Monday, March 16, 2009

Fight vs. Flight

I may run for president of Texas. -- Chuck Norris

In this week's Sift:
  • The Looming Right-wing Violence. When liberals would despair a few years ago, we fantasized about leaving the country. But recent conservative despair-fantasies are about killing people.
  • Stewart vs. Cramer. Mainstream journalism today is a little like King Lear -- only the Fool is telling the truth.
  • The Next Time You're in the Bookstore ... look at The Origin of Wealth by Eric Beinhocker. It will change the way you look at economics. But you probably want to skip Part III.
  • Short Notes. Maybe the Boomers will have to start those communes after all. McGraw-Hill propagandizes children. The AIG bailout is really a Goldman Sachs bailout. The UN gets ready to investigate our secret prisons. Fewer Christians, more secularists, different Catholics. And what would Watchmen look like as a Saturday morning cartoon?

The Looming Right-wing Violence
Back in the darkest days of the Bush administration, a lot of us on the Left worried that things could reach a point of no return, from which it would be impossible to vote the Bushies out. Maybe they'd rig the voting machines, or manufacture an emergency and claim that holding elections or transferring power right now was "too risky". Or something.

When we had those dark fantasies -- whether on liberal blogs or in conversations over beer late at night -- sooner or later the discussion would turn to this question: What will be the sign that it's time to leave the country? We talked a lot about the Jews in Nazi Germany, most of whom missed the sign -- whatever it was -- that it was time to get out. We didn't want that to happen to us.

Well, the Right is going through similar despair now, but with a disturbing twist: Their fantasy isn't escape, it's violence. At what point, they wonder, is the political situation so hopeless that it's time to start killing people?

The rhetoric on conservative blog Free Republic has gotten so bad recently that Jim Robinson, the guy who runs it, had to post a message warning people against "salty talk" that the Secret Service might have to investigate as a threat against the president. (The comments on this thread -- more than 500 at last count -- give you some idea where the community is.) In his warning -- his attempt to calm things down, mind you -- Robinson says that protecting Obama
places an enormous strain on our Secret Service agents. It's obvious to anyone with a brain that Obama is an enemy of the constitution. So should the SS defend the constitution or defend the anti-constitution commie? ... And even though your visiting agent may agree politically, and may take his oath to the constitution seriously, he's still sworn to protect the officeholder and it's his duty to take all threats seriously.
Abortion clinics are reporting an uptick in violent threats and expecting worse to come. As I write this, the most popular post on the conservative web site Pajamas Media (Could Americans' Discontent Turn Violent?) says: "Americans don’t go John Galt. We go postal." NRA president Wayne LaPierre told the CPAC conference: "Freedom is nothing but dust in the wind until it's guarded by the blue steel and dried powder of a free and armed people." People for the American Way has more.

Former Republican presidential candidate Alan Keyes calls President Obama "an alleged usurper", questions whether the military is obligated to obey his orders, and predicts "chaos, confusion, and civil war". Fox News commentator Glenn Beck is predicting war in the streets -- claiming to be terrified but sounding strangely gleeful. During an interview with Chuck Norris, Beck called for a military coup:
I mean this sincerely: I would love to have General Petraeus go up to Washington and clean that hornet's nest out. I'd like him to set up a military tribunal and call them in one by one, okay, going to have a little interview with you. Find out if they're guilty or innocent of being involved in, you know, all kinds of the scandals that are going on and kick them out.
And Norris replied with a fantasy about taking justice into his own hands:
I want to go with General Petraeus myself and be next to him and when he finds out who's guilty and, you know, dishonest, then I will take care of it for him.
Later in the interview Beck says "parts of the country will rise up", which leads to Norris' talk about running for president of Texas. Thursday, Beck speculated that the cause of the Alabama shooting spree might be "political correctness" and wondered how his listeners can avoid "turn[ing] into that guy."

My best guess is that people like Keyes and Beck and Norris will be hiding under a table if violence does break out, so why does this talk worry me? Because every group has some far-out folks who read the tea leaves more fearfully than everyone else. For a handful on the Left, the point-of-no-return signal really did arrive sometime during the Bush administration, and they moved to Canada or Australia or France. We can laugh about it now, because no harm was done. Maybe they like it there.

