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Sony Baloney

Okay, I agree that a foreign government shouldn't be hacking corporations, which as the Supreme Court tells us, are people too.

But it strikes me that a movie whose plot revolves around a plan to kill an actual, non-fictional human being, is, to say the least, somewhat tacky. Imagine the response by this country's right wing (the sector most exorcised about free speech rights in this case) had North Korea, for example, put out a movie about killing W while the boy-king was still in office. It would have been a strange situation, because for once the right would have been right.

So, North Korea bad, but the movie bad too. Kim Jong- Il is a miserable excuse for a human being, but he is still a human being. Mock him by all means, but don't make a movie about killing him.

A Mystery

Tom Coburn, the poster child for the merits of repeal of the seventeenth amendment, is currently holding up funding for a suicide prevention program for vets:

Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn continues to single-handedly block the Clay Hunt SAV Act, otherwise known as the Suicide Prevention for America’s Veterans Act. His reason: it will cost $22 million, and that's $22 million he doesn't want to spend.

via Daily Kos

I don't have Dean Baker's handy calculator, so I can only guess what percentage of the budget $22 million represents, but it's way below .01 percent.

It certainly is a mystery why Coburn is doing this, but it's not really a mystery that interests me. Here's the mystery that interests me: People like Coburn, Cruz and their ilk are constantly doing this, and constantly getting away with it. The people running the Senate can't ever seem to find a way to get around them. Yet when a Democrat, particularly a liberal, tries to do something similar, it seems there's always a way. I recall years ago Chris Dodd tried to stop FISA legislation. Harry Reid swatted him aside like a fly. Just another of life's little mysteries.

A capitalist explains things

This is hard to summarize, so all I can do is urge you to read this article by Nick Hanauer, who is a very rich person who is also, apparently, an honest man. A very rare mix these days.

I confess I was totally unaware of the overtime rules he writes about, or of the fact that they have been used as yet another means of screwing the middle class. It is also extremely disheartening to know that Obama could single handedly take action that would go a fair distance toward reversing inequality in this country and to also know that, when all is said and done, he'll do next to nothing.

Joe Courtney does us proud

I've met a lot of politicians, and, truth to tell, most of them, even the ones with whom I agree, are self centered assholes. Joe Courtney is an extremely honorable exception; I've rarely heard him discussed without someone saying what a “nice guy” he is. Of course, being a nice guy would do us little good, if he weren't also a great Congressman. He's made his mistakes, but he was definitely on the right side of the recent budget vote, and for all the right reasons:

Explaining his decision, Courtney cited his strong objections to provisions in the spending bill that roll back portions of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law and undermine campaign finance contribution limits.

In a statement sent to The Day late Friday, Courtney said, “House Republicans' insistence on adding special interest giveaways to an otherwise-fair spending bill is deeply disappointing. Congress came very close to passing a bipartisan, bicameral spending agreement, and I would have been willing to support it without the policy riders that benefit Wall Street banks and super-rich political donors above the middle class.”

via The New London Day

Dodd-Frank was pretty weak tea; a return to Glass-Steagall would be far more simple and effective. Still, it did make some positive improvements, and one of the few has now been repealed. Once again, we taxpayers will be providing a financial backstop the next time the banks blow up the economy using credit default swaps. I'm one constituent who is really glad Joe stuck with the majority of Democrats and voted against this bill. It should be noted in passing that while the Obama people claimed to be against this provision, they did virtually nothing to try to get it removed from the bill. More importantly, it should be noted that Hillary Clinton, alone among those nosed about as potential Democratic presidential candidates, refused to take a position on the bill.

But I digress. Once again, thanks Joe. It's nice to be able to say you are proud of your Congressman.

Doomed to repeat

Paul Krugman once again warns about the very real possibility that Europe’s democracies may crumble due to the economic woes being visited upon them by the banker class:

The important point here is that it’s not just the Greeks who are mad as Hellas (their own name for their country) and aren’t going to take it anymore. Look at France, where Marine Le Pen, the leader of the anti-immigrant National Front, outpolls mainstream candidates of both right and left. Look at Italy, where about half of voters support radical parties like the Northern League and the Five-Star Movement. Look at Britain, where both anti-immigrant politicians and Scottish separatists are threatening the political order.

It would be a terrible thing if any of these groups — with the exception, surprisingly, of Syriza, which seems relatively benign — were to come to power. But there’s a reason they’re on the rise. This is what happens when an elite claims the right to rule based on its supposed expertise, its understanding of what must be done — then demonstrates both that it does not, in fact, know what it is doing, and that it is too ideologically rigid to learn from its mistakes.

via The New York Times

Most likely there are other voices (besides mine)  that have raised these concerns, but if there are others, they must be speaking to audiences even smaller than mine. If there are those within the councils of government, either here or in the European capitals, who are not totally oblivious of the danger, they have managed to hide their concerns magnificently. We have convinced ourselves that democratic institutions can withstand any shock, but if history teaches us anything, it’s that all things must pass, and when they do, they often pass quickly, accompanied by much destruction. I still believe this country will preserve at least the facade of a representative democratic form of government, and while the facade exists, there is always the possibility that we can recover the reality. That is not necessarily the case in Europe. We could easily see one or more of those countries turn to dictatorships.Time for another chapter in The March of Folly

