Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for November 24th, 2008

When crackpots took over

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An extract from Jonathan Chait’s book, The Big Con: The True Story of How Washington Got Hoodwinked and Hijacked by Crackpot Economics:

American politics has been hijacked by a tiny coterie of right-wing economic extremists, some of them ideological zealots, others merely greedy, a few of them possibly insane. The scope of their triumph is breathtaking. Over the course of the last three decades, they have moved from the right-wing fringe to the commanding heights of the national agenda. Notions that would have been laughed at a generation ago—that cutting taxes for the very rich is the best response to any and every economic circumstance or that it is perfectly appropriate to turn the most rapacious and self-interested elements of the business lobby into essentially an arm of the federal government—are now so pervasive, they barely attract any notice.

The result has been a slow-motion disaster. Income inequality has approached levels normally associated with Third World oligarchies, not healthy Western democracies. The federal government has grown so encrusted with business lobbyists that it can no longer meet the great public challenges of our time. Not even many conservative voters or intellectuals find the result congenial. Government is no smaller—it is simply more debt-ridden and more beholden to wealthy elites.

It was not always this way. A generation ago, Republican economics was relentlessly sober. Republicans concerned themselves with such ills as deficits, inflation, and excessive spending. They did not care very much about cutting taxes, and (as in the case of such GOP presidents as Herbert Hoover and Gerald Ford) they were quite willing to raise taxes in order to balance the budget. While many of them were wealthy and close to business, the leaders of business themselves had a strong sense of social responsibility that transcended their class interests. By temperament, such men were cautious rather than utopian.

Over the last three decades, however, such Republicans have passed almost completely from the scene, at least in Washington, to be replaced by, essentially, a cult.

All sects have their founding myths, many of them involving circumstances quite mundane. The cult in question generally traces its political origins to a meeting in Washington in late 1974 …

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Written by LeisureGuy

24 November 2008 at 1:39 pm

Posted in Daily life, GOP, Government

Last secrets of the Bush Administration

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Good article by Charles Homans:

In March 2001, U.S. Archivist John W. Carlin received a letter from Alberto Gonzales, then counsel to the newly inaugurated president George W. Bush. It concerned an important deadline that was looming—one that Bush owed to Richard Nixon.

In 1974, Congress ordered a lockdown on all records kept by the Nixon White House, afraid that the outgoing president would try to wipe out the paper trail of his disastrous second term and chastened by the recent destruction of decades’ worth of FBI files by the late director J. Edgar Hoover’s loyal secretary. That order was expanded four years later into a law requiring that all presidents’ papers—everything from briefings to personal notes and everyday communications between the president, vice president, and their staffers—be handed over to the National Archives twelve years after their terms ended for eventual public release. Ronald Reagan was the first chief executive to whom the Presidential Records Act applied, and his papers were due to be turned over to Carlin at the beginning of Bush’s term.

Gonzales wanted Carlin to delay the release until June. His letter didn’t say why, but Carlin agreed. Then in June, Carlin got another memo from Gonzales—Bush’s attorney now wanted until the end of August. Carlin agreed again. The extensions continued until November, when Bush issued an executive order: effective immediately, the release of presidential records would require the approval of both the sitting president and the president whose records were in question, rather than just the former. It was what open-government advocates would later describe as a two-key system: under Bush’s rule, Nixon could have buried the Watergate tapes without explaining himself to anyone.

Bush’s executive order had little to do with any concerns of Reagan himself, whose estate has since shared his papers enthusiastically. Some administration critics theorized at the time that Bush was trying to shield from scrutiny his father’s vice presidential records, which were among the Reagan White House documents—but ultimately it wasn’t really about George H. W. Bush, either. It was about the new president and vice president, and the kind of government they intended to run. Bill Clinton’s White House had been relatively obliging in matters of secrecy, handing over millions of pages of documents—down to the White House Christmas card list—when Congress demanded them. Things would be different under Bush. “I think they thought Clinton was too open, had caved in to Congress too much,” Carlin says. “It was a different philosophy.”

Gonzales’s March 2001 memo was the opening salvo in a war over information, one that began in the earliest days of the Bush administration and will continue beyond its end. The stakes, which no one could have predicted when the letter crossed Carlin’s desk, are now self-evidently enormous: when Bush hands over the keys to the White House in January, he will leave behind more unanswered questions of sweeping national importance than any modern president. We still do not know how intelligence operatives, acting in the name of the United States, have interrogated suspected terrorists, and how they are interrogating them now (see sidebar: TORTURE). We do not know how many Americans’ phone calls and e-mails were scanned by the National Security Agency (see sidebar: WIRETAPPING). We do not know—although we can guess—who ordered the firings of the U.S. attorneys who didn’t comply with the Bush administration’s political agenda, and we do not know who may have been wrongly prosecuted by those who did (see sidebar: POLITICIZATION OF JUSTICE). There are large gaps in our understanding of the backstories to everything from pre-war intelligence in Iraq to the censoring of scientific opinion at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior. And those are the things we know we don’t know—there are also what Donald Rumsfeld might call the unknown unknowns.