But think about the comparable people on the Right. Something -- maybe a new immigration law or national health care or some made-up story about ACORN -- will signal to them that America can't be saved by politics. And then they'll start killing people.

If you're wondering when that will start, it started last July when James Adkisson took a shotgun into the Unitarian Universalist church in Knoxville and interrupted a children's performance by killing Greg McKendry and Linda Kraeger, wounding six others. As he explained in a letter :
This was a symbolic killing. Who I wanted to kill was every Democrat in the Senate & House, the 100 people in Bernard Goldberg's book. I'd like to kill everyone in the mainstream media. But I know those people were inaccessible to me. I couldn't get to the generals & high ranking officers of the Marxist movement so I went after the foot soldiers, the chickenshit liberals that vote in these traitorous people. Someone had to get the ball rolling. I volunteered. I hope others do the same. It's the only way we can rid America of this cancerous pestilence.
It could get worse. Before he died in a domestic dispute in December, Neo-Nazi James Cummings was gathering materials for a dirty bomb.

And you might think that seeing his book as a hit list would give Bernard Goldberg pause, but it hasn't. It's not fair to mention Goldberg and Bill O'Reilly fantasizing about beating up a NYT editorial writer with a baseball bat at this point, because Adkisson's letter hadn't been released yet. But not only didn't Adkisson come up during Goldberg's March 2 interview with Beck, Goldberg had the gall to say this: "The haters, the big haters are on the left these days."

I hear a lot of over-simplified right-left comparisons. Rush Limbaugh is just like Michael Moore was, and so on. But the differences -- like escape versus violence -- are important. I recently heard Newt Gingrich talking about the people on the Left who said they wanted George Bush to fail (as Limbaugh has said of Obama). But if that ever happened, I'd like to hear a quote.

Here's how I remember it. When I looked into the future and imagined Bush's policies failing, I did get a feeling of satisfaction. It's very human, I think, to get a rush from fantasizing that you'll be proven right and your opponents wrong. But the difference between Right and Left comes down to this: I was ashamed of those feelings. I think we all were. The temptation to root against my country was like the temptation to cheat on my wife or steal money -- something I didn't want to encourage because I didn't want it to affect my actions.

But Limbaugh is not ashamed. He's rooting for the leader of his country to fail, and he's proud of it. And a crowd at the CPAC conference cheered him for it. That never happened on the Left, not with Moore or any popular liberal. If you think it did, try Googling up a reference.

Stewart vs. Cramer
Last week I linked to a series of videos where Comedy Central's Jon Stewart took on the business network CNBC. Well, this week it turned into a media "war" between Stewart and Jim Cramer, the frenetic host of CNBC's "Mad Money". (Does anybody else remember when "mad money" was the cab fare a woman took on a date in case she had to get home on her own?)

It culminated Thursday when Cramer (to his credit) came to Stewart's "Daily Show" for an amazing interview. (Parts 1, 2, and 3 -- without the bleeps.) I half-expected Stewart to play it for laughs and engineer some sort of kiss-and-make-up. He didn't. Instead he demonstrated the kind of hot-seat interview that CNBC might have done with all those negligent or criminal CEOs.

Amid rumors that NBC wasn't letting its networks cover the smackdown, CBS News not only covered it, they got it right. Unsurprisingly, so did Glenn Greenwald , who summed up the complaint against CNBC like this:
They would continuously put scheming CEOs on their shows, conduct completely uncritical "interviews" and allow them to spout wholesale falsehoods. And now that they're being called upon to explain why they did this, their excuse is: Well, we were lied to. What could we have done? And the obvious answer, which Stewart repeatedly expressed, is that people who claim to be "reporters" are obligated not only to provide a forum for powerful people to make claims, but also to then investigate those claims and then to inform the public if the claims are true.
As Glenn notes, this isn't just about Cramer or CNBC or the financial crisis. This is a microcosm of what's wrong with mainstream journalism. The system revolves around access to newsmakers -- if they'll talk to you, appear on your show, and return your calls, then you're major leaguer. But the price is too high. In order to get and keep access, reporters repeat uncritically whatever the newsmakers say. If the CEO of Lehman Brothers tells you they're not in trouble, then that's what you tell your viewers. If Dick Cheney tells you that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction, you print it like gospel. Otherwise they'll stop talking to you.

