Archive for March, 2005

Hitch Scores

Tuesday, March 29th, 2005 by nick

I have been relieved of the necessity of commenting on the Terry Schiavo case by Christopher Hitchens, than whom no one has or could write a more viciously hilarious summing up. The opening paragraph of Easter Charade, his article in Slate, is classic Hitchens:

The immediate crisis has apparently passed. But all through Easter Sunday, one had to be alert to the possibility that, at any moment, the late and long-dead Terri Schiavo would receive the stigmata on both palms and both feet and be wafted across the Florida strait, borne up by wonder-working dolphins, to be united in eternal bliss with the man-child Elián González.

Democracy is so confusing

Friday, March 18th, 2005 by nick

Very funny article in the SF Chronicle today about what a bummer it is, all this democracy catching on in the Middle East. It’s making it hard to organize anti-war demonstrations. The article doesn’t intend to be funny, but I found it hilarious. Here’s a quote:

“(The movement) was on the verge of taking off again a couple of months ago around the inauguration, but then the Iraqi elections confused the picture, ” said Stephen Zunes, a political science professor at the University of San Francisco and an expert on both social movements and Middle Eastern politics. “It is pretty moribund now.”

Money will always talk

Friday, March 18th, 2005 by andy

Posted by Andy

To paraphrase Lord Acton, all political money tends to corrupt; absolute
money corrupts absolutely. And of course you and the loathsome Ralph Nader are
right: Big money is a distorting influence on the political economy. But alas, it
was ever so, and unless power is to flow exclusively from the barrel of a gun
or a benevolent socialist politburo it always will be. It also could be
worse. The Big Boys who pour money into politics are anything but monolithic;
conflicting interests are usually if not always in play. The trial lawyers vs. the
pharmaceutical and medical industries for instance.

As it happens, the conventional wisdom about the need for some regulation
of free markets–fetters if you will–is neither liberal nor conservative,
simply a truism. It’s obviously a matter of choice and degree, but some rules and
oversight are absolutely essential to avert economic chaos; only a
sentimental, utterly laissez-faire anarchist could think otherwise. The SEC, to cite
only one of many examples, is hardly designed to serve corporate greed or protect
corporate monopolies.

Of course, in our gloriously sloppy democratic system, stupid and
destructive laws get enacted, and the pernicious influence of big money in big
politics is undeniable. But while there is no way to eliminate it completely, in a
representative capitalist democracy, it can be, and to some degree is,
mitigated, over time, through the political process. More transparency might help, but
probably not much. Much disclosure is already legally required, and the
mainstream media as well as the blogosphere are full of transparency as it is; you
can’t read a legislative story in the New York Times or the Washington Post
without finding out in detail who’s giving what to whom, which special interest
wants this or that piece of legislation, what politician took favors from
what interested party. We’re already bombarded with a surfeit of information. Of
course big money does influence the public dialogue and in some, though by no
means all, cases can in effect buy elections or favorable treatment. But a lot
of voters–perhaps most–don’t really care that much about the source of
contributions; people vote mostly for other reasons, like perceived personal or
societal interest, however the battle lines are publicly arrayed. Bush, by the
way, went along with the steel tariff (later rescinded) and the huge
agricultural subsidies (which he’s now trying to reduce) primarily for reasons of
electoral politics, the affections of steel workers and farmers and the local
economies that depend on them, not because he was paid off by Big Steel or Big
Agriculture.

I don’t doubt your informed and no doubt well-warranted indictment of the
music industry, but I’m a little perplexed by your fervent opposition to the
bankrupcy bill. It sounds as though your general espousal of unfettered free
markets would not preclude “fair regulation of the abuses of the credit
industry.” But you seem to oppose any reform of the bankruptcy laws to curb the
obvious abuses on the other side, on grounds that the bankruptcy epidemic is an
effective antidote to the depredations of Visa and Mastercard. It sounds to me
like another manifestation of the culture of victimology: People who get in
over their heads are helpless pawns. And the distillers are responsible for
alcoholism, the tobacco companies are responsible for people who undermine their
health by freely choosing to smoke, a municipality is responsible for somebody
who slips and falls on the sidewalk or a kid who hurts himself in a
playground, bartenders are responsible for a patron who gets drunk and kills somebody in
an auto accident, etc. etc. etc.

