Sunday, November 2, 2008

Good Riddance to the Machiavellian "Bush Doctrine"

Two days from the US election, it's time to start looking toward the future. Unfortunately, recent stories of military strikes in other nations, including our "ally" Pakistan, have focused my attention on the ugly present.

The "Bush Doctrine" essentially asserts (in its various forms) that America has the right to attack another country if it thinks that country is harboring a threat to the USA. Recently, troubling news stories (barely reported in American media) have come to light indicating that the US has been launching attacks inside Syria and Pakistan. In defense of its actions, the White House has said little to nothing substantive.

As an American, I am offended that my President thinks "No comment" is an acceptable answer to the question, "Why are Americans invading so many different countries and killing their soldiers/civilians?"

What about all the reports that civilians are being killed in these attacks? Does the Bush Doctrine include the right to kill civilians and innocents?

The 9/11 terrorists perceived a threat to their own cultures from America. Are they allowed to invoke the Bush Doctrine to justify their attacks on America and its allies?

The current administration must be morally tone-deaf, in that they see no reason why others should be allowed the same moral privileges that America has. Only America has the right to strike other countries when it feels threatened. No one may attack America if they feel threatened by us. If you attack our civilians, you will be attacked. If we attack your civilians, they must have gotten in the way.

Bottom line: the Bush Doctrine, coupled with the actions of the US military, makes no rational or (especially) moral sense. God forbid that other nations should treat us the way we treat them.

The Bush Doctrine has nothing to do with moral or ethical arguments. Once the pretext of self-defense is stripped away, we are left with the stark truth: what the Bush Doctrine really asserts is that "Our military can do what it wants, because you can't stop us." You know, this almost sounds like "Asymmetric Evangelism."

Let us hope that the next administration is able to reign in the US military and to address international crises with human decency, respect, and transparency.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Election 2008: Bias in the Media (Viewers)

Charges have been swirling recently (i.e., over the last twenty years... or perhaps decades) that the American media are biased. Here's one journalist's response to those charges.

All in all, it's hard to come up with a quantitative measure of fairness or bias, although some studies have tried.

Instead, let's look at a related question: Are the consumers of media biased? Let's play around with Google Trends.

Fox News is associated with visits to,,, and searches for Drudge, Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hannity.

MSNBC is associated with, the Huffington Post, Keith Olbermann, and Daily Kos.

NPR is associated with,, and

(Yes, I know some of the associations are personalities associated with a given media outlet.)

Whether or not the media outlets are biased, it does appear that the viewers (or readers) tend to travel in disjoint communities. I'd opine that the Fox News community is characterized by conservative pundits, while the MSNBC and NPR communities have liberal pundits.

MLB Cheated the Phillies Out of a World Series Win

Last night's baseball game was called due to rain in the middle of the sixth inning. The Rays had just scored a run to tie the game. Any regular baseball game would have been called earlier, as the field was unplayable due to the heavy, steady rain. (A rain-soaked field greatly increases the chance that players will make game-changing errors or, worse, injure themselves.)

The umpires clearly waited until the game was tied before suspending it. To see why this is a biased decision, consider a game in which you flip a coin ten times. At the end, you declare "heads" or "tails" the winner, depending on which side came up more. But then you add a new rule that if "heads" and "tails" are tied at any point, you will suspend the game. You will find that you get a lot of tie games with this new rule. The rule biases your flipping in favor of tie games.

The umpires waited until the Rays tied the game before they suspended it. If they had suspended it after, say, five innings, the Phillies would have been declared World Series champions. There is no question that the game should have been called earlier based on field conditions.

It's very reasonable to assume that the umpires were collaborating with the baseball commissioner in their decisions. Why would baseball bias its own World Series? Hard to say, but just speculating, here. It's all about money. An anti-climactic Phillies victory in a rain-shortened game damages the image of the game. Allowing the Rays to tie, and perhaps to play games six and seven, also gives networks much more time to play lucrative advertisements.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

"Country First" Is a Slogan for Two White Guys

From Politico's Playbook for October 26th: Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), top McCain adviser, on why he would have preferred Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) for V.P.: "I was pushing Joe because it would transcend politics as we know it -- two people who put country ahead of party."

Hmm, interesting. That "Country First" campaign slogan, which is so awkward for the McCain/Palin campaign, makes a bit more sense for a McCain/Lieberman ticket. Instead of sounding like some arbitrary nationalist slogan, "Country First" would imply that McCain/Lieberman were transcending the boundaries of political parties to do what's best for the USA.

"Country First" would have been a positive, rather than a negative theme, emphasizing new political approaches and shared sacrifices to improve our common standing. A McCain/Lieberman "Country First" campaign would have emphasized the sacrifices needed to "win the war" in Iraq. By placing the good of the country over party affiliations, McCain would also distance himself from his own party affiliation to President Bush.

