Herbert?"

Spock: "I am not Herbert."

Adam: "He's not Herbert. We reach."

These exchanges are fucking surreal.

* Adam: "Right, brother!" You know, I used to think this one was really silly because of how it got the hippies so totally wrong. I still think it's really silly, but I'm finding myself thinking that they got the hippies totally right.

* "Herbert Herbert Herbert Herbert..."

* Kirk sounds like that guy in the Woodstock movie who's like "They're all on pot!" Spock sounds like a sympathetic university professor.

* Alright! Adam's singing! What the fuck is that he's playing? Sounds like an electric harpsichord, but looks like a space-guitar. Actually, it's not such a bad song. BTW, Adam is played by the now veteran character actor Charles Napier, always pretty great, whether he's playing a vengeance seeking country and western band leader in The Blues Brothers or a Rambo villain. This is early in his career, but he's as great here as anything else he's ever done.



* You can buy wigs like that in shops on Bourbon Street.



* She's a Ruskie. Probably a commie, too.

* Yeah, Chekov, go get some of that groovy free love!



* This is like a community college production of The Cherry Orchard or The Three Sisters.

* Fantastic! A real 60s hippie riot. I mean, you know, it's only five people, but they're very convincing.



* Typical arrogant asshole hippie: he carries a deadly disease, but calls it a government plot.



* Sulu's gonna get some of that free lovin' action, too!



* Adam again bursts into song, a nice off-kilter anti-authoritarian quickie.



* The guy playing Sevrin played Melakon in the second season's "Patterns of Force." From Nazi to hippie. Actually, that's not such a stretch. I mean, David Horowitz went from hippie to Nazi, so why not?



* Spock: "Doctor Sevrin is...insane." Great line, well delivered.

* There's that weird alter thing in Spock's quarters again.



* Adam: "Hey brother, do you play? Oh ho, that's now, that's really now. I reach that brother, I really do."



* Now Spock's going to play.



* And Adam totally digs it.



* So, naturally, they're all going to jam together.

* More bad community college twentieth century Russian realism.

* She's really coming onto him. Fucking hippie slut.



* They might as well be plotting to take over the dean's office.



* I've performed this first one in front of live audiences.



* This is so incredibly retarded that it's great.

* I did this second one, too.

* The crew fucking digs it!



* Spock arrives.



* Spock takes the stage. Once, years ago, my buddy Shane had this episode playing with the sound turned down while we were listening to a Ministry album or mix tape or somesuch. When the song "
Stigmata" came on, someone in the room noticed that this scene was playing and it appeared that they were jamming along with the Ministry song. I assure you, this was way cooler than watching The Wizard of Oz turned down with Dark Side of the Moon playing could ever possibly be. Okay, we might have been on acid, too.



* Okay, how is it that these lame-ass hippie fucks are able to take over the ship? Well, Spock did say they were all grad students and scientists and shit. Typical. But I just don't see a bunch of grad students taking over the Enterprise.



* I love that Spock is in philosophical sympathy with the hippies. He also fit in with the fascist mirror universe, too. I'm liking this Nazi/hippie theme they're pushing.

* Adam croons a slow ballad about Eden.



* You know, I should adapt this episode for the theater.

* Now Sevrin wants to kill the crew. It's like Charles Manson and the Symbionese Liberation Army and the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers and Altamont and the Viet Cong and Jane Fonda all rolled into one.

* Scream, Chekov, scream!



* Adam o.d.'d. Bummer, man. It's just like Janis and Jimi and Jim.



* Nasty foot.



* What's with the mirror shots of Kirk in this one?



* Five stars. Yeah, this one's bad. Really bad, just spectacularly bad. But it's bad in all the right ways. And it's a musical. The only Star Trek musical I know of that's considered canon. The hippies are spot on, and Doctor Sevrin makes for an excellent groovy sunshine villain, like something from an issue of Superman's Pal Jimmy Olson, or The Teen Titans. And the dialoge is some of the worst, and by "worst" I mean "best", in all of Star Trek. Yeah, five stars. Fuck you, fucking smelly self-righteous hippies.

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Thursday, January 27, 2011

CHARTER SCHOOLS, VOUCHERS, IT'S ALL BULLSHIT

From
the Huffington Post news wire:

School Vouchers: John Boehner Pushes To Revive

Program In DC As Model For National Reform

GOP House Speaker John Boehner and independent Sen. Joe Lieberman introduced legislation Wednesday to revive a school voucher program for District of Columbia students nearly two years after Congress began phasing it out.

