AUG
22
2012
Something That’s Been Bothering Me For a Few Years Now…

Christine O’Donnell went on TV with her usual claptrap about how Obama is a Marxist and Soledad O’Brien (who is on a huge streak of calling Republicans out in exasperation lately) rolled her eyes. In the clip, we don’t see the subject get pressed too much further, but this has been annoying me for a long time.

These nostalgic Reagan-worshippers just can’t seem to let go of the last time they thought America was in control of the world again. As Reagan joins the assembly of conservative saints along with Ayn Rand and Mother Theresa, all that he opposed is bad, all that he stands for is good. (Besides arming mujahideen in Afghanistan, but you’re not allowed to talk about that any more. Let’s just all agree that Obama is a Muslim, OK?)

Socialism! That’s what my generation remembers as the bogeyman from that show on TV where what sounded like an aging Bullwinkle would get up in a president mask and intone against the Evil Empire and so on.

The Tea Party loves to talk about socialism. To wit, quoth Ms. O’Donnell:

“We’re a free-market economy that’s supposed to empower the individual, let each person use their gifts, use their rewards to create a better life for themselves, instead of what Barack Obama is posing, one that punishes hard work. A tax code that reduces everybody to exactly the same…”

No one else has the intestinal fortitude to say this, but what O’Donnell is describing is closer to socialism than capitalism. The key phrase here is ‘hard work.’

To begin with, no Republican politician seems to know what socialism or even Marxism is, so they assume nobody else does. As far as I can tell, socialism covers anything that is less friendly to rich people than Reaganomics. For the right, socialism has no definitions, no credoes, no theories, no working examples, and is lurking in the dark–waiting to eat your children at night.

That’s why when pressed, Republicans regularly fail to explain what it is that they oppose, other than Obama or “liberals” or “progressives” and other devil-worshippers. This isn’t an economic argument, but a series of ad hominems.

Let’s be very, very clear. Socialism does have a credo:

“From each according to ability, to each according to work.”

Note that this is a little different than the Communist credo, “from each according to ability, to each according to need.” Socialism is more concerned with the people owning the means of production than necessarily ensuring an equality of outcomes. It does try to limit the development of gross inequalities, though. “Redistribution of wealth” from rich to poor–during peacetime, anyway–is something that really only works on a capitalist society that has embraced some measure of ‘social democracy,’ which is a mixed economy with government services supported by progressive taxation.

With all this in mind, we can clearly see that ours is neither a purely capitalist nor in any way socialist economy; we have a social democracy whose social benefits are being threatened by the tremendous tax cuts pushed through in the years before and after the turn of the millennium. Wealth can also be redistributed from the commonwealth to private hands. It usually doesn’t turn out well.

Here’s the sticking point: our tax system actually does penalize (hard) work. But that’s not an Obama-instituted change; that happened most recently and shamelessly when capital gains taxes were slashed almost in half–between 1998 and 2003, that rate went from 28% to 15%. This is how a millionaire like Mitt Romney gets away with paying less than 15% in federal income tax while middle-class families might end up paying over 15%. Wages–money you make from actually working–are taxed on a totally different schedule that includes a top marginal rate of 35%. Reagan, by the way, hacked and slashed the top marginal rate on income from 70% all the way down to to 28%, culminating just after Black Monday happened on Wall Street; Bush’s slashing of capital gains preceded the collapse of 2008.

To quote the New York Times,

There was, in fact, only one time that capital gains were taxed at the same rates that were paid by people who earned their money by working. That was during the years 1988 to 1990, as a result of the Tax Reform Act of 1986 — a law championed by President Ronald Reagan.

To be sure, he changed his mind about unearned income in 1988. After Vice President George H. W. Bush, then campaigning to succeed Mr. Reagan, endorsed lowering capital gains taxes, the president allowed that might be a good idea. Mr. Bush and the Congress did lower them after he was elected.

In fact, someone who actually works for a living (regardless of how ‘hard’ they work) is being penalized for not investing instead of working a regular job. And investing is a totally passive way to make money; in fact, it’s such an easy job that it seemed not to make much difference whether Mitt Romney was actually ‘working’ at Bain Capital for three years as CEO. On the other hand, if the cleaning staff went on strike, people would notice. Mitt made $21.6 million in 2010; the average custodial worker in Boston makes about $29,000 a year.

If income was commensurate with work in this country, that would mean Mitt worked about 745 times harder literally doing nothing (passive income, remember?) than the guy who cleans his toilets. Even if we were to assume that executives work, let’s say, twelve-hour-days, Mitt would have made his janitor’s salary in a single day with 20 minutes to spare.

Even within the world of executives, anyone who has ever started a business can tell you that you can work extremely hard at an enterprise only to have it fail (leaving debt instead of income).

In a capitalist system, you are compensated for how hard your money works, not how hard you do. There are plenty of working-class people with more than one job who, for some reason, have yet to become millionaires despite the hard work and long hours. Not to mention the fact that small investors (and many large ones) who poured capital into the stock market in hopes of gaming the tax system have lost huge since gambling with securities (note the ironic name) became government-subsidized. Bubbles need cash influxes from small, less savvy investors, otherwise they don’t happen!

If O’Donnell, Obama, or any other politician wanted to actually reform the tax code to reward hard work (and not, say, try to make everyone ‘the same’ in some other way than “protected by the law”), they could achieve that goal very simply. End the corporate and capital gains taxes and have all income be taxed under the same schedule. Federally mandate sick and paid family leave to American workers, who work longer hours for lower benefits than any other industrialized country–and take the fewest vacations. Raise the Federal minimum wage, because nobody works harder than the people at the bottom of the corporate ladders. And if you want to get down to the nitty gritty, offer immigrant workers (who work harder than everybody else) a path to citizenship.

Stay tuned for more of my Summer Of Long-Standing Grievances.

JUL
18
2011
Are Marginal Academics Going Crazy?

