current events

Pretty soon you’re talking real money

There are about 7.5 million subprime mortgages floating around in the USA right now. These are at the root of the current financial crisis, for which Paulson has proposed a $700 billion bank handout bailout.

Note that he wants to give the money to the banks. After the banks get that money, the borrowers are still going to be in default.

I realize the situation isn’t as simple as this, but just for grins, let’s attack the problem from the other end. The bailout amount works out to a little over $90,000 per subprime mortgage (not all of which are in default, but let’s include all of them anyhow). Imagine if the government forced the banks holding all those toxic loans to rewrite them as fixed-rate mortgages at reasonable rates, and set up what Republicans like to call a “personal account” for each homeowner with a subprime mortgage. Stick that $90,000 in the account, let it accrue interest, and use the principal and interest to supplement the amount that the homeowner can pay. Suddenly the mortgages look a lot more viable to the banks, which would restore liquidity to the market. And people don’t get thrown out of their homes.

I’m sure there’s a perfectly logical reason why this kind of welfare is bad, but the kind of welfare Paulson wants is good.

Separated at Birth?

In the course of my relentless obsessing over the upcoming election, I’ve noticed something odd about two of McCain’s top advisors.


Steve Schmidt is a protege of Karl Rove’s and is McCain’s campaign strategist.

Evan Handler played a political operative on The West Wing.

Rick Davis is a lobbyist and is McCain’s campaign manager.

Tim Heidecker plays a complete goofball on Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job.

iPhone announcement as cultural event

Apparently it comes as news to nobody that Apple announced the second-generation iPhone yesterday. This is interesting.

I’ve got plenty of friends who were aware of the rumored announcement for weeks before it came. And not just pathetic geeks who spend all their spare time huddled over Apple rumor sites–these are regular people who use technology but aren’t obsessed with it. One such friend referred to her own phone as a “Fisher-Price Phone,” which cracks me up. A few hours after the announcement, another friend dropped me a line asking “so are you going to buy an iPhone now?”

I’m guessing most of these people heard from their nerdier friends the rumors that a new iPhone was imminent. It’s not unusual that nerds would know the rumors, or that they’d discuss the rumors about the new phone with less nerdy friends, but it is interesting that so many people would have heard it, been interested enough to actually file it away mentally, and bring it up in conversation unprompted. That a rumor about an announcement to be made at a developers conference, would just become part of the zeitgeist.

Incidentally, yes, I am going to buy an iPhone now. T-Mobile’s service has been going down the crapper lately. I’m conflicted (to put it mildly) about doing business with AT&T, but in this case I’ll compromise my principles for teh shiny.

Gitmotainment

How did I miss this before? Apparently Fox has a reality-tv show called Solitary. Contestants endure dehumanizing, Gitmo-style confinement and stress. The last one to cry Uncle wins.

And the rest of us are supposed to consider this entertainment.

I’ll occasionally entertain conspiracy-theory thinking, but I try to keep it in check. A show like this makes it hard to avoid. One can imagine the current administration saying to its buddy Rupert Murdoch something like “We need to find a way to make torture seem more palatable to the American people. Can you help us out with that?”

Familiarity breeds contempt. What better way to trivialize institutionalized torture than by turning it into a game show? A child growing up watching this show might look at sleep deprivation, etc, as something they do on game shows, and be inured to it.

I can’t think about this without feeling like the whole human species has gone off the rails.

Absolution

For the last eight years, I and a lot of other Americans have looked at our president as the unembarrassed standard-bearer of so much that is wrong with American politics: privilege, dynastism, cronyism, corruption, secrecy. He’s even managed to borrow some of the unseemly aspects of East German politics. And we have felt ashamed of our country.

And then there’s Barack Obama. Just the existence of a candidate like Obama says that American ideals like plurality, tolerance, and opportunity still mean something. Perhaps some of Obama’s popularity is not because of his potential as a president, but because he lets us feel better about ourselves.

When I vote for Obama in two weeks, it won’t be because of that. But it’s a nice bonus.

A thought on the writer’s strike

As I understand it, the position of the Writer’s Guild of America is that writers should be compensated for online distribution. The studios’ position is that media distributed online has no value.

So when I download a TV show over bittorrent, I’m supporting the studios’ position. They should thank me.

Football or hot potato?