In a statement Wednesday, Boehner said the D.C. program is a model that can work well in other cities and should be the starting point of any new bipartisan education reform legislation developed with President Barack Obama's administration.

"There's only one program in America where the federal government allows parents from lower-income families to choose the schools that are best for their children, and it's right here in D.C.," Boehner said. "If we're serious about bipartisan education reform, then this bipartisan education bill should be the starting point."


More
here.

Sigh. The whole voucher thing is nothing more than a stupid conservative ploy to privatize the schools. Unfortunately, liberals are pretty stupid, so the idea continues to bounce around political circles as though it somehow has merit.

The ostensible concept here is that when you give parents some choice in where they send their kids to school, the principles of capitalistic markets kick in, making schools "competitive." And everybody "knows" that competition makes everyone and everything better. Problem solved. Bad schools lose the competition; good schools win. Just because capitalistic competition makes everything better.

But nobody has even tried, ever, to explain more precisely how this works. When you have soap companies competing for consumer dollars, sure, things like lower prices, better cleaning ability, cool and refreshing scent, all these things can loosely be described as good results driven by market competition. But what is it that we're trying to get when we say we want better schools? Okay, we want our children to be better educated. But that doesn't really answer the question, either, because there isn't a universally accepted vision of what a better education looks like. I mean, for the last twenty years or so, it's all been about standardized tests: better education means better standardized test scores. So, I guess, even though there is no universally accepted understanding of better education, as far as the politics and public discussion go, we're talking about standardized test scores.

This is wildly problematic from the get-go because it assumes standardized test scores accurately reflect how well a student has been educated, and this is just not the case. I mean, standardized tests are actually not a bad assessment tool when used with lots of other methods, but the prevailing cultural winds are placing the lion's share of emphasis on testing, which gives us an astoundingly inaccurate picture of what's going on in the schools. But it gets worse. We don't even really need to do the testing to get the scores: all we have to do is use parental income figures, and the results are the same.

That is, so-called superior educational outcomes, the kind of thing that these hypothetical "better" schools are supposed to generate, have far more to do with family and community, things that are totally outside a given school's control, than with efforts teachers make in the classroom. So schools with rich kids are always going to be "better" than schools with poor kids. Always. There are, of course, some notable exceptions, but generally these anomalies generate decent test scores by gearing their entire institutional emphasis toward test-taking, the old "teaching to the test" strategy. Unfortunately, this isn't education: it's teaching dogs how to beg, shake hands, and roll over. Or even worse, these "underperforming" schools, because the pressure to raise test scores is so overwhelming, just straight-up cheat. And that's not education, either.

So sure, yeah, under some kind of competitive school choice system, every school is going to be working its ass off to raise test scores, but that in no way means that competition would be making schools better. Actually, given the emphasis on test scores to the exclusion of everything else, market competition would generally make the schools worse.

So the cockeyed voucher concept is bullshit. And it funnels money out of the public school system into private schools, making the public system even more crippled. What's particularly appalling about the persistence of the voucher notion is that, as I've observed, it's not based on any real ideas. It's just this blind conservative belief that market competition makes everything improve, when, empirically speaking, such is not always the case.

On the other hand, the schools are, indeed, pretty fucked up, but for reasons that are utterly ignored in the public discourse. Nobody seems to be interested in solving or even discussing the real problems. So why should I give a shit one way or the other?

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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Conservatives Freak Out Over MTV’s "Skins" -- Teenagers Have Sex. Get Over It.

From
AlterNet:

Last week, the conservative Parents TV Council slammed MTV for its new show, "Skins," calling it “the most dangerous program ever” for its portrayal of teenagers doing things they often do in reality: have sex, curse and take drugs. Advertisers from Taco Bell to H&R Block have pulled their spots, and now MTV is wringing its hands (aka trying to drum up more viewers) over whether it's violating federal child pornography laws by an upcoming scene featuring a naked 17-year-old with an erection running down the street. (Not that we’ll see it.)

The fact is, the brouhaha’s a load of bull, and both MTV and PTC are being ridiculous.


More
here.

The essay goes on to blast the anti-sex controversy-rousers for, well, the title sort of says it all: teenagers do things that most adults do, too, and adults even know this, but really hate when they have their noses rubbed in it. That is, the same wishful-thinking crowd that brought us "abstinence based" sex education is going wild that MTV would dare portray reality in living color. The essay then goes on to blast MTV for making a British TV knockoff that isn't as good as the original British show, as if US television didn't have a multi-decade history of watering down good across-the-pond programming for our own rude, unwashed masses.

