Political Politicians

Kudos to Martha Coakley for challenging the Federal Defense of Marriage Act. I wonder how Justice responds when they’re asked to defend a statute that the Administration has said should be repealed. Perhaps with a tepid defense.

What I don’t understand is those who criticize Coakley by claiming that her motivations are “purely political”. What’s up with that? Aren’t politicians supposed to act politically?

Of course, we do want our elected officials to have some backbone, particularly to resist popular outbursts that might have bad policy consequences. (Obama’s effective neutralization of the “Buy America” stimulus bill provision is a good example). But here we have a politician taking a strong stand for the rights of a long-disenfranchised minority group; if her motivations are “purely political,” then let’s elect more politically-motivated politicians.

Czar Thought

When did it become so fashionable for the United States to have czars for everything? Apparently, the first “drug czar” was appointed at the height of the cold war. Do we have nostalgia for the good old days in pre-communist Russia?

[Tags]Working Families Czar, Joe Biden, Czar, Language, Politics[/Tags]

Climate Hope

Via Steve (new domain name, otherwise as usual), this inspiring little PowerPoint-ish presentation from Dr. Steven Chu, Obama’s choice for Secretary of Energy:


This video features about as many charts per minute as did An Inconvenient Truth, but left me far more hopeful about our long-term prospects on Earth. It is reassuring to see so many powerful positions being filled by people with domain expertise, rather than partisan hacks. If this administration doesn’t get us back on course, we might as well stop having children.

[Tags]Steven Chu, Obama, Climate Change, Energy, Environment[/Tags]

Wassup Redux

Via Steve: I had never seen this ad, but apparently it was a classic:


The remake:


Same actors?

[Tags]Wassup, Budweiser, Obama, Election[/Tags]

Republic National Committee Helps Obama Fundraising

The only plausible result from this RNC mailing, I think, is increased fundraising for Obama over the next few days:

Terrorists Dont Care Who They Hurt

"Terrorists Don't Care Who They Hurt"

For the nearsighted, the front of the mailing says “Terrorists Don’t Care Who They Hurt” and inside: “Why Should We Care What They Have to Say? … Barack Obama. Not Who You Think He Is.”

I would be surprised if the Obama campaign doesn’t get a measurable bump in donations for every mailing like this.

What I really wonder is how intelligent Republican party members tolerate this sort of thing. Aside from Colin Powell, are other high-IQ Republicans voting against their party because of these tactics? Or do they just believe any means justify the ends?

My pet theory as to why these attacks are useless (at best) to the GOP is that they don’t resonate with anything the voters are seeing. The GOP implies Obama is a muslim terrorist who is inexperienced and risky and also an extreme liberal/socialist left-winger (I haven’t heard “communist” yet from the mainstream), while what the electorate sees in the debates, ads, and campaign appearances is an uncannily steady, balanced, articulate individual who comes across as a moderate on most issues (note Obama’s theme of returning to Reagan-era taxation levels!)  At least with the “flip-flopper” attacks (and maybe even the Swift-Boat attacks) on John Kerry, there was something people could see that somewhat corresponded with the attacks, even if the underlying facts didn’t actually pan out. Here, the chasm between the nature of the attacks and the visible target is so great, they could only help energize those who are already hard-core partisans. The lesson here is that if you want to launch misleading, baseless attacks against your opponent, at least find some kernel of truth to base them on.

On a similar note, I agree with Aaron Swartz that ACORN deserves our financial support.

Finally, I predict a bunch of astroturf comments to this blog entry. I won’t bother to respond if the comments fail to say anything intelligible.

[Tags]Politics, Election, Obama, McCain, Terrorism, ACORN[/Tags]

Joe the Plumber… isn’t a plumber?

I haven’t been blogging this election at all recently — there are enough folks out there saying just about everything that should be said (and lots that shouldn’t), but I couldn’t let this little tidbit slip by without mention.Via the TaxProf blog:

Also, the Trademark Blog notes the flurry of related domain name registrations.

[Tags]Joe the Plumber, Obama, McCain, Politics, Election[/Tags]

An Annotated Guide to the Financial Meltdown (Podcast Edition)

I don’t have the expertise to intelligently explain the entire global financial meltdown myself, but here are a few resources that merit wide dissemination, especially if you are a podcast-listener:

Thinking the bailout through

What is this bailout supposed to do? Will it actually serve the purpose? What should we be doing instead? Let’s talk.

First, a capsule analysis of the crisis.