The Wall Street Journal’s most popular article today was an editorial by one Professor Michael J. Boskin entitled, “Get Ready for a 70% Marginal Tax Rate,” and it was a doozy. It hearkened back to bygone days at university, when we carelessly tossed haphazardly written bullshit under the professor’s door a minute after the deadline, filled with neat little tricks and techniques designed to give the appearance of substance to whatever flimsy excuse for an argument we had to present that week.

Maybe it’s because Boskin’s article reads like a sophomore homework assignment. “First, as college students learn in Econ 101, higher marginal rates cause real economic harm,” he tells us. (I guess they don’t teach history students the same thing.) Good, we’ve established an axiom. But Professor Boskin, how can we tell?

The combined marginal rate from all taxes is a vital metric, since it heavily influences incentives in the economy—workers and employers, savers and investors base decisions on after-tax returns.

So, the metric for how much higher marginal tax rates are affecting the economy is… the combined marginal rate? Leaving aside the circular logic for the moment, questions arise: how are these tax rates combined, and what is a marginal tax rate, anyway?

The current top federal rate of 35% is scheduled to rise to 39.6% in 2013 (plus one-to-two points from the phase-out of itemized deductions for singles making above $200,000 and couples earning above $250,000). The payroll tax is 12.4% for Social Security (capped at $106,000), and 2.9% for Medicare (no income cap). While the payroll tax is theoretically split between employers and employees, the employers’ share is ultimately shifted to workers in the form of lower wages.

Later, he gives us a sample question, assuming taxes will be broadly increased across the board:

It would be a huge mistake to imagine that the cumulative, cascading burden of many tax rates on the same income will leave the middle class untouched. Take a teacher in California earning $60,000. A current federal rate of 25%, a 9.5% California rate, and 15.3% payroll tax yield a combined income tax rate of 45%.

How does that work? Well, I got out a calculator (you can, too! it’s interactive!) and checked the professor’s math:

60,000×(1−(.095+(.153÷2)) = 49,710

49,710÷60,000 = 82%, or 18% tax rate before federal taxes

Federal taxes take 25% off the rest, leaving 62% of 60,000;

100-62 = a 38% effective tax rate.

How did he get to 45%, I hear you cry? Well, 60,000×(1-(.095+.153))×.75 ends up being a 43.5% effective rate, which is 45% if you round up to the nearest odd number, for some reason. But that would mean Boskin is counting the full payroll tax, half of which is paid by the employer, entirely as lost income in terms of the total tax bill. Why, by those standards, the teacher is actually making $64,590 a year (instead of $60,000 as stated). Also, our teacher takes no deductions whatsoever.

With failures in math and logic, the bigger problem lies in the fact that nowhere does Boskin say what “marginal” tax rates actually are and how they might differ from the other tax rates he yammers on about throughout the piece. Marginal taxes are those paid on the portion of income above a series of cutoffs. So, for example, California’s citizens face a haunting marginal tax rate (on wages only, not capital gains) of 44.1% including state and federal taxes; but that’s the most anyone can pay in taxes anywhere in the state (barring property, sales and other sin taxes, of course). Now I bet you’re wondering, how many people actually pay that rate? Well, here’s a look at income inequality in the United States:

Top Percent Share Of Total Pre-tax Income 1913-2008

Source: Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, “Income Inequality in the United States, 1913-1998,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 118(1), 2003. Updated to 2008 at http://emlab.berkeley.edu/users/saez.

The bottom 99% receive between 76-79% of the wages (which is what we’re talking about here) and the same source as the graph above says that in “9 out of 10 households — income [is] below $104,696” and that the average income for these bottom 90% is $30,374 (which includes capital gains). By smoothly transitioning from the injustice of taxing the absolute richest people in the country–a.k.a. the “marginal tax rate”–to the inflated woes of a poor beleaguered California public servant (who is making, one might point out, just about twice the average for the bottom-90% bracket) and threatening Wall Street Journal readers with a projected 70% marginal rate on wages, Boskin has all the bluster he needs to distract from the argument’s essential flaws. One that jumps out at me is the following paragraph:

Nobody—rich, middle-income or poor—can afford to have the economy so burdened. Higher tax rates are the major reason why European per-capita income, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, is about 30% lower than in the United States—a permanent difference many times the temporary decline in the recent recession and anemic recovery.

Besides the intentionally misleading wording that leaves the reader to decide whether the OECD specifically blames higher tax rates in Europe for the comparative difference in per-capita income with the U.S., or whether they just operate a website that features statistics for the whole of the European Union (or maybe even all of Europe as a continent), the truth is that the rich can be so burdened. Not only can they be so burdened, but the idea that lower taxes on the extremely wealthy somehow translate into economic benefit for the rest of the economy is flat wrong. You can see exactly how flat I mean:

Average After Tax Income by Income Group 1979-2007
Source: Congressional Budget Office, Average Federal Taxes by Income Group, “Average After-Tax Household Income,” June, 2010.

You see, no matter what the after-tax income of the top marginal earners, since 1979, it hasn’t made one lick of difference in real take-home pay for the rest of us. On the other hand, the wealthiest 5% now make what the wealthiest 1% used to make way back then, and the top 1% themselves are taking in money on what, to the rest of us, looks like a vastly distorted curve.

1979, it turns out, was not only the year Reagan began to return our country to greatness by running for president, but also the year average wages basically stopped growing. Here’s the best part. Baskin acknowledges this problem, and then waves it away as if trying to swat a persistent mosquito:

Some argue the U.S. economy can easily bear higher pre-Reagan tax rates. They point to the 1930s-1950s, when top marginal rates were between 79% and 94%, or the Carter-era 1970s, when the top rate was about 70%. But those rates applied to a much smaller fraction of taxpayers and kicked in at much higher income levels relative to today.

There were also greater opportunities for sheltering income from the income tax. The lower marginal tax rates in the 1980s led to the best quarter-century of economic performance in American history. Large increases in tax rates are a recipe for economic stagnation, socioeconomic ossification, and the loss of American global competitiveness and leadership.

