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Saturday, March 27, 2004

Blood in the Water... 

From the NY Times:

Beyond that, Mr. Bush's aides hope to shift any blame about security shortcomings to the Clinton administration, arguing that the Bush administration was hardly alone in underestimating the potential threat of a domestic terrorist attack and that Mr. Clinton had no success in eliminating Al Qaeda.

The White House strategy also involves what officials said would be a continued effort to discredit Mr. Clarke and to confuse the dispute with a battery of accusations and counteraccusations intended to increasingly make this dispute appear to be a partisan fight between Republicans and Democrats.
Interesting that they admit it (is loyalty fracturing even further in the WH?) - and even more interesting that it was printed. Do I dare hope that the media smells the blood in the water and are starting to circle?
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Kerry-FBI Documents stolen 

From CNN: FBI documents detailing government surveillance of John Kerry in the early 1970s have been stolen from the home of a historian in a suburb of San Francisco, California..

"You'd think there was a very strong political motivation for taking those files. The odds are in favor of that," said Gerald Nicosia, who spent more than a decade collecting the information on the FBI investigation of Kerry, who was under the surveillance of the Nixon administration because of his efforts as a Vietnam war protestor.

Watergate of course immediately springs to mind, especially since the documents were apparently the only target of the robbery:

"It was a very clean burglary. They didn't break any glass. They didn't take anything like cameras sitting by. It was a very professional job," Nicosia said.

But who would have the motivation? The documents make the Nixon administration look bad, of course, but we already knew that they were investigating Kerry, and really, there's no need to make them look any worse than they already do. Someone digging for information to use against Kerry? One would think that anything damaging would have been used at the time; it's terribly old news to be bringing up now. Besides, the documents were all obtained with FOIA requests; anyone else could have obtained them with a minimum of effort, especially if they were a member of the government. Still, the mind boggles at the possibilities...
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"This isn't America..." 

From Haaretz, a column on the assassination of Ahmed Yassin contains this tidbit that just makes me want to cry:

But it is impossible to claim that the Israeli war commanders, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz have deceived the public. This isn't America; the government did not invent intelligence material nor exaggerate the description of the threat to justify their attack on the Hamas leader the way George Bush did on his way to Baghdad.

What happened to my country, that people can now say "This isn't the USA" the way they used to say "This isn't Soviet Russia"? How did we devolve into this land of 'free-speech zones' and become a watchword for deceit? I'm not *that* naive; I know we've never been the perfect shining land our collective mythos paints. But how did we slide so far down the rabbit hole?
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Friday, March 26, 2004

Welcome, Kossack bloggers! 

Finally got around to adding the Kossack Blogroll to my sidebar. Goddamn there are a lot of us. Thanks to folkbum and maurinski for putting the list together.

I also learned today from Michael D, another Kossack, that Air America will be broadcasting on a station in Portland - I might have to start listening to AM radio, sad as that would be.
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I am the Cheese 

I am brie!
Cheese Test: What type of cheese are you?

I'd like to give a shout out to anyone who got the reference in the subject and thought it was better than The Chocolate War. And to folkbum for pointing me towards a quiz I actually had to take.
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Thursday, March 25, 2004

Still too busy for a real post... 

Revel in the glory that is my kitty.


Arya Underfoot, queen of all she surveys.
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Friday, March 19, 2004

Nothing much to say 

But I'm not dead. Just working like a weasel on crack. And taking the time out from my dreadfully busy day to type this message to me, my sole and favorite reader, in case I should happen to wonder if I am dead. Because I am not. Although I might wish for it. This is the inevitable outcome of even attempting to schedule one's projects - because they will all take longer than one expected, leading to an unbelievable pile-up of mammoth proportions, increasing stress leading to decreasing productivity, and so into the vicious cycle.

But I'm not dead.

This message brought to you by the department of ThreeBeers™
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Thursday, March 11, 2004

Drip, drip, drip... 

