Saturday, December 17, 2011

Predicting the Unique

Political pundits sometimes sound like sports reporters, only with worse grammar.  (Sports reporters, at least on ESPN, may be the last group in America to understand the difference between "fewer" and "less.") Polmouths handicap the current though actually upcoming presidential election based on statistics, the more arcane the better.  It's often like predicting the outcome of a single football game based on quarterback ratings or a baseball game by comparing the respective teams won/loss ratio in that ballpark over the past century: it gives you intelligent-sounding talk to fill the air between commercials.  But the meaning of those stats, particularly applied to any given game, are questionable.

The predictive value of historical statistics is dubious, but that doesn't stop the polmouths from saying that "the American people" will or won't do something, based on what some other "American people" did or didn't do in the past.   There are always some factors that are different from the past.  In this election, there are at least two very significant differences.

The Republican Party has never been so dominated by angry fanatics.  They are so angry and so fanatical and self-righteous that they seem to be slipping away from the control of the big monied interests that have successfully manipulated them.  Many, maybe most, are fanatical Evangelicals, who simply don't care about governance or the actual responsibilities of elected officials, including members of Congress and most particularly of the President.  Their belief system doesn't include believing in the premises of economics, science in general, government and foreign policy that have always been held in common by most voters and almost all national public officials.   That stuff is irrelevant at best, and evidence of evil most of the time.

Evangelicals or not, the so-called conservative GOPer is characterized by anger and hatred: anger and hatred when in power, and when out of power but still numerous enough to poison government and the political process. 

The Republican party has not always been a near total toxic waste dump, but it seems to be now.  It is taking the pundits by surprise, and it is so far making a big difference in this 2012 campaign.  If it continues, either Mitt Gingrich will be nominated, risking alienating the majority of voters, or if the establishment takes back some control, Newt Romney will be nominated, and the Rabid Right will angrily walk away, perhaps to back their own non-GOPer candidate.  This is different--at a much higher temperature and of a much different character than the Goldwater rebellion of 1964.   The major question that the election will answer on this score is how much this anger is shared among the so-called Independents, who are mostly yesterday's GOPers.
The second factor is so obvious that everyone ignores it.  It's President Obama.  In case you haven't noticed, he's black.  He's the first black President of the United States.  He's unique, and I don't think that's appreciated enough, or at least admitted by the pundits. 

On the plus side for Obama, he was elected by a multiracial coalition that in population terms is still growing.  On the minus side, there is still a lot of conscious and unconscious racism at work.  Even in Obama's landslide victory in 2008, a recent Harvard study concluded that he lost three to five percentage points in the popular vote because of racial animus.

Part of the hate, and part of the fuel behind the hate and anger of the Rabid Right is racist.  The Rabid Right led then by Newt Gingrich hated Bill Clinton with irrational intensity.  But hatred for President Obama is made more powerful by racial animus.  The racist buffoonery that occasionally gets exposed is the tip of the iceberg.  There are all kinds of racist dog whistles in the language even of the candidates: Obama as the "food stamp President" (Gingrich), or as privileged by affirmative action who won't release his college grades because he wasn't and isn't very smart (Trump to Limbaugh.) 

Not to mention the Kenyan dogwhistles which say "black" as loud as they say "foreign."  To these folks,  black is foreign.  The country they "want back" is the one run exclusively by whites (even if they are darker brothers by another mother of white kingpins like the Kochs.)  Reporters are starting to recognize a violently negative mood among GOPer primary/caucus voters, and the violent anger is directed at President Obama.  To say it's all from racism would be simplistic.  To think that racism isn't a big part of it is willed blindness.

 The pundits' favorite stat is the correlation between the unemployment rate and the Presidents who get reelected.  But there were exceptions, and this election is even more exceptional.  The turgid, angry, hateful, fanatical and violent mood of the GOPers has so far produced a field of candidates that by conventional standards is exceptionally weak--and exceptionally absurd. Meanwhile, the first black President is for the first time seeking reelection.  Do these factors outweigh the apparently persuasive stats from the past?  We'll see.  But it's not a done deal.  Even apart from the likelihood that the majority of voters understand they have a year to decide how to vote.  And the big stages of the party conventions and the presidential debates are still to come.    

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Happy Christmas: The War Is Over

On Thursday, Defense Secretary Panetta and Chair of the Joint Chiefs Demsey "cased the colors"--put away the flag--at a military base in Iraq, formally ending the U.S. military presence in that country.  The war is over.

The day before, President Obama addressed returning (and cheering) troops at Fort Bragg:

"It’s harder to end a war than begin one. Indeed, everything that American troops have done in Iraq -– all the fighting and all the dying, the bleeding and the building, and the training and the partnering -– all of it has led to this moment of success. Now, Iraq is not a perfect place. It has many challenges ahead. But we’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people. We’re building a new partnership between our nations. And we are ending a war not with a final battle, but with a final march toward home."

It is harder to end a war than to begin one.Yes, a bitter truth some of us were crying out in 2003--it is the tragic fact that letting loose the dogs of war is much much easier than reigning them back in.  So nearly 9 years of pain and waste later, at least a trillion dollars spent, hundreds of thousands of lives lost and maimed, millions of lives deformed, and our entire political process so fractured that we are unable to respond to the real threats we face, this terrible and quite possibly catastrophic war is over.

Barack Obama promised to end this war.  He did what he promised, and continues to be castigated for it in shameful terms by mad dog GOPers in Congress and running for president.  Let's hope the American people leash them up good in the next election.

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

"Blessed be he whose mind had power to probe
The causes of things."


Wednesday, December 14, 2011


There's a rule in astronomy: if I'm watching for a meteor show, it will be cancelled.  Sort of.  Skies didn't get clear here until the wee hours, when the moon was high.  But I stood in the cold for awhile, a few hours after the predicted peak of the Geminid meteor shower.  Even though the moon is past full, it is still very bright here--I was casting a definite shadow. When I first got here I was astounded by how bright the moon gets here on the North Coast, and I guess I still am.  The first place we lived had a skylight in the bathroom, and one night I saw my reflection in the mirror by moonlight.  Tonight--this early morning, with the sound of distant garbage trucks grinding and beeping--there were only about a hundred heavenly bodies visible (including, reputedly, five planets.)  But they were very bright and twinkling.  I don't remember stars really twinkling like this when I was a kid in PA, though I could see many many more of them.  Tonight was like a highlight reel.  The big dipper.  Orion.  Very nice.  And over Orion I caught one flaring meteor, just to the side of where I was looking.  That was it.

But last evening, just after dark, Margaret was walking home and saw a meteor twist across the sky, in a long wobbling path.  She happened to be looking in exactly the right place, and had no idea there was a meteor shower.  Well, there may be some tomorrow night.

Meanwhile on Tuesday a pretty trustworthy poll had Paul running even with Mitt Gingrich in Iowa, while in a national poll, Gingrich was leading for the nomination but against him, President Obama gets 51% to under 40 for the Gman.  

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Scared Mittless

It started here, O happy few.  Now Rachel admits that she keeps calling Mitt Newt and Newt Mitt.  Michelle Backmanniac of all people introduced the Mitt Gingrich/Newt Romney ID into the GOPer debate.  And on 60 Minutes Sunday, President Obama affirmed the essential point: there's really no difference in what they advocate.  What he didn't mention is that they are identical in other ways as well--both serial hypocrites and liars who will say anything to gain momentary advantage.

But as the Iowa caucuses approach it does seem down to Mitt Gingrich vs. Newt Romney.  As Gingrich has taken off in the polls, the GOPer (Nixon/Reagan.Bush/Bush jr) establishment as well as lots of current and former members of Congress who "served" with Gingrich, have been loudly and ferociously attacking him.  Yet what the polls do make clear is that nobody loves Romney, and he appears to be even more nervous than circumstances warrant, which suggest he's really really worried.

But the first unreality check (something the prospective GOPer nominee must pass) will be Iowa in a few weeks.  What Iowa will suggest is whether Gingrich's bet that traditional "retail" politics and political organization no longer matter, and that the brute force of media will (pardon the expression) Trump all.  Because he has no effective Iowa organization at all, especially among caucus participants, by all accounts.  So will the caucus results reflect the opinion polls, which show Gingrich about 10 points ahead?  That's what we will learn from the results.  And that outcome will suggest whether Gingrich can be successful in getting the nomination.

If traditional Iowa caucus politics prevails, first place could very well go to Ron Paul.  That's especially if between now and then, something turns negative for Gingrich.  Paul sees him as his biggest threat in Iowa and has made the most devastating anti-G ad and statements.  Paul combines that focus with good organization and a dedicated group of Iowa activists.  Low turnout favors him.

I have to say I'm surprised that after word got around that Romney was actually going to jump into the Iowa fray, it took so long for his campaign to start there.  It took too long, both in terms of organization and especially it got overwhelmed by the Gingrich boom of the past couple of weeks.  Now Mr. G is topic A.  Nobody seems to be taking a second look at Romney.

Even more impressive than G's poll numbers in matchups is this Rasmussen poll in which 49% of GOPers find Gingrich the more electable candidate, with Romney at the level he seems to maintain for everything, the 20s%.  GOPer Ras isn't the most reliable pollster, but if GOPers really see G as the electable, then Romney's last remaining rationale is gone.

So the function of Iowa will likely be to further inflate or prick the Gingrich balloon.  If Romney still wins New Hampshire, then the noise goes on, but political heads are finding a path for G to the nom, which nobody did a month ago.

All of this is the politics of consequences, rather than the disgraceful circus politics in general and the GOPer race in particular have become.  As someone said on TV, it would be a farce if it wasn't a tragedy.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

"What we need in literature today are vast philosophic horizons; ...we need the most ultimate, the most fearsome, the most fearless 'Why?' and 'What next?'"

Yevgeny Zamyatin

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Reality Check

The dangers of economic inequality (which are largely founded on economic injustice) threaten our economy and our polity, and in the process they cause suffering and destruction to real people.  They limit and may destroy the chances of future generations.  All of this--and all the economic and political theory outlined in President Obama's speech and my last two posts--are demonstrably true.

But they don't tell the whole story.  To the extent that in the end, none of this may matter much.  Because virtually all economic theory is fantasy.  It is, to be sure, really pretentious and boring fantasy, and the purveyors of these fantasies dress in severe suits and ties, and are boring and pretentious.  But nothing Disney ever produced is as unreal as the economics accepted as operating procedure by the global economy, by the institutions of commerce and finance and government, at every level.

Economic theories work within the premises, in both senses: they work within the artificial constructs, the closed system, within the building.  And for a few hundred years we've managed to pretty much stay inside the building.  But the building is not self-contained, not really.  The natural world outside it is essential to its survival, to our survival.  And the laws there are very different, and we've been ignoring them.  The world is so big that we got away with ignoring them.  But we're too big now, and we're destroying the world's ability to continue to give us life.

The most obvious way to translate this into economics is by assigning cost.  Costs are calculated without regard to the resources used and the environment ruined, such that it will not sustain as much life, or any life, in the future.  The jargon is that environmental costs are "externalized," that is, ignored.  But these days there is far too much damage being done on scales that are almost unimaginably vast and fast, by and on behalf of far, far too many people. 

We're using up resources and poisoning our planet, destroying the diversity of life we don't really understand, and in the process, we are destroying the human future.  And our economics ignores this most important fact.  If we don't get this right, none of the rest is going to matter for very much longer.
Waste is one of the most ignored problems.  Of all the resources that go into making products we use, only 6% of the materials actually show up in the products themselves.  And then many of the products become waste in short order, often toxic waste.  The computer revolution, which looks so clean and futuristic, is making this very much worse.  The rapid proliferation and obsolescence of devices is creating waste on a stupendous scale.  There are more discarded cell phones in Japan than there are Japanese.  It's getting worse, utterly out of control, and it is utterly ignored.

The greatest costs to be exacted on human civilization are the result of greenhouse gases still polluting and deforming our atmosphere at a record rate, decades after the dangers they pose were known.  The latest international climate crisis conference, in Durban, South Africa, is now over.  An agreement was reached in its final hours that some are hailing it as a modest success, and a blueprint for progress.  Others are less enthusiastic.
My first impression is this: The agreement (which is basically to negotiate a new treaty) sets out a framework that will be available in the near future, should world leaders (conspicuously absent at this conference) and their governments be scared enough by climate catastrophes into looking for a way to act, to forestall even worse effects.  And perhaps to deal with the effects then happening.

I don't think there are many climate scientists or close observers of climate science and what's already happening worldwide who believe that even a strong global treaty in 2020 is going to prevent climate catastrophe beginning in this century, and a much altered climate for the planet for many centuries. But if action is taken the prospect might be that the return to a very hot climate before human life arose--and one which would make human civilization unlikely if not impossible--might be forestalled, eventually. 

But nobody really knows.  Nobody knows what small changes may result in big changes.  Nobody knows if we've already passed any number of tipping points or not.  What almost everybody knows is that greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have caused, are causing and will cause global heating, with dire consequences for at least a significant proportion of the human species, and eventually negative consequences for all.  Not to mention the polar bears.  Every species lives within an interdependent ecology.  Some adjustments for some species are possible.  But the economy of life in the real world sometimes rules extinction, or something very much like it.

We're smart enough to figure that out.  But it does look like we've been too slow to accept it, take it seriously and act on it at the scale of the problem. This is the ultimate economics, and without dealing with it, the rest is going to be superseded.