Charter School madness

I read a lot of blogs about economics, so I've become educated about “rent seekers”; individuals or corporations that find ways of diverting public money into their own coffers without providing any significant service in return. Pro Publica has exposed a prime example in the charter school industry:

“A couple of years ago, auditors looked at the books of a charter school in Buffalo, New York, and were taken aback by what they found. Like all charter schools, Buffalo United Charter School is funded with taxpayer dollars. The school is also a nonprofit. But as the New York State auditors wrote, Buffalo United was sending “ virtually all of the School's revenues” directly to a for-profit company hired to handle its day-to-day operations.

Charter schools often hire companies to handle their accounting and management functions. Sometimes the companies even take the lead in hiring teachers, finding a school building, and handling school finances.

In the case of Buffalo United, the auditors found that the school board had little idea about exactly how the company – a large management firm called National Heritage Academies – was spending the school's money. The school's board still had to approve overall budgets, but it appeared to accept the company's numbers with few questions. The signoff was “essentially meaningless,” the auditors wrote.

In the charter-school sector, this arrangement is known as a “sweeps” contract because nearly all of a school's public dollars – anywhere from 95 to 100 percent – is “swept” into a charter-management company.”

via Pro Publica.

The charter school industry is an example of rent seeking extraordinaire, with our kids being the prime victims. The “sweep contracts” scam will, if allowed to fester, reduce the already dismal quality of charter schools to even lower levels. In those places where a non-profit facade is legally required, we will surely see non-profits arising that are initiated and wholly controlled by for-profit companies, assuming this hasn't happened already. The Pro Publica article points out that once these private companies get involved it becomes impossible to find out how public money is being spent, as they refuse to provide the information, arguing that it is “proprietary” information. But even that state of affairs is likely to be only a phase. As ALEC and its ilk take control on the state level, we will hear more and more that only for-profit corporations can deliver quality education, for, after all, the government is, by definition, incapable of doing anything right. (Oddly enough, the people pushing this line also assert that they and they alone truly love this country, which they assert is the greatest in the world). So, our education dollars will be openly shunted to for-profit corporations that will be unaccountable to anyone. Our educational system will be a pathetic shambles, but almost no one will realize that, because we'll be fed a constant drumbeat of propaganda designed to convince us that an educational system producing excessive profits, underpaid and disempowered teachers, and powerless local communities is somehow superior to what we have now. It's a win-win for the Koch types: yet another way to transfer money from the masses to the rich, and a sure fire guarantee that the population will become even more stupid and docile than it already is.

Required reading on Andrew Ross Sorkin

A few days ago I mocked a recent column by Andrew Ross Sorkin, in which he defended, nay praised, Wall Streets practice of pre-bribing its own as they enter the revolving door to a government job. Of course, I only scratched the surface, pointing out the obvious.

Here's what should be required reading about Sorkin and his defense of Antonio Weiss which digs far deeper. Truly disturbing is the fact that Sorkin's real estate in the New York Times was bought for him by the very bankers about whom he reports. Quite tawdry.

We want the world and we want it sooner or later

A post at Daily Kos notes that there’s a push to enact federal legislation to extend the protections of existing federal civil rights laws to gays and lesbians. Ah, but there’s a rub:

That’s the good news. The bad news is that some Washington LGBT groups are already dashing their own hope, saying the landmark legislation “could take a decade or longer” to pass. Wow. Not the 114th Congress, not the 115th Congress, not the 116th Congress, not the 117th Congress. Maybe, just maybe, in the final stretches of the 118th Congress. Or maybe not. Maybe longer.

Are you kidding? This is the exact problem with most Washington-based groups. They’re nearly incapable of articulating a grand vision and then letting people be inspired by it, believe in it, and get behind it.

via Daily Kos

These groups may be correct, but there is no reason in the world for them to admit it. Unfortunately, it’s what we on the left do. Republicans, on the other hand, make loud and insistent demands for things that are equally unlikely to happen, at least in the short term. But the demands themselves make ultimate success more likely. Our tendency to demand what we think a compromise should look like (exemplified by the approach of our current president) simply makes us look weak, and the half successes we have (the stimulus and the health care law being two great examples) are barely recognized.

I can’t help but think that we’d still be in Vietnam if this had been our cry:

What do we want?

Peace!

When do we want it?

One of these days, assuming we can work out a deal that is satisfactory to the folks who want us to keep fighting!

Andrew Ross Sorkin stands up for the little guy

One disadvantage of being a part time blogger, usually forced to bloviate at night, is that by the time you're free to write, the low hanging fruit has been picked clean. So I was sure this morning that by the time I got a chance to take a whack at Andrew Ross Sorkin's column in the Times this morning, I'd be the last of hundreds. Yet, among the many blogs to which I subscribe, only the ever reliable Dean Baker, at least if the search function on my RSS reader may be trusted, has gone after Sorkin.

