Saturday, January 30, 2010

Income inequality is killing us

I don't mean that in a metaphorical sense. Rather, the health effects for those of us unfortunate enough to live in societies in which the distribution of wealth is extremely unequal are quite dire. That this is the case is hardly a novel discovery, but one that bears repeating nonetheless. A few clips from the article (h/t naked capitalism):
Two British intellectuals — one a distinguished, gray-haired professor emeritus, the other a rising young academic superstar — have just finished a 15-day speaking tour across the United States. They came to fan the flames of “populist rage.”

We don’t, of course, normally associate populist rage with sophisticated scholars. Our most eminent pundits almost always employ "populist rage” as a condescending, even derisive, put-down, a tag for an unfocused, unthinking anger directed toward elites — a cry from the great unwashed masses born of frustration and envy.


Over 200 studies since the early 1980s have now documented that people living in societies where wealth has concentrated at the top of the economic ladder live significantly shorter, less healthy lives than people who live in societies that spread their wealth more evenly.

And we’re not talking just poor folks here. All people in unequal societies do worse. Middle-income people in the United States, the world’s most unequal developed nation, have shorter lifespans than middle-income people in Japan, Sweden and a host of other more equal nations.

This same dynamic, Wilkinson and Pickett show in their new book, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, is operating on all our most basic yardsticks of social decency. On everything from homicides and teen pregnancies to drug addiction and levels of trust, people living in more equal nations do better — from three to 10 times better — than people in societies where treasure tilts to the top.

And that treasure, in the United States, is tilting top-bound as rapidly as ever. The latest Wall Street bank bonus totals may have no precedent in American history. Seldom — if ever — have so few profited so profusely in the midst of a general economic collapse.


The data from epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett remind us that gaps like these have consequences: they translate into ever-higher levels of stress and insecurity in nearly every corner of our daily lives. This economic insecurity assaults more than just our household finances. Over time, the chronic stress it causes actually wears down our immune systems. Our epic inequality, in essence, is quite literally killing us.
There's a line from an old social psychology textbook on human aggression that I find quite apt in explaining whatever populist rage we might be seeing: we're nasty when we feel bad. In essence, one means of dealing with chronic stress is anger. In a way, expressing that anger would seem to me a healthy sign, especially to the extent that the anger is directed at the sources of the stress. My only concerns are in how that anger is expressed and how it gets channeled. Certainly one point folks on DC need to get through their thick skulls is that the current status quo is killing us, and that they'd damn well better start acting to fix things. More tax cuts for the rich (which I think is the "solution" offered by the GOP, as well as the puppet masters pulling the strings of the Tea Party organizations) won't cut it, nor will vague promises of change and half-measures (the typical Democrats' "solution") cut it either.

Musical Interlude: Kate Bush

This footage of Kate Bush performing "The Man With a Child in His Eyes" came from SNL season 4, airing December 1978. This would have been my first exposure to her music.

Kate Bush - The Man with a Child in his Eyes (Live)

| MySpace Video

There were facets of Lady Gaga's performance on SNL last fall that bore an uncanny resemblance to Kate Bush's appearance about three decades prior. But I digress. I've mentioned before that the 4th season of SNL was something of a lifeline for me during what was a period of upheaval for me. The humor was especially edgy that year, which fit my edgy mindset. The musical guests that year, and the year that followed were often incredible, and in ways that I couldn't quite understand or appreciate at the time (I was only 12 when season 4 kicked off) would end up influencing what I would consider interesting for the rest of my life (so far). I might not have sought out Kate Bush albums in 1978-79 (cash was short), but I'd never quite forget her name or that unique voice, and eventually I'd end up with some of her tunes on a few mixtapes made by friends. Back in the day, I know. There's a performance art quality here that I find quite appealing.

Here's the other song from that SNL episode, "Them Heavy People"

Kate Bush - Them Heavy People (Live)

| MySpace Video

Bonus video - Here's "Wuthering Heights" from her first album, The Kick Inside (the songs from the first two videos are also from this album):

Friday, January 29, 2010

This is how you deal with terrorists

Treat them like common criminals: capture, give them a fair trial, and let them hang themselves. It worked quite well with Scott Roeder, the American Taliban wannabe who killed Dr. George Tiller, who was found guilty of first degree murder and two counts of aggravated assault after a jury deliberated for 37 minutes.

