Monday, February 25, 2013

Stop the deficit hysteria

I was reading this post from Andrew Sullivan today when this caught my attention and prompted the email I have copy and pasted below the quote:

The committee failed; the elections loomed. Ezra’s right, I think, to see the elections as an endorsement of a mixed approach: raise revenues, reform taxes, and cut entitlements. Now some revenues have been raised – but only because without some modest concessions from the GOP, even more revenues would have been raised, tipping the economy into recession. But the implemented tax hikes, as the GOP has consistently and rightly argued, are nowhere near enough to tackle the debt. So we still do need real spending cuts in the medium and long run, especially in Medicare, and we do need defense cuts, to reduce a military-industrial complex now costing twice as much as it did a decade ago; and we desperately need tax reform and simplification. In that last option – tax reform and simplification – lies the least damaging way to raise essential revenues.

I'm sure (or hope) many people have said this in response to your desire to cut spending in the many times you have advocated it over the past few years. And I certainly respect your view more than any cowardly politician advocating the same. But fuck the deficit. We need jobs.

I really don't see how the benefits for cutting spending outweigh those for increasing spending, much less keeping it level. It all boils down to either a fear of inflation that is unsupported by facts, but rather a fear that we are always living in 1979. Or it comes from some abstract idea that the gov't must "act responsibly". Whatever it is, it's bullshit.

The federal gov't isn't a state gov't, or a business, or a household. Hell, even those entities that must "act responsibly" borrow money and take on debt. The difference is that they can't print their own money. As you well know, the federal gov't can. And it has, with very minimal increases in inflation and interest rates. That's because demand is still too low. And the effects that level of demand is having, namely high unemployment, are far worse than the notion that the federal gov't has to "act responsibly" or whatever you want to call it, and cut the deficit right now.

What isn't responsible is sitting by and letting millions of people suffer. I'm kind of nitpicking on one part in your post. If the economy wasn't still so shitty I would be chomping at the bit to cut the Pentagon's budget. Actually, I wonder if it would make sense to just take from their budget and spend it in places that would more directly help the economy. Anyway, I wanted to respond because as long as the narrative is so heavily focused on the deficit we will continue to get horrible policies like the sequester. Until the narrative shifts to jobs a ridiculous number of people will continue to suffer.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Hagel filibuster

Republicans in the Senate have filibustered the nomination of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense. This has never happened before. While there isn't an explicit rule that would prevent Republicans from doing this, it does violate the norms of the Senate's role as the advisor when it comes to cabinet nominations. The reason this is interesting is because the language in the constitution is pretty vague.

It just says that the Senate should advise and consent on these nominations. It gives no further guidelines. So what should be the defined role of the Senate here? I'm not going to research the entire history of this issues. In all my readings about the constitutional convention I don't recall this specific issue coming up. But in having a framework for what the different factions at the constitutional convention wanted, I think we can come close to figuring out what they meant the passage to mean.

Many of the founders were worried about giving the executive too much power. And there are various places in the constitution where you can see this. So I would argue that because this isn't an instance in which they spelled out explicit details, we should assume that the executive should be given some latitude as to how much power it gets in appointing people to cabinet seats. If they wanted congress to have the power to appoint cabinet heads they simply would have given congress that power. But they gave it to the executive.

So even before we get to the text we are implicitly deferring power to the executive. When we read the text it becomes even more clear. In fact, the relevant power is provided in Article 2, which spells out executive powers:

He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.

The text explicitly gives the executive the power. But where it gets complicated is "with the Advice and Consent of the Senate". So the Senate has some power within this process. The president doesn't simply get whomever it chooses. There is at least a very minimal check on this power. The question then becomes how much of a check? For most of our history we have been operating under the assumption that there shouldn't be much check and the president should get who it wants.

I don't think that's too far off the intent of the founders. I think the most important thing for the Senate is to make sure the nominee is competent and not too crazy. If a person meets those qualifications I think they should be appointed. Competent should mean having some experience and/or knowledge about the agency they are going to lead. And not too crazy should mean that you can have outside the norm views on the policies you are going to have an affect on. But you can't favor crazy stuff. For Secretary of Defense, that would mean something like favoring preemptive nuclear attacks or torture; stuff that is just way over the top. You can't make the threshold simply disagreeing about a particular policy or worldview; say Israeli settlements or being a realist vs liberal. Otherwise no one would ever get appointed, which seems to be the direction the Hagel situation is heading toward.

