Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Obama Healthcare Quickie

Obama just gave a press conference on healthcare, and my thoughts will probably go up here tomorrow. For now, though, here's a redirect to my blog series on healthcare from the beginning of summer.

Equally important: here's an amazing New Yorker article about why paying-per-test is a terrible plan, and why the Mayo Clinic Model is kind of brilliant.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Money is Tinkerbell

Money, as currently exists, is an entity whose usage is dependent on confidence, and whose value is dependent on interest rates. Interest itself isn't a trait native to money but is dependent upon the agencies responsible for the creation of money itself. In many countries, this is handled by a central bank; The Bank of England, for example, or in Germany the Bundesbank. In the United States, our central bank equivalent is the Federal Reserve, which is frequently attacked for being this shadowy, arbitrary, and impartial conspiracy unto itself. Given the nature of money, I like it for exactly those reasons.

Puzzled? You're not alone. The Nation recently authored a very thorough article discussing how to reform the Federal Reserve for the modern age, and to end the collusion between it and bankers. The article raises many valid points, and I'm still not entirely certain of my opposition to the plan it suggests.

Anyway. Here is my rough contrast between the Fed and Congress as vehicles for Money Generation in this nation.

Congress: explicit money generation (as, notably, stated in the constitution. Article 1, section 8). So what the Fed does (coin money, regulate the value thereof) are congressional powers. The traditional avenue for money expansion (growth through lending) requires that congress borrow money on the Credit of the United States, which itself seems to require a body outside the United States Government. Note: There is nothing here saying congress couldn't set the interest rate or will money into existence. Responsibilities other than money generation: the entire federal budget, as well as tax creation/other sources of federal income. Basically, all that spending that people look upon so unfavorably.

: Somewhat arcane money generation, thanks to it's backroom dealings with bankers and the inherent secrecy of its governing board. Controls interest on the dollar, can release surpluses of money that it wills into existence. There are more steps to the process, but the Fed, as the controller of dollar creation, can spontaneously have $80 billion to distribute into banks. Responsibilities other than money generation: regulation of banks, sort of. Which it has totally failed at. But it still does money generation fine.

On paper, there is no reason congress shouldn't generate money. But since money is confidence-based, and since it's explicit value (interest) is also tied to confidence, I am hesitant to put the money supply directly under congressional control. Congress, as a body, is not terribly confidence inspiring. It's like asking the audience to clap so that Captain Hook can live - it makes just as much sense as clapping for Tinkerbell, but no one likes Captain Hook, and so they'd all just let him die. In that sense, I think, the Fed does wonders. By playing an abstract role at a distance from the rest of government, it gets to appear weird and fickle and impartial. While it's more vulnerable today than it has been at almost any point since existence, the dollar is not being questioned. It is, as arbitrary currencies go, okay. What usually happens with massive injections of newly made money is hyperinflation, as prices go up and dollars become worth less. Right now, it looks like the dollar is deflating. As the fed injects new money, money is actually becoming more valuable. Even though we can see it being conjured into existence. It's strange, and I attribute it to the very obtuseness and arcane workings of the Fed.

This doesn't mean that the Fed is flawless, or that money is itself worthless. But because the value of money is largely dependent upon people thinking it has value, there is something to be said for money generation to be a detached, almost magical process. You've got to convince people to clap, and we'll keep doing it for Tinkerbell.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Obama the Dictator? Part 3: Conclusions

Note: this series of posts is distilled from a conversation I had online, in which my responses were so over-long and verbose that I realized they'd make better blog posts. Some slight changes have been made to style, but the content is the same.

Obama is not fascist: a mere definitional examination of the term is enough to easily rule that out. Nor is he a dictator: he won in a popular election, as well as in the electoral college. Dictators rarely, if ever, come into power through fair or open elections. And his presidential power is not unique or unprecedented; we just had 8 years of expansion of executive power, so it should come as no surprise that the current president enjoys many of the powers awarded his predecessor. This is all unexpected.

The disappointment in the conclusion, then, is that many similar abuses remain. Some of the targets of these abuses have changed (or, more correctly, some of the perceived victims may have changed), but the power remains, and has not been dismantled. We have a president in the United States with serious power. No surprise there. That some of it is unconstitutional is a bit disappointing, and that's the fun part of being a citizen.

Caring about politics means perpetual stewardship.

