Thursday, October 21, 2010

Lets Be Frank

Well its come, Sarah Palin has endorsed Sean Bielat (via Facebook, of course) in his quest to unseat Barney Frank in the Massachusetts 4th Congressional District. This comes amidst reports that the race is heating up because Barney Frank is loaning some money to his campaign, and his current lead (between ten and twenty points, depending on the poll) is not as large as it should be.

Although I could be wrong, I tend to view this race as quite safe for Frank. His loaning the campaign funds is likely just a move to patch up some holes and not take anything for granted, not an act of desperation. Over at FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver has this (as of October 20th) a 97.6% chance win for Barney Frank. Frank is also well above Bielat in campaign funds, and has a consistent lead.

I think the Bielat campaign will try to argue the "momentum" is shifting; as they should, it would be the smart thing to do politically and if he doesn't he should hire new media consultants. However I think the concept of momentum is a bit of a fallacy, (see Nate Silver again) and in any case its not likely he has enough time to close the gap. I could be wrong, and still remain shaken by January 2010, but I think all Democrats in Massachusetts are and are taking nothing for granted. I'm calling this race for Frank.

Unemployment Rate in MA Drops

Its a crisp October day in Boston, keeping with consistency of a rather enjoyable autumn. Too many times the summer turns into a cold/rainy fall, a cold winter and a cold/rainy spring. This year we had a very nice spring (50s/60s/70s) and same for the fall. I can't help but enjoy a crisp but sunny 55 degree day. Here is some good news:

- The Massachusetts Unemployment Rate has dropped from 8.8% to 8.4%, the steepest drop since 1976. The national rate is hovering around 9.5%. I would say this fares very well for Deval Patrick, who has been maintaining the edge in a tight gubernatorial re-election campaign. Since Charlie Baker, his Republican opponent, is centerpiecing his campaign around Job Creation (as most Republicans are across the country and as anyone running for office should be doing) this would seem to take the wind out of his sails.

It will be interesting to see how he spins this. I suspect he will release a statement welcoming the improved economy, but say (a) that we are still at a net loss under Deval Patrick, (b) that we are not growing fast enough, and (c) that Patrick is somehow manipulating the real numbers.

On (a), we are still at a net loss under Deval Patrick but its kind of a silly argument to make. Patrick took office in 2006 and then saw the nation experience the worst economic catastrophe since the Great Depression, something completely out of his control. He has (in my view) made good and bad decisions under a very rough environment, but it seems now the MA economy is bouncing back, unemployment is dropping quite rapidly and the Commonwealth is faring much better than most of the rest of the United States. We will recover all the 2008-2009 job losses much more quickly than the rest of the country, and appear to be well on our way to recovery. That's a pretty good job if you ask me. The only thing that may hinder that would be the national economy, but that is another story.

On (b) we are not growing fast enough. Well yes it would be fantastic if we grew faster. And while this is only a single month's data, the steepest drop in unemployment since 1976 (when the recordings began) is pretty quick. It would be great to be experiencing 8 or 9% growth, but with the national economy really lagging I think this is pretty sufficient. Voters, I am guessing, will be happy with the trajectory. I am reminiscent of Bill Clinton's 1994 mid-term election when the economy was adding jobs at a pretty steady pace, and he lost control of Congress. However I am not sure what Patrick could do to accelerate growth (though I am guessing Baker would say cut taxes, cut spending, and deregulate, which is the Republican Party's answer to any single issue, ever, period. 9/11. Freedom. Support the troops.)

(c) Government employment data manipulated. Well yes I don't think employment is measured accurately enough in this country or the Commonwealth, but that is consistent. So when unemployment was low under Mitt Romney or Paul Celluci, they used the same metric that Patrick uses (or rather, the Office of Labor and Workforce Development use). I have heard it intimated that Patrick is hiding budget numbers until after the election, but there is not much he can do to artificially lower unemployment. All in all its good news.

That said, I reiterate, Massachusetts cannot experience a strong recovery if the national economy is grinding to a slow halt.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Coakley's Quest

Whatever you want to say about her failed run for the Massachusetts Special Election in early 2010, Martha Coakley has been working her ass off in her bid for re-election as the Commonwealth's Attorney General. The New York Times recently wrote up on this campaign.

