Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Doing things is hard, and other thoughts

I remain optimistic that House Democrats are going to pass the Senate version of Health Care Reform. They're making all kinds of unfortunate noises about taking a break from the health care debate, but at the end of the day, they've already voted for a more-liberal version of the plan anyway, so I can't see any upside to voting against this one. If they do, they'll have all the same electoral liabilities they would have if they pass the plan, PLUS a base that would spit in their face sooner than knock on a door on their behalf.

The problem I'm worried about is, what happens once they pass the Senate bill? Since the pressure is overwhelmingly coming from the Left, and since Members apparently regard this as some sort of difficult vote, Congressional Dems will want to argue that now they don't have to do anything big that liberals like, since they'll have already stretched their necks out for us and now they need to protect their moderate/conservative flank.

That would be beyond galling, as the Senate plan is vastly inferior to what liberals wanted, but what's even worse than that is that the only reason we're even in this predicament is because Congress took so damn long to come up with legislation in the first place, and then took so damn long to get any votes on it to happen at all. Really, Democrats in Congress need to be embarrassed and ashamed, afraid of what's already happening to their base, rushing to pass this bill and looking for ways to make it up to us.

Instead, they're going to make us force them to grudgingly pass what we all know to be a terrible bill, and then hold that over our heads whenever we try to get them to do anything else they should be doing in the first place.

It's all very frustrating, but I'm beginning to think it's inevitable for a political movement like contemporary American liberalism: since we're the ones identifying societal problems, we're the ones who actually want to do new things, which are always harder to do than old things. As an example: a national mandate to purchase health insurance from a private insurer is literally without precedent. Nothing like that has ever happened before in the US. Since it's never been done before, everyone's afraid of it, it sounds really weird, there are all sorts of institutional impediments to doing it and, since it's without precedent, it's unclear whether it's even constitutional (for the record, it almost certainly is; but "without precedent" means what it says, so who knows what the Supreme Court will hold.)

This is a general problem facing the party of action. In any debate, if one side says "We need to change X" and the other side says "We need to stop changing things like X", the latter always has the easier burden of proof. Most people remember the past fondly, and in the past we didn't have X and everything worked out fine, so do we really need it after all? And since we've never tried it before, isn't there some risk it could lead to catastrophe? We know we've been ok going without X; but maybe, doing X will tip us over the edge into socialism/fascism/totalitarianism/vegetarianism/somethingbadism. It's always harder to do something than to not do anything.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Should we be happy Coakley lost?

I hate knee-jerk "counterintuitive" posts as much as the next person, but hear me out. Had Coakley won, Democrats would've been in the same position we were in a month ago: on every major issue, we'd need to get that 57th, 58th, 59th, 60th vote in the Senate. We'd need to make substantial concessions to so many centrists, let alone such repugnant excuses for humanity as Evan Bayh and Joe Lieberman, that every bill we tried to pass would be at least as flawed as the health care shitpile that finally oozed out of the Senate.

Actually, it would be worse than that. In the last month, Coakley's collapse has fed the narrative that the country is backlashing against Democratic overreach. With midterm elections coming up in 2010, getting conservative Democratic senators to vote for controversial legislation would have been even harder. In other words, the difference between 60 and 59 isn't really all that great.

But the very fact of having 60 votes has forced Democrats to govern like milquetoast centrists that only stand up for what they believe in until someone mentions the word "filibuster". Then they need to get all hands on deck, throw out any remotely controversial provision of legislation they're debating, and feed the narrative of weaklings too scared to stand up for what they believe in. This perception, combined with the fact that they've achieved so little to actually defend, means that the only way marginal Dems can defend their seats is to run even further to the right, and against the "excesses" of Washington.

An alternative exists, though recent history doesn't make me optimistic it'll be taken. But if Democrats decided that, rather than scraping even harder to get 60 votes for worse legislation, they'd rely on their still-historic margins in the House and Senate to pass legislation that they actually like, and that is actually popular with voters, their prospects would improve. If they forced Republicans to the mat on issue after issue, they'd win a lot more respect, stand up for better legislation and even get some surprises to go their way. They'd lose a bunch of votes, but it would be because Republicans were voting against popular, good ideas - not a bad way to go down. The base would be more energized, the media would have to write stories about Democrats fighting for their ideals, and good legislation would stand a better chance of passage.

So the Republicans have 41 votes in the Senate? Make them filibuster everything! Make them grind the Senate to a halt, and make them own it! Call for up-or-down votes! Let the country see who's really paralyzing the process!

Monday, January 18, 2010

How bad is a corporate Internet?

The Internet's future as a place for (near)-universal free expression is threatened by the increasing dominance of corporate actors online, according to Dave Winer. This is an important debate to have, and though I disagree with the argument, I absolutely want people continuing to make it: the balance of online power is not fixed, and it could easily shift much farther toward corporate centralization than it has so far. If that happens, I want people calling it out, and I hope I'm one of those people.