So the credit card companies lure the unwary into a morass of debt by
cynical offers of excessive credit. An ethical shortcoming, no doubt, but snake
oil salesmen will always be with us, and caveat emptor: You don’t have to be
Alan Greenspan to understand the hazards of piling up mountains of debt or
figuring out what you’re likely to be able to repay. It’s true that unforseeable
crises, like huge medical bills, can devastate a family’s finances, but the
bankruptcy reform by no means eliminates the option, just tightens the rules to
curb the most egregious abuses and, as you note, quite reasonably requires some
repayment by more affluent debtors. You don’t even have to be poor to void a
debt entirely. Advocates of easy bankruptcy, like your incongruous bedfellow
Teddy Kennedy, are only encouraging the flight from personal responsibility. And
whether or not the credit card companies and banks and retailers are big bad
wolves, when they’re forced to eat bad debts the costs are necessarily passed
on to the over-all economy, i.e., the rest of us.

I checked out Reynolds, and found that he enlisted a former student who
happens to be a bankrupcy lawyer to help make the case against the reform,
which seemed to me rather like asking a medical malpractice lawyer what he thinks
about a cap on pain-and-suffering awards.

The Ideology of the Apostate

Friday, March 11th, 2005 by nick

This article at Policy Review is an illuminating treatise on the death, not only of God, but of belief and faith in general, and its deathly substitute, the hidden ideology of “tolerance”. It is an article, appositely, about the decline of atheism. Shunryu Suzuki, a Japanese Zen master who brought Zen to the U.S., says, in Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, “I discovered that it is necessary, absolutely necessary, to believe in nothing.”, which might seem like a vindication of the evolved, modern mind-set. However the rest of the quote from Suzuki goes on to say, “That is, we have to believe in something which has no form and no color – something which exists before all forms and colors appear.” It may not be Christian, or Islamic, but this is a declaration of faith, and it is the opposite of the post-modern “faith” that all supernatural beliefs are equal, and therefore meaningless. The whole article in Policy Review is very much worth reading. Here is a quote:

Lacking any sense of purpose, Delsol asserts, modern man enshrouds himself in technological and physical comfort, leading a life that is at once free of risk and mediocre, mouthing vapid, unexamined clichés. These she calls “the clandestine ideology of our time” — clandestine because no overt adherence to ideology is now socially permissible. Yet the banishment of the economy of ideology, she astutely remarks, has encouraged a black market to flourish in its place: “This underground moral code is saturated with sentimentality yet arbitrarily intolerant.” The code is a close cousin to the political correctness of the Americans, and it is the unspoken foundation of the modern European welfare state — a society predicated on an ever-expanding sense of entitlement:”

Money Talks

Thursday, March 10th, 2005 by nick

Political polorization may be the fashionable meme, but sweet, bipartisan fellowship still reigns in the arenas that matter.

The conventional liberal wisdom about free markets and governmental regulation, is that unfettered free markets need to be reined in by the government for the protection of the poor and the powerless, against the depredations of corporate greed. But when you look at the real-world regulations imposed by the government on the free market, it looks more like their primary purpose is to serve corporate greed and protect corporate monopolies.

After all, the poor, the sick, the uninsured, and those struggling to establish small businesses, are not major contributors to national political campaigns, whereas, the music business, the credit card industry, the lawyers, the software industry, the education industry, the medical industry, the insurance industry, and the political industry (now being protected by the McCain-Feingold Incumbent Protection Act), among many others, are major contributors.

Why did President George W. Bush, much-maligned for being excessively conservative, sign the steel tariff, the agricultural subsidies (which primarily go to huge ag-industry companies), the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill, the DMCA, with complete bi-partisan support, in this supposedly extremely polarized political environment?
I’ll tell you why. The most dangerous, real flaw in the whole theory of free market capitalism, is that MONEY TALKS! And who money talks to are the politicians. And what they talk about, is how the government can pass laws that will help the donors make more money and kill off their competition.