If this speculation is true, something odd must have happened on the way to the VP selection. Maybe the pressure of flagging polls forced McCain to pick a VP who appealed more to his base, and they decided to keep the slogan anyway. But with Palin's appeal to traditionalists, the slogan has more of a nationalist, than a reformist, ring.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Sarah Palin's Religious Views

Andrew Sullivan finds cause for alarm in a recent New York Times article that questions whether Sarah Palin holds dangerously radical Christian beliefs. That New York Times article is rather badly researched fear-mongering. It dangles threatening terms, such as "spiritual warfare," before the reader without giving any concrete information. "Spiritual warfare" is a term widely used throughout Christianity, often meaning something as benign as "we'll pray for you because we're worried."

It is possible that Palin's religious beliefs may be so radical and militant that Americans would be horrified if they knew what she thought. It is also possible that she is a milktoast pew-sitter who would fit comfortably in most churches in the country. And this is where the New York Times and Sarah Palin have failed us. Folks, if you're going to make a big deal about religion, then do your research and let's talk about relevant facts! (That includes you people who are running on Presidential tickets.)

Here's some questions that Sarah Palin should be answering in detail. If she refuses to answer them, then (hint to the Times) these would be good starting points for a journalist to research. If she refuses to even issue statements on them, then I suppose each of us may assume the worst. (The same goes for other political candidates.)

I want to know...

Broadly: Do you believe that an Executive should use her power to enforce activities that a significant fraction of Americans would consider to be a matter of religious preference? What issues, particularly?

What specific statements does your religious tradition make about contemporary political figures?

Do you consider any political (economic, military, etc.) leaders to be morally corrupt and/or evil? If so, how do you interact with such people?

What are the essential components of a well-rounded education that students should receive in public schools?

Specifically: Do you hold any religious biases that could be construed as "anti-intellectual?" For example, are you suspicious of seminary (or other higher) education? Have you ever "spoken in tongues?" What is your opinion of systematic theology?

Do you believe non-Christians are destined for Hell? If so, what can you say that would encourage non-Christians to vote for you?

Some people say that evangelism is the top religious priority, while others argue that helping the needy takes precedence. What do you think are the top three priorities for Christians to accomplish in the world?

What specific steps do you think America should take to alleviate the tremendous suffering in America and around the world, especially in developing countries?

Many sections of the Christian Bible promise (or even require) punishments for unbelievers. Do you believe that you have any role in carrying out those divine commands and/or prophecies?

Do you believe that God works through human governments? If so, in what ways specifically would you want to be used by God? How would God use you in ways that he would not use an atheist politician?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

"Country First" Is No Slogan for a Maverick

Dear McCain campaign,

Bottom line: "Country First" is a terrible campaign slogan. Unfortunately, it's probably too late to change now. But when you start up the McCain campaign machinery for another run in 2016, you may want to reconsider it. Here's a few reasons why.

1) Your campaign slogan should not evoke nationalism. Lots of people associate it with militarism, unchecked governmental abuse, and ethnic intolerance.

2) Your slogan should not contradict your actions on the campaign trail. For example, if you choose a VP candidate who is almost universally viewed to be unqualified, this could be viewed as putting your campaign ahead of your country.

3) Your slogan should not contradict other catchy slogans that are popular with your voter base. As heard on NPR: "When Palin ran for office, did she put her 'Family First' or her 'Country First'?" (And what about "God First," for the religious voters?)

4) Your slogan should not alienate voters who want to hear an optimistic message. Frankly, I'm not that excited about being a cog in the machine that makes the USA a great and terrible force to be reckoned with. I have other priorities.

5) Your slogan should not raise difficult questions about your motivations. If 300 million Americans subordinate their individuality to the abstract entity we call the "USA," won't the people who benefit most be the Washington politicians who wield all that concentrated power?

6) Your slogan should not expose your own shortcomings. Do you really have nothing better to offer or promise Americans than allusions to nationalism? Is "Country First" the most creative slogan your team could come up with?

Fortunately, nobody pays any attention to campaign slogans, right?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Racism-Tinged Debate Over Colin Powell's Endorsement of Obama

Drudge kicked off the "race-based endorsement" meme this morning with the bold headline "Powell for Obama: It's Not About Race." Drudge is obviously asking, "Was it about race?" And according to a story posted on Politico today, Rush Limbaugh has directly dismissed Colin Powell's endorsement of Obama as being influenced by race.

"Secretary Powell says his endorsement is not about race," Limbaugh wrote in an e-mail. "OK, fine. I am now researching his past endorsements to see if I can find all the inexperienced, very liberal, white candidates he has endorsed. I'll let you know what I come up with."

