Saturday, February 26, 2011

Φ finds a lefty blogger wanting

In her comment on one of my posts, a valued reader suggested that I "call out more on the left" and mentioned Oliver Willis by name.

For various reasons, I believe that I am better equipped psychologically to call out those on the right. Still, even the most devoted lefty can detect sloppiness in Willis' work, as well as a tendency to demonize those with whom he disagrees.

One of the reasons I voted for Barack Obama was his dedication to the principle that we disagree without being disagreeable. I was primed for it after a Rove-directed presidency propelled by the demonization of and refusal to negotiate with opponents as well as its commitment to assholery in general.

I know that I sometimes fail to live up this this principle. I am perfectly capable of being an asshole. It's something that one has to resist every time one thinks about politics or reads the blogs or tunes in to cable news. For example, during the health care reform debate, I was so frustrated with Republican obstructionism that I cheered on former Florida Representative Alan Grayson when he said on the floor of the House that the Republican plan for health care reform was to die quickly in the event of injury or illness. Too many Republican politicians, in my view, don't really care about reforming health care, but it is unfair to claim that they want people to die quickly. And surely there are some Republican politicians who are troubled by our health care system and want to reform it.

So it is clear that some lefties engage in assholery from time to time, myself included. Willis is no different. In one post, Willis presents the following passage from this story:
During his weekly news conference on Tuesday, Mr. Boehner claimed that Mr. Obama has added 200,000 federal workers since he took office (a figure that has been disputed), and shrugged at the idea that Republican efforts to slash government spending would put many of them out of work. 
“If some of those jobs are lost in this, so be it,” Mr. Boehner said. “We’re broke. It’s time for us to get serious about how we’re spending the nation’s money.”
In response, Willis writes, "And with that, John Boehner tells the truth about what conservatives think about jobs." And that's it.

That's what conservatives think about jobs. Granted, Boehner is their leader in the House, but Willis is overgeneralizing a bit, isn't he? And the implication that Republicans in the House are opposed to jobs is unfair. Now, there is nothing wrong with taking issue with what Republicans tend to believe about the government's role in managing the economy. Those government jobs actually stimulate the economy by putting money in the hands of people who will likely spend most of it. But demonizing Republicans in general by implying that they're anti-job is unfair and over the top.

In "Write A Negative Story About The NRA, Get Racist Hate Mail," Willis quotes Michael Luo of the New York Times as writing the following:
In the wake of the shootings in Tucson, the familiar questions inevitably resurfaced: Are communities where more people carry guns safer or less safe? Does the availability of high-capacity magazines increase deaths? Do more rigorous background checks make a difference?

The reality is that even these and other basic questions cannot be fully answered, because not enough research has been done. And there is a reason for that. Scientists in the field and former officials with the government agency that used to finance the great bulk of this research say the influence of the National Rife Association has all but choked off money for such work.
Luo tweeted that he received an e-mail in response to the story which read in part, "why don't you go back to where you came from?"

Willis characterizes this as "the response from the right," and ends the post with the statement, "They are who we thought they were."

What justifies Willis in painting all conservatives with the same broad brush? How is this any different than the bullshit one constantly finds at a right-wing blog like Lori Ziganto's, where it is suggested that all pro-choicers believe in abortion on demand and either support the activities of Kermit Gosnell or are not alarmed by them? We can all do better than this.

Another Willis post from February is entitled, "Republicans Really Hate America, Want To Shut Down Its Government." The post, in its entirety, is as follows:
That is the only rational way to view this joke of a budget passed by the House GOP. How bad is it? Even the conservative blue dog Democrats – many of them basically Republicans – passed on it. These same people who think that the Wall Streeters who caused the fiscal crisis should be rewarded versus punished, think that the people who should pay are the poor and infirm.

The same people, who blanched at the financial reform bill that had already had most of its teeth taken out, seek to kick the neediest Americans right in the teeth.

Combine this with the assault on unionized workers in Wisconsin and Ohio, in addition to other, less high profile instances, and it is very clear that the Republican Party and the conservative movement that backs it isn’t very fond of this country.

The President and party they supported almost brought the nation to its knees for their 8 years of misrule. Now it seems they want to administer the killing blow.

We can’t let them.
Republicans really hate America, they seek to kick the neediest Americans right in the teeth, and they want to administer the killing blow, according to Willis. Now, it might be argued that Willis did not intend to say that Republicans know that their budget cuts would deliver the killing blow to the United States. Perhaps he intended to say only that they want those cuts but do not realize that they would kill the United States. But that interpretation doesn't cohere well with the title of the post.

