Sunday, March 27, 2011

Last Call

I like Brad DeLong's term referring to the Reagan/Bush and Dubya economic teams as "budget arsonists".  He's used the term before to define the Catfood Commission plan as well as tagging former Dubya economist Grag Mankiw with it.  This weekend he tags Mankiw again, as the former Bush official took to the NY Times today to write a self-serving "Presidential address from 2026".

The seeds of this crisis were planted long ago, by previous generations. Our parents and grandparents had noble aims. They saw poverty among the elderly and created Social Security. They saw sickness and created Medicare and Medicaid. They saw Americans struggle to afford health insurance and embraced health care reform with subsidies for middle-class families. But this expansion in government did not come cheap. Government spending has taken up an increasing share of our national income.... If we had chosen to tax ourselves to pay for this spending, our current problems could have been avoided. But no one likes paying taxes. Taxes not only take money out of our pockets, but they also distort incentives and reduce economic growth. So, instead, we borrowed increasing amounts to pay for these programs. Yet debt does not avoid hard choices. It only delays them. After last week’s events in the bond market, it is clear that further delay is no longer possible. The day of reckoning is here....

Brad DeLong is having none of it.

It is important to notice that when Greg Mankiw writes "if we had chosen to tax ourselves..." and "they saw sickness and created Medicare..." and "we borrowed increasing amounts..." he is talking about himself and his fellow budget arsonists. He is not talking about President Clinton, Clinton's appointees, and Clinton's supporters--they sweated blood to cut spending below and raise taxes above the baseline and actually balanced the budget. He is not talking about President Obama, Obama's appointees, and Obama's supporters--Obama's excise tax on high-cost health plans and the supermajority entrenchment of the Medicare cut recommendations of the Independent Payment Authorization Board are--if they are not repealed--the largest acts of fiscal responsibility ever undertaken in America.

Mankiw is talking about President Reagan, his supporters, and his appointees. Mankiw is talking about President George W. Bush, his supporters, and his appointees. And--as one of George W. Bush's cabinet-level appointees, Chairman of the Presidents Council of Economic Advisers in 2003-2004--he is talking about himself.

Is it too much for me to expect, from him, an apology to America? A whispered: "I am sorry"? An admission that the unfunded 2001 tax cuts that he cheerled for were a mistake, and that we as a nation would have been better off had they not been passed? An admission that the unfunded 2003 tax cuts that he cheerled for were a mistake, and that we as a nation would have been better off had they not been passed? An admission that the unfunded 2003 Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit that he cheerled for was a mistake, and that we as a nation would have been better off had it not been passed?

Is that too much to ask?

Indeed.  The biggest single contributor to our deficit in the future is the Bush tax cuts which only served to create the housing bubble and transfer of wealth upward that eventually led to the financial crisis of 2008.  That, along with the Medicare Part D spending, is what in the space of a decade wiped out the Clinton surplus and put us in a massive hole.

To repeat, we had a balanced budget under Clinton.  Then the Republicans happened.  Then the budget arsonists burned our country down.  "We're running a surplus.  We need to give that money back to the American people."  They did and then some, to the tune of trillions and trillions.  Obama didn't create the Greenspan housing bubble, or the tax cuts, or the Medicare giveaway.  But now he has to clean it up.

Or he would, if the Republicans would let him.  But they don't want him to.  Instead, Republicans are happily saying that if we make massive cuts in government spending -- and cut hundreds of thousands of government jobs as a result -- the private sector will magically create more jobs as higher unemployment will drive down wages, freeing up capital to create more public sector jobs.

Or, if we go back to our budget arsonist theory, quite literally they mean setting an unemployment wildfire will mean brisk additional business for fire hose manufacturers, industrial cleaning companies, landscapers and foresters, and building contractors.  We'll get back those eight million jobs or so lost in the last 3 years, only the wages paid for those jobs will be significantly less, and that's a win for America's businesses!

For the American worker, not so much.

And yes, the Republicans are now saying that in order to create jobs, significantly higher short-term unemployment through the destruction of thousands of jobs in order to replace them with a larger number of crappier, lower paying jobs is exactly what America needs right now. 

Of course, the problem is many Republicans believe exactly this.

The Badger Awakens, Part 4

It looks like Gov. Scott Walker and his fellow Republicans in Wisconsin may be congratulating themselves a bit too early on having sidestepped the judicial question of the union-busting law and violating a court order by publishing it.

Since the bill is now being treated as having gone into effect, it's now a viable target for attempts to overturn the measure based on legal grounds.

That could actually simplify the case that District Attorney Ismael Ozanne is seeking to make on the alleged open meetings violation if he doesn't have to worry about whether a judge has the authority to stop legislation before it takes effect, said Madison lawyer Lester Pines.