I want to carefully state that this quote is drawn from an internet story referencing an email I haven't seen. It is therefore possible that these are not Rush's actual words. The following argument therefore addresses the stupidity and toxicity of these words, and not any particular person.

1) These words suggest a race-based litmus test for endorsements. The words "inexperienced, liberal" are just a smoke-screen; Powell explained his rationale for supporting Obama, including his concern that the Supreme Court could become too conservative. Limbaugh is not responding to Powell's stated reasons, but instead is suggesting that if one African-American endorses another, something fishy is going on.

2) And what's wrong with race playing a role, anyway? If Powell had said, "You know, one of the many factors in my decision is that I think having an African-American President would demonstrate that the US government truly represents everybody," would there be something wrong with that? Is Rush suggesting that African-Americans should feel guilty about voting for Obama? Should whites (or Scottish-Americans) feel guilty about endorsing or voting for McCain?

3) What about the other endorsements that Obama has received from Republicans, conservatives, and white Americans in general? Is Rush suggesting that race played a role in their decisions? Was the Washington Post editorial staff driven by racial considerations in their endorsement of Obama? If not, why is Powell being held to a racial standard that isn't applied to white people who "cross the aisle" to endorse Obama?

The bottom line is that if Rush had left race out of it and said he was surprised that Powell was endorsing an "inexperienced, very liberal" candidate, then we would be having a political discussion. But by injecting race into his statement, Rush is discrediting Powell's endorsement on racial grounds.

Powell can argue that Obama's experience, advisors, and temperament qualify him for the Presidency. Powell can argue that Obama's political leanings and policies are an ideal match for America's current needs. But Powell can never change the fact that he and Obama both have African ancestry. And that is perhaps the most insidious aspect of these words attributed to Rush Limbaugh: because Colin Powell is African-American, Rush would deny him the respect his endorsement deserves. And there's nothing Powell, Obama, or anybody else can do to change that.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

What Warren Buffett Didn't Say

In the New York Times, Warren Buffett says he's buying American stocks, and he urges others to do the same. His argument for this recommendation is rather vague, saying that over time, stocks will go up, and the time to buy is when everyone is afraid. (Frankly, I think everyone has been afraid for some time now.) Buffett's statement doesn't sit well with some folks, who point out that he has much to gain from improved investor confidence. He's already heavily invested in stocks, and therefore some of his fortunes depend on whether Americans decide to invest themselves and boost (or rescue!) Buffett's investments.

Buffett's editorial is particularly misleading because he fails to mention that his stock investments are often different from those that ordinary people would make. When Buffett buys billions of dollars of stocks, you can bet that he gets a better deal than you or I would.

For his $5 billion investment in Goldman Sachs, Buffett receives preferred shares, which means that if Goldman ever goes bankrupt, he stands ahead of ordinary stockholders in the line to pick up the pieces (assets). Buffett also gets a 10% annual dividend on his shares. (Wouldn't that be nice?) Furthermore, he has the option to buy more stock at a fixed price in the next few years; a no-lose situation for him. Finally, Buffett knows that Goldman has a lot of connections in the US Treasury department, and Obama has mentioned that Buffett is one of his financial advisors. It therefore seems likely that Goldman will be on the inside track to get any further government assistance it may need.

I have nothing against Buffett; in fact he seems to be a rational, no-nonsense investor. I do have a problem with the New York Times editorial he published. I have no idea whether the market is about to rise from its lows, but I am certain that my monthly paycheck won't be able to buy stocks on the same favorable terms that Warren Buffett receives.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Asymmetric Evangelism

Bilinda Straight writes about "Killing God" in the latest volume of Current Anthropology. In this case, the "god" was a Kenyan divinity named Nkai. In 1935, an Anglican missionary, Charles Scudder, fired his gun into the cave where Nkai was believed to reside. Nkai was thought to have been vanquished, and the worship of Nkai ended at that site.

Straight also recounts tales of John Williams, a British missionary to Tahiti and the Society Islands. Williams gathered the sacred relics and "gods" of different communities, then publicly humiliated them in his chapel. The "gods" were publicly exposed, hanged, burnt, and possibly shipped back to England as curiosities.

Straight points out that there was a double standard at work in these Christian missions. On one hand, they relied on brute force and sometimes science to demonstrate the invalidity of the religions they opposed. The native gods could not stand up to modern technology, and were therefore defeated. On the other hand, the missionaries simultaneously claimed that their Christian god was above scientific scrutiny.

