Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Four Things the Republicans Don't Want You to Know About the Economy

Great post by Keith Boykin.
In the past few weeks, I've heard lots of Republican talking heads make some pretty damning arguments about "liberal" Democratic economic policies and Barack Obama's "wasteful" spending plans. The arguments may sound convincing at first blush, but the Republicans aren't offering any serious alternatives. So I did some research and came up with a quick list of four things Republicans don't want you to know about the economy.

1. Tax cuts don't always work.
In 1929, Herbert Hoover cut marginal tax rates to the lowest level in modern history (24 percent) and the economy still collapsed. In 1982, Ronald Reagan slashed taxes to the lowest level in 50 years and, in return, unemployment soared to the highest level in 50 years. In 2001 and 2003, George Bush cut taxes twice and yet unemployment rose to 6 percent. And that's to say nothing of the 2.6 million jobs lost in the final year of the Bush administration.

Tax cuts are politically popular, but they are not a panacea for our nation's economic woes. Cutting corporate tax rates won't stimulate the economy or create new jobs if there's no demand for the goods and services that businesses produce. And cutting estate taxes and capital gains taxes will primarily benefit the wealthy. Despite the GOP claims to the contrary, when you give rich people money, there's no guarantee they will use it in ways that will trickle down to the masses. If we're going to cut taxes, then tax cuts should be targeted to businesses that hire new workers or invest in infrastructure, or they should go to middle-class Americans, who have been losing their jobs, their homes, their health care, and their savings in the Bush economy.

2. Higher taxes don't necessarily hurt.
Nobody likes to pay taxes, but don't believe the hype that tax increases on the wealthy will hurt the economy or kill jobs. In 1944, Franklin Roosevelt raised marginal tax rates to an astoundingly high 94 percent and yet we still had almost full employment (1.2 percent unemployment), thanks to the war. Taxes fell after the war, but in 1951, Harry Truman raised taxes again (from 84 to 91 percent) and yet unemployment dropped by 50 percent. In fact, from 1947 to 1973, median family income rose 2.7 percent a year, even while the top marginal tax rate was never lower than 70 percent, twice the current rate.

Perhaps the best example of the utility of tax increases comes from recent history. In 1993, Bill Clinton defied every single Republican in the House of Representatives and raised marginal tax rates to almost 40 percent. Despite GOP predictions that businesses would go bankrupt and workers would be laid off, the U.S. enjoyed the longest peacetime economic expansion in history.

That doesn't mean we need to raise taxes right now in the midst of the recession, but it does mean we shouldn't be afraid of higher marginal tax rates or of allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire in 2010. Republicans often complain that higher taxes will kill the economy, but there's not much evidence to support those fears.

3. Democrats are better at balancing the budget.
Republicans love to talk about balancing the federal budget...when somebody else is in charge of it. But during eight years of the Bush administration, we hardly heard a whimper from Republicans about balanced budgets, even as Democrats complained about the huge cost of fighting two wars and cutting taxes.

The truth is that no Republican president in my lifetime has ever balanced the budget. But the Democrats have balanced the budget five times during the same time span. Clinton did it four times and Lyndon Johnson did it once. The last Republican president to balance the budget was Eisenhower.

Yes we do need to balance the budget eventually, but this is not the right time. To do so would mean cutting government programs that serve those most at-risk in society and it would slow down the chance of recovery as the lack of government spending would contract the economy. But still, if you really want to balance the budget, the Democrats, historically speaking, are far more likely to do it.

4. Democrats create more jobs.
Republicans love to crow about the Reagan economy, but it pales in comparison to Bill Clinton's record. The U.S. economy created 21 million new jobs in the Clinton administration. That's more than the last three Republican presidents, including Ronald Reagan, combined. And despite the GOP argument that the Republican Congress deserves credit for the Clinton economy, the truth is that seven million of those jobs were created in the first two years when Democrats, in control of both houses of Congress and the White House, raised taxes with virtually no Republican support.

But it's not just Clinton. Despite the well known economic woes the country faced under Jimmy Carter, the U.S. economy added 8 million new jobs from 1977 to 1980. That's more new jobs under 4 years of Carter than under 12 years of both Bush presidents combined. And for all the right-wing complaints about the failures of LBJ's "Great Society," they fail to mention that the economy created 10 million new jobs during Johnson's tenure, with a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress, while fighting the Vietnam War and authorizing a massive expansion of the welfare state to include Medicare and Medicaid.

The truth is that nobody has all the answers to our current economic problems. But to believe Republicans lately requires us to forget the successful history of Democratic presidents and to ignore the failure of the most recent Republican president. It was George W. Bush, after all, who squandered the Clinton surpluses, ran up the biggest deficits in history and doubled the national debt.