Now, reasonable people can disagree about the wisdom of deep budget cuts. I personally agree with the President's former plan to allow the Bush tax cuts to expire for the wealthiest Americans, and I'm tired of the Republican tendency to ask only the poor and middle class to make sacrifices. But the idea that Republicans hate America and want to kill it is ridiculous. I am sick and tired of hearing from right-wingers that I hate America simply because I'm a liberal. If I don't want to be the target of that shit, then why would I make others the target of it? Someone has to be the big person in this and respond to inflammatory rhetoric with dispassionate facts and reason. Can't Willis be that guy? Can't I?

Judging from the few posts I have read, Willis and I are often in agreement on political matters. But he should strive to set a better example and be a more honorable representative of those of us on the left. As should I.

Friday, February 25, 2011

For Your Further Enlightenment XIV

Do private-sector workers earn less than government workers?

I am posting this here, and I hope that The Economist doesn't mind too much.

Don't join the government to get rich

Feb 21st 2011, 14:55 by M.S.

ONE of the memes being thrown around over the past few years by advocates of reducing the power of public-sector unions has been the claim that public-sector workers are overpaid in comparison to their private-sector counterparts. I've always considered this an odd claim to hear, as I've been in the labour market for quite a long time and can't recall ever hearing anyone say they were going to work for a government bureaucracy because they wanted to make a lot of money. At crucial career-making junctures in life, people who want to get rich tend to enter corporate law rather than join the District Attorney's office, to work for internet companies rather than teach math in public high schools, and so forth.

All of this is coming up now because Wisconsin has become the showdown state for the public-sector union controversy, and Scott Walker, the governor, is claiming he needs to destroy the state's public-sector unions' ability to negotiate in order to deal with its budget shortfall. State workers, he says, are paid too much. But the Economic Policy Institute tells us that, in Wisconsin, public-sector workers are not in fact paid more than their private-sector counterparts. They're paid less. You can only make it appear that public-sector workers earn more by ignoring the fact that "both nationally and within Wisconsin, public sector workers are significantly more educated than their private sector counterparts."
Nationally, 54% of full-time state and local public sector workers hold at least a four-year college degree, compared with 35% of full-time private sector workers. In Wisconsin, the difference is even greater: 59% of full-time Wisconsin public sector workers hold at least a four-year college degree, compared with 30% of full-time private sector workers. 
...Public employees receive substantially lower wages, but much better benefits than their private sector counterparts. Wisconsin state and local governments pay public employees 14.2% lower annual wages than comparable private sector employees. On an hourly basis, they earn 10.7% less in wages. College-educated employees earn on average 28% less in wages and 25% less in total compensation in the public sector than in the private sector.
The EPI study does find there's a class of public-sector workers who earn a bit more than their private-sector counterparts: those without high-school degrees. In other words, district attorneys earn less than corporate lawyers, but janitors at the district attorney's office may earn more than janitors at a corporate law office—provided the government hasn't outsourced its facilities staff to the same private company the law office uses, which it may have, since governments have been targeting low-skilled workers for outsourcing precisely because that's how they can save money.

For most people who work for the government, however, the expectation is that your year-to-year salary will be lower, but your benefits will be better, in particular your pension. It turns out, however, that state governments won't have the money to pay a lot of those pensions. They're likely to renege on their promises, and Republicans in Congress want to allow them to declare bankruptcy in order to do so. (Funnily enough, this may be the one area in which labour unions and Wall Street are in alliance: neither one wants states to be allowed to declare bankruptcy.) In other words, as Ezra Klein points out, the public-sector employees got rooked: they accepted lower pay in exchange for retirement benefits, and now the retirement benefits look unlikely to come through.

Now, how can we explain the fact that public-sector employees are paid less than private-sector employees? After all, public-sector employees are heavily unionised, while private-sector employees aren't. Shouldn't those unions be winning public-sector employees better wages? Well, I don't really know; perhaps the fact that the government is a monopoly employer with staggering market power has something to do with it. But try considering how employees' wage negotiations with the government might look if there were no public-sector unions. In most lines of work, individuals' power to negotiate higher wages with large organisations is very limited. In government employment, individuals' power to negotiate higher wages is utterly non-existent. An individual teacher who bargains with a private school for a higher wage than her peers is going to have a tough negotiation on her hands; an individual teacher who tries to bargain with the City of Milwaukee for a higher wage than her peers is going to be laughed out of the superintendent's office. In his initial post on this subject, my colleague ventured that civil servants would constitute a powerful bloc able to protect their wages even without unions. I'm not really sure what this means. Through what mechanism are civil servants supposed to bargain for wage increases if they don't have unions? Who's supposed to do the bargaining?