Nkai was defeated by a rifle shot, but if someone were to physically attack a crucifix or other Christian artifact, Christians would respond that it means nothing; "God is in heaven." On the other hand, when fervent prayers appear to succeed in diverting threatening weather, that is the immanent hand of God. In Christian worship and sacraments, "God is with us." In short, Christian theologians have formulated a god who cannot be assailed by the arguments missionaries use against other divinities. Is this evidence of the superiority of the Christian god, or is the Christian theology of God instead driven by an evangelistic need for superiority?

This type of "asymmetric evangelism" shows up in other scenarios. Perhaps we'll hunt down some examples in the near future.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

A Brief History of the Next 20 Years of Presidential Politics

The Obama administration of 2009-2013 was mostly forgettable. It was initially crippled by the economic recession it inherited, and was further staggered by the collapse of the American "traditional energy" industry. Inspired by community-based gun-control programs, American oil companies began offering free SUVs to anyone who would trade in and destroy their electric cars; the program had few takers. The collapse of "big oil" undermined the relationship between the USA and the oil-rich countries that were financing its economic bailout, with disastrous effects on the flailing US economy.

By 2012, Americans were ready for a dramatic change. At their first presidential debate, Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin renounced their political parties and announced the formation of a new unity ticket. After a warm hug at center stage, Hillary and Sarah led the audience (and 80 million television viewers) in an inspiring, thirty-minute sing-a-long. Afterward, they announced their joint campaign slogan -- "Dance, dance, dance!", which was later amended to "Dance, Baby, Dance!" -- and a unique power-sharing agreement in which the two would swap presidential authority every two weeks. Clinton/Palin won in a landslide in 2012, and was followed by a Palin/Clinton victory in 2016.

By 2020, Americans had tired even of the traveling Clinton/Palin roadshows. Clinton's bold acoustic medleys (and Palin's folksy piccolo accompaniments) no longer appealed to a generation of jaded voters who were tired of singing "Imagine" at every state function, hockey match, and wedding. The duo briefly experimented with a more "electric" sound before declaring that they were dropping out of the 2020 election. It was once again "time for a change."

The dissolution of the Democratic and Republican parties under Clinton/Palin led to the formation of hundreds of small, independent political organizations. Over the course of the 2020 primary season, these parties coalesced into two major factions, which came to be known as the "Red" and the "Blue" parties. Both parties had learned the lessons of recent history: Americans demand election campaigns that are abstract and impersonal. The Red and Blue parties therefore agreed that they would not present their candidates in person to the voting public. The 2020 campaign season was the first to be conducted entirely by video feed and internet chat.

By 2023, Americans began to suspect something was amiss. Journalists were unable to uncover any documented case in which the President had been seen in person. Meanwhile, the US budget included a $2 trillion surplus, mainly due to profits from a stock trading account managed by White House staff. The Secret Service had recently hired several high-profile computer hackers, and people around the country were reporting that their household appliances were acting strangely. In early 2024, a Romanian hacker announced that the US President had been "haXored!!!", and the Secret Service scrambled to roll back and reboot the White House servers. It was now clear that, despite a wide array of institutional and Constitutional safeguards, Americans had unintentionally elected a software program to the highest office in the land. It was equally clear that the President's term was the most popular and successful of the last century.

No pretensions were made about the nature of the 2024 election. Congress rushed to amend the Constitution to allow the election of "artificial intelligences of US origin." As late as August, the Red-party incumbent was highly favored to win the election, but a reconstituted Green party made a late -- and wildly popular -- push with an open-source candidate designed under a "free software" license. The Green party platform called for monthly elections to determine which code updates should be applied to patch the President; all Americans were encouraged to submit their own code snippets for consideration. The strength of the open-source platform was evident in the first debate. The Green candidate performed flawlessly, while the Red and Blue candidates required frequent assistance from their handlers to offset deficiencies in their speech-recognition algorithms. During the second debate, both the Red and Blue candidates were hacked and had to be rebooted. The open-source Green candidate, with a secure, UNIX-based OS kernel, performed flawlessly. The third presidential debate was cancelled, and President "Green2024.1.0" was elected in a landslide.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Everybody Knows: The Debate System is Broken

No need to run a poll for this claim: last night's presidential debate was boring. Even more boring than the VP debate, and even more boring than the first presidential debate.

I am outraged. (Yes, it should come as no surprise that someone named "Edgy the Anticlown" is subject to the full spectrum of human emotion, and more.)

There was no reason for this debate to be so boring. It was a "town hall" setting, and candidates had the opportunity (in principle) to interact with real, live voters. Whatever you may think about the way Brokaw moderated the debate, he did try to ask some pointed questions. (Although those questions were full of silly false dilemmas: "Do you think Russia is more like a giraffe or a pumpkin?")

I am outraged that the political system has come to the point where it is to both candidates' advantage to avoid answering any questions or giving any specific statements, because they are afraid anything they say will be used against them.