"I suspect that if Judge Sumi was willing to take up a (temporary restraining order) against publication I suspect she'd do the same thing on enforcement" of the new law, Pines said.

Pines said it would also open up legal channels for other groups who have been waiting to challenge the law but had to wait until it was enacted.

"This is going to unleash a tsunami of litigation," Pines said.

By going back and having the law go through normal channels, Walker and his GOP buddies would have eliminated the legal challenges to the bill.  But as published state law, the union-busting measure can be challenged in court, and possibly struck down.

What Republicans don't want is another batch of protests and national media attention on this story.  They want this behind them as quickly as possible so they can move on to using the law to carry out their revenge against those who sided against them, starting with Wisconsin state employees.  They're charging forward and counting on the status quo protecting them.

They're won a battle, but the war just took a nasty turn for them.

Zandar's Thought Of The Day

Yes, the riots in England are pretty visceral.  They are however not shocking if you've been paying attention.  I want to highlight two very different reactions to the events this weekend in London.  First, Steve M.:

I don't want to see it happen in England or in any other country. But what I do want to see happen -- a real reckoning for the worst abusers in the global financial system, accompanied by "shared sacrifice" that's actually shared, all the way to the top -- apparently will never happen through peaceful means.

(If you think I'm exaggerating, consider the wrist-slaps that have been doled out in America for large-scale economic crime, and then read Joe Nocera's New York Times story about a guy who's doing serious time for taking a "liar loan" during the economic boom. Think of this as like the drug war, except we've made a conscious, overt decision not to jail any leaders of the cartels, or even mid-level soldiers -- only the customers.)

Yeah, the riot in England was awful. Want to avoid more of it, authorities? Do the right thing. (And yes, I say that knowing you won't.)

The primary goal of a democratic government, by and of the people, is justice for all, according to Steve.  Compare that with John Hindraker's response:

The first duty of any government is to maintain order. Peaceful demonstrations are fine, but mob rule is incompatible with civilization. Any government that cannot maintain order deserves to fall, and will. Napoleon had his faults--well, to be blunt, he was crazy as a loon--but he had the right prescription for dealing with mobs: a whiff of grapeshot.

When left to their own devices, any conservative eventually turns to the iron fist that must be used on "them" in the name of "maintaining order".  No, the mob mentality in London is wrong.  But the wise government leader would ask "Why is this happening?"

I mean it's funny, Hindraker has no problem calling Qaddafi authoritarian and saying that he supports our efforts to liberate Libya, as armed rebels fight a war against a dictator, but if people protest and cause damage to shops in London, well it's an unruly mob that must be put down by any means necessary.

Conservatives always come back to using force to maintain the class status quo, given enough time the arguments, reasoning, and debate will always, always devolve into "anything that might disrupt America's moneyed elite will not be tolerated."

This Week's WTH

Aaaaand we start the week off early with this little slice of nonsense:

(CNN) -- No stranger to controversy, U.S. retailer Abercrombie & Fitch has come under fire for offering a push-up bikini top to young girls.  Its "Ashley" bikini -- described as "padded" and a "push-up" -- was posted on the Abercrombie Kids website earlier this week.

The company declined to comment Saturday but noted it has since updated the description of its bikini online.  The product is now being offered as a padded, "striped triangle." Bottoms are sold separately.

Sure, you know me well enough to realize this would annoy me to no end.  But for some reason, it's bothering me more than I expected.  As I get older, the way children are sexualized in some roles really grosses me out.  I don't know if I am just more aware, or if it has progressed, but this is just an automatic Bad Idea in my book.

Sad Day

Today, I learned of two amazing women who are no longer with us.  First, a tremendous sadness at the passing of Geraldine Ferraro.  I was too young to know much at the time, so most of my knowledge of her came years after her 1984 run.  Still, she was a strong leader and paved the way for women in politics, and it is this that she will be remembered for.  She took many a strong stance and was not afraid to speak her mind.  She took criticism and admits she would not have subjected her family to the intense media scrutiny if she had known how extensive and traumatic it would be.  I think I admired her most for her unapologetic and straightforward personality.  She was smarter, stronger and sharper than most people, and she knew it. 

I also want to say a sad goodbye to Jean Bartik, a computer pioneer who worked on ENIAC and was celebrated with the like of Linus Torvalds in the Computer History Museum and fellow ENIAC coworkers in the WITI Hall of Fame.   Always an optimist, she said not too long ago that women had come a long way in technology but there was always opportunity for improvement.  She was 86, and witnessed the birth of technology we take for granted, hatched from an idea to a global revolution.  Bartik and women like her make me proud to be a she-geek. 

Three Arab Countries Facing Protests, Three Different Outcomes

As of today, protests continue in Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria with the opposition in those countries having differing levels of success.  In Yemen, talks aimed at the exit of President Saleh are continuing but stalled.