The thought of revisiting this history after living through it for eight years is exhausting, and both President Barack Obama and Congress will have every political reason to just move on. But we can’t—it’s too important. Fortunately, an accounting of the Bush years is a less daunting prospect than it seems from the outset. If …

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Written by LeisureGuy

24 November 2008 at 12:15 pm

Worth noting re: unions

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From ThinkProgress:

… Despite conservative fearmongering, the EFCA [Employee Free Choice Act] preserves the secret ballot election process, while also giving workers the option to unionize if a majority signs a petition to do so. Boehner is simply wrong when he says elections are automatic: Employers routinely set up hurdles to delay or prevent elections. “One out of four employers actually fire workers for trying to form a union,” the California Labor Federation explains. “Many employers hire expensive lawyers and anti-union consultants to delay any union election, sometimes for years.” Boehner is apparently blind to employers’ obstructionist tactics to prevent unionization:

– 92% of employers whose workers try to organize force workers to attend anti-union meetings and workers are disciplined or fired for leaving.
– 78% of employers force employees to meet with their supervisor to be interrogated about whether they want a union and asked to reveal which co-workers are union supporters.
– 75% of employers hire union-busting consultants to advise them on how to run an effective anti-union campaign.
– 51% of employers threaten to close the plant if workers vote for the union.
– 25% of employers actually FIRE at least one worker for supporting the union, even though it is against the law.

Such widespread anti-union intimidation efforts “takes the ’secret’ out of the ’secret ballot’ — the most common conservative mischaracterization of current union organizing rules,” writes the Center for American Progress Action Fund’s David Madland.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 November 2008 at 10:57 am

The 10 worst corporations of 2008

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Readers may have gleaned that I don’t really trust large businesses. One reason, of course, is historical: the detailed history of large businesses is depressing reading, on the whole: cheating the public, exploiting their workers, polluting the environment, breaking the law, fighting oversight and regulation, and ruining much of what they touch. We need them, of course, but they must be watched and a counterbalancing power center (an alert government with regulatory agencies) is needed.

At any rate, the report on the worst of 2008 is out. It begins:

2008 marks the 20th anniversary of Multinational Monitor’s annual list of the 10 Worst Corporations of the year.

In the 20 years that we’ve published our annual list, we’ve covered corporate villains, scoundrels, criminals and miscreants. We’ve reported on some really bad stuff – from Exxon’s Valdez spill to Union Carbide and Dow’s effort to avoid responsibility for the Bhopal disaster; from oil companies coddling dictators (including Chevron and CNPC, both profiled this year) to a bank (Riggs) providing financial services for Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet; from oil and auto companies threatening the future of the planet by blocking efforts to address climate change to duplicitous tobacco companies marketing cigarettes around the world by associating their product with images of freedom, sports, youthful energy and good health.

But we’ve never had a year like 2008.

The financial crisis first gripping Wall Street and now spreading rapidly throughout the world is, in many ways, emblematic of the worst of the corporate-dominated political and economic system that we aim to expose with our annual 10 Worst list. Here is how.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by LeisureGuy

24 November 2008 at 10:49 am

Posted in Business, Daily life

Kindle killer?

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Plastic Logic is coming out with a new reader that looks as though it will at least force Kindle to version 2.0. More here.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 November 2008 at 10:44 am

The New Deal

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The GOP has found some success in taking some lie and then repeating it endlessly until people mistake it for truth. They’ve done that with “the liberal media” (in general, the media are slightly to right of center, except for talk radio, which is WAY to the right). And they’re trying with the New Deal, FDR’s effort to move the US out of the Great Depression. Steve Benen summarizes and explains:

A few days ago, Tyler Cowen had an op-ed piece in the New York Times questioning the efficacy of FDR’s New Deal policies in addressing the Great Depression. The Heritage Foundation also recently went after the New Deal.

Yesterday, on ABC, George Will summarized the conservative line nicely: “Before we go into a new New Deal, can we just acknowledge that the first New Deal didn’t work?”

Actually, no, we can’t. Paul Krugman explained reality a few weeks ago, but since some political observers seem to have missed his piece, it’s worth reemphasizing.

