SocraticGadfly: 2/5/12 - 2/12/12

February 11, 2012

Charles Murray is (half) right?

Nick Kristof says that Charles Murray's newest book, on the decline of social structure among working-class whites is half right, but misses the causes.
Krugman, less charitable, says Murray is one-quarter right, missing the causes, and only finding fault while overlooking positives such as lower crime. 
Krugman also goes on to note how some of this has been an ongoing trope among winger economists.
Indeed, I now await the black Bobbsey twins, Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams, to warn that working-class whites are about to become blacks, and that the ultimate reason for all of this is because America has minimum-wage laws.
Both Krugman and Kristof note that it's legitimate to talk about a white "underclass." But, the way the politics of fear go, tea party types will blame:
1. That underclass itself;
2. Obama the socialist;
3. General liberalism.

None will look not just at big biz of today, but the structural problems of capitalism, especially a globalized capitalism with vast income differences around the world. None will look at how their success gospel beliefs or other types of social Darwinist thought are at best like ostriches burying their heads in the sand or at worst, being part of the problem.

And now, Ross Douthat has weighed in. He attacks Murray's libertarian-driven conclusions, but then sets up a liberal straw man, starting with blaming the regressive Social Security payroll tax while ignoring that many real liberals have called for applying it to all income.

But, Ross isn't all bad. He says:
Second, if we want lower-income Americans to have stable family lives, our political system should take family policy seriously, and look for ways to make it easier for parents to manage work-life balance when their kids are young. There are left-wing approaches to this issue (European-style family-leave requirements) and right-wing approaches (a larger child tax credit). Neither is currently on the national agenda; both should be.
Agreed there, as well as with his idea of reducing incarceration rates, something the libertarian Murray apparently ignores.

Meh on the mortgage deal - updated?

Here's the bottom line on the deal between the U.S. and various states on one side and the five biggest mortgage processors on the other, basically:

1. If you've already been foreclosed, you won't get much help;
2. If the FHA, Fannie or Freddie owns your mortgage, you don't qualify;
3. If your mortgage is held by a private investor, i.e., it's been securitized, you don't qualify.

So, this won't help a whole lot of people.

And, this modicum of help, by itself, spread out over three years, will likely only move the housing market from anemic to just bleah. Psychologically, it remains to be seen how much this boosts confidence levels among consumers looking for homes, or banks looking to lend.

Finally, in yet another example of Dear Leader's looking forward, not backward, it's not much more than a slap on the wrist for those big five.

Update: Michael Hiltzik, the excellent columnist and reporter for the L.A. Times, weighs in on just how good the deal is for the banks. And, even more, for the politicians:
I believe the technical term for all this is "big whoop." The provisions mostly require mortgage lenders and servicers to comply with what I would have thought was already the law, which prohibits, you know, criminal fraud. The rest is pretty much out of the best-practices manual of customer service, which benefits both the customer and the institution.

What the standards do accomplish is to expose how sad our enforcement of the law has been up to now, and how hard it will be to enforce it in the future if this is the best we can do in the face of manifestly illegal behavior. The lesson is: Break the law, and the full weight of the state and federal governments will come down on your head to make you agree not to break the law — in the future.

It may not be long before the euphoria over the settlement evaporates in the realization that the banks that made a travesty of the mortgage market are still getting a pass — not only on their cupidity in making loans to unqualified buyers, but in magnifying their cupidity through forgery, lies and the other building blocks of foreclosure fraud.
Not much more to say than that, is there?

I expected the bullshit from Dear Leader, but, to see state AGs who were reportedly "hanging tough" to cave like this is dreck.

Maine GOP primary takeaways

Here's the top items from the Maine GOP caucuses to note.

1. Give up the fantasy, Paul-tards. If the libertarian grandpa can't win a 1-on-1 caucus state that he targeted, the dreams of a 1-on-1 win in the upcoming Virginia primary are a pipe dream.

2. Romney's relatively poor showing underlines continued lack of GOP enthusiasm.

3. Turnout will likely continue to be a GOP problem.

February 09, 2012

Spring in the Hill Country

I was going to take a picture of the blooms on the one Texas mountain laurel outside our office anyway. Then a butterfly happened to land on it. Then, a bee joined it. And, here's the result, in HDR, or HDR-lite, photography:

Could another airline take over American?

Creditors of American Airlines, now in bankruptcy, reportedly are pushing for US Airways to take it over. It kind of makes sense. The two don't have a lot of overlap. The merged Delta/Northwest and United/Continental have merger growing pains and such a new merger wouldn't pass antitrust.

Beyond that, Southwest surely wants nothing to do with American; likely, the same is true for Jet Blue. Would an off-the-wall mid-sized carrier like Alaska Air venture in? What about a foreign airline, but one not owned by a foreign government? Would the U.S. government waive regulations?

'Obama on the Couch' author needs work himself

Obama on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the PresidentObama on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President by Justin A. Frank

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

First, the author is a neo-Freudian; the analysis may be marginally more scientific than original Freudianism, but only marginally so.

Second, a fair amount of the insight needs no special psychiatric skills, just a good general working knowledge of human nature.