Officials on both sides of yesterday’s talks, which were attended by the US ambassador, said the parties refused to give any ground.
After six weeks of unprecedented protests in Yemen, Saleh says he is willing to step aside in a peaceful transition of power, but has left himself room for maneuvering by adding the condition that he wants to leave the country in “safe hands.’’
In the TV interview, he insisted he would not leave the presidency “humiliated’’ and that even if he stepped down as president, he would remain head of his Congress Party, leaving the door open for his continued involvement in the nation’s politics.
“I will not give up on my supporters,’’ he said.
The protesters — whose ranks have been bolstered by defecting military commanders, lawmakers, Cabinet ministers, diplomats, and even Saleh’s own tribe — are insisting he go immediately. The demands and defections have only grown since government security forces shot more than 40 demonstrators to death in the capital of Sana a week ago.

That is very different from the brutal crackdown imposed by Bahrain's ruling Al Khalifa regime where security forces operating under martial law has effectively crushed the opposition.

Police have broken up small scattered protests in Manama, Bahrain's capital, using tear gas after calls for a "Day of Rage" were quashed by a heavy security force presence.

Helicopters, extra checkpoints on major highways and visible security forces appeared to have prevented any major demonstrations from gathering support.

A 71-year-old man died of asphyxiation in his home after police fired tear gas in the village of Mameer, the main Shia protest group said.

Al Jazeera's correspondent in Manama said: "As far as we can see there are clouds of tear gas that have been rising in recent minutes.

"People will march down the streets and a helicopter will appear, the police will move in, and people move indoors.

"Quite a tense situation here, but the call for the big protests ... seems to have been quashed by the authorities here.

"Some protesters tried to mess with the statue and at that point the police opened fire."

And in Syria, it's unknown as to who has the upper hand, protesters or President Bashar Assad.

Scores of Syrians were killed and injured as anti-government protests swept across the country, officials said.

Syrian troops reportedly entered the port town of Latakia Sunday, deploying in areas where protests occurred Saturday, Israel Radio reported.

Protesters used to mobile phones to film the carnage in Daraa Friday, Britain's Sunday Telegraph reported. Locals said at least 25 people were killed and hundreds were injured in their town alone, the newspaper said. Deaths were also reported in Homs, Latakia, Sanamein and Damascus. Exact numbers were not known.

Because the Syrian government barred the entry of foreign news networks, the images filmed by protesters could not be verified.

Three countries, three different situations, but all three unstable and people are being killed in all three countries.  It could explain why the US is so eager to hand over Libya to NATO...we have bigger problems over on the Arabian Peninsula.

[UPDATEBooMan catches former Dubya National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams laying the groundwork for pulling a Libya in Syria, one of the outcomes I warned about when I said "Hey, going into Libya may not be such a great idea."

Land Of The Rising Core Temperature, Part 17

Radiation leaking from Fukushima Daiichi reactor #2 is so bad now that workers have been evacuated from the control room area.

Extremely high levels of radiation were detected in water leaking from reactor two of the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant, forcing the evacuation of workers, its operator said Sunday.

A spokesman for Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) said the level of radiation found in the leaked water in the turbine room was 10 million times higher than it should be for water inside the reactor, indicating damage to the fuel rods.

"We detected 1,000 millisieverts per hour of radiation in a puddle of water at the reactor number two. This figure is 10 million times higher than water usually kept in a reactor," the spokesman said.

"We are examining the cause of this, but no work is being done there because of the high level of radiation.

"High levels of caesium and other substances are being detected, which usually should not be found in reactor water. There is a high possibility that fuel rods are being damaged."

You think?   TEPCO says the radiation is coming from Iodine-134, which has a half-life of days, so there's "little chance" of it surviving long enough to cause harm outside the plant.  Of course, if radioactive iodine is loose at all, that definitely means the fuel rods are damaged.  Best part:

The company became aware of the high radiation in the turbine building of the No. 2 unit, a Tokyo Electric official said, when a worker attempting to measure radiation levels of the water puddles saw the reading on his dosimeter jump beyond 1,000 millisieverts, the highest reading. The worker left the scene immediately, and the company does not have an accurate reading, he said. 

At this point, after 16 days, it looks like TEPCO has lost control of at least one reactor. More may follow.  The cooling equipment may be back on-line to an extent, but it's not going to be enough.  The odds that Fukushima Daiichi will have to be buried is approaching "just a matter of when they admit defeat" territory.

[UPDATE]  TEPCO officials are now saying that these very high radiation readings were "completely wrong".

Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) vice-president Sakae Muto apologized for Sunday's error, which added to alarm inside and outside Japan over the impact of contamination from the complex which was hit by an earthquake and tsunami on March 11.

Radiation in the water was a still worrying 100,000 times higher than normal, rather than 10 million times higher as originally stated, Muto said.

Yeah, it's a mistake anyone could make.
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