The New Deal brought real relief to most Americans. That said, F.D.R. did not, in fact, manage to engineer a full economic recovery during his first two terms. This failure is often cited as evidence against Keynesian economics, which says that increased public spending can get a stalled economy moving. But the definitive study of fiscal policy in the ’30s, by the M.I.T. economist E. Cary Brown, reached a very different conclusion: fiscal stimulus was unsuccessful “not because it does not work, but because it was not tried.”

This may seem hard to believe. The New Deal famously placed millions of Americans on the public payroll via the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps. To this day we drive on W.P.A.-built roads and send our children to W.P.A.-built schools. Didn’t all these public works amount to a major fiscal stimulus?

Well, it wasn’t as major as you might think. The effects of federal public works spending were largely offset by other factors, notably a large tax increase, enacted by Herbert Hoover, whose full effects weren’t felt until his successor took office. Also, expansionary policy at the federal level was undercut by spending cuts and tax increases at the state and local level.

And F.D.R. wasn’t just reluctant to pursue an all-out fiscal expansion — he was eager to return to conservative budget principles. That eagerness almost destroyed his legacy. After winning a smashing election victory in 1936, the Roosevelt administration cut spending and raised taxes, precipitating an economic relapse that drove the unemployment rate back into double digits and led to a major defeat in the 1938 midterm elections.

What saved the economy, and the New Deal, was the enormous public works project known as World War II, which finally provided a fiscal stimulus adequate to the economy’s needs.

This may be difficult for some to wrap their heads around, but FDR’s New Deal was less effective when it was too conservative. The lesson to be learned, then, is to be bolder and deliver a more expansive recovery through a more aggressive stimulus.

UPDATE: Another post on the same topic, with graph.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 November 2008 at 10:09 am

Sweet potatoes

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Here’s one way (my fave): bourbon sweet potatoes. Here’s another:

Written by LeisureGuy

24 November 2008 at 9:31 am

Posted in Daily life, Food, Recipes

Roasting pans

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I have several pans for roasting. I use my large sauté pan frequently (it has a metal handle, so roasting temperatures are no problem if I remember to use an insulated mitt when I grab the handle), but I also have an inexpensive stainless pan, a rimmed baking sheet, and a good All-Clad Stainless roasting pan (called a “roti pan”). I use them all frequently: chickens, pork shoulder, beef roast, and vegetables (roasted beets, brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, and so on) all go into the oven and are better for it. So I was surprised to read in this post on The Kitchn [sic] that some people rarely roast things. Is this true? Yesterday I roasted a chicken, today I’m roasting ribs, and tomorrow I’ll roast some broccoli. What’s the point of having an oven if you don’t use it?

Written by LeisureGuy

24 November 2008 at 9:19 am

Posted in Daily life, Recipes

When regulators become enablers

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Ugly:

When Countrywide Financial felt pressured by federal agencies charged with overseeing it, executives at the giant mortgage lender simply switched regulators in the spring of 2007.

The benefits were clear: Countrywide’s new regulator, the Office of Thrift Supervision, promised more flexible oversight of issues related to the bank’s mortgage lending. For OTS, which depends on fees paid by banks it regulates and competes with other regulators to land the largest financial firms, Countrywide was a lucrative catch.

But OTS was not an effective regulator. This year, the government has seized three of the largest institutions regulated by OTS, including IndyMac Bancorp, Washington Mutual — the largest bank in U.S. history to go bust — and on Friday evening, Downey Savings and Loan Association. The total assets of the OTS thrifts to fail this year: $355.7 billion. Three others were forced to sell to avoid failure, including Countrywide.

In the parade of regulators that missed signals or made decisions they came to regret on the road to the current financial crisis, the Office of Thrift Supervision stands out.

OTS is responsible for regulating thrifts, also known as savings and loans, which focus on mortgage lending. As the banks under OTS supervision expanded high-risk lending, the agency failed to rein in their destructive excesses despite clear evidence of mounting problems, according to banking officials and a review of financial documents.

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Written by LeisureGuy

24 November 2008 at 8:49 am

Memory

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Sue Halpern has just published Can’t Remember What I Forgot: The Good News from the Front Lines of Memory Research. Michael Greenberg reviews the book:

Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov called his book about his childhood years, and in this incantatory title we can hear our human dread of forgetting. “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness,” reads the book’s first sentence. The crack of light may be described as memory itself — that fickle and unreplicable network of experience and associations from which we construct who we are, who others are, and what we may expect from them and from ourselves.

In the broadest sense, memory is consciousness, because what the brain is doing at all times and in all of its operations is remembering. More often than not, it is a matter of practical cognition: knowing where we left the keys, and then, once we have located them, what the keys are for. But within such memories are vestiges of our emotional and sensorial lives, an intimate network of recollections, unique to each of us, that keys conjure. The neurosystem in which this cascade of memory occurs, with its branches and transmitters and ingeniously spanned gaps, has an improvised quality that seems to mirror the unpredictability of thought itself. It is an ephemeral place that changes as our experience changes, to the point where we are incapable of remembering the same event in exactly the same way twice.