So the president should largely get who it wants as long as the nominee is qualified and isn't too far off the deep end. The latter requirement is a bit difficult to quantify. But I think it's sufficient to handle that on a case by case basis. And Hagel doesn't seem to hold any really crazy views. In fact, he's so mainstream that it makes Republican opposition to him look nuts. I'm not sure what their end game is considering they have 4 more years of a Dem as president. But eventually they are going to have to swallow the fact that someone will head the DOD that doesn't agree with every single view they do, while also being pretty qualified and not too crazy. As the founders and logic suggests, if they don't like this situation they should win more elections. That and Harry Reid and the Dems should do something about the filibuster, which is making the Senate an absolute joke.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Community returns for season 4

It's finally October 19, kind of. Not really. That's when season 4 of Community was supposed to come back. But because apparently NBC doesn't have much faith in the show they decided that Oct19 is going to be moved to February 7. Since then, and since NBC didn't bring back Dan Harmon, we've all been wondering whether we are in the darkest timeline. Will we ever seen more Community? If we do, will it be as good without it's creator and show runner?

Tonight we started to get some answers. I wouldn't call this the darkest timeline since the show is back. But I wouldn't exactly call this the brightest timeline, the one in which we all join Britta singing and dancing to Roxanne while Jeff gets the pizza. Having said that, I enjoyed the season opener. I think it hit most of the right notes in a fairly funny way. And they did a good job of setting up an arc for the season. Spoilers to follow.

The new show runners wasted no time trying to accommodate Community loyalists like myself. They went straight for the weird and meta commentary by taking us inside Abed's mind. We learn that Abed is afraid of what the new semester may bring. This is the group's senior year, presumably when they should all graduate. Most of the group wants to savor their remaining time. But Jeff is eager to get back to his old profession.

In order to deal with his fears, Britta convinces him to go to his happy place when he gets worried. And Abed being Abed, his happy place is a multi-camera, laugh track sitcom parody of the study group. I loved this because it spoke to the worst fears that Community fans had when Dan Harmon was fired (or not brought back), that the show would stop being unique and try to cater toward a larger, more mainstream audience. Abed's fear that this semester might be the last for the group together also speaks to the fear that Community won't come back after this season (or worse, that it gets the Don't Trust the Bitch in Apt 23 treatment).

I think this episode succeeded in quelling some of our fears. I'm not sure how much of the writing staff from the Harmon era is still on staff. So I don't want to give the new show runners all the credit. But so far they all seem to get the characters and what the show is about. That could also speak to all the great actors. We've still got a long way to go and a lot of opportunities to inject Batman into a story. And most people seem to think this will be the last season. I'll try not to think about that and just enjoy what is hopefully a successful season. So far so good.

Racial resentment and conservatism

A ton of talk since the election has been about what is wrong with the GOP and what can be done to fix it. And much of that talk has been about the party's relationship with racial minorities since they get absolutely crushed by Democrats (though not as much has been said about women, the GOP doesn't lose this group as bad as racial minorities, but being less sexist would help its cause). I read a few posts on one reason the GOP has a hard time getting, or even deciding to try and get, more racial minorities to vote for them. Here are those posts by Jamelle Bouie and Kevin Drum.

What I wanted to briefly talk about is something Kevin brings up from an email he quotes:

I'm open to hearing arguments that bigotry is not an intrinsic value of the conservative ideology (and God knows Goldberg, Lowry, Ponnuru, Douthat, Brooks, Frum and others breathlessly try to advance this argument despite actual and continuing evidence to the contrary), but that's a big sales job. But a necessary one.

And Kevin's response:

Is this "ideology"? Is it pandering? Is it pure commercialism? It's not easy to say. In the end, it's sort of a mushy blend of all those things. But I'd submit that to the extent we've truly seen an increase in racial resentment, a good part of it is due not to either pure ideology or to pure racial animus per se, but to active editorial decisions made by Fox News.

