SocraticGadfly: 12/11/11 - 12/18/11

December 17, 2011

The flip side of #Hitchens - was he really a leftist?

Is he fantasizing about Iraqis being killed for WMD?
As a counterweight to all the encomiums of praise from (primarily Gnu) Atheists, it is perhaps well worth asking just how much of a leftist he was in the first place, as far as political stances, and how long ago he started, then finished, abandoning the degree of leftism he had, the World Socialist website take on his death is a blast of fresh air:
Hitchens was the sort of private school “leftist” that British society regularly turns out, essentially snobs and careerists, who ditch their former “comrades” as soon as the wind shifts or more tempting opportunities present themselves. His autobiography is an exercise in shameless name-dropping and self-promotion. ...

In the late 1990s, by which time Hitchens had largely given up his leftist pretensions, the Washington Post bluntly portrayed the circles he belonged to in the US capital as “an elite subset of Washington society—the crowd of journalists, intellectuals, authors and policymakers, mostly in their thirties and forties, who regularly dine together and dine out on each other.”  
Too bad there's no Hitchens left any more, to turn in his grave after it being pointed out that he was filleted by an "establishment" newspaper.

Realistically, I should have titled the post the "dark side" of Hitchens, not the "flip side." If you'll click the link above, or read Glenn Greenwald, linked below, this man was just as bloodthirsty over the Iraq War as George W. Bush or Donald Rumsfeld. And, he had long ago stopped being a leftist, if he ever was one totally in the first place.

World Socialist also says that the story of his various "fallings out" with left groups, such as the Nation, was as much myth as reality, and offers this among examples:
D.D. Guttenplan in the Nation, for example, writes: “The last time I saw Christopher was in the summer of 2009, when he materialized at the edge of the audience after I’d done a reading at Politics and Prose in Washington. There had been a kind of froideur [coldness] between us over various matters, some personal and some political, and I was deeply touched that he’d come. After we exchanged kisses, he asked if I was free for dinner and I explained that I was going out with my cousin and her daughter … Agreeing—or disagreeing—with all of Christopher’s positions over the years was impossible. But he was always very easy to love.”
The WS obit may be uneven here and there in its claims, and here, neglects to say that many people found him personally likeable, even loveable, whatever political disagreements were involved. And, don't we all name-drop at times? And, I'm not a Trotskyist, so I don't feel qualified to parse its comments in that area.

But, it has its good points, and others. As a real journalist of, say, the Middle East with some sort of truly left-of-center claims, I'd take Robert Fisk over Hitchens any time, from British journalists. (It should be noted that Fisk, among others, has won an Orwell Prize. The prizes are non-partisan, but reflect depth of political thought. Hitch's own brother, Peter, won one, too, as did Patrick Cockburn of the famous left-liberal family. Well, except for Alex, who's now writing for paleocons, which in itself may well say something about British left-liberalism!)

So, laud Hitchens, and rightfully, as a Gnu Atheist, or just as an atheist. Laud him as a dropper of bon mots, like Oscar Wilde. Laud him for his English style. Laud him for his essayist skills.

But, don't laud him for his deeper journalism. Or deeper political thought. And, don't even laud him without accepting that he had a dark side, not just a flip side, and that, because he's a public figure, if you go beyond laud to hagiography, people will fire back.

And, let's add to that, this. Was he really an Orwellian type civil libertarian, either?

An even better “counterweight” to Hitchens encomiums than the World Socialist one — Glenn Greenwald nails it, including the issue on etiquette of public figure vs. private figure deaths. Go read it, including this thought:
 And particularly over the last decade, he expressed views — not ancillary to his writing but central to them — that were nothing short of repellent.
Basically, Greenwald does at least a good a “takedown” of Hitch, if not better, than Hitch did of Gore Vidal, on his politics.

While we may laud him as a Gnu Atheist, or just as an atheist, we cannot do so without noting that, to put it bluntly, he was a warmonger who valued Muslim lives in general little more than Sam Harris, and did little more to distinguish between Muslim fundamentalists and average Muslims, in many cases, among other things. Yes, he was a warmonger. And, like Harris, not much different that way than Christian or Jewish neocons. (Somebody alert P.Z. Myers that there are conservative Gnu Atheists.)

Sorry, but, an atheist who was like Hitch was the last 10-15 years of his life, while he had dignity in dying, while living was not the best example of humanism, or close to it.

As for “getting facts straight,” which humanist/paleoatheist R. Joseph Hoffmann claims? Balderdash. He never admitted that he and the BushCo War with Iraq regime he supported got massive amounts of facts wrong. In fact, he refused to admit this to the end of his life, often engaging in scurrilous name-calling when challenged.

He was a great literary stylist. A good literary intellectual, even.

But, in many ways, perhaps petty and shallow. Even if we allow for his upbringing, and his drinking, that's still no excuse for the way he became with the "War on Terror." As Greenwald also notes, his literary skill doesn't give him a pass, either.
There’s one other aspect to the adulation of Hitchens that’s quite revealing. There seems to be this sense that his excellent facility with prose excuses his sins.
Maybe the Hitchens of 20 years ago would have rebuked the Hitchens of 10 years ago. But, I actually doubt that.

Greenwald, in an update, even tackles that, indirectly. Quoting Hitch, Greenwald notes that what's good for the dead goose is good for the dead gander:
The day after Jerry Falwell died, Hitchens went on CNN and scorned what he called “the empty life of this ugly little charlatan,” saying: ”I think it’s a pity there isn’t a hell for him to go to.” As I said, those demanding that Hitchens not be criticized in death are invoking a warped etiquette standard on his behalf that is not only irrational, but is one he himself vigorously rejected.
So, there it is.