Whatever.

I actually ended up watching an episode of the show last night. Ordinarily, I wouldn't trouble myself, but had read about the controversy over the past week and was channel surfing while Carly was studying her paralegal stuff, so I figured what the hell. And, surprise surprise, I liked it. A lot. It probably got a few extra points because my expectations were extraordinarily low. I mean, MTV has been mostly trash for years and years, and I figured this one would be no exception, but I was curious to see if it was as verging on child pornography as detractors have claimed. And no, it comes nowhere close to that, but, as the essay asserts, it does play up the sexuality a great deal, which is probably exactly what MTV wants to do.

But really, it's not nearly so exploitative as virtually everything else showing on the washed up youth channel these days, and frankly, the sex stuff succeeds because the show's so damned well written. I can't compare it to the Brit prototype because I've never seen it, but this is good stuff. The characters are nuanced and sophisticated, concerning themselves with real world issues that I almost never see in either film or television. And these people are interesting. Like people I wish I was friends with. Actually, these people are kind of like people I knew when I was a teenager, which just goes to show you that no matter how much things seem to change, the essential nature of human beings remains the same.

Listen to me talking about how well an MTV show deals with the "essential nature human beings." That, in itself, ought to make you curious. I don't know that I'm going to go out of my way to watch "Skins," mostly because television is just something I do when I haven't got anything else to do, but if I was the kind of person who tracked down quality TV shows, this might be on the list.

It is nice to know that TV can still surprise me.

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Monday, January 24, 2011

WHAT WE COULD HAVE DONE INSTEAD

So I'm currently reading Matt Taibbi's latest book Griftopia, and I just finished the chapter on the mortgage and lending crisis, "Hot Potato." Here's a bit of summary of that chapter from the Wikipedia article on the book:

Taibbi dissects the housing bubble crisis as a complex scam involving players at many levels. Entry level assessments, income levels, and credit scores were falsified or neglected, allowing unqualified customers to acquire mortgages they could not carry. Taibbi maintains that ARMs and other "financial inventions" enlarged the pool of loans that could never be paid back, yet issuing agents and agencies were made rich by commissions. The real money, however, came in for the big banks that securitized these loans, that is to say, repackaged them as investment vehicles (and in the process took the loan originators off the hook). Collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) then cut these bundled loans into "tranches", where the statistically more likely to be paid-back tranch would be given a AAA rating (rating agencies depend on the banks for their living), remaining CDOs were tranched again, and the better part again AAA rated, and tranched further so that eventually most of the mortgages ended up in AAA-rated instruments. The "time-bomb mortgages" were insured by credit default swaps (CDSs) in an unregulated environment, so that neither sellers (such as AIG) needed capitalization, nor buyers needed to own the insured assets. Further, AIG's investment arm invested in CDOs as a collateral to lend-out stocks further exposing itself to financial calamity.

For the entire summary, click
here.

The important thing that the summary doesn't emphasize, but is all too clear in the book, is that pretty much everybody involved, excepting maybe a large percentage of home buyers, knew exactly what they were doing, but were willing to take on the risks because they either expected to sell off their toxic investments before the bubble popped, or, as with mega investment banker Goldman Sachs, expected that the federal government would bail them out using tax payer dollars. So the whole thing was a scam of massive proportions. Everybody knew that the whole thing could blow up at any minute, but the money they were making was just too much to pass up.

That's horrifying enough, that an entire industry was allowed to go to what amounted to an illegal casino using your and my money. But the final paragraphs of the chapter brings it all into an even more depressing light:

And at the tail end of all this frantic lying, cheating, and scamming on all sides, during which time no good jobs were created and nothing except a few now-empty houses (good for nothing except depressing future home prices) got built, the final result is that we all ended up picking up the tab, subsidizing all this crime and dishonesty and pessimism as a matter of national policy.

We paid for this instead of a generation of health insurance, or an alternative energy grid, or a brand-new system of roads and highways. With the $13-plus trillion we are estimated to ultimately spend on the bailouts, we could not only have bought and paid off every single sub-prime mortgage in the country (that would only have cost $1.4 trillion), we could have paid off every remaining mortgage of any kind in this country--and still have had enough money left over to buy a new house for every American who does not already have one.

But we didn't do that, and we didn't spend the money on anything else useful, either. Why? For a very good reason. Because we're no good anymore at building bridges and highways or coming up with brilliant innovations in energy or medicine. We're shit now at finishing massive public works projects or launching brilliant fairy-tale public policy ventures like the moon landing.