Sorkin, it seems, can't quite see the problem with a relatively newly minted Wall Street custom. He thinks it's only fair that when a guy gets chosen to regulate his Wall Street peers, he (or the rare she) should get an unearned going away present from his former employer. Something modest, say $20,000,000.00, as Sorkin himself reported about Antonio Weiss a few weeks ago.

According to Sorkin, the country needs people who know how Wall Street works to regulate Wall Street, and we're not going to get them unless we allow them to walk away from their former firms with unearned millions. You see, the folks on Wall Street are different than you and me. What looks to us like payment for services to be rendered looks to them like a service to the public. After all, can we really expect someone with a Wall Street background to work for less than $200,000.00 a year? Why, that's a rounding error in their bank statements. If they don't get a fat check on the way out the door, with an implied promise that they'll get an even fatter one if they return from a job well done, then simply no one from Wall Street will want to regulate Wall Street, and, as Baker points out, we might get stuck with “academics, union officials, and people with business backgrounds other than finance” regulating our markets, with potentially disastrous results, which, I suppose Sorkin would have it, we've managed to avoid as a result of the quaint custom he defends. Remember, this is America. Our memories are supposed to go back no further than one week.

But, in a way, Sorkin is right. These payments can't do much harm, because even if they weren't made, these folks know they will be amply paid if they do the right thing when they leave “public service” and return to the fond embrace of their organized crime family former employer. It hardly matters if they get prepaid.

Schumer’s prescription

I'm no big fan of Charles Schumer, but he made some good points recently, urging the Democratic party to articulate positions that actually help people. I think he's wrong in treating advancing “middle class” positions and passing health care as being mutually exclusive, nor is he right about health care only affecting a small non-voting slice of the nation. In any event, the Democrats were actually in a position to do both things at once; they chose to throw that chance away in the name of collegiality and respect for the poor, downtrodden Republican minority. We see where that go them. Anyway, here's his argument:

First—we must ask ourselves, does this policy directly benefit middle-class families in an immediate and tangible way? Will the policy help increase their incomes or lower their expenses in a meaningful way? If we are to fulfill our pact with the middle class, we must articulate policies that will make their lifestyle more affordable. Period. These policies must be aimed at “who,” not “what.”

Not all of these policies will involve spending. For instance, raising the minimum wage; negotiating good trade policies that prevent jobs from going overseas; and changing labor laws so workers can demand more pay all don’t involve spending, but rather changing the rules of the game to make it easier for the middle-class to fight the forces they’re up against.

Second—the policy should be simple and easily explained. Can it be grasped almost intuitively as something that will help middle-class families?

Third—is it likely to happen? Democratic priorities should be achievable. Yes, they must be easy to message, but they have to be more than just messaging bills.

Fourth—does the policy affect a broad swath of Americans? Even though health care had very real benefits, it did for a very small slice of the country. There are even some policies that would help constituencies within the middle class but not a great deal of people. Those policies should be considered but shouldn’t become part of the core of the Democratic platform.

Fifth—our program cannot seem like a group of disjointed, specific policies, but must fit together to create an effective theme, message, and even symphony, so that people don’t see individual Democratic programs as individual pieces, but rather, parts of a whole.

Folks elsewhere have elaborated on his points about the health care law. I want to concentrate on numbers three and five. It is an unfortunate Democratic tendency to refuse to advocate for anything that they feel has no present chance of passing. Republicans are not similarly constrained. They advocate for things that seem unachievable, like eviscerating social security, and over the years, it has become conventional wisdom, at least in the Beltway, that eviscerating social security would be a good thing. Imagine how much easier it would be to convince the nation (if not the Beltway) that things that actually do help people, even if presently unachievable, would be worth doing. Nothing ever gets done without demand, whether for good or ill. So, by all means, the Democrats should include in their policy prescriptions things that people want or need that seem impossible presently to achieve. If it's a good idea, the Democrats will be perceived as owning it. They can put up with some Beltway derision if it earns them votes elsewhere.

I'm not sure what kind of policy “theme” would, in Schumer's mind, satisfy Schumer's fifth requirement, but I agree wholeheartedly with the words he used. Most important is that people be able to understand how Democratic policies can improve their lives. We don't need no wonkish proposals. We can argue all we want that the stimulus made things better (or prevented things from getting worse), but almost no one actually felt that impact directly (or, more accurately no one felt that they felt it). Even those who got employment directly as a result of the stimulus were unaware of that fact. Yes, it was a good thing, but you need to be an economist to appreciate that fact. On the other hand, if we make higher education free or actually relieve the burden of student loan debt, there will be a clear understanding on the part of the beneficiaries of those policies that they owe their good fortune to Democrats. Same if we raise the minimum wage, or empower workers. We need to keep things simple, inasmuch as we have the propaganda stream flowing from almost all mass media against us.

So far as Schumer is concerned, the proof's in the pudding. It's hard to see how you can craft a really convincing message to the “middle class” (quotes because there's no such thing anymore) without perturbing Wall Street, which is Schumer's core constituency.