I’ve been thinking lately about the 2008 presidential campaign. Not so much about the Democrats as the Republicans. All the Dems in the race seem like decent and competent people, so I’m just not that worked up about it. Admittedly, I don’t want Hillary to get the party nomination, but that is because A) I’m afraid she’ll be a lightning-rod for GOP dirty tricks (yes, more than the other candidates), and B) and someone else put it, future historians should not look at the list of U.S. presidents and see “Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton.” Politics in this country is already too near to an aristocracy.

But if the Democratic candidates are boring for their lack of problems, the Republican ones are interesting for their problems. Romney has an extensive record as a comparatively progressive Republican from the People’s Republik of Massachusetts, and he’s trying to live that down. Giuliani just last week reiterated his support for state-subsidized abortions. McCain, after cultivating an image as a straight-talking maverick in 2000, has spent the last seven years carrying water for the administration, and has painted himself into a corner with flatly ridiculous statements in support of America’s ongoing debacle in Iraq. There are plenty of other candidates running for the GOP nomination, but not many have really risen above the background noise.

I have been speculating about the role that Karl Rove may play in the 2008 campaign. Rove has been considered a solid-gold political asset for a long time now. And at some point before January ’09, Bush may decide to bequeath Rove to one of the Republican campaigns. And so I wonder: Will this come during the primaries or general election? If it comes during the primaries, who will be the lucky recipient? And will that guy really be so lucky? After all, any campaign with Rove on board is going to be treated as a nuclear-grade threat, so his presence could create more problems than it would solve. Something interesting to keep an eye on during this interminable campaign.

Learning from their mistakes

Via TPM, I learn of this LA Times story on our upcoming war with Iran.

The Bush administration has postponed plans to offer public details of its charges of Iranian meddling inside Iraq amid internal divisions over the strength of the evidence, U.S. officials said…some officials in Washington are concerned that some of the material may be inconclusive and that other data cannot be released without jeopardizing intelligence sources and methods. They want to avoid repeating the embarrassment that followed the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, when it became clear that information the administration cited to justify the war was incorrect, said the officials, who described the internal discussions on condition of anonymity.

For most people, “learning from your mistakes” means learning how to avoid that mistake in the future. For the Bush administration, it means learning how to make the same mistakes more effectively.

Is that all there is?

Peggy Lee

So the Democrats have taken both the House and Senate. Admittedly, they had a little help from the White House, which managed to turn off many voters with a litany of crimes and errors too long and obvious to mention. But what surprised me is that the Republican majority—especially in the Senate—ended not with a bang but a whimper. The GOP could have put up a fight over the results in Montana and Virginia. In fact, I expected them to, and was surprised that they didn’t. I expected dirty tricks being masterminded by Karl Rove, lawsuits, etc. Nothing. Both Burns and Allen rolled over pretty meekly.

There is always a difference between the way a thing exists in the real world and your mental model of it. In my mental model of today’s GOP, the party is ruthless and effective (among other things). I suspect that many progressives have held a roughly similar model, and the Republicans have done plenty to create it. So the quick concessions are jarring, surprising. It makes me wonder if Democrats have been scaring themselves into paralysis with tales of the big scary boogeyman when the boogeyman really isn’t that big or scary.

We know you’re going to love this

Problem: The U.S. government is running rapidly increasing deficits.

Problem: The FBI/CIA/NSA are collecting enormous amounts of information about U.S. citizens (and non-citizens) that they make relatively little use of.

Problem: In an increasingly diverse media market, advertisers face growing difficulty effectively targeting and reaching their audiences.

Solution: Government spook databases will be licensed to marketing firms for the purpose of developing better advertising approaches. The Department of Homeland Security will be renamed the Department of Homeland Security & Marketing Opportunities. In the course of developing their own demographic models, marketers will discover new patterns and connections, which they will share with DHS&MO (as required under a licensing agreement), resulting both in better spying and better advertising. Database access fees will help reduce the deficit and fund more effective data-collection techniques at the DHS&MO.

Other benefits: Citizens considered to be potential security threats will be enrolled in special marketing programs that will allow them to spend their way into good standing. Conversely, citizens who do not consume enough will receive special government scrutiny to determine whether they may be security threats.

Que onda guerrero

Problem: Bush wants permanent war, keeping citizens scared and Halliburton happy.