What are we good at? Robbing what's left. When it comes to that, we Americans have no peer. And when it came time to design the bailouts, a monster collective project spanning two presidential administrations that was every bit as vast and far-reaching (only not into the future, but the past) as Kennedy's trip to the moon, we showed it.
Don't ever tell me again with a straight face that we don't have enough money to provide universal health care, or any other desperately needed social service. Don't ever tell me again that markets are self-regulating. Don't ever tell me again that the rich know how to take care of money better than anybody else. Don't ever tell me again that Democrats are liberal or have the best interests of the nation at heart. Don't tell me that we live in a democracy.

Don't tell me that Obama had so much on his plate that we should cut him some slack.

What the mortgage and lending crisis, and then the multi-trillion dollar bailout in its wake, show us is that everything we're supposed to believe about how this nation functions is a big fat whopping lie. The corporations really do run the nation, really do own both political parties, indeed the entire political establishment. One man, one vote doesn't mean shit. We exist for one reason only: to toil away our years so that assholes in suits can buy yachts.

Fuck you Wall Street. Fuck you Obama. Fuck you Bush. Fuck everybody who says they know what's right.

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Gabrielle Giffords' GOP Challenger Chomping at the Bit to Take Her Seat

From
AlterNet:

While most politicians from both parties have hoped for a speedy recovery, some have questioned whether Giffords should be allowed to continue to hold her seat or be forced to vacate it since she is incapacitated — a question the Republican who challenged Giffords last year also appears to be asking. According to Arizona Capitol Reports (subscription-only newsletter), Jesse Kelly is so antsy to challenge her again, that he requested a legal inquiry as to whether he could run again if Giffords lost her seat.

More
here.

Wow. What a fucking dick.

I mean, this may very well become a relevant question...if after Giffords' rehabilitation it becomes apparent that she will no longer have the cognitive or physical ability necessary for service in Congress. But such a time is no doubt months away. It's only fair to wait and see what happens.

Nonetheless, it's all politics to the man Giffords beat last November. For god's sake, she was shot only two weeks ago. And Kelly thinks it's okay to start positioning himself to try to steal her seat. This may very well be a new low point for Republican callousness, among far too many low points to count at this point.

Hey, here's an idea for political expediency: talk shit about your opposition in order to stir up the violent lunatic fringe such that they shoot the politician who beat you fair and square in an election, and then, steal her seat. Sounds like a plan. And why not? The GOP has already stolen the White House by revoking the voting rights of black people in Florida. This is just taking it a step further.

Sick twisted shit. I'd be shocked if I didn't already understand that this is just how Republicans roll. I think "disgusted" better describes how I feel.

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Saturday, January 22, 2011

BIG MEDIA IS BIG BUSINESS, AND NECESSARILY CONSERVATIVE

From ConsortiumNews:

The Disappearance of Keith Olbermann

The liberal hosts also must remember that MSNBC experimented with liberal-oriented programming only after all other programming strategies, including trying to out-Fox Fox, had failed – and only after it became clear that President George W. Bush’s popularity was slipping.

And

As I wrote in an article last November, “Olbermann and the other liberal hosts are essentially on borrowed time, much the way Phil Donahue was before getting axed in the run-up to George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, when MSNBC wanted to position itself as a ‘patriotic’ war booster.

“Unlike News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch, who stands solidly behind the right-wing propaganda on Fox News, the corporate owners of MSNBC have no similar commitment to the work of Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz.

"For the suits at headquarters, it’s just a balancing act between the ratings that those shows get and the trouble they cause as Republicans reclaim control of Washington.”


More
here.

And from BuzzFlash:

Olbermann Was Fired Because of Comcast

Comcast is a right-leaning, big media entertainment corporation that is about to control content, television, telephone and Internet service, all through one giant portal. Its interests are in dictating what consumers pay, see and hear by owning the delivery system and what it delivers.

Its acquisition of NBC Universal will accelerate an already-monopolized big media presence on television to include content control that extends even to the Internet.

Anybody who thinks that a company that is the epitome of Pac-Man corporate growth is going to tolerate liberal programming on MSNBC that is critical of corporate governance - well, you're floating down the river of "de-Nile."


More
here.

The traditional problems that economists, from all parts of the political spectrum, cite when condemning monopolies is that, when you have only one business serving a single market, you get increased prices, inferior products, and shabby service. That's because a monopoly has no competition, and doesn't have to worry about such trivialities as prices, quality, and service: there will be no competitors to swoop in and offer better deals, no loss of market share; consumers, having no place else to go, have no choice but to do business with the monopoly.