Third, while the idea of Obama's "splitting" is good in general, and especially on racial issues, the idea that he's been "splitting" on socioeconomic issues has little political basis and plenty of political evidence to undercut it, going all the way back to 2003,  when Vernon Jordan then took Obama, not yet even a U.S. Senator, on a dog-and-pony show in front of a bunch of Wall Streeters and got two thumbs up.

In short, the Obama after the election was the real deal. For Frank to not even consider that in his analysis? A big oversight, or blind spot.

The other insights, denatured from the neo-Freudian background, are still good enough to give this book three stars, not two, but only barely. And, I do wonder if the author doesn't have a bit of "battered Obamiac sydrome."

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February 08, 2012

Syria: What if Arab League calls for intervention?

That could be an option soon, as Arab League leaders are hinting at it. What if, say, U.S. President Barack Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron take up such a call, and get NATO to provide a fig leaf, albeit a more tenuous one than the one in Libya last year?

After their joint Security Council veto, what would Russia and China do? Arm Assad's government? Have the U.S. squaring off with the two of them like the U.S. and the USSR over Israel and Egypt in 1973?

And, what about Turkey? It surely would favor NATO action; would it also try to leverage its lead on this into getting some new "consideration" from the European Union?

Santorum wins expose GOP struggles

First, I don't care if the two caucuses plus the Missouri primary chose no delegates; if you, Mitt Romney, can't beat a guy with little organization and little money, you're in trouble. The fact that you did better in all three states in 2008 against a tougher foe says something.

What it really says, along with decreased voter turnout from 2008, that beyond even the tea party type wingers who don't actively despite Romney, many in the GOP have gotten cooler about him. It's not that they haven't warmed up to Romney; it's that a fair chunk of 2008 supporters have ran away.

So, are the tea party type attacks taking their toll on Romney? If so, even if he wins the nomination, what's that say for the general election? Will some GOPers stay home then, too? And, will super PAC attacks bolster turnout or drive it down even further?

But registered Democrats adn general progressives who think that this could mean a  GOP party implosion if he loses worse than McCain in an election that realistically is his to win, in many ways, should think again. Don't forget that, after Goldwater, next came Reagan.

Post-SOPA: From censorship to propaganda

The music industry switches gears, post-SOPA, from censorship to propaganda. Throw in a bit of "jobs" fears and a dash of "terror" fears, and cook it up until you get a big, steaming pot of bullshit.

This column does have its good; the record industry and allies clearly are not giving up on passing something like SOPA, and spell this out. If you thought the drumbeats of PR propaganda were strong either before SOPA, or 15-plus years ago, with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, you probably ain't seen nothing yet.

At the same time, Cary Sherman and the RIAA are right in that the Googles of the world are upset in part because it's their ox that's being gored. If China, ironically, passed something similar to SOPA, Google would surely, after reflection (allowing for its China presence being via Hong Kong), acquiesce. For Google, Twitter, et al, their stances on this issue are also about money first, principles second.

It's too bad neither side will admit this; the more educated public already knows that anyway.

Looks like I was right about Romney's Nevada win

A week ago, I blogged that, contra big media's assertion this was a solid win for the Mittster, the reality was that if he couldn't top 50 percent in a highly Mormon state next door to Utah, he was still struggling.

And now, Rick Santorum has shown that. And, that's more the story than the deflation of Newt Gingrich's two-person race claim. Especially in caucus states, the enthusiasm for Romney just isn't there.

The good news for Mitt, though, is that we're moving toward more primary states and his better organization should start telling.

February 07, 2012

Joe Nocera: Clueless on Keystone XL

Joe Nocera has been hit-and-miss since joining the New York Times op-ed page. But, his Keystone XL column is truly clueless.

If he truly thinks Keystone oil will go to the U.S. and not China, if he truly thinks it's not that much dirtier than Saudi oil, and in double cluelessness, he thinks the pipeline would help "energy security," well, he's in Tom Friedman stupidity territory at least, because none of those claims are remotely close to being true.

Reality? It's dirty oil that would take a lot of cleaning up to meet U.S. environmental standards. (That's also, contra Nocera, why we still use a lot more Saudi oil than we do dirty/heavy oil from Venezuela.)

The only thing Nocera does get right is that Obama is a centrist and that fear of losing too many environmentalist votes is why he didn't already OK it.

Frank Bruni has been somewhat better, but Nocera, ugh. The NYT op-ed page is a good illustration of the Peter principle.

And, his "take 2" isn't a lot better, starting from relying on the successor to Cambridge Energy Resource Associations, IHS Cera, Dan Yergin's new outfit, as a source of information.

Does consciousness go down to individual neurons?

Antonio Damasio, one of the leaders in the investigation of what makes humans conscious, certainly thinks that's what will prove out.

And, because of the number of connections each individual neuron has, that could mean that consciousness for a computer or robot may be quite some ways off, still.

Back to futurist dreamland for Ray Kurzweil, Michio Kaku and others, in that case.

Even if Damasio isn't totally on the right trail, I think he's headed in the right direction. Now, what led to the precursor of consciousness to "emerge" at some level of animal life? How much brain complexity was needed? Is neuronal number per body weight, or neuronal connections per body weight, a power law situation?