One reason I won't party with the Tea Party crowd:

Continued appeals to puerile racist impulses. There's that old line about "giving your money to people with minds that hate." We'll if one wanted me to give money or time to people or groups who trade in racial hatred, you're going to be waiting an eternity - don't even bother. There's plenty that is dysfunctional about our political system that can be discussed and challenged without personalizing things or playing on fear or bigotry. The leaders and rank and file of the Tea Party "movement" or whatever you want to call it have consistently failed to do so.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Big mistake

So Bernanke gets a second term as Fed chair. Whoopee! Supposedly, we should be thrilled that his margin of confirmation was the weakest for a Fed chairperson ever. Simon Johnson would retort that the Senate screwed the proverbial pooch in reappointing him. Others seem hopeful that Bernanke got the message. I'm guessing such hope is false. Looking at the roll call vote was worthwhile. The 30 members who voted "nay" deserve kudos. Some surely are coming up for re-election this year, and probably were merely giving themselves some cover as to avoid electoral disaster in November.

The Senator in my state, Coburn, who is up this year for re-election voted "yea" which really didn't surprise me, as I recall he was perfectly cool with the Great American Swindle also known as TARP. Not that Coburn really cares - his strategy in this state is simply to mumble about Jesus, abortion, gays, and Islamists (in other words throw plenty of red meat to the culture warriors) and skate to victory.

I'll be curious to check what some of the more economics-savvy bloggers have to say about Bernanke's impending second term. I don't expect too much happiness at the prospect.

It's a start

A flawed start, but a start - even if the top speeds don't quite live up to they hype. Talk of building high-speed rail lines got somewhat more serious a year ago as part of the economic stimulus bill. As I might have said at the time, and will repeat as often as needed, we need more of these sorts of projects. I may not quite be in the "oil has peaked and the future is bleak" camp, but the truth is that for a number of reasons getting away from oil dependence is imperative. Simply eliminating the "need" for flights between places like Los Angeles and Stockton would help reduce fossil fuel use and hopefully alleviate some of the global warming. If anything, I'd say get really bold and make connecting all of those far-flung places in the US with high-speed rail a top priority. The infrastructure of the 20th century is no longer sustainable.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

RIP Howard Zinn

His scholarship and activism will be sorely missed. He's best known for A People's History of the United States, which I consider to be must reading - especially for us leftist history buffs.

Picture from Boston Globe.

Another reason to be skeptical of global warming skeptics

There's a tendency for global warming skeptics to latch on to anything that seems to "prove" their pet hypothesis, even if the data ends up being junk data. This article from Jeff Masters' blog is a bit wonky, but it makes for a cautionary tale on how to interpret data and the importance of relying on data that has been vetted through the peer-review process.

Note: A friend made the point much more eloquently a few days before I posted this. His take-home message bears repeating:
Which serves to drive home the point that, as I said just below, the naysayers are not engaged in science. PR, yes. "Optics," yes. Science, no.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

When GOP makes populist noise

Maybe this little factoid should be used as a reminder:
Per NBC/WSJ poll, 74% say not enough has been done to regulate Wall Street. Flashback: GOP opposed financial regulation 175-0 in House.
Not that I'd advocate giving the Dems, and their Clinton clone in the White House a free pass, but just saying that even the alleged "populist" Republicans are more in bed with Wall Street banksters than they wish to let on.

It also should go without saying that one definition of a failing state is that of a government that consistently acts opposite the general wishes and needs of its constituents. Given the level of dysfunction we've been witnessing for, well, much of my adult lifetime (and I've got some mileage on me), and given that the level of dysfunction grows worse each year, a case can be made for calling the US a failing state.

If Geithner advises it, do the opposite

Basically, the dude wants you to keep your money in the "too big to fail" banks of the sort our tax dollars bailed out in 2008. Problem is, he seems at a loss as to explain why. Yes, he needs to be canned. The odds of Obama actually doing so are about nil. So it goes. That all said, I have advocated moving your checking and savings accounts to credit unions or local/regional banks (if you haven't already) for a while and will continue to do so. Odds are you'll get better service, and your deposits will be considerably safer. I know my local bank imposes very minimal fees, and has a very cautious approach to lending. Not only would ditching the big banks feel good, but as I noted before, if a critical mass of depositors do so, it could change the financial landscape in this country - for the better.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Clearing up misconceptions

There seems to be a lot of confusion over what the stimulus bill has done for the American public. Although Joe Klein ends up being a condescending asshole in explaining it, this bit deserves repeating:
This money is that magical $60 to $80 per month you've been finding in your paycheck since last spring. Not a life changing amount, but helpful in paying the bills.