So everybody, whether you're liberal or conservative, hates monopolies. Everybody loves competition. At least, that's what everybody says. For close to twenty years, however, Congress has had a different attitude toward the media business. I mean, Congress, when pressed, continues to say "monopolies are bad," but their votes on rules for media consolidation, mergers, and takeovers don't really match that. The explanation we've been getting since the first Bush era is that technology has been changing the media business landscape so quickly and dramatically that the US media industry stands to fail dramatically if it doesn't hunker down and power up. Only mega media giants can thrive in this climate. Or something to that effect. The long and short here is that we must endure the problems that come with near-monopoly in the media business in order to ensure that we continue to have a media business. I mean, to some extent, if you buy the premise, that's kind of a compelling argument.

Problem is, the media business isn't like the soap business or the automobile business. When media consumers are forced to consume expensive shoddy products that come with shoddy or even no service, it's not that we're having to settle for less: shoddy media products hurt our nation in ways that shoddy soap or shoddy cars never could.

As entertainment products become ever more unsophisticated, bland, and lame, our overall national culture follows suit. Indeed, by some measures, entertainment media is our national culture, and that is frightening in itself. But when what was once called "a vast wasteland" by an FCC commissioner back in the late 1960s, television, starts to offer an endless stream of "reality shows" featuring petty vindictive sex-crazed assholes as real-life protagonists, and such behavior seems to be emulated by an increasing percentage of the population, one begins to feel nostalgia for the programs that prompted the condemnation in the first place, The Beverly Hillbillies, I Dream of Jeannie, and Bewitched.

But the coarsening of our shopping mall culture isn't really even the worst feature of continual media consolidation: the news, upon which all citizens depend for important political and economic information, is now little more than an entertainment product itself, bearing such passing resemblance to reality that it might as well be lumped in with The Jersey Shore and Cops.

That gets me to Olbermann.

Even though the media industry has not yet achieved monopoly status, it's very close, and I think this merger between NBC/Universal and Comcast brings down the total of individual media businesses to a big whopping five. I mean, it's more complicated than that, and it's hard to keep track, what with the rapid pace of consolidation over the years, but that's more or less the picture. Suffice it to say, the oligopoly-toward-monopoly status of the media industry means we are seeing ever increasing monopolistic effects. So the news necessarily becomes ever more bland and lame.

I like to say that the corporate news is conservative, rather than liberal, as the conservatives are continually shrieking, and it is conservative, if only in that it ideologically reflects the establishment views of big government and big business. But it might be just as precise to say that the news is conventional, in that it reflects the "conventional wisdom" of corporate and government culture, which is indeed conservative by any number of definitions. And as the media business continues to consolidate, monopolistic effects ramp up, and the news becomes even more conventional: it is very important to note that as the right wing has successfully pulled government/corporate conventional wisdom towards itself over the years, so, too, has the news media, being totally bland and conventional, moved to the right.

That is, it's just easier for news programming to be conservative, rather than liberal, in the current economic and political environment.

Keith Olbermann seemingly defied this trend. An unabashed liberal on prime time cable news, not only existing, but thriving, stood in stark contrast to the fairly conservative lineup at CNN, as well as the big three broadcast news shows. It stood in massive contrast, of course, to the psychopaths at Fox, but that's fairly obvious at this point. That Olbermann thrived where Donahue failed only a few short years before is quite remarkable.

The explanation for this anomaly is mentioned in the excerpt above: MSNBC was in the ratings cellar; liberalism was essentially a "hail Mary" that worked. That is, the media business is not quite yet a monopoly, and competition is still possible, if not a regularly occurring phenomenon. So the bottom line reared its ugly head via a weird set of circumstances, and suddenly liberals were on the television where they had not been before.

Enter a new corporate boss with a more conventional and less desperate point of view. Suddenly, the "hail Mary" doesn't seem to be such a good business strategy. Why broadcast ideas and philosophy that run counter to our way of doing business when we can broadcast something else more to our liking? And Olbermann is out, just like that.

At this point we don't know if he was fired or if he quit, and we probably won't know for a while. NBC's not talking, and another article I read earlier today suggests that non-disclosure, for a while at least, is very likely part of Olbermann's severance agreement. But I like to think the old muckraker quit, understanding that he was he was necessarily headed toward conflict with the new corporate order, and would probably end up being ousted in the near future, anyway. So I'm thinking that he got out with his dignity intact, and is now carefully searching for a new television home to disseminate his kind of delicious bile and venom.

