Sunday, July 31, 2011

Economic Chicken

I'm trying to follow this whole debt ceiling thing, but it's not exactly easy. Trying to figure out what's good news is pretty difficult...the news seems to only come in shades of bad. The alternatives seem to be a constitutional crisis or draconian spending cuts in the middle of a recession, along with a milder form of constitutional crisis. After all, the least bad option only puts off the next debt ceiling showdown until 2013. Now that the precedent has been set that debt ceiling increases are an opportunity to extract massive concessions from the party that controls two thirds of the government, that's sure to go well.

I'm pretty sure the most bad option is anything that would lead to a balanced budget constitutional amendment...being able to borrow money in years when tax revenue falls unexpectedly or for crises that require extra spending is pretty fundamental. But it's kind of also bad enough that I think nobody serious seriously wants it to happen...unlike completely scrapping the social safety net, which many rich bastards would be pretty ok with. So I don't know how freaked out to be that it's supposedly being included as one of the dire consequence triggers that are supposed to ensure that further spending cuts are enacted.

Speaking of which, I'm sure there are political (or maybe legal) reasons for this, but it seems odd that the Republican hostage* being proposed that's supposed to ensure that spending cuts are enacted by Thanksgiving is military spending. I don't see why the Democrats are willing to accept the premise that Republicans "care" about defense more than they do. Shouldn't the hostage be tax increases for the rich?

*Basically the deal as I understand it now is a certain amount of immediate cuts, and then a promise to negotiate more long term spending cuts by November...and the promise is leveraged by a mechanism that will automatically impose big cuts on something the Democrats care about (discretionary spending) and something the Republicans care about (military spending) if they can't come to an agreement. So basically they get three months to find waste to cut, or else everything's getting cut whether it's wasteful or not. One variant of the agreement also lets them off the hook if they send a balanced budget amendment to the states for ratification. Republicans currently control 26 of the 50 state legislatures.

Missing Bob Taft

There's an article up at the Atlantic right now that purports to list the five best and five worst foreign policy presidents of the last 100 years. In general I think the list is  kind of incoherent. I'm not sure I can really tell what the author thinks "good" foreign policy is.

The interesting part, however, is that he pretty severely dings Harry Truman for his very partisan approach to foreign policy, and then lauds Eisenhower for being so very reasonable and bipartisan. The funny thing is, one of the main reasons that Truman was partisan and Eisenhower was bipartisan was that Robert Taft (son of the former president) was a Republican. Bob Taft was the last and most prominent of the Republican isolationists...a branch of the party that thought WWI was a mistake, WWII was a mistake, the Marshall Plan was a mistake, and Korea was an even bigger mistake. When Eisenhower beat him out for the Republican nomination in 1952, that represented a huge shift in the Republican party platform. When Eisenhower took office, many of the Republican senators (under the leadership of Bob Taft) were essentially unwilling to work with him, so Lyndon Johnson on the Democratic side became Eisenhower's best hope of getting anything passed. Bipartisanship wasn't some magnanimous choice on his part, it was the only option available to him. Just as fighting Bob Taft tooth and nail to maintain American involvement overseas was the only option available to Truman.

But I lied...that's not actually the interesting part. The interesting part is the question of why exactly we think that a bipartisan foreign policy is better than a partisan one. The way I see it, when the 1968 election didn't produce a presidential nominee in either party that represented the level of skepticism towards the Vietnam War that much of the country was feeling, that was a pretty profound breakdown of the American political system. The 2008 election was better, but then again...somehow even after voting for the more anti-war primary candidate from the more anti-war party, we're still in Iraq and Afghanistan three years later, and getting involved in other countries on top of that. Partisanship is the vehicle by which American voters get to pick the direction this country goes in. The idea that foreign policy should be bipartisan is the idea that there's only one right way to do things, and discovering that right way should be left to the experts, not the voters.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Bucket of Warm Piss

Don't you just love my free association post titles? Few things make me happier in life than an allusion. Also, apparently I'm coming up on the one year anniversary of this blog. If I can crank out somewhere around 16 posts in 25 days or so, I'll have 100 in my first year...which kind of seems vaguely like an accomplishment.