We are electing one of the most powerful positions in the world. Yet the two top candidates refuse to communicate directly with each other, except to utter repetitive talking points and bland platitudes. Sometimes, they entirely ignore the questions posed to them. Meanwhile, their campaign operatives (and related groups) snipe at each other in television commercials and on the internet.

Fact is, it is very likely I will be voting in November for a candidate that I have never heard answer a single question with candor and real, specific, detailed information. The whole system is stacked to discourage candidates from giving such answers.

Perhaps it's time to shake things up a bit by allowing some third-party candidates to participate in these debates. You can see why the major parties don't want this; candid, sincere answers from one person on that stage would force everyone else to come back to the sanity fold.

Then again, a good case could be made that sanity is not a trait we value in our elected officials.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Why Do Voters Identify with Palin?

Charli Carpenter over at The Duck of Minerva is offended that people who mispronounce the word "nuclear" represent America to the world. This got me to thinking... representation is an interesting thing. For example, McCain and Biden both look and act like they could be members of my family. But I would prefer to be represented by Obama, because I'm more sensitive to other aspects of Obama's personality; I do not rank my own ethnicity and mannerisms as high priorities in a candidate.

But let's get to the interesting stuff. Why do religious conservatives feel that Palin represents them? To answer this question, I reach deep into my bag of experiences, back to the days when I myself was associated with religious conservatism.

First, religious conservatives aren't concerned with impressing the world at large. They've been marginalized and ridiculed so much that they've learned to be suspicious of anyone who doesn't have church cred.

Second, there's a strong anti-intellectual streak in conservative churches. It's the kind of thing that is bound to happen when you've been publicly arguing for a century that the world is 6000 years old. To religious conservatives, the awkwardness of Bush and Palin is evidence that they are genuine people.

Finally, religious conservatives are extremely issues-oriented. These are people who form and break relationships based on the interpretation of (often ambiguous) Bible verses. Whether we're talking about the literalist/fundamentalist (evangelical) camp or the traditionalist (Catholic) camp, religious conservatives are serious about propagating their religious opinions. They believe Palin offers them a chance to do that.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

You're Either With Me, or You're On the Slippery Slope

The fallacy of the "slippery slope" is an attempt to argue that if we do not remain in a place of safety, then we will inevitably slide down the chute and land in a very bad place (perdition, a bucket full of snakes, etc.). This type of argument is a fallacy because... well, it's really just fear-mongering. If you want to tell someone they're on the road to hell, you need to at least pay them the courtesy of explaining why they wouldn't have the common sense to get off that road at the next intersection.

The slippery slope fallacy is a staple of religious rhetoric. "If you do X, then you will be in great spiritual danger!" is the common refrain. (Fill in your own "X".) It has also become common in politics, especially when religious issues are involved. "If we allow X to be legal, then family life will be destroyed!" This time, Edgy will fill in the "X"; how about "gay marriage," "single parenting," or "card-playing, dancing, and drinking the demon rum!"

We seem very willing to accept such fallacious arguments in politics. Edgy wonders if religion is being used as a training ground to make people more susceptible to bad arguments. In some ways, religion itself is the ultimate slippery slope... the band of true believers will be gathered up to heaven, while the rest will slide down into hell.

Edgy will now be blunt. Slippery slopes are infantile. We are all stuck here together in a world that has problems. When anticlowns grow up, they learn that often you get stuck in situations where there is no perfect solution. There is no use pretending that you can live in a safe place. Instead, you make the best decision you can, dig in, and hold your position. And here is where religion has an opportunity to be most helpful. Instead of teaching us to make decisions out of fear, it should be teaching us how to make decisions that are wise, well-informed, and beneficial for all.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Cartels Clearly Don't Understand Capitalism

The BBC is reporting another huge judgment against nine firms accused of operating a cartel, presumably in an attempt to fix prices. (Why don't these stories get much play in the American media?) Apparently, Shell Oil blew the whistle on the group, which included Exxon (USA) and Total (France).

Edgy is shocked that such large, prestigious companies could do something so self-destructive. We have all learned that a free-market economy motivates everyone to act in their own self-interest, and forming monopolies and cartels is clearly self-destructive because... um, ... because you'll get fined by the European Commission, of course.

Unless it was actually excess government regulation that forced these otherwise-innocent companies to unite to cheat consumers. That must be it. Clearly, the European Union should free up the market by legalizing cartels and monopolies. In turn, companies would voluntarily avoid forming cartels because it would umm, somehow make them more money.

There are people who actually believe this stuff, you know.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Surreal Moment of the Day

The McCain campaign has blamed Obama for the defeat of the "bailout bill." In a released statement, the campaign said:

“Just before the vote, when the outcome was still in doubt, Speaker Pelosi gave a strongly worded partisan speech and poisoned the outcome. This bill failed because Barack Obama and the Democrats put politics ahead of country.”