That's hopeful, I guess, but the overall tale is depressing. MSNBC's night time lineup has become a weird liberal enclave in a conservative environment. What will become of Rachel Maddow?

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Friday, January 21, 2011

FRIDAY CAT BLOGGING

Frankie and Sammy




Be sure to check out
Modulator's Friday Ark for more cat blogging pics! (Note: Modulator's on vacation until the end of the month, but go check it out, anyway. It's a good blog.)

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STAR TREK
"The Cloud Minders"


From Wikipedia:

"The Cloud Minders" is a third season episode of Star Trek: The Original Series, and was broadcast on February 28, 1969. It is episode #76, production #74, written by Margaret Armen, based on a story by David Gerrold and Oliver Crawford, and directed by Jud Taylor.

Overview: Kirk races against time to acquire plague-fighting minerals from a world in the midst of a civil uprising against a grievous social class disparity.


More here.

Watch it
here.

Notes and pics:

* Stratos, city in the sky, full of artists and philosophers. Cool idea.



* The Troglytes, workers who toil on the planet below, look like 60s Marvel Comics super villains. I'm already liking the class consciousness here.



* David Gerrold helped write this one. That's cool, too.

* Hand-held camera for the fight. Nice touch.

* Actor Jeff Corey is Stratos leader. He's good, really good. Taught an audition workshop for acting students when I was at the U of Texas. You've seen him in something else whether you realize it or not. That kind of actor. Worked in fucking everything because he was so totally solid and dependable. Sort of the Steve Gadd of acting.



* Cool alternative transporter technology.



* Whoa-oh-ho-whoa-whoa-hey!!! Now this is a Star Trek babe!



* So, of course, somebody has to jump off to his death.

* I'm digging the montage with Spock's voice-over, his social analysis verging on Marxist territory.

* What's with Spock's interest in this woman? He went through Pon Farr last season, so he shouldn't be sexual for another six years. Still, it's nice to see him so captivated.



* Was Kirk even actually sleeping at all?

* I'm digging the BDSM aspect of Kirk holding down this rebel leader. Very Kate and Petruchio.



* Oh, too funny. "You only mate every seven years?" She cuts right to the chase.

* The Stratos security uniforms are really starting to make me giggle. Sort of Italian Renaissance drag queen go-go girl.



* Okay, this is interesting. Kirk and Spock inflict Marxist class analysis on the babe.

* Plasus: "Very well, if you prefer the rays..." (he gives a dramatic clap). I'm thinking that Jeff Corey is much better than the script.

* Fab shot of Vanna being tortured.



* More discussion of class structure.

* While I'm ideologically in solidarity with Comrades Kirk and Spock, I'm impressed with how Plasus threatens to report them to Star Fleet Command for interfering with local affairs.

* Oh great! According to McCoy, the Troglytes are, as established by scientific study, "mentally inferior." Nice nineteenth century social Darwinism at play here. This is continuing to go into commie territory.



* Plasus' denial of zenite gas poisoning back in 1969 foreshadows eventual Republican global warming denial, and other anti-science attitudes, today.



* I'm liking Vanna as she deals with Kirk. She's a nice archetypal rebel faction leader.

* Nice punishment: she makes Kirk endure the work they do. I totally dig making the elite officer-of-the-empire live as a regular worker. I mean, even though Kirk is obviously a bleeding heart.



* Another sexual take down.



* "If we have to kill every Troglyte below..." Plasus is now a capitalist pig.

* Okay, cool, now the zenite crazed Kirk is forcing BOTH classes to work together! Stalinist collectivizing, I suppose.



* Do we really think Plasus even has a chance with Kirk in hand to hand combat?



* Oh yeeeeeaaaah! Kirk is totally ready to pop Spock across the chops!



* More class discussion. And it looks like we're headed into some collective bargaining, for sure.



* Okay, the story here is just fucking stupid. But what makes this episode worth it are the great moments and Marxist vignettes. The acting is pretty darned good in this one--Jeff Corey really jumps into the swing of things. And even the goofiness of the story itself rises to an amusing level. I really dig this one. Four stars. Or maybe three if you don't like Marxist rhetoric. Whatever. When the revolution comes people like you are going to be the first up against the wall.

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Thursday, January 20, 2011

CHOMSKY: THE HARD NOSED PRAGMATIST

The left has long been contemptuously described by the right as being so utopian as to be useless in as much as any real world discussions are concerned. Leaving aside for the moment hypocrisy and contradiction stemming from the right's much beloved free market utopian fantasies, let's take a look at a snippet of conversation between left-wing hero
Noam Chomsky and leftist writer Micky Z.

