Optimism, Responsibility and… Satire!

Warning all: it’s political this time!

== The optimism debate continues ==

The-Rational-Optimist_220xV“Today,” Matt Ridley writes in his book The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, “of Americans officially designated as ‘poor,’ 99 per cent have electricity, running water, flush toilets, and a refrigerator; 95 per cent have a television, 88 per cent a telephone, 71 per cent a car and 70 percent air conditioning. Cornelius Vanderbilt had none of these.”

Yes… though Cornelius had tons of servants, and they lacked these things too. But the thing they noticed, above all, was who was servant and who was the master.

But never mind that. John Mauldin cued me over to Morgan Housel over at the Motley Fool who has written a piece called “50 Reasons We’re Living Through the Greatest Period in World History.”  Oh, I fumed at about a dozen of the statistics, sputtering “but… but that ignores….”  And you should avoid complacency too!  There’s still a world to be saved.  Still, the flood of tentative good news suggests that we have some basis for confidence that we can save it….

… or can we, after all?  Why California’s drought may be the worst in 500 years. Denialism is not confidence.  It is being a sap.

== Putting interesting spins on things ==

One of the best pieces of political-social satire I’ve seen stabs right at the heart of how our enlightenment process of flat-open competition is undermined by… Krony-ism!  Collect all five Krony action figures! Ready to take on any competitive threat to their power!  (Note: while this is clearly inspired by the better (Smithian) wing of libertarianism, one might call it ever so slightly rightward-tilted. And I don’t mind! 

(Still, it will be better when they come out with the needed SIXTH action figure…  The Oligarch-Puppeteer, the one made of money bags who actually controls Big G. And a seventh… The Hypnotizer… who waves a bible and has the head of a … Fox.)

PersonalINcomeTaxIn a similar vein but turning a bit more specific… One of the sharpest “Smithian libertarians” out there is Brin-blogmunity member Carl Milstead who has long struggled to help shift libertarianism back to sensible emphasis on competition, and less on the Cult of Selfishness.  Carl has a very interesting tax simplification plan that offers attractive common ground – or at least basis for negotiation – between liberals and libertarians.  It might be too big s shift to achieve in today’s American political climate.

But one way to get there incrementally would be my own proposal called “no-losers,” which would let us simplify in stages that are politically achievable.

== If only this were satire, too ==

It’s stunning how lockstep conservative columnists are in denouncing the bipartisan voting commission’s recommendations for more early voting, allowing citizens to go to city poll stations up to a week before election day. Along with many other tactics to cheat… I mean limit citizen access to franchise… states of a certain color are moving fast to limit early voting, which helps working men and women to fit this civic duty among their many other chores.

This is not Goldwater-Buckley conservatism.  It is something else.  Why not admit it?

Capital-twenty-first-centuryEconomist Thomas Piketty’s new book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” argues  that the six-decade period of growing equality in western nations – starting roughly with the onset of World War I and extending into the early 1970s – was unique and highly unlikely to be repeated. That period, Piketty suggests, represented an exception to the more deeply rooted pattern of growing inequality.  His fatalism disturbingly opines that capitalism cannot continue – each generation – performing a miracle… using democracy to correct its contradictions.  Especially the biggest one — that winners in the competition then try to cheat in order not to have to compete anymore, as happened across all cultures for 6000 years.

I agree that that is the inherent tendency of capitalism.  But (1) Marx explained all this ages ago, and earlier so did Adam Smith. (2) The fact that western democracies did keep refreshing and renewing a relatively flat and competitive version of capitalism, always enticing activity to get rich, but somehow preventing the toxicity of oligarchic wealth concentrations, suggests  this is a process that could continue.

It must.  Socialism never raised out of poverty as many as market economics has, nor innovated so many solutions.  But those markets were not “blind.” Nor did Adam Smith demand that they be!  They succeeded precisely because they have been tuned by sapient populations, societies and institutions who have kept negotiating solutions to steer economies away from the cliffs that ruined markets and freedom for 6000 years.