While we embrace President Obama's spirit of bipartisanship and unity, Democrats should not forget their history and must not let the GOP browbeat them into silence and submission.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Extracting energy from the environment

Recently I've been thinking how amazing it is that we—by which I mean living beings (see dynamic entities)—came to be. By that I mean that before there were dynamic entities, physics and chemistry ruled. Strange as quantum mechanics is, the universe was mechanical—in a very broad sense. The underlying rules of physics were the best way to understand the universe.

But at some point, nature built an entity (a cell?) that was able to sustain itself by extracting energy from the environment. Such an entity differed from other, static entities. It persisted as an entity not because of its material composition but because it could be seen as a persistent pattern of activity. Living beings are not persistent material constructs. It's standard science that the materials in our bodies replace themselves regularly. What persists is a pattern of activities or processes.

The processes that persist are not equilibrium processes, like planets orbiting the sun. Nor are they quantum processes, like particle emerging from the void or particles decomposing into other particles though random quantum processes. The processes I'm thinking of are for the most part macro processes that require energy. But what's amazing is that these processes, i.e., living beings, have developed in such a way that they are able to extract the energy necessary to power themselves from the environment.

The two most familiar kinds of energy extracting and persisting processes are biological organisms and social organizations. Both are processes that persist only if they extract enough energy to power their processes.

Sounds like a losing proposition. Perhaps hurricanes (which fit this description) will come into existence through some random combination of circumstances. But it seems unlikely that processes such as these would ever become widespread. After all, it's almost like perpetual motion. A processes is developed that will run down unless it finds energy in the environment to keep itself going. How likely is that? Yet as we know it is very likely. Look around. There are an enormous number of different ways nature has found to build processes that succeed in keeping themselves going. Not only that of course, these processes reproduce and make copies of themselves—which through evolutionary processes produce variations, etc. Furthermore, these processes join together into groups to create larger processes (such as colonies, corporations, and countries), which themselves persist only if supplied with external power. In all cases of these larger processes, the external energy is supplied to them throgh the efforts of the smaller processes of which they are composed, i.e., colony members, corporate employees, county citizens. These larger processes don't extract energy on their own. They do it only as a result of the combined efforts of their component smaller processes, i.e., us.

OK. So that's amazing. Yet there is a second amazing observation. Almost all energy extractig processes go out and get the energy they need. The best and clearest example is that of an animal that hunts, kills, and eats its prey. It requyires energy; it goes out and gets it.

Plants are a bit different. They don't for the most part go out and hunt. They make use of energy, typically sunlight, that streams down upon them. That may be a bit easier in that the energy is given to them freely and straightforwardly. They don't have to hunt it down and capture it. All they have to do is find a way to exploit it once it is bestowed upon them.

But think our our human economic society. For the most part people don't do either. We don't go out and hunt down energy; we don't make use of energy that is freely bestowed upon us. We sell services. That seems especially strange. Biological often speak of animals as "making a living," especially insects, which "get paid" in energy for services that they perform.

But I don't think that's the same. Insects hunt down energy. It happens that the processes they perform are also useful to other processes. So they is synergy. But it doesn't seem to me to be the same as selling a service. They don't get paid by a customer.

Perhaps it's not quite that simple. Apparently E. coli farm. They gather other bacteria, which they cultivate and use for (whatever it is they use them for). So just as we farm—and thereby support the plants that we grow—E. coli also support the bacteria that they cultivate. So the cultivated processes do sell services to other entities that pay them for those services by supplying them with the energy they need to survive.

Our economic system has generalized that model. Most of us sell services for money—a form of proxy energy. It is quite amazing how peaceful this process is—for the most part. Most people don't have to hunt down and (forcefully) take the energy they need. Most people have services which they can sell for enough returns to sustain themselves. Ultimately, of course human society must extract enough energy from the environment to sustain its population. But we are so good at that that it takes very few people (farmers, miners, oil workers, etc.) to extract all the energy we need. The rest of us take in each others' laundry—and it all seems to hold together. There is enough energy produced and it is distributed sufficiently well throughout the culture that the widely diverse set of services that we sell can be used to sustain ourselves—and used in a relatively peaceful way. Amazing.

Thursday, January 22, 2009


From HarvardScience.
Researchers see exotic force for first time
Discovery may be ‘pivotal’ in building nanoscale devices
January 7, 2009
Michael Patrick Rutter and Alvin Powell
Harvard News Office

For the first time, researchers have measured a long-theorized force that operates at distances so tiny they’re measured in billionths of a meter, which may have important applications in nanotechnology as scientists and engineers seek new ways to create devices far too small for the eye to see.