From
CounterPunch:

MZ: Which brings me back to my initial point about (industrial) downsizing. High-speed rail requires unsustainable and toxic practices like mining, etc. Solar energy is obviously better than fossil fuels but isn't truly sustainable if it's solely used to replace fossil fuels in the name of supporting an unsustainable industrial/technological culture. As for those beetles you mentioned earlier, surely you know that valuable insects like bees are being wiped out by this same human culture. So what I'm asking is for a clearer idea of what you see as the dramatic and far-reaching initiatives we need.

NC: Bees are being wiped out, but beetles aren't. The choice today is not between eliminating transportation and wasting fossil fuels, but between more and less wasteful forms of transportation. Same with regard to solar energy. There's no point discussing options that haven't even a remote chance of being implemented, and would be massively destructive if they were. What has to be done today is (1) large-scale conversion (weatherizing , etc.), (2) sharp change in transportation to greater efficiency, like high-speed rail, (3) serious efforts to move to sustainable energy, probably solar in the somewhat longer term, (4) other adjustments that are feasible. If done effectively, that might be enough to stave off disaster. If not, then we can give up the ghost, because there are no alternatives in this world, at least none that I've seen suggested.

Also, I do not see how we can rationally oppose high speed rail because of the environmental and other costs without considering the social and human consequences of the radical elimination of transportation that this entails.


More
here.

Micky Z's challenge here reminds me of anarchist criticisms of Chomsky, a self-described anarcho-syndicalist himself: anarchists should not state what the government ought to do; real anarchists want all government to end right now. Chomsky has responded that it isn't very likely that government will end right now, and it is absurd to disengage from reality as it exists today in order to exclusively pursue goals that are decades if not centuries in the future.

That is, Chomsky is a pragmatist. I mean, he has a political vision for the future, but is not so single-minded about it that he insists on absolute radical change today or tomorrow. Instead, he looks at the way things are currently configured, and asserts incremental change that takes us, step by step, toward a more justice oriented, moral, and ethical civilization. After all, what are we supposed to do while we're waiting for utopia to happen? Micky Z, who I assume to be a more doctrinaire leftist than Chomsky, raises some good points that are well worth considering. But Chomsky, the genius who basks in simplicity, deftly observes that such discussion, in terms of plausible action at the moment, is entirely academic.

In short, there are, indeed, utopian types on the left, people who spend a lot of effort and energy essentially tilting at windmills. But there are also practical pragmatic types, and, fortunately for us, one of the very best leftists out there, Chomsky, is one of them.

Thank god there's nothing like the tea party on the left. I mean, I envy the energy and devotion these people seem to have. But the more doctrinaire you get, the closer you come to French Revolution territory, and that's a place where lots of people find their heads and bodies going in different directions.

If you know what I mean.

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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Huge Numbers of Students Don't Learn Critical Thinking in College

From
AlterNet:

By the time our kids get to college it is too late to change habits or learn new skills that should have been taught to them in grade k-12 in my opinion. This study does not merely condemn colleges, it throws a harsh light on our primary education system on this country. In general, the US doesn't pay our teachers well (compared to other professions and other nations), nor do we reward them for excellence, nor do we often provide them with a system that accurately assesses their efforts (i.e., No child left behind ring any bells?).

One encouraging sign from the study is that students that majored in traditional liberal arts subjects -- literature, history, the social and "hard" sciences, and mathematics -- did better than their fellow students in other areas such as business. Those "liberal arts" students were required to do more reading and writing than their counterparts in many other disciplines.


More
here.

Wikipedia defines "critical thinking" in this way:

Critical thinking, in its broadest sense has been described as "purposeful reflective judgment concerning what to believe or what to do."
There's more here if you want a really long meditation on the concept, but for my money "critical thinking" means the ability to recognize an argument, follow it to its conclusion, and then to formulate new arguments supporting or refuting either parts of or the entire argument in question. Here's what Wikipedia has to say about the term "argument," and at first glance it appears to be a good article. But I've always liked the definition used in Monty Python's "Argument Clinic" sketch: "An argument is a collective series of statements to establish a definite proposition...an argument is an intellectual process."