Even with the president you wanted, just as much as with the president you didn't. As Americans, with our peculiar form of democracy, we have to constantly work to secure the rights we should already have, to secure the ones we are wrongfully denied, and to make sure that our government accurately reflects us as people. The only things outright damaging to this system are apathy (which allows others more invested to dictate all decisions), and powerlessness/rage (which themselves see the destruction of existing institutions as the only way to freedom). I don't feel that either of those are viable, but they both offer the easy moral shortcut of wiping one's hands clean of this nation. To care, to be invested in this nation, one has to accept the existence some terrible things while one works to make them right. I'm a bit of a statist, so my default position is always that change can come gradually, and can come from within. And partisan though I am, this is true across administrations. Very little will change that, while very little will convince the apathetic/powerless/angry that this is possible.

Obama the Dictator? Part 2: Supporting Arguments Examined, Debunked

Note: this series of posts is distilled from a conversation I had online, in which my responses were so over-long and verbose that I realized they'd make better blog posts. Some slight changes have been made to style, but the content is the same.

Specific Claim:

1. A controlled media, for example the fact that the press corps is rigged (just one example)


1. The press is rigged? The press always shows a bias a) to those in power, and b) to folk that get them good ratings. Bush was an exceedingly popular president in his first term, and I was kind of appalled by how networks could be fawning over him. I'm still appalled by Fox news, but that's because my bias is elsewhere. I don't like MSNBC for it's blatant pandering either, really. And CNN is gimmicky bullshit. I get my news from sources that aren't television. Television is awful. But that fact that it is ratings-minded and lowest-common-denominator doesn't mean that it's rigged. It means that it is flawed.
ALSO - oftentimes, the media is dependent on the White House for the release of important information. In the case of the Iraq War, the Bush administration was free to control most of the flow of information to the media. So it's not good, but it is hardly a unique crime.

Specific Claim

2. The fact that the government is putting in legislation pushed by close friends of the President which will severely limit the civil liberties of some groups (ie Christians, Veterans, and others that have been labeled more dangerous than the Islamic Jihad by Homeland security)


2. Inside the US, as inside any nation, the biggest threat to domestic stability comes from the armed, unemployed, and disenfranchised. In the US, the relatively small Muslim community is one that largely came here by choice, came with means, and on average is living the American Dream quite well, having a higher income on average than other demographics. Inside the US, Muslims have no reason to be labeled a threat.
However, the last great act of terrorism perpetrated against the US before 9/11, and the largest act of US domestic terrorism, came from a christian and a veteran. It's a damn ugly fact, but the militia movement that arose in the 90s was made because it was a democrat in office, someone to the left of what they wanted. Had this protest been purely ideological, the militia would have been active for the past 8 years resisting Bush. They weren't. This is partisan.
Last summer, an out of work white man opened fire on Unitarians because liberals were ruining this country. Same with the young man who shot up Pittsburgh police. Same with the old Nazi who shot up the DC Holocaust museum. Same with the man who shot George Tiller. This is rightist violence, not anti-authoritarian violence. The DHS didn't label those groups threats because they are political opposition. They labeled them threats because they have, over the past 20 years, consistently proven themselves to be threats when Democrats are in power.
Internationally, Muslim extremists are more of a threat. Domestically, not so much.

Specific Claim

3. His Chicago style elimination of people he sees as a threat ie: Sarah Palin


3. Palin's role on the national stage as much as anything led to her resignation. That Obama benefits from it is clear. But that he caused it? That's a claim with little supporting evidence beyond her own personal sentiments

Specific Claim

4. His installation of Czars which have no accountability to either the people or the legislature.


4. We've had Czar's in office since the 1970s (conspiracy theorists note the prominence of Biden's name in this article.) ALL MODERN PRESIDENTS DO THIS. To make an exception for Obama is really to dislike him for other means, and be frustrated that he's making the decisions. If you're upset about the power itself existing, then protest it in every administration since Nixon. Don't single out one guy.

Specific Claim

5. He socialized corporations AND banks


5. This isn't socializing the banks or any other corporation. That would mean the federal government would assume permanent ownership, or that the public would assume permanent ownership through the government. That isn't happening. The US populace hates it when the government owns anything, and government here isn't set up to run these institutions. The strict capitalist thing to do would be to let them all fail, but that didn't work in the depression, and I'd rather go through temporary stewardship than risk global economic collapse.

Specific Claim

6. He practices misinformation, and has supported hate mongering legislation in congress. Also, he's criminalized Christianity


6. All governments practice media manipulation. It's the role of the citizenry to hold the media accountable for honesty. There's been no hate mongering legislation, unless you count the president's support of DOMA. Homeland security is an executive branch body, and so doesn't legislate to get its will done. I don't actually know what bills you're referring to, so I can't counter with specifics. Being involved in the economy is what government does, ever since the 1930s, and even before, really. I wouldn't call any of this fascist. I'd call it government.
6b. The groups criminalized are those that urge murder, like the Army of God abortion clinic bombers. That's not a religious group, in the way that al-Qaeda isn't a religious group. Religion is a shared identity, but the purpose is different. That's not criminalizing religion; that's criminalizing terrorism.

Specific Claim

7. I'm sick of "Well we inherited this mess": put on your big boy pants and quit lying to people; or "why are you still blaming the past - if you're in power, can't you fix it?"


7. And you're right, it's been almost 6 months with Obama in the Whitehouse. He should have done a lot more to dismantle the police state he inherited. But to say that you can fix every thing that went wrong over the past 8 years in 6 months is really just to ask the president to fail. That's unrealistic, and it's absurd.
New Orleans still has fields where in August 2005 it had neighborhoods. It's been almost 4 years, in the richest nation on earth. You'd think we'd have this done by now, but we haven't. Why? Remaking is incredibly hard work. It takes time and sustained effort.
I'm not asking you to pass the buck back to the Bush Administration. I'm just asking you to acknowledge the role they had in making possible this present government you so despise. Obama did not spring into office fully formed from the mind of Keynes. The past *matters*.

Specific Claim

8. Fascists always come in under a different name and there are different types, George Bush was a militarist, Obama's more of a Machiavelli type
8a. Czars are creepy-powerful; I am upset about the Czars, i understand that they've existed but it makes me nervous to watch people being put in charge of huge areas of our day to day life as a nation and being answerable to one person and one person only.


8. Fascists come in explicitly under the fascist name. Franco was explicit, Hitler was explicit, Mussolini coined the word to describe his party.

8a.And yeah, I don't like it too, but that's a different issue. That's not about the person of Obama; that's about the nature of US government. The difference is important.

Specific Claim

9. I just don't understand how more government is the answer to big government that was promised on the campaign, or how spending more money will get us out of debt.


9. The reason that we are currently spending more money is because depressions are caused by an absolute lack of spending. The brilliance of Keynesian economics is that the great depression was a perfectly functioning laissez faire state: all savings were invested as capital. The problem is that it was a balance of zero - no savings mean no investment. The way out of the depression, the spending in times of scarcity, is to get money circulating. Ideally, leaving a depression money flows fast enough so that tax revenue on the recovery compensates for spending at the lowest point. Governments are weird, and one of the few institutions that can spend money on the promise that they'll exist to repay it. It's weird, certainly, but it is doable by nations in a way that it isn't by personal finance.

9a. Big government is always a tricky proposition. I certainly enjoy roads, schools, and the presence of law enforcement. I also like that my home is protected militarily. Those are more or less given baselines, rights made possible by government. I would really like the certainty of lifelong healthcare not tied to my employer - that'd be a right and a freedom I could enjoy if we had a public healthcare option or a universal healthcare system. Government would make the possible, and can do it in a much better way than our system currently unfolds. At present, as soon as I graduate college and am off my parent's plan, I have no guarantee of health, and won't until I find stable, salaried employment. If I freelance, my costs for healthcare go way up. If I work part time or in many hourly jobs, I wouldn't have an affordable option for healthcare. So that's a problem that big government can solve, by taking over with universal (unlikely) or introducing a public option. And then there is regulation. I'm pretty happy having not played with lead toys as a kid. I enjoy the safety provided by speed limits. I like that zoning prevents a factory being built next to my house. I'm in favor of requiring minimum standards for how companies treat their workers. And I like that companies have to pay attention to their ... environmental impact, because I enjoy a livable world. That's government that is kind of big, but provides a lot of immediate benefits.
Also, I like that we have a justice department and a state department, to conduct our internal and external affairs with professionalism. Those are large, executive branches that benefit this nation as a whole, but individually its much harder to see. Or the FDA, which though sometimes iffy at least means there is a place that can prevent poison being sold as medicine. Or FEMA, so that when shit hits the fan we have someone to respond or a place for blame. That's all big - we're a nation of 300 million. The only big government I outright have a problem with are things like the department of homeland security, which is a scary police-state apparatus thing. It shouldn't exist, and their are serious problems with the current forms of the CIA and FBI. And, oddly enough, the FCC which let telecommunications companies doing spying work on ordinary ... citizens without warrants. That scares me, because it is big and ignores constitutional rights. That is what I hoped Obama would get rid of, and again, he's lagging on this.

Specific Claim

10. I cannot say with any fibre of my being that Barack Obama sits well with me. I believe our President is morally bankrupt and lacking in any real understand of what's going on.


10. I have seen nothing in Obama to suggest an immorality - though Chicago breeds fear he's Hawaiian by birth, and that's a very different sort of multicultural upbringing from every US president ever. But that's a different ethnic perspective and national context; that doesn't strike me as ... immoral. And yes, he's admitted this nation is flawed. We certainly are - our constitution declares certain people both less than human and property. That's a flaw, and while we've amended it away, the past does not die with legislation. Things are certainly better now than they ever have been, but that doesn't mean they are perfect or that their isn't work to be done. But again, that's a perspective. That isn't immorality.
As for lacking in real understanding, I was first drawn to Obama because he, of all things, understood the internet. That seemed to me to be relevant understanding, and was something Hillary lacked or didn't care to publicize. And I voted for Obama on the basis of Foreign Policy, because he saw a way for the US to function in the world that was ... still strong but did not require belligerence or demonization. He is willing to try diplomacy first, and I think that shows a profound understanding for the dignity of other nations and for the US's role on the international stage.
As for his economics, I think he gets it. You govern differently in a recession than in a boom time, and he's doing that. But look. I like Obama because his policies resonate well with me. There are many Americans that don't go online, or live in cities, or trust other nations, and to them he may look foolish. While he is many things, incompetent is not one of them.

Obama the Dictator? Part 1: the Claim itself

Note: this series of posts is distilled from a conversation I had online, in which my responses were so over-long and verbose that I realized they'd make better blog posts. Some slight changes have been made to style, but the content is the same.

Claim: Obama is fascist, or close to it


1. Crying "Fascism" is a lazy talking point made by whoever is out of power in US politics.

2. Distinguishing between Obama and Fascists:

2a. Popularity: Obama is charismatic; so were fascists, but the similarities more or less stop there.

2b. Civil Rights violations: I'm a bit disappointed that he hasn't done more immediately for civil rights, but he wasn't in office when Bush and the legislature passed the Patriot Act, from which most rights violations stem. And it was the Bush justice department that allowed for the label of "enemy combatant" to be a loophole out of the law. I believe that current policy is under review, but at any rate it didn't start with Obama (counterpoint: continuing a flawed policy is jsut as bad as creating it)

2c. Involvement in the National Economy is a Fascist Characteristic: Involvement in the national economy, it is no different than that of many, long-standing democratic governments. England, for example, went further and nationalized *as a democracy*. France for decades supported "national champions" on subsidies. But neither of those were fascist moves, in the same way that injecting money into the banks or assuming control of GM isn't fascist. It's statist, but that is the nature of government

3. Defining Fascism
Fascism has a huge component of nationalism and militarism, historically coming from an alliance of the unemployed, veterans, and conservative politically/religiously, and historically all against communist or leftist governments. Obama has no new militarism; he made his name by being anti-war. And while he is certainly on the left, totalitarianism on the left is not fascism; it's communist, it's socialist, or it's totalitarian, but it is decidedly not *fascist*. And most totalitarian features of leftist government are missing here - there have been no nationalizations, and the government is only holding companies temporarily until it can inject taxpayer dollars into stable private institutions. Bush did the same in October, and it's a fundamentally capitalist/centrist move.

4. Being angry about the President when your party is out of power You can disagree with the president. Lord knows every American does it at least half the time. But being charismatic != being fascist, and being the executive does != being a dictator.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Airing my own Dirty Laundry

I've always been fairly vocal and political, so it is probably unsurprising that some of my teenage opinions found themselves in the local paper and are now online, in a nice sort of permanent-record way. So, in the interest of full online disclosure, here's the article.

Now, I stand by my 16 year old self. I've said many times on this blog that I believe in youth rights, that I think the voting age should be lowered, and that youth free speech matters. And I say this well aware that this is my example of youth free speech:

At the other end of the spectrum is Albuquerque High School junior Kelsey Atherton, who not only refuses to say the pledge, but stands facing the opposite direction. Sometimes he says different words or makes additions to the pledge. When it comes to "under God," Atherton says "under god/s, under goddess/es, or lack there of."
Atherton says he stands backward because he is angry about Bush's re-election and the war in Iraq. "Absurd" is the word he uses to describe the war and the government's handling of Hurricane Katrina. He makes additions to the pledge to focus on what he sees as a narrow interpretation of God. The pledge should have either no religion or more inclusive language, he says. He even goes so far as to compare it to fascist chanting.
There are explanations for all of these; I'll go briefly through each one.
  1. "Under God/s and/or Goddess/es or lack thereof". I'm Unitarian. I have always been aware of a plurality of beliefs and belief systems, so the adoption of a formal procedure in public school to honor a very narrow interpretation of God, perhaps more broad than the Abrahamic Deity but not terribly so, is offensive as it alienates. It excludes the diversity that we as a nation cherish and celebrate, so that's why I tried to be more inclusive with my coverage of religion in the pledge. ALSO - it throws the meter of the pledge way off to say it, which helps highlight the fact that even "under God" throws off the pledges meter. "Under God" is a Cold War edition to the pledge urged by the Knights of Columbus as a way to further distinguish the US from the secular philosophy and government of Communists, specifically the USSR. The Cold War is over; if we are to still have a pledge, we don't need it to contain that.
  2. We don't really need a pledge. It is a weird national ritual, and it seems like the kind of thing we as a nation make kids do because they are too young to question it, and powerless enough to not object to it. While it isn't actually a bad thing to say (I have a copy of the original, pre-"under god" version in my room), I think it is a bad thing to ask people to say when they don't know what it means. That, to me, makes it fascistic - it asks for unquestioning devotion to a symbol of a nation, and then to the nation itself, does so with a divine mandate, and it is as a matter of course done nationally by children who can get in trouble for not joining it. That's disturbing, and it is kind of what kings do. We as a nation were founded on loyalty requiring consent - we left a nation that had abused our loyalty, and we fought a war with them because they were surprised we'd questioned the arrangement. Ritual, unexamined chanting does not have a place in our democracy.
  3. Protesting the Presidency of George W. Bush. I've never denied my partisan identity, and I will stand by my belief that George W. Bush is among the worst presidents this nation has ever had. While I disagreed broadly with most of his policy decisions, Iraq and Katrina stand as failures that go beyond policy approach. The Iraq War has a long litany of problems - foremost in my mind is how destabilizing and unnecessary it was, and how poorly planned it was. As for Katrina, it was the exact kind of natural disaster that we as a nation should have been able to handle. I sincerely think presidential neglect played a part in the destruction, alongside many, many other factors. So that's why I felt the need to have a symbolic protest. But the question will come to my choice of the pledge as forum for protest.
  4. The Pledge in Public schools is almost-tailor-made for petty dissent. It is short, daily, and overtly national. It's done during homeroom, which is a dead time in the academic day anyway. It is done amongst a group of peers. All of these facilitate the use of the pledge as a way to express a political opinion, with a minimum of effort, to one's peers (among whom one's opinion is important), without causing any substantive problems. I did it because I was upset (as many teenagers are), but also because I was upset politically (as I can be), and because I really, really needed to show that I was intellectually not on board with the leadership and actions of my nation. And that hurts, to care about a nation and feel so alienated from it's conduct that even joining in a morning ritual becomes hard. That's a political opinion that matters, and I'm pretty sure that the pledge is as good a forum as any to voice it. It did exactly what I needed a symbolic gesture to do, and it helped me keep my head through the other inanities of high school. That, I think, is reason enough.
And so it's out there and acknowledged. A political young adult was a political teenager. And while I deliberately try to be less aggressive, alienating, and partisan now, I think my actions as a youth were justified, were appropriate, and played a valuable role in shaping my present political identity.

Friday, July 3, 2009

GA Postlude

I spent today in San Francisco visiting an old friend. She's smart, and a year and a half shy of graduating from a university in Mexico City. We've been in contact for about four years, though we've seen each other hardly at all. In the total of our years of correspondence, we had somehow avoided the topic of religion. This is odd, especially for someone so focused on religion as myself, but today afforded us the opportunity to talk about it for hours. She was all questions, and so the topic became Unitarian Universalism. Within half an hour, she was fascinated. She'd never heard of the religion before outside of myself, and I had a hunch that given the right minister or the right congregation, she might actually have felt comfortable there. It was a highlight for me, to see someone so open to the religion as an entity unto itself, instead of a reaction against past unpleasantness. This, I think, is how we grow - casually, offering pluralistic spiritual fulfillment to all, not just those who have already tried and been burnt by religion.


Walking back from the BART, I was talking one of the friends I was staying with. I mentioned seeing the San Francisco Unitarian Universalist Church, and she mentioned having been UU until she was 10. I asked her why she left, and she said that the church she had belonged to did not believe in background checks for child care workers. This developed into a problem, and the family left the faith because a lofty ideal failed the church so utterly. This is how we shrink, and this is what has kept us small.