Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

The Tsunami of Tstupidity

The Tsunami of Tstupidity

An edited video of an encounter between Senator Diane Feinstein of California and a group of young campaigners for the Green New Deal is eliciting much outrage and indignation on Twitter. Senator Feinstein’s unpardonable offense is that she became impatient with being repeatedly interrupted and made a few sarcastic remarks having to do with her knowledge, experience and authority and their lack of those characteristics.

I don’t buy Feinstein’s rationale for her policy positions on climate change but that isn’t what this post is about. Just in the past month there have been three viral outrage epidemics: the Covington sneering kid standoff, the Jussie Smollett assault/hoax and now the Weinstein virtual stoning. Meanwhile there all these transient trending episodes involving billionaires, celebrities, politicians and pedophiles (not to mention “all of the above”).  Then there was the Ilhan Omar trope crisis and the Governor Northam blackface controversy and on and on it goes. Are we having fun yet?

What all this nonsense reminds me of is the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 26, 2004. In those days, I was in a dialogue group that met once a month and at our next session after the tsunami, we shared a common impression of some kind of global convergence. Something that had never happened before. People around the world brought together by the sheer magnitude of the tragedy. The universal sublime.

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Another Question for the Census

Another Question for the Census

The Trump gang has kicked up a ruckus over its plan to insert a question about citizenship in the 2020 decennial census.  It’s a transparent attempt to reduce the response rate of immigrants, disenfranchising them in reapportionment and government spending formulas, despite the Constitution’s call for an enumeration of “persons”, not citizens.

But why stop at citizenship?  When you think about, there is no government interest greater than its ability to collect taxes, the main obstacle to which is tax avoidance, legal and illegal.  Researchers looking into this problem, not to mention government analysts themselves, struggle in the face of rampant secrecy.

So why not use the census to get a better picture of tax cheating?  Insert just a single question, “Within the past year have you failed to pay your lawful federal, state or local tax obligations?”  Respondents should be reminded that a dishonest answer constitutes a violation of federal law.  The fine is small compared to most tax avoidance, but the last thing most tax scofflaws want is added attention to their financial duplicity.

I can see the confusion when the numbers are tallied in 2021.  “Gee, there are all these big houses, shady streets and golf courses, but according to our data no one actually lives here.”

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Test Tube Politics: llhan Omar, Anti-Semitism and AIPAC

Test Tube Politics: llhan Omar, Anti-Semitism and AIPAC

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a political statement triggering evidence (mixed) about its own truth as dramatically as Ilhan Omar’s quip that pro-Israeli bias in congress is “about the Benjamins, baby”.  It’s as if you wrote a letter criticizing the Post Office and had it returned to you with a USPS message stamped on it.

But let’s dig down one level.  The criticism, partly fair, of Omar is that she bought into (so to speak) the anti-semitic slur that Jewish money constitutes a secret conspiracy against “the people”.  This is the old socialism-of-fools stuff, endlessly recycled by bigots right up until this morning; see the demonization of George Soros, for instance.  Because it exists, people who want to combat bigotry—and this includes progressive politicians—should build a giant moat around it and not go there.  By suggesting that hidden Jewish money had bribed Congress into blind support for Israel, Omar crossed a line.  It’s the same line that George Bush senior crossed with the Willie Horton ad, and that Trump crosses a dozen times every Twitter-soaked evening.  Invoking a bigoted stereotype is a bad thing to do, especially for politicians with giant megaphones.

Yet the very response to Omar’s tweet demonstrated the truth she was stumbling for.  A chorus of political and media honchos of every denomination, religious and political, rose up to denounce her.  They didn’t make fine distinctions and they didn’t welcome a correction; their goal was to punish and silence.  Sweeping accusations were made against Omar’s character, leaving the impression that any criticism of AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobby, was proof of antisemitism.  And this attempt to isolate and politically crush Omar was itself the embodiment of her protest.  This is the power of AIPAC in action, the lobby that can’t be named, the doctrine—the transcendental importance of Israel and the rightness of its religious self-definition—that can’t be questioned.