The advance, by researchers by Harvard and National Institutes of Health (NIH) researchers, used a novel combination of materials to create a repulsive Casimir force, which pushes apart certain materials when separated by distances so tiny — between 20 nanometers and 100 nanometers — that they’re nearly touching.

The force, which decreases in strength as the distance between the two materials increases, may provide a new means to build ultra-low friction and other nanoscale devices, such as new types of compasses, accelerometers, and gyroscopes.

“Repulsive Casimir forces are of great interest since they can be used in new ultra-sensitive force and torque sensors to levitate an object immersed in a fluid at nanometric distances above a surface,” said Federico Capasso, Robert L. Wallace Professor of Applied Physics at Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), who led the study. “Further, these objects are free to rotate or translate relative to each other with minimal static friction because their surfaces never come into direct contact.”

The results from Capasso’s and his colleagues’ work will be published in tomorrow's edition of the journal Nature. Capasso's co-authors are Jeremy Munday, formerly a graduate student in Harvard's Department of Physics and presently a postdoctoral researcher at the California Institute of Technology, and V. Adrian Parsegian, senior investigator at the NIH in Bethesda, Md.

The discovery builds on previous work related to the Casimir force, which was theorized by Hendrick Casimir in 1948 as both attractive and repulsive, pulling materials together under some circumstances and pushing them apart under others.

Until now, however, researchers have only been able to measure the attractive Casimir force, which, in some cases, has created headaches for nano-engineers because it can cause the components of tiny devices to stick together. Discovery of the repulsive version of the Casimir force can potentially help researchers overcome this problem.

“When two surfaces of the same material, such as gold, are separated by vacuum, air, or a fluid, the resulting force is always attractive,” explained Capasso.

Instead of using gold-coated materials, Capasso and colleagues swapped out one of the gold surfaces for one made of silica, then immersed them both in a liquid, bromobenzene. That combination did the trick, switching the attractive Casimir force to repulsive. The Harvard researchers have filed for a U.S. patent covering nanodevices based on quantum levitation.

Yale University Physics Professor Steve Lamoreaux, in an accompanying article in Nature, called the advance “pivotal for both fundamental physics and nanodevice engineering.” Though applications of the repulsive Casimir force in nanoscale devices have yet to be explored, Lamoreau said that “the prospects look exciting.”

The work was supported by the Center for Nanoscale Systems at Harvard University, a member of the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network; the National Science Foundation; the Intramural Research Program of the NIH; and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Arianna Huffington: got the essence of Obama's Speech

From Obama's Sober Sermon on the Steps. Exactly the right spin.
The new president and the throng that turned out to cheer him and hear him today were on two very different missions. The crowd had come to celebrate. Obama had come to deliver a sober sermon.

I arrived at the Capitol early, and as the morning progressed, and the time for the Inaugural ceremony grew near, you could feel the anticipation and the excitement building. Chants of "O-ba-ma... O-ba-ma" washed forward from the hundreds of thousands crowding the National Mall, including right after he was first introduced as president.

But the new president wasn't in the mood to be distracted, and cut the chant short with a quick "thank you." The first line of his speech -- "I stand here today humbled by the task before us" -- was a solemn reality check. His mention of the "gathering clouds and raging storms" that greet his new administration was intended to immediately distinguish his presidency from others that began amidst "rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace." It was clear from the beginning that the speech was a warning bell.

For me, the most compelling moment of the speech came when he quoted the Bible. While we remain a young nation, he said, "the time has come to set aside childish things."

There was something very powerful about watching this relatively young man, one of the youngest to ever hold the highest office in the land, telling the American people to grow up.

He touched on the same theme when he described our "badly weakened economy" as a consequence of not just "greed and irresponsibility on the part of some but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age."

Mature people make hard choices; childish ones, in the words of the new president, "prefer leisure over work" and "seek only the pleasures of riches and fame."

Time to grow up.

Obama also made a point of honoring "the doers, the makers of things." As opposed to those who make thing up -- like, say, credit default swaps.

The speech was ultimately optimistic: "The challenges we face are real, they are serious and they are many... But know this, America: They will be met." Indeed, the speech was reassuring in a Rooseveltian "the only thing we have to fear..." way. But the reassurance came with a caveat. We will overcome the many challenges facing us -- but only if we grow up.

"The greatness of our nation," he reminded us, "is never a given. It must be earned." And it will only be achieved if we realize that we are not, as a child believes, the center of the universe but a part of a greater whole. A whole built on values that "are old": "honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism."

The new president also signaled that he will put the need for service front and center in his presidency, lauding those who demonstrate "the spirit of service: a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves."

And he brought things full circle, closing his Sermon on the Steps by reminding his buoyant flock "that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task."