Capitalism-vs-democracyIt is the pragmatic, non-dogmatic, mixed-economy approach that prevents oligarchic toxicity while retaining Smithian success lures.  That takes new discoveries and new technologies into account, as well as new threats and externalities like pollution. That invests in the species and its youth so that those youths can have the health and education needed in order to be confident competitors in vibrant Smithian markets.  Our ancestors for 250 years used a suite of methods, only some of which were “liberal” or Quasi-socialist…

Forget the Clinton-Bush dynasties… calling for a Roosevelt!  Ideally one like TR… but FDR might do.  We have to believe we can do this again.  Or there will be no Star Trek.

== Who’s Responsible? ==

spending-us How Spending Has Fallen Under Obama: This CNN site backs up my assertion that our cliches about U.S. deficit spending are all wrong.  The all-important Second Derivative of deficit shows whether an administration is serious about fiscal responsibility.  If the 2nd Derivative (2D) is negative, then skyrocketing deficits become successively less steep and gradually turn downward toward the black. If 2D is positive, surpluses become deficits and deficits steepen into hemorrhages. And members of the public have a diametrically wrong impression that Democrats are somehow worse than Republicans on this matter, just because Republicans say so.

In fact, 2D is almost always positive (that’s bad) under GOP administrations (post-Eisenhower) plunging the U.S. into worsening debt.  And 2d is almost always negative (that’s good) across the span of Democratic administrations.  Conservatives invariably squirm when confronted with this huge and nearly uniform fact, that absolutely demolishes every cliche. But if they truly are “conservative” in the older and wiser sense of the word, they must eventually wake up and realize.

No one is asking them to swerve left.  But please… veer away from the monsters who have hijacked your movement.  Steer away from crazy.

== The miscellany stack – political news! ==

PolarIceSee this stunning video showing 25 years of satellite data on dwindling Arctic sea ice. Look at it. Just look at it!  Then rent CHASING ICE. Hold a home viewing party.  Invite your crazy uncle.

Climate change is already hurting American farmers and rural residents, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack warned that the U.S. would regret any failure to adapt and prepare for shifting weather realities. The list of increasingly daunting issues that the Ag Dept is helping farmers deal with is growing larger and more intense yearly.  And still, fools watch Fox.

All told, health care costs have been growing more slowly over the last three years than at any other time period since 1965. More recently, yearly health cost growth slowed from an average rate of 3.9 percent between 2000 and 2007 to 1.3 percent between 2011 and 2013.

This rumination about potential conflict between China and Japan is deeply disturbing.  And it does not mention there is another set of reefs, farther northe, that are equidistant from China, Japan and South Korea, that are under dispute.  And other islands rimming the Philippines and Indonesia and Vietnam.

But the East remains a realm potentially rife with surprises. I had to blink several times when I read the following off-the-cuff thoughts from the deeply insightful Scott Foster, who I see each year at the annual SNS Future in Review Conference.  If any of this comes true, you’ll know where it came from:

[Japanese PM] Abe is reportedly planning to meet Putin in Sochi. A professor of international politics I know here expects them to make a deal over the Southern Kuril Islands (Japan’s “Northern Territories”). Having just visited Yasukuni Shrine, Abe is Nixon enough to get away with it (anyone else would probably be assassinated). That would enable a peace treaty and make it a lot easier to increase economic ties, which could expand several fold. Beijing might s**t a meat axe, to use a phrase I’ve never been able to forget.

 The professor’s take on North Korea is that Kim is purging the pro-China faction and getting ready to do a Myanmar. Japan has reasonably good relations with North Korea, considering the circumstances, and very very knowledgeable journalists and other experts on (and in) the country. Russia and South Korea are talking about a gas pipeline through North Korea. Just when it looked like things in North Korea might never change, they might change.”

Vampire-squid

Wow.

== Calling all Roosevelts! ==

The  bill to remove the 60 year old financial industry regulations, passed in 1999 by the GOP Congress, did more than encourage the insane antics that led to the later Great Meltdown.  It has apparently unleashed the top banks to own and operate every kind of resource manipulation industry.  Read  about this… and try to picture: “why are they doing everything in their power to resurrect Teddy Roosevelt?”  Because that is where we will ultimately turn.  Preferably that, over Robespierre.