1. It all starts with the bursting of the housing bubble. This has led to sharply increased rates of default and foreclosure, which has led to large losses on mortgage-backed securities.

2. The losses in MBS, in turn, have left the financial system undercapitalized — doubly so, because levels of leverage that were previously considered acceptable are no longer OK.

3. The financial system, in its efforts to deleverage, is contracting credit, placing everyone who depends on credit under strain.

4. There’s also, to some extent, a vicious circle of deleveraging: as financial firms try to contract their balance sheets, they drive down the prices of assets, further reducing capital and forcing more deleveraging.

So where in this process does the Temporary Asset Relief Plan offer any, well, relief? The answer is that it possibly offers some respite in stage 4: the Treasury steps in to buy assets that the financial system is trying to sell, thereby hopefully mitigating the downward spiral of asset prices.

But the more I think about this, the more skeptical I get about the extent to which it’s a solution. Problems:

(a) Although the problem starts with mortgage-backed securities, the range of assets whose prices are being driven down by deleveraging is much broader than MBS. So this only cuts off, at most, part of the vicious circle.

(b) Anyway, the vicious circle aspect is only part of the larger problem, and arguably not the most important part. Even without panic asset selling, the financial system would be seriously undercapitalized, causing a credit crunch — and this plan does nothing to address that.

Or I should say, the plan does nothing to address the lack of capital unless the Treasury overpays for assets. And if that’s the real plan, Congress has every right to balk.

So what should be done? Well, let’s think about how, until Paulson hit the panic button, the private sector was supposed to work this out: financial firms were supposed to recapitalize, bringing in outside investors to bulk up their capital base. That is, the private sector was supposed to cut off the problem at stage 2.

It now appears that isn’t happening, and public intervention is needed. But in that case, shouldn’t the public intervention also be at stage 2 — that is, shouldn’t it take the form of public injections of capital, in return for a stake in the upside?

Let’s not be railroaded into accepting an enormously expensive plan that doesn’t seem to address the real problem.

If our regular discourse looked like this, I’m pretty sure we would have never ended up with this mess.
Finally, the On the Media podcast shows how the media is now actually doing a fairly decent job covering current financial events (having thankfully dropped the pig-makeup stories!), although it was apparently mostly asleep at the wheel in the events leading up to the crash.  E.g.:

Actually, a couple of very interesting examples of false balance. Back in the day – and no one remembers – but back in 2003, New York had an [LAUGHS] attorney general named Eliot Spitzer. And he was going to war with the comptroller of the currency, and the war was over whether or not New York State anti-predatory lending laws could apply to nationally chartered banks.

What happened was that almost all the states’ attorneys-general picked up on this issue – and this is 2003, 2004 [LAUGHS], 2005 – and they’re seeking to rein in nationally chartered banks and their lending practices in the subprime category.

The press, predictably, and kind of shamefully, I think, treated this as some sort of ping-pong match between Eliot Spitzer and the Bush Administration. I’m telling you, beneath the fight between officials there were a lot of signs that something was sort of rotten going on between lenders and borrowers. That’s a pretty good, you know, sort of smoke signal to the press to go out and explore the issue more deeply, and they really didn’t.

[Tags]Financial Meltdown, Planet Money, Paul Krugman, On the Media, Economics, Media, Podcasts[/Tags]

The man hears what he wants to hear

(and disregards the rest)

Jonah Lehrer reports the result of a depressing but unsurprising experiment: The Facts Don’t Matter.

Political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler provided two groups of volunteers with the Bush administration’s prewar claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. One group was given a refutation — the comprehensive 2004 Duelfer report that concluded that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction before the United States invaded in 2003. Thirty-four percent of conservatives told only about the Bush administration’s claims thought Iraq had hidden or destroyed its weapons before the U.S. invasion, but 64 percent of conservatives who heard both claim and refutation thought that Iraq really did have the weapons. The refutation, in other words, made the misinformation worse.

A similar “backfire effect” also influenced conservatives told about Bush administration assertions that tax cuts increase federal revenue. One group was offered a refutation by prominent economists that included current and former Bush administration officials. About 35 percent of conservatives told about the Bush claim believed it; 67 percent of those provided with both assertion and refutation believed that tax cuts increase revenue.

