The Closet Moderate: January 2009

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Odobenus Rosmarus Friedmani

Here at TCM, we like to take time out to recognize people with particularly moronic understandings of foreign policy. Over at the ol' blog, we called out Max Boot for his particularly asinine understanding of what motivates rogue states. With regard to the Israeli invasion of Gaza, we'd like to recognize Tom Friedman, who, having gone for some time without saying something completely idiotic celebrates Israel's foreign blunder by exposing his ass-mouth to the world on the NYT editorial page. It takes serious chutzpah to score the Lebanon War as a win for Israel when even the Israelis don't think so.

Sure, Nasrallah said it sucked, but what was he going to say to the Lebanese people? "Your house got bombed, and it was awesome. For me. I am now basically in charge of everything." Now, that would've been closer to the truth, but since when do politicians OR terrorists tell the truth? Friedman's walrus-faced idiocy fits into a larger pattern of American journalists and pundits taking Arab figures at face value when it suits them to do so and implying that they're shifty towel-heads with a religious love of lying to everybody all the time when that's more useful. Deadlines are a bitch, huh?

Anyway, Olmert is now 0-2 when it comes to stupid wars designed to convince people he's not a wuss or a schmuck. Of course, he preempted any possibility of success on that front when he bragged that he'd forced Secretary Rice to abstain from a vote condemning the invasion. Other relevant facts: She'd help draft the resolution, and it passed 14-0 with only the US abstaining. So, you embarrassed the US Secretary of State to no effect? Good for you, buddy. The cherry on top was the "IN BEFORE TEH LOCK" nature of the unilateral ceasefire Israel declared on January 18th, 2009.

But I'm being unfair. If an asshole's asshole had an asshole, that thing (we'll call it sphincter^3) would be Hamas. Not good dudes. And Bibi Netanyahu, the major threat to Olmert's government, certainly puts the Jackass-O-Meter solidly in the red. So what's a guy to do? A word of advice: don't try to out-asshole them, Olmert. Two years ago, your Minister of Defense couldn't even use binoculars. You don't have a chance against these grizzled douchebags.

Tactically, you can see the logic behind the invasion of Gaza. Hamas rockets are falling on Israel. Israelis are understandably pissed about this. If you go in, beat the shit out of Hamas and get out before the new US President gets into the Oval Office, you might be able to stop the rockets long enough to fend off a challenge from the war-loving, Palestinian-hating Israeli right.

The problem is that strategically, it's a non-starter. Even if you wreck-up Hamas real good, you haven't actually decreased the demand for a Hamas-like organization. In fact, you've probably increased it. As Bob Pape famously noted, when you blow up someone's house and family it generally doesn't make them like you more. They become dependent on their government for just about everything, and the whole "I have a lot to lose by attacking these fuckers" factor isn't so much there anymore.

So, even in the ideal "red-assed beating" scenario, you've probably increased the demand for terrorism, murdered a whole mess of people, radicalized a whole bunch of their friends and relatives, pulled the rug out from under the moderates, and created a pretty unlivable situation for the people who are still there. Long-term prospects for peace? Not so good. But wait! What about the short-term prospects for Kadima?



Saturday, January 24, 2009

Fiscal stimulus for dummies

I wrote this to explain the reasoning behind deficit-funded fiscal stimulus to my teenage cousin, but I felt it might be of interest to the general public as well. I'm condensing a long-raging debate in an area that is pretty far afield of my modest expertise, so reader beware:

To be fairly reductionist about it, the reason for doing deficit-funded stimulus spending is that economic crises can create vicious cycles that, left on their own, get worse and worse. There are all sorts of rules that people follow that make sense in normal times, but which can really backfire in a crisis when everyone tries to do them at once.

A classic example of this is a deflationary spiral. Something scary happens that makes people less willing to buy stuff; frequently, this is because a lot of people become a lot poorer because the price of houses or stocks drop suddenly. Firms react to this lower demand by some combination of cutting prices and making less stuff. If a firm cuts prices, it also needs to cut wages in order to make a profit, and its hard to quickly cut wages both for legal reasons (you may have a contract with a fixed wage) and for morale reasons (people don't like pay cuts). So firms end up firing a bunch of people. If a firm makes less stuff, it needs fewer people to make things and so it fires a bunch of people. Either way, people are now less employed, and thus less willing to buy things. So firms react to this yet-lower demand by some combination of cutting prices and making less stuff. And so on and so forth, until we aren't making anything and we all starve to death.

A fiscal stimulus can help a situation like this by either directly giving people more money so they don't stop spending in the first place, or by providing the people who get fired with jobs to try to keep the problem from spiraling. This may increase our deficit in the short run, but in the long run our deficit would end up being much worse if everyone was unemployed.

Another way to think about it is that people, both individually and in aggregate, like consuming stuff pretty evenly over time. Most people would prefer a life consisting of 70 years of reasonable comfort to 35 years of extravagance combined with 35 years of poverty; this is why people borrow and save. So when someone loses their job, they don't immediately start eating dogfood: instead, they spend some of their savings, or if they don't have any savings, they borrow. Typically, in a time of recession, the government encourages people to borrow by making it easier for banks to lend; this is monetary stimulus, and since the Depression its been the main way the government deals with recessions. However, right now the government has done about all it can to encourage banks to lend, but the banks still don't appear to be lending. So then the government essentially borrows a bunch of money on everyone's behalf.