Back to the history books: in the 50′s and 60′s, when we were doing the exact opposite of “economic stagnation, socioeconomic ossification, and the loss of American global competitiveness and leadership,” marginal tax rates were between 94% and 70%. Not to mention the entire article is a long strawman directed at imagined increases in taxation connected to the weight of our deficit, $1 trillion of which were awarded as tax breaks to the wealthy in the last 10 years–and look how well that turned out.

So Boskin fudges the facts and the figures and the history and drips a little Milton Friedman blood on the altar of no-taxes. Who is this guy, anyway? Only last year, Boskin issued a screed on the same WSJ editorial page savaging the totalitarian impulse to destroy the truth with faulty numbers:

Politicians and scientists who don’t like what their data show lately have simply taken to changing the numbers. They believe that their end—socialism, global climate regulation, health-care legislation, repudiating debt commitments, la gloire française—justifies throwing out even minimum standards of accuracy. It appears that no numbers are immune: not GDP, not inflation, not budget, not job or cost estimates, and certainly not temperature. A CEO or CFO issuing such massaged numbers would land in jail.

Well, at least his motives are purely scientific–Boskin is, after all, a humble Stanford economics professor. It’s not like he’s in that rareified top echelon of earners who are actually paying the top marginal tax rate, he’s just a neoclassical economist with a real ideological fervor, right? Wrong.

Boskin happens to be a member of Exxon Mobil’s board of directors and has been for over 15 years. He also sits on the boards of Oracle, Japan’s Shinsei Bank, and European telecom giant Vodafone. He also happens to be the Friedman chair and a fellow at conservative think-tank The Hoover Institution, named after one of America’s favorite presidents (definitely in the top 100). So, this guy knows a thing or two about corporate number-crunching. And, history!

In Argentina, President Néstor Kirchner didn’t like the political and budget hits from high inflation. After a politicized personnel purge in 2002, he changed the inflation measures. Conveniently, the new numbers showed lower inflation and therefore lower interest payments on the government’s inflation-linked bonds. Investor and public confidence in the objectivity of the inflation statistics evaporated. His wife and successor Cristina Kirchner is now trying to grab the central bank’s reserves to pay for the country’s debt.

Most interestingly, Boskin was once head of the Boskin Commission, which convinced the government that… here, I’ll just let Wikipedia explain, it’s easier:

Its final report, titled “Toward A More Accurate Measure Of The Cost Of Living” and issued on December 4, 1996, concluded that the CPI [Consumer Price Index] overstated inflation by about 1.1 percentage points per year in 1996 and about 1.3 percentage points prior to 1996.

The report was important because inflation, as calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is used to index the annual payment increases in Social Security and other retirement and compensation programs. This implied that the federal budget had increased by more than it should have, and that projections of future budget deficits were too large. The original report calculated that the overstatement of inflation would add $148 billion to the deficit and $691 billion to the national debt by 2006.

I guess Stanford’s Irony Department is really great.

SEP
19
2005
The Angry White Men

Note: I’ve been busy and uninspired lately. Actually, I’ve been trying to pitch articles to magazines instead of working like a dog to fact-check stuff for a blog that relatively few people read. The market has wreaked its horrible toll on this blog, I’m afraid.

But don’t despair, I found this draft from a while ago about the Religious Right that I’d been meaning to fully develop at some point. Instead, I’ve just polished up some rough edges and will post a further discussion at some even later point.

Note: this is the continuation of Incredible Values.

Enjoy!

If you were to believe Pat Robertson, James Dobson, or Alan Keyes, Christians and Christianity are under attack from the evil, soulless forces of secular judges and politicians. They’re right, of course; the political power of Christians is always abutting and opposing the political and systematic proponents of secularism, one of which happens to be the U.S. Constitution. Remember, the United States is comprised of roughly three-quarters Christians and Whites respectively, so it might be instructive to think of the political kulturkampf as a parallel to the civil rights movement.

Then, as now, the rights of the minorities were being asserted against the unjust concentration of political power in the hands of the majority. Jim Crow laws were majority enacted and enforced, remember. All the same, the civil rights movements claimed new power at the expense of white power, plain and simple. White people’s monopoly on power was (and is) being diminished, but not unjustly so.

[A side note about white supremacist movements: Of course, the those most likely to suffer from this minor shift of political balance-of-power are the whites at the periphery of power, the working class whites of the type who are drawn to white power movements. These movements seek to regain that colonial advantage which would let their race's weakest to enjoy their previous advantages over other races' strongest.]

Just as the shift towards equilibrium launched by the civil rights movement threatened whites’ privileges more than their freedoms, so to has the parallel secular rights movement diminshed Christians’ political control rather than their ability to practice. The central and most instructive example is the fight over school prayer, which I have summarized previously: as long as there are tests in schools, there will be prayer in schools. But ‘school prayer’ has only one express purpose, which is to get kids who wouldn’t otherwise pray to accept Christian values.

Jesus’ take on politics was “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” but we all know Christianity has come a long way from (and since) the words of Jesus. Much like Islamism, today’s American version of Christian evangelism is a political as well as social movement. The statist aspirations of a Bin Laden and a Ralph Reed are basically similar:

“I want to be invisible. I do guerrilla warfare. I paint my face and travel at night. You don’t know it’s over until you’re in a body bag. You don’t know until election night.” –Ralph Reed, Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, 9-Nov-1991

Consider the prominent ‘Christian’ political issues–school prayer, which is about non-Christian children; abortion, which is about non-Christian women, gay marriage, which is about non-Christian marriage. Here, I’m using ‘Christian’ as the evangelicals do, to refer to the more conservative theology that dominates the ‘Red’ states and the GOP base. These battles are about preserving a Christian monopoly in the legal arena, to which their superior numbers simply do not entitle them. Ever since the Emperor Constantine, Christianity has been gained a political aspect which, though completely extraneous to the New Testament, is nonetheless an integral part of the religion.

Having established that “values” is a terrible code-word for “Christian,” we could turn to the other politically correct code-word, “family.”