Originally she was running unopposed, the only statewide Democrat to have that luxury and one that surprised a lot of people. Nonetheless she went out and campaigned, shaking hands, asking for peoples' votes, "taking nothing for granted" as she says on the trail.

At the last minute she got a Republican opponent via a write in campaign. I have not seen the polls on this race, so I can't say where she falls but I hope she wins. Whatever happened this January, she has a strong record as Attorney General, and like in January she will have my vote.

Thaddeus Russell

Over at the Huffington Post I came across a blog my the historian Thaddeus Russell, of whom I had previously never heard anything about. It seems he was removed from teaching at Banard College, because, he believes, he teaches radical history.

With that I came into reading a few articles by Mr. Russell, including one on the truth about Labor Day, and another on radical changes in social behavior before and during the Revolutionary War. It made me think that large scale wars, especially ones that by necessity radicalize the citizens toward ideals about freedom and liberty; often result in an explosion of social norms or at least altered behavior. Even as we think of the late 1940's and 1950's as very "conservative"; this was the time when Alfred Kinsey was publishing his works on human sexuality, when once illegal drinking was now occurring all day; when Rock and Roll was born and Playboy magazine was founded. All of which laid the seeds, or were the early growth, of the social revolutions of the 1960s.

We can find that sort of thing in the post World War One period as well. I am not as familiar with the post-civil war history on social norms but I know it radicalized labor and workers, who sought to end not just literal slavery but "wage slavery" in which a man must toil in a factory just so that he may not starve, enriching the owner who sits in his office.

In each period we see a counter-revolution, by the forces of big business, elite opinion and "conservativeness" exploit divisions in the working population in order to make gains for the wealthy.

Reading back on the history of things like Labor Day or even Roman Pagan Holidays makes me think the kind of natural celebration of life (through feast, drinking, sex, dancing, etc.) comes out of human behavior organically but is fought against very hard by societal elites that wish for the masses to just work, work, work; and not enjoy any pleasures around them. This is certainly one of the tenet's of Max Weber's seminal piece of the protestant work ethic.

It makes me long for a kind of radicalization that would lead to a renewed spirit of celebration and life in the United States. Unfortunately we are seeing just the opposite, as the elections in November appear to be promising a wave of reactionaries coming into power. I suppose I will just have to wait (while doing my part in the meantime.) And I think I will pick up Mr. Russell's new book A Renegade History of the United States.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Guevara Greenwald and Religion

My friend e-mailed me with a couple articles and asked my take on them.

The first two were a debate on Che Guevara, with John Hari anti-Che and George Galloway pro.

Next was an article by Glenn Greenwald on evidence of America's collapsing empire.

Last was a religious quiz by New York Times columnist Nick Kristof.

My responses below:

On the Che articles:

I agree with Johann Hari and have always been a little annoyed but the cultish image around Che Guevara (not to mention the commercialization.) The fact is he was fighting for a system that repressed freedom, and was a major component of establishing that in Cuba. Not that Cuba was better under Batista, and in fact for the vast majority of Cubans it likely improved under Castro (for some time); in the 50's they lived under a dictator and were impoverished and starving, in the 60's they lived under a dictator but were having significant improvements in social welfare.

That being said Galloway illustrates where Guevera was good and a large part of why I think he is revered. It was the fight itself, the revolution against oppressive powers and the means to unshackle society from that. It was after all largely far-left wing partisans and communists who were radicalizing people against fascism and Nazi occupation in Europe; and in Spain it was really the anarchists who were leading the fight against fascism. In fact in almost every instance I see where there is a society under oppressive; its almost never moderate, middle of the road people who are leading the resistance. They are often either absorbed into the governing structure or sit around and do nothing. Mandela is a good case, he's made out to be some kind of peaceful moderate (in the US) but he was a radical, violent revolutionary whose imprisonment was strongly supported by the US, and he was only removed from the US list of terrorists a year or two ago.

I think the same thing goes with someone like Yasser Arafat. He was a corrupt person, absolutely no question, and did a great disservice to the Palestinian people in many ways. But he was a symbol of resistance to the Israeli occupation/oppression. He was a symbol of fighting back and not collaborating with the occupiers. And so he was revered, understandably.