So the truth content of the original Omar tweet depends on how we explain this onslaught.  If it’s really just about the Benjamins (the hundred dollar bills with Ben Franklin looking back at us), that means she was being trashed, directly or indirectly, for pay.  Politicians joined the mob either to protect their campaign revenue or shield themselves from other politicians defending their own campaign revenue.  How likely is that?  The answer depends on two prior questions: how important is campaign finance in setting the basic contours of US policy, and what proportion of this finance is controlled or strongly influenced by AIPAC?

These are questions for specialists in these areas, not me.  I will go out on a limb, however, and say that the truth lies between the endpoints: some but not all of the bias in the US political system is attributable to the influence of big donors, and AIPAC has a substantial but far less than a complete lock on the flow of political money.  You could compare it to other lobbies, like the NRA (National Rifle Association) and AARP (American Association of Retired Persons), both of which are feared for their ability to alter the balance of funding in competitive political contests.  But neither of these two outfits is immune from attack, while AIPAC is.  Gun control advocates go after the NRA all the time, and, while AARP is not exactly a political lightening rod, the complaint that greedy seniors are stealing money from our children is a popular meme on the Right.  So AIPAC is different.  This difference does not seem to be about money, at least not solely, as important as money is to the system and the groups that try to dominate it.  AIPAC appears to possess a complementary form of power, perhaps rooted in the infrastructure of synagogues and other religious organizations as well as the allegiance of many socially prominent Jews active in secular organizations.  When it marshals this network, you get the sort of response we saw to Omar.

This was a ferocious rebuke of a politician, clearly intended to be career-ending.  It will be interesting to see if she can recover without abandoning her advocacy of Palestinians; I certainly hope so.  The attack on Omar, however, is itself the embodiment of the fear all of her colleagues have to feel, that if they step out of line on Israel they will be crushed.  Catering, intentionally or otherwise, to antisemitic tropes is completely unnecessary: the proof of the pudding is in the attack on it.

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The Empty Quarter, Greenwich and the Mason Dixon Line

by Robert Waldmann  (lifted from Robert’s Stochastic Thoughts)

The Empty Quarter, Greenwich and the Mason Dixon Line

I recall being surprised to learn that I was born, bred and then living South of the Mason Dixon line. I considered the border between North and South to be the Patomac river (honestly felt I was entering enemy territory when I entered Northern Virginia — this was very long ago). My dad explained it was the border between Pennsylvania (North) and Maryland (South). My 91 year old mother recently confessed that she had some doubts about moving South of the Mason Dixon line to live with my Dad. The border is now roughly where 270 shrinks into a normal sized highway. The line is arbitrary.I thought of it when I saw the very common figure showing the empty quadrant of US public opinion. A solid majority is more egalitarian than the center and more socially conservative than the center.

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Ruminations On Virginia’s Difficult Situation

Ruminations On Virginia’s Difficult Situation

A week ago, I posted here supporting VA Gov Ralph Northam, comparing him favorably to the late Robert C. Byrd of WV. A day later I joined the call for him to resign after his bizarre press conference that has still left unpleasant unresolved issues such as who put that awful photo in his yearbook and why. Since then much else has come forth, and this continues. In any case it looks like Northam may hang in for at least awhile, although the situation is complicated and constantly changing, to put it mildly. What I intend to add in this post beyond the latest news is a combination of inside local information as well as, hopefully, a deeper historical perspective.

Last morning’s (Friday, 2/8), Washington Post top headline was that Northam would not resign soon, and late this afternoon I as an employee of the Commonwealth of VA received an email message saying he hoped we would all support him continuing to lead the state, while carefully not being too out there too much on that he would stay in office for his full term.

One reason why he was not going to resign immediately, even without the recent collapse of his most immediate successors, is that until Feb. 23 the VA legislature is debating a serious budget issue. The Trump tax law has resulted in a revenue windfall for Virginia. This involves technical details I know but will not bore any readers with this. So, there is an ongoing debate in the VA legislature on what to do with this extra money, with the barely majority GOP in the legislature saying give it all to upper middle-income persons, while Northam and the Dems have proposed giving half of it to lower income people while using the other half to fund various state initiatives. If this current scandal had not appeared, I think Northam would have gotten an agreement not too far from what he wanted. Now in his weakened state, the ultimate compromise will be closer to the GOP version.