In her fascinating book about memory loss and the efforts of scientists to understand it, Sue Halpern reports an experiment in which members of the Cambridge Psychological Society were asked to reconstruct a meeting of the society that had taken place two weeks before. The average person was barely able to recall 8 percent of what had happened, and almost half of this was incorrect, peppered with the recollection of events that had never occurred or that had occurred elsewhere.

Such paltry power of retrieval in an educated, and supposedly attentive, group is not surprising. Memory, Halpern reminds us, “is not an archive,” nor does it record in real time. It lives in the brain “in chemical traces. The traces can fade…and they can be augmented,” depending on one’s experience and observation. The intensity of an experience may sharpen the memory of it, while making it even less accurate. During situations of extreme stress, for example, the body is flooded with damaging amounts of the hormone cortisol, causing communication relayed by neurotransmitters and other chemicals in the brain to break down. Halpern recounts the case of an Australian forensics expert named Donald Thomson who was a guest on a television show devoted to exploring the unreliability of eyewitness testimony: …

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 November 2008 at 8:45 am

Posted in Books, Daily life, Science

Great idea up and running in Texas

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Take a look:

In the movie All the President’s Men, a shadow-cloaked informant famously advises a young reporter to “Follow the money.”

In Texas, doing just that has gotten a little bit easier.

A Houston-based public information advocacy group recently posted the financial disclosure forms for every incumbent state lawmaker.

While the database has already attracted statewide interest, the people behind TexasWatchdog.org hope it will have a far greater impact in Austin during next year’s legislative session. If a state representative or senator begins pushing a bill seen as favorable to a certain company or industry, the public will be easily able to see for themselves where that lawmaker’s personal interests lie, said Jennifer Pebbles, a reporter for the site.

“There’s a desire for people to look at this kind of information,” Peebles said.

Lawmakers are required to list sources of income, investments and potential conflicts of interest annually. The most recent reports cover financial activity for 2007. The forms for 2008 are due in April, according to Texas Ethics Commission spokesman Tim Sorrells.

By posting the forms online, TexasWatchdog.org has made it possible for people to look at the forms anonymously.

State law requires that the commission record the name and address of anyone who requests these public documents, Sorrells said.

The policy is unusually restrictive considering that anyone can look up a state lawmaker’s campaign finance reports on the commission’s Web site.

“Lawmakers are not stupid people,” Pebbles said. “They know if they can require people to . . . identify themselves, that’s going to keep a lot of people from looking up those forms.”

The site’s staff plans to regularly update the database, she said.

For lawmakers, the forms convey a sense of transparency to constituents but can also yield the appearance of conflicts of interest.

Take natural gas drilling, a likely hot topic in the upcoming legislative session because of the activity in the Barnett Shale. According to reports covering their financial activity from 2007, several area state legislators have investments in energy companies that may have a stake in what legislation gets passed, including:

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Written by LeisureGuy

24 November 2008 at 8:37 am

Posted in Daily life, Government

Roast chicken with lemons

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I made this recipe again yesterday. Once again the chicken was incredibly moist and tender. This is the way I’ll roast chicken from now on.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 November 2008 at 8:33 am

Posted in Daily life, Food

The traditional Maryland crab dip

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The Eldest passes along this recipe, just in time for the groaning table:

This one is very, very good – the traditional Maryland crab dip:

Hot crab dip

1-1/2 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese, divided use
3/4 cup high quality mayonnaise, like Hellman’s or Best Foods
2 teaspoons Old Bay® Seasoning
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard powder, such as Coleman’s
1 pound lump crabmeat, preferably Chesapeake Bay

Preheat oven to 350° F. Mix half of the cheese, mayo, Old Bay, Worcestershire sauce, and dry mustard until well blended. Gently stir in crabmeat.

Spoon mixture into 1-quart casserole. Sprinkle with remaining cheese and a dash of Old Bay. Bake 12 to 15 minutes or until dip begins to bubble around edges. Serve hot.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 November 2008 at 7:50 am

Posted in Daily life, Food, Recipes

Clever cooking tactic

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Thanks to The Sister for pointing out this video. A simple idea that never occurred to me.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 November 2008 at 7:43 am

Posted in Daily life, Recipes, Video

Monday shave

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A traditional Monday shave: a shave stick, a brush, a slant bar with a sharp blade, and a good aftershave. And it all worked extremely well this morning: a very smooth and happy face.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 November 2008 at 7:35 am

Posted in Shaving

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