So I think oppressed societies, like Cuba or South Africa or anywhere else, need those kinds of figures to lead and rally around. Going back to the European example, because it was the communists who were leading the fight against fascism before and during the occupations, the US was literally fixing elections across Europe (including in France and Italy) after the war because the communists were so popular they were going to win the elections easily. Its because they had credibility, which no one else did. I think thats why Che serves better as a symbol of a means than anything else.

On Glen Greenwald:

I am always cautious of these pseudo-intellectual fads. In 2002-2003 half the books in the Political Science section of the bookstore were extolling the virtues of Pax Americana, which was simply accepted as a matter of fact. Now people declaring an end to American empire (for various reasons, many dubious; see Niall Ferguson). You see the same thing with the EU. A couple years ago people were hailing it as a new rival to the US and publishing books called "Why Europe will Rule the 21st Century"; now its all about how the EU is failing.

But responding to his specific point, I don't think any of the data he listed is evidence of an empire declining. The shutting down of public services all over the country is not some horrible unintended consequence of Empire, its deliberate ideology. Ever since Reagan the Republicans, and many Democrats, have had it in their head that there should be no "public" anything. Not only for the utility but because they want a society where there is no "commons" or "common good", everyone should only worry about themselves and everything should thus be in private hands. So with Social Security, thats largely what they were doing. You have your own private account, no pooled money like it is now. With these libraries, mass transit systems, schools shutting down; thats a deliberate effect of starving the public sector over the past few decades, so when crisis hits you kind of have to just sell it off to private corporations. Thats what they are doing with highways in the Midwest, or the fire department in that town where the guys house burned down because he opted out of the system. Don't get me wrong, its a disastrous system for the people of the country, but its not unintended. A larger focus on military capability shows we are still untouchable in that realm. The only thing that could nick us in the end is 1 to 2% economic growth for the next ten to twenty years, which is looking more and more likely

Quiz Results:

1. B correct

2. B incorrect A

3. C correct

4. C correct

5. A all of them

6. C correct

7. A or C Kind of correct

8. B correct

9. B all of them

10. C all of them

11. C incorrect A

12. C incorrect A

13. B correct

Friday, October 15, 2010

Jobs and Elections

Jon Ryan at New Deal 2.0 does something the Democrats should have done this election year. He lays out a clear, and simple, progressive agenda that would trigger job creation and address the biggest threat this country faces (climate change.)

It seems to me that the centerpiece of a progressive economic agenda has to be about creating and maintaining jobs: permanent, high-skilled, good-paying jobs. And not just a million jobs here and there, but tens of millions of good jobs, to bring under- and unemployment down, lift the new (and old) poor out of poverty, and retain what remains of the American middle class.

He goes on to say this would be done by investing in a green economy, which he gives good detail on. Its worth a read.

It strikes me that this is something the Democrats really should have pressed. The Senate's climate change bill should've been framed as a Jobs bill, then put to a vote. Let the Republicans filibuster it and if corporate/coal state Democrats choose to join them, fine. But with that failure the Democrats could run a campaign saying they are for Jobs and the Environment and need your vote to make it happen (perhaps stress jobs more than anything else.) They could use the Republican's blockage against them; highlight that the GOP is "standing in the way" of progress and we need to vote in more Democrats. I think this would be very effective in at least stemming the coming huge losses for the Democratic Party.


So its official, as expected it was announced there will be no Social Security Cost of Living Adjustment, because as they measure it, cost of living as not gone up (at least inflation-wise).

So Nancy Pelosi says the House will hold a vote on granting seniors a mandated COLA Adjustment in the form of a $250 check they would all get.

Great! Social Security is the most popular government program, yet the Republicans have always wanted (and tried) to dismantle it. Forcing a vote on the COLA adjustment, the Republicans would have to choose to either vote against it and look bad, or vote for it and look like hypocrites for authorizing new spending. Its a win-win, and would help the Democrats with elderly voters in this very important election. So when's the vote?

After the election. Because they already broke for their election recess, so heaven forbid they are called back for a single vote. That would garner attention, and be good for them.

After the election, in the lame-duck session. The only way authorizing these checks makes any sense is politically. It will help the Democrats and hurt the Republicans. The fact is inflation is not going up and Seniors don't really need this (though I am sure many do, as a group they are the only demographic that is not seeing a stark rise in poverty.)