First, let’s dial it back for a moment. The world runs on convenient fictions, thing that we must believe for the sake not only of expediency, but if we didn’t, that which we call ‘the world’ would fall apart. Whether these are religious beliefs we accept on faith, trusts we have in a national currency, or narrow views of history which highlight one set of achievements and tragedies over others, we lean most heavily on these lies’ rhetorical strength when we see their truth being challenged.

Liberals have a real problem understanding why Christians want to outlaw gay marriage when the simple fact is that if you’re opposed, all you have to do is not marry someone of the same gender. Well, nobody’s going to get anywhere until they understand and empathize with the other side. Let’s take a look at, for example, one of James Dobson’s Eleven Arguments Against Same-Sex Marriage (Part 1 of 5):

1. The legalization of homosexual marriage will quickly destroy the traditional family. …the introduction of legalized gay marriages will lead inexorably to polygamy and other alternatives to one man/one woman unions.

Isn’t it curious that though homosexuality predates both the Bible, marriage, and the nuclear family, Dobson links gay marriage’s destructive power to its supposed ability to bring back polygamy… like we had back in the Bible!

…After the introduction of marriage between homosexuals, however, it will be supported by nothing more substantial than the opinion of a single judge or by a black-robed panel of justices. After they have reached their dubious decisions, the family will consist of little more than someone’s interpretation of “rights.” Given that unstable legal climate, it is certain that some self-possessed judge, somewhere, will soon rule that three men or three women can marry. …Those who disagree will continue to be seen as hate-mongers and bigots. (Indeed, those charges are already being leveled against Christians who espouse biblical values!)

These Christians conveniently ignore that what they call “the traditional family” (a.k.a., the nuclear family) is an invention of the Industrial Revolution, and that what sociologists refer to as ‘the extended family’ predates even marriage. Early humans lived under arrangements much more like Dobson’s nightmare scenario of ‘group marriages.’ Agricultural societies like those of the bible were frequently polygamous and often polyandrous, and featured high rates of illegitimacy where monogamy was enforced. Extended, intergenerational households were the norm before people moved off the farms to the cities. It’s curious, isn’t it, that those we consider “Christian fundamentalists” have a vision of Christianity that’s so historically divorced from its seminal prophet and text.

The convenient fiction like the ‘traditional family’ dovetails well with the claim that gay marriage will destroy marriage itself. But if you read the critiques from the likes of Dobson (essentially that marriage will become short-lived and arbitrary more than it is already), what they’re really arguing against is the legalization of divorce. The real fear arising from gay marriage is that the Christian monopoly on yet another section of legal mores will disappear. There’s a reason the Bill of Rights is an amendment to the Constitution: the majority cannot be trusted to protect the civil rights of minorities. We realized this relatively early in the democratic experiment we call America.

In today’s evangelical movement, but most particularly in its political wing (which I refer to here as ‘Christian Patriot’) there has been an adoption of free-market capitalist rhetoric. Like the other main GOP client group, business interests, they have no intention of eating their own dog food. Much like American business leaders rail against government regulation while accepting corporate welfare and all of the legal protections and mechanisms devoted to corporate interests (including the very concept of an artificial citizen with “limited liability”), Christian Patriots rhetorically reference freedom of religion, but demand government interference in the same breath.

The Christian complaint is that they are losing their right to control legal mores. Christians, like any majority faced with a similar situation (again, a parallel to the whites of the Civil Rights era), naturally see the progress made by non-Christians not just a challenege to their position in society, but as a challenege to their fundamental democratic rights. As the majority, they feel entitled the dictate the morality of the rest of the country to a certain extent. Because you can’t come right out and say that, however, this reasoning manifests itself in two rhetorical memes:

First, that government acceptance of [insert non-Christian activity here] is the same as government promotion of non-Christian values. Secondly, they fear for their children growing up in a world of moral ambiguity where Christian and non-Christian values are presented as morally equivalent in the eyes of the government, which would lead these children to abandon Christ.

Within the evangelical community, there are two approaches to the problem of urban secularization. Loss of power is traditionally met with retrenchment–those who wish to withdraw from secular culture and society (interesting fact: Harper’s noted in a recent Index that the ratio of gated communities to mobile homes in 1:1). These are the home schoolers, the suburbanites of close-knit Christian tract developments of places like Colorado Springs (or for that matter, Elohim City). These are the people who are content to build themselves the separate nation I spoke of earlier. These people live lives of private virtue, working to fulfill their religious obligations without pushing their religion onto others.

But the political activists who wish to harness even those passive members’ political power are those who are not satisfied to live righteously themselves, but to force virtue onto others. Sometimes, (and the mayor of Spokane, Jim West, who spent 20 years distinguishing himself as the anti-gay pit bull of the state legislature is just the latest and greatest example), Christians have enough trouble living up to their own religious morality that they feel compelled to use state means to harass others who don’t share their Christian values.

These political operatives have appropriated the rhetoric of victimhood to try and rally Christians around the necessity of extending their theocratic control over the laws of this country. Freedom of religion is not enough for evangelicals; which is why they bristle at the logical extension of religious freedom–freedom from religion.

Pat Robertson:

“Just like what Nazi Germany did to the Jews, so liberal America is now doing to the evangelical Christians. It’s no different. It is the same thing. It is happening all over again. It is the Democratic Congress, the liberal-based media and the homosexuals who want to destroy the Christians. Wholesale abuse and discrimination and the worst bigotry directed toward any group in America today. More terrible than anything suffered by any minority in history.”

These Christian cries of martyrdom are just detestable. They ought to quit whining about the lack of restrictions on other people and worry about themselves and render unto Caesar already.

JUL
03
2005
The Most Relevant Reality TV Show Ever

Last week, I pitched a TV show to a certain famous filmmaker and TV producer, and I have yet to hear a response. So, I figure I might as well share it with you, dear readers, because based on the horrified responses I get from other people I tell about it, it’ll never get made. Much like my pitch for the Brown Bunny remake, it looks like another one of my brilliant ideas will never see the light of network TV. Anyway, enjoy:

Dear Mr. Xxx,

I was arguing with some conservatives about our use of torture on detainees in the "War on Terror," and a brilliant idea struck me as to how to explain the situation in terms the American people understand--reality television.