No, none of us have perfect lives. But, Hitchens, over the Iraq War, was just like the neocon politicians that Gnu Atheists generally love to mock.

Americans were greedy long before Atlas Shrugged

Creative Commons via Alternet
I see a new Alternet column is making the rounds of liberal bloggers, etc., claiming, per the title, that: "Ayn Rand Seduced Generations of Young Men and Helped Make the U.S. into a Selfish, Greedy Nation," and per the subtitle, that: "Thanks in Part to Rand, the United States is one of the most uncaring nations in the industrialized world."

Note: The following comments are not meant as in any way being a personal attack on any of those bloggers, Google+ or Facebook posters. Rather, they're simply my assertion, and documentation, that greed is a far bigger, more ingrained, more diversely rooted problem in America than a simple attack on Randian Objectivism would suggest.

The reality? American greed was around long before Ayn Rand. Look at all the gold rushes, and "salted" gold and silver mines, of 100-150 years ago. Look at the rampant railroad speculation, to the degree that Congressmen accepted stock shares on the floor of the Capitol in the Credit Mobilier scandal. Look at Grover Cleveland's hard-hearted response to the Panic of 1893.

Rand, and Randian Objectivism isn't cause; it's pseudo-intellectual justification for a worship of money and greed that was around long before Ayn Rand popped out of the womb chain-smoking cigarettes as Ann Coulter's fairy godmother. Alexis de Tocqueville, in observing what he perceived as the alleged leveling of class effects in America, cautioned how such leveling and mass democracy would likely lead to a rise in materialism. And he was right.

Beyond that, the success gospel, or prosperity theology, per the Wiki entry, has a history in America, too, arguably going back to Ye Olde Massachusetts. Plenty of proclaimed Christians who would be horrified to be lumped with Rand are, if anything, even greedier than she is.

So, let's get past these attempts to blame Rand for all of today's GOP hard-heartedness just because the likes of a Paul Ryan or Rand Paul are in Congress today.

Prosperity theology, if anything, provides more of a "veneer" for more greed in America than Ayn Rand does. It certainly has a LOT more followers. You can see Joyce Meyer, Benny Hinn, and others hawking their ideas, sermons and wares all over the place. (I've never seen a Randian website where anybody had a $20,000 marble commode lid for sale like the one Meyer originally has. [Note to Joyce Meyer: Buying shit like that doesn't help you heal from child abuse. Note to Meyer devotees: Wake up and smell the shit in the commode and on her TV show, eh?]) I don't see a Rand channel on cable TV, though. Hell, New Agers, with "The Secret" and older versions of the same idea, are a more integral part of American greed today than is Objectivism.

But, in part because New Ageism is liberal, and because not all success gospel preachers are politically active conservatives, they don't make as easy of targets as do Randians, along with the politicians mentioned above and Alan Greenspan.

But, even in the political sphere, success gospel preachers who are also politically active conservatives surely have more influence than Randians. George W. Bush likely never cracked a page of Rand in his life, but President "Jesus is a philosopher" hung out with success gospelers both black and white.

And, there's another dirty secret. The success gospel isn't limited to white, so it's harder to criticize its effect on American greed for that reason, too. It's a lot easier to bash Alan Greenspan or Paul Ryan than it is the likes of T.D. Jakes.

Beyond that, the column ignores other history. For example, the "charity inducing" Harriett Beecher Stowe? She wound up living in post-Reconstruction Florida and supporting Jim Crow. Nathaniel Branden has moved further beyond Rand than Levine credits. (And, his writing shows it. The Branden of the 1990s and beyond is further separated from Randianism than is the Branden of the '70s or 80s.)

And, per Tocqueville, let's admit that he had a fair degree of true insight about the connection between materialism and modern American democracy. Whether one is "liberal" or "conservative" politically.

In a democracy, especially one that theoretically (if not actually) has class movement, it's actually easier for greed to get inflamed, if anything. This gets back to the Occupy Wall Street protests, too. What needs reform goes beyond even political structures and into social psychology and social structures. That said, perhaps morality can be legislated in some ways, including through more progressive taxation, but this is a virus, a retrovirus that's deeply engrained in America's cultural DNA. Let's not pretend otherwise, whether with simplistic blame games or something else.

For a more in-depth view on this, and on how computerization may actually be making this all worse, read about Adam Curtis' documentary "All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace."

I guess what I'm really getting at, ultimately, is what skepticism involves, for me. It's more than just the science-minded skepticism of "professional skeptics." Rather, my skepticism is also influenced by philosophy, and says let's expect to see little in the way of blacks and whites in the world. In an America of 310 million people, now, technology (per Curtis), mass-movement democracy and semi-leveling sociology of the 19th century, and religion, American-style going back to Plymouth (not Jamestown, nor, totally, Santa Fe, N.M., Catholicism) are all factors on American materialism with longer bloodlines and more adherents than Ayn Rand. (Jamestown was secular greed from the 17th century predecessor to a joint-stock company and its board of directors. The Spanish in Santa Fe knew New Mexico held no riches of gold.)

Related to all of this is the issue of "blame." Greed isn't necessarily just a conservative issue. And, greed also isn't limited to money. If we talk about greed for fame and other things, the iGeneration mentality of at least a segment of Occupy Wall Street shows that greed is pervasive indeed.