Monday, February 21, 2011

Porcupine Tree, "The Incident"

Gov. Walker's Reaganesque Power Grab

For my 300th post, I re-publish the following column. This is a sign of two things: (1) I lack the time to state my own view on this matter and my reasons for it; (2) Krugman and I are in complete agreement on this matter. Click here for an explanation of the title of this post. 

Wisconsin Power Play


Published: February 20, 2011

Last week, in the face of protest demonstrations against Wisconsin’s new union-busting governor, Scott Walker — demonstrations that continued through the weekend, with huge crowds on Saturday — Representative Paul Ryan made an unintentionally apt comparison: “It’s like Cairo has moved to Madison.”

It wasn’t the smartest thing for Mr. Ryan to say, since he probably didn’t mean to compare Mr. Walker, a fellow Republican, to Hosni Mubarak. Or maybe he did — after all, quite a few prominent conservatives, including Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Rick Santorum, denounced the uprising in Egypt and insist that President Obama should have helped the Mubarak regime suppress it.

In any case, however, Mr. Ryan was more right than he knew. For what’s happening in Wisconsin isn’t about the state budget, despite Mr. Walker’s pretense that he’s just trying to be fiscally responsible. It is, instead, about power. What Mr. Walker and his backers are trying to do is to make Wisconsin — and eventually, America — less of a functioning democracy and more of a third-world-style oligarchy. And that’s why anyone who believes that we need some counterweight to the political power of big money should be on the demonstrators’ side.

Some background: Wisconsin is indeed facing a budget crunch, although its difficulties are less severe than those facing many other states. Revenue has fallen in the face of a weak economy, while stimulus funds, which helped close the gap in 2009 and 2010, have faded away.

In this situation, it makes sense to call for shared sacrifice, including monetary concessions from state workers. And union leaders have signaled that they are, in fact, willing to make such concessions.

But Mr. Walker isn’t interested in making a deal. Partly that’s because he doesn’t want to share the sacrifice: even as he proclaims that Wisconsin faces a terrible fiscal crisis, he has been pushing through tax cuts that make the deficit worse. Mainly, however, he has made it clear that rather than bargaining with workers, he wants to end workers’ ability to bargain.

The bill that has inspired the demonstrations would strip away collective bargaining rights for many of the state’s workers, in effect busting public-employee unions. Tellingly, some workers — namely, those who tend to be Republican-leaning — are exempted from the ban; it’s as if Mr. Walker were flaunting the political nature of his actions.

Why bust the unions? As I said, it has nothing to do with helping Wisconsin deal with its current fiscal crisis. Nor is it likely to help the state’s budget prospects even in the long run: contrary to what you may have heard, public-sector workers in Wisconsin and elsewhere are paid somewhat less than private-sector workers with comparable qualifications, so there’s not much room for further pay squeezes.

So it’s not about the budget; it’s about the power.

In principle, every American citizen has an equal say in our political process. In practice, of course, some of us are more equal than others. Billionaires can field armies of lobbyists; they can finance think tanks that put the desired spin on policy issues; they can funnel cash to politicians with sympathetic views (as the Koch brothers did in the case of Mr. Walker). On paper, we’re a one-person-one-vote nation; in reality, we’re more than a bit of an oligarchy, in which a handful of wealthy people dominate.

Given this reality, it’s important to have institutions that can act as counterweights to the power of big money. And unions are among the most important of these institutions.

You don’t have to love unions, you don’t have to believe that their policy positions are always right, to recognize that they’re among the few influential players in our political system representing the interests of middle- and working-class Americans, as opposed to the wealthy. Indeed, if America has become more oligarchic and less democratic over the last 30 years — which it has — that’s to an important extent due to the decline of private-sector unions.

And now Mr. Walker and his backers are trying to get rid of public-sector unions, too.

There’s a bitter irony here. The fiscal crisis in Wisconsin, as in other states, was largely caused by the increasing power of America’s oligarchy. After all, it was superwealthy players, not the general public, who pushed for financial deregulation and thereby set the stage for the economic crisis of 2008-9, a crisis whose aftermath is the main reason for the current budget crunch. And now the political right is trying to exploit that very crisis, using it to remove one of the few remaining checks on oligarchic influence.