So if you have good critical thinking skills, and are watching, say, the first Dirty Harry film, you wouldn't be taking it as just a movie about an angry cop: you'd be looking at Harry Callahan's words and deeds within the context of the reality created by the film juxtaposed against your understanding of proper reality, both today and when the movie was made, in order to evaluate what it's all saying about the issues raised by the film; then you'd engage in the discussion yourself, making assertions and counter-assertions depending on your opinions. Same thing with statements made by politicians, or television commercials, or hip hop songs, or Fox News, or MSNBC, or the Bible, or a football game, or a topless dance performance, pretty much any kind of
cultural artifact out there.

Unfortunately, most Americans are utterly clueless when it comes to this process, which is why slamming teacher pay as a cause for our lack of ability with critical thinking is something of a red herring: the vast majority of k-12 teachers have no critical thinking skills, yes, but neither does most of the population; higher teacher pay can't attract critical thinkers to the field because there just aren't enough Americans out there who come even close to meeting the need.

But even if there were enough critical thinkers out there to fill the ranks of our teacher population, and even if society was willing to put down enough serious money to attract them to the classroom, we'd still be screwed. That is, you can't teach critical thinking to kids using books. In order to get kids interested in anything at all, you must first speak to that which concerns them, cussing, sex, drug use, God, race, rules and punishments. These are the things kids, or at least teenagers, want to discuss. But it's all off the table. Because such issues are controversial by their very nature, the schools shy away from them--I mean, just look at how the chronic banning of Huckleberry Finn has resulted in this Mona Lisa moustache version editing out the n-word. Instead, we try to teach critical thinking with Shakespeare, who, while totally great, is utterly alien to most kids' experience. But further, even if the schools had no problem with controversy, my gut tells me that critical thinking could never be taught because it would end up democratizing the population, that is, creating smart citizens who question authority: once you have democracy breaking out all over the place, it's curtains for corporate elites who actually own and operate the country.

In short, it is impossible to teach critical thinking in the schools as currently configured. It is no wonder that students show up to the university in their freshman year woefully unprepared to think critically.


None of this addresses how students who don't study the liberal arts in college can get a degree without possessing any critical thinking skills, but it's late, and I'm tired. Maybe tomorrow...

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Monday, January 17, 2011

REAL ART (and politics and culture)

From
the American Prospect:

Culture Before Politics

Yet as progressives watched Democrats suffer the worst election loss since the Republican collapse of 1948, they seemed to be back where they started. Just as in 2004, many have blamed the losses on ineffective Democratic campaign messaging. The problem, however, runs much deeper. Electoral and Beltway politics are episodic, short-term, and transactional. Movements, however, are long-term. "Public sentiment is everything," Abraham Lincoln once said. "With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed. Consequently, he who moulds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed." In other words, movements must change hearts and minds in an enduring way. They must change the culture.

Culture is the space in our national consciousness filled by music, books, sports, movies, theater, visual arts, and media. It is the realm of ideas, images, and stories -- the narrative in which we are immersed every day. It is where people make sense of the world, where ideas are introduced, values are inculcated, and emotions are attached to concrete change. Cultural change is often the dress rehearsal for political change. Or put in another way, political change is the final manifestation of cultural shifts that have already occurred. Jackie Robinson's 1947 Major League Baseball debut preceded Brown v. Board of Education by seven years. Ellen DeGeneres' coming-out on her TV sitcom preceded the first favorable court ruling on same-sex marriage by eight years. Until progressives make culture an integral and intentional part of their theory of change, they will not be able to compete effectively against conservatives.


More
here.

The essay goes on to observe how Democrats have for decades been mired in wonky policy discussions, aiming virtually all their efforts at getting candidates elected and legislation passed. Meanwhile, since at least the Reagan era, Republicans have been speaking to men's hearts. The inevitable result is that, no matter how good Democratic candidates and policy are, Republicans ultimately win the day, no matter how bad their candidates and policy are. And don't get me wrong: it's not as though Democrats actually have been offering good candidates and policy; they've been playing on what is now essentially a Republican field since I was a teenager, which has made them constantly water down their ideas, constantly concede conceptualizations about the way the way things are to the GOP. That is, they've allowed Republicans to go crazy on American culture, and it has rendered the Democrats nearly ineffective.

This is probably the thing I hate most about the Democrats. This is also probably one of the main reasons I try to concentrate on politics from a cultural and artistic perspective: that's where the real action is. And the Democrats seemingly want to have nothing to do with it. Until Democrats, and the left more generally, start to look at politics from the culture/arts perspective, they're doomed to fail. I mean, sure, they're going to win some battles here and there, but the war has already been won. People think like Republicans, buy their stupid and easily disproved ideas because that's what has captured their imaginations. Dry arguments won't do it.

We've got to capture the soul.

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