You and I are greedy. Zen monks from Tibet can be as greedy for fame as Steve Jobs. It's part of who we are.

One could even trot out a "Gods Must Be Crazy" type of claim that private property accelerated greed 10,000 years ago. That said, to the degree it's true, I don't think any anti-Randians want to go back to Paleolithic times. Ditto for those who say we need to go back to "natural living," of course; they never volunteer themselves to be part of the 90 percent of the Earth's population we'd have to kill off to sustain pre-agricultural population.

December 16, 2011

TX primary gets pushed back to April 3 - cui bono?

Ron "Who Am I?" Paul
OK, who all benefits, or loses, from Texas' primary being pushed back from March 6 to April 3?

1. Pre-April 3, let's hope "we the people" benefit in that the Supreme Court doesn't give carte blanche to the old GOP maps, especially with Republicans no longer able to argue we're under a time crunch. That said, I'm wondering how vocal the first Latino/a justice, Sonia Sotomayor, will be in this case.

2. The state benefits from not doing split primary dates, thereby wasting more voter money.

3. The biggie, of course, to the larger American political world is GOP presidential fallout. The AP story says this could hurt Rick Perry's campaign. Of course, that's predicated on the unstated assertion that Gov. "Strong" would still be around in even March, to be hurt by a pushback. Frankly, I would have given you more than even odds he'd be withdrawn by March 6 were the primary date still there; I"m sure he will be now.

The real question the GOP should be asking is, "Will this help or hurt Ron Paul?" And, if Perry's out and Paul's still in, does this help or hurt state GOP leadership vis-a-vis the tea party wing of voters within the state GOP?

The thought of the likes of David Dewhurst having to at least pretend to kiss Paul's butt even the smallest bit is a bit heart-warming.

4. Theoretically, the Texas Democratic Party could benefit, but, this is a party that still is lost in a somewhat self-created wilderness, a party that hasn't had a decent gubernatorial candidate since Ann Richards ran for re-election in 1994 against W. More proof of that: The list to date of Dems filed to run in statewide races, now that Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez has (good, in my opinion) pulled out of the Senate race.

#SEC sues Fannie, Freddie bigwigs; where's #Newt?

Fig Newton Gingrich
This could be good news, or it could be hot air. The Securities and Exchange Commission is suing six former top officials at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

On the surface, it's good news. But, we've seen just how air-pillow light the SEC's punishment hammer has been in the past couple of years.

Anyway, here's the gist:
The SEC's complaint against the former Fannie Mae executives alleges that, when Fannie Mae began reporting its exposure to subprime loans in 2007, it broadly described the loans as those "made to borrowers with weaker credit histories," and then reported — with the knowledge, support, and approval of Mudd, Dallavecchia, and Lund — less than one-tenth of its loans that met that description. Fannie Mae reported that its 2006 year-end Single Family exposure to subprime loans was just 0.2 percent, or approximately $4.8 billion, of its Single Family loan portfolio. Investors were not told that in calculating the Company's reported exposure to subprime loans, Fannie Mae did not include loan products specifically targeted by Fannie Mae towards borrowers with weaker credit histories, including more than $43 billion of Expanded Approval, or "EA" loans. ...

In the complaint against the former Freddie Mac executives, the SEC alleged that they and Freddie Mac led investors to believe that the firm used a broad definition of subprime loans and was disclosing all of its Single-Family subprime loan exposure. Syron and Cook reinforced the misleading perception when they each publicly proclaimed that the Single Family business had "basically no subprime exposure." Unbeknown to investors, as of December 31, 2006, Freddie Mac's Single Family business was exposed to approximately $141 billion of loans internally referred to as "subprime" or "subprime like," accounting for 10 percent of the portfolio, and grew to approximately $244 billion, or 14 percent of the portfolio, as of June 30, 2008.
There's another way this could be good news, for the general public and for Barack Obama, and GOP presidential contestants along with Obama.

Two words: Newt Gingrich. His allegedly non-lobbying lobbying efforts for Freddie Mac are going to draw even more fire now. He got hammered for it in last night's debate:
Fox News debate moderator Brett Baier pointed out that in a previous debate, Gingrich said that Rep. Barney Frank, former Sen. Chris Dodd and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke should be imprisoned for their roles in the financial meltdown. He pointed out that such statements could look hypocritical given that Gingrich supports government policy to encourage home ownership.
Gingrich defended his earlier remarks by saying that "Barney Frank was in public office with direct power over Freddie Mac [and] he exploited that power... I was a private citizen, engaged in a business like any other business." 
As I blogged yesterday: Newt, it's your turn to slip. And, it's going to happen pretty quickly, perhaps. If it's a slow news cycle otherwise, this is going to draw plenty of chatter on Sunday morning political talk TV.


Beyond Newt, though, this says Fannie and Freddie should be reformed, and frankly, made back into straight government entities. The filing involves some major fraud allegations.

Do you know why they're "hybrid" quasi-public, quasi-private government service enterprises? LBJ, as part of his guns-and-butter financial strategy for the budget and the Vietnam War, pushed the two out of government. Yet another way he got way too fixated on Vietnam, to his own detriment and the country's as well.

The Depression VS Keynesianism

The title above isn't meant to be 100 percent literal. And, I haven't jumped on any conservative bandwagon.

It IS, though, to signify I largely agree with Paul Stiglitz's new essay, that anti-Keynesian monetary contraction may well not have been the primary cause, or even primary exacerbator of, the Depression.