Are the banksters starting to feel some heat?

Judging by a new-found willingness to do short sales rather than foreclosures, htey're either feeling more heat from a proposed tougher settlement on mortgage fraud, getting some financial brains that this actually helps them, or a bit of both.

I personally think it's more feeling the heat than financial brains. And, right now, these aren't much more than pilot programs, and not yet well thought out or well targeted. So, don't get too excited yet.

February 06, 2012

Green news: Stein wins Ohio primary

From a news email:

Jill Stein scored a very big win at the state convention of the Ohio Green Party on Saturday, winning 90% of the vote in a four-way race in presidential balloting. The convention met in Columbus to select delegates to be sent to the Green Party presidential nominating convention in Baltimore this July.

Ohio's presidential preference vote was the nation's first, and was Stein’s first test in the race for delegates. As a result, it provides an early indication of how Green Party members are assessing the candidates seeking the party nomination. The other candidates included on the Ohio ballot were Roseanne Barr, Kent Mesplay, and Harley Mikkelson.  Stein spoke to the convention briefly before the vote and stressed the importance of providing voters with an alternative to the “two establishment parties.” After the convention, Stein attended a fundraising party with supporters in Columbus.  

Of course, when Roseanne Barr is among your four opponents, and you're  the most serious candidate, you had better win. And yes, it is THAT Roseanne Barr. I actually don't doubt her devotion to some Green principles. But, as the book she's holding in the picture on the link underscores, she also could exemplify the New Agey wing of the GP, the wing that goes full speed for pseudomedicine, and on time for conspiracy theories.

'Taken for a Ride' about Detroit's meltdown

Once upon a CarOnce upon a Car by Bill Vlasic

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A good overview of how Detroit got to the location where GM and Chrysler both had to go through bankruptcies, with both rising gas prices gutting the market for trucks and SUVs and the Great Recession drying up credit.

A good one but not a great one. Way back in the 1980s, the UAW, as well as the Big Three, resisted building greener cars. The UAW's Douglas Fraser invited Japan, in the persona of Honda, to come over; so why didn't the UAW unionize plants outside of that one, the plants outside the Midwest/West Coast? Years before the two bankruptcies, the Big Three all knew that healthcare costs were an albatross around their necks vis-a-vis the Japanese plants back in Japan, so why didn't they push for national health care? Why didn't the UAW earlier, for that matter?

There's tentative to complete answers to much of those rhetorical questions, but Vlasic's book doesn't have a long enough time line to look at some of them. Others, though, fit in the time frame he has, and he opts not to dig deeper.

So, while it's a good book, it's not a great book. It's also not great for ending so soon after the bankruptcy filings, with no prediction/analysis for the future. And, I suspect Vlasic may be too much of an insider to have given us a harder-hitting book.

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February 05, 2012

Mortgage deal near? Is it maybe a good one?

The fact that California and New York AGs are both participating in the federal deal with banksters again, and are getting concessions from Team Obama's negotiators to get tougher with the big banks. It sounds tentatively hopeful. But, let's wait until the dotted lines are signed before we get jubilant.

But, here's the biggie:
California has been focused on measures that would benefit individual homeowners, while New York has been most interested in preserving its ability to investigate the root causes of the financial collapse. 
If we get more of both of these, then we're cooking with a little bit of gas.

The first is very important, given how much the banksters took in subprime mortgages, alphabet soup derivatives and more.

'The Black Banners' is definitely worth a read

The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-QaedaThe Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda by Ali H. Soufan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the most detailed account yet, from an insider, about how we might have been able to prevent 9/11 had politicians taken it more seriously (BushCo) and had the CIA, and even a few FBI agents, not believed in this "wall" of separation between intelligence and criminal investigation.

Ali Soufan also details not only how torture ("enhanced interrogation techniques") don't work, he at the same time describes how traditional police-type interrogations can and do work, with the right person in charge, even with people like hardened al-Qaeda operatives.

To refresh the memory of some, or to inform others who don't know who he is, Soufan was the FBI's top Arabic-speaking agent, who was already on the trail of al-Qaeda's growth before the East African embassy bombings in 1998. He investigated them, the Cole bombing in Yemen in 2000, and many al Qaeda operatives after 9/11

Well, the CIA felt "the need," as Soufan notes in the introduction, to redact/censor stuff that was already in the public record, probably out of petty spite over his mentioning the Agency's obstructiveness, time after time, with FBI agents. (This alone refutes some of the nuttery of former CIA agent Michael Scheurer.)

And, at times, this gets ridiculous.

In one chapter, describing the interrogation of al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah, due to the details of the pages, we can tell just what the CIA insisted had to be blacked out. The first word in the chapter is "I," with Soufan talking about how he was packing a suitcase for a vacation when he was ordered off to Pakistan. Also censored are other individual words such as "we," "me," "my" and "us."

(Soufan is charitable in general in the book but has not a lot of good to say about the CIA.)

Anyway, this is a definite 5-star read; I don't get why many people praised this book so much, then only gave it four stars.

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