This post does have a point though...the Vice Presidency! And Joe Biden. I'm not really sure I have a good grasp of what public perception of Joe Biden is. I've heard some jokes at his expense, and run into one or two people who think that he's just not all that important. I guess he's a little hard to categorize as modern vice presidents go, he's neither the heir apparent a la Dan Quayle or Al Gore or the secret puppet master like Dick Cheney. But I love Joe Biden, Obama's choosing him as VP is one of my favorite things about Obama. Profiles of Joe Biden are one of my favorite kinds of articles to read...or at least they were until I hit the point where most of the information was stuff I already knew. And if you pay attention, there's really very little reason to believe that he's gathering dust in some forgotten office.

Paying attention exhibit one is this article. Did you know we still had diplomatic relations with Russia? The Middle East and China get all the news coverage these days, but it turns out Russia is still a very large country with lots of people and significant impact on world events. I enjoy the part where the Russian official pans the Republican party, even though I don't necessarily look to Russia in general to tell me how to think about things, but the really interesting part is the praise for Tom Donilon towards the end. Tom Donilon is one of the people that Joe Biden brought with him into the Obama administration. "Smart and attentive" pretty much sums up what I like about Joe Biden's political style. The thing that cemented my support for him initially back in the 2008 election was an op-ed he wrote during the crisis in Georgia. I can't find it online now, but he was the first person who really outlined the situation for me...not just taking ideological stances, but laying out what Russia's goals were and what our leverage in the area was. Since then, I've learned to count on Biden as someone who pays attention, who values trying to understand a situation and who believes that voters will want to understand it too. I think that's kind of his role in the administration as well. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

What the heck.

(True Blood/Sookie Stackhouse spoilers)

I continue to think that the most interesting thing about the True Blood tv series is tracking what they've changed from the books, and why. The current season is back to at least somewhat following the general plot of the fourth book, but little things have been left out and character motivations have been tweaked almost beyond recognition. Jason's role negotiating Sookie's fee for watching Eric is gone...I'm actually not sure Sookie and Jason have had a single word of dialogue all season (oh wait that's right...the fairy stuff. I blocked all that out). Gone along with it are the interesting gender role questions about what responsibilities an older brother might have to his single and adult sister in modern society, what's old fashioned and what's just practical, etc. With the decision to dial the crazy in Hotshot up to 11, I think it's pretty safe to assume there's never going to be a recognizable version of Calvin Norris...which is unfortunate because he also brings a lot to that aspect of the books. Meanwhile, Bill's character (who I always thought was kind of amusingly mundane in the books. He's badass because of skills! No he doesn't create a robot, or artificial intelligence, or hack things. He makes....a database! That's marketable!) has to be completely revamped* with more violence, more power, and more all around evil. Instead of generally adapting to his role of exboyfriend after being dumped, it's important that he get elevated to some position of power so that he and Eric can be rivals in everything, and not just when it comes to Sookie. Eric gets to lose his memory, but apparently this means he has to brood about stuff and have existential crises. In the books, Sookie is finally seduced by light hearted flirtation and her own desire to enjoy herself. But if TV has taught us nothing, it's that the only valid reason to ever kiss a man is to rescue him from his inner demons.

That said, the "I promise to be happy if you kiss me" line was pretty decent. And I'm still glad that Lafayette's not dead.

*This may or may not be a pun. You decide.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Final Frontier

Apparently I may be watching at least some of Star Trek: The Next Generation in the coming weeks. This should be interesting. One of the fun things about old sci fi is you get to see the changes that writers missed in addition to the ones the writers anticipated. For example, in the first episode last night, between all the warp drive and aliens and omnipotent beings that are obsessed with proving that humanity is a savage race, the thing that actually seemed the most implausible was that Troi & Riker could actually have been surprised to find out they were serving on the same ship. Don't people in the future google stalk their exes? Or even just look up the crew list for their new assignment? I could understand if Riker didn't get all the way through the entire list, but presumably Troi would be somewhere near the top.

Monday, July 11, 2011

An oink-oink here...