Since so many are convinced that our 'stress and duress' techniques and systemic sexual humiliation couldn't be that much worse than a fraternity hazing, the only way to address their argument is to have them put their asses where their mouths are--for money!

The show would be called "A Day at the Beach in the Gulag," and in it, contestants would compete to outlast each other in a private 'detention facility' run by the show's producers. Playing the parts of detainees who are eventually released without charges (as most of them were), participants would have to last a minimum amount of days to qualify for any prize money; then the remaining contestants try to outlast each other for the largest share of the prize pool. Contestants would be treated according to the minimal dictates of Bush's policies, but no specific type of measure could be applied without two videotaped testimonials from former prisoners or officers that such measures were used. Once a contestant cries uncle, they are immediately taken to the "Geneva Convention camp" where "[p]risoners of war shall be quartered under conditions as favourable as those for the forces of the Detaining Power who are billeted in the same area." As the contest goes on, we'll be seeing as much of the Geneva Convention camp as the torture chambers. (Of course, the losing contestants have to stay detained until the winner cries uncle.)

The torture techniques the military uses now are designed to survive description by soundbite (sleep deprivation doesn't SOUND that bad), but actually watching people go through them is a different matter. (In Hollywood parlance, think 'Crossfire' meets 'Fear Factor' by way of Milgram's famous prison experiment.)

Your ideal contestant is a militant right-winger who would love to get their hands on a few thousand bucks for proving that the conditions at Camp X-Ray are no big deal. The appeal of this show is cross-factional, because conservatives will root for the contestants and liberals will root for the producers, but either way our human rights abuses will be well-detailed and widely known.

In order to get the right kind of contestant, we'd put out the call for this show as "the McCain-Hussein Challenge" and play up the opportunity for participants to soapbox about liberal whiners, etc. (perhaps a meme will be planted in the right-wing blogosphere?).

The most fun segments of the show will be the psychological torture. Think Red State POWs at the hands of Blue State troops; those who scoff at interrogators playing Christina Aguilera might feel differently when we blast NPR or hire the local Communist party to yell at them 24 hours a day, etc. The psy-ops possibilities are endless--celebrity torturers? Sexual humiliation on national TV? Bible abuse? Flag desecration? The sky's the limit, really.

It would be a great way to hold people at their word when they're being flip about torture, but it would also be riveting entertainment. Long story short, this would require a fair amount of money in consulting fees for lawyers and doctors (we'd need them on staff and on camera during the producers' televised torture strategy sessions), but otherwise the actual production costs are pretty low. I raided my living room sofa, but it looks like I may need some help.

When I mentioned this idea to a roomful of people at a party last night, one of them said to me, “you just want to torture conservatives.” Not true–I just want to torture people who approve of torture. I couldn’t think of any better way to get my point across, do you?

JUN
17
2005
Peak Oil. Piqued?

Some of you, and here I’m referring to those who read lefty-type blogs regularly, may have heard the “peak oil” meme, which is rapidly gaining currency.

Bascially, a man named Hubbard predicted in 1955 that the US oil production would peak in the 1970s (which it did) and that the rest of the world would follow (which it didn’t). The basic logic behind the theory isn’t hard to follow–it takes millions of times longer to produce oil than it takes to extract it, so at some point, the exhaustible supply will start being exhausted.

Anyway, while I was trolling the blogosphere for stuff to write about, I came across Eric Grumbles Before the Grave on DadaHead‘s blog, and therein a post about how peak oil is a fallacy. So I wrote a comment which turned out to be pretty long, probably because I spent so much time verifying the numbers on a spreadsheet (make of that what you will, but I’m bad at math and need a calculator to do simple artihmetic). To wit (green indicates those are Eric’s words):

First, the statement that “OPEC nations routinely understate the amount of oil in reserve in a given field” isn’t just false, but diametrically opposed to reality:

“OPEC oil production quotas are based upon the oil reserve figures provided by each member country. After this quota system was implemented in 1985, a sudden leap in world oil reserves occurred – Kuwait’s reserves jumped 41%, Saudi Arabia’s shot up 50%, a 100% jump in Iran, Iraq, and Venezuela, and a 200% jump in Abu Dhabi and Dubai” –http://www.eco-action.org/dt/oilfut.html

Second, “did you know that there is another 2 trillion barrels of oil reserves in just Wyoming, Utah and Colorado? That number’s right. That is oil that is contained within shale in those states. It is more costly to extract than normal oil reserves.

Thing is, USGS’s estimates aren’t necessarily correct (http://channel4.com/news/2004/10/week_5/26_oil.html), but more importantly, you’re misunderstanding the energy costs of oil extraction; it’s not just about the price but the amount of energy it takes to extract the oil. If a barrel of oil takes a barrel of oil’s worth of energy to produce, the fields must be abandoned. Currently, shale wastes about 40% of its energy being extracted, transported and refined. The hope is that technological refinements will lower this number, which may well be true, but the deeper you mine, the more energy it requires.

Assuming that the oil companies can get the environmental go ahead, expect to see shale oil production beginning very soon.

Too late–shale oil has been in production for a long time. Leaving aside the Pennsylvania “rock oil” fields where Rockefeller made his first million, Estonia is the world’s largest producer of shale, followed by Russia, Brazil, Venezuela and China. (http://www.nationmaster.com/encyclopedia/Oil-shale) The problem is that not only is it monetarily expensive and energy intensive to extract, but environmentally dangerous. It combines strip-mining with tons of carcinogenic “waste rock” produced as a by-product.

Third, and most importantly, “peak oil” is about the impact rising prices will have, not that the oil wells will run dry in twenty years. Consider that Americans consume about 24.4 barrels per capita annually, compared with 4.4 barrels per capita in China (with 1.3 billion people) and about 2.1 barrels per capita in India (1.08 billion). When industrialization finally has its way with these countries (China’s oil demands are growing an estimated 12% per year right now, which would put them at about half of our per capita levels [in the next twenty years]), production will likely by outpaced by demand.