Rather, as in today's economy, it was ultimately an employment issue.

Just as Henry Blodgett noted a week ago that consumers create jobs more than anybody else, Stiglitz notes taht if we can't consume, to put it crudely, job creation is in trouble.

Read the whole thing. He says the same issues apply to the Great Recession, too.

As does, to the degree it worked more than deficit spending in particular or monetarism in general, Stiglitz' solution. It's the other half of the New Deal: A direct federal jobs program, or more than one.

Unfortunately, Obama the neolib ain't a bold experimenter, unlike FDR, so we ain't getting any such thing. Instead, it's "college for all" even as we already face a "higher education bubble."

RIP Christopher Hitchens

I, along with many other atheists, secularists, freethinkers, and ... writers of all stripes, too, saw the news just moments ago.

Christopher Hitchens, one of the leaders of New Atheism, an oftimes lion of literary style, critic, pundit, political commentator, analyst and more, has lost his battle to cancer at age 62.

I and other liberals eventually lost a fair amount of political faith with him over Iraq; I and other non-Gnu Atheists occasionally took issue with his pronouncements there, though he was less the bastion of white European privilege than Richard Dawkins and certainly less bombastic than a Sam Harris.

But, now is not the time to pick nits, nor to bury Hitchens in negative words, but rather praise the good in his material-based consciousness and self.

First of all, Hitchens "lived his dying" in a public and humanistic way. Humanistic in the best sense of the word, sharing his ups and downs of pain, chemotherapy and more, being sentimental without ever becoming mawkish or maudlin.

And, by living it in a public way, without doing so for such deliberate reasons, he insured there will be no mythos of a deathbed conversion to Christianity to be told anywhere.

Second, Hitchens lived his life in a public way, too. Not like a Jeff Jarvis, certainly not. But, whether on the Iraq War and his sentimentality for Iraqi Kurds, or his filleting of Bill and Hillary Clinton as economic neoliberals, or of Mother Theresa as an apparent sham, he never hid his opinions. And, he usually never hid the thinking and investigation, often extensive, that lay behind them.

Third, by his own lights, he often did a more-than-reasonable job of living by the Shakespearean dictum: "To thine own self be true." Whether it was following his inner political compass, discussing family affairs in his autobiography, or dissing and dishing on fellow authors in book reviews in Vanity Fair, he rarely pulled punches, whether metaphorical or occasionally physical.

At the same time, and not because he was an atheist, nonetheless, there seemed something a bit James Dean-ish about Hitch. Unlike the 20-something actor, the 50-something Hitchens had causes for which to be a rebel; however, often, the act of being a rebel ... dare I say, a Trotskyite rebel, seemed at least as important as the cause itself.

A somewhat tortured family history, combined with a seemingly Churchillian relationship with alcohol that, like Churchill's, went noticed in the non-acknowledgement more than anything else, seem to have been both cause and effect of such rebellion. It had a bit of Camus in him, but, even at the end, Hitchens, while a humanist, wasn't the existentialist to play Camus' rebel.

A thinker he was, as shown by his voluminous output, but not in that philosophical sense.

And, sadly, he said, even after the cancer diagnosis, that he never regretted either the smoking or the drinking. And, I think, kept up the drinking with whatever gusto he still had.

But, he was who he was, and for that, he'll be missed indeed.

Read "God is Not Great" or his "Atheist Reader," or "Arguably," his latest collection of essays. Or his book on the Clintons, or on Kissenger, both of which are even better, overall, than his Mother Theresa book.

That said, as I have hinted above, Hitch was no secular saint. Encomiums he gets above the fold, but more critique below it.

December 15, 2011

#Newt, it's your turn to slip

Fig Newton Gingrich
Ron "Who Am I?" Paul
In what could be called regression to the mean within the GOP, or just regression to the mean GOP, Newt Gingrich is doing the same thing Rick Perry, Herman Cain and others did: sliding backward in Iowa after a quick peek.

How bad? Bad enough the caucuses could be a three-way tie, with every establishment GOPer's nightmare of Ron Paul being one of those three.

Per the first link, Newt's relative lack of time in Iowa plus his past support for a Mitt Romney/Barack Obama individual health care mandate are both becoming stumbling blocks. The latter? "Newt Romney" comments are starting to bite. The former? A campaign thin in staff and budget can't change that a lot in the few days left.

Besides that, Newt may be having his Freddie Mac connections about to blow up in his face, with an SEC fraud lawsuit filing against former Fannie and Freddie execs.

I would sooo laugh my head off if this happened, a three-way tie. I'm sure someone at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue would chuckle a bit, at least, two. Odds of the top three candidates all finishing within 4 percentage points, from first down to third? One in ten, right now, I'd say.

And, there's Newt-vs-Newt: National Review still doesn't trust him as a flip-flopper. And I don't think it is alone.

I think, viscerally, Paul probably dislikes Gingrich most of all the GOP candidates. We've not seen any fake cameraderie, like Romney's approach to Perry, between the two. I would suspect that die-hard Paul-tards write off Romney's shellacked slickness as part of his package, but, really reserve their fire for Gingrich as a man trying to have it both ways.

Meanwhile, for those Paul-tards boo-hooing that their candidate doesn't get enough media attention, watch out: You might just get what you wish for, and, per this analysis, he might have his own meltdown. But, he's already been outspoken on war and civil liberties issues at one debate, at least; contra Dean Baker, I doubt more media spotlight on Paul would shake up the GOP much.