Bush administration ordered Medicare plan cost estimates withheld

From Knight-Ridder, hat tip to dKos user praktike for finding the article on Talking Points Memo:

The government's top expert on Medicare costs was warned that he would be fired if he told key lawmakers about a series of Bush administration cost estimates that could have torpedoed congressional passage of the White House-backed Medicare prescription-drug plan.

Richard S. Foster, chief actuary for CMMS, says that his office had estimated last May that the Medicare prescription drug plan would cost $551bn over 10 years. Compare that to the $400bn that the Bush administration told Congress it would cost. But Foster was told that if he disclosed that estimate to Congress as it debated the bill in November, he would be fired.

On the one hand, Foster's boss (Thomas A. Scully, then director of the Medicare office), says:

I just said, `Look, (Foster) works for the executive branch; he's not going to do it, period,'

But on the other hand, he says:

I think it's a very nice tradition that (the actuary) is perceived to be very nonpartisan and very accessible, and I continued that tradition.

So which is it, Mr. Scully? Nonpartisan, or working for the executive? Accessible, or ordering the withholding of information from Congress (hmm, and that's a crime, too, isn't it?)?
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Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Kerry Photo Roundup 

Sometimes I have too much time on my hands, and I find myself clicking through Yahoo! News slideshows and making up narratives to explain what I'm looking at. Captions are for wimps, after all.

Kerry tries to use the secret Washinton-Gangsta handshake; Dean fails to cooperate to show he's not a Washington insider.

"OK, Howard, let's try this again..."

"So first we bump our fists together, and then I take your hand while making the secret WashingtonGangsta sign with my pinky...right?"

Kerry morphs into GigantorKerry, and begins his march to the Capitol to crush Bush beneath his feet.

Hat tip: Wonkette, for the GigantorKerry photo that started me clicking through the slideshow.
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Tuesday, March 09, 2004

On Self-employment 

The self-employment thing appears to be a last-ditch effort by this administration to claim that this really is a recovery, and no one is hurting - in fact, they're all starting their own businesses, and that's why employment is so lethargic. But quite aside from the argument of whether there really are that many new self-employed people (most articles about it focus on anecdotal evidence, and from the household survey of employment it doesn't look like it's jumped all that much) let me tell you a story: I am one of those self-employed people.

I combined a move to another state with the shift to working for myself, so I don't know for sure if I could have gotten a new job instead of starting a business. My suspicion is that I couldn't have; my new home state (Oregon) has something like 8% unemployment at the moment (a lot of which is among "silicon forest" types who I would have been competing with for the jobs that are left) and my old state (Hawaii) just doesn't have much of a tech industry. I'm a decent enough programmer, more than good enough to meet the needs of my clients, which are mostly prosaic, but in a tight market I wouldn't have landed myself a position easily, and might have ended up working tech support right next to my SO.

But "profitable" tells you so little about what's actually going on with a business, especially when it's a one-person business. My business is "profitable" by the standards of the IRS - that is to say, I report a net profit on my Schedule C, or in other words, I take in more than I can legitimately deduct as business expenses. That doesn't mean I'm actually doing all that well, though - or even that I'm getting by - just because your business revenue is more than your business expense doesn't mean you can meet non-business expenses like rent and food.

I can't complain, really - I'm paying the bills, and this year I might actually be able to start saving some money for more than a month or two at a time; I know I'm doing much better than a lot of people are these days. But I'm making about 25% less, gross, than I was in my old job; after taxes, it's even less than that (my share of the tax cuts was about $100, big frickin' whoop, and when you factor in the fact that I pay both sides of my social security and medicare, my taxes went up sharply when I became self-employed); and when you consider that I have no paid vacation or sick leave, and that I can't for the life of me get health insurance (you have yourself one benign tumor, and apparently you're blacklisted for good from individual plans), not to mention 401(k)s, life insurance & disability, etc - I'd be surprised if I'm making half what I did.

To me, the tradeoffs are worth it, as long as I can keep my head above water - I keep my own hours, choose the projects I want to work on, and no one cares if I blog when I should be working, as long as I meet my deadlines; I'm young, single, childless and healthy, so lack of security and insurance don't worry me as much as they will in 10 years - but let no man say that I am some sort of hidden benefit in the Bush economy. I am carrying 3 times as much debt as I was a year ago, worrying far more about where I'll be in 6 months, never mind next year, and uncertain on every front about my wellbeing in the future.