Peak oil theorists (not that I am necessarily one) are fully aware of the Athabasca and Orinoco “unconventional oil” deposits–you’re not bringing anything new to their attention. Due dilligence, Eric, due dilligence.

Here’s what I left out: it doesn’t matter if the math or even the amount of unproven reserves is wrong, the larger benefit of memes like “peak oil” is to scare us straight.

Consider the “Y2K” phenomenon. Remember when there was all this hysteria about four-digit years and two-digit years and all this horrible stuff was supposed to happen because of computer foul-ups? And then when 2000 rolled around, it looked like nothing happened and it was so anti-climactic? Well, something did happen–all that talk about impeding doom led to huge investments (and lots of employment) in making sure nothing happened–and it worked! All those lines of COBOL code got fixed,due in no small part to what I can delicately call “awareness raising,” some of it by lunatic survivalists, but much of it from sober computer scientists who figured out that this was a fixable problem if only the people in charge paid attention.

How about the ozone layer? Remember when there was all this talk of ozone depletion and aerosol cans? It prompted an international treaty called the Montreal Protocol in 1987, and lo and behold, after more than ten years of banning aerosol and other measures, the ozone layer is getting healthier and the hole is starting to shrink. I’m sure anti-environmentalists would have said that it proves there was never a problem in the first place, if the “shrinking ozone hole” story had gotten more press.

But we know that judiciously applied scare tactics do, amazingly, make a difference. So even if peak oil isn’t exactly right, we could do a hell of a lot worse than letting it scare us into cleaner energy production. Because one thing that you won’t hear from sand-oil extractors is how much worse for the environment “unconventional oil” is to produce than the “light, sweet crude” bubbling up in Saudi Arabia right now.

Read more about unconventional oil extraction here.



telegrams lost
 
ASTOR PL OPERA HOUSE RIOTS MARK FIRST TIME ARMY CALLED TO CULL CITY\'S WHEAT FROM LOW-BRED DRUNKEN FILTHY IGNORANT SHAKESPEARE-LOVING CHAFF

NOTICED @DalaiLama HAS OVER ONE MILLION TWITTER FOLLOWERS BUT DOESN\'T FOLLOW ANYBODY BACK STOP HEY EVER HEARD OF A LITTLE THING CALLED KARMA

@KeithOlbermann IDEA: RETURN TO AIR WITH HEARTFELT APOLOGY INDICTING @FoxNews AND HAVE BEN AFFLECK DELIVER IT AS YOU

WHEN WE FOUND GRANDPA MISSING WE FEARED WORST STOP THEN FOUND SILVERWARE AND LIQUOR MISSING STOP AT LEAST HE\'S COMPOS MENTIS

@MoRocca: HIPSTERS ON A PLANE STOP THE HORROR STOP THE HORROR

♺ @MoRocca: So many identical MacBooks on airpt sec conveyer belt. Waiting 4 Mac mix-up romantic comedy w/ Justin Long. Title?

@ZODIAC_MF SON SON SON SON SON SON SON SON SON SON SON

RT @ZODIAC_MF: POP POP POP POP POP POP POP POP POP POP POP POP POP POP POP POP POP POP POP POP POP POP

@EmilyEDickinson WHY CAN EVERYTHING YOU WRITE BE SUNG TO THE TUNE OF GILLIGAN\'S ISLAND STOP WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO TELL US

DADDY WENT AND LOST HIS LEG STOP THE POOR INVALID IS A TERRIBLE POKER PLAYER


 
AUG
22
2012
Something That’s Been Bothering Me For a Few Years Now…

Christine O’Donnell went on TV with her usual claptrap about how Obama is a Marxist and Soledad O’Brien (who is on a huge streak of calling Republicans out in exasperation lately) rolled her eyes. In the clip, we don’t see the subject get pressed too much further, but this has been annoying me for a […]

SEP
30
2011
The Revenge of Icarus

In the summer of 2008, I wrote a short story that was intended to be a comment on what I thought was a coming depression, where overvalued assets would ruin the wealthy and force all those paper millionaires into destitution. I got some positive feedback from a literary agent, who thought I could turn it […]

JUL
18
2011
Are Marginal Academics Going Crazy?

The Wall Street Journal’s most popular article today was an editorial by one Professor Michael J. Boskin entitled, “Get Ready for a 70% Marginal Tax Rate,” and it was a doozy. It hearkened back to bygone days at university, when we carelessly tossed haphazardly written bullshit under the professor’s door a minute after the deadline, […]

MAY
12
2011
Protected: ZKY Teaser

There is no excerpt because this is a protected post.

MAY
06
2011
Meet The New Boss, Same As The Old Boss

I’ve decided to resurrect my dear old blog, now a rambunctious and neglected eight-year old–today! On May 6th in 2003, I decided to start a blog instead of sending my friends links to stuff via Instant Messenger. Back, then, I had to carry these posts uphill both ways; I built my own blog software and […]

SEP
22
2009
This Ought To Be A Healthy Debate

So the President unveiled his health plan(s) to what I thought was an incredible display of bravery on the Republicans’ part, and I’m jealous. I remember what it felt like to torture the substitute teacher from the back of class, yelling out “you lie!” and holding up signs and so forth. These people are really […]

AUG
20
2009
According To My Careful Prosthesis

Like you, I was very concerned about the well-being of crazy right-wingers this summer. Their favorite party out of office, a Democratic super-majority in the Senate, the stock market dragging its feet—how were we, as a nation, going to keep these people off the streets? By staging a gigantic nation-wide debate about healthcare, that’s how. […]

MAY
06
2009
Web 2.1

Usually I talk about politics here, with slight detours into science or arts or things like that, but on the sixth anniversary of Casual Asides, I’ve decided to turn to the foundational element of this blog: technology—specifically, the World Wide Web. Six years is a long time on the Internet, and even longer in the […]

MAY
04
2009
Why Doesn’t Somebody Pull Out A .45 And–Bang!–Settle It?