A comedian like Jon Stewart is an unlikely journalistic hero. But for years he has been willing to pull out the tape and show us the contradictions between what powerful people say and what they had said before. (Example: his interview with Cheney biographer Stephen Hayes.) That has been a vacuum in mainstream journalism, and a comedian filled it because no one else would.

The Next Time You're in the Bookstore ...
... look at The Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics by Eric D. Beinhocker. Maybe. It's a fascinating book, but its various parts are written at different reading levels, some of which are much more difficult than the books I usually recommend. Part I is at about the level of Newsweek, Parts II and IV more like Scientific American, and I recommend skipping or skimming Part III unless you're an economist.

Part I is an excellent (and easy to understand) history of economics, explaining why it is the way it is. What's wrong with traditional economics is so obvious people make jokes about it. Here's one: An economist and an engineer are trapped in a deep pit with slick walls and no tools. The engineer wracks his brains for a way out, but eventually falls into despair. The economist thinks for a while and then brightens up: "I know how to get out," he says. When the engineer asks how, the economist raises his index finger. "Step 1. Assume a ladder."

Here's another (from the book): A young economist and an old economist are walking together when young economist bends down to pick a $20 bill off the sidewalk. "What are you doing?" asks his elder. "That's obviously counterfeit." The young economist examines the bill, can't find anything wrong with it, and asks why it's counterfeit. "Because," explains the old economist, "if there were a real $20 bill on the sidewalk, somebody would have picked it up."

In other words, traditional economics makes unreasonable assumptions and sticks to them even when the real world is saying something different. The reason for this turns out to be historical: Back in the late 19th century when economists were trying to make a science out of their profession, they borrowed the ideas and techniques of the most advanced science of that day: physics. So the economy was modeled as a system that was seeking equilibrium, but never quite getting there because of external shocks. (Imagine a tank of water in the back of a truck on a bumpy road.) In order to make the theory work, the economists had to assume some strange things: that information was perfectly and instantaneously distributed and that people reacted to it with perfect rationality. (I ran into an example of this kind of thinking during the debate over the stimulus bill. An economist was claiming that government borrowing and spending wouldn't stimulate the economy, because people would anticipate higher taxes in the future to pay the debt. So, he claimed, individuals would save exactly what was necessary to balance the government borrowing. Who, I wondered, actually behaves that way?)

They've continued to build on that unsound foundation ever since, even though physics has moved on to incorporate all sorts of new models and ways of thought. Like the Earth-centered model of the solar system, equilibrium-based economics has had enough bells and whistles added to it over the years that it more-or-less corresponds to what we see most of the time. But the fundamental assumptions are just wrong.

Part II introduces some ideas from what Beinhocker calls complexity economics. The basic idea is that the individuals who make up an economy are fairly simple creatures with limited information, and the complexity of an economy comes from their interactions. (It's an emergent property, in technical language.) I first ran into this way of thinking when I read about how the special-effects people made the computer-modeled flock of bats in the first Batman movie. They didn't have a single "flock of bats" model. Instead, they modeled each bat individually, and gave it some very simple motivations: stay with the group, don't run into anything, don't run into other bats. Then they fiddled with the weights attached to those urges until the flock looked like a flock. The complicated ripples that passed through the flock emerged from the simple individual behaviors.

The examples from Part II are fascinating, because they show how the kinds of behaviors we see in the economy (but not in standard economic models) can occur in very simple artificial systems. In chapter 4, a simple computer-generated economy (the Sugarscape) is built up step-by-step, with new large-scale properties emerging with each additional feature added to the simple agents that make up the economy. To begin with, the agents wander around the game-board seeking the sugar they need to survive. Then the agents are programmed with slightly different talents from each other. Then they can reproduce, with mutations in their descendents' behavior programs. Then a second product, spice, is introduced, and agents are allowed to make sugar-for-spice trades with each other. Then they're allowed to make loans. The Sugarscape develops an interest rate and an exchange rate -- both of which gyrate in ways that real markets do, but traditional market-models don't. Behaviors evolve (spontaneously) so that some agents become traders, others bankers.