Being self-employed is no picnic, and to anyone who claims that I make the employment picture rosier, I say, "pbpbphphpbpbphpbphpbphhhh."

(That's the sound of a raspberry, if you're wondering)


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Thursday, March 04, 2004

Recessions and Income Inequality 

Ed. Note: This is one of those essays about economics that I threatened to write, in which I will most likely smugly illustrate something that is either incredibly basic or easily dismissed with a QED, horribly wrong, or all three. Thus having deprecated myself enough to demonstrate my own non-self-impressedness, I will continue :-).

I've been thinking about income inequality a lot lately, and about how really stunning it is/has become/is becoming, both within the United States and between the developed and developing world. I had just about reached the conclusion that while I couldn't condemn it outright (since I couldn't come up with and hadn't come across a convincing solution to it that didn't involve confiscatory rates of taxation on wealth or outright socialism/communism, both of which I'm very cool to) I also couldn't laud policies that would tend to increase it, unless those policies had other points of recommendation.

Then I read a book. In all honesty I cannot say conclusively that it was The Great Crash: 1929 by John K. Galbraith (which is a fantastic book that I will happily recommend to anyone, incidentally; informative and incredibly entertaining), but I believe it was. A passage where he discusses income inequality both before and after 1929 caught my eye - apparently inequality was increasing rapidly during the 1920s and decreased sharply during the Depression. So I started thinking again, mostly muttering to myself while trying to sleep (which probably annoyed both my boyfriend and my cat to no end).

My thinking went like this: Recessions are basically a failure of demand (or an excess of supply, if you prefer to look at it that way). For whatever reason (everyone trying to save more money, money becoming less available through higher interest rates or a sudden fad for burning banknotes or what have you) people buy less stuff (or more stuff gets made than people want to or can buy). When they buy less stuff, it builds up in the warehouses, and companies' profits decline. That means the companies will decide to make less stuff, which means that they will need less work done (and incidentally will also buy less stuff themselves), which means that wages decline through layoffs or lower hours, which means that people buy less stuff, lather, rinse, repeat. It's an old story, I won't belabor it.

The mystery (at least to me) seems to be why people suddenly can't or won't buy as much stuff (or why companies would suddenly start making more stuff than they want to buy, after everything goes smoothly for a while - market predictions seem to work fairly well in the aggregate, right up until the discontinuity where the recession starts). Consumer confidence is an interesting idea, but it doesn't really wash with me - most people don't have a lot of choice about where they spend the vast majority of their money (ie, food, clothing, shelter), and the ones who do have a choice are less likely to be as materially affected, and thus less likely to change their consumption markedly, during times of low confidence.

But what about income/wealth inequality? There are lots of nifty factoids about how much of the wealth in the country various segments of the citizenry control, with the lion's share and then some going to a very few at the top of the pyramid. The wealthy, by definition, do not consume all or most of what comes into their hands (they have wealth, in other words). Hence the majority of it is saved, which also more or less by definition, means it is used in investment - almost all investment comes from the wealthy (especially when the household savings rate is as low as it currently is in the US), who have either the income or the accumulated assets to spare for it.

Investing income or assets means, basically, using it to make more stuff (or services, of course, but they're really just another kind of stuff for these purposes). But who will buy the stuff? The wealthy are probably already buying all of the stuff they want to buy, since if they weren't, they would invest less of their wealth and use it to buy stuff instead. That means that everyone else has to buy the stuff that's being made. When things are working well, wages and employment rise at a rate that enables 'everyone else' to buy the stuff that's being made.