One subset of policies I would like to understand better is the laws that essentially ban various types of agricultural in urban and suburban area. It'd be nice to understand them better, because from my perspective they're pretty inconvenient and understanding who exactly the constituency behind them is and what their logic is based on would help me decide if they're inconvenient-stupid or inconvenient-living in a civilized society sometimes means compromise.

Today, Matt Yglesias had a link to this article, which is the extreme version of what I'm talking about.

With our (rental) house, I've considered which plants are allowed to be front yard plants, and which plants we need to make sure to squeeze into the back. I doubt I'd wind up in jail if I didn't get it right, but it seems pretty likely that our neighbors and ultimately our landlords might feel entitled to have an opinion about a giant, rangy tomatillo plant in the front yard. (Never mind that tomatillos are really quite pretty, and not exactly dramatically different from Chinese Lanterns, which as an ornamental plant would of course be kosher). So, of the edible varieties, only the sunflowers and a few herbs are out front...and now that the sunflowers are past the pretty blooming stage and in the drying and letting the seeds fully develop stage, it's entirely possible that even those are kind of iffy.

I'm fairly confident that the convention that it's low class to use your front yard as anything but a type of conspicuous consumption (Look how much water & square footage I can waste growing unproductive grass! That I will certainly, never ever in my life, use to have a BBQ on) is outright stupid. But I'm just as confident that there are plenty of right thinking Americans who disagree with me. Maybe even some people I know, and that's kind of fascinating.

(I also just recently found out that letting weeds grow in your lawn has serious consequences for your neighbor's lawn...which I guess does actually impose some logic on my neighbor's right to have an opinion on what's growing on my property...but I'm not at all sure that the right to perfect grass is one of those cultural imperatives that supercedes personal liberty this country.)

It all ramps up to a completely different level when you're talking about livestock. Chickens are loud (but then again, so is my neighbor's leaf blower). Bees sting people who may be allergic. An angry full grown  (or even half grown) pig on the loose makes a pit bull seem like, well, a puppy dog. At some point, people got together and decided that these were things that they didn't want in densely populated areas, and surely they had reasons. The question is, are these reasons still relevant? Are they based on the class assumptions of a society for whom rural life was something they were proud to have escaped and the very different sanitation/public health conditions that existed a hundred years ago...or do I just think that having more livestock in cities would be awesome because it's something I've never experienced?

Friday, July 1, 2011

High Impact

I have decided that trains are to Merced what garlic is to Gilroy. That is to say, pervasive, and possibly a little too fundamental to the history of the city to actually wish away. Do people read this that aren't familiar with the strong smell of garlic that hits you every time to you come down over the hill into Gilroy? Well, if you don't know what I'm talking about, just take my word for it. Gilroy smells like garlic. That's what makes it Gilroy. And in Merced, apparently, you can hear trains. Any time of day, any time of night, and they're pretty dang loud.

Of course, I'm a good little liberal and think that trains are awesome. Trains are the perfect alternative to gas guzzling long commutes, and gas guzzling airplanes, and gas guzzling semi trucks.  There are very few things out there that are bad that couldn't be replaced by a train. This is what I think about at 2 AM when I'm up, listening to trains go by. The trains themselves aren't actually so bad. It's their horns. And then the dogs that apparently, despite presumably living within earshot of train tracks their entire lives, still feel a need to bark at the giant monster of doom hurtling towards them. I live about three blocks from the tracks right now. There are some really awesome old houses a block or two closer...but I'm not really sure if it'd be worth it.

Oh and also, as much I would like to, I can't really come up with a practical reason to take the train anywhere from Merced. The hills between here and the South Bay mean that the route goes up and around Sacramento...not exactly a time saver. Trying to get to LA or San Diego is similarly convoluted. The tickets are so expensive that it's cheaper to drive...much cheaper, if it's going to be more than one person in the car.

This is all just getting around to throwing out this link,* which is an article that lays out some of the reasons that the problems with trains that you run into living here in Merced aren't really inherent to trains, but rather consequences of rail policy in the United States. Is anyone in congress really worrying about rail policy right now? I'm guessing not as much as they maybe should (there are so many other flashier things to concentrate on!). I just emailed my congressman though. Maybe he lives close enough to the tracks to hear the horns too.

*which I totally got from Matt Yglesias. I'm not really that original.