More fun: Tricky Ricky Perry, acknowledging he's not gaining new traction in Iowa, says finishing fourth won't push him out. I'm sure he's betting in part on Texas keeping at least its presidential primary on the date now set. More fun yet: Jon Huntsman has passed Paul in New Hampshire.

That could lead to the GOP's worst nightmare yet: Paul winning Iowa and crossover votes pushing Huntsman to No. 2, at least, in the Granite State. Huntsman's still got a ways to go to move to No. 2, but, it's possible.

If that happened, could we have Chris Christie rethink again? A "favorite son" candidate elsewhere? Stay tuned!

Meanwhile, my comments on the last pre-caucuses debate below the fold.

Maybe Obama was right last week

First, let's not be too hasty based on one month's numbers and second, let's not forget about eurozone issues. But, today's news that jobless claims hit a 3 1/2 year low has to be seen as some sort of good news for larger, longer economic growth.

That said, the story offers a caveat:

Another concern: The economy has been here before.

In February, unemployment claims fell to 375,000. Companies added about 200,000 jobs a month for three months. But then oil prices spiked and Europe's debt problem got worse. Employers added just 53,000 jobs in May.
But, nonetheless, an irregular pitter-patter of financial news for the past two months has cautiously moved more optimistic.

That's not all. Add to it not only the fact that the Federal Reserve sees decent growth in 2012 but, as noted in the same story, three of Ben Bernanke's inflation-hawk opponents on the Fed's policy-setting board will rotate off next year:
The Fed made no mention of a new communications strategy in its statement. But economists say it could be unveiled as soon as next month, after the Fed's Jan 24-25 policy meeting.

Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial, said the November minutes showed the Fed discussed adding an interest rate forecast to its quarterly economic projections.

Swonk said the Fed may be trying to build a stronger consensus before announcing the change. She also noted that three Federal Reserve regional bank presidents who opposed key policy changes this year will not have votes next year.

Charles Plosser of Philadelphia, Richard Fisher of Dallas and Narayana Kocherlakota of Minneapolis all dissented from the Fed's policy statements in September and August after citing concerns that the actions introduced at those meetings could fuel inflation.
Good riddance to all three. And, it will free Bernanke's hands a bit more in a variety of ways, which could help us all.

As the first story notes, we still need more hiring, especially as halfway good news tempts those who have dropped out of the job hunt to drop back in. There are the Europe worries. And oil price worries.

But, if U.S. growth can top 2.5 percent next year, some sort of recovery can keep going.

And, per Obama's "60 Minutes" comments, unemployment may just drop down to 8 percent by, say, the end of next summer.

Depending on who the Republicans nominate and how bloody the battle is, that number would look very good to the president.

A "dirty" book about the War on Drugs

American Desperado: My Life--From Mafia Soldier to Cocaine Cowboy to Secret Government AssetAmerican Desperado: My Life--From Mafia Soldier to Cocaine Cowboy to Secret Government Asset by Jon Roberts

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A very dirty book. Not in the sense of pornography, though Playboy Bunnies, as well as prostitutes, are on a few pages. But, rather, very "dirty" in the sense of the dirtiness of the Mafia's violence, the dirtiness of its involvement in drug trafficking, and the dirtiness of the government's "War on Drugs": corrupt cops, corrupt politicians, corrupt judges (at the state level, at least, due to most states electing them) and more. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is in Congress today because her hubby, a Florida state DA, cut a "smelly" deal that kind of smeared her first Congressional opponent, for example.

Jon Roberts was long known as one of America's top "cocaine cowboys." You'll learn his part in getting Medellin Cartel cocaine distributed across the U.S. and more, along with other players such as pilot Barry Seal, killed after a double-cross; Ricky Prado, a Cuban-American hitman later to become a top CIA asset personally lauded by President George W. Bush for his part in the War on Terror and retiring as the CIA equivalent of a two-star general, and more.

Author Evan Wright is painstaking in trying to verify all claims of Roberts', no matter how outlandish, and usually succeeds.

View all my reviews

December 14, 2011

Another fail from our constitutional law prof Prez

First, after vague modifications to the defense authorization bill, Obama drops his veto threat over the issue of the military becoming more involved in the War on Terra on U.S. soil.
In a statement, press secretary Jay Carney said the new bill "does not challenge the president's ability to collect intelligence, incapacitate dangerous terrorists and protect the American people."
Specifically, the bill would require that the military take custody of a suspect deemed to be a member of al-Qaida or its affiliates and who is involved in plotting or committing attacks on the United States. There is an exemption for U.S. citizens.
House and Senate negotiators added language that says nothing in the bill will affect "existing criminal enforcement and national security authorities of the FBI or any other domestic law enforcement agency" with regard to a captured suspect "regardless of whether such ... person is held in military custody."
The bill also says the president can waive the provision based on national security.
"While we remain concerned about the uncertainty that this law will create for our counterterrorism professionals, the most recent changes give the president additional discretion in determining how the law will be implemented, consistent with our values and the rule of law, which are at the heart of our country's strength," Carney said.
First, there's no guarantee future presidents will act with the same "discretion" as Obama. (Some might actually be less reliant on the military, rather than more, tis true.)

Second, this does, indeed, gut the Posse Comitatus Act. Whether civil libertarians, or tea partiers, or other, will be more angry at Obama or at Congress remains to be seen. As it was, the House musters just more than 2/3 support; had Obama wanted a stand on principle, a veto probably could have been sustained.