Now, we also learn from CNBC that "In the end, Republican House members voted against it by a more than 2-to-1 margin. A majority of Democrats voted in favor." In short, while Democrats were generally skeptical, it was a lack of support from Republicans that doomed the bill.

McCain said he was suspending his campaign to help pass the bill. We are left with two choices: either McCain spent most of his time lobbying the Democrats, or he did a lousy job rallying the House members in his own party. The latter seems more likely.

Finally, McCain blames the bill's failure on Obama and Pelosi. But the vote tally shows that the House Republicans were primarily to blame. (Has the McCain campaign even seen the vote tally?) Therefore, McCain would have us believe that House Republicans voted against the bill because of some perceived slight by the Democrats, even though McCain was lobbying for them to accept it. In short, McCain is accusing House Republicans of putting "Ego First" instead of "Country First."

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Competitive Ideal

I used to think that "ambitious" and "competitive" were synonyms. Somehow, during my days on the conservative-right bandwagon, I came to think that ambition was the ideal to follow, and the pinnacle of ambition is self-interest.

That is false.

I was never comfortable with the idea that an unwilling society is dragged forward into the future by "captains of industry," "masters of finance," and "the smartest guys in the room." My experience with these sorts of people has been that society usually progresses in spite of, rather than because of, them. Because they have such competitive personalities, they put an enormous amount of energy into achieving their own success, and history tells us only about the most famous competitors. This is bad statistics; we are not told about the vast majority of competitors who failed, and we do not count the cost of innocent, unnamed civilians who get caught up in their self-absorbed madness.

Instead, Edgy now reveals that ambition need not be competitive! Edgy has discovered what many have known for a long time: it is very possible to be ambitious and also to have a cooperative nature. We are seeing even now an explosion of new outlets driven by such people. The popularity of the internet as a distributed information source, and its success at revealing diverse viewpoints and overthrowing entrenched media is one success of a network of ambitious-cooperative people, many of whom receive little monetary reward for their efforts. (When Edgy grows up, he wants to be cool like that.)

More about this to come.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


Rumor has it that Jar-Jar Binks will be testifying to Congress tomorrow in favor of the Paulson bailout plan.

A Study in Contrasts

John McCain "straight talk" in June, 2008:

Calling for "no process questions from reporters" and "no spin rooms," the presumptive Republican presidential nominee proposed one debate a week from now until the Democratic party convention in August....

"What a welcome change it would be were presidential candidates in our time to treat each other and the people they seek to lead with respect and courtesy as they discussed the great issues of the day, without the empty sound bites and media-filtered exchanges that dominate our elections," McCain said in a letter to Obama released by McCain's campaign.

John McCain "straight talk" in September, 2008:

Tomorrow morning, I will suspend my campaign and return to Washington.... I am directing my campaign to work with the Obama campaign and the commission on presidential debates to delay Friday night’s debate until we have taken action to address this crisis.

Edgy's hypothesis: McCain's goals are 1) to stay out of situations where he is directly questioned by reporters or his opponents, and 2) if the Presidential debate is sufficiently delayed, the McCain campaign can argue that there is no time/need for the VP debate. This would save a potentially embarrassing Palin/Biden confrontation.

Gambling with Blank Checks

Edgy is a careful consumer. He won't buy something if he can't "look under the hood" and find out what he is getting. NPR Marketplace has been emphasizing today that Congress is being asked to sign over $700 billion for a Wall Street bailout without being told in detail exactly why the money is needed or how it will be used. Kudos to everyone in Congress who is at least pretending to stand up to this political thuggery.

This (proposed) $700 billion is US taxpayer money. (And also has an effect on all the governments and individuals around the world who own US dollars.) Since we, and not some abstract voting entity called "Congress," will be actually footing the bill, doesn't it seem reasonable that the US public should also be briefed on the specifics of why the bailout is needed, and where the money is going?

If our money is being used to bail out Wall Street, shouldn't we get a detailed estimate of how the money will be used, and a detailed report of where it went? Edgy gets that much information when he takes his car to the dealer. Why not for Wall Street?

How can we know if the government/Fed will use our money wisely? Surely we are not being asked to trust our government on faith? And given the staggering cost, waiting ten years to see how things turn out isn't very satisfying either. All the crooks will be long gone by the time their mismanagement is revealed.

Frankly, Edgy thinks that any company which wants taxpayer assistance should be required to post its entire set of assets and obligations publicly, including the "off-balance sheet" trickery that hides the real financial state of a firm. But that's another story.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Rethinking Assumptions: Who Sets the Rules of Capitalism?