So will the attack on unions succeed? I don’t know. But anyone who cares about retaining government of the people by the people should hope that it doesn’t.


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

For Your Further Enlightenment XIII

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Hard Up

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

I'm going with the Nobel Prize-winning economist and the scientific community on this one.

RedState's Vladimir has taken it upon himself to write another ignorant post about climate change. (This is what I had to say about one of his previous posts.)

His target: Paul Krugman. He quotes Krugman as writing the following:
While several factors have contributed to soaring food prices, what really stands out is the extent to which severe weather events have disrupted agricultural production. And these severe weather events are exactly the kind of thing we’d expect to see as rising concentrations of greenhouse gases change our climate — which means that the current food price surge may be just the beginning.
Vladimir responds to Krugman as follows:
[H]aven’t we heard this all before?

“Gee, this is some crazy weather we’ve been having.”

I’m old enough to remember some pretty darn extreme weather, like Hurricane Camille, a monster Cat 5 storm that devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 1969. There was the Super Tornado Outbreak of April, 1974: a complex of 148 twisters that spun across hundreds of mile of the Midwest, killing 148, injuring 5,300, and wiping the town of Xenia, OH off the map. And lest we forget the record cold winter of 1977-78, when natural gas supplies ran low.

Many of our impressions of current extreme weather conditions have to do with the fact that 1) they’re fresh in our memories; 2) we have better communications and 3) higher population densities than in times past.

Complaining about extreme weather is part of the human condition. 
Vladimir then goes on to cite 19 stories about extreme weather dating back to 1888 (I am assuming that none of them were fabricated), and in some cases the extreme weather prompted speculation that the climate was changing. I take it that Vladimir considers that speculation to have been unfounded.

So, what's wrong with Vladimir's response?

Vladimir is attributing to Krugman the following argument:
  1. There have been recent outbreaks of severe weather. 
  2. Therefore, global climate change is real. 
Granted, Vladimir says nothing about global climate change, but there is little doubt that Vladimir's response is intended to convince his readers that recent severe weather is not evidence that the climate is changing. That is, Vladimir is arguing that the truth of (1) isn't sufficient evidence for the truth of (2).

But if you put the quotation in context and read the rest of Krugman's column, you'll find that Krugman's argument is much stronger than the one Vladimir attributes to him:
It’s true that growth in emerging nations like China leads to rising meat consumption, and hence rising demand for animal feed. It’s also true that agricultural raw materials, especially cotton, compete for land and other resources with food crops — as does the subsidized production of ethanol, which consumes a lot of corn. So both economic growth and bad energy policy have played some role in the food price surge. 
Still, food prices lagged behind the prices of other commodities until last summer. Then the weather struck.  
Consider the case of wheat, whose price has almost doubled since the summer. The immediate cause of the wheat price spike is obvious: world production is down sharply. The bulk of that production decline, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, reflects a sharp plunge in the former Soviet Union. And we know what that’s about: a record heat wave and drought, which pushed Moscow temperatures above 100 degrees for the first time ever.  
The Russian heat wave was only one of many recent extreme weather events, from dry weather in Brazil to biblical-proportion flooding in Australia, that have damaged world food production.  
The question then becomes, what’s behind all this extreme weather?  
To some extent we’re seeing the results of a natural phenomenon, La Niña — a periodic event in which water in the equatorial Pacific becomes cooler than normal. And La Niña events have historically been associated with global food crises, including the crisis of 2007-8.  
But that’s not the whole story. Don’t let the snow fool you: globally, 2010 was tied with 2005 for warmest year on record, even though we were at a solar minimum and La Niña was a cooling factor in the second half of the year. Temperature records were set not just in Russia but in no fewer than 19 countries, covering a fifth of the world’s land area. And both droughts and floods are natural consequences of a warming world: droughts because it’s hotter, floods because warm oceans release more water vapor.  
As always, you can’t attribute any one weather event to greenhouse gases. But the pattern we’re seeing, with extreme highs and extreme weather in general becoming much more common, is just what you’d expect from climate change.
Clearly, Krugman is not making the hasty, crude inference Vladimir attributes to him. Krugman's reasoning is more sophisticated than that. Krugman is making what has been called an inference to the best explanation. The idea is this: we are justified in inferring the truth of what best explains what we observe or already know. The mere occurrence of extreme weather does not alone justify the claim that the climate is changing, obviously. But extreme weather, combined with all the other evidence Krugman mentions, does, because if the climate were changing, the phenomena we're observing is exactly what we would expect to observe, i.e., we wouldn't be surprised to make the observations we are in fact making. And that means that the hypothesis that the climate is changing is probably true.