Meanwhile, continuing in the 'lack of principles league," this time, the non-Constitutional division, Obama looks ready to cave on a "millionaires' surtax." This time, it's not just him, though. Congressional Democrats are also in the "fool me once, then please fool me again" league:
Obama discussed the possibility of abandoning the millionaire tax, which Republicans strongly oppose, at a White House meeting with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and other top Senate Democrats, a senior Senate Democratic aide told Reuters.

"It remains to be seen if we will drop it," the aide said. "But we want to strike a deal and get this done."

Democrats will not consider making any offer on the millionaire surtax, however, until Republicans agree to negotiate, another Democratic aide said.
Yep, that's today's Democratic Party. Talk tough, then hit the plunger on the chess timer clock, wait fot the GOP to talk or act tougher, then "cave."

Is #AP prostituting itself?

Possibly, if you look at this story about what sounds like another cockeyed initiative that shows the Net-stupidity of AP's board vis-a-vis anybody under the age of 35:
The Associated Press said Wednesday that it has entered into a partnership with WhoSay Inc., a company that helps celebrities manage interactions with fans through social networks and traditional media outlets.
The AP will give celebrities who are members of WhoSay the option to provide exclusive, personal photos and videos to the AP for licensing to major media companies worldwide. ...

The company puts celebrities in greater control of —and offers the opportunity to profit from— their photographic lives. It also allows them to spread their social media posts easily across sites like Twitter and Facebook. As an example, (Sofia ) Vergara posted a picture of a family lunch in Miami last month. The photo has a copyright symbol, indicating she owns it and can make money from it if, say, a magazine wants to publish it.
At the least, it sounds like it's cheapening itself. Basically, WhoSay looks like an elitist version of Twitter. Which makes it look very much like AP is doing celebrity butt-kissing. Great. AP's entertainment feed will look like TMZ soon.

And, shock me that Dean Singleton, as ongoing chairman of the board (who should have been canned when MediaNews filed Chapter 11) would think this is a wonderful idea. Hell, look at AP's whole board of directors.

Singleton/MediaNews? Chapter 11. Mary Junck/Lee Enterprises? Chapter 11. Donna J. Barrett/CNHI? Should be in Chapter 11, but, being owned by the Alabama state pension system, probably can't be. Craig A. Dubow/Gannett? Should be. Still doing mandatory furloughs, isn't it? Michael Golden/New York Times? The company that has a fake paywall and lies about it. Paul C. Tash/St. Petersburg Times? Lives on its Poynter reputation. Katharine Weymouth/Washington Post? Would be in Chapter 11 if not for Kaplan. Gary Pruitt/McClatchy? Wouldn't surprise me if it winds up there.

As Michael Hirschorn at The Atlantic notes, it's precisely strategies like this that have made the general public undervalue daily newspapers for years if not decades. Add in the AP board originally selling its content to online aggregators for pennies, and the circle is complete.

AP? As an organization? Ideally, it would up its rates to Google, et al. But, with the degree that both Reuters and Agence-France Presse have expanded in the US in the past decade, that's probably not that realistic.

And, member papers should play Reuters off AP to negotiate prices down, if needed. Bigger chains should have kept more of their DC bureaus open and tried to bargain down AP at the same time.

Dem Sens get #FDA backbone ... against Obama

I guess that party discipline, "triangulation," or platitudes from Preznit Kumbaya only go so far. Fourteen Democratic Senators have written Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sibelius demanding she give scientific cause for her juvenile Plan B decision overriding the Food and Drug Administration.

And a good NYT column says the best way to stop such politicization is to make the FDA a totally independent agency. I agree.

Socialism, of a sort, is alive and well in Texas

I'm going to be moving shortly from the Permian Basin to the heart of the Hill Country.

And, my electricity will be going from TXU to ... a coop!

Not technically "socialism" in a narrow sense, but, it shows how government is here to help people, and was nearly 75 years ago.

Coops around the state got their boost from LBJ's push for rural electrification, paid for by the federal government. I wonder how many tea party types in small towns across Texas, as they run their stoves, air conditioners or electric heat, ever stop to think about what hypocrisy might be involved.

And, on the op-ed pages of the New York Times, Gar Alpherowitz talks about worker-owned businesses, with perfect timing:
Some 130 million Americans, for example, now participate in the ownership of co-op businesses and credit unions. More than 13 million Americans have become worker-owners of more than 11,000 employee-owned companies, six million more than belong to private-sector unions.

And worker-owned companies make a difference. In Cleveland, for instance, an integrated group of worker-owned companies, supported in part by the purchasing power of large hospitals and universities, has taken the lead in local solar-panel installation, “green” institutional laundry services and a commercial hydroponic greenhouse capable of producing more than three million heads of lettuce a year. 

Local and state governments are likewise changing the nature of American capitalism. Almost half the states manage venture capital efforts, taking partial ownership in new businesses. Calpers, California’s public pension authority, helps finance local development projects; in Alaska, state oil revenues provide each resident with dividends from public investment strategies as a matter of right; in Alabama, public pension investing has long focused on state economic development. 
Some good food for thought.

December 13, 2011

Americans Elect ... a hedge-fund manager?

Salon's Justin Elliott says that Americans Elect, that "centrist," web-based start-up third party you may have heard it, is deeply funded by Wall Streeters. Think 0.001 percenters. And isn't nearly as "transparent" as it first claimed.

First, it changed the exact nature of its nonprofit status, so it can hide donor information.