The times are hard and they are clearly a-changing.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Another Bush administration failure: Just say "No" to Just say No

From the National Vital Statistics Report via the NYTimes.
The birth rate for teenagers 15–19 years increased 3 percent in 2006, interrupting the 14-year period of continuous decline from 1991 through 2005. Only the rate for the youngest adolescents declined in 2006, to 0.6 per 1,000 aged 10–14 years. Rates for teenagers 15–17 and 18–19 years rose 3 to 4 percent each. These increases follow declines of 45 and 26 percent, respectively, in the rates between 1991 and 2005. Between 2005 and 2006, birth rates increased 3 to 5 percent each for non-Hispanic white, non-Hispanic black, and American Indian or Alaska Native teenagers and 2 percent for Hispanic teenagers. The rate for Asian or Pacific Islander teenagers was unchanged. Teenage birth rates increased significantly between 2005 and 2006 in 26 states, representing nearly every region of the country.

Rainmaking Bacteria Ride Clouds to "Colonize" Earth?

From National Geographic News
Rainmaking bacteria that live in clouds may have evolved the ability to spur showers as a way to disperse themselves worldwide, a recent study found.

The research gives scientists a first glimpse into the link between biology and climate, and into how the tiny organisms globe-trot with the weather cycle.

The microbes—called ice nucleators—are found in rain, snow, and hail throughout the world, according to previous work by Brent Christner, a microbiologist at Louisiana State University.

Christner had shown that, at a high enough concentration, these organisms may be efficient drivers for forming ice in clouds, the first step in forming snow and most rain.

But he hadn't been able to pinpoint their source—until now.

In the recent study, Christner and colleagues found that the critters hail from snow, soils, and young plant seedlings in such such far-flung sources as Antarctica, Canada's Yukon Territory, and the French Alps.

The bacteria may be part of a constant feedback between these ecosystems and clouds.

"This is sending ripples through the atmospheric science community," Christner said.

"This idea would have been viewed as crazy 25 years ago, but these new findings have invigorated research … in the role that biology may play in atmospheric processes."

On the ground, researchers found ice nucleators alongside aerosols—tiny particles suspended in air—that could be chemically traced back to clouds.

In some places, the nucleators had come mostly from soil and plant ecosystems, the results showed.

One possible explanation is that the bacteria rely on the atmosphere—and rainfall—to disperse, much like plants rely on windblown pollen grains to colonize new habitats, Christner said.

For instance, an organism specialized to live on plants may become airborne, spur ice formation in clouds, and then travel back to Earth with that precipitation.

This may be an important and yet unrecognized component of a bacteria's normal life cycle, according to Christner, whose results were published in November 2008 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

Piggyback Rides
The theory—called bioprecipitation—was pioneered by David Sands, a plant pathologist at Montana State University, in the 1980s. But little information existed on how the rainmaking bacteria moved through the atmosphere until Christner and his colleagues began their work in 2005.

Sands told National Geographic News that the critters may even employ creative means of transportation: For instance, they could "ride piggyback" on pollen or insects.

"We thought [the bacteria] were just plant pathogens [germs], but we found them in mountain lakes, in waterfalls, in Antarctica—they get around," Sands said.

Scientists still haven't identified most of the important ice nucleators in the atmosphere. For instance, a whole host of other microbes—as well as pollen grains, fungi, and other organisms—may be producing the ice nucleators detected, study author Christner added.

The vast majority of ice nucleators that are active at temperatures higher than 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit) have been found to be biological or bacterial.

Roy Rasmussen, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, studies Earth's wintertime water cycle.

The theory that bacteria can shape the water cycle is "an interesting hypothesis, but one that is not verified, Rasmussen said in an email.

"The real issue is whether the concentration of these cells is high enough to impact precipitation formation in any significant way."

No Rain Dancing
Scientists had already suspected that cloud bacteria may be linked to plants and soils in a "feedback loop," a system of exchange between ecosystems.

In fact, these bacteria may have evolved with plants over millennia, building a dependent relationship, Sands said.

The concept also ties into Sands's ongoing study of the idea that drought cycles are connected to bacteria in clouds.

(Related: "Sun's Cycles Can Forecast Floods, Drought?" [December 10, 2008].)

For instance, if people overgraze lands, "these bacteria are without a home … and can have serious consequences, possibly, for lack of rainfall," Sands said.

Simply put, a lack of vegetation may lead to a lack of bacteria, which could limit clouds' ability to shed rain.

But drought-affected farmers have alternatives, Sands said: They may be able to choose plant species that harbor more bacteria.

"It's better than rain dancing," he added.

Sands and colleagues have a network of researchers already observing bacteria in croplands in Syria, Uzbekistan, and New Zealand.

However, he said, "We're only halfway there. We haven't proven all these things yet."

It seemed like a good idea at the time

Frmo SFGate.
Remove all the feral cats from a famous Australian island to save the native seabirds.

