Cut Republicans out of healthcare!

Salon Magazine's Garrison Keillor writes: "Cut Republicans out of healthcare! Lett them make do with aspirin and hand sanitizer. Meanwhile, the money we save will pay off the deficit" ...Up here in the North we believe that adversity is a stimulus of intelligence, so we don't want our kids stuck in the slow track in school, putzing around in the shallows, trapped in boredom and lazy thinking. We want the schools to push them, make them write whole sentences and paragraphs, grapple with calculus, learn about the Renaissance, and all the more so if they're bound to become truck drivers. What is so disheartening about politics is the putzing around in the shallows. The sheer waste of time -- years, decades, spent on thrilling public issues in which the unconservative right fights tooth-and-nail against the regressive left and nothing is gained. It's like a tug-of-war between two trees...

The so-called cultural wars over abortion and prayer in the schools and pornography and gays, most of it instigated by shrieking ninnies and pompous blowhards, did nothing about anything, except elect dullards to office who brought a certain nihilistic approach to governance that helped bring about the disaster in the banking industry that ate up a lot of 401Ks, and all thanks to high-fliers in shirts like cheap wallpaper who never learned enough to let it discourage them from believing that they had magical powers over the laws of economics and could hand out mortgages by the fistful to people with no assets and somehow the sun would come out tomorrow. The anti-regulation conservatives enabled those people. We're still waiting for an apology.

Conservatives and liberals can agree on the basics -- that the nation wallows in debt, that it is shortsighted of the states to cut back on the most essential work of government, which is the education of the young, and that somehow we have got to become a more productive nation and less consumptive -- but the ruffles and flourishes of Washington seem ever more irrelevant to the crises we face. When an entire major party has excused itself from meaningful debate and a thoughtful U.S. senator like Orrin Hatch no longer finds it important to make sense and an up-and-comer like Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty attacks the president for giving a speech telling schoolchildren to work hard in school and get good grades, one starts to wonder if the country wouldn't be better off without them and if Republicans should be cut out of the healthcare system entirely and simply provided with aspirin and hand sanitizer. Thirty-two percent of the population identifies with the GOP, and if we cut off healthcare to them, we could probably pay off the deficit in short order.

It's time to dump the dead-end issues that have wasted too much time already. Old men shouldn't be allowed to doze off at the switch and muck up the works for the young who will have to repair the damage. Get over yourselves. Your replacements have arrived, and you should think about them now and then. Enough with the shrieking. Pass healthcare reform.
source: Salon Magazine, by Garrison Keillor.


Trash Talk TV

Stop Before the President Gets Hurt

by Thomas Friedman, New York Times:
I hate to write about this, but I have actually been to this play before and it is really disturbing.

I was in Israel interviewing Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin just before he was assassinated in 1995. We had a beer in his office. He needed one. I remember the ugly mood in Israel then — a mood in which extreme right-wing settlers and politicians were doing all they could to delegitimize Rabin, who was committed to trading land for peace as part of the Oslo accords. They questioned his authority. They accused him of treason. They created pictures depicting him as a Nazi SS officer, and they shouted death threats at rallies. His political opponents winked at it all.

And in so doing they created a poisonous political environment that was interpreted by one right-wing Jewish nationalist as a license to kill Rabin — he must have heard, “God will be on your side” — and so he did.
Others have already remarked on this analogy, but I want to add my voice because the parallels to Israel then and America today turn my stomach: I have no problem with any of the substantive criticism of President Obama from the right or left. But something very dangerous is happening. Criticism from the far right has begun tipping over into delegitimation and creating the same kind of climate here that existed in Israel on the eve of the Rabin assassination.

What kind of madness is it that someone would create a poll on Facebook asking respondents, “Should Obama be killed?” The choices were: “No, Maybe, Yes, and Yes if he cuts my health care.” The Secret Service is now investigating. I hope they put the jerk in jail and throw away the key because this is exactly what was being done to Rabin.

Even if you are not worried that someone might draw from these vitriolic attacks a license to try to hurt the president, you have to be worried about what is happening to American politics more broadly.

Our leaders, even the president, can no longer utter the word “we” with a straight face. There is no more “we” in American politics at a time when “we” have these huge problems — the deficit, the recession, health care, climate change and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — that “we” can only manage, let alone fix, if there is a collective “we” at work.

Sometimes I wonder whether George H.W. Bush, president “41,” will be remembered as our last “legitimate” president. The right impeached Bill Clinton and hounded him from Day 1 with the bogus Whitewater “scandal.” George W. Bush was elected under a cloud because of the Florida voting mess, and his critics on the left never let him forget it.

And Mr. Obama is now having his legitimacy attacked by a concerted campaign from the right fringe. They are using everything from smears that he is a closet “socialist” to calling him a “liar” in the middle of a joint session of Congress to fabricating doubts about his birth in America and whether he is even a citizen. And these attacks are not just coming from the fringe. Now they come from Lou Dobbs on CNN and from members of the House of Representatives.