In a paper approaching publication, Nyhan, a PhD student at Duke University, and Reifler, at Georgia State University, suggest that Republicans might be especially prone to the backfire effect because conservatives may have more rigid views than liberals: Upon hearing a refutation, conservatives might “argue back” against the refutation in their minds, thereby strengthening their belief in the misinformation. Nyhan and Reifler did not see the same “backfire effect” when liberals were given misinformation and a refutation about the Bush administration’s stance on stem cell research.

It’s particularly interesting that the backfire effect is more pronounced with Republicans; this certainly resonates with my admittedly biased view. Better information doesn’t seem to fix the problem, either:

During the first term of Bill Clinton’s presidency, the budget deficit declined by more than 90 percent. However, when Republican voters were asked in 1996 what happened to the deficit under Clinton, more than 55 percent said that it had increased. What’s interesting about this data is that so-called “high-information” voters – these are the Republicans who read the newspaper, watch cable news and can identify their representatives in Congress – weren’t better informed than “low-information” voters.

Anyone have a better solution? Or should we just throw in the towel on democracy?

Democratic Unity

A sure sign of the long road ahead of us to pull together in this election:

Can’t we all just join forces?

[Tags]Obama, Biden, Facebook[/Tags]

Walter Michalik and the Roslindale Community Center

I’ve had little time in the four years I’ve lived in Roslindale to get involved in community volunteer efforts.  My wife Rachele, however, has devoted several years to efforts such as the Roslindale Community Center, Roslindale Village Main Streets, and Roslindale Clean and Green. She has served as chair of both RCC and one of the RVMS committees.

Over the past few months, I’ve been disappointed to see the RCC board endure repeated senseless attacks by a perhaps overzealous community member, Walter Michalik, who has effectively paralyzed the organization. I have nothing personal against this guy, but I thought I could do my part here by publishing an example of an email he broadcast to the committee, which I think is embarrassing enough on its own merits to need no editorializing from me, except to say any email that starts with “just so you won’t be surprised when the IRS launches its investigation” can be neither productive nor taken seriously.

The context is a response to an announcement sent out pursuant to the Community Centers By-Laws scheduling a special meeting to discuss the recent upheaval on the Council. There’s no reason this should not be in the public record:


Just so you won’t be surprised when the IRS launches its investigation, be advised that YOU DO NOT HAVE THE AUTHORITY TO CALL FOR A SPECIAL MEETING.  The By Laws do not allow the President/Chair to call for a Special meeting – that right is reserved for the MEMBERS to have a power over a hostile or non-performing President/Chair.  It was created by a Membership wary of annimosity within its ranks in order to protect itself from falling into a useless dysfunctional body.  That’s why our By Laws require the majority of the membership request it through the Chair and not the other way around.  So you screwed that up too.

Your continuous violation of rules and laws have proven beyond a doubt that this current Roslindale Community Center Council has violated the trust behind its IRS-designated not-for-profit status.

The failures are on so many significant levels over 6 months it is readily apparent that the Roslindale Community is better served without a Community Center Council.

There is no longer any excuse to allow the residents of Roslindale to be denied the services they deserve that you and the officers have no idea how to deliver.  Because that’s what you are supposed to do – serve the residents of Roslindale and not preseide over a self-serving board.  You’ve taken us from dysfunctional to non-functional over the past 60 days.

You and your officers have already driven away our Archdale partners and now the merger is off.  Congratulations.  You got what you wanted.

You and the officers have withheld information from the Members of the Council imposing gag orders along the way and in more than one instance spreading lies within this community.

There are so very many lapses on your part and the rest of the officers that it is very apparent that the Roslindale Community Center exists IN SPITE OF the Roslindale Community Center Council – not because of it.  It would be far better indeed, if the Center were run without the Council.

What have you done in 6 months?  All you do is avoid the work of leadership.  Please, just gracefully step aside and let a real leader emerge – or dissolve the Council and let the Center run itself under BCYF  before the IRS makes that happen.

Of course this is my stated opinion.  You can choose not to belive it.  You can huddle with a group of self-serving officers and invent excuses or change the agenda away from the message and continue with your ad hominem attacks against the messenger.  I’m thick-skinned.  Feelings aren’t important to me – services to residents are important to me.

While I have, in fact, enjoyed the confidences of others within this community and their true displesure with this Council, I will produce that to the appropriate authorities as I see fit along with the Bill of Particulars I have produced with documentation for all charges.

As a founder of the Roslindale Community Center Council I can no longer support you or the officers as any legitimate authority in this community.

[Tags]Boston, Roslindale, Walter Michalik[/Tags]