I've been reading an essay called "Marxism in the Shadow of Hobbes" by John Sinisi. He first presents Adam Smith's "one system of property rights that leads to general prosperity and economic developement." In this system:

1) The state (courts and police) guarantee property rights to prevent conflict over resources.
2) The state guarantees individuals the rights to use, sell, and rent their properties as they choose.
3) The state enforces each individual's rights concerning his or her own body and person.

Sinisi then introduces the neo-Hobbesian criticism of Smith's system: individuals in Smith's system may find that the rules of the system itself put them at a disadvantage. They will break or bend the rules when it is to their advantage.

Edgy has recently come to similar conclusions, and is overjoyed to hear that he is not alone. (Thanks, neo-Hobbesians!) The rules of the American economy may well be biased against some people, or even entire classes of people. Furthermore, why are the rules of the market unquestionable when everything else in the market is negotiable?

Edgy is a gentle Anticlown, and hates violence for the sake of personal gain. Edgy is not talking about violence here. But I do think (without knowing much about neo-Hobbesians) that this framework explains a lot of things. For example, when music producers demand too much for their product and no competitive alternatives exist, consumers will start "breaking the rules." The cost of breaking the rules (e.g., risk of lawsuit) is just another kind of price that music consumers pay to get what they want.

Edgy doesn't recommend copying music illegally, especially now that you can buy it on iTunes for a buck. But it does explain a lot, doesn't it?

Monday, September 22, 2008

Finally, the Truth Can Be Told!

Kevin Hassett is blaming the Democrats for the Fannie/Freddy failures in a commentary piece today. Now, Edgy doesn't doubt that the Democrats had their hands in the FNM/FRE cookie jar. Hassett notes that Democrats have taken funds from Fannie and Freddie.

His argument is that Fannie and Freddie built up bad mortgage portfolios, and then apparently they used special mind control powers to confuse everyone else, and then something happened which he doesn't really explain, and maybe aliens were involved, and then BOOM! Bear Stearns fell and it went on from there. Hassett argues eloquently that nobody on Wall Street had two brain cells to rub together to keep them from doing the stupid stuff that made them tons of money on into 2007.

The turning point was when the Democrats opposed a 2005 bill that would have solved the problems of today, yesterday. Of course, Hassett can be forgiven for not having enough space to describe the reasoning behind the Democrat's opposition. (Laws are very complex, after all, and really confusing.) He also avoids pointing out that the Republicans, not the Democrats, controlled Congress in 2005. It would only have confused the point he was making.

Oh, by the way, Hassett is an advisor to the McCain campaign. That means you can trust him to give a balanced, objective view of the events of 2005. Thanks, Bloomberg, for making us informed voters!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

"The Reserve" Serves Edgy Stale Crow!

Edgy found out yesterday that his money market fund was closed down. Yes, that's right, Edgy himself was one of the test cases that apparently prompted Paulson call for another huge bailout, this time for money funds! (Too late to help Edgy, it seems, but Edgy expects to pay for the bailout anyway.) Edgy's fund is run by a company called "The Reserve," and it's called the "Yield Plus Fund." It seems that 16.7% of its holdings were invested in another fund run by The Reserve, and that fund had trouble. There's some talk of lawsuits because of the way The Reserve handled the redemptions, giving its big customers first crack at the funds and leaving the little guys (like Edgy) with the remainders.

You don't expect to lose money in a money market fund. In fact, the prospectus for Edgy's fund says, "The cash entrusted to us is your reserve resource that you expect to be there no matter what. This is why we call ourselves The Reserve. Be you an individual, institution or a Fortune 500 company, this is your working capital to pay the rent, to finance inventory and receivables, to put food on the table. This is definitely not money to take risks with, and that is exactly how it should be managed."

Ha ha! It would be ironic if it weren't so... well, let's just say it is ironic. Meanwhile, they've said the losses will be at least 3% and have suspended redemptions from the fund. It sounds like Edgy will be very lucky to get anywhere near his original investment back "to put food on the table." At least there's plenty of leftover crow to eat....

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Fed Serves Leftover Crow to US Taxpayers and Dollar Holders Everywhere

In the previous post, Edgy described some of the methods used by the Fed over the last year to inject money into the US market. As of today, open market operations, TAFs, and TIOs totalled about $340 billion dollars. Much of this debt was borrowed with mortgages and other risky junk for collateral. That's like getting a loan from your bank and promising to give them your garbage if you can't (or don't want to) repay the loan! For comparison, the annual US budget deficit is projected to be $410 billion for 2008, and the total federal debt is about $10 trillion.

But wait, there's more!