At any rate, my personal views are that something does need to be done by the government, and the government is reasonably good at borrowing money and spending money and changing tax rates as compared to some of the more zany suggestions out there. The deficit is a problem that needs to be dealt with, but it'll be a lot harder to deal with if the economy stops growing for ten years.


Friday, January 23, 2009

On Nouning

My wife passed this post on to me yesterday from Shakesville, a blog she reads. I'm not familiar with the blog in general -- I suspect it's something lefty or cat-related, like all the blogs she reads -- but this post in particular struck me as worth mentioning to our readership. It touches on a number of grammar peeves of mine, and quotes Neil Stephenson at length, so doubleplusgood on them.


Thursday, January 22, 2009

Lost Premiere, or "Why Time Travel Ruins Everything."

So, at the request of a friend, I agreed to sit down at watch the premiere of Lost. I watched the first season religiously. The second season was just a hodgepodge of bullshit, and by the time I finally got around to turning on season 3, Sawyer and Kate were trapped in white slavery and dealing with it by having sexy makeouts while Jack watched on CCTV. Creepy.

(I really hate Lost's cheap intellectual cock-grab of naming characters after philosophers and scientists. John Locke, Jeremy Bentham, Faraday, Rousseau, etc. I don't think I'll get over this until homicidal maniac "Freddy" Nietzsche shows up and starts blowing away the characters I don't like.)

Anyway, this season kicks off with that most atrocious of SciFi tropes, the time-travel narrative. Now, everybody is allowed to set their own rules about time travel, and to Lost's credit they immediately rule out the "let's go kill Hitler" plan. The problem is that they address the issue by setting a fundamental rule about time travel, which is that "you can't change anything that's already happened." The problem with that rule is that when you're skipping around in time "what's already happened" loses its coherence as a concept unless you fix "the present" at the point at which the last season ended and/or suppose a time-space continuum in which everything is predetermined (or, in effect, has already happened).

So, either island-bound time-travel enthusiast Faraday is wrong about time travel or the writers have just stripped the series of any potential dramatic tension. I suspect the former, as that's the less idiotic writing decision and would also go a long way to explain why, for example, Desmond didn't remember his past meeting with Faraday until after Faraday jumped back in time and met him. The other problem with time travel is that you end up having to write obnoxious descriptive clauses like that one.

However, in a more promising vein, Sawyer seems to be both the leader of the remaining island people and the conduit for my frustration with the time travel plot. He keeps trying to change the past, solve his problems through violence and--upon arriving shirtless back on the island after jumping out of a helicopter last season--steal people's shirts. If he beats the shit out of Jack and throws Kate into shark infested waters when they inevitably return to the island, I might give this season a passing grade.


Thursday, January 15, 2009

How honest government creates partisan rancor

Hey hey, anyone still read this blog? I know, my fellow bloggards and I have neglected our blogging duties. But we'll get better! Promise! Please, don't leave us!

Now that that's out of the way, here's what I was actually going to blog about:

Every four years, we Americans are treated to the hyperbole in the news media about how politically divided America is. I've even heard news readers say that we've never been more polarized. Never. I guess they're not counting that time when America was so polarized we killed each other in open combat for four years.

Yes, people who say this are stupid, but there's a small drop of truth in it, if you squeeze hard enough. Americans have been more ideological divided many times in the past, but never have the two major parties been as ideological as they are now. In the old days, ideology was for small single issue parties, like these guys. The one time an ideological party got big enough to elect a President, everyone freaked the hell out and we had the aforementioned four years of bloody American-on-American carnage. Afterward, the two parties went back to being non-ideological for the next hundred years.

So, you may ask, if parties weren't based on ideology, what held them together? One thing: patronage. Time was, if you worked hard to get a party elected, they'd get you a government job if they won. This happens now, of course, for the big shots, but back then every job from Secretary of State to Fourth-Class Postmaster was a presidential appointment. These jobs, top to bottom, went to party hacks. These hacks, therefore, would work hard for their party at the next election, because if the party lost, they'd be out of a job.

It worked in reverse, too, I would imagine. If some job seeker was political neutral, and got offered a job by the party in power, he would quickly become a party stalwart. This was easily possible because the parties were as internally diverse as they were different from each other. Sure, you'll read the broad strokes in history books: Democrats were for low tariffs and silver money, Republicans were for high tariffs and gold money. But there were many members of each who went the opposite way, and when the issues came up for a vote, they'd vote their ideology. All that bound them to the party was sweet, sweet patronage (and not a little graft).

Then, the do-gooders decided that government jobs ought not go to the best-connected man, but rather to the best-qualified man. It took a few decades to get going, but after a while, only the big deals government jobs were left to a President's discretion. Why vote for a party now? Because their ideas are better? What ideas? They're all politicians, they don't have ideas! But, slowly, the veneer of ideas was plastered over the naked power-grabbing politics, and nerds came to write bills instead of hacks. Is it better? I don't know. It certainly is more boring.

So, the next time you hear some talking head say we're so so polarized, remember that it's all due to good government and the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act. And nerds.