Second,there's this:
Americans Elect officials often tout their “revolutionary” online nominating convention, which will be open to any registered voter. But there’s a big catch. Any ticket picked by participants will have to be approved by a Candidate Certification Committee, according to the group’s bylaws.

Among other things this committee will need to certify a “balanced ticket obligation”  – that the ticket consists of persons who are “responsive to the vast majority of citizens while remaining independent of special interests and the partisan interests of either major political party,” according to the current draft of Americans Elect rules. Making these sorts of assessments is, of course, purely subjective.

And who appoints the members of the Candidate Certification Committee? The board members of Americans Elect.
"Niiiicceeeee," eh? There's a blog, Irregular Times, with a tag and coverage devoted just to these less kind, less gentle neolib, linked off Elliott's article.

Jeff Gordon sucks up to #stlcards mgmt .. Again!

His current suck-up is far from the first. Let's take a look at what's new here in his defense of Bill DeWitt/John Mozeliak vs. Albert Pujols.

1. The claim that the team aggressively upgraded the roster. A couple of LOOGY lefties and middle-infield spare parts is NOT aggressive. Yes, it panned out for 2011. But, if Colby Rasmus bounces back to a 2009 level with Toronto let alone 2010,, long-term, this trade is a loss.
Plus, the fact that management traded another non-Tony Boy, Brendan Ryan, and wound up getting possibly worse in the middle infield, necessitating the "aggressively" upgrading. Gordon conveniently misses that.

2. He admits that team offers to Pujols were management friendly. So management friendly that the management apparently never even considered the "milestone marketing" shared profits the Yankees gave to A-Rod. Dumb and dumber, there, in my opinion.

3. As for his rhetorical questions about how the Cards might have treated Pujols at the end of the line vs. how the Angels might? Well, Jeff, you and I don't know what the Cards would do in a decade. Given the paragraph immediately above, I wouldn't hold my breath. Given that management never listened to Ozzie Smith, who had at least a halfway legit grievance vs. Tony, and never tried to play peacemaker there, to the best of my knowledge, I definitely wouldn't hold my breath on how current management might have treated Pujols in a decade.

Again, I'm not saying Pujols is a saint; he's even got bits of hypocrisy, I think. But, let's not buff Bill and Mo's apple needlessly.

#Amazon: the new #Walmart

I hadn't even heard about Amazon's new bullshit, but reading this column about it telling people to use Kindle's price-check app to go into bookstores and see if stuff cost less at Amazon, AND get discounts?

Especially since books themselves ... didn't qualify for the discount?

What the hell else is that but Walmart in electronic drag?

Well, eff you, Amazon. I'm glad I delinked my Amazon reviews from my links list. Eff you for eliminating the "classic" review rankings, which I knew you were doing, even though you refused to tell me that over a two-month period when I wondered why my classic ranking wasn't changing.

Eff you, Jeff Bezos, aka Junior Steve Jobs, and your grubbing at "information streams."

If I do buy an e-reader some day, it won't be from you.

December 12, 2011

So, is it Pujols greed or #stlcards ineptitude?

Albert Pujols' wife says the Cards made a per-year offer that was higher than their final one, coming in at 5/$130, or $26M per. So, in essence, Mozeliak/DeWitt would do either a long-term deal or a high-dollar one, but not both. Well, why didn't they offer that not one, but two years ago, replacing not just the option year but the final year of the old contract? Albert, at 33, then could have gone for another 5 years at that point, and probably looked like he was worth the same amount.

Seems like management still kind of screwed this up. (Not that Pujols is a saint, unless "success gospel" is part of his K-JOY hymnal.)

I think that, had this offer been made 2 years ago, right when the Phillies gave Ryan Howard his new deal, Pujols might have done it. But, either a year ago or this year? Nope.

Add to this the fact that the Angels' offer includes a 10-year post-retirement personal services deal, and the Cards just whiffed.

Of Hume and bondage

David Hume/Wikipedia
As the tricentennial of David Hume's birth winds down, Simon Blackburn, in a New York Times column with the title above, does more than fitting homage to one of the world's greatest philosophers ever, pronouncing a worthy epitaph for this anniversary.

We have to start at the beginning, where Blackburn says Hume and his reputation need "rescue":
Anyone admiring David Hume as I do finds much to cheer, but much to lament in the state of academic philosophy, as this year, the 300th anniversary of his birth, comes to a close. Hume was an anatomist of the mind, charting the ways we think and feel — a psychologist or cognitive scientist before his time. The cheering feature of the contemporary scene is that plenty of people are following in those footsteps. The nature versus nurture battle has declared an uneasy draw, but the human nature industry is in fine fettle, fed by many disciplines and eagerly consumed by the public.

Yet among philosophers it is not uncommon to find Hume patronized as a slightly dim, inaccurate or naïve analytical philosopher who gamely tried to elucidate the meanings of terms but generally failed hopelessly to do so. In fact, Immanuel Kant, a German near-contemporary of Hume, who is often billed as his opponent, had cause to defend him against a similar complaint more than two centuries ago.
And, the rest of the column proceeds to offer a more modern defense of Hume, against claims he was a postmodernist predecessor or even worse.