In March, the Fed extended about $30 billion in credit to JP Morgan to help them buy out the failing Bear Stearns. Then the Fed stepped in to bail out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. It's hard to know how much it will cost us taxpayers to secure their debt; estimates range from tens of billions to trillions of dollars! On September 14th, the government said it would preserve free market principles (for once) and would not step in to bail out Lehman, prompting Barney Frank (Democrat Congressman) to declare September 15th "Free Market Day." Unfortunately, Free Market Day only comes once a year. The next day, the Fed ponied up $85 billion to bail out insurer AIG. This prompted Jim Bunning (Republican senator) to compare the Fed to Hugo Chavez's practice of nationalizing Venezuelan companies.

As of tonight, the market has rallied on hints that Treasury Secretary Paulson will announce a plan to have the government take over all the other problems on Wall Street, at taxpayer expense. Edgy expects to see Bernanke flying over NYC on a giant rainbow tomorrow morning, dropping warm cookies for everyone to enjoy. And President Bush will be hosting fireside chats every Monday evening.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Federal Reserve Snarfs Down Crow; US Dollar Suffers

In late 2007, the credit markets seized up; banks no longer trusted each other to repay their inter-bank loans. To deal with this problem, the Fed began dramatically lowering interest rates. It also announced new programs such as the "temporary" Term Auction Facility by which banks and eventually other Wall Street firms could borrow from the Fed. (Don't bother trying to borrow from the Fed yourself; you have to be "too big to fail.")

Until this point, the Fed had resisted such measures because it was more concerned about rising inflation. But everything changed almost overnight, and the Fed began chewing on an expensive entree of roast crow.

Despite continuing inflation risks, the Fed has increased their loans and lowered rates. They began to accept riskier mortgage debt as collateral for the loans; you can follow the outstanding loans at The Slosh Report website.

On Wall Street, "risk" is something you buy and sell. If you want someone to take your risky debt as collateral, you have to pay them well to carry your risk. But the Fed prints its own money. The bottom line: every American dollar is now worth less because we are paying for the risks that Wall Street firms took on and couldn't handle. The Wall Street firms made big bucks buying and selling that risk. Now when it comes time to pay their bills, they pass them onto the Fed and it weakens every US dollar.

Meanwhile, the value of the dollar plummeted. (It has risen only in the last few weeks as other world currencies are having similar troubles.) Your house, your savings, and your retirement plan were devalued because the Fed chose to bail out the crooks on Wall Street who profited handsomely from their risky activities. You and I are the suckers left holding the bag.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Chain of Ideas: Rabble-Rousers

Rabble-rousers lie at the bottom of the chain of ideas. They take information from the popularizers, re-package it, and present it to large masses of people. They have little contact with researchers or original sources, and they are more concerned with shaping public opinion than they are with accurately characterizing the world we share.

Rabble-rousing is extremely common and is becoming increasingly sophisticated. Television, talk radio, religious sermons, and pretty much anything political generally fall into this category.

Packaging information for mass consumption isn't necessarily bad. Often, it can even be entertaining. But too much of the time, rabble-rousers misrepresent and abuse facts to further their own goals. This means that they take advantage of people who don't recognize or aren't willing to challenge their tricks.

The Chain of Ideas: Popularizers

These folks provide a link between the specialists who publish in technical journals and the "layperson" who does not have the time, background, or resources to read those publications directly. Popularizers make things understandable to you and me. Along the way, some information is lost, and other information may be misrepresented. Just how much information is lost or altered will depend on the skill and intentions of the popularizer.

Examples include your high school textbooks and also some well-known descriptions of history, math, and physics.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Chain of Ideas: Researchers

Most published research is not terribly groundbreaking, but falls in this secondary regime. Scientists use the tools that have been developed during times of great breakthroughs. We muddle on, testing, probing, prodding at everything and taking notes. Over time, trends start to emerge and a new breakthrough may be found. In the meantime, we collect data in an attempt to at least describe reality as well as we can, even if we do not always understand it. Our goal is to be reliable and accurate.

The Chain of Ideas: Original Sources

At the head of the chain of ideas are the "original sources." These are people -- like Plato, Descartes, Voltaire, Einstein -- who had breakthrough ideas, or who shaped the world through their work. Their history and works are usually so specialized that only experts can understand them. They are revered by many, even though few people try to read their original words.

We idealize these people. Often, they stood on the shoulders of those who came before them, and some benefited from the historical circumstances of their times. Their mistakes have been forgotten by history, and their triumphs have been exaggerated. Their names have been used by others to make money and gain power. Meanwhile, many "original sources" alive today are unrecognized or undervalued.

There's no substitute for reading or studying these "original sources." But make sure you read their own words; don't trust the hype of a biographer, or a hagiographer. Don't be surprised if you find that s/he has been misrepresented by the people who claim to follow their ideals!