Near Earth Archive

A backup of Near Earth Object by Paul Fidalgo

Month: August, 2011

“That’s Where the Money Is: Rich People”

Look at this! A rich guy who wants to be taxed even more! In Europe, no less! And he’s not alone.

This is Dieter Lehmkuhl, founder of the German group Vermögende für eine Vermögensabgabe (The Wealthy for a Capital Levy), an example of what happens when conscience meets reason:

I would say to Merkel that the answer to sorting out Germany’s financial problems, our public debt, is not to bring in cuts, which will disproportionately hit poorer people, but to tax the wealthy more. We are always hearing about savings packages, but never tax rises. Yet tax increases are a way out of this mess. That’s where the money is: rich people.

Something needs to be done to stop the gap between rich and poor getting even bigger.

It can be done, folks. Just look at what happens when we simply end the Bush tax cuts for the rich in this country. Regardless of what the Republicans, the Beltway media, or even the White House tells you, this is where the money is.

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Is Perry’s Surge in ’12 Like Giuliani’s in ’08? (Probably Not)

Last night I tweeted:

After all the hand-wringing over an unsettled GOP field, it sure is beginning to feel like the contest is already over.

I was of course referring to Rick Perry, who in all recent polling is trouncing his rivals, besting nearest rival Mitt Romney by double digits in many surveys. It feels natural at this point to look at the field (a universally-acknowledged weak one) and think, well, this is essentially over already.

But then I took a look at where things stood exactly four years ago in the Republican race for the presidential nomination. RealClearPolitics has the data, so take a gander:

Rudy Giuliani’s numbers are awfully similar to Perry’s thus far. Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney’s support at the time were also pretty similar to Romney’s and Michele Bachmann’s now. And like today, in August of 2007 you then had a lower tier of also-rans mainly in the single digits. Notice that the eventual nominee, John McCain, averaged a meager 11 percent or so at this point last time (about what Sarah Palin gets now, coincidentally).

The obvious lesson is to never assume what will be the case by the time the primary season heats up in earnest. So I will withhold my revised near-prophecy by predicting outright a Perry sweep to the nomination…

…except…

This is such a different situation. Giuliani was never a sure thing for a GOP nomination. The party wasn’t as deeply crazy at it is now, but it was still pretty far gone. Giuliani had the noun-and-a-verb-and-9/11 thing going for him, and was perceived to be probably the most electable of the bunch (which probably explains why Romney until recently was the frontrunner for this cycle). Yes, Giuliani had Perry-like numbers then, but that never could have lasted — he was too moderate and had too much baggage. I mean, I guess one could have presumed Giuliani was not going to wage the lamest campaign ever, but that’s a whole different conversation.

Perry today is a different story. The right wing has a stranglehold over the Republican Party like it never has before, and that’s really saying something. And for all the reasons I’ve stated before, Perry checks all the right boxes for the angry, happily ignorant mob of GOP primary-goers: he’s theocratic, anti-intellectual, anti-knowledge, has fantastic stage presence, and talks like the captain of the high school football team in some parody of a teen movie.

In other words, while Giuliani’s high polling numbers could not have lasted, Perry has no reason to lose significant steam; he truly does suit the party he’s looking to lead. This is not to say that nothing will change, or that he will not stumble, but while it is folly to make hard and fast predictions this early in the process, it’s not as crazy as it might otherwise be. This time, anyway.

Save Science By Not Talking about Science

"At last! I have discovered the formula for making the uneducated feel even MORE inadequate!"

I almost wasn’t going to read the recent Paul Krugman column on the proud anti-science stance of mainstream Republican thought. You know, “this also just in: Fire is hot.”

But it got so much attention in my social media circles, that I decided to read it anyway, and I’m glad I did, if only for the closing paragraph:

Now, we don’t know who will win next year’s presidential election. But the odds are that one of these years the world’s greatest nation will find itself ruled by a party that is aggressively anti-science, indeed anti-knowledge. And, in a time of severe challenges — environmental, economic, and more — that’s a terrifying prospect.

“Anti-knowledge” is the key. I’m going to put my political communications hat on here, and dissect what may be one reason why this issue doesn’t get as much traction as it ought to.

To folks who are into science or are a part of the secularist/atheist movement, the word “science” means something big, important, and fundamental about human knowledge. We (usually) understand that when we talk about science, we’re not necessarily talking about the products of science, but the act of science: exploring questions, testing hypotheses, developing theories, all based on observable data. We know that to be “anti-science” means what Krugman says it means, to be anti-knowledge.

But I think that when the general public hears the word “science,” something different is evoked. They think of dudes in lab coats, robots, medicine, eggheaded professors pontificating with polysyllabic words. And that’s the best case scenario. Cassini scientist Carolyn Porco has addressed the strong cultural bias against science and its practitioners, and I reported on her address to the 2009 Atheist Alliance International convention thusly:

The hurdle, according to her, was the deeply ingrained image of scientists and technology as negative, the near-universal portrayal of scientists and intellectuals as villains, as cold, or as socially inept. Often set up as archetypes to be ridiculed, hated, or feared, Porco said that popular culture usually associates science with disasters, “Frankensteins”, and people who are “too brilliant for their own good.”

“It is not uncommon for people to respond [to scientists and science] with ambivalence,” she said. “To see the evil scientist receive his or her comeuppance is soothing.”

In other words, the term “science,” and all of its associations, carry far too much baggage to be politically useful. For too many Americans, the notion of being hostile to science is not only acceptable, but validating of one’s own ignorance.

This is why we in the reality-based community should, for now, abandon the term when dealing with deniers of climate change and evolution, and the conspiracists who foment anti-medicine paranoia (such as those opposed to vaccinations). Instead, we should talk about folks like Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann as anti-knowledge, anti-progress, anti-reality. (We should not bother calling them “anti-intellectual,” because if the general public is uneasy about scientists, imagine how hostile they feel toward “intellectuals.”) These fools and frauds should be called out for living in a fantasy world, for hawking nonsense that would get snake oil salesmen run out of town, and for dragging our society back to the Bronze Age.

But at this time in our rhetorical history, we should stop talking about “science.” As the hubbub over Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape shows us, even we skeptics and allegedly pro-knowledge folks can misunderstand what the word “science” means in certain contexts.

Given all this, let’s surrender the word for now in this political debate. Let’s talk about being against facts, against the truth. Science itself will be better off for it in the long run.

In (Reluctant) Defense of Mitt Romney

EXCLUSIVE: Human beings enjoying the company of Mitt Romney

I have no love for Willard “Mitt” Romney. He has consistently proven that he is an unprincipled opportunist who bends with every minor political breeze. There is no shortage of statements he’s made and positions he’s held that deserve criticism and ridicule.

So my feeling is, let’s stick to criticizing those, and not go grasping at straws and doing what we liberals accuse the right of doing: taking things unfairly out of context to score political points and enjoy some schadenfreude.

The two hits against Romney I’m thinking of in particular have been around for a while now, but were recently re-aired by Rachel Maddow (whom I usually adore) a few nights back to prove a case that Romney’s camp is opting for The Full Thurston. They simply don’t hold up to be attack-worthy in my opinion.

The first is Romney’s response to hecklers a while back when he inartfully declared, “Corporations are people, my friend.” By itself, it seems risible; Look at that rich guy saying that evil corporations are the same as humans! Of course he would think that, that mean, out-of-touch richie-rich!

But here’s the entirety of his response to the hecklers:

Corporations are people, my friend. [laughter from hecklers] of course they are. Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to the people. Where do you think it goes? [Hecklers shout something about “in their pockets”] Whose pockets? Whose pockets? People’s pockets. Human beings my friend.

I’ll be the first to tell you that this is not the way I would have phrased this, if I were on Romney’s side. It doesn’t help that he says that said money goes to “the people” rather than just “people.” But his meaning is clear, and in fact correct: Corporations are made up of human beings who are making money. I don’t like that corporation people are making so much money and doing so at the expense of the rest of the species, you know, at all, but it remains that what Romney said is true. That money goes into the “pockets” of actual humans. Just very, very, very few.

Importantly, Romney was not saying that corporations deserve special rights, nor was he saying that corporations are the equivalents of human beings. He might very well believe those things, but he didn’t make that case here. This hit on Romney is illegitimate, and we supposedly reasonable liberals and rationalists should cut it out.

Second is Romney’s “I’m also unemployed” joke from a few weeks ago. This line was trumpeted across the political media as the ultimate bonehead, unsympathetic, Scrooge-like crack of the century as though Romney was mocking the jobless before taking a big dive into his money bin.

Okay, so Romney very well may have a money bin that he swims in. I don’t know. But if you watch the video and see it — again — in the full context, this is obviously not where Romney is coming from. He is using the jobless situation in America as a central theme of his campaign — a reason why he should be elected above anyone else — and holds events and discussions around the theme, naturally.

Now, everyone knows he’s super-rich. He’s not hiding it, he’s not ashamed of it, and in the abstract, he has no reason to be (how he got rich is another matter for another post). Since everyone comes to the table (literally, in this case) with the knowledge that Romney is Governor Moneybags, and because he is establishing a conversational rapport with the people at this event, it makes perfect sense to make a little “Ha, ha, I’m also unemployed” gag to ease any  tension and break some ice. Lord knows, Romney needs all the help he can get with that.

Or does he? Look at the video in full context. The first thing I think you’ll notice is that everyone there is laughing when he makes the joke, and they even join in. The feelings are genuine, and no one there is expressing even a hint of resentment. They get it: He’s rich, he’s running for president.

But also notice that after the joking, Romney takes a new, sincere tone, and expresses what appears to be a genuine concern for the psychological impact of joblessness. Is it genuine? I have no idea. But contrary to the usual rap against Romney that he’s awkward and too weird to be president, this is a strong moment of connection for him that is obviously being overshadowed by a political media with no sense of humor.

Again, from a political standpoint, I would not have made that joke. Feelings are too raw all around to make joblessness a gag on the campaign trail. But in context, it worked, and the folks on the receiving end were obviously just fine with it, and put at ease as they sit at a table with someone who might be the next president.

Nothing upsets me more in politics than the way the right lies and distorts in order to make their case. I don’t at all mind nailing a politician for being genuinely wrong or for showing exactly what it is they really think via some Kinsleyan gaffe. But the attacks on Romney in these two cases don’t hold water. There’s plenty more on which he can be called out, with derision and ferocity, but these are not even close to that. We lefties can and should do better.

Zeitgeistless: Are We in an Undefinable Cultural Era?

"Please don't put me on VH1!!!"

Is there no such thing anymore as a “cultural era”? Was the 20th Century the last to be filled with conveniently-labeled periods of time that help us categorize and explain in shorthand the overall gist of what it was like to be alive at a given time? We know what we’re invoking when we say “the 60s” or, as is the focus of a new piece in Slate, the Grunge era. Simon Reynolds argues that since the Web has so fragmented the ways in which the culture at large could be dominated by any certain sound or spirit, the Grunge period of the 90s may have been the last of these eras:

But what is also true is that that the media organs of the analog system generated what you might call the “Epochal Self-Image”: a sense of a particular stretch of years as constituting an era, a period with a distinct “feel” and spirit. That sense is always constructed, always entails the suppression of the countless disparate other things going on in any given stretch of time, through the focus on a select bunch of artists, styles, recordings, events, deemed to “define the times.” If we date the takeoff point of the Internet as a dominant force in music culture to the turn of the millennium (the point at which broadband enabled the explosive growth of filesharing, blogging, et al.), it is striking that the decade that followed is characterized by the absence of epochal character. It’s not that nothing happened … it’s that so many little things happened, a bustle of microtrends and niche scenes that all got documented and debated, with the result that nothing was ever able to dominant and define the era.

Indeed, says Reynolds, our nostalgia for this time (if indeed we have any) is not just for the period in question, but for the very idea of nostalgia:

When people—fans, critics, industry, whoever—look back to grunge, then, what they feel wistful for is not just the particulars of that moment (flannel, shaggy hair, down-tuned guitar sounds, Tabitha Soren) or even qualities that music seemed to have then and since lost (anger, rebellion, spontaneity, anti-gloss realness, etc). It is for the concept of period vibe in itself, for “aura of era” in the abstract. It is a nostalgia for a time when the Zeit actually possessed a Geist.

I’m inclined to agree with Reynolds’ take, but I can’t help but wonder if he and I are simply too removed from that period now, neither sufficiently familiarized with the ever-shifting youth culture to recognize an era when it’s happening. In other words, we may be too old to know what the hell is going on.

The 90s Grunge era was my teenage nostalgia era. The emergence of Grunge/”alternative” music and then its validation as a popular music form in its own way provided me with some personal validation; “Look, Paul! This is thoughtful music that you like — and everyone else does too! You’re not a freak!” (Spoiler alert: I was/am still a freak.) Reynolds is older, so it’s possible he has a broader view than I do, but his take still begs the question: Is there an “era” we are now living through? Did we just pass through one, and I didn’t notice? I’d be curious to know what you think.

The Not-Nearly-Grand, Not-Actually-All-That-Old Party

In an otherwise-unrelated smackdown of Rick Perry’s absurd claims that evolution is just a theory “that’s out there,” and of other purveyors of right wing, anti-reality dogma, Richard Dawkins included this parenthetical on then branding of the Republican Party:

I disavow the ridiculous ‘GOP’ nickname, because the party of Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt has lately forfeited all claim to be considered ‘grand’

I am totally down with this. As the Republicans childishly refer to the Democratic Party as “the Democrat Party,” just because they know it irks us, so should we — less childishly, if possible — refuse to refer to the Republican Party as the GOP. Dawkins already gives us the most important reason: there is nothing “grand” about this band of mob-stoking, heartless, reckless plutocrats.

But there are even more reasons to ditch the acronym. For example, the Democratic Party is actually older than the Republican Party! So why do they get to be the “old” party? If there’s anything that exemplifies the Republicans’ willingness to throw facts out the window, it’s this: a deception in their very nickname. Of the two, the Democrats are older (even if their “olden” times were less than stellar).

I have to allow them “party,” though. Particularly as the word is the root for the word “partisan.” Given that, perhaps we can re-spell the word “party” to “parti” just to make the point. Too much?

Whatever. Now, the Republicans are left with only the P of GOP. Can we just refer to them as “The P” if we must have an acronym? I don’t think so. It almost gives them street cred. No, they are just the Republican Party/i. Not at all grand, not so very old, and very, very much of a narrow faction.

Cory Booker: Maker of Twitter Lemonade

The mayor has indicated that, should your schedule permit, he would like to put a little love in your heart.

If you have at all dipped your social media teacup into the political Twitter river, you will no doubt have happened upon several servings of Newark mayor Cory Booker’s near-obsessive interactions. I say “interactions” because unlike most tweeting pols, Booker not only makes 140-character statements and quips, but he reacts in real time to the concerns of his constituents. He replies to criticism, engages in discussion with folks who have questions, and even uses Twitter as a means to direct city resources where they are needed. (The best example of this may be during this year’s winter storms, when Newark residents would tweet about their various unplowed perils, to which Booker would reply with assurances that he had gotten the message and was sending help.)

But while he uses Twitter in a more practical way than almost any political figure, he also comes at with with a level of positivity that is almost unreal. Indeed, I have had to declare him a master of turning Twitter-lemons into lemonade after a recent exchange. Tweeted one James Devine (a self-described “American patriot,” just so you know), in part:

@CoryBooker has 1,093,986 [followers]… but Newark police cars do not have laptop computers What a TWIT!

Wow – not a fan, clearly! But 20 minutes later, Mayor Booker had his response.

1)We do 2)Thanx 4 ur concern bout r police RT @James_J_Devine Booker has 1Mill followers but Nwk police cars don’t have laptops What a TWIT!

You see that? He not only denied the charge, but rather than dance on the grave of Mr. Devine’s credibility, Booker turned Devine’s criticism into a positive. Thank you, you hyper-partisan hack, for caring about our police. And then he even retweeted the initial criticism instead of just replying!

It’s a small thing, but it’s emblematic of Booker’s entire M.O., his whole brand. Just think what a contrast that kind of practical positivity that is with, say, other major political figures in New Jersey, those who are not as well known for their patience with critics.

Obama in the Fog

I know, it’s easy to continue to beat the I’m-disappointed-in-Obama drum from the comfort of my MacBook. But there’s a couple of new news items that are adding fuel to my sickly fire.

Let’s begin with the older item, one reiterated by Maureen Dowd a few days ago.

In Cannon Falls, Minn., the president compared negotiating with House Republicans to negotiating with his wife. That’s right. I sincerely hope Obama doesn’t really think this analogy is anywhere close to apt:

“In my house,” Obama noted, “if I said, ‘You know, Michelle, honey, we got to cut back, so we’re going to have you stop shopping completely. You can’t buy shoes; you can’t buy dresses; but I’m keeping my golf clubs.’ You know, that wouldn’t go over so well.”

In Decorah, he said: “Everybody cannot get 100 percent of what they want. Now, for those of you who are married, there is an analogy here. I basically let Michelle have 90 percent of what she wants. But, at a certain point, I have to draw the line and say, ‘Give me my little 10 percent.’ ”

Let’s unpack this, shall we? First of all, in a marriage, as we understand the concept in this century, the two partners have chosen to be together, they love each other. In politics, the two parties actually put all their efforts into preventing the other party from participating. Because that’s what they’re supposed to do.

Yes, in theory, the two parties simply have competing visions about reaching the same goal: the betterment of American society. But since what each party considers “betterment” is also incompatible, the marriage analogy is still widely off the mark.

And what’s with the “my wife buys a lot of shoes” cliché? I know Obama wants to appear “traditional,” but does that mean he has to trade in archaic stereotypes?

This smacks of cluelessness, as though he and his advisors are in some sort of fog. They can’t tell what decade they’re in, and they can’t suss out how to translate a desperate, ugly, combative situation (their relationship to the hostage-taking Republicans) into a framework that the general voting public understands. If they think they’ll get the message across with this absurd and wrongheaded matrimony analogy, I despair at how they will make their case for reelection as the months go by in this horrid economic climate.

Speaking of being in the fog, the Times reports today:

President Obama will call on Thursday for the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, to step down, and will issue a new executive order providing for additional sanctions, an official said. It will be the first time the United States has explicitly called for Mr. Assad’s departure from power.

Well thank goodness the administration is so on top of this situation. The attacks on Syrian civilians have been going on since March. I wonder at what point the administration determined that, like Qaddafi, Assad has lost the “legitimacy” to lead.

Look, I understand that foreign policy is deeply complicated and terrifyingly sensitive business. So I realize that the seemingly glacial time scale it took for the Obama administration to determine that, hey, yeah, this Assad guy is maybe not an acceptable head of state, had myriad incomprehensible factors weighing on it. But if that’s so, help us understand that. If Qaddafi’s illegitimacy was so obvious moments after he began to attack his own people (and he’s been remarkably resilient considering that pronounced illegitimacy), why was the Assad situation so different? Again, I grant that there may be a lot of good reasons why it is different, but the president has not made those reasons clear, or even attempted to make up a reason.

So again, it is as though he is in a fog. If not in reality, in perception; something clearly unacceptable is happening in the midst of a peaceful revolution in line with American values, and it’s taken months for the administration to call out Assad so specifically (as opposed to earlier sanctions). Why was it not a priority to help Americans understand why the administration was doing what it was doing (or not doing)? And if the Syrian situation itself was not on their radar, why not?

Perhaps this is all part of Obama’s fabled expertise at “the long game.” If so, I don’t even remember what the game is anymore. To me, the president seems lost in the fog: billows from the metaphorical wreckage of our economy and political institutions, and the real human wreckage around the world.

Karl Rove: Friend to Atheists (Apparently)

I think I may explode. Ladies and gentleman, coming to the defense of America’s secular foundations and the rights of theists and nontheists alike to their beliefs, is Karl Freaking Rove.

It’s important to understand the context here, Rove is trying to swat at Obama in order to give himself a little rightwing cover as he tries to dampen the Rick Perry candidacy — something he obviously is not in favor of — following the let’s-lynch-the-Fed-chair brouhaha. Here’s what Rove said leading up to the embedded video:

You don’t want to accuse the Federal Reserve chairman of being guilty of a crime punishable by death, which is what treason is. I thought Governor Perry was, you know, not very adept in his remarks yesterday. [. . . ] It’s one thing to say the Federal Reserve is following a policy with its quantitative easing that’s undermining the value of our currency, and that is wrong for America, wrong for our prosperity, wrong for our future, and accusing him of a crime that, again, is punishable by death.

And then he goes into this spiel about how Obama is guilty of less-than-artful rhetoric as well. But why hit this subject of all subjects? If he wanted to zing Obama on his rhetoric, surely there are more salient, more rightwing-ire-raising examples than this. Why take this opportunity to champion the notion of a secular, nonsectarian America, complete with a big nod to atheists?

Perhaps, as Christopher Hitchens has professed a suspicion, it’s because he’s one of us. But Rove has denied this. It does not at all stretch the bounds of plausibility that Rove actually is a nonbeliever who has simply pretended otherwise for his political and social gain — he’s been the chief manufacturer of some of the biggest, most damaging lies in U.S. history. But as we have zero evidence that Rove is a faithless heathen like me, we cannot assume.

It’s just as well, I’d hate to have any folks like him in our ranks. We atheists have enough trouble being trusted and liked.

But either way, thank you, Karl. For once in your life, you have the right idea.

Dick: Perry

"Now let's go take that fat kid's lunch money."

The tweetosphere is a-buzz over Rick Perry’s unveiled threat of violence against Ben Bernanke at the hands of angry Texans…

If this guy prints more money between now and the election, I dunno what y’all would do to him in Iowa but we would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas. Printing more money to play politics at this particular time in American history is almost treasonous in my opinion.

…and the fact that when asked if he thinks President Obama “loves America,” he responded something akin to “you’d have to ask him.”

And today Politico runs a piece dismantling Rick Perry’s claims that when he was a Democrat and supported Al Gore for president in 1987 and 1988, that Gore was allegedly not at that time speaking up about global warming. (Spoiler alert: he sure was). That’s interesting to me, but what really stood out was some of the things Perry’s said about Gore in recent years, including:

“I certainly got religion. I think he’s gone to hell.”

Wow. So I suppose Perry’s road the the White House is to be festooned with burnt bridges. Perhaps he thinks the best way to get elected is to be the biggest dick in the field. You win, sir. You win.