In another chapter, you learn about the Beer Game, a simple demonstration that when people act on imperfect information, markets can boom and bust even without external shocks, just by reacting to themselves.

Part III is a theoretical explanation of what wealth is in the new way of thinking; this is way harder and less interesting than the rest of the book.

Then Part IV discusses how the new economics might affect public policy. A number of things are interesting here, but I'll limit myself to one: In the new view, economies may have multiple stable points rather than evolve towards one optimal structure. For example, there seem to be two stable relationships between public trust and productivity. There are high-trust, high-productivity economies and low-trust, low-productivity economies, but economies don't stay for long in either of the other two quadrants. Low-trust is an example of a poverty trap, where it's not in any individual's interest to start trusting others, even though the economy as a whole would do better if everyone had more trust. Here's the interesting tidbit: Measures of public trust have been falling in the United States in recent decades, to the point that we're in danger of dropping into the unstable low-trust, high-productivity quadrant -- from which we will either develop more trust or slide into poverty.

Short Notes
A bunch of people all at once have noticed that Baby Boomers are going to have to change their plans, because -- after the housing bust and the stock market tanking -- we're collectively a lot less wealthy than we thought we were. Best article on the topic I've seen so far is on AlterNet, where they've noticed that the number of Boomers looking for housemates has gone way up. Economic necessity may bring back those Woodstock-era commune fantasies.

Ever wonder what the Saturday-morning-cartoon people would do with Watchmen?

McGraw-Hill's news site for students is blaming the financial crisis on "good intentions" like laws encouraging minority home-ownership. The refutation of this is simple: If government regulations had caused the mess, the corporate dominoes would have fallen in the opposite order -- the highly regulated banks first and other financial institutions later. In fact, it was the relatively unregulated investment firms (like Bear Stears) and mortgage companies (like Countrywide Financial) that went down first.

TPM reports an amazing coincidence: McGraw owns Standard & Poors, whose AAA ratings for worthless CDOs played a key role in things falling apart. I wonder when McGraw will tell the kids about that?

New survey on religion in America: Compared to 1990, fewer people call themselves Christians and more claim to have no religion. The most interesting dynamics are among Catholics: White ethnics in the Northeast are leaving the church, but Hispanic immigration in the West is keeping membership stable.

19 famous people answer: What should Obama be reading? Try to imagine a similar article about Bush.
Before all of our medical records become electronic, somebody needs to solve the security problem.
I pointed out last week that AIG is a conduit of federal money to other firms. Today we find out that the #1 recipient of the government money put into bailing out AIG is Goldman Sachs, former employer of Bush treasury secretary Hank Paulson and Clinton treasury secretary Robert Rubin.

Fahreed Zakaria:
The problem with American foreign policy goes beyond George Bush. It includes a Washington establishment that has gotten comfortable with the exercise of American hegemony and treats compromise as treason and negotiations as appeasement.

Finally, somebody is going to investigate Bush's secret prisons -- the UN. Martin Scheinin, UN special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism: "Before a page can be turned, we have to know what's on it, in order to move forward." Will Obama cooperate?


Collette said...

Hi--Nice summary of last week's events. However, you mention "Woodstock-era commune fantasies." Those weren't fantasies. People lived in them!

Doug Muder said...

There were both, of course -- actual communes and fantasies of communes. At the moment I think it's mostly the fantasies that are back, but the actual communes might follow.

Collette said...

I see what you are saying. BTW, our generation was divided by violence/non-violence. There were kids who fought and kids who didn't--in our town the ones who fought also went to Vietnam, the others didn't. (Some people will probably howl to read that, but it was true.) And it still divides us, as you can see by the "Right's" behavior now. But the younger generation is am mix: they have uncommitted sex like the freaks (hippies), but are willing to fight.