Says Michael Steele "If this were truly a priority for Washington Democrats, they would have done it before Speaker Pelosi sent the House home."

I couldn't agree more Mike.

Chronicles of a Crisis Foretold

Friday, like Monday, is Paul Krugman day at the New York Times. Today his column is on the new mortgage crisis.

I remember a little while back when the housing crisis was in full force, you used to hear that mortgages were "sliced and diced" and sold off to investors all over the planet, bundled in packages with portions of other financial products into a "collateralized debt obligation" and it was unclear who actually owned what. Then all the mass foreclosures came (and continue). There was a disconnect that I didn't really put together.

The disconnect was that if its true that a person's mortgage was sliced up and sold off to dozens of investors or institutions who then resold it to someone else who cut that up and sold that, etc.; then how is the original bank able to seize your home?

Evidently thats done by fraud. The banks are supposed to, at least when requested, prove that they actually own the mortgage. Since they often don't have proof, they have just been giving judges signed affidavits saying that they own it. I'm not sure why that counts at all, but even those affidavits are bullshit since the banks just print out a stack of them, and then have an autopen sign them all.

Anyway that seems to be why there is effectively a national foreclosure moratorium; done not at the federal level but state-by-state, mostly by each state's Attorney General. What's the Obama Administration got to say? Take it Krugman!

True to form, the Obama administration’s response has been to oppose any action that might upset the banks, like a temporary moratorium on foreclosures while some of the issues are resolved. Instead, it is asking the banks, very nicely, to behave better and clean up their act. I mean, that’s worked so well in the past, right?

Motherfuckers! I know Obama took in a massive amount of money from Wall Street in his election, but I think he has paid back his friends well enough. And on top of that Wall Street is pouring money into Republican campaigns for the mid-terms, so what is Obama's deal? Preparing for 2012 financing?

In any case, I think its a bad move. He can't stop these moratoriums (to my knowledge) since its at the state level, so what is the utility in publicly coming out against them? Right before an election? He could at least couple it with a constructive solution, but I have yet to see that.

And on this point I want to emphasize that I am tired of these articles or comments on liberals (like me) upset with Obama must (a) be the type of people who are never satisfied, because he accomplished so much but they want more; and or (b) thought he was some magical wizard who could solve the nations problems, but now are disappointed to see he is human.

There are liberals who are upset with Obama for specific reasons, and for specific positions or actions he has taken. This is one.


Cause its Friday, you ain't got no job, and you ain't got shit to do

- The Federal Reserve hinted again at using tools in its tool belt to stimulate the economy. This likely means quantitative easing (buying up bonds) to drive down long term interest rates and introduce a lil' liquidity to the economy. Many economists are calling for the Fed to declare its informal inflation target, now at 2%, is going to be 4%. That would be nice, I don't think it will happen though.

Thursday, October 14, 2010


Its Thursday!

- The Feds have announced no increase in Social Security benefits this year, just like last year! Social Security benefits are by law tied to the Consumer Price Index, and so when inflation goes up (say 4%, which is healthy) recipients get their COLA fix (cost of living adjustment.) This year and last year there was no inflation (may have been deflation) and so they get no increase. This is something that occurs independently of Congress, but I suspect many elderly voters won't get that. I suspect that because I interned at a Senator's office last year and we had old people calling us constantly demanding their COLA increase, and not being satisfied with the explanation I just provided. With typical irony, they will probably exercise that anger by voting in a party (Republicans) who have been against Social Security its entire life and will likely seek to begin dismantling it under the guise of deficit reduction (which as Dean Baker or Paul Krugman routinely point out, is bullshit. Medicare might swallow the federal budget, Social Security is completely fine and with minor adjustments will be fine for a long time.)

- McDonald's hamburgers can last at least 12 years without decay, a woman's experiment shows. Not even the bread gets moldy, which is pretty fucking disturbing. If I said it once I'll say it again, never eat fast food, ever.

-The Afghan "Peace Council" is opening talks with the Taliban. Seems like the me like a smart idea; the war is not going to be won militarily and these types of conflicts are never hurt by negotiation.

-The trade deficit widens, and yet Obama seems set against penalizing China (ala tariffs) for their illegal currency manipulation, which is tantamount to subsidies on their exports, which leads to things like our big trade deficit. I wonder if post-health care he is going to fight for anything? I wonder if he really cares (though he did say he wanted to double US exports in five years. How is that going?)