Much of the problem, Blackburn notes, comes from a misreading of Hume's famous statement on the passions:
The most visible example of this is the rumpus surrounding the famous passage in which Hume declares that reason by itself is inert, and has no other office than to serve and obey the passions. The mountains of commentary this has excited include accusations that Hume is a skeptic about practical reasoning (whatever that might mean); that he is a nihilist who cannot have any values; that in his eyes nothing matters; that he is too stupid to realize that learning that a glass contains benzene instead of gin might extinguish your desire to drink from it; that he constantly forgets his own theory; and indeed, in the words of one contemporary writer — the frothing and foaming and insolence here reach a crescendo — that philosophers like Hume only avoid being “radically defective specimens of humanity” by constantly forgetting and then contradicting their own views.
And, of course, that's a wrong reading. Hume was offering a blast against Continental Rationalism, and perhaps, Rationalist-influenced empiricists like his fellow, Adam Smith, who thought homo sapiens was more rational than he actually is.

Rather, while Hume is, as Blackburn notes, a friend to pragmatists, he's no postmodernist. And, per another famous comment of his, urging that most philosophical writing from the ancient Greeks up to Bishop Berkeley be consumed to fire, he was an anti-metaphysician indeed. And, he was in all likelihood an atheist, too, not just a deist.

How anybody could accuse him of anything close to postmodernism, or nihilism, even, I have no idea.

So, let us end with Blackburn's encomium:
Hume’s road is subtle, and too few philosophers dare take it. Yet the whirligig of time may bring in its revenges, as a new generation of pragmatists look at much contemporary writing with the same horror as Hume directed at Spinoza, Nietzsche at Kant, or Russell at Hegel. Meanwhile one soldiers on, hoping, as Hume himself did, for the downfall of some of the prevailing systems of superstition.
Let us, in an age of New Ageism on one hand and Gnu Atheism on the other, let us try to take his road, and his subtlety.

Thinking, fast and slow (and often irrationally)

Thinking, Fast and SlowThinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An excellent summary of what's the latest thinking and findings in the worlds of behavioral economics, behavioral psychology and related areas.

Kahnemann shows that, and more importantly, how and why, we don't always know what will make us happy, how long it will make us happy or how much it will make us happy.

Other than showing how we don't know ourselves very well, he also shows how we don't act rationally around money and financial issues. The primary reason for this is loss aversion, which carries over into non-financial decisions.

The basis for this? We're really "two personalities," he says, based on long work of him and his peer, Amos Tversky.

System 1 acts fast, intuitively and largely unconsciously.

System 2 acts slow, with brain energy consumption, but rationally. However, it can get "lazy" at times, Kahnemann notes, in what should be a word of caution to scientists, skeptics of various stripes and others.

There's nothing new that's earth-shattering here. Rather, this is a "magnum opus" summary of Kahnemann's life work, along with that of Tversky, and connected to Robert Thaler, Dennis Gilbert and others in a younger generation of behavioral psychologists. It's valuable as that summary, though, valuable indeed.

View all my reviews

Looking forward to Bob Carroll's new book

Carroll, the author of "Skeptic's Dictionary," both a basic go-to guide for skeptical thinking as a book AND a continually updated website of skeptical analysis and critique of claims in religion and theology, philosophy, alternative medicine, fallacious thinking and more, was kind enough to send me an electronic draft copy of his latest work, "Unnatural Acts: Critical Thinking, Skepticism and Science Exposed."

I'm near the end of this book, which explains and documents how and why skeptical, critical thinking activities are "unnatural acts."

Here's a selection from the start of Chapter 8, "The Fallacy-Driven Life":
Fallacies are errors in reasoning. They drive the thought-engine of most people most of the time. We did not evolve to seek truth, beauty, and goodness. We evolved to survive and mate. Everything else is window dressing, including our so-called noble reason. Shakespeare may have mesmerized audiences with his lines:

What a piece of work is a man!
How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty!
In form and moving how express and admirable!
In action how like an angel!
In apprehension how like a god!
The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!

In fact, man is an irrational animal, driven by his needs, fears, and wants, and following logic or reason only if it suits him. Our natural way of thinking, of making judgments, of identifying causal connections is to jump to conclusions on flimsy evidence. Critical thinking is unnatural. Following our feelings and emotions is more likely to motivate our behavior than well-reasoned arguments. We are as likely to be persuaded by irrelevant appeals as by relevant ones, and are more likely to produce slanted, selective, biased, one-sided, incomplete arguments than well-reasoned, fair-minded, accurate, complete arguments. We make assumptions that aren’t warranted, create straw man arguments out of fragments of opposing viewpoints, offer up false dilemmas, and draw conclusions hastily. It’s amazing we’ve made so much progress!
Carroll, from the point of a professional philosopher and skeptic, takes largely the same view of human nature as behavioral psychologists and economists such as Daniel Kahnemann and Amos Tversky.

But, Carroll gets his terminology right. I can't mention the number of times I have pointed out that a global warming denier's claims should be pulled under the credibility microscope because he works for a place like the far-right think tank, the Heartland Institute. He notes, on that:
The ad hominem fallacy is often confused with the legitimate provision of evidence that a person is not to be trusted. Calling into question the reliability of a witness is relevant when the issue is whether to trust the witness. ... Good refutations of arguments try to undermine the accuracy, relevance, fairness, completeness, and sufficiency of reasons given to support a conclusion. ... The fallacy in the ad hominem argument is due to the irrelevant nature of the appeal made, not to its falsity.
Regardless of one's political stripe, whether, libertarian, conservative, liberal or left-liberal, Carroll exhorts us to be more critical in our thinking about political events, scientific claims, sociological and psychological pronouncements and more.

He also, by criticizing symptoms of uncritical thinking first, then criticizing holders of them only after they refuse to entertain new ideas, shows how to correctly do skepticism.