I'm willing to concede that not all of the GOP and FoxNews' behavior is motivated by pure racism. And I'm certainly willing to concede that conservatism as an ideology is not inherently rooted in racism. You can easily be for "small" gov't and not be a racist. Just as you can be for "more" gov't and be a racist. But straight up racism and racial resentment is definitely part of the equation. FoxNews and GOP leaders didn't make up these emotions and implant them into their constituents. And it's not a coincidence that the party and ideology that stands for upholding tradition attracts the racists of the US.

That's because an enormous tradition in the US has been racism, in the form of white supremacy and black slavery. Our two political parties have had a weird relationship to that tradition throughout our nation's history. But ever since the GOP decided to try and get the votes of racists in the Democratic party in the south, these feelings about race have been expressed mainly within the GOP. That's not to say there aren't racists everywhere. There are plenty of racists in the Democratic party and outside of the south. And there are plenty of non-racists in the GOP and in the south. But the point is, when your party commits to regaining or sustaining the traditional values the US has held, you will inevitably stir up racist sentiments because racism was an inherent part of our traditional values.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

My top 10 favorite Community episodes

My favorite tv show is coming back for its 4th season this Thursday, Feb 7. And to honor Community's return, I felt like partaking in the time honored blogging tradition of making a top 10 list. Needless to say, I love every episode. But several stick out above the rest. And among those that do there isn't much variance between them.

10. Beginner Pottery

This is one of the first times that we see the dark side to Jeff's personality. He takes a pottery class because he thinks it will be an easy class in which he won't have to do much work. (Say what you want about him, but Jeff is always trying to be efficient in achieving his goal of becoming a lawyer again.) But driven by his need to satisfy his ego, he tries really hard to be better than Rich, the doctor everyone loves. The sets up a lot of good stuff in later seasons. And to be honest, this episode won a tie-breaker with Epidemiology because of Annie molding clay. Sorry, but I love Alison Brie.

9. Comparative Religion

This is the group's first Christmas episode, even though it's not Christmas. Shirley is throwing a Christmas party because it's the last day of the semester and she wants to impose her evangelical spirit upon the group. This episode made the list because it was a fun way to highlight the differences of the group. They are all a different religion, which makes Shirley uncomfortable, especially Britta's atheism (My favorite line is when Britta comes to the party with nothing and Shirley says, "I see Britta brought what she believes in, nothing."). The fight between Jeff and a bully shows the group why they are friends despite their differences.

8. Origins of Vampire Mythology

Britta's boyfriend Blade comes to town, along with the carnival he works at. Again we see Jeff's ego come out, making him obsessed with finding out why Britta can't resist Blade. Blade's arrival of course prompts Troy and Abed to watch the awesome kickboxing vampire movie "Blade", which Annie tries to keep Britta from calling Blade. I love Jeff's speech at the end about not needing to go to someone until you can learn to love yourself. And one of my favorite Abed moments ever is when the Dean shows up to the apartment for "boys night!" and Abed turns to the group and says, "I need help reacting to something".

7. Advanced Dungeons and Dragons

This was the first episode I watched. The folks at pajiba.com had raved about the show enough that I decided to give it a shot. I had great timing because this is what Community does best; take a weird/geeky concept, design an entire episode around it, and use it to advance characters in emotional ways. This one revolved around playing Dungeons and Dragons in order to save "Fat" Neil from killing himself. Being hurt because he wasn't invited to play, Pierce decides to sabotage the game in order to teach the group a lesson. And to top it off, we got Annie describing how she would seduce and make love to Abed's character.

6. For a Few Paintballs More

The season finale of the 2nd season where the group has to defeat City College in order to save their school. Much to Abed's liking, the theme shifts to a Star Wars concept wherein Abed becomes Han to Annie's Leah. There's not a lot of character stuff going on here. It's just a ton of paint, one liners (Denny's is for winners), and great action.

5. Introduction to Statistics

The first Halloween episode. The first appearance of Abed as Batman. Need I go on? No, but I will. Jeff trying to have sex with Professor Slater was funny, especially when he uses a play from Chang's playbook, desperately begging for it. And Jeff's speech he gives to Pierce about having lived a lot was a nice touch. The outtakes from this episode are great. I could listen to Batman and Troy talk forever.

4. Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism

The second appearance of Abed as Batman, now with the blessing from the man himself, Christian Bale. I identify a lot with Abed. I'm not so much socially awkward as I am introverted. I just don't care to be very social. And I love Batman. So this episode is basically a homage to people like me. Everything Annie and Troy do in this episode is hilarious (especially Annie doing the Batman voice). And the side story with Jeff and Shirley is nice.

3. Modern Warfare

The first paintball episode. Jeff and Britta finally succumb to their urges and have sex on the study room table, which is followed by Chang going all Scarface and Predator on them to decide who wins priority registration. The episode is just a lot of fun and lets everyone be badass.

2. A Fistful of Paintballs

This took the paintball concept to a whole different level. The western theme was beautiful and served as a great way to pit the group against itself. In particular, it finally had the confrontation between Pierce and the group that was building all season long. They could have fallen into the trap of making just a copycat of Modern Warfare. But they were bold and went bigger with the concept and injected more character driven plot out of it.

1. Remedial Chaos Theory

I've never seen anything like this on tv. This episode revolves around Troy and Abed throwing a housewarming party and the group deciding who has to go get the pizza. In order to decide, Jeff throws a dice, which according to Abed creates six different timelines. We get to see each timeline and how things play out. The same basic things happen in each timeline. But within the basic framework we get a lot of great and funny differences that highlight different things for each character. The real timeline (I think) has Abed stopping Jeff from throwing the dice because Jeff has set it up to where he won't have to get the pizza. Because of that, the group makes Jeff get the pizza. This allows Britta to sign Roxanne (by The Police) and the group to join in with her signing and dancing. This is one of my favorite scenes in the series. There's just something sweet about them all having fun together. Plus this gives us our first look at Evil Abed.

Friday, February 1, 2013

The narrative on Chuck Hagel

I like to talk about narratives. Sometimes I don't mention them because they can be hard to pick up on. You have to actively read into things and be on the lookout for clues. Often times my brain just isn't working in that mode. But every once in a while a topic comes up in politics where the narrative is about as clear as you can get. And Chuck Hagel being nominated for Secretary of Defense is one of those instances.

I'll direct you here for reasons why he should be nominated. He's not exactly my ideal candidate. But he has many strong qualities that should make him a competent leader. You would think his qualifications and what he thinks about the wide range of topics the job encompasses would be the focus of the narrative. But it hasn't been. It's been about his thoughts on Israel. Specifically, the narrative has been how his previous thoughts regarding Israel and US policy toward Israel either make him anti-Semetic or an open-minded person who doesn't just tow the line that Israel and it's supporters in the US throw out there. And as you can see from this breakdown, the Senate Armed Services committee was almost solely focused on Israel and it's nemesis Iran during his confirmation hearing.

Sure, Israel is our ally and has geographic importance. But we are fighting two wars. The economy is still not growing fast enough, which means that the military might be (should be) asked to trim its spending. Yet the bulk of the discussion from the Senate, which has to confirm Hagel, was about an ally and it's dealings with a nation that Israel itself has a much more powerful military than, not to mention many more nuclear weapons, and not to mention that the US military dwarfs not just Iran, but the rest of the world.

I won't get into the weeds on the specifics of why this is the narrative that has arisen. I'll direct you here and here for that. The point here is that Republicans in the Senate seem to only care about what Hagel thinks regarding Israel while ignoring basically the rest of the world, even much of the US. The Senate is supposed to "advise and consent". As the people who are supposed to hold these elected and appointed offices accountable, it would be nice to know what Hagel thinks of things like the two wars we are currently fighting, our drone policy, our assassination policy, torture, extraordinary rendition, Gitmo, nuclear proliferation in places aside from Iran, climate change's effect on security, PTSD, sexual assault, private defense contractors, Mali, Syria, Libya, etc. etc. The list can go on and on. The world is, after all, a big place with a lot of big problems.

But we won't be able to hear Hagel's thoughts on those subjects on such a public stage. Granted, Hagel isn't required to give his full and unfiltered opinion about anything. But at worst the questions need to be asked. So often when it comes to foreign policy and national security we are deemed not allowed to know anything or even given the ability to ask questions to people in power. The fact that the narrative on Hagel has been so narrowly focused on Israel shows where the priority is for those in power. It's not on the citizens of the US, our soldiers, or the billions of people around the world. It's on their own self-serving interests.