But the decision to eradicate the felines from Macquarie island allowed the rabbit population to explode and, in turn, destroy much of its fragile vegetation that birds depend on for cover, researchers said Tuesday.

Removing the cats from Macquarie "caused environmental devastation" that will cost authorities 24 million Australian dollars ($16.2 million) to remedy, Dana Bergstrom of the Australian Antarctic Division and her colleagues wrote in the British Ecological Society's Journal of Applied Ecology.

"Our study shows that between 2000 and 2007, there has been widespread ecosystem devastation and decades of conservation effort compromised," Bergstrom said in a statement.

The unintended consequences of the cat-removal project show the dangers of meddling with an ecosystem — even with the best of intentions, the study said.

"The lessons for conservation agencies globally is that interventions should be comprehensive, and include risk assessments to explicitly consider and plan for indirect effects, or face substantial subsequent costs," Bergstrom said.

Located about halfway between Australia and Antarctica, Macquarie was designated a World Heritage site in 1997 as the world's only island composed entirely of oceanic crust. It is known for its wind-swept landscape, and about 3.5 million seabirds and 80,000 elephant seals migrate there each year to breed.

Authorities have struggled for decades to remove the cats, rabbits, rats and mice that are all nonnative species to Macquarie, likely introduced in the past 100 years by passing ships.

The invader predators menaced the native seabirds, some of them threatened species. So in 1995, the Parks and Wildlife Service of Tasmania that manages Macquarie tried to undo the damage by removing most of the cats.

Several conservation groups, including the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Birds Australia, said the eradication effort did not go far enough and that the project should have taken aim at all the invasive mammals on the island at once.

"It would have been ideal if the cats and rabbits were eradicated at the same time, or the rabbits first and the cats subsequently," said University of Auckland Prof. Mick Clout, who also is a member of the Union's invasive species specialist group.

Clout and others said the Macquarie case illustrates the struggle that Australia and New Zealand have had trying to remove invasive species from their islands, mostly in a bid to protect seabird populations. They have targeted dozens of islands over the past few decades with mixed success.

Cats were removed from Little Barrier island off New Zealand, but it took a second campaign against a growing rat population. On the remote Campbell island off New Zealand, authorities successfully removed sheep, cattle, cats and rats in one of the biggest eradication projects to date.

"The whole ecosystem is recovering superbly," Clout said of Campbell island.

Liz Wren, a spokeswoman for the Parks and Wildlife Service of Tasmania, said authorities were aware from the beginning that removing the feral cats would increase the rabbit population. But at the time, researchers argued it was worth the risk considering the damage the cats were doing to the seabird populations.

"The alternative was to accept the known and extensive impacts of cats and not do anything for fear of other unknown impacts," Wren said.

The parks service now has a new plan to use technology and poisons that were not available a decade ago to eradicate rabbits, rats and mice from the island.

The project to be launched in 2010 will use helicopters with global positioning systems to drop poisonous bait that targets all three pests. Later, teams will shoot, fumigate and trap the remaining rabbits, Wren said.

Some of the earlier critics are now behind this latest eradication effort to remove the island's last remaining invasive species.

"Without this action, there will be serious long-term consequences for the majestic seabirds...and for the health of the island ecosystem as a whole," said Dean Ingwersen, Bird Australia's threatened bird network coordinator.
Nice Huntington Post entry by Robert Creamer, author of Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win.
It just doesn't square with the right wing narrative. They painted Barack Obama as an unpatriotic, "terrorist sympathizing" candidate whose values are foreign to the American way of life. How could it be that his ascendance to the presidency should be the occasion for the new patriotic spirit sweeping America?

Yesterday on the mall in Washington hundreds of thousands belted out "This Land is Your Land" led by 90-year-old labor activist and folk singer Pete Seeger who was blacklisted in the 50s. The eyes of white middle aged working guys moistened as they listened to a black children's choir sing "America the Beautiful". And throughout the crowd -- even among the aging 60s activists who had struggled against the Vietnam War -- there was a genuine, deep admiration for the men and women who risk it all every day in our armed forces.

And it's not just in Washington. As unlikely as it might seem to the right, the election of Barack Hussein Obama has caused an intense feeling of patriotism to well up across the country. I think there are four reasons why:

First and foremost, Obama and his call to service -- to commitment -- has touched our most fundamental self interest -- our desire for meaning.
Obama understands that to have a real sense of significance, you have to have a commitment to something outside of yourself. You have to be willing to sacrifice. The right wing's belief that if every one simply pursues their own individual interest the "invisible hand" will assure that the public interest is served doesn't work in practice -- a lesson delivered graphically by the 2008 crash of Wall Street. But more important, it doesn't address our overwhelming need to live lives that mean something.