Again, hack away at the man’s policies and even his character all you want. I know politics is a tough business. But if we destroy the legitimacy of another president to lead or to pull the country together for what most Americans want most right now — nation-building at home — we are in serious trouble. We can’t go 24 years without a legitimate president — not without being swamped by the problems that we will end up postponing because we can’t address them rationally.

The American political system was, as the saying goes, “designed by geniuses so it could be run by idiots.” But a cocktail of political and technological trends have converged in the last decade that are making it possible for the idiots of all political stripes to overwhelm and paralyze the genius of our system.

Those factors are: the wild excess of money in politics; the gerrymandering of political districts, making them permanently Republican or Democratic and erasing the political middle; a 24/7 cable news cycle that makes all politics a daily battle of tactics that overwhelm strategic thinking; and a blogosphere that at its best enriches our debates, adding new checks on the establishment, and at its worst coarsens our debates to a whole new level, giving a new power to anonymous slanderers to send lies around the world. Finally, on top of it all, we now have a permanent presidential campaign that encourages all partisanship, all the time among our leading politicians.

I would argue that together these changes add up to a difference of degree that is a difference in kind — a different kind of American political scene that makes me wonder whether we can seriously discuss serious issues any longer and make decisions on the basis of the national interest.

We can’t change this overnight, but what we can change, and must change, is people crossing the line between criticizing the president and tacitly encouraging the unthinkable and the unforgivable.

Economists for an Imaginary World

From the Washington Post, "Economists for an Imaginary World":

"The worldly philosophers" was economist Robert Heilbroner's term for such great economic thinkers as Adam Smith, Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes and Joseph Schumpeter. Today's free-market economists, by contrast, aren't merely not philosophers. They're not even worldly.

Has any group of professionals ever been so spectacularly wrong? Pre-Copernican astronomers and cosmologists, I suppose, and for the same reason, really: They had an entire, internally consistent, theoretically rich system that described the universe. They were wrong -- the sun and other celestial bodies save the moon didn't actually revolve around the Earth, as they insisted -- but no matter. It was a thing of beauty, their cosmic order. A vast faith was sustained in part by their pseudo-science, a faith from which such free thinkers as Galileo deviated at their own risk.

As it was with the pre- (or anti-) Copernicans, so it is with today's mainstream economists. Theirs is an elegant system, a thing of beauty in itself, as the New York Times' Paul Krugman has argued. It just fails to jell with reality. And unlike the pre-Copernicans, whose dogma posed a threat to those who challenged it but not, at least directly, to anyone else, their latter-day equivalents in the economic profession pose a clear and present danger to the well-being of damned near everyone.

The problem with contemporary economics, at least with the purer strain of free-market economics associated with the University of Chicago, is not simply that it failed to predict the near-collapse of the world financial system last year. The problem is that it believed such a collapse could not happen, that all risk could be quantified by mathematical models and that these quantifications could help us correctly price just about everything. Out of this belief arose the banks' practice of securitization, which put a value on all manner of mortgages and enabled buyers to purchase and swap them with the certainty that such transactions reflected an accurate judgment of the value of the properties and the risks associated with them.

Except, they didn't. So long as economists insisted that they did, however, there really was no need to study such things as bubbles, which only a handful of skeptics and hopelessly retro Keynesians even considered possible. Under mainstream economic theory, which held that everything was correctly priced, bubbles simply couldn't exist.

The one economist who has emerged from the current troubles with his reputation not only intact but enhanced is, of course, Keynes. Every major nation, no matter its economic or political system, has followed Keynes's prescription for combating a major downturn: increasing public spending to fill the gap created by the decline of private spending. That is why the world economy seems to be inching back from collapse and why the nations that have spent the most, China in particular, seem to be recovering fastest.But Keynes's vision has yet to reestablish itself among economists, who, like the Catholic Church in Galileo's time, aren't about to change their cosmology just because the facts demonstrate that they happen to be wrong. The quants at the banking houses say that they simply failed to sufficiently factor some risks into their mathematical models. Once they do, their system will be corrected, and banks can resume their campaign to securitize everything (as some banks are already doing by establishing a secondary market in life insurance policies).

The problem with that, Robert Skidelsky argues in a new book on economics after the fall, "Keynes: The Return of the Master," is that it neglects one of Keynes's central insights -- that an uncertainty attends human affairs that transcends quantifiable risk. (Skidelsky is also the author of a magisterial three-volume biography of Keynes.) Psychology affects value as much as rational calculation does. Thus the state must ensure against periodic madness in the markets with regulations and social insurance, because madness is a potential threat in markets just as it is in other human endeavors -- because the market is a human endeavor, not reducible to a mathematical construct.Will contemporary economists ever accept this last precept? In the 1970s, a wry economist named Robert Lekachman observed that economics students had to master so much mathematics that they became emotionally invested in the idea that the math they had learned explained -- had to explain -- the universe. Skidelsky calls for combining the postgraduate course in macroeconomics with another discipline -- history or psychology, say -- to expose young quants to the complexities of human institutions.

If mainstream economics doesn't change, however, it may eventually face the worst of all possible fates: market failure. How many students want to spend their lives quantifying a world that doesn't exist?

By Harold Meyerson, Washington Post, 30September2 009