My previous post on the music monopoly very briefly sketched out a few of the ways in which large corporations pay off politicians to enact legislation to protect their monopolies. For example, Candace Corrigan, with her audio pod-casting blog, The Nashville Nobody Knows, is, without payment of any kind, attempting to give exposure to incredible musical artists who are unable to climb over, or tunnel under, the high walls of the music business empire. To accomplish this free market service, she must pay exorbitant fees to ASCAP, BMI, and SEASAC. She is forbidden to mention, in text, the title of any song that is played within one of her interviews. If she plays more than 30 seconds of a song, she must live in fear of the RIAA. She must fill out forms on a quarterly basis of how many people listened to all of her interviews that included a song. Songs and artists, it must be pointed out, that have been ignored and buried by the very same big record labels and radio conglomerates that are paying for the legislation that places this burden upon her. Even the tiny handful of artists that strike it rich, like Britney Spears and Metallica, and worthies like Bob Dylan and Beatles, are shamelessly exploited by the cabal of the industry and the government. Large as their paychecks are, they are but a tiny fraction of the profits generated by their music.

The music industry is not the exception. It is the rule. Once your business has reached a certain size, the logical next step is to make large campaign contributions to pay for laws that will protect your position. Ironically, the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation is yet another example of established power and wealth enacting laws to stifle the competition, in this case to protect the re-election of incumbents. One hand washes the other.

Why is a PHD nobel prize winner in physics, or a CEO with 30 years of experience, barred from teaching in a public high school? Because he (or she) hasn’t taken a couple of years of dumb educational courses and qualified for a teaching certificate. Because the National Education Association is a major contributor to Democratic campaign coffers. Why is Microsoft let off scot-free after committing blatantly illegal acts to destroy their competition? Because Microsoft is a major campaign contributor and lobbyist to the Republican Party.

The current bankruptcy “reform” law that is about to pass through Congress is another egregious example. I watched the Fox News Brit Hume roundtable discussion about it last night. Everyone thought it was perfectly reasonable that those with income above the median in their states should have to repay at least some of their debt, instead of ducking it entirely. And it is reasonable. But what about this. I get half a dozen solicitations a week, offering me pre-approved credit cards at 0% interest for a year, with a very generous credit line. And I don’t even have a job. Is there anything in the bill about that? Of course there isn’t. This bill isn’t about sane, fair regulation of the abuses of the credit industry. It’s about increased profits for Visa and Mastercard. The epidemic of bankruptcy is the antidote to the cynical, extension of excessive credit to those who can’t afford it. No governmental regulation required.

The conventional debate is between “liberals” who want more regulation of rampant, brutal capitalism, and “conservatives” who want a free, unregulated, capitalistic economy. But the reality is that government regulation is a phenomenally bi-partisan affair that is almost entirely in the service of corporate and political greed. I hate to sound like Ralph Nader, whom I despise, but even a stopped clock is right twice a day. He’s wrong about almost everything, including government regulation, but he’s right that money is a distorting influence on our political economy.

The blogosphere is now threatened, how seriously is not yet clear, by FEC and court interpretations of clear language in the McCain-Feingold act that would categorize mention of candidate’s names and links to their websites, as campaign contributions, therefore subject to stringent regulation. When I was a mind-frozen leftist, I was horrified at the Supreme Court ruling that money = speech. But, you know what, money does equal speech. In a free market, capitalist world, you can’t take the money out of speech without taking the speech out of speech. The real solution to campaign finance reform is not to take money out of politics, but rather to make the money, and the politics, transparent. If any citizen can have free, unfettered access to information, convenientally and freely available, as to who is paying what to whom, then you have all the campaign finance reform that you need, assuming you believe in democracy. Where is the government program to provide this information, searchable, and obviously displayed? It doesn’t exist. To the extent it does exist, it exists in the blogosphere, which the advocates of “reform” are attempting to silence, if they think they can get away with it. I agree with Roger Simon that they will probably realize it’s a losing proposition, but I am quite certain that we won’t be seeing a tax-supported website anytime soon that clearly shows who is getting what from big-time political contributors, and how the recipients have voted on relevant legislation.