== A libertarian “gem” of a flick? ==

alongsidenight_30thcoverJ. Neil Schulman’s hyper-libertarian novel, Alongside Night, was worth reading as a polemic that — though tendentious and spectacularly one-sided — nevertheless raised some very important points about one of many kinds of potential failure modes that could bring us crashing down.  Alongside Night is worth a look for the same reason that I read Ayn Rand and Karl Marx, because: damn if I will let myself become a blinkered dogmatist, worried about only one kind of abusive authority!

Human beings are born with spines that can twist, allowing them to look for threats on all horizons.  So what if polemicists and dogmatists (of left, right and weird) are satisfied to fuse their political vertebrae, insisting that only the authorities THEY hate could ever threaten freedom. I will listen to their rants and sift for rare gems amid the monomania.  I can turn my head.

Can you?  Then you might enjoy a wallow in polemical monomania: Alongside Night: The Motion Picture! Directed by J. Neil Schulman! And starring Kevin Sorbo.  I admit I haven’t seen the film… it’s only available for viewing in a few cities. But here is how to find out where: http://www.tugg.com/titles/Alongside-Night#description

libertariansNeil is one of the more cogent members of the cult of Rothbard-and-Rand that has hijacked libertarianism from its proper, Smithian emphasis on creative competition, down paths of incantation that ignore all of science and history and human nature.  Which is a pity since a more moderate libertarian movement — that remembered Adam Smith — might have helped us marginalize the truly dangerous beast: the undead monster of today’s GOP.

See one alternative: what a pragmatic, Smithian libertarianism might look like, in my article: The Case for a Cheerful Libertarianism.

== and politically redolent… ==

6500 highway bridges in the U.S. in “failing” condition.

Top 1% of U.S. incomes receive 15% of tax breaks and credits.

On Slate, Anne Applebaum asks: “Why Did the NSA Tap Angela Merkel’s Cellphone?Because it could. And that isn’t reason enough.”

RepublicanExtremismA brief section from the Sean Wilentz‘s Rolling Stone overview: Republican Extremism and the Lessons of History: How has a faction consisting of no more than four dozen House members come to exercise so much destructive power? The continuing abandonment of professional responsibilities by the nation’s mainstream news sources – including most of the metropolitan daily newspapers and the television outlets, network and cable – has had a great deal to do with it. At some point over the past 40 years, the bedrock principle of journalistic objectivity became twisted into the craven idea of false equivalency, whereby blatant falsehoods get reported simply as one side of an argument and receive equal weight with the reported argument of the other side.

There is no shortage of explanations for the press’s abdication: intimidation at the rise of Fox News and other propaganda operations; a deep confusion about the difference between hard-won objectivity and a lazy, counterfeit neutrality; and the poisonous effects of the postmodern axiom that truth, especially in politics, is a relative thing, depending on your perspective in a tweet. Whatever the explanation, today’s journalism has trashed the tradition of fearless, factual reporting pioneered by Walter Lippmann, Edward R. Murrow and Anthony Lewis.

Here’s something you don’t often see. An interesting… if somewhat shallow and tendentious riff in defense of communism that ran in Salon. Yipe! If we do not perform Rooseveltean reforms soon, we will see a LOT more of this. We are witnessing an IQ test whether the rich can act in their own self-interest.

The plague of self-righteous indignation that is poisoning America reared its head again in a firestorm of sanctimony over the death  Philip Seymour Hoffman, with some writers venting volcanic fury at others, who considered the actor’s deep and fatal flaws worthy of critical comment. In this cogent discussion of the outrage industry, Sara Stewart offers cogent appraisal.  She also refers to my own work, diagnosing indignation as a noxious modern addiction that is tearing apart especially the United States, undermining our native genius at moderate pragmatism.

And that long stack is just a fraction of what got stored up.  It’s a political year, sigh, get used to it.

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