However, at this moment in time, I think it's not really the case that, as Winer says, "Your Internet presence is owned by corporate media as much as the newscaster on NBC Nightly News, or a reporter on All Things Considered, or the Public Editor of the NY Times." In fact, he's completely wrong about that.

The key difference between a reporter for a mainstream media organization, and you or I (assuming you are not a reporter for a mainstream media organization) (and leaving aside for the moment that I work for a large corporation myself) is that there is basically nothing compelling us to say anything other than whatever we feel is the truth. We have personal blogs and twitter accounts and, though the properties are owned by corporations, what we say on them absolutely isn't. We face zero recriminations for what we post, beyond a few corner cases (I can't leak trade secrets, and you probably don't want to see what happens if you publish Nazi propaganda). The fact that the medium is owned by corporations in no way impedes my ability to say whatever the fuck I like. If one corporation changes its policies and restricts my speech, I'll simply switch to another platform, and nothing about the architecture of the Internet impedes my ability to do so.

It is the case that corporations are trying to dominate the Internet by originating and controlling content that appears on it, but the Internet is made richer by that action. The more quality content there is online, the more people will come to seek it out, and the higher the likelihood is that they'll stumble across more independent voices in their travels than would otherwise be the case. The alternative for those seeking entertainment right now is the closed-off world of TV, or movies or newspapers or magazines or books - every one of which represent at their best a pale shadow of a small fraction of the amount of free expression that can be found online when you type two or three words into a search engine.

Winer also goes off on Wikipedia for some reason (kinda the antithesis of corporate-controlled media, I would think) and comes off sounding like he's got more axes to grind than valid arguments about why it's a degenerate force. He's concerned that Wikipedia squelches dissenting voices, and that's valid, but Wikipedia has a relatively robust tolerance for debate on its site. To the extent that articles don't reflect that debate, that's as it should be: people will dispute facts for all manner of illegitimate reasons (say, objecting to the theory of evolution for political gain) and I don't want those debates coloring what Wikipedia has to say at all. In cases where legitimate debate exists concerning a given fact or facts, I think Wikipedia does a pretty good job of either discussing the debate, or leaving out the fact until it can be resolved.

There are a number of other sentiments I object to in Winer's post itself, but to an extent that doesn't change the fact that I'm glad he wrote it. The Internet needs people to be over-vigilant when it comes to independent, free expression. The fact that what they say can be annoying or wrong is a feature of their perspective, not a bug.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Sarah, Failin

Glenn Beck interviews Sarah Palin for AN HOUR. Dear God almighty.

"Sarah, I want to read to you what I wrote last night in my journal. Because it's about you."

And so it begins...

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Thank You, Harold Ford, For Clarifying

I do shoot [guns], and I shoot them at things that can’t shoot back. And will continue to do that. And by that, I want to be clear, I don’t mean children.

Screw the flying cars

I know this is a point that's been made ad nauseam, but it still continues to blow me away.

When I was born (and I'm not that old):

Music was stored on huge platters that could only hold about 4 songs at a time (and which couldn't be rewritten (and which skipped if you so much as jumped in another corner of the room they were being played on))

If you needed to look up a fact, you basically had to go to an encyclopedia. The more facts you wanted to have on hand, the larger the number of shelves you had to have to accommodate them.

If you wanted to watch a movie, you had to go to a movie theater. If you were lucky, you had a limited collection of VHS or Betamax tapes that you could only watch a handful of times before their quality degraded substantially.

If you wanted to play an arcade game, you could pay a lot of money for the ability to play glorified Pong on your huge, heavy, low-resolution tv.

If you got lost, you either had to have a map of wherever you were, or ask someone for directions. If it was dark out (so you couldn't tell where you were) and there was nobody around, you were screwed.

If someone wanted to get ahold of you, you had better be near your home phone (or possibly your office phone).

If you wanted to get ahold of someone else, you needed a quarter and a dime and to find a working pay phone.

If you wanted to listen to the music and you weren't at home, you listened to the radio.

If you wanted to look at porn, you had to spend a ridiculous amount of money to buy a magazine from someplace kinda shady. If you were underage, you had to convince someone else to do this for you.


The device in my pocket that's about the same size as, but a bit lighter than, my wallet, can do all of the above, infinitely better in every single instance, often by connecting to a global network that represents basically all of human knowledge, most of it 100% free.

Sometimes, you just have to say wow.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Noam Chomsky says "Love Thy Teabagger!"

And he makes a lot of sense...

So take right now, for example, there is a right-wing populist uprising. It's very common, even on the left, to just ridicule them, but that's not the right reaction. If you look at those people and listen to them on talk radio, these are people with real grievances. I listen to talk radio a lot and it's kind of interesting. If you can sort of suspend your knowledge of the world and just enter into the world of the people who are calling in, you can understand them. I've never seen a study, but my sense is that these are people who feel really aggrieved. These people think, "I've done everything right all my life, I'm a god-fearing Christian, I'm white, I'm male, I've worked hard, and I carry a gun. I do everything I'm supposed to do. And I'm getting shafted." And in fact they are getting shafted. For 30 years their wages have stagnated or declined, the social conditions have worsened, the children are going crazy, there are no schools, there's nothing, so somebody must be doing something to them, and they want to know who it is. Well Rush Limbaugh has answered - it's the rich liberals who own the banks and run the government, and of course run the media, and they don't care about you—they just want to give everything away to illegal immigrants and gays and communists and so on.

It's not that hard to understand. Living standards and socioeconomic opportunity have been generally increasing for most demographic groups for the last several decades, but all that positive movement has been coming at the expense of the few heavily-privileged demographic groups (i.e., white people, especially white males). Their (our) cultural hegemony was so absolute for so long that it could go in only one direction, and it shouldn't be a surprise that they're not all thrilled about it.

Something similar is true of Americans who grew up in a world where American dominance was nearly absolute: culturally, militarily, economically, ideologically. As that dominance erodes, you'd expect such people to feel threatened, angry, and/or sad about the whole thing. But their kids, for whom such erosion is the norm, will have a totally different reaction to it: not necessarily happier about it, but more at peace with it.

The point is, it's an understandable reaction and it doesn't make the people who have it morons. Even if sometimes they say moronic things.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Held captive at walletpoint

Upon reflection, this article didn't piss me off nearly as much as it should have. Perhaps the nadir comes when one anonymous, bailed-out banker whines that salaries of well over $500,000 in cash were necessary because "A lot of our folks have second and third homes and alimony payments..." Who are these people that think like this? That work for banks that have literally brought the world economy to its knees with their greed and incompetence, that see headlines about record foreclosures and evictions every day, and still feel comfortable arguing for their massive salaries because, God forbid they have to sell one of their three homes!? What country do they think they live in?

Perhaps Chris Lehmann is right, and it really is time for us to clean out the cash-swollen gutters of Wall Street, but I can't help but be pessimistic. Not because I'm worried about retribution leading to a talent drain - one Wall Street lawyer quoted in the piece says, "If people in these industries — which are a main American export — see that Congress can jerk them around whenever they want, they’re going to stop going into these businesses, just the way people have stopped becoming doctors." and I can't help but hope that he's right (also, by the way? You people are waaaay less essential to society than doctors. Fuck you. Seriously.) But because they've got us by the throat, and they know it:
Why obsess over $20 million or $30 million in extra payouts at businesses that have billions in other expenses and where the government had billions at risk? What if some of those people really did leave? Even if replacing them would just cause a hiccup or two, the risk wasn’t worth it.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Conservatives once again condescend to the intelligence agencies

No, Erick Erickson, this is not "the greatest and potentially the deadliest of Obama's screw ups so far". Or perhaps it is, in which case you have a surprisingly favorable impression of the administration.

Erickson refers to the recent suicide bombing in Afghanistan that killed 7 or 8 CIA officers, the deadliest day for the Agency in decades. He specifically criticizes the Obama administration for publicly acknowledging the tragedy, and mourning the loss of life. In so doing, he alleges, al Qaeda and the Taliban are gifted a major propaganda victory, and Obama's relations with the CIA are seriously undermined, while doing further damage to the Agency's morale.

Even if all of this is true - and I grant none of it, since Erickson doesn't even come close to describing a single source in his post, beyond "members of the intelligence community," (which only narrows it down to about 100,000 people) - it says infinitely more about the incompetence and unprofessionalism of the American Intelligence Community (IC) than it does about the Obama administration.

For one thing, I thought these people had rather important jobs. It surprises me to learn that they're so easily distracted from their work by press releases from the White House. I would have thought they wouldn't let so important a task as national security be imperiled by their hurt feelings and grumpy moods. Certainly, Republicans, who've spent decades telling us just how serious, professional and dedicated the members of the IC are, aren't alleging that they make decisions about whether or not to protect the country based on whether they're annoyed with the President.

For another, what has the Obama administration actually done wrong here? The information about the bombing victims leaked out well before Obama made any sort of statement, so the essence of the Taliban's propaganda victory was already out there before the White House did anything. Maybe there's some super-secret IC rationale for not saying anything once the cat is clearly out of the bag, but I can't really see it.

Finally, to the extent that the CIA was licking its wounds already before this attack took place (and therefore deserve to be treated with kid gloves right now), I call bullshit. America spends far too much money ($50 billion/year or so) for the level of performance we get from these folks. We have the right to demand they do a better job, and to criticize them when they screw up, which happens repeatedly and on pretty major issues (WMDs in Iraq sure were a "slam dunk," huh?) I'm sure they've saved us from thousands of attacks and saved tens of thousands of lives over the years, but that shouldn't earn them any special immunity from criticism: that's their job! That's why we pay them $50 billion a year! And it does them no favors to treat them like fragile children who can only be reassured that they're doing a great! job! all the time, lest their feelings get hurt.