Look at the argument Vladimir attributes to Krugman again. It's bad. Vladimir's post might leave his readers with the impression that those of us who believe that climate change is real accept bad arguments for our belief. But the evidence for climate change is much, much stronger than the argument Vladimir attributes to Krugman. And no amount of bullshit from non-scientists like Vladimir will convince me otherwise, much as I would like it to, because what we face is terrifying.

Perhaps you choose to ignore the evidence because you're not emotionally equipped to deal with the reality of global climate change. Perhaps you have an economic interest in ignoring it, like those Republicans who have been bought by the energy industry. Perhaps you are comforted by the lie that God won't allow global climate change to do serious damage to the planet and those who live on it; perhaps you turn to the Bible for scientific enlightenment. Maybe you're ready to simply continue leading your life as you have always led it because it is comfortable and familiar, and it is good to live in the adolescent haze of the belief that we can release as much carbon dioxide into the environment as we like without consequence. And even if it turns out that the scientific predictions are correct, maybe you won't have to deal with the worst of it, and what do you care if your children, and your children's children, have to live in a far less hospitable world? Why should you care, really?

Sorry, Vladimir. I'm going with the Nobel Prize-winning economist and the scientific community on this one.

Stick to What You Know

I usually enjoy listening to Petros and Money (Petros Papadakis and Matt "Money" Smith) on Fox Sports Radio.

Minutes ago, I heard Money bitching about light bulbs.

According to Money, the government will ban the incandescent light bulb starting next year. (I haven't taken the time to verify this claim, because I barely have time to eat and sleep and go to the bathroom these days, much less check everybody's facts.) Those of us who wish to light their homes at night will have to opt for the compact fluorescent light bulb once the ban is in effect.

Money claims that some people who are upset about this are stocking up on incandescent light bulbs.

So what's wrong with the CFL? According to Money, they flicker, and the light they produce is too blue for his taste. In short, the CFL is just like those long fluorescent light bulbs all of us are accustomed to seeing in certain public buildings.

Money doesn't know what the fuck he's talking about.

I've used CFL's in my home since 2006, and they are more or less just like the incandescent light bulb. Except that I'm not constantly replacing them. And they use a lot less energy than incandescent light bulbs, which saves me money.

He must think that CFL's must be just like other fluorescent light bulbs because they are called "compact fluorescent" light bulbs. If he had actually spent any time under one, he wouldn't have made such an ass of himself just now. 

Not only does Money look like an idiot, but he is feeding the irrational desires of those who don't know any better.

Stick to what you know, Money, and avoid talking about anything unrelated to sports, all right?

Bonus rant

There are probably some people out there who believe that such a law is an illicit infringement on the liberty of private citizens. If I want to buy an incandescent light bulb, and someone wants to manufacture one and sell it to me, then what business is it of government?


And if I want to use asbestos in my home, then I should be free to do so, don't you think?

And if I want to buy an automobile without air bags, seat belts, laminated windshields, or crumple zones, then what concern is it of the government?

And I have a right to buy as much melamine-laced infant formula and dog food as I want! And if I want to brush my teeth with toothpaste containing diethylene glycol, the government has no right to tell me that I can't!

And the government has no business putting fluoride in my tap water and polluting my precious bodily fluids!

And if I want to spend eight hours a day in a dangerous workplace and eat food that hasn't been been inspected by some Department of Agriculture communists, I should be free to do so! 

And if someone wants to serve up a delicious helping of soylent green for me to chow down on, then that's my fucking business, isn't it? I don't need any nanny-state do-gooders forcing anyone to include nutrition facts on the labels of the food I buy. If I don't want to know what I'm putting in my eating hole, then that's my right, isn't it?

And if the private sector wants to have their way with me in the name of profit, then who is the government to stand in their way?

If the government discourages me from doing anything I wouldn't do if I were in my right mind, then has it really restricted my freedom in any important way?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

For Your Further Enlightenment XII

I have more than a few posts in me, but I don't have the time to write them. So here's some more links. 

Pravda's criticism of Palin is overly harsh for my taste, but think about it: why assume that those who claim to speak for America aren't in reality a threat to America? Is the President a threat to America, or are the people who do are willing to do anything to undermine the Commander-in-Chief?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Meet XTC

Friday, February 4, 2011

For Your Further Enlightenment XI

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What I'm Following

It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. ---W.K. Clifford

Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear. ---Thomas Jefferson