Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Burma, Way After the Fact

I've been reading the New York Review of Books article on the Human Rights Watch report about the crimes committed by the Burmese government against Burmese citizens.

I knew at the time that something extremely bad was happening in Burma. I knew that there were protests and that the military government was repressing them violently, but I didn't know the details.

(Much of what happens in the world I experience like this, as a vague set of images and curt, inaccurate narratives.)

Now that I know the details I am angry and astounded. It's sort of a strange way to react in that the world is full of badness which varies in degree but derives from the same essence, whereby the will and desire of the population is ignored and dissent is punished, in some cases with violence.

But whenever you consider any of these cases, as I've done with the incidents in Burma, and you bracket out the fact that they're not novel, it arouses a tremendous amount of astonishment.

I mean -- people, normal fucking people, gathered in the streets to protest some policy changes. And the government decided to get them to stop by shooting them. They shot students, they shot priests. Paramilitaries ran people over in the street.

How is that human beings arrive at the conclusion that these sorts of actions are a good idea? I realize that's a simplification. There are reasons that people do these things; in fact I think they're obvious. It's just that none of them are any good. There just isn't a case to be made that the benefit of shooting protesters in this sort of situation is worth the cost. (I realize that it's obviously wrong, I'm just trying to point out how there's no way to keep the justifications that government offered for their actions afloat -- the gov't could only offer a cost/benefit justification, since a moral justifications is pretty much a non-starter.)

But my point is that almost nothing, personally or collectively, is worth doing this sort of horrible shit to people -- using machines like guns to tear their bodies apart, to extinguish living beings. That's an obvious statement, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be repeated. In fact, given that it's so easy to be silent about something which is apparent to everyone, it's obviousness might even be a reason to be vigilant about repeating it.

Moral Hazard? Is that the word?

So -- the internet, to me, has largely been an indirect education in economics. There are a lot of economic bloggers, delong, dean baker, paul krugman, greg mankiw, tyler cowen, calculated risk out there, and political blogs, and even pop culture blogs, are sodden with economic concepts and figures.

One of the things I've learned about is how economists view recessions. There is a certain hard-line attitude that conservative (and some liberal) economists take toward recessions. In this attitude, the recession is viewed as a sort of cleansing -- people got too excited, investment went where it shouldn't have, and those who invested poorly must reap the consequences of their stupidity. It's a typical republican/conservative belief.

But the counter argument, which I find convincing, is that the suffering that results from recession is neither necessary nor truly instructional. Brad Delong gives a really good treatment of why this is the case, but I'm too lazy to look it up.

One way to think about the argument and counter argument about recessions is through the lens of the differing responses to the depression made by the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations.

Hoover said the government couldn't do anything and the market just had to sort itself out. Roosevelt felt otherwise.

My own feeling is that this idea that the people who suffer in recessions deserve to suffer is entirely repellent.

But . . . there is something about the disclosure, in extremely stark terms, by various investment companies, Merryl Lynch, UBC, that French company blaming half its losses on a rogue trader, of tremendous losses satisfying. I don't find it satisfying out of schaedenfreude. I find it satisfying because public language about the economy during a bubble is so profoundly opaque and evasive. I consider myself reasonably well informed and reasonably cynical, but when people, even flaks, even morons, argue points in public vigorously, they muddy the waters such that maintaining clarity about the state of the world is difficult. That's my experience anyway.

So when you have these almost confessional reports of huge losses, there's something of the triumph of reality over spin in that.

Even though this by no means calls for us not to act in the face of recession, I think it's good for our souls to have the ugly truth so nakedly thrust into the public sphere.

Friday, January 25, 2008

What's going on with Hillary?

Just to add my own perspective on the turn the democratic primary has lately taken.

I'm disturbed by it. I was never as engaged in a primary as I am in this one, so I don't have a sense of how it compares, but Bill Clinton's attacks on Obama, vis a vis Las Vegas, and Hillary Clinton's dissimulation about what Barack Obama said about Reagan, and, finally, this strange move over delegates in Michigan and Florida, I find deeply disturbing. Maybe it's normal, but I hate it. It seems almost as if the Clinton's being smart people have seen what Karl Rove/Swift Boat Veterans for truth did, what the republican party did in Florida in 2000 and said to themselves, we understand that . . . and we can do it too.

I maybe didn't even realize it until I started writing here, but, in truth, I find it deeply demoralizing. I'm in tune with Clinton's platform, and I will vote for her against which ever Republican wins their nomination, but one of the most important aspects of replacing George W. Bush with a democrat has to be that it would represent a collective refutation of his politics above all else approach to governance. If the democratic nominee wins the general election with the same tactics Hillary is using in the democratic primary, we will have a better president and generally more just policies, but we won't have extracted ourselves from this postmodern, cable-tv-addled mindset that the present administration has pressed onto the national consciousness.

I don't think Barack Obama is any kind of transcendent figure and I have serious doubts arising from his occasional incoherence, but to the extent that he seems to me now to be more reasonablethan the Clintons, I'm leaning more strongly toward him than I have toward any of the other candidates so far in this race.

I'm actually deeply curious about the degree to which the present direction of the Clinton campaign will penetrate the non-internet-grounded political junkie segment of voting democrats. I wonder how other people are feeling.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

My drop in the ocean

Dear Senator Reid,

I'm writing to express the depth of my dissappointment in your willingness to move forward with legislation that offers retroactive immunity to telecom companies that helped the Bush administration spy on citizens.

I understand that compromise is an important part of getting things done in politics, but this sacrifices too much. Why do we have laws if the president's word can immunize citizens and corporations who commit crimes?

Secondly, the Democratic majority has failed to produce the results that voters expected following the 2006 elections. Why do you let Republicans filibuster good legislation without paying any political price? You need to stand up to them.

I raise the above point because my enthusiasm for your leadership, which was once high, is close to broken, now that I read you're going to apply to Christopher Dodd measures that you should have been applying to Republican filibusters in the past.

I just don't understand why you're doing the things you're doing.


Tim Sullivan
San Francisco, California

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

I am taking care of a baby and watching TV and my back hurts and I have the following observation to make

Star Trek: Voyager is like The Office except some of the people are aliens and it's not trying to be funny.

There was a guy on an episode today named Chull. If I have another kid maybe I will name it Chull. Maybe Chull will be Gwen's new nickname.