- Hillary wont be VP in 2012 because Biden says Obama asked him first. Is Obama running in 2012?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Look Who's Defending the Banks (again)

After the disclosures in mass amounts of fraudulent foreclosures by banks across the country; after Attorneys General from both parties from nearly every state in the country called for a foreclosure moratorium in their states; after 2.5 million homes foreclosed upon and 6.5 million currently in foreclosure; President Obama and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner have come out again a foreclosure moratorium. While they may make some good technical arguments, the timing and dare I say audacity of the President is still quite shocking.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Subway Rules

On my way to work this morning, the Red Line T stop at Central Square (where I board every morning) was extremely crowded. I had come in just as a packed train was leaving, and dozens of commuters had stayed on the platform because they were unable to get on the train.

When the next train did arrive, it was one of those usual free for alls when people had no regard for etiquette and basically push and shove, cut you off and push you down so they can get in the train (and everyone does this, even old women.) What is striking about this is that while this behavior is very rude and discomforting, its entirely rational. That is because you need to get to work, and if you don't get on that train you will be late. I have been in situations where the train was just so goddamn crowded I literally could not fit in, and have been late to work for it. So when you see an opening you just kind of go for it and hope you don't fall down in the process.

It made me wonder, are there any rules pertaining to traveling around on the T? I think there are some unspoken rules of the road that decent people go by, and others need to learn:

1. Give Up Your Seat: If there is an old person or pregnant lady, give up your seat for them. Incidentally I see this happen very frequently, and its not one type of person that gives up their seat for an old person/prego lady but people of all stripes. Sometimes assholes don't do it, but usually someone will volunteer, and it is always nice to see.

2. Who Gets the Open Seat: While I don't think its necessary to give up your seat for a woman (who is young and perfectly healthy), when a seat opens on a crowded train, she should get first dibs. I see people do this a lot too, they kind of motion toward the seat, and the woman either says "Oh no thank you I am getting off at the next stop", or "Are you sure? Oh, thank you!"

3. Move Your Shit: If there is a crowded train and you have a seat next to you, and your back pack is on it, don't wait for someone to ask you to move it. Either put it on the floor, or if you think that the floor is too dirty (which it is) then put it on your lap. And sticking head phones in your ears doesn't mean you can't see that people are standing and would like that seat.

4. Move In or Stand Up: This pertains to the Green Line trains, where the seats are arranged in pairs of two perpendicular to the wall (like a bus or airplane), as opposed to lined along side the wall on most other trains. If the train is empty, you can take the aisle or the window seat. If the train is crowded, or a big crowd is coming on because you are at Park Street or some other busy stop, and you are already sitting in the aisle seat, then move in. Its obnoxious when someone says "Excuse me" or "May I sit there" and the person in the aisle seat just brings their legs in so you can step over them to get to the window seat; rather than just moving in. There is no need for you to sit in the aisle seat; if you are the next stop then just stand up and wait. If you aren't, then move in.

5. Big Backpack Bumper: If you have a huge back pack that sticks out three feet, fine, we have all been there. But the rule is, on a crowded train, once you get into the spot where you are standing, then stand still dammit! Don't move around, turning left and right or all around, because you wind up hitting people with your back pack and you may not even be able to feel it.

6. Move Over: If there are several empty seats and you have positioned yourself in one such that I have to either sit right next to you, or right next to someone else, whereas if you moved over one then I could be in between two empty seats, then you should move over. These seats are small and nobody likes to sit directly next to someone.

7. Turn Down Your Music: Its an ipod and I can hear it blasting. You will go deaf, but in the meantime I don't want to listen to your crap songs.

8. Shut the Fuck Up: A. If its a crowded train, don't speak on your phone, its rude and annoying, B. Talk in a normal voice and don't scream swears; you aren't the only person on the train. Loud, obnoxious people that scream and swear, or laugh, are annoying.

9. This Is Not a Bathroom: So don't clip your fingers or toes, don't clean your ears, and for the love of God please don't spit phlegm on the floor.

10. Relax: We are all on the same T, people will be rude or obnoxious and not everyone will know subway rules. Just get from A to B and try not to let the kind of people who violate the edicts above bother you too much, hopefully some day they will learn.