A modest proposal for extreme and Constitutional gun control: The right is losing a considerable amount of ground in the culture wars—every poll released in the last year shows America lurching to the left on traditional issues for conservatives from gay marriage to economic regulation to opening relations with Cuba. But there is one issue […]

APR
05
2009
The Democracy of Racism

Later this month in Geneva, the United Nations will be holding what it calls the Durban Review Conference (a.k.a. “Durban II”) to “evaluate progress towards the goals set by the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa, in 2001.” Part of the agenda at Durban II will be […]

OCT
27
2008
How Can America Break Free Of The Two-Party System?

The economic turmoil of the past year hasn’t just thrown Wall Street into disarray—it’s causing ideological havoc in Washington. The two major parties are just as confused by the crisis as the rest of America, and party lines are becoming blurred just at the point where the Democrats seem poised to steamroll the Republicans on […]

OCT
08
2008
If You Plant Ice, You’re Gonna Harvest Wind

A few years ago, I bet a friend that the Dow Jones Industrial Average, an index of the leading American companies’ stock prices and one of the most celebrated economic indicators on Wall Street, would dip below 10,000 ‘points’ as a result of the oncoming credit crisis. Today I called him at work and said, […]

SEP
16
2008
Drill Up, Stupid

The component of the price of oil due to speculation was always kind of an unknown quantity. At the height of the oil bubble this summer, with prices at $150, someone suggested to Congress that up to a third of the price was actually due to market manipulation (a.k.a. “speculation”) by financial institutions, many of […]

JUN
21
2008
Top Ten Myths About Ecology

Since I spent most of my last appearance on Sirius’ Blog Bunker and all of the previous post talking about oil without too much emphasis on the greenhouse gas part of the equation, I think it behooves us all on the left side of the political spectrum to deal with the fallacies of global warming […]

JUN
20
2008
Driving Like Jehu

What drives oil prices? Everyone has a theory that suits their ideological niche—Democrats blame lack of regulation, Republicans blame too much regulation, and the rest of us wonder why prices aren’t higher than they are already. Earlier this month, Congress got an earful from a variety of oil experts on both sides of the ideological […]

JUN
01
2008
I Don’t Believe In Bullshit

In 1517, a young monk named Martin Luther, began a new era in Christianity by declaring his independence from what he saw as the excesses and iniquities of the Roman Catholic Church. Having kicked off the Reformation by nailing an itemized list of complaints to a church door, Luther challenged not only the orthodoxy of […]

MAY
06
2008
Knock On Wood

It’s Casual Asides’ 5th anniversary. Consider (with the new word count feature at the bottom of each post) that at this point, I’ve written about 260-odd posts and hundreds of thousands of words, enough to fill a decent sized book. That’s gotta be worth something, right? I pause here to consider that although I like […]

MAY
03
2008
Bulls in the China Shop

It’s hard to watch the news lately, because it’s just an interminable vivisection and slow broil of the Democratic candidates, thanks to Hillary’s stalwart refusal to do the math. C’mon, folks, it’s all on CNN’s delegate counter game, which has helpfully added a feature which lets you see exactly why Clinton needs a 66% margin […]

MAR
09
2008
Any Minute Now, Amos ‘n’ Andy Broadcasts Will Reach Planet X!

Dear readers, exciting things are happening. Here’s a quick review of the past few months. That Book I’m Always Talking About For the last two years, I’ve been writing a non-fiction book—it’s what I’m doing when I’m not posting here. When people ask me what the book is about, I usualy say something like, “it’s […]

DEC
05
2007
Casual Policy Suggestions

It’s time for me to tell you what’s good for you, besides the obvious—cod liver oil, plenty of sunshine, and switching to a ‘light’ cigarette. Start Snitching The greatest thing about the immigration debate today is that everyone involved in debating it in the media is totally full of shit. You have your Lou Dobbses, […]

NOV
06
2007
Why I Am A Pacifist

I missed the anti-war rally last weekend. I’d call it a peace rally, but nobody’s really for ‘peace’ anymore; the majority of the country still thinks the war in Afghanistan was justified, and they’re even receptive to bombing Iran. Even the majority of the country who is now against the Iraq war isn’t really against […]

OCT
13
2007
Fall Behind

Dear readers, you may be wondering what I’ve been up to, since lately dispatches are few and I never call anymore. Well, I’ve been working on a book. If you want a copy of the proposal, e-mail me and I’ll send it to you. For the purposes of this website, the proposal is to be […]

AUG
29
2007
The Rotting Corpse of King Croesus

Now that News Corp has all purchased the Wall Street Journal and late capitalism is experiencing yet another paroxysm—er, market correction—I think it behooves us all to consider the fate of the lowly Glass-Steagall Act of 1933. You see, way back in the 1920′s the market was booming—everybody was getting rich speculating in the market […]

AUG
20
2007
Everyone But Thee And Me

Welcome to another edition of actual casual asides, seasoned as usual with gotchas and I-told-you-sos. Ask Not For Whom The Bell Tolls… The United States and our allies have no rational interest in disclosing how many people we’ve killed in Iraq and Afghanistan if that number is inclusive of civilians. “We don’t do body counts,” […]

JUL
31
2007
The World Would Swing, If I Were King

The foreign policy spat between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton couldn’t have been scripted better for the mainstream media. It’s also the reason why watching politics in America drives me crazy. The great triangulation has begun. Lyndon Johnson had the Texas two-step, and the Clintons have the Sister Souljah moment. It’s one of their ways […]

JUL
17
2007
Is Virginia As Lost As Anbar?