Problem: Military recruitment is down, because people don’t like being blown up, and relatively few Americans are so desperate for a job that they’ll risk it.

Problem: Bush wants to create a “guest worker” program, and find a way to permit illegal immigrants to stay in the country without seeming soft on them, perhaps by imposing a fine.

Solution: Create a “guest soldier” program. Our friends from south of the border who want a chance to live in the USA can take their chances getting a green card, or can volunteer immediately for the U.S. military. Illegal immigrants who are rounded up will be given the option of immediate deportation or enlistment. Those who survive a two-year hitch can go back to picking vegetables and ensuring Americans have low food prices (so that we can stay fat and sit on the couch, pretending to blow shit up on our Playstations) without being hassled by the INS.

Yes, I’m joking, but I’m a little surprised some wingnut hasn’t advocated this in earnest yet.

Permanent majority

I’ve heard three Republicans refer to their party has being a “permanent majority” now: before the election, Tom Delay; after, Karl Rove and a party strategist whose name I didn’t catch.

On the one hand, I’m tempted to write this off as self-destructive hubris. On the other, I look at the party’s willingness to do what it takes to maximize that majority–mid-term re-redistricting, the rumored end of the Senate’s supermajority rule for cloture, the unusual step of going after the other party’s leader, not to mention tricks like requiring lobbyists to only hire Republicans, and commandeering DHS staff for partisan purposes–and I think that writing it off might be a little too easy.

Message to the world

All of you who are citizens of other countries, it’s officially OK to start hating Americans now.

Four years ago, perhaps you were feeling charitable and realized that we didn’t exactly elect Bush. He lost the popular vote, and only won the electoral vote through a process that was dubious at best. He went on to govern as if he had a clear mandate, and with a friendly Congress, has run the country with a free hand, not vetoing any legislation, and getting away with winners like the USA PATRIOT act and the Iraq war. Senate Democrats have managed to stonewall a handful of judicial appointees, which Republicans laughably refer to as “gridlock.” Corruption and contempt for reality in the executive has become the order of the day, and the friendly Congress has not been inclined to make much of a fuss over it.

Things are different this time. Bush clearly won the popular vote, and Kerry has conceded the race. Not only that, but the GOP’s hold on the Senate has strengthened, with the election of a candidate in Oklahoma who has called for the execution of abortionists (even though he himself is one) and another in Kentucky who practically needs a drool bucket. Eleven proposed state amendments to ban gay marriage (and in some cases, any hint of official recognition for gay relationships) all passed easily.

In short, Americans have clearly demonstrated what kind of country they want. It’s not a likable one. While I’ve always identified strongly as an American–my citizenship and my country mean a lot to me–I have to ask myself whether it is worth it to fight for the country I believe in, or cut my losses and concede that it simply doesn’t exist. Today I feel like a stranger in my own country.

Decoy

Bush made another campaign speech in which he came up with yet another post-hoc rationale for the war:

If Zarqawi and his associates
were not busy fighting Iraqi and American forces in Iraq, what does Senator
Kerry think they would be doing? Peaceful, small business owners?
(Laughter.) Running a benevolent society? (Laughter.)

Let’s get this straight: Bush is suggesting here that we’re using Iraq as a decoy, to fight terrorists there so we don’t have to fight them on U.S. soil. So what are we supposed to say to the people we were supposedly liberating from a tyrannical dictator? “Sorry about all these explosions, but better you all than us?”

Say “quack,” Iraq.

I actually think Bush is partly right here: Iraq is clearly a magnet for terrorists now, and it is quite possible that it has attracted some terrorists who might otherwise be plotting attacks against the USA, ironically having created after the fact another one of the justifications he used for the war (the supposed link between Iraq and al Qaeda). Of course, it’s also a breeding-ground for new terrorists, and we learn today, a handy munitions depot for terrorists, who have apparently scooped up extremely dangerous explosives, previously under UN seal, that our troops (perhaps directed by Rumsfeld to attend a rose-petal-throwing ceremony) were not guarding.

In any case, to the extent that the war on terror can be clearly won, it will ultimately be won by getting as much of the world on the same side as possible–and being on that side with them. Extremists will always exist in isolated pockets, but their ability to rally large groups against Americans would be limited. Invading a country and then using it as a terrorist decoy is not an effective way to get the world on your side.