Eight years ago, my wife, Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, decided that -- as painful as it was -- she should attend the swearing in of George W. Bush. I accompanied her and sat with the other Congressional spouses. Most of the spouses that year were Republicans women who were decked out in diamonds and furs. Bush's speech was pretty unremarkable, with few applause lines - at least until he called for tax cuts. With that the fur bedecked spouse section leapt to its feet and gave the new president a standing ovation. How far we had come from "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country."

The last eight years have demonstrated that true patriotism isn't about xenophobia. It isn't about "where's mine". It isn't about Bush's call on everyone to "go shop" after September 11. Patriotism is about commitment to other people - and willingness to sacrifice for the common good. And that's why President Elect Obama chose to commemorate Martin Luther King Day- his last day before taking the oath - by calling on Americans to participate in a day of service.

Second, Obama -- his campaign and his transition - have been unequivocal in their willingness to hold up and unapologetically celebrate the principles that lie at the heart of traditional progressive American values:
unity not division; hope and optimism not fear and cynicism; tolerance not prejudice; that it's the right thing to help your neighbor not just yourself; that we're all in this together -- not all in this alone.

They have refused to allow the right wing to claim the symbols of America for their nationalistic, exclusionary vision of "patriotism". Instead Obama has reattached those symbols to the traditional progressive values that have always defined what is best in America. In his new book, The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America Came to Be, political strategist and author Mike Lux documents that tradition and challenges us all to be part of creating its next chapter.

Third, the new patriotism results from relief. Americans are relieved that they once again can be proud of the way their government acts in the world. Obama has pledged unequivocally to end torture, secret prisons, the practice of capturing people on the streets of foreign nations to "rendition" them (or disappear them) to other countries. He has pledged to end the Neo-Con doctrines of unilateralism and pre-emptive war. In other words he has pledge to return America to its standing as a moral leader in the world -- a country that holds fast to the principles of human rights - a country that understands that if our children are to be prosperous and free, the children of every nation must have that opportunity as well. Americans are relieved that in our dealings with the world, we have returned to the progressive principles elaborated by John Kennedy in his inaugural address 48 years ago:

Now the trumpet summons us again -- not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are -- but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, "rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation" -- a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.

Finally, the election of Obama makes us proud of ourselves. We are proud that we have elected the first African American president. We are proud that from the all-white "Norman Rockwell" communities of Iowa; to the roadside bar with "Rednecks for Obama" on the marquee; to the suburbs of Philadelphia -- our fellow Americans have been willing to put centuries of prejudice behind them. And we are proud that we have reaffirmed America's founding principle: that we are a society that truly believes that all human beings are created equal; that America truly is a society where every child, of whatever background, can aspire to be President of the United States -- or anything else he or she wants to be.

Tomorrow will be a day that Americans will remember for years to come. It will be a day when most Americans -- whatever their partisan bent -- will feel particularly good about our country. But it will also be a day when people around the globe look at America differently than they did the day before. And they too will be inspired that everyday Americans mobilized successfully to take our country back -- that America did not fail them. The world will celebrate that we chose to chart a future governed by the American principles that they have long admired -- not the arrogance and selfishness they had come to loath.

So tomorrow the celebration will not be limited to the mall in Washington, or the inaugural events that that exploded across our country. America flags will be waved by people of every background, on every continent. Tomorrow will be a day to be especially proud to be an American -- an American citizen of a new World.

Obama Reaches Out for McCain’s Counsel

From the NYTimes.com
Over the last three months, Mr. Obama has quietly consulted Mr. McCain about many of the new administration’s potential nominees to top national security jobs and about other issues — in one case relaying back a contender’s answers to questions Mr. McCain had suggested.

Mr. McCain, meanwhile, has told colleagues “that many of these appointments he would have made himself,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and a close McCain friend.

Fred I. Greenstein, emeritus professor of politics at Princeton, said: “I don’t think there is a precedent for this. Sometimes there is bad blood, sometimes there is so-so blood, but rarely is there good blood.”
When the Supreme Court gave Bush the Presidency in 2000, I thought that this would be a great opportunity to have a unity government. After all the vote was extremely close. It would have been simple good politics for Bush to do what he could to work with Gore. In addition, Bush labeled himself a uniter instead of a divider. Instead, as we know, Bush has been one of the most partisan and divisive presidents in history. He really had an opportunity to be better. He just was unable or unwilling to take advantage of it.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Heckuva Job

My friend Bob Weber pointed out this piece in the Obsidian Wings blog by Hilzoy (Johns Hopkins philosophy Professor Hilary Bok) on Bush.
ThinkProgress had a snippet of Bush's 2000 inaugural address, and for some reason I decided to reread it. Looking back on it after eight years, it's pretty breathtaking. For instance:

"Today, we affirm a new commitment to live out our nation's promise through civility, courage, compassion and character.