Sometimes, it’s too easy. What kind of idiot protests that the surge is working? “AJStrata,” for one, who wrote this charming piece of tripe which I cannot help but “fisk.” So, let’s get into it: The signs abound that Iraq is stabilizing. The massacres of Muslims that al-Qaeda and the Mahdi Malitia [sic] inflict are […]

JUL
12
2007
A Rose By Any Other Name

Sometimes I wonder how many times I can restate essentially the same points about Iraq. I’ve been doing it for over four years now. I suppose I should derive some satisfaction from the fact that the majority of Americans are now against the war. Unfortunately, that’s like the majority of Americans being against the Big […]

JUL
05
2007
Oh, Pobrecito!

When will Americans learn that prison just isn’t fit for rich people? Apparently, it was these last few weeks. First there’s the Paris Hilton in-and-out again with the overcrowded California correctional system. When asked why Hilton was being released a second time before her setnece had been served, an official mumbled somehing about ‘health concerns’ […]

JUN
29
2007
Homework Over Summer Vacation

There’s been so much stuff going on in the past month, both in the world and my own life, that I feel like I fell behind in the news somewhere around the beginning of June. Hence, no posts; I’ve been working on some other things. But There are some things I’d like to address, briefly: […]

MAY
28
2007
They’ve Plucked, They’ve Sown, They’ve Hollowed Him In

The thrashing of Iraq continues. Today is Memorial Day, when America traditionally celebrates the deaths of its military men and women by going to the beach and wearing funereal shades of white and so forth. Speaking of symbolic dates, I propose a new slogan for the anti-war marchers for the summer season: “Out By September […]

MAY
18
2007
Change A Light Bulb, Save Darfur

I can’t quite put my finger on why I’ve singled Republican Presidential candidate Duncan Hunter out as my bête noire, but I have, so deal with it. Hunter isn’t as dangerous to civil rights as, say, Sam Brownback, or as connivingly amoral as Rudy Giuliani, but there’s something about him that just rubs me the […]

MAY
10
2007
If The Hoods Don’t Get You, The Monoxide Will

As I mentioned earlier, the Democrats don’t have enough backbone to do.. well, nothing, and let the Iraq war end in 180 days. So, they’re going to continue to fund the war in some fashion, likely by insisting on “benchmarks,” which is now the catchphrase du jour . As with everything else about the American […]

MAY
06
2007
Four More Years

Today is this blog’s fourth birthday, and as you can see, I’ve done a bit of a redesign. The old design was intentionally cluttered, because that’s how my desk looks. But I figured that, as I say at the bottom of all my e-mails, “non sunt multiplicanda entia praeter necessitam,” which means not to multiply […]

MAY
03
2007
Ask the Cop in The Woodpile

Yesterday as I was watching Fox News, I heard a small but sharp explosion and the clatter of plastic shrapnel. The batteries in my VCR remote, which I last remember replacing sometime in college, decided that they’d had enough. A cursory examination of the debris showed the batteries were supposed to expire in 2012, with […]

APR
26
2007
Cannon Fodder

C-SPAN is getting better and better with the Democrats putting the investigations front and center. I have to say it’s thrilling to watch Republicans squirm after years of this bullshit going the other way. Kucinich, bless him, is even going after Dick Cheney with articles of impeachment. I am a big fan of this approach, […]

APR
14
2007
Gender Divides

There are a few topics I try to avoid on this blog; Israel, monetary policy, cats. But I suppose the most glaring omissions are feminist concerns (closely followed by Darfur, a topic about which I have long struggled to write without much success). I’m not going to offer some lame excuse like “I just don’t […]

APR
11
2007
Barbarians at the Logic Gates

Let me state at the outset that I am a huge, huge fan of both Tim O’Reilly and Jimmy Wales. I own several O’Reilly books, and obviously I use wikipedia all the time. I respect them immensely, and we should all bow before their superior technological wisdom. Except in this case: A widely forwarded New […]

APR
10
2007
Ultimately, The Buck Stops Nowhere

Four years into the occupation in Iraq and it's still going on, despite the mounting frustrations of all involved. My writing on the subject has begun to resemble a post-mortem on a still-living body. I felt like I was beating a dead horse in 2005

APR
10
2007
Round and Round

Being philosophically-self aware is a very special kind of hell. The simpler your thinking, the more complicated your life becomes. While other people have no problems with the inherently self-contradictory, people like me get stuck on little details like how the entire world has obviously gone totally batshit. I had this problem with the war […]

APR
08
2007
Start The Selective Outrage Machine

I know I’ve ragged on Pope Benedict before for being a Nazi, but I do feel compelled to quote his Easter speech yesterday morning: How many wounds, how much suffering there is in the world! Natural calamities and human tragedies that cause innumerable victims and enormous material destruction are not lacking. … I am thinking […]

APR
05
2007
Kill Your Idols

Oh, Christopher Hitchens. I used to be your biggest fan. I hate Mother Theresa and Bill Clinton just like you. I even forgave your support of the war in the early days of the invasion, because I knew you sympathize with the plight of Kurdistan. But you don’t return my e-mails or call. And then […]

MAR
30
2007
An Unpublished Hermit's Letters, Vol. 4

I'm in the middle of this really long, drawn out criticism of Christopher Hitchens' "I wasn't right, but I wasn't wrong" piece on Slate from last week, but it's taking way too long to pen and you, dear readers, are probably wondering what the hell is going on. So, I substitute a letter I wrote […]

MAR
15
2007
When You Hit 18, Stick to Civilian Life

I'm back from the valley of the shadow of blog death with an old favorite

JAN
16
2007
The Way To Win At Gambling Is To Leave When You're Ahead

Right off the bat, I'm going to make an embarrassing admission–several, actually. Earlier, I quoted Clausewitz as saying block|Clausewitz also said, the best way to attack a powerful enemy is to attack the weakness in their greatest strength.|block Clausewitz did not say this. Al Ries and Jack Trout said it. "Who?" I hear you cry. […]

JAN
09
2007
Dashing The Troops Against Iraq With Surging Tides

So the President is planning a surge, is he? All the warning signs are there–Dad’s friends on the Iraq Study Group embarrassed him, and he knows he has to announce some kind of change, so why not go for broke and double down on America’s military future? So The SurgeTM gets floated in some neoconservative […]

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