The next highest amount was $275 billion in grants and loans to states. This is why your child's teacher wasn't laid off...and why the fire station has remained open, and why you're not paying even higher state and local taxes to close the local budget hole.

There are some major public works projects that should come on board next year. If anything, the stimulus was too little of a good thing. Then again, since Obama is something of a true believer in neoliberalism (albeit the lite version), I'm not too surprised that his administration's moves to pull the economy from the edge of the abyss were tepid at best. Hence, the benefits were far less visible than they could have been.

What I suspect happens is that a lot of the public confuses the stimulus bill with TARP, which was the bailout for Wall Street that was passed during the waning days of Bush II and left intact when Obama got the keys to the White House. This confusion is something I've discussed before. Unlike the stimulus, I considered from the start the bailouts under TARP to be a bad idea, that essentially ripped off taxpayers in order to allow banksters to go about business as usual (just ask some of TARP's beneficiaries about those huge bonuses their employees received around the end of last year). Unfortunately, there are too many demagogues and hucksters who have done their best to deliberately confuse stimulus and bailouts early and often, and having repeated the big lie often enough, they have managed to successfully deceive much of the public.

As an aside, I think Klein is way too harsh on the average American. Really, he should try slumming it sometime where I reside. He might be shocked to find that one real stumbling block to being well-informed citizens isn't due to laziness or whatever, but rather due to the lack of adequate sources of information. Not everyone has access to high-speed internet and knows to look for accurate alternative media. Many may be saddled with basic cable that might only offer FauxNews, or perhaps CNN, and the local and regional print news media usually spread whatever misinformation their corporate sponsors want propagated. Many of my peers are doing the best they can with what they have available. They're also very understandably stressed and angry. Rather than bag on us, Klein would do well to walk in our shoes. If he has even a shred of capability to empathize, he will realize that the problem of an ill-informed public resides not with the "unwashed masses" but rather with the mass media system itself.

It's just not that funny any more

Maybe it's middle age really setting in, but like Dennis Perrin, I find it practically impossible to "laugh in the face of American insanity" like I might have a decade ago.

Check it: by the time the kabuki theatre surrounding the health bill is done, the best case scenario is that health insurance companies get a bailout under a different name, but at least some 30 million people who might not have otherwise had access to health coverage within the parameters of the current system would get covered. I'm not optimistic about the best case scenario, and am not really sure I truly ever was. More likely, the 40-50 million who currently have no health coverage will continue to do without, remaining one serious injury or illness away from bankruptcy. And, for more and more of us who still have some insurance coverage, we can look forward to increasing premiums and reduced benefits (also putting millions more at the risk of being one injury or serious illness away from bankruptcy). The health "care" system, which is already dysfunctional and stressed will simply become more so. Whether it completely crashes and burns in five or ten years hence, who knows. But be rest assured, when that particular house of cards crumbles down, the insurance companies' CEOs will be flying to DC in their private jets begging for bailouts - and those who are unable to access adequate health care will get to pay the bill. Funny stuff.

Actually, just look at our infrastructure in general - not only the physical infrastructure, but the folks who deliver vital social services every day. That infrastructure is in bad shape. It was a decade ago, back when I could still crack a few jokes about it, and has only grown worse. Just sticking to the physical infrastructure, all I have to do is step outside my house and walk a few feet and I can show you how rapidly it's crumbling (although there are formerly paved areas of my street that offer a hint as to what formerly populated areas might look like within a few years of the end of our species). We have a rail system that would be considered an embarrassment to relatively impoverished nations like Bulgaria. Our highways and bridges are in seriously bad shape. Our sewers and electrical grids are likewise in need of an extreme makeover. State governments teeter on the brink of insolvency - state legislators vary in their reaction to their plight with indifference or impotence. Same can be said for our federal legislators.