For any not following the news since a week ago, both of Northam’s immediate successors have themselves come under unpleasant scrutiny. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax has now been seriously accused of two sexual assaults. When accused of the first he denied it and hired an attorney. The second accusation coming a few hours ago is of rape, and while earlier many were supporting him to replace Northam, this now seems to have become unlikely. I note that I never liked Fairfax. I know all these people personally, and the African American I would like to see as governor is Levar Stoney, currently Mayor of Richmond and a grad of JMU where I teach.

And now the second in line to the governorship of VA, assuming that both Northam and Fairfax resign (neither of which at this point has so far remotely come close to doing so), is Attorney General Mark Herring, now in his second term, having stepped aside from running for Lt Gov to let the now seriously damaged J. Fairfax run for that. Last Thursday AG Herring revealed that he also had performed in blackface in 1980 at UVa at age 19.

If Northam, Fairfax, and Herring all resign or forced out of office, then the acting governor will be the Speaker of the House, Kirk Cox, not only a Republican, but one how just gave an impassioned anti-abortion speech full of ridiculously irrelevant Biblical passages, given that there is nothing in the Bible that directly forbids abortion.

As it is, it appears that all of this blew up because Northam is a pediatric neurologist, who only recently became a politician. So when Dems in the VA legislature attempted to loosen rules on late abortions, Dr. Northam got into rare and weird cases I was not aware of involving treatment of deformed fetuses and whether one born should be “revived.” Personally, I do not know how to deal with such extremely rare cases, although basically siding with mothers and their physicians. But Republicans cherry picking this overly specific discussion by Dr. Northam turned it into “infanticide,” with Trump making this charge in his SOTU.

More immediately and seriously the rumor I have heard is that what triggered the revelation of that embarrassing photo in Northam’s yearbook came as a result of his professional testimony about this odd and rare case, which his opponents seized on, blocking any expansion of abortion rights in VA and providing fodder for Trump’s ranting in his SOTU about “infanticide,” a false charge.
But back in VA, reportedly a roommate from med school of Northam got ticked off by this medical testimony by Northam, and then leaked the story to whatever media about the yearbook photos. This set off the call that he should resign, leading us to the now unacceptable (although I read, he has hired lawyers, puke), and then the now damaged AG Herring. While so far Speaker Cox is “clean,” aside from being a far-right winger, the GOP majority leader of the state senate, Norman Tennant, has been accused of a half century ago being an editor of a yearbook containing racist photos.

I have lived in VA for 42 years and have deep south ancestry including VA. But this matter has made me realize that for all my deep family background going back to the 1600s in VA, I was and am a “damned yankee” to all those born and raised here. My parents were born and raised in Deep South northern Florida, and when young I spent serious time there. This made me think I knew the South, but I now know that ultimately I was an outsider, especially given that I went not only to high school in liberal/progressive Madison, Wisconsin, where the state capitol building has a museum for the Grand Army of the Republic, the ultimate hard core of the northern Union that won the Civil War (“War of Northern Aggression according to a cousin of my father that my wife from USSR/Russia met in 1987).

So, a big revelation to me in the last week is how widespread this “blackfacing” and related racist manifestations were even into recent times. The yearbook where Northam’s photo appeared (Eastern Medical School of Virginia) had racist photos as recently as 2013, when the then dean just shut down the yearbooks. I have never seen a black faced performance, but now old very liberal and local friends have been surfacing with old past incidents of racist conduct. This sort of resembles post-WW II France, where many collaborated with the Nazi Vichy regime, but then later joined the anti-Nazi Resistance. Eventually this became a matter of when one turned from one side to the other, and good liberal close friends have been essentially playing postwar French fessing up to just exactly when they stopped using the “n-word,” much less blackfacing.

The deeper history of all this is in Virginia 400 hundred years ago in 1619 when on the one hand the oldest continuing English-speaking legislative body in North America was founded, the same one (with some modifications over the centuries), that I noted above is trying to resolve the Trump tax “reform” with VA tax law. The other is the first arrival in what is now the USA of African slaves. Needless to say, this latter matter is on many minds and relevant to this current controversy.

To make things even worse, it was in Virginia in 1705 that the crucial laws were passed fully establishing that slavery was to be of people of African descent and that those people could not marry anyone of European descent. So since then in 1860 the state had more slaves than any other, its capitol became the that of the Confederate States of America, with half the battles of the succeeding Civil War (or “War of Northern Aggression” according to some of my cousins of earlier generations), and then its state capital became the capital of the Confederacy. This led to half the battles of the Civil War being fought in Virginia.