But as income inequality rises, not only do a shrinking number of people control a growing portion of the wealth in the economy, but presumably an increasing amount of it is getting directed to investment rather than consumption. The result: more stuff gets made, but the people causing it to be made don't want it, and the people making it can't buy it. Recipe for a recession, in other words: Supply outstrips demand. The investment itself creates some demand, of course (for equipment and materials), which is an offsetting factor, and it also creates employment (or higher wages, or both), which increases demand somewhat. As we've seen in the last decade, a decline in saving and/or an increase in indebtedness by the people holding up the bottom of the pyramid can also shore up the demand curve for a while (actually on both sides, since declining savings increases consumption and decreases investment, however slightly, and increased indebtedness also increases consumption and must contribute in some small part to a crowding out of credit available for investment). But it seems as though there must be a point as inequality increases where these factors fail, and the inevitable sets in.

What's the solution? Search me. It seems like progressive tax rates are the obvious place to start, and taxes on wealth rather than merely income might not be a bad idea. Taxing investment income on an equal plane with income from labor couldn't hurt either (Ed. note -- and why is it that so many self-proclaimed followers of Milton Friedman only seem to like the parts where he calls for less regulation and a flat tax, and conveniently ignore things like his proposed treatment of dividends/corporate earnings and the EITC?), although you probably only need this *or* a tax on wealth, since they accomplish essentially the same thing.

I'm bad at conclusions, and since these essays are really just a way for me to think things out with a keyboard, I'm just going to stop here.
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...And Stuff 

So here I am, sitting in an uncomfortable chair in my parent's house, staring at my laptop and thinking that one of these days it's going to be time to start writing down all of the essays and whatnot that I compose in my head when I'm lying in bed. But it always seems to be easier to click around and read what other people are writing. This gives me a feeling that I'm doing something, even when I'm not. Especially when there are comments. This is not one of those essays, and in fact may be a new and incredibly shrewd delaying tactic my brain has invented.

I'm reading Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver (book 1 of the Baroque cycle), and I'm enjoying it immensely without really being sure what it's about. It appears to be historical fiction, but I don't know enough about 17th century Britain/Europe to know what's historical and what's fiction beyond the general shape of events and the names of some of the more prominent people. It's not that the book doesn't have a plot - it has so many that it's impossible to explain, or even sum up, and Stephenson is one of those authors that weaves so many related and unrelated threads into a giant, richly patterned tapestry that it's impossible without direct communication of mental/emotional states to convey what's happening, or why it's 5am again and I'm still not asleep.

I came out to Hawaii to escape the rain, dammit, but it's at least as wet and blowy here as it was in Oregon when I left. Plus muggy. Coming home always makes me marvel at just how adjusted to the incredible humidity here I was while growing up. Or at how quickly I adjusted to a much lower level, maybe.

Portland started issuing same-sex marriage licenses today, and I'm thrilled. Makes me wish I was back there so I could have gone and celebrated. C'est la vie, though, I got to go out and drink coffee with my best friend instead, who may someday be able to marry the person he loves (assuming he finds one) because of the events that are taking place now, and that makes me think that not everything can be wrong with this crazy world.

Actually, that reminds me of what I meant to say about Quicksilver above. There were some passages that really resonated with me, that I will fail to do justice in describing here. One of the main characters is a Puritan who was raised to be a minister and do something not quite defined (battle the Antichrist?) when the Apocalypse came, and at several points in the book he struggles inwardly or outwardly with the concepts that this upbringing directed him to accept. Primary among those is the belief, essentially, that the world is on a downward march from Eden to the Last Judgement - that we were perfect in the beginning and it's all been downhill from there. At one point he expresses his conflict as something like a wish to believe that world does something other than rot.

That really struck a chord, since it seems to me that that belief (that the world is heading ever downward), so inexplicably universal (I seem to remember that even ancient Greek & Roman poets lamented about the lost 'golden days' of the past, when things were so much better and purer) is exactly what's wrong with so much of conservative dogma. That we need to preserve the status quo simply because it is, and all of our other options are not; a kind of Historical Darwinism where if your father did it, it must have been the right thing to do. That there's no point in trying, as a society, to do anything other than claw our own way up above the heads of the rest because it won't work, and we know that because that (the clawing up) is the way it's always happened. That "the poor will always be with us" because they always have been, and that it's more important to adhere to tradition than even to the principles underlying that tradition.
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Marriage is love.