Our political system is now almost completely incapable of passing meaningful legislation, unless of course it has something to do with increasing war funding or further eroding our civil liberties. It's a state of affairs that was already noticeable in the 1990s, that has only grown worse. And of course, in the best of times, there was a certain perverse entertainment value to the impotence of the legislative branch. In times of crisis, it doesn't seem quite as amusing.

Nor does there seem much entertainment value in the various corporatist attempts to either exploit or manufacture "populist" rage - the "Tea Party" nonsense springs readily to mind. Seriously, the puerile racism and conspiracy theorizing that was encouraged by its leaders was more depressing and disturbing (assassination talk and packing heat at town hall meetings like last summer spring to mind). I have no doubt that there are a lot of people who are anxious and alienated, who ended up being hustled by a bunch of carnival barkers.

Let's not even get started on problems we are facing with regard to various natural resources, or climate, the on-going wars, etc. What I do know is that I've lately offered some words to my son, who is now old enough to understand the world he's facing. Basically, about the best I can offer is to explain that my generation and the two generations before me really made a mess of things (admittedly an understatement), and that I hope his generation is up to the task of cleaning up our mess and salvaging something of a pleasant enough existence for themselves and the planet.


"Let's cut out the transcendental twaddle when the whole thing is as plain as a sock on the jaw."

-- Ludwig Wittgenstein

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Antipop Consortium in concert

Maybe it would take someone most intimately acquainted with me to fully understand why I consider Antipop Consortium to be the. best. rap. group. ever. H/t Extra Music new. They're in a class by themselves. As I've said before, They earn their rep as the Sun Ra of rap. Their sense of word play and instrumentation is on a whole other plane. This is the shit.

NASA's take on global warming

Globally, 2009 was tied for second warmest year on record, and the "naughts" were the warmest decade ever. If you look at the picture to the  left, you'll notice a pattern emerging (reasonably consistent with what I'd noted last June). For those who've tried to contend that it seemed cooler last year, the impression could merely stem from our current global temperature level being "the new normal" (a phrase that is, by the way, growing quite tedious, but which sufficiently fits the occasion for our purposes).

And while I don't plan on growing palm trees on the top of Mt. Everest any time soon, I do think that the climate data we've been seeing for quite a while now should give us cause for concern about where this is all heading, and our role as a species in not only heating up our only home to levels that - if trends continue their present momentum - will be unbearable by century's end, but also what role we might still play in preventing the worst case scenarios from occurring.

Here's one from the "you learn something new" department

I found this article on Moscow's stray dogs over at Financial Times (h/t naked capitalism) to be quite fascinating. First, I didn't realize that Moscow was home to 30,000 to 35,000 stray dogs. But what's really a trip is how biologist Andrei Poyarkov has attempted to understand these dogs and classify them. Also you should read the bit about the "metro dogs" that Andrei Neuronov has been studying:
Neuronov says there are some 500 strays that live in the metro stations, especially during the colder months, but only about 20 have learned how to ride the trains. This happened gradually, first as a way to broaden their territory. Later, it became a way of life. “Why should they go by foot if they can move around by public transport?” he asks.

“They orient themselves in a number of ways,” Neuronov adds. “They figure out where they are by smell, by recognising the name of the station from the recorded announcer’s voice and by time intervals. If, for example, you come every Monday and feed a dog, that dog will know when it’s Monday and the hour to expect you, based on their sense of time intervals from their ­biological clocks.”

The metro dog also has uncannily good instincts about people, happily greeting kindly passers by, but slinking down the furthest escalator to avoid the intolerant older women who oversee the metro’s electronic turnstiles. “Right outside this metro,” says Neuronov, gesturing toward Frunzenskaya station, a short distance from the park where we were speaking, “a black dog sleeps on a mat. He’s called Malish. And this is what I saw one day: a bowl of freshly ground beef set before him, and slowly, and ever so lazily, he scooped it up with his tongue while lying down.”
There's a great deal of debate apparently as to what to do about all these strays. Some argue that the population is pretty self-sustaining, posing minimal public health risk, and probably keeping the city from being beset by pests that could pose genuinely nasty health problems. Their lives, as it is, are pretty harsh. Certainly makes me appreciate the dogs we have living with us considerably more.