America, at its best, matches a commitment to principle with a concern for civility. A civil society demands from each of us good will and respect, fair dealing and forgiveness.

Some seem to believe that our politics can afford to be petty because, in a time of peace, the stakes of our debates appear small.

But the stakes for America are never small. If our country does not lead the cause of freedom, it will not be led. If we do not turn the hearts of children toward knowledge and character, we will lose their gifts and undermine their idealism. If we permit our economy to drift and decline, the vulnerable will suffer most.

We must live up to the calling we share. Civility is not a tactic or a sentiment. It is the determined choice of trust over cynicism, of community over chaos. And this commitment, if we keep it, is a way to shared accomplishment."

Read this and think of Bush's response to Katrina:

"Where there is suffering, there is duty. Americans in need are not strangers, they are citizens, not problems, but priorities. And all of us are diminished when any are hopeless."

And consider this:

"America, at its best, is a place where personal responsibility is valued and expected.

Encouraging responsibility is not a search for scapegoats, it is a call to conscience. And though it requires sacrifice, it brings a deeper fulfillment. We find the fullness of life not only in options, but in commitments. And we find that children and community are the commitments that set us free.

Our public interest depends on private character, on civic duty and family bonds and basic fairness, on uncounted, unhonored acts of decency which give direction to our freedom.

Sometimes in life we are called to do great things. But as a saint of our times has said, every day we are called to do small things with great love. The most important tasks of a democracy are done by everyone.

I will live and lead by these principles: to advance my convictions with civility, to pursue the public interest with courage, to speak for greater justice and compassion, to call for responsibility and try to live it as well.

In all these ways, I will bring the values of our history to the care of our times.

I completely agree. But I see no evidence at all that Bush meant a word of it. Worse, I don't see any evidence that he even understood it. Conscience and civility matter enormously. They are, as Bush said, matters of character that turn on "uncounted, unhonored acts of decency". Before Katrina, putting a talented, competent person in charge of FEMA, or making sure that the Department of Justice operated fairly before the US Attorneys scandal broke, would have been uncounted, unhonored acts of decency.

But Bush couldn't even manage honored, counted acts of decency, like not torturing people, or coming up with something resembling an honorable response when the implications of his administration's policies became clear.

He's a small, small man, who ought to have spent his life in some honorary position without responsibilities at a firm run by one of his father's friends. Instead, he ruined our country, and several others besides. He wasted eight years in which we could have been shoring up our economy, laying the groundwork for energy independence, making America a fairer and better country, and truly working to help people around the world become more free. Instead, he debased words that ought to mean something: words like honor, decency, freedom, and compassion.

To this day, I do not think he has the slightest conception of the meaning of the words he took in vain.

Sometimes, when I write things like this, people think I am trying to excuse Bush -- as though I cannot condemn him unless I take him to be a scheming leering monster. I disagree. I think that when someone who is not mentally incompetent gets to be Bush's age, if he has no conception of the meaning of honor or decency, he has no one to blame but himself. And to say of a person that he does not understand those things -- that he could stand before the nation and speak the words Bush spoke in 2000 with so little sense of what they meant that it's not clear that we should count him as lying -- is one of the worst things I think it's possible to say about a person.

Especially if you add one further point: the one and only thing that might have mitigated Bush's failings would have been for him to be sufficiently self-aware not to have assumed responsibilities he could not fulfill. Obviously, Bush did not have that kind of self-awareness. But it amazes me to this day that becoming President did not force him to recognize the nature of the responsibilities he had been given, and to try his best to live up to them. Honestly: I don't know how it's possible to become President and, not try your absolute best to appoint really competent people ('Heckuva job, Brownie!'), to ask obvious questions that people don't seem to have focussed on, like 'have we actually planned for the occupation of Iraq?', and so forth -- not to do any of those things, but instead to just go on being the same petulant lazy frat boy you've always been.

Apparently, though, it is possible. And we all get to pay the price.

PS: Special Peggy Noonan flashback:

"Mr. Bush's eyes filled with tears as he took the oath of office--quite possibly a historical first--and people have discussed why. Family redemption, old losses now avenged. Maybe. But I suspect they were the tears of a 54-year-old man who hadn't amounted to much in his first 40 years--poor student, average athlete, indifferent businessman, all of this in contrast to his father's early and easy excellence. He had struggled to find himself and his purpose; amazing and fantastic things had happened, and he had gone on to make himself a president--"Called to do great things."

I think as he stood with his hand held high he felt deep gratitude, deep love, and a hunger to do right, to actually serve and not only dominate his country."

If only.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A marriage in trouble

From As Economy Shifts, So Do Traditional Family Roles - NYTimes.com.
As unemployment has hit a 16-year high and Wall Street shakes off tens of thousands of jobs, affluent couples in the New York area find their families suddenly in flux. It’s not only the high-flying income and the attendant abundance that have evaporated. For many couples, it’s also the assumption of what their marriages would look like; the traditional model — executive husband and stay-at-home wife — may be a little dated, or unworkable.

One mother in TriBeCa, who is married, at least for now, to a Wall Street executive, put it rather bluntly: “My job was to run the household and the children’s lives,” she said. “His job is to provide us with a nice lifestyle.” But his bonus has disappeared, and his annual pay has dropped to $150,000 from $800,000 a year. “Let me just say this,” she said, “I’m still doing my job.”
This woman is complaining about having to live on only $150,000/year. I'm glad I'm not married to her.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Friday, January 09, 2009

State of the economy

Here's my basic analysis. For the past 2+ decades we have been engaged in a self-inflicted Ponzi scheme -- during more or less the same period in which Madoff was doing the same thing but to other people. We (the entire world) did it to ourselves. We recently reached the point where it became clear that it really is a Ponzi scheme and that the money we all thought was there isn't. That's actually not a particularly complex systems issue. It's pretty straightforward. Lots and lots of people have a lot less money than they thought they did. (See this nice piece about bubbles.)

The question is: now what?

One of the interesting things about a financial crisis is that nothing is actually destroyed. No manufacturing plants are damaged. No power plants are destroyed. Nothing is bombed. The world's farm land has not been poisoned. Nothing physically has changed. It's just that a lot of people now know that they have a lot less money than they thought.

One thing that's happening is that people are a lot more careful about spending money. That ripples through the economy putting people out of work, which causes even less money to be spent, etc.

It would seem that it should be possible to achieve a new stable state. But no one seems to know what that state will look like or what can and should be done for people who are suffering during the transition. It's also not clear whether the monetary and fiscal policies are helping us get there.

So it seems to me that the basic questions are: what are the possible new stable states and how can we get there with the least pain?

P.S. By a stable state I don't mean a government-run economy but one that is in relative equilibrium -- but obviously not complete equilibrium or there would be no evolutionary progress.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

RISK Mismanagement - What Led to the Financial Meltdown

A great line from an article in the NYTimes Magazine.
Nothing ever happens until it happens for the first time.
These items just arrived on my computer. From Forbes.
SHANGHAI (XFN-ASIA) - China A-shares ended the morning higher in the first trading session of 2009, spurred by Friday's strong rally on Wall Street.

Resources stocks were in favor after a rebound in global commodities prices, dealers said.

Telecom stocks gained on news that China's cabinet, the State Council, approved the issuance of third generation mobile phone licenses on Dec 31.

Steelmakers and automakers also got a boost from hopes that government will soon announce detailed plans to support both sectors.

The benchmark Shanghai Composite Index ended the morning up 39.04 points or 2.14 pct at 1,859.84 after losing 9.8 pct over the previous eight trading days.

The Chinese markets were closed on Thursday and Friday for the New Year holidays.
And more from Forbes.
BANGKOK, Jan 5 (Reuters) - Thailand's stock index was up 2.96 percent at 463.28 at 0339 GMT on Monday, the first trading day of the year. The index opened up more than 2.3 percent, cheered by strong gains in U.S. and Asian stocks, brokers said.

A jump in the oil price helped heavyweight energy shares lead the market rally, with oil and gas majors PTT up 4.57 percent at 183 baht, PTT Exploration and Production up 6.5 percent at 114 baht and coal miner Banpu up 7 percent at 244 baht.

Investors snapped up battered banking shares, with top lender Bangkok Bank rising 2.2 percent to 70.50. Number three Kasikornbank gained 3.3 percent to 46.50 baht and fourth-ranked Siam Commercial Bank rose 3.6 percent to 50 baht.
Immediately aftewards came this from Paul Krugman.
Recent economic numbers have been terrifying, not just in the United States but around the world. Manufacturing, in particular, is plunging everywhere. Banks aren’t lending; businesses and consumers aren’t spending. Let’s not mince words: This looks an awful lot like the beginning of a second Great Depression. …

Here’s my nightmare scenario: It takes Congress months to pass a stimulus plan, and the legislation that actually emerges is too cautious. As a result, the economy plunges for most of 2009, and when the plan finally starts to kick in, it’s only enough to slow the descent, not stop it. Meanwhile, deflation is setting in, while businesses and consumers start to base their spending plans on the expectation of a permanently depressed economy — well, you can see where this is going.

So this is our moment of truth. Will we in fact do what’s necessary to prevent Great Depression II?