So what’s the solution? There is no panacea, no constitutional or legislative fix that will prevent corporate lobbyists from buying bad laws to protect monopolies and enhance profits, like the recent laws in Pennsylvania and Illinois that forbid cities from establishing low-cost wireless networks. The only way to fight it is with information, and lots of it, readily available and easy to understand. And it’s not going to come from the mainstream media. They are part of the problem. It falls to the blogosphere to fill the vacuum with efforts like Glenn Reynold’s call for a cross-blogosphere coalition to oppose the bankruptcy bill. Nobody else is going to do it.

the music monopoly

Saturday, March 5th, 2005 by nick

I’ve been learning a little bit about the music business from working on Candace Corrigan’s fabulous new web radio show and podcasting site, The Nashville Nobody Knows, and it’s been quite an eye opener. If you’re in the music business, you’re living in a communist country. Candace’s show features interviews with artists, engineers, executives, and other people in the biz, plus song recordings that are talked about in the interview. In order to be legal, we have to pay yearly fees to ASCAP and BMI. Even though we pay the fees, there are restrictions, like, for instance, we can’t mention the name of the song that is inside the interview, anywhere on the site, or we’ll get in trouble with the RIAA. And we’re supposed to keep a log of when and how many times each interview containing a song is accessed.

Here’s how the radio networks and record labels, with a little help from their congressional friends, have set things up. In order to get airplay for a record on mainstream radio, you have to come up with around 200 grand in payola. Oh of course they don’t call it payola. That would be illegal. You don’t pay the radio stations directly. You pay a “promoter” who turns around and buys “services” from the radio station, and, incidentally, mentions your record. The services they buy are such things as getting a copy of the station’s playlist. The radio stations in turn have to pay ASCAP and BMI for the right to play the records. A tiny bit of this money dribbles down to the artist. The rest is sucked up by ASCAP, BMI, and the record labels. The effect of this arrangement is to raise a very high barrier to entry for anyone wanting to be an artist, a record label, or a radio station. If you want to be in the game, you have to come up with non-productive wads of cash, and an expensive infrastructure to keep logs, make reports, fill out forms, etc.

On the one hand, artists are willing to pay exorbitant amounts of money, just for the chance to get some airplay. On the other hand, radio stations are supposed to pay for the privilege of airing the same music. Which is it? Are the stations helping the record labels by playing their music, and therefore deserve their payola? Or are the record labels helping the radio stations by giving them music, and therefore deserve to get paid for it? Both, and neither. It’s really one hand washing the other. By moving this money back and forth, the labels and the radio networks build a high wall around their monopolies. With the money that’s left over, they pay off our congressional representatives who provide the laws that make it all possible.

And then of course there’s the RIAA, the storm troopers of the music business, but that’s a whole other topic.

point well taken

Friday, March 4th, 2005 by nick

Jeff makes a good point in response to the previous post, and I agree with him completely:

I didn’t intend my comments as criticism, only as a warning against premature triumphalism. Stirring this pot has the potential to make things worse rather than better, and we will not be able to control the outcome. That is not to say the pot isn’t worth stirring. I think the Bushies right now are justified in being pleased with themselves; I just don’t think they should feel they are home free yet.

So?

Friday, March 4th, 2005 by nick

I wrote my brother Jeff this email:

So what do you say? Are you taking the party line that the extraordinary events in Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Palestine have nothing to do with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, or, as some are even saying, are happening in spite of the Bush policies?

Jeff replied with a very reasonable, nuanced analysis of cause and effect, which you can read below. I replied with:

I can’t disagree with any of that, except for the generally pessimistic tone. And I must note that in order to maintain a pessimistic attitude towards developments in the Middle East and the world, it has been necessary to move the goalposts a considerable distance. Now, instead of tens of thousands of casualties, millions of refugees, hopeless quagmire, an uprising of the Arab street, etc., etc., critics are left with “Disrupting authoritarian rule, though, is not the same thing as producing democratic rule.”

Here is Jeff’s take on it all:

I think there is clearly some connection although, as always in such things, it’s hard to sort out all the causal variables. Clearly Bush’s Iraq policy had nothing to do with Arafat dying. That was a tremendously positive development all by itself. And events in Lebanon seem substantially driven by this assassination that doesn’t seem to me to have been provoked by the Iraq policy. But I think it is clear that the Iraq invasion and the elections in Iraq have had an effect on the region. Bush’s jawboning about democracy and being consistent about at least mildly pressuring friendly countries about that also seems to me to be having an effect. This happened in Latin America at the very end of the Reagan administration and throughout the elder Bush administration when first Reagan started criticizing the Pinochet government and then increasingly the US made it clear that military dictators would no longer be regarded as friendly. That really pulled the rug out from under would be coup makers all over the region. What the US stands for in real actions does make a difference. I don’t think Mubarak would be proposing slightly more open presidential elections except for US action.
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