More recently we had the Byrd Machine supporting resistance against racial integration of public schools after Brown vs Board of Education in 1954. Eventually this was all over come. But in the private places, including many frats on many campuses until very recently, racist practices such as “blackfacing” persisted. And although the worst violence came from outsiders, in Charlottesville in August, 2017, we saw overt racist violence in Virginia.

Eventually this has become personal. With all these revelations, very liberal friends of mine have now outed themselves as having been varying degrees of racist in the past. I now realize that while I have deep southern ancestry including high officers in the Confederate army, I was born and raised in the North. I did not see all this stuff, and I did not personally have to go through this process of personally ‘deracializing’ myself, which I now realize my deep southern parents went through, my father moving from deep south racist Democratic Party affiliation when he went to math grad school in Princeton in the 30s to being a Republican, When he took us in 1963 to uber-progressive Madison, Wisconsin, well, no wonder I did not do blackface.

A final bottom line is that Gov. Northam’s still unresolved yearbook photo has the absurd idea of possibility of a racial reconciliation to all this. I do not know why he continues to claim no knowledge of the origin or handling of this old photo of black faced white person standing next to someone wearing a KKK hooded outfit that is in his medical school yearbook. But while whatever relation it had to Gov. Northam personally, it could be interpreted in its superficial stupidity as also showing a possible racial reconciliation for the long and troubled racial history of Virginia. This now shocking photo shows a black faced man standing peacefully next to somebody wearing a KKK outfit. While indeed the obvious interpretation of those photo supports racism, another interpretation is of harmony among the races, even including the old southern racists of the KKK.

Observing old Virginia friends of mine now confessing their past racist behavior and views, it seems that for them this looks sort of like the post-WW II French. After the war they were supposedly all anti-Nazi and supporters of the anti-Nazi Resistance. But, of course, many did work for the pro-Nazi Vichy regime after the German conquest of France in 1940. But then, as the Allies increased their obviously ultimate victory over that regime, more and more former collaborators with the Vichy regime would quit and join the Resistance. Eventually this game became a matter of timing one’s switch from working for a ruling Vichy to an anti-Vichy/Nazi Resistance.

Several of my good friends now confessing their past racist conduct have put it in these terms: it has become a matter of timing, just when did one finally stop doing these bad old behaviors? Reportedly Ralph Northam only learned two years ago that “blackfacing” was not socially acceptable. Whatever comes out of the current crisis in Virginia, hopefully in the future we shall have better informed and more deeply understanding leaders in Virginia and more broadly.

Addendum: 2:30 PM, 2/9/19: The VA legislature has reportedly come to an agreement on its budget dispute. Apparently, the agreement tilts strongly towards what the GOP members favored due to the weakness of the Dems arising from these scandals involving their elected leaders in the state. Not surprising.

Barkley Rosser

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Frederick Douglass, Andrew Johnson, and the Copperhead GOP

Frederick Douglass, Andrew Johnson, and the Copperhead GOP

I am currently reading David W. Blight’s biography of Frederick Douglass, the 19th century orator and champion of black equality. Today I wanted to briefly write on several timely topics inspired by that tome.

Douglass was biracial, or in the parlance of the day, a mulatto. His mother was a young slave named Harriet Bailey. His father was probably Aaron Anthony, the “overseer of overseers” of slaves at the nearby Wye Plantation on the eastern shore of Maryland. He was probably conceived in rape.

His earliest memories included Anthony giving his mother’s sister a vicious whipping for the crime of having a romantic relationship with a young male slave; and Anthony also gently leading him by the hand, patting him on the head, tousling his hair, and calling him “my little Indian boy.”

 

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Robert H. Nelson Dies: Religion And Economics

Robert H. Nelson Dies: Religion And Economics

Robert H. Nelson of the University of Maryland Public Policy Department died at age 74 on Dec. 15 while attending a conference in Helsinki, Finland.  He was the leading economist writing about the relationship between religion and economics, notably in three books: Reaching for Heaven on Earth: The Theological Meaning of Economics (1991), Economics as Religion: From Samuelson to Chicago and Beyond (2001), and The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion vs. Enviornmental Religion  (2010).  I spent several days with him some years ago at a conference on forestry issues where he was presenting his views on environmentalism as religion.  In any case, his death has me thinking about the broader issues he wrote about.  I shall note the arguments in these books along with some further observations.

His first book was essentially a history of economic thought that put a certain theological perspectve on thnkers mostly from the fairly distant past. A basic theme in all of his books is that economics is a form of secular religion that posits a material salvation in some distant future as a result of economic  growth and redistribution, a material heaven on earth.  In that book he posed two competing theological strands in the history of economic thought: a Roman (Catholic) “rationalism” and a Protestant “revelationism.”  The former started with Aristotle and included such figures as Aquinas, Adam Smith, Saint-Simon, and Keynes.  The latter started with Plato and Augustine, Calvin, Darwin, Spencer, and Marx.  A number of observers criticized this pair of categories, noting particularly that virtually the only economist in the second list is Marx (although Spencer did write on economics somewhat).  I happen to share the criticisms that it is not clear how useful or meaningful this pair of lists is, although the tradition of lining up historiccal intellectual figures as being Aristotelian or Platonic has a long history in philosophy.

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The Ethics of Clinical Trials

(Dan here…lifted from Robert’s Stochastic Thoughts)

The Ethics of Clinical Trials

In a clinical trial the therapy is decided by a pseudo random number generator. How can this be ethical ? People are treated differently for no reason related to different interests different values and priorities or even different merit (assuming merit can differ).There is a utilitarian rational for clinical trials. Through such trials doctors learn, and that knowledge is useful to future patients. But this rationale is utterly rejected as ethically unacceptable, because it was used to justify depraved experiments.

I think the current discussion of the ethics of clinical trials is based on a mixture which is partly consequentialist and partly deontological, and that it is incoherent, because people feel the need to claim it is totally both, while the two are inevitably in conflict.

So it is asserted that physicians must act in the interest of the patient – each and every patient. It is also argued that clinical trials are morally acceptable. This does not make sense.

 

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Martin Luther King – Walls Separating Mankind

Martin Luther King when asked about the Berlin Wall: This is my first vision of the Wall. “And do you find it depressing?” Yes, I certainly do. It symbolizes the divisions of mankind. “Have you ever seen anything as disastrous as this?” Not really. Suddenly there are the divisions that continue to exist but when these divisions are symbolized by an actual wall, it becomes very depressing.

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MSU Pays for Former MSU President’s Criminal Defense

This does not come as a surprise to anyone in Michigan. Mostly it is quiet here and people are still stunned about something of this magnitude could go on for years. There were numerous complaints by female student athletes of various college ages and under which span 20 years. Complaints made to the university, administrators, coaches, trainers, etc. quietly fell to the wayside with conciliatory answers.

“he is an Olympic doctor and he should know what he is doing”, “filing a report would involve an investigation, making an accusation against Nassar, and requires a statement that I felt what Nassar did was unprofessional or criminally wrong”, “you could file a report if you were uncomfortable; but, there may be consequences”

Lindsey Lemke is a “Sister Survivor,” the name taken by the 256 survivors of Larry Nassar’s physical sexual assault. She and the others spent the last 18 months fighting “not just for justice for Nassar;” but, they also fought for accountability, “the accountability of Michigan State University who enabled Nassar’s continued abuse” by not reacting.

People are stunned this could happen at a state university. And there still is a battle going on for accountability beyond Nasser.

Former MSU President “Lou Anna Simon and Coach Kathie Klages face charges of lying to police about when they knew about sexual abuse reports against Nassar.” MSU is paying for their legal defense which is in the $milions along with half of Dean William Strampel’s defense. The mental harm done will never be erased for the hundreds of young women (one as young as 6) which is something MSU forgets when it comes discusses its image and the costs of going to court.

Recently, Interim President and former Governor John Engler resigned (requested) from the position. Some of his comments to victims and publicly in defense of the university were totally wrongheaded lacking empathy. The university is still learning there image is not as important as the harm done to the students who were abused under its watch. As attorney John Manly believes states:

“I think it’s sexism, misogyny, and you know, it’s not college football, it’s gymnastics. And the audience for gymnastics doesn’t generate hundreds of millions or billions of dollars.”

To hell with the money . . .

References:

Larry Nassar gymnastics scandal